Hitlerism returns to The Hague

James Myburgh writes on the heinous old Nazi libel that lies at the heart of the SA govt’s genocide case against Israel


On Thursday 11th January the world was treated to a once unimaginable spectacle. At the International Court of Justice in the Hague a top legal team acting on behalf of the South African government charged Israel for committing ‘genocide’ against the Palestinian people of Gaza, during the prosecution of the war against Hamas, and demanding that they “desist” from this any further military action.

In the South African media, the legal team were praised as moral heroes and for helping to restore the country’s tarnished image. What after all could be more virtuous than trying to stop genocide? As one such journalist put it: “Why did humankind establish a Genocide Convention in 1948 (as a response to the Holocaust) if not to learn from its genesis?” President Cyril Ramaphosa said that he had “never felt as proud as I felt today when our legal team was arguing our case in the Hague”.

Many Western progressives invested in the Palestinian cause were also delighted by this indictment of the Jewish state. But, more surprisingly, even in the liberal and conservative Western media the response to the South African claims was ambivalent and defensive.

A common view was that while South Africa may not have completely made the case, they made some telling points, and surely there was no harm in bringing it. Indeed, in such cases, mustn’t the precautionary principle apply? Moreover, since Israel itself had adopted the 1948 Genocide Convention it could hardly complain when it was subjected to scrutiny as to whether it had met its binding obligations, as the South African submission put it, “not to commit genocide, and to punish those who directly and publicly incite to genocide”.

In this whole debate it was evident that the once clear distinctions between the horrors of war and the crime of genocide, and what does, and does not, constitute incitement to genocide, has become faded. These were well understood at the time the convention was drafted, given that two of the leading inciters – Julius Streicher and Otto Dietrich – had recently been, or were being, prosecuted for crimes against humanity before the International Military Tribunal in Nuremberg.

Streicher was charged for his Jew-baiting in the 1930s and various articles that appeared in his anti-Semitic newspaper, Der Stürmer, particularly during the war. In 26 articles between August 1941 and September 1944, twelve of which were written in Streicher’s own hand, the newspaper had pressed the case for the annihilation of the Jews. The judgment against him concluded that “Such incitement to murder and extermination at the time when Jews in the East were being killed under the most horrible conditions clearly constitutes persecution on political and racial grounds in connection with war crimes as defined by the Charter, and constitutes a crime against humanity.”

Dietrich, who served under Adolf Hitler as the Reich press chief of the Nazis, directed the German press through the war. He too was put on trial at Nuremberg. The judgment against him in 1949 noted that the “clear and express purpose” of various directives his office had issued was “to enrage Germans against the Jews, to justify the measures taken and to be taken against them, and to subdue any doubts which might arise as to the justice of measures of racial persecution to which Jews were to be subjected.”

It is important to go back and examine what form that incitement actually took and the methods and materials used to arouse hatred against the Jews and blunt the sensibilities of the wider public to their persecution and then disappearance. For without a tangible sense of how this was done it is easy to miss the extraordinary trick that was pulled off at The Hague.

The South African govt’s case

In its submission to the court the South African government described the terrible human toll that the war had taken on the population of Gaza: at least 21,110 people killed, including 7,729 children, 55,243 injured, the damage and destruction of 355,000 residences, the destruction of innumerable schools, places of worship, bakeries, and other buildings, assaults on hospitals, and the displacement of 1.9 million people from their homes.

Such death and sheer physical destruction is disturbingly reminiscent of the devastation visited upon German cities by Allied bombing during World War Two. However, the charge of genocide turned not upon documenting the horrific effects of industrial warfare (and economic blockades) on helpless civilians trapped between two warring enemies, but rather on proving “genocidal intent”.

The fury of Israel at the atrocities of October 7th and their desire for vengeance, the South African submission thus argued, was directed not just at seeking to destroy Hamas, but also the Palestinian people as well. At the hearing itself this part of the case was presented by Advocate Tembeka Ngcukaitobi.

