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Over the past twelve months Ken Livingstone has made a succession of jumbled and frequently contradictory claims about the relationship between Zionism and Nazi Germany. Even allowing for their incoherence, they add up to bad history and even worse politics.
It began in April of last year with his claim in a radio interview:
“When Hitler won his election in 1932, his policy then was that Jews should be moved to Israel. He was supporting Zionism – this was before he went mad and ended up killing six million Jews.”
Livingstone repeated the same argument in subsequent interviews:
“Hitler’s policy was to send all of Germany’s Jews to Israel and there were private meetings between the Zionist movement and Hitler’s government which were kept confidential, they only became apparent after the war, when they were having a dialogue to do this.”
“His policy was to deport all Germany’s Jews to Israel. That’s not because he was a Zionist, it’s because he hated Jews. He then had a dialogue with the leaders of the Zionist movement, private, not him personally but his officials, privately discussing whether to not to proceed with that policy. In the end he didn’t – he chose to kill six million Jews.”
In support of his claims Livingstone cited a book by Lenni Brenner, Zionism in the Age of the Dictators, published in 1983:
“The shocking thing about his book was that it revealed … that the Zionist leadership continued a dialogue privately with Hitler from 1933 until 1940/41. They were working quite closely. Lenni’s book shows a shared common belief between the Nazis and the Zionists in preserving their race from interracial marriage and things like that.”
In an interview with J-TV in May Livingstone claimed:
“In a speech he made on 6th or 7th July 1920 Hitler actually says: ‘The Jews should move to Palestine, that is where they can have their full civil rights.’ So he already had that [i.e. that policy] in mind, long before [his election in 1932].”
During the interview Livingstone cited as the sources for his claims: Lenni Brenner’s book, an article by the American academic and writer Norman Finkelstein, and an academic paper by the American historian Francis Nicosia.
The following month Livingstone gave evidence to the House of Commons Home Affairs Select Committee on Antisemitism. He said:
“When Hitler came to power, he negotiated a deal to move Germany’s Jews to Palestine. I have never criticised the Zionist movement for making that deal, because the only alternative at that time was the worldwide boycott of German goods by Jews all over the world.”
“As we saw with South Africa, that did not work then, and I don’t think it would have done. So they had to deal with whoever was in power, however repellent, however antisemitic, but it saved the lives of 66,000 Jews.”
At the same time, Livingstone continued to argue that Hitler supported Zionism:
“That is exactly the one I was referring to [the Transfer Agreement of 1933, which ‘regulated’ the conditions under which German Jews could migrate to Palestine]. That was Hitler’s support for Zionism.”
In his written submission to the Labour Party disciplinary hearing held in March of this year Livingstone wrote:
“The Transfer Agreement was a major political issue at the time as the Jewish movement to boycott German goods was a huge international campaign to turn public opinion against Nazi Germany.”
“I was just pointing out [in the interview of April 2016] that the Nazi policy in relation to the Transfer Agreement had the effect of supporting Zionism.”
“I did not make any equation of Hitler and Zionism. I neither criticised the Transfer Agreement or the section of Zionism that participated in the Agreement. … Any suggestion that my intention was to draw equivalence between Nazism and Zionism is entirely false.”
Although Finkelstein received a passing mention in Livingstone’s submission – in relation to a media post by Labour MP Naz Shah – neither Finkelstein nor Brenner were cited by Livingstone as his sources. The only sources cited were Nicosia and the Israeli historian Yf’aat Weiss.
But Livingstone’s attempt at what, in other circumstances, might be called a more ‘nuanced’ position was undermined by the claims he made as he arrived at the disciplinary hearing:
“Hitler didn’t just sign the [Transfer] Deal. The SS set up training camps so that German Jews who were going to go there [to Palestine] could be trained to cope with a very different sort of country when they got there.”
“When the Zionist movement asked, would the Nazi government stop a Jewish rabbi doing their sermons in Yiddish and make them do it in Hebrew, he agreed to that. He passed a law saying the Zionist flag and the swastika were the only flags that could be flown in Germany. An awful lot.”
“Of course, they started selling Mauser pistols to the underground Jewish army. So you had right up until the start of the Second World War real collaboration.”
