fter the Holocaust, an implicit if rarely stated 11th commandment prevailed in West German politics: Do not kill or harm any more Jews and do not help anyone else to kill or harm any more Jews, including the citizens of the state of Israel. This was a moral minimum and proved uncomfortably compatible with certain disturbing aspects of the behavior of the West German government, like the premature amnesty granted to ex-Nazi officials and many years of public silence about the crimes of the very recent past. Still, no West German government brought harm to Jews, either at home or in Israel.
East Germany was a different story. It too had been part of the Third Reich, and its people and leaders were as morally shadowed by the evils perpetrated in their land as anyone in the West. But it was hostile to the state of Israel from the time of its founding in 1949 to its own demise in 1989. And now, we know that hostility was matched by behavior that systematically sought to injure Jews, the Jewish people, and the Jewish state.
With access to the archives of its most sensitive political, military, intelligence and diplomatic archives, we are able to document the depth of that hostility. We now know that especially in the years just preceding the Six-Day War of 1967 and continuing up to 1989, the East German government’s support of the Arab states and the Palestinian terrorist organizations included the political warfare it waged in its propaganda organs and at the United Nations, where it supported the Zionism-as-racism resolution of November 1975. It also provided significant amounts of military assistance in the form of weapons deliveries and military training to the Arab states and the Palestinian terrorist organizations at war with Israel. As a historian of modern Germany, I regard these previously under-examined events as among the most important in postwar German and European history.
The self-described anti-fascist regime in East Germany and the West German radicals who also called themselves “anti-fascists” were enthusiastic participants in all of these efforts. Their aggressive campaign, designed to delegitimize Israel and Jewish nationalism, featured various false assertions about the history of the conflict with the Arabs and Palestinians, and it still echoes in the present day. There is nothing new in the accusations hurled at Israel by the advocates of boycotts, divestment, and sanctions (BDS); they can be found in the assaults of the 1960s and 1970s by the Palestine Liberation Organization, the Arab states, and their Soviet-bloc supporters, like the government of East Germany.
Now that the dictatorship is gone and its archives are open, we have begun writing the history of the undeclared wars waged against Israel by the Soviet-bloc–Arab-state–PLO alliance during the last quarter century of the Cold War. We are now able to understand more clearly the intersection of political warfare waged against Israel at the United Nations with the clash of arms in the Middle East. We also now can understand and appreciate how the Israelis, with their American ally, triumphed in these undeclared wars, thus preventing Israel’s destruction by force of arms and dealing Soviet-bloc strategy in the Middle East a crucial series of still underappreciated decisive defeats.
As early as 1967, West German Jewish leaders such as Heinz Galinski and his colleagues at the Central Council of Jews in Germany were raising alarms about the emergence of anti-Semitism and actual threats of violence aimed at Jews in West Germany coming from the radical left. In 1969, the West Berlin leftist Dieter Kunzelmann urged his fellow leftists to overcome what he called “the Jewish complex,” a supposedly crippling guilt that produced a false consciousness of sympathy for Israel. Ulrike Meinhof, one of the leaders of West Germany’s most notorious domestic terrorist ring, openly celebrated the PLO’s 1972 slaughter of 11 Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics as a great revolutionary deed. Two of those who assisted in a radical Palestinian group’s 1976 hijacking of an Air France plane flying from Tel Aviv—which was forced to land in Entebbe, Uganda, occasioning Israel’s Operation Thunderbolt, the most dramatic hostage rescue in history—were West Germans. Indeed, West German terrorism was a subject of obsessive concern in the country and across Europe throughout the 1970s.
But all of that was, in some sense, a diversion that directed the world’s attention away from larger and much more consequential secret operations taking place in East Germany and the Soviet bloc that had far greater impact on the conflict in the Middle East. While the West German terrorists sought publicity, the East German state used its dictatorship and absence of a free press to keep clandestine its military support for the Arab states and the Palestine Liberation Organization and its affiliates.
Since East Germany was a state, it controlled territory where military training could take place. It had its own armed forces, a modest arms industry, a controlled press, embassies and consulates around the world, formidable secret-police and intelligence agencies, and government-controlled universities promulgating ideological messages to young students coming from Third World countries.
