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Fact Check: Did German Leftists Try to Bomb West Berlin’s Jewish Community Center in 1969?

Answer: No. The bombing was undertaken by West Germany’s domestic secret service, originally founded by Nazis.

Nathaniel Flakin

November 29, 2023
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Messerschmidt / ullstein bild

All over the world, bourgeois media are working overtime to accuse the Left of antisemitism. This is no easy task, given that many protests in support of Palestine are being led by Jews and others who clearly denounce any form of antisemitism. Thus, multiple media have dug up an extremely disturbing incident from over 50 years ago: the 1969 bombing of West Berlin’s Jewish Community Center, which opened in 1959 on the site of a synagogue destroyed by the Nazis.

For example, the liberal Zionist Michelle Goldberg of the New York Times writes,

I’m reminded of the German New Left militants of the 1960s and ’70s. Though they were radicalized by abomination of the Nazism of their parents’ generation, some, in a grotesque irony, ended up committing anti-Jewish terrorism themselves. A group suspected of trying to bomb a Berlin Jewish center on the 1969 anniversary of Kristallnacht wrote in a communiqué, “The Jews, who have been driven away by fascism, have themselves become fascists, who in collaboration with American capital want to exterminate the Palestinian people.”

The similarly “liberal” German weekly Der Spiegel, in a 5,000-word takedown of Greta Thunberg, makes a similar claim:

In those years, there was a deeply rooted hostility towards Jews within the militant left. The left-wing terrorist group Tupamaros West-Berlin even tried to blow up a Jewish community center in 1969, but the bomb failed to detonate due to a technical defect.

As a historian specializing in the Berlin Left, I find these short presentations shockingly bad. Both publications have enormous fact-checking departments, yet they don’t seem to have even skimmed the lengthy Wikipedia articles in both German and English. What really happened?

A Bomb in the Coatroom

On November 9, 1969, 250 people gathered at the Jewish Community Center for a ceremony to commemorate the Night of Broken Glass, or Reichskristallnacht, a state-sponsored pogrom that had taken place 31 years earlier. A bomb had been placed in the coatroom. Fortunately, it did not detonate, and it was discovered and defused the next day.

That same night, graffiti appeared in different parts of West Berlin: “Shalom and Napalm.” A flyer published in the radical left magazine Agit 883 explained that “racist and Zionist Israel, with Napalm … and German tanks, is defending the oil interests of the world police in the entire Arab region.” The authors supported Al Fatah, the Palestinian nationalist group led by Yassir Arafat, which was “showing everyone how to fight imperialism, Zionism, and the system in their own countries.”

This was the first action of a new urban guerrilla group in West Berlin that had taken its name from the Uruguayan guerrillas: Tupamaros West-Berlin. Activists like Dieter Kunzelmann, George von Rauch, Tommy Weisbecker, and others had gone to Jordan in mid-1969 and received military training at a Palestinian refugee camp. They decided to begin the armed struggle right away — by bombing a Jewish Community Center.

So far, this sounds like the New York Times and Der Spiegel got the story right: leftists really did try to carry out an antisemitic attack. But did this represent “the Left” or “the new Left” or “the militant Left”? Kunzelmann’s little group, hanging out in their “commune” on West Berlin’s Wielandstraße and taking all the drugs they could find, were not exactly leaders of the New Left. Kunzelmann was a media darling because he was an idiot with no organization and no strategy.

Immediately, the Left distanced itself from this heinous attempt at mass murderer. Frankfurt’s Palestine Committee, for example, wrote that such actions “objectively constitute a provocation.” In the face of widespread condemnation, the Tupamaros soon dissolved.

Among the signers of the Frankfurt declaration was Daniel Cohn-Bendit. Dany le Rouge, as he was then known, had been born in France to a Jewish family, went to school in Frankfurt, and then to university in Nanterre, where he became one of the main faces of the 1968 revolt in France. Reactionary politicians described him as a foreign agitator and a German Jew. In response, students chanted, “Nous sommes tous des Juifs allemands!” (We are all German Jews!).

Jewish radicals played a huge role in Europe’s youth revolt, including in West Berlin. The Belgian Trotskyist leader Ernest Mandel, for example, was a keynote speaker at the International Vietnam Congress in West Berlin early 1968. Other intellectual mentors included Theodor Adorno and Herbert Marcuse. Activists from Matzpen, the Israeli Socialist Organization,  were active in different European countries and spoke frequently at West Berlin’s Free University. When Cohn-Bendit was invited to Israel, he ostentatiously ditched his minders from the Israeli Foreign Ministry and instead traveled the country with Matzpen activists.