In many of the examples he cited there were reasonable counterarguments. Some were made in the immediate aftermath of the October 7th pogrom when Israel was still in shock. In others the rhetoric was clearly directed against Hamas rather than the Palestinians as a whole. And yet others were from relatively marginal figures and so were of little consequence. However, none of these excuses could seemingly apply to two statements made to the Israel Defence Forces by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on 28th October and 3rd November 2023, as Ngcukaitobi described them:

“Netanyahu, in his address to the Israeli forces on 28 October 2023 — preparing for the invasion of Gaza — urged the soldiers to “remember what Amalek has done to you”80This refers to the biblical command by God to Saul for the retaliatory destruction of an entire group of people known as the Amalekites: “Put to death men and women, children and infants, cattle and sheep, camels and donkeys”. The genocidal invocation to Amalek was anything but idle. It was repeated by Mr Netanyahu in a letter to the Israeli armed forces on 3 November 2023.”

This then was a lynchpin of the case. These two expressions of the Israeli will-to-destroy, not just Hamas, but the population of Gaza as well, had a major impact on opinion-formers in the Western media. In The Guardian Owen Jones wrote that there was “no doubt for interpretation” as to what Netanyahu meant by his words. In a guest essay that appeared in the New York Times Megan K. Stack wrote that Netanyahu had urged “Israelis to “remember” the Old Testament account of the carnage of Amalek (“Spare no one, but kill alike men and women, infants and sucklings,” reads one passage).”

On CNN Fareed Zakaria said that Netanyahu “has evoked the biblical story of Amalek in which God tells the Israelites to kill every man, woman, and child, destroy all property, even kill every animal in retaliation for a surprise attack.” In an editorial The Guardian stated that “The prime minister and others have invoked the Old Testament tale of Amalek: God commanded Saul to kill its people without sparing anyone.”

Deuteronomy 25:17

In fact, Netanyahu’s statements on both 28th October and 3rd November did not refer to the passage of the Old Testament that the SA govt’s lawyers claimed they did. In his message to the IDF he stated:

“Since time immemorial we have struggled with bitter enemies, who rose up against us to destroy us. When we are equipped with the strength of spirit and the righteousness of our path, we stood resolutely against those who sought [to destroy] our souls. The current fight against the Hamas murderers is another chapter in the story of national struggle for generations. “Remember what Amalek did to you”.”

The named enemy was thus Hamas and not the Palestinians. Moreover, as Joel Pollak has repeatedly pointed out Netanyahu was quoting, in both cases, Moses’ words to the Israelites that appear in Deuteronomy, Chapter 25, verses 17 to 19. These passages can be found on page 283 of the King James version of the bible (Cambridge University Press) and read as follows:

17 Remember what Amalek did unto thee by the way, when ye were come forth out of Egypt;

18 How he met thee by the way, and smote the hindmost of thee, even all that were feeble behind thee, when thou wast faint and weary; and he feared not God.

19 Therefore it shall be, when the Lord thy God hath given thee rest from all thine enemies round about, in the land which the Lord thy God giveth thee for an inheritance to possess it, that thou shalt blot out the remembrance of Amalek from under heaven; thou shalt not forget it.

There is also an extensive account of past battles against the Amalek in Chapter 17 of Exodus in which the “The LORD said unto Moses… I will utterly put out the remembrance of Amalek from under heaven” (14) and concludes with Moses’ declaration, “The Lord hath sworn that the LORD will have war with Amalek from generation to generation.” (16)

These two pieces of scripture were cited by Jewish community leaders in the 1930s and 1940s, with Hitler and the Nazis directly equated to the Amalek. For instance, in a letter of greeting to an anti-Hitler-demonstration in New York City on 15th March 1937 the renowned Jewish historian Saul Dubnow wrote from his home in Riga that "In the darkness that Nazism has cast over Europe, we await a ray of light from free America. The people of Israel have no greater enemy than this new Amalek, who wants to exterminate our historic nation. Let us once again pledge the old oath of the Bible: Eternal war between us and Amalek!”

