LONDON — The former mayor of London, Ken Livingstone, has again refused to apologize for his remarks about Hitler and Zionism, insisting he was “misquoted” after a radio show in the UK in April.
But Livingstone, in an hour-long interview late last week with the Jewish cable channel J-TV, was put on the spot by the interlocutor, historian Dr. Alan Mendoza, who systematically took the Labour politician’s thesis apart, forcing him to admit he had a hazy grasp of facts and that his source, the left-wing journalist Lenni Brenner, had been selective in his interpretation.
In April, Livingstone, a close ally of Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn and himself a former MP, was suspended from the Labour Party after going on a BBC radio station and declaring that Hitler had supported Zionism. Livingstone was asked on the show to defend the party after a number of Labour members were suspended for social media posts deemed anti-Semitic.
But Livingstone was ultimately suspended himself after declaring, “Let’s remember, when Hitler won his election in 1932, his policy then was that Jews should be moved to Israel. He was supporting Zionism – this before he went mad and ended up killing six million Jews.”
The fall-out from Livingstone’s inflammatory remarks led to extraordinary scenes in Westminster as the Labour MP John Mann, who is the chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group Against Antisemitism, challenged Livingstone outside TV studios and called him “a Nazi apologist.”
Last week Livingstone was called before the Commons Home Affairs Select Committee to give evidence. Insisting that he had been right and was only re-stating “historical fact,” Livingstone claimed that London Jews were crossing streets to tell him he was correct.
‘If I had said something that was untrue and caused offense, I would have apologized, but what I said was true’
When asked by MPs on the committee if he would like to apologize for his comments, Livingstone said: “If I had said something that was untrue and caused offense, I would have apologized, but what I said was true.
“What caused offense was a group of embittered old Blairites running around lying about what I said. The MPs who smeared me have been criticizing Jeremy Corbyn and stabbing him in the back for the last nine months. What I find appalling about the motivation of these MPs is they are prepared to cause worry and doubt and confusion amongst our Jewish community in this country for short-term political gain,” said Livingstone.
On the J-TV interview, which took place last week, a day after his appearance at the Select Committee, Livingstone repeated his attack on “embittered old Blairites” and insisted that his position was backed up by a publication on sale at Yad Vashem. He had never said Hitler was a Zionist, he told his interviewer.
“I didn’t say that. I said he supported Zionism,” said Livingstone.
Hitler had taken this position as a way of dealing with the worldwide boycott of German goods by Jewish communities, said Livingstone. Historian Mendoza, head of the London-based thinktank the Henry Jackson Society, cited several of Livingstone’s erroneous “facts,” not least that Israel did not exist in 1932 and that the notorious Nazi agreement with the Zionist movement, the Ha’avara Agreement, was not in fact signed until 1933.
‘I will be 71 this week and my memory is not my strong point’
A defiant Livingstone responded: “I wasn’t asked on the radio show to talk about Hitler. I was asked to talk about anti-Semitism and I spoke about the agreement with the Zionists in less than 40 words. No one has said that what I said isn’t true.” However, later in the J-TV interview, he said, “I will be 71 this week and my memory is not my strong point.”
Livingstone claimed that anti-Semitism in London had decreased under his mayoralty (2000-2008) and increased under that of his Conservative successor, Boris Johnson. During the J-TV interview, however, Belsen survivor Mala Tribich accused Livingstone of using the Holocaust for political advantage in a brief video statement.
Tribich spoke of her hurt and offense at his remarks and wondered what would happen when there were no survivors left to combat such comments directly.
In spite of Tribich’s brief testimony, Livingstone doggedly reiterated his claims, adding that a Nuremberg law passed in 1935 had ruled that only two flags were to be flown in Germany — the swastika and “the Zionist banner.” (In fact Section 4 of the Nuremberg Laws states that Jews were not allowed to fly “the national flag” but could fly “the Jewish colors” — usually held to be blue and white.)
‘Partial truths are more dangerous than outright lies’
In an interview with The Times of Israel on Monday, Holocaust historian Professor Yehuda Bauer, arguably the foremost scholar of the Holocaust, dismissed Livingstone’s interpretations of history, which he called “partial truths.”
“Two flags — yes, true, and totally immaterial because of course no Jew would fly a Jewish flag in Germany. This was a propaganda ploy, to emphasize that German Jews were foreigners and not Germans or full German citizens (they became ‘Reich subjects’),” said Bauer, author of dozens of books and articles on the Holocaust, including the 1994 book “Jews for sale?: Nazi-Jewish negotiations.”