During the Six-Day War of June 1967, East Germany joined its Soviet-bloc partners in sending MiG fighter jets, Soviet T-34 tanks, and thousands of Kalashnikov assault weapons to Egypt and Syria. The files of the East German Defense Ministry, especially those of the office of the Defense Minister Heinz Hoffmann, contain extensive information about East Germany’s contribution to the rearmament and training of Egyptian and Syrian armed forces from 1967 to the Yom Kippur War in 1973. On September 30, 1969, in the face of increasing requests from many states and movements in the Third World for military support, Willi Stoph, Politburo member and president of the East German Council of Ministers, assigned Deputy Minister Gerhard Weiss the task of coordinating deliveries of weapons to states around the world, including the Arab states. Weiss’s committee remained the center of that program for the next 15 years. By 1970, East Germany had sent another 50 MiG fighter jets, 17,500 Kalashnikov machine guns, 150,000 land mines, 3,500 hand grenades, as well as helmets, uniforms, and backpacks to Egypt and Syria.
With Stalin’s turn against Israel in 1949 and the “anti-cosmopolitan” purges of the early 1950s, the Soviet bloc as a whole became Israel’s enemy. Yet East Germany took an even more passionate and prominent role in the anti-Israeli cause than did its fellow satellites in Poland, Hungary, and Czechoslovakia. Unlike them, East Germany faced in West Germany an adversary that sought to isolate and delegitimize it by refusing to have diplomatic relations with any state that recognized the East. In playing the anti-Zionist card, East Germany found a means both to shatter West German diplomacy and open the floodgates of diplomatic recognition. A breakthrough with the Arab states began in 1969, when Iraq became the first non-Communist government (after Norodom Sihanouk’s Cambodia) to establish diplomatic relations with East Germany. A joint declaration by the foreign ministers of the two countries made a clear connection between Iraq’s decision to establish diplomatic relations and East Germany’s antagonism to Israel, stressing their “shared struggle . . . against imperialism, neo-Nazism, colonialism, and Zionism” and describing Israel as “racist, imperialist, reactionary, and aggressive.”
The description of Israel as a racist state and an imperialist tool, and the implication that both it and West Germany were expressions of neo-Nazism, was thus embedded in East Germany’s diplomatic relations with the Arab states. Similar language accompanied the establishment of diplomatic relations between East Germany and Sudan, Syria, Egypt, as well as with South Yemen in 1969. For the East German Communists, anti-Zionism was a matter of ideological conviction and an effective tool to undermine West German policy in the Middle East. The East Germans presented themselves as a different sort of “good German,” a German state that was an enemy of Israel, and their antagonism to Israel contributed to their considerable popularity among Third World states. Following its admission to the United Nations in 1973, East Germany repeatedly found itself in the middle of the huge General Assembly majorities voting in favor of unbalanced resolutions denouncing Israel.
In October 1971, East German Defense Minister Heinz Hoffmann led a military delegation on a trip to Iraq, Egypt, and most important, to Syria. There he met with Hafez al-Assad and the chief of the Syrian General Staff, Mustafa Tlass. In the course of extolling solidarity in the common struggle against Zionism, Hoffmann observed that Tlass “clearly” expressed a “tendency that existed among other leading officers of the Arab armed forces,” namely an “unconditional admiration for the fascist Blitzkrieg strategy and the expert accomplishments of the bourgeois German military.” Unfazed by Tlass’s admiration for the Wehrmacht’s accomplishments, Hoffmann expressed confidence that the Syrians “will be victorious in their battle against the enemy.” He added, “We are fighting the same enemy!”—by which he meant the United States and Israel.
The relationship between East Germany and Syria and between Hoffman and Tlass deepened in the following decade. Assad’s Syria, in fact, became the linchpin of Soviet state-to-state policy in the Middle East (just as it is the linchpin of Russian policy in the Middle East today). In the early 1980s, Tlass published The Matzo of Zion. In a variation on the medieval European blood libel, he wrote that the Jews murdered Arab children to acquire their blood to make matzos for Passover. He also claimed that Europe had advanced economically because it persecuted the Jews, while the Arabs and Muslims were backward because they had treated the Jews too well. The Hoffmann files document some very warm toasts between Hoffmann and Tlass in which they declared mutual solidarity and celebrated a community of struggle (Kampfgemeinschaft).
So far as the available archival material suggests (and we don’t know what files from those years were destroyed), the East German regime was not involved in planning or supporting the Black September attack on Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics in 1972. East Germany wanted the Olympics to showcase the accomplishments of its (drug-enhanced) athletes. However, the year after the attack, East Germany’s relations with the PLO, of which Black September was an activist wing, became a formal alliance.