In a radio interview conducted the day after the disciplinary panel delivered its verdict, Livingstone returned to the theme of Hitler’s supposed support for Zionism:
“There is a difference between saying Hitler supported Zionism in the 1930s and saying Hitler was a Zionist. Hitler loathed and detested and feared Jews. He was never going to be a Zionist. But by doing that deal with the German Zionists he undermined the world-wide boycott of German goods that Jews around the world had been setting up.”
The least of Livingstone’s failings in these forays into the relationship between Zionism and Nazi Germany is their incoherence and inconsistency.
April 2016: “The Zionists and the Nazis” were able to “work quite closely” together because of their “shared common belief” in issues of racial preservation. March 2017: Livingstone had never equated Hitler and Zionism and it was false to suggest that he wanted to equate Nazism and Zionism
April to June 2016: Hitler supported Zionism in the 1930s. March 2017: “Nazi policy had the effect of supporting Zionism”. April 2017: Hitler was not a Zionist himself but supported Zionism.
April 2016: Hitler had no direct contact with Zionist leaders, it was “not him personally, but his officials”. April 2017: Hitler himself personally “signed” the Transfer Agreement.
June 2016: Zionist leaders are to be praised for the Transfer Agreement: it saved 66,000 Jews from the Holocaust, and the Jewish boycott of German goods was doomed to failure. April 2017: It was “that deal with the German Zionists” which undermined the boycott.
June 2016: German Zionists “had to deal with whoever was in power, however repellent, however antisemitic”. March 2017: German Zionists were guilty of “real collaboration right up until the start of the Second World War”.
Why is there such a record of inconsistency and incoherence?
One reason is that despite his pretensions to be something of an authority on the relationship between Zionism and the Nazi government (or between Zionism and Hitler personally), Livingstone does not know what he is talking about.
Throughout the twelve-month-long controversy which he has generated, Livingstone has sought to ‘rely’ at various times on just four sources of historical writing. And those four sources consist of: one book, one article, and two academic papers.
Livingstone began by citing Lenni Brenner as a historical authority. But in the J-TV interview Livingstone’s interviewer effortlessly exposed Brenner as a charlatan guilty of selective quoting in an attempt to substantiate contrived political arguments.
By the time he appeared before the Home Affairs Committee the following month Livingstone had relegated Brenner to being “an old Trot who is not an academic” and therefore not worth quoting.
In the J-TV interview Livingstone cited an article by the American academic and writer Norman Finkelstein in his defence. But Finkelstein’s article merely repeated Livingstone’s claims without substantiating them, and curtly dismissed all allegations of antisemitism:
“Hitler wasn’t wholly hostile to the Zionist project at the outset. … Livingstone’s also accurate that a degree of ideological affinity existed between the Nazis and the Zionists. … It’s long time past that these antisemitism-mongers crawled back into their sewer.”
Like Brenner before him, Finkelstein quickly disappeared from view as a historical authority.
In his submission to the Labour Party disciplinary hearing Livingstone cited Yf’aat Weiss’s The Transfer Agreement and the Boycott Movement: A Jewish Dilemma on the Eve of the Holocaust and Francis Nicosia’s Zionism in National Socialist Jewish Policy in Germany, 1933-39.
Unsurprisingly, neither of those academic papers corroborate Livingstone’s arguments about Hitler supporting Zionism.
The 1998 paper by Weiss does not even deal with relations between German Zionism and the Nazis. Apart from considering the tension between the Transfer Agreement and the campaign for a boycott of Nazi Germany, it focuses solely on conflicting views of the Transfer Agreement.
Such conflicts existed: within Zionist organisations; between Zionist and non-Zionist organisations; between German-Jewish organisations and Polish-Jewish organisations; between Jewish organisations in the Yishuv and Jewish diaspora organisations; and between Labour Zionists and Revisionist Zionists.
(The left-wing Labour Zionists opposed the boycott campaign and supported the Transfer Agreement. The right-wing Revisionists supported the boycott campaign and opposed the Transfer Agreement.)
Livingstone’s ‘reliance’ on a paper by Francis Nicosia, dating from 1978, is even more fantastic. Nicosia has continued writing for the past four decades, including two books given over entirely to relations between German Zionism and the Nazi regime.