Professor Bauer added: “Much of what Livingstone says is true, but at the same time distorted. The Ha’avara agreement was motivated, certainly as far as Hitler himself was concerned, by the overwhelming desire to get rid of the Jews of Germany by emigration,” said Bauer. “Ha’avara helped in getting Jews out of Germany. That was the reason why he supported the continuation of Ha’avara even in 1938, when he was asked.”
Bauer said there were also additional motives behind Hitler’s support of the Ha’avara agreement.
‘Much of what Livingstone says is true, but at the same time distorted’
“Ha’avara increased German exports at no cost in foreign currency; the Jewish boycott movement had collapsed by 1935, and the Ha’avara continued until 1939. But yes, in 1933, the Nazis also saw in Ha’avara a means of fighting the boycott,” said Bauer.
“Partial truths are more dangerous than outright lies,” said Bauer.
Livingstone sought to support his thesis that Hitler was a backer of Zionism by alleging that he had stood out against other Nazi leaders who feared the creation of a Jewish state. Bauer dismissed this as “pure nonsense.”
“Hitler agreed that the establishment of a Jewish state would create a Jewish Vatican and opposed it, but the ideology of expelling Jews was more important,” said Bauer.
Livingstone also claimed in the J-TV interview that the Stern Gang had tried to do a deal with the Nazi leadership, asking for weapons in exchange for joining Germany in the war.
Bauer poured scorn on this idea, saying that in 1941 “the Stern group, numbering about 120 members in 1941, tried to contact the Germans to create a common front against the British. The Jewish community in Palestine (Yishuv) fought against them. They did not ask the Germans for weapons. The Germans of course did not reply or react to that attempt.”
Professor Colin Shindler, of London University’s School of Oriental and African Studies, told The Times of Israel that the Nazis were of two minds regarding the idea of a Jewish state.
“Basically the Nazis had a dual policy since the early 1920s. They ideologically opposed Zionism and the very idea of a Jewish homeland, since they believed that this would be yet another historical ‘base’ for the Jews to congregate and operate their world-wide conspiracy. On the other hand, they desperately wanted the Jews of Germany to leave,” said Shindler.
‘The question for Livingstone is this: Would it have been better for this 53,000 to have remained in Germany and not taken advantage of the arrangement?’
“[Under the Ha’avara Agreement] the Jewish Agency arranged with the Nazis in 1933 that they could take out a limited amount of money to Palestine, but that it should only be used to purchase German goods. In this way the Nazis combatted the boycott of their economy. However, 53,000 Jews were allowed to leave Germany in this fashion in the 1930s to reach the shores of Palestine and start a new life. The US historian, Francis Nicosia, who has written about this subject in detail, has pointed out that if it was not for this arrangement, the 53,000 Jews would probably have perished in the Shoah,” said Shindler.
“The question for Livingstone is this: Would it have been better for this 53,000 to have remained in Germany and not taken advantage of the arrangement?” asked Shindler.
Rainer Schulze, professor of modern European history at the University of Essex and general editor of “The Holocaust in History and Memory,” stated that the Ha’avara Agreement does not mean the Nazis were ever Zionists.
“Instead, it is testament to the fact that Nazi policy towards the Jews was not clear-cut from the beginning, but evolved greatly over the years. The only constants were a fanatical hatred of Jews, the insistence that the Jews were the root cause of all of Germany’s problems, and that the ‘Jewish question’ must be ‘solved’ once and for all,” said Schulze.
In an interview with the BBC, Timothy Snyder, Yale University history professor and author of “Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning,” opined that Hitler was not a supporter of Zionism.
“He believed, on the contrary, 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. From Hitler’s point of view, Jews were precisely not normal human beings because they did not care about territory, but cared only about global domination,” said Snyder.
Snyder said that Livingston’s claim that Hitler was supporting Zionism “is categorically false and reveals a total and fundamental misunderstanding of what Hitler’s anti-Semitism was all about.”
During his J-TV interview, Livingstone told Mendoza that he had offered to take out to dinner whoever succeeded in proving him wrong on the facts. But despite historian after historian — and Mendoza himself — lining up to point out the holes in his argument, Livingstone concluded the interview apparently as convinced of his own rectitude as when he began.
‘Livingstone was revealed to have an unhealthy fascination with Nazis’
Speaking after the interview, Oliver Anisfeld, J-TV’s founder, said: “This is the first time Ken Livingstone has been challenged face to face on TV by a historian and expert. Livingstone was revealed to have an unhealthy fascination with Nazis and was clearly exposed as making false inferences from a selective reading of history, the results of which suit his prejudice.
“I am delighted that J-TV has laid bare Livingstone’s bigotry. Livingstone confessed that J-TV’s interview was the first time his arguments had been seriously challenged and when faced with the facts he had no answer,” claimed Anisfeld.