LONDON — A new exhibition at London’s Wiener Holocaust Library showcases 150 years of efforts in France, Germany and the UK to battle Jew-hatred. Called “Fighting Antisemitism from Dreyfus to Today”, the exhibit runs until September 2022. Among the objects on display are French newspapers proclaiming the innocence of Alfred Dreyfus, leaflets that aimed to refute antisemitic Nazi propaganda in the 1920s, and photos depicting Jewish former servicemen protesting against fascist meetings in post-war Britain.
It highlights the depressing endurance of antisemitism in Europe and noble attempts to counter it, as well as presents some more positive developments in the attitude of the state and law-enforcement agencies. “Much of what we know about antisemitism over the last century comes from the work of those who have monitored and challenged it,” according to the exhibition.
The decision to stage the exhibition, says senior curator and head of education Dr. Barbara Warnock, was sparked in part by concerns about the rise in antisemitism charted by the Community Security Trust (CST). In February, the CST, which monitors antisemitism in Britain and protects Jewish venues, recorded the highest-ever total of anti-Jewish hate incidents in the UK. Those figures were exacerbated by the spread of antisemitic conspiracy theories online during the pandemic.
The exhibit, Warnock adds, is also linked to the library’s desire to display documents about its own role in the fight against Jew-hatred. The library houses the world’s oldest and Britain’s largest collection of original archival material on the Nazi era and the Holocaust. Its origins lay in the work of Dr. Alfred Wiener, who campaigned against Nazism during the 1920s and ’30s and gathered evidence about antisemitism and the persecution of Jews in Germany. After fleeing Germany with his family in 1933, Wiener established the Jewish Central Information Office (JCIO). It collected information about the Nazis, facilitating campaigns to raise public awareness of their crimes.
Documents displayed for the first time by the library include those which show the culture of printing and publishing in France at the time of the Dreyfus Affair. Both supporters of Dreyfus, who was convicted of espionage and treason on the basis of false evidence, and opponents, who waged a scurrilous antisemitic campaign against him, fought their battles through books, newspapers and pamphlets.
The “Dreyfusards” viewed their fight as part of a wider defense of liberalism and French republican values. As the journalist and writer Bernard Lazare said in 1897: “It is because he is Jewish that he has been judged; it is because he is Jewish that he has been convicted.”
Dreyfus had the backing of newspapers such as L’Aurore, which was edited by the future prime minister Georges Clemenceau. Le Petit Parisien published details of a suppressed military investigation which named Maj. Charles Esterhazy as the real spy who had offered French military intelligence to the Germans.
Nonetheless, much of the French press indulged in violent antisemitic imagery and rhetoric. A cartoon, for instance, depicts the writer Émile Zola, one of the most prominent defenders of Dreyfus, as a mask for a stereotypically Jewish figure who is, in turn, controlled by a Prussian military figure.
Anticipating the rise of Nazism
The exhibition also displays a wealth of previously unseen materials from interwar Germany. In the aftermath of the country’s defeat in 1918, Wiener quickly saw the danger posed by a resurgence of antisemitism among German nationalists. “There is concern that republican Germany is to earn a Polish-style reputation for Pogroms for itself,” he warned in 1919, three years before a right-wing militia assassinated the Jewish foreign minister Walther Rathenau.
At a time when the Nazis were a minor electoral force, Wiener also identified them as the greatest danger to German Jews. In 1925, for instance, he published a critique of Hitler’s “Mein Kampf.”
“Alfred Wiener had a lot of foresight and insight into the Nazis and the threat that they posed,” says Warnock. “At a point in the mid-1920s when many others wouldn’t have been taking the Nazis terribly seriously, he was. He could identify… [that] the centrality of antisemitism to Nazi ideas was perhaps something that meant that they were a quite unique threat.”
The exhibition displays a number of publications produced by a small semi-clandestine office, Büro Wilhelmstrasse (Wilhelm St. Bureau), which was established by the Central Association of Citizens of Jewish Faith (CV) for whom Wiener worked. The Büro sought to monitor antisemitism in Germany, target propaganda at antisemitic political parties and politicians, and disseminate anti-Nazi information and reports.
Hans Reichmann of the Büro compiled Anti-Anti, a collection of leaflets containing political ammunition for those seeking to refute Nazi claims and antisemitic propaganda in speeches or in the press. The Büro’s propagandist and archivist, Walter Gyssling, later wrote Der Anti-Nazi, which focussed on critiquing Nazi politicians and polices. In the four years preceding Hitler becoming chancellor in January 1933, Gyssling criss-crossed the country speaking at public meetings, where he both condemned, and debated with, the Nazis. It was dangerous work. He was often heckled and menaced by members of the SA.