In his second book (Zionism and Anti-Semitism in Nazi Germany – 2008) Nicosia argues the opposite of Livingstone’s version of history. In the introduction to his book he explains that its purpose is not:
“To equate Zionism with National Socialism, Zionists with Nazis, or to portray that relationship as a willing or collaborative one between moral and political equals. … To suppose that any Jewish organisation in Hitler’s Germany prior to the ‘final solution’ had the option of refusing to work on some level with the state is fantasy.”
As one review of the book puts it:
“In certain political and academic circles, there are those who would love to advance the claim, however unfounded, that there exists a remarkable similarity (if not outright equivalence) between Zionism and National Socialism, with all that such a claim implies.”
“Nicosia is aware of this pitfall and attempts throughout the book to neutralise the possibility that his research might be used for dubious political purposes. … Contacts between Zionist activists and senior Nazi officials were not, he insists, representative of any ideological or political common denominator.”
Livingstone appears to be incapable of grasping this point. But, to be fair to him, he has clearly never read the book anyway.
Livingstone’s ignorance of what he has been talking about also explains his gross inaccuracies and misrepresentations in attempting to provide specific examples of “real collaboration” between German Zionists and the Nazis.
According to Livingstone, for example, “the SS set up training camps” so that German Jews could be trained for life in Palestine.
Such training camps did exist. But they existed even before Hitler came to power. Most of the camps were set up and run by Zionist organisations in preparation for emigration to Palestine.
But as the Nazi persecution of Jews intensified, non-Zionist organisations also established training camps to help German Jews prepare for emigration, irrespective of destination. Zionist-run training camps also ceased to focus solely on preparing for emigration to Palestine.
The SS tolerated such camps. But they were also ambivalent towards them. They feared that the skills learnt by Jews in the camps would allow their ‘reinsertion’ into the German economy. And they feared that the result of “rural romances” would, to use the Nazis’ language, be “the defiling of German blood”.
Livingstone’s claim that “he (Hitler) passed a law saying the Zionist flag and the swastika were the only flags that could be flown in Germany, an awful lot,” was in fact a reference to the Nuremberg Laws of 1935.
The purpose of those laws was to segregate Germans Jews from non-Jewish Germans. Hence, they banned Jews from displaying the Reich flag or Reich colours but allowed them to display “Jewish colours”. The laws made no mention of “the Zionist flag”, and no such flag was officially recognised in Nazi Germany.
As for Livingstone’s reference to “an awful lot” (presumably: an awful lot of Zionist flags), no Jew would have been foolish enough to fly “Jewish colours” in post-1935 Nazi Germany. Not even the headquarters of German Zionist organisations dared to display “Jewish colours”.
And a year later Jews were also banned from displaying their own “Jewish colours” on German national holidays.
Livingstone’s claim that “when the Zionist movement asked, would the Nazi government stop a Jewish rabbi doing their sermons in Yiddish and make them do it in Hebrew, he agreed to that” is either a complete fantasy or, more likely, a reference to something completely different.
In December 1936, without having been approached by “the Zionist movement”, the Gestapo banned the use of German in Chanukah sermons. As the Jewish Telegraphic Agency reported:
“The Gestapo (state secret police) today (7th December) notified synagogues that sermons in connection with the Jewish festival of Chanukah, beginning December 9th, must not be in the German language, as had been the custom of Liberal synagogues.”
(Far worse than Livingstone’s inaccuracy is the assumption implicit in his claim: The Nazi regime was at the beck and call of Zionists and only too happy to respond to their whims.)
Just as Livingstone’s specific examples of supposed “real collaboration” between German Zionism and the Nazis are a mixture of invention and misrepresentation, so too is Livingstone’s overarching and repeated claim that Hitler supported Zionism (until he went mad).
In a speech of August 1920, entitled “Why We Are Antisemites”, only a month after he supposedly backed full civil rights for Jews in Palestine, Hitler ruled out any possibility of the Zionist movement achieving its goal of a Jewish state in Palestine.
Jews were “a people which does not want to work. … Such a people will never establish a state.” That was why “the whole Zionist state and its creation is nothing but a comedy.” A Zionist state would be “nothing other than the perfect university for their international crimes, and from where they would all be directed.”