In a sermon in September 1941 Joseph Hertz, the British Chief Rabbi, described the Nazis as “Amalek's latest spiritual descendant” pursuing as they were the “systematic obliteration of Judaism and the total expulsion of the Jew from Europe that are the aims of Nazi policy, aims and policy preluded by the open harrying of the entire Jewish population with a ruthlessness that has appalled the world.” The same judgment in the bible (“he feared not God”) could be passed on Nazis and the “blotting out” of this evil must be “carried out by human agents; i.e. by men and nations filled with an endless loathing of Amalek and all his works and ways.”

The quotation “Remember what Amalek did to you” can also be found on the memorial to the 12 000 Jews who were deported from The Hague and then put to death in Auschwitz and other death camps in the East. This is not far from where the ICJ sits. It was within this tradition that Netanyahu was speaking and the use of this verse from scripture, in the aftermath of the greatest slaughter of Jews since the defeat of Nazi Germany, was not obviously inappropriate in the context.

Samuel 15:3 and Der Stürmer

The verse of scripture wrongly presented by the South African legal team as a direct expression of Israeli-Jewish-intent appears in Chapter 15 of Samuel, on page 398 of the King James bible. It begins as follows:

“1. Samuel also said unto Saul, The LORD sent me to anoint thee to be king over his people, over Israel: now therefore hearken thou unto the voice of the words of the LORD.

2 Thus saith the LORD of hosts, I remember that which Amalek did to Israel, how he laid wait for him in the way, when he came up from Egypt.

3 Now go and smite Amalek, and utterly destroy all that they have, and spare them not; but slay both man and woman, infant and suckling, ox and sheep, camel and ass.”

This part of the bible was also invoked at key moments during the persecution and then annihilation of the Jews of Germany and Europe in the 1930s and 1940s, but not by Jewish leaders themselves.

It made a prominent appearance, at the very start of the destruction process, in an article that appeared on the front page of Der Stürmer (No. 15) April 1933 titled “Judas Atrocities” [Greueltaten]. This was shortly after the anti-Jewish boycott of 1st April 1933 which Streicher had taken the lead in organising.

Under the section title “Jüdische Mordlust” the article stated that as the Jewish people had roamed through the millennia, they had brought only blight and ruin upon the world. Moral and ethical considerations, Der Stürmer continued, had never got in the way of their relentless pursuit of world domination.

Instead, they had “trampled over mountains of corpses, over annihilated tribes, devastated countries and cities.” The nature and character of a people are best reflected in their religious views, the article continued, and the “religious literature of the Jewish people” is replete with diabolical expressions of “violence, vengefulness and cruelty. The Old Testament calls on the Jews to commit inhuman atrocities.”

As proof of this it quoted Samuel Chapter 15 at length (verses 1-35) including the instruction to “slay both man and woman, infant and suckling” etc. Such blood curdling calls for atrocities to be committed, Der Stürmer then added, is “repeated again and again in many passages of the Old Testament. And throughout the centuries, the Jewish people have made the words of their prophets come true against all those non-Jewish peoples who refused to bow to their yoke.”

The destruction process directed against the Jews of Germany would proceed through various stages culminating in the failed attempt to force the final expulsion of the Jewish population from the newly expanded Reich in late 1938 through the Kristallnacht pogrom and their economic dispossession.

Hitler’s prophecy

On 30th January 1939 Hitler made his infamous “prophecy” that should the Jews “succeed in plunging the nations once more into a world war” – a war he himself was set upon - the result would not be the “victory of Jewry, but the annihilation of the Jewish race in Europe”. The nations of the world, he added, “are no longer willing to die on the battlefield so that this unstable international race may profiteer from a war or satisfy its Old Testament vengeance”, an allusion in part to the story of the Amalek.

After the German invasion of Poland in September 1939, followed by the British declaration of war against Germany, Nazi war propaganda repeatedly stated that the war goal of the Allies, and the Jewish “wirepullers” behind them, was the “extermination” and “annihilation of the German people”. There were really two parts to this message, but the second was often left unsaid in communications to a broader public that would be required only to not get in the way.