Then, as now, the socialist Left was hostile to Zionism, yet it included many Jewish leaders and fought consistently against antisemitism. The German “Tupamaros,” with their antisemitic views, were an isolated group.

Protectors of the Constitution?

So far, this story has gained some nuance: it was not “the Left” but rather an isolated group that tried to bomb the Jewish Community Center. But who built the bomb? Kunzelmann, generally considered the initiator of the action, lacked the technical knowledge. The police figured out quickly who was responsible, yet charges were never filed, and there was no criminal trial.

How is this possible? As a journalist revealed in 2005, the Tupamaros’ bomb was built by a man named Peter Urbach. When he testified at a criminal trial in 1971, Urbach’s cover was blown: he was a longtime agent of the West German domestic secret service, the so-called Verfassungsschutz (VS, Protectors of the Constitution). Urbach provided numerous Molotov cocktails, guns, and bombs to West Berlin leftists, including to those who later founded the Red Army Faction.

Who was behind Urbach’s activities? Who was working to push the radical student movement toward armed actions? Who knew about the plans that could have killed 250 Jews on the anniversary of the Night of Broken Glass? The state has attempted to cover up all this information. The journalist Uwe Soukup suspects that a leading figure was West Berlin’s Interior Senator Kurt Neubauer, from the far right wing of the Social Democratic Party. It’s entirely possible that the CIA, with its enormous presence in West Berlin, was pulling strings from the background. Yet no court and no parliament has ever seriously investigated what happened.

In 1971, the VS gave Urbach a new identity and sent him to California, where he lived for the next four decades until he died in 2011. The German state paid him a pension that must have totaled many millions of marks and euros — a reward for having tried to blow up the Jewish Community Center.

None of the West Berlin prosecutors from 1969 ever explained why they decided not to press charges, despite having precise testimony. It seems obvious that they were trying to protect the reputation of the Federal Republic of Germany, and it seems even more than likely that the VS applied pressure.

Founded by Nazis

The VS was founded in 1949. West Germany’s foreign secret service, the BND, was founded by well-known Nazi war criminals. The VS, in contrast, was supposed to have a more democratic profile. Within a few years, however, the VS was relying on high-ranking spies from the Nazi SS — people who helped carry out the Holocaust — to “protect the constitution.”

The VS has never broken from its brown legacy. In the 1990s, the service was paying huge sums of money to East German Nazis — they claimed that financing Nazis was the only way to keep an eye on them. While the terrorist group National Socialist Underground (NSU) murdered 10 people, it was surrounded by numerous VS agents, yet they reported nothing.

The head of the VS from 2012 to 2018, Hans-Georg Maaßen, has become one of Germany’s most prominent racist and antisemitic agitators, blaming “globalists” (read: Jews) for the “climate hoax.” Maaßen remains a member of the conservative party CDU. Does anyone believe that his views were much different while he headed this secretive agency built up by Nazis?

The example of the Tupamaros West-Berlin is instructive, but not for the reasons that the New York Times or Der Spiegel think it is. The real instigators of this attempted antisemitic mass murder were not the militant Left — it was the West German capitalist state. Just about every week, we get new evidence of German police, soldiers, and secret service agents spreading antisemitic conspiracy theories. The idea that this state apparatus filled with Nazis could “protect Jewish life” is disturbing to even think about.

Many Jews in Germany have drawn the opposite conclusion: real protection from antisemitism will not come from a state built by Nazi war criminals. No, antisemitism will end when working people around the world — Jews, Muslims, and people of all nationalities — join forces to beat the capitalist system. In the demonstrations in solidarity with Gaza, where Jewish activists are often on the front lines, we see seeds of the kind of international solidarity that will lead us to universal emancipation from all forms of oppression.

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Nathaniel Flakin

Nathaniel is a freelance journalist and historian from Berlin. He is on the editorial board of Left Voice and our German sister site Klasse Gegen Klasse. Nathaniel, also known by the nickname Wladek, has written a biography of Martin Monath, a Trotskyist resistance fighter in France during World War II, which has appeared in German, in English, and in French, and in Spanish. He has also written an anticapitalist guide book called Revolutionary Berlin. He is on the autism spectrum.

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