Hitler returned to the same theme in “Mein Kampf”, published in 1925:
“While the Zionists try to make the rest of the world believe that the national consciousness of the Jew finds its satisfaction in the creation of a Palestinian state, the Jews again slyly dupe the dumb Goyim.”
“It doesn’t even enter their heads to build up a Jewish state in Palestine to live there. All they want is a central organisation for their international swindler, endowed with its own sovereign rights and removed from the intervention of other states: a haven for convicted scoundrels and a university for budding crooks.”
Alfred Rosenberg, the leading Nazi ‘theoretician’ of antisemitism, argued along the same lines. He regarded “all Jews as Zionists, and Zionists as the representative of all Jewry.” They were allies of British imperialism, prepared to stab Germany in the back. A Jewish state in Palestine would be “a Jewish Vatican”, but it could never be achieved:
“Zionism is the powerless effort of an incapable people to engage in productive activity. It is mostly a means for ambitious speculators to establish a new area for receiving usurious interest on a global scale.”
For Nicosia, whom Livingstone cites to corroborate his claims about Zionist-Nazi relations:
“The Nazis maintained a contempt for Zionism as for all things Jewish, as representative of what they considered to be some of the most dangerous and abhorrent characteristics of the Jews as a people.”
And according to Timothy Snyder, another historian of Nazi Germany:
“Hitler believed that Zionism was one of many deliberately deceptive labels that Jews placed upon what he believed to be their endless striving for global power and the extermination of the human species.”
Hitler and his regime never supported Zionism at any time. Hitler was never a supporter of Jewish emigration from Germany for the purpose of creating a Jewish state in Palestine.
What Hitler and his regime supported and sought to create was a Germany without Jews. The Transfer Agreement of 1933 flowed out of that antisemitic drive to rid Germany of Jews, not out of Hitler’s supposed personal support for Zionism.
The policy of making Germany ‘judenrein’ was defined in an internal Security Service memorandum written in May of 1934. The defined goal was “the total emigration of the Jews”. And that goal was to be achieved by:
Making it impossible for Jews to earn a living; ending violent street antisemitism (due to its adverse impact on foreign policy); intensifying the social isolation of Jews; exploiting friction between German Jewish organisations; refusal of official minority status for Jews; and full support for occupational retraining as the best way to facilitate emigration.
Such a policy was implemented with increasing ruthlessness. Even after the outbreak of war in 1939 the focus of Nazi Jewish policy initially continued to be emigration, irrespective of destination. As Nicosia writes:
“There was full agreement that while efforts would continue to be made to push Jews to overseas destinations, the ultimate destination of those who managed to leave German soil did not matter very much in the end.”
Only in 1941, when Hitler invaded the Soviet Union, was this replaced by a new policy: the Final Solution.
But there is arguably a second reason, apart from an ignorance of history, for the inconsistency and incoherence of Livingstone’s claims about the relation between German Zionism and Hitler. That second reason is where bad history gives way to even worse politics.
Over the past twelve months Livingstone appears to have been pulled in two politically conflicting directions at the same time.
As a disciple of Brenner – Livingstone wrote in his memoirs that his book “helped form my view of Zionism and its history” – he must have felt the urge to promote the ‘full-blooded’ version of the argument that Hitler supported Zionism.
The ‘full-blooded’ version involves allegations of Nazi-Zionist collaboration, Zionist collaboration in the Holocaust, Zionism as a form of racism and fascism, Zionist genocide of Palestinians, and Israel as a latter-day Nazi Germany.
Livingstone is no stranger to such arguments.
In the early 1980s Livingstone was one of the editors of Labour Herald, a front paper for the now defunct Workers Revolutionary Party which specialised in theories of international Zionist conspiracies.
Livingstone was an ‘honorary’ editor rather than a hands-on editor. But he saw nothing wrong in occupying the post even though the paper carried antisemitic cartoons equating Israel with Nazi Germany and positive reviews of books alleging Zionist-Nazi collaboration:
“Israel is a state built entirely on the blood of Europe’s Jews, whom the Zionists deserted in their hour of greatest need. These books will shock and horrify, for they expose the hypocrisy of Zionist leaders who used the sympathy for Jews stirred up after the Holocaust for their own devious ends.”
