German, Communist, and Philosemite: The Remarkable Case of Paul Merker
Mendes, Philip, Midstream
In December 1952, Paul Merker, a leading East German communist, was arrested and charged with acting as an agent for American imperialism and Zionism. Three years later, Merker was secretly tried and sentenced to eight years in prison for espionage. But Merker's real crime was his friendship with the Jewish people and particularly his belief that opposition to antisemitism should be a central component of the communist struggle.
Born in 1894, Merker joined the German Communist party (KPD) in 1920. He was a member of the Prussian Parliament in the 1920s, and elected to the Central Committee and the powerful Politburo in 1926. He was also elected Chairman of the Red Trade Union International, served as a Comintern agent in the United States in the early 1930s, spent time in Moscow and Berlin, and was later a member of the German communist underground in France. Merker then fled to Mexico City, where he remained until 1945 when he returned to Germany. He became a member of the Central Committee of the new Socialist Unity Party (SED) and Secretary in the Ministry of Agriculture, but was expelled from the Party in August 1950.
During his travels, Merker became acquainted with numerous Jewish communists. He befriended Solomon Lozovsky and other leading Jewish Comintern officials. He worked with many Jewish activists in trade unions in New York and Chicago and particularly appreciated their forthright support for equality for American Blacks. Later, as a member of the communist underground in Berlin, he was impressed by the willingness of Jewish families--both Party members and non-Party members--to provide shelter to communists including himself at great personal risk He also worked closely with a group of German Jewish refugees, many of whom were communists, in Mexico City. (Herf 1997, pp. 4347).
While in Mexico, Merker produced numerous publications on Nazism and antisemitism including a lengthy two-volume analysis of Nazi Germany, Deutschland: Sein oder Nicht Sein C Germany--To Be or Not to Be?"). These publications documented the Nazi attack on Jews with enormous passion and detail.
For example, in Hitler's Antisemitism and Us, published in 1942, Merker wrote:
If all of the German rivers flowed with ink, and all the German forests were made of quill pens, they would not suffice to describe the immeasurable crimes which Hitler fascism has committed against the Jewish people. Where is there today a Jewish family from Germany which has not been robbed and deeply humiliated, whose members have not been imprisoned in concentration camps, murdered, or driven to suicide? (Herf 1997, p. 48)
Merker also criticized the historical shortcomings of German socialists on the Jewish question. He drew unfavorable comparisons with Russian socialists, such as Lenin and Plekhanov, and also with French liberals, such as Anatole France and Emile Zola, who had protested vigorously at the time of the Dreyfus affair. Merker argued that "the struggle of the German working class against antisemitism had been inadequate. It seemed to me to be the particular duty of non-Jewish individuals to decisively speak out against and actively oppose antisemitism." (Herf 1997, p. 47)
Merker developed a strong compassion for Jewish victims of persecution and a belief that opposition to antisemitism should be central to the anti-Nazi struggle. He urged the forthcoming German anti-fascist government to outlaw antisemitism and all racial hatred, and to punish those responsible for the persecution of European Jewry. He also recommended that all necessary steps be taken to facilitate the social and economic reintegration of Jews into German society and/or to provide compensation to those who did not wish to return. Overall, he asserted a commonality of interests between Jews and communists, and sought to assure Jews that a new democratic regime would find ways to "destroy antisemitism in Germany forever. …