The sacrifices and patriotism of German Jews in World War I were potentially a strong antidote to the Nazis’ propaganda. A poster produced by the Association of Jewish Soldiers in 1920 declared: “To the German Mother! 72,000 Jewish soldiers fell for the Fatherland in the field of honor: Christian and Jewish heroes fought together and rest together in foreign soil.”
Nor were German Jews without allies. The Reichsbanner Black-Red-Gold was a pro-democracy campaigning organization founded by war veterans. Although dominated by members of the center-left Social Democratic Party it also attracted backing from supporters of the Catholic Centre Party and the liberal German Democratic Party.
In 1924, the organization declared: “We Republicans will never forget that Jewish soldiers fought and bled shoulder to shoulder with Catholics, Protestants and free thinkers. […] This stupid antisemitism, which even poisons the souls of children, not only makes Germany look ridiculous in the world, but is also a threat both domestically and internationally.” While the German Communist Party contained antisemitic elements, its fierce opposition to the Nazis also saw it attract some Jewish support.
Allies in Germany and abroad
As Warnock says, one potentially surprising element of the exhibition was the existence of networks of people who gathered, and helped compile, information about antisemitism in Germany after the Nazis came to power.
Wiener’s JCIO was a major clearing house for this information. In 1935, Fritz Fürstenberg and Käthe Smoszewski traveled across Germany from the border with Holland to Berlin with their dog. Their mission was simple but perilous. Every time they encountered an antisemitic street sign, they photographed it. The photographs were then passed to Wiener’s JCIO in Amsterdam, who claimed that they were taken by a Dutch motorcyclist, in order to protect Fürstenberg’s identity.
In the aftermath of Kristallnacht, the JCIO immediately set about gathering eyewitness accounts of the Nazi assault on Germany Jewry. Once collected, the material was published in an effort to add to the growing international awareness of the persecution of Jews in Germany. Wiener relocated the JCIO, which was staffed by a small team of mainly German Jewish exiles, to London in the summer of 1939.
Britain remained largely immune from the rise of fascism in the interwar period and the country’s Jews joined with others in organizing numerous protests against the Nazis. In response to the notorious boycott of Jewish businesses organized by the Nazis just over two months after they came to power, the Jewish Representative Committee for the Boycott of German Good and Services was established to coordinate boycott initiatives around the country.
However, the position of British Jews — while not akin to that of German Jews — was threatened by an increase in antisemitic attacks and harassment fueled by parties such as Sir Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists (BUF). While electorally insignificant, its attempts to stoke violence in Jewish areas of London, such as Bethnal Green and Whitechapel, provoked a response from Jewish groups and the British left. In 1936, for instance, trade unionists established the Jewish People’s Council Against Fascism and Antisemitism. It held antifascist street meetings and worked to mobilize people against the fascists.
A staunch defense
Communal organizations recognized the danger, too. The Board of Deputies of British Jews established a co-ordinating committee, later named the Jewish Defence Committee, to oversee its work combating antisemitism. It gathered intelligence on fascist and antisemitic groups, monitored antisemitic incidents, and organized speakers to address meetings. Documents also show that it investigated the sources of funding for fascists organizations.
Beyond the community, the Communist Party of Great Britain managed to attract Jewish members because of its willingness to confront fascists in street fights and disrupt their meetings.
Perhaps the most famous — and celebrated — instance of resistance to fascism came with the “Battle of Cable Street” in October 1936. After the home secretary gave Mosley permission to march through London’s East End, 7,000 police were deployed to protect the fascists. Huge crowds of antifascist campaigners, however, eventually forced Mosley into a humiliating retreat and the march was called off.
Some of the mythology surrounding the Battle of Cable Street as marking a turning point in the defeat of Britain’s — albeit small — fascist movement is challenged by the exhibition. It notes that a week after Mosley abandoned the march, fascists turned up at a mainly Jewish estate in East London, intimidating its residents, while Jewish shops in the nearby Mile End Road also came under attack. Membership of the BUF also rose in the wake of Cable Street.
Mosley and many of his fascist sympathizers were interned during the war. But the Nazis’ defeat did not prevent the former BUF leader from attempting a postwar comeback with the formation of the Union Movement in 1948. Once again, East London was the epicenter of clashes between Mosley’s supporters and antifascist protesters, who were determined to meet the threat head on. The Association of Jewish Ex-Servicemen scheduled public meetings both around London and in towns and cities across the country, including Derby, Bristol and Brighton.