In the same period Livingstone was a supporter of the Labour Committee on Palestine (LCP) and also subsequently signed up as a sponsor of the Labour Movement Campaign for Palestine (LMCP).
The platform of the LCP included “opposition to the Zionist state as racist, exclusivist, expansionist and a direct agency of imperialism” and “opposition to manifestations of Zionism in the Labour movement and the Labour Party in particular.”
The platform of the LMCP likewise included a commitment to “fight within the Labour Movement – and the Labour Party in particular – to eradicate Zionism.” Included in the LMCP’s “recommended reading” list was Lenni Brenner’s Zionism in the Age of the Dictators.
Livingstone never abandoned such politics. This is evident from former Jewish Chronicle, editor Martin Bright’s description of a conversation he had with Livingstone in 2012:
“I was open-mouthed when he linked the Jewish Chronicle in a circuitous and incoherent argument to ‘CIA money’. Thinking back, I guess he meant that the paper’s commitment to Zionism made it, by its very nature, part of the propaganda arm of American imperialism.”
“He then launched into a discussion of Zionism itself. He mentioned Lenni Brenner, an obscure American Trotskyist I confessed I hadn't read, and his work on the historical links between Zionism and Hitler. ‘What you have to realise is that there were close links between the founders of the state of Israel and the Third Reich,’ he said.”
Faced with allegations that there was an antisemitic component to his politics, such as when he denounced a Jewish journalist as a concentration camp guard, Livingstone coined a defence which became known as the Livingstone Formulation.
Allegations of antisemitism, according to Livingstone, were raised in bad faith in order to stifle criticism of Israel: “For too long the accusation of antisemitism has been used against anyone who is critical of the policies of the Israeli government.”
That Formulation has been repeatedly employed by Livingstone over the past twelve months.
Naz Shah had been the victim of “a very well-orchestrated campaign by the Israel lobby to smear anybody who criticises Israeli policy as antisemitic.” Livingstone himself was under attack because “I support Palestinian human rights and strongly back our Leader Jeremy Corbyn.”
And in his submission to the Labour Party disciplinary hearing Livingstone wrote:
“There has been a significant vilification campaign against supporters of Palestinian rights within Labour. These attacks on Jeremy Corbyn and other Labour supporters of Palestinian rights are largely not about antisemitism. Their aim is to curtail the freedom to criticise the policies of Israel.”
Livingstone’s comments over the past twelve months about Hitler “supporting” Zionism and about “real collaboration” between Zionists and Nazis, coupled with invocations of the Livingstone Formulation, are the expression of a politics which Livingstone has adhered to and expressed for well over three decades.
But Livingstone was also subject to a countervailing pressure over those twelve months.
He is an experienced politician. He knew that his statements had become a focus of public attention. He must have known equally well that peddling the full Lenni Brenner version of Zionist-Nazi collaboration would be easily exposed and politically disastrous.
Livingstone must therefore have felt the need to ‘rein in’ the ‘full-blooded’ version of his politics and masquerade instead as an innocent seeker of historical truth – one, indeed, who had suddenly discovered a previously unexpressed admiration for Zionists in Nazi Germany.
Hence his very un-Livingstone-like comments before the Home Affairs Committee and at the Labour Party disciplinary hearing:
German Zionists were not to be criticised for their involvement in the Transfer Agreement. On the contrary, they had saved 66,000 Jewish lives. Zionism and Nazism were not equivalent political philosophies. And it would never cross Livingstone’s mind to suggest otherwise.
But Livingstone could not pull it off.
However much he might try to argue the equivalent of ‘some of my best friends are Zionists’, he could not help but repeatedly relapse into Brennerite allegations of Zionist-Nazi collaboration – even as he walked into a Labour Party disciplinary hearing.
His submission to that hearing made no mention of what he had actually said in April 2016: “Hitler was supporting Zionism”. It was replaced by the syntactically incoherent and scarcely less inaccurate formulation “Nazi policy in relation to the Transfer Agreement had the effect of supporting Zionism.”
This was a rewriting of history. But one that scarcely registers as such when compared with the much larger rewriting of history in which Livingstone has engaged for the past three and a half decades.
And to use Livingstone’s own expression against him: That rewriting of history has had the effect of supporting – and encouraging – antisemitism.