In the weeks following the massacre, Hans Dietrich Genscher, then West Germany’s interior minister and future foreign minister, signed an order banning an organization called the General Union of Palestinian Students (GUPS). The West German authorities had gathered evidence that GUPS was an arm of the PLO that sought to support “armed struggle” against Israel and possibly internationalize the “armed struggle” with a “front” in West Germany itself. In the month after the attack on the Olympics, the West German authorities expelled about 300 members of GUPS, seized its property, and dissolved the organization as a consequence of its willingness to use and support violence.
The GUPS ban opened an opportunity for East Germany to gain yet more favor in the Arab states, and it seized the moment, denouncing the West German ban as an “anti-Arab” measure. East German diplomats in Beirut and Damascus had discussions with members of the PLO. East German chief Erich Honecker and PLO boss Yasser Arafat exchanged letters. In a letter of September 17, 1972, Arafat urged “understanding of the action in Munich from the viewpoint of the general problem and its historical events with all of their political, national, and human dimensions.” Replying on November 27, Honecker denounced what he called “the string of recent Israeli acts of aggression against the Republic of Lebanon and the Syrian Arab Republic” and stressed that East Germany “in the future as in the past” stood “firmly on the side of the Arabic-Palestinian people.” Arafat and the PLO Executive Committee then understood that East Germany would presumably be willing to allow their territory to be used to support Palestinian guerilla activities aimed against Israel.
In August 1973, the East Germans celebrated Arafat, along with American Communist leader Angela Davis, as a major attraction of the “World Youth Festival” in East Berlin, where Arafat held the first of many meetings with Honecker. On August 2, 1973, East German Politburo member Gerhard Grüneberg and Arafat signed a formal agreement of cooperation to support their common “struggle against imperialism and Zionism.” The East Germans promised to deliver “solidarity goods in the civilian and non-civilian area”—that is, weapons. Similar agreements for civilian and military deliveries were signed on an annual basis over the next 15 years. In September 1973, East Germany became the first of the Soviet-bloc states to allow the PLO to open a consulate in its capital—a year before the Soviet Union. This decision took place when the PLO, following its Charter of 1968, was openly engaged in “armed struggle” with the purpose of destroying the state of Israel. It demonstrated the vanguard role and initiative that the East German Communists brought to the anti-Israeli cause.
On September 21, 1973, Heinz Galinski, the titular head of the Jewish community in West Berlin, sent an open letter to Erich Honecker to express the “growing concern and anxiety in the Jewish community” about the establishment of the PLO office in East Berlin. Honecker did not reply to Galinski’s letter. The mayor of West Berlin, Klaus Schutz, was also alarmed about the opening of the PLO office. So was David Klein, head of the U.S. Mission in West Berlin. They were all concerned that Arab and Palestinian terrorists would fly from the Middle East to East Berlin’s Schönefeld Airport and that the PLO office would then aid their travel to West Berlin, West Germany, and eventually all Western Europe.
Since the “four powers”—the United States, Britain, France, and the Soviet Union—had responsibility for insuring law and order in Berlin, the issue of possible terrorist infiltration from East to West Berlin and West Germany rose to the level of Secretary of State Henry Kissinger’s office. On September 28, 1973, in preparing an approach to the Soviet Union, Kissinger wrote that the Western Allies had heard that among the activities of the PLO office in East Berlin “will be the training of personnel for acts of terrorism” and that “whatever its function, [a PLO] Berlin office cannot help but introduce a new element of tension into Berlin and work against our mutual efforts to create détente.” He added: “It is also in the Soviet interest to do nothing which might encourage terrorism or lead those who are inclined in that direction to believe they have the support—tacit or active—of authorities anywhere in Berlin. It is in this spirit that we ask that the Soviet Embassy to use its influence to keep the PLO office from operating.” On October 25, 1973, Klein conveyed Kissinger’s warnings to his Soviet counterpart in East Berlin that “Berlin is not used in any way as a base for activities of terrorism or violence.” The American warnings of 1973 did not, however, raise the issue of the use of East German territory as a base for terrorist activities aimed at Israel.
The files of the East German Ministry of State Security, the Stasi, indicate that the Soviet and East German intelligence services took the American warnings seriously. A Stasi report of October 17, 1973, expressed concern about “possible execution of acts of terror by militant organizations originating from the [East German] base of operations and possible activities of supporters living in the GDR.” The Stasi had four “friendly” Palestinian organizations with members in East Germany under observation. These included Al Fatah, with 60 members; the “left-wing extremist” Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, with 20; 15 members of the Syrian-based Al Saika; and six members of the Democratic Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. On the one hand, the Communist regime welcomed these organizations as part of its contribution to the global struggle against imperialism and Zionism. On the other, it viewed them as a source of potential trouble, especially if they carried out terrorist attacks in West Germany and Western Europe that could be traced back to East Germany. Such actions would undermine the GDR’s reputation as a “peace state” and confirm suspicions that it was a state sponsor of terrorism, thus endangering the financially lucrative benefits of détente it was receiving from West Germany.