While the Board of Deputies faced criticism for a seemingly passive response to the postwar fascist threat, records of the Jewish Defence Committee, which were deposited with the library in 2011, reveal a more complex picture. The committee avoided direct confrontation with the fascists, which it saw as counterproductive, but an extensive, unpublicized monitoring campaign was launched. Volunteers were sent undercover to fascist meetings and later compiled copious reports on what they had seen and heard. The Jewish Defence Committee also documented and reported antisemitic attacks, as well as instances of inaction by the police.
By contrast, the 43 Group was both less shy of publicity and averse to direct action against Mosley’s supporters. Founded by Jewish ex-servicemen in 1946, it disrupted Union Movement meetings, attacked fascists and sent undercover agents to infiltrate far-right movements. Most famously, Doris Kaye, who was Jewish, and James Cotter, her Catholic boyfriend, managed to penetrate the Union Movement, even winning the confidence of Mosley himself. All the time, of course, they were sending intelligence back to the 43 Group. The group itself received little sympathy from the police. Weeks of clashes around Ridley Road in the East End in 1947 saw the police arrest three times as many antifascists as Mosley supporters.
The Jewish Defence Committee’s monitoring managed to identify Colin Jordan in the 1940s long before he gained prominence by founding the National Socialist Movement in 1962. Jordan, who was a school teacher in the city of Coventry, lost his job thanks to quiet lobbying of the Education Department and local education authority by the Board. Jordan’s short-lived rise in the early 1960s was confronted by the 62 Group, which was formed by younger members of the now-disbanded 43 Group. An NSM rally in Trafalgar Square in 1962, which drew significant press attention, turned into a riot when members of the 62 Group and left-wing groups attacked Jordan’s small band of supporters.
Although the 62 Group itself came to an end in 1975, just as the far-right National Front, was beginning to make limited political headway, its alumni formed a number of significant antifascist groups and publications which still exist, including Searchlight magazine, HOPE Not Hate, and the CST.
Enduring antisemitism in post-Nazi Germany and beyond
Perhaps more shocking than Mosley’s failed comeback in Britain was the manner in which antisemitism continued to endure in postwar Germany. In 1946, US Army research found that 18 percent of Germans were still “radical antisemites,” 21% were “antisemites” and another 22% were “moderate racists.” A 1947 poll revealed that one-third of Germans did not want Jews to live in Germany. Such attitudes help to explain later surges in antisemitic attacks — over 800 were reported in Germany between December 25, 1959, and mid-February 1960, for instance. Four years later, the neo-Nazi NDP was formed, which managed to attract some success in local elections in the 1960s.
However, since the late 1960s, the German state has taken a tougher stance against antisemitism. The chancellor, Willy Brandt, famously knelt at the scene of the Warsaw Ghetto, and it later became a criminal offense to minimize or glorify the crimes of the Nazis.
Despite occasional gains in local elections, far-right parties have continued to fester on the political margins in Britain, especially when compared with other European countries such as France, Italy and some of the Nordic states. Nonetheless, as in its neighbors, new forms of antisemitism — such as Holocaust denial and a hatred of the world’s sole Jewish state — have presented new challenges for those campaigning against anti-Jewish hatred, especially with the rise of social media.
Curator Warnock says it is possible to see “common threads” in the manner in which antisemitism has been fought over the decades. Intelligence efforts and infiltration have been at the forefront of the battle since the 1930s. So, too, have been attempts to expose, publicize and protest against fascist and antisemitic movements. Moreover, while Jews have spearheaded the fight against fascism, they have consistently been able to win the support of other groups beyond the community, most often left-wing groups and trade unionists (although the rise of the hard left and anti-Israel attitudes in the 1970s and over the past decade has turned some former allies into adversaries).
There have been some shifts: vast social media monitoring operations, for instance, have replaced the direct action utilized by antifascist campaigners in the 1930s and postwar years, as far-right activity has moved more online.
Does the endurance of antisemitism suggest that the effort to challenge it is largely futile? Warnock believes that the postwar period has, despite setbacks, seen positive developments. In Britain, for instance, a police force which was once seen as indifferent — if not sympathetic to — the far-right has become a close partner of groups such as the CST in fighting antisemitism. More broadly, many West European states have developed a greater level of concern and sensitivity to these issues. French President Emmanuel Macron, for instance, last autumn opened a museum dedicated to the Dreyfus Affair.
But Macron’s words at the opening — and the results of France’s recent presidential election, in which far-right candidate Marine Le Pen won over 40% of the popular vote — suggest optimism has to be tempered by extreme caution.
“I say to the young: forget nothing of these fights,” Macron said at the Dreyfus Museum opening. “In the world in which we live, in our country and in our Republic, they are not over.”