These concerns were the background to a remarkable Stasi report ordered by Minister of State Security Erich Mielke of May 8, 1979, entitled “Information about Activities of Representative of the Palestine Liberation Movement in Association with International Terrorists Seeking to Include the GDR in the Preparation of Acts of Violence in the Countries of Western Europe.” Such groups, he wrote, had “activated the planning and preparation of acts of violence seen as acts of war (Kriegshandlung) against Western countries. Such activities that are based in the territory of the GDR create political dangers and damage our national security interests.” The memo articulated what I am calling East Germany’s Eurocentric policy of counterterrorism.
Fortunately for the Stasi, in Arafat and the PLO East Germany had an ally with knowledge of Arab and Palestinian organizations involved in such acts of terrorism. Arafat evidently concluded that terrorist attacks in Western Europe did more harm than good to the PLO’s goal of winning political support there in its battle against Israel. The PLO made clear its willingness to assist the East Germans in reducing the terrorist threat to West Germany and Western Europe when that threat came from Arab and Palestinian-associated foreign groups and individuals working in East Germany or other Soviet-bloc states.
This became grounds for intensified cooperation between the Stasi and the PLO intelligence service. The purpose of the cooperation was not in any way to discourage terrorism directed at Israel or at the Egyptian government of Anwar Sadat. As a Stasi memo of May 8, 1979, put it, the goal was for “the GDR as its ally, to enhance the PLO’s ability to carry out actions that it describes as ‘acts of war’ (Kriegshandlungen) against anti-Palestinian, Zionist centers as well as against the traitorous Sadat regime.” In June 1979, the Stasi signed a formal agreement of cooperation with the PLO intelligence services based on their shared interest in preventing the use of East Germany as a base for terrorist operations against Western Europe and, instead, fostering it as a base for terrorist operations against Israel. The contact between the two services was Counterterrorism Department XXII, run by Gerhard Leiber.
During the 1970s, the PLO and the affiliates on its Executive Committee, notably the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP)and the Popular Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PDFLP), carried out numerous terrorist actions against the cities and towns of northern Israel from bases in southern Lebanon. They included particularly barbaric attacks on civilians in Kiryat Shmona and Ma’alot in 1974 and the Coastal Road Massacre of 1978 between Tel Aviv and Haifa. The attacks received extensive coverage in the global media. The celebrations of attacks on “enemy children” filled press conferences and radio broadcasts of the Palestinian organizations in Beirut and Damascus. American diplomats in those cities sent memos back to Washington describing the celebrations in horrifying detail. Meanwhile, East Germany’s diplomats in the region were in contact not only with Arafat but also with leaders of the PFLP and PDFLP. During these years, East Germany was joining the Soviet bloc in sending these groups weapons of terror, including thousands of Kalashnikovs, hand grenades, and abundant ammunition and in offering them military training and medical care.
Israel’s delegation to the United Nations, and its ambassadors in this period—including Gideon Rafael, Yosef Tekoah, Chaim Herzog, Yehuda Blum, and, later, Benjamin Netanyahu—left behind an astonishingly detailed documentary record of Palestinian and Arab terrorist attacks on Israeli civilians in the form of letters to the secretary general and to the rotating president of the Security Council. In the debates at the UN, East German representatives rejected descriptions of the PLO as a terrorist organization as forms of “slander” and “defamation” of a just national liberation struggle. Yet in East Berlin, when Abu Ayad, the head of the PLO intelligence service, spoke with officials in the Stasi’s Counterterrorism Division, those officials dispensed with such euphemisms and expressed their support for “terrorism” if it served the interest of the Palestinian struggle and did not harm East German national-security interest.
The significance of Soviet-bloc support became apparent when it collapsed in 1989 and the PLO lost its primary military supporter. With the end of the East German dictatorship, the PLO also lost a key partner that had been aiding its political warfare against Israel. In April 1990, the first democratically elected parliament in East Germany voted unanimously to denounce its Communist predecessor’s policy of antagonism to Israel. In July, the same parliament rejected the UN’s Zionism-as-racism resolution, which the Communist regime had supported. And so the most disgraceful chapter in German history since the death of Hitler came to an end—a chapter in which a German government that rose from the Nazi ashes supported those who sought to destroy Israel by force of arms.