However, in remarks to the party faithful Nazi leaders were more forthcoming about their intentions, and the rationale supporting them. In a talk to Nazi workers in Lodz in occupied Poland in late 1939 Robert Ley, the brutish leader of the German Labour Front, stated that if the English were to win the war the German people would be exterminated “man, woman and child” by the Jews. The Jews would be wading in blood, and pyres would be built on which German bodies would be burnt, and this would all be done in the name of their God. “But we will deny them that”, he declared, “better that they burn, that they starve, that they be exterminated... They wanted to annihilate us. But they will be the ones annihilated.”

It was in the wake of the invasion of the Soviet Union on 22nd June 1941 that the Nazis embarked upon the wholesale killing of the Jews, following earlier SS Aktionen against the disabled in Germany and the intelligentsia in Poland. Shortly ahead of the worst of these massacres a lead article appeared in Der Stürmer (no. 39) on 25th September titled “Amalek: How the Jews hate us.”

The article recounted the story of the Amalekites of Sinai (quoting Moses 5:25, 1-19) and King Saul’s later “total extermination” of them. It then claimed that the term Amalek has a special meaning for the Jews and was used to describe the “non-Jewish humanity that they hated” and that “every people that resists Jewish domination is called Amalek by the Jews and threatened with the same fate that the Amalekites once suffered.”

“Of course,” it continued, “the National Socialists are also ‘Amalekites’ and as such are to be annihilated.” After quoting in full Simon Dubnow's message to the March 1937 anti-Hitler protest in New York it concluded: “They have the war now and it will not be an eternal one, but Juda's might will be obliterated forever. This time the Jews will play the role of the Amalekites.”

Dubnow, 81, was murdered in Riga on 8th December 1941 during Einsatzgruppe A’s Rumbula Aktion in which 25,000 Jews were massacred.

Aktion Reinhard, which saw the establishment of dedicated death camps, ran from March 1942 to November 1943 and was conducted under conditions of utmost secrecy. This operation was foreshadowed however in a message from Hitler to his old comrades on 24th February 1942 on the 22nd anniversary of the foundation of the Nazi party, sent from his field headquarters on the Eastern front. Hitler declared that preparations were being made for the final confrontation and reckoning with the (Jewish) conspiracy pursuing the “extermination of the Aryan people”. He added however that it was his prophecy that would be fulfilled, and the war would see not the annihilation of Aryan-kind, but rather the extermination of the Jews. In a lead article in Der Stürmer headed “The Führer’s prophecy” on 19th March 1942 Streicher explained that with these words Hitler had announced to the peoples of the world and beyond how the “total solution to the Jewish question” was finally to be achieved.

To prove the annihilatory intentions of their enemies Nazi propagandists carefully collected, and gave enormous prominence to, any comment in the British or American press expressing such sentiments no matter how marginal the source. The “terror attacks against the civilian population by the RAF, as well as the attacks against schools, churches, military rescue ships, ambulance and emergency aircraft and the systematic bombing raids” against a German field hospital in North Africa were presented as further proof of such ill-intent, and as clear violations of the Geneva Conventions as well.

The smooth and effective operation of the deportations and the death camps required that the extermination process be conducted in secret. By the end of 1942 the Allies had acquired sufficient information to issue a declaration stating that the German authorities were now giving effect to Hitler’s oft-repeated intentions to “exterminate the Jewish people in Europe”. It added that Jews were being transported to Eastern Europe, and in Poland the ghettos emptied, with “none of those taken away ever heard of again”.

On 5th February 1943 - shortly after the surrender of the German Sixth Army at Stalingrad, and as the first of the large gas chambers and crematoria being built at Auschwitz was nearing completion –Dietrich issued a set of “strictly confidential” directives for the themes to be emphasised by German periodicals going forward.

The first of these was titled “Bolshevism: Europe’s deadly enemy”, the second “If the Jew comes into power”. The latter was to emphasise the firm intention of the Jews to “exterminate all Germans” with reference to Hitler’s recent statement on 30th January 1943 that at the end of the war there would not be the victorious and the vanquished but only “survivors and the annihilated”.

This guidance to the second theme sought to provide “clear examples and quotations” firstly to show the “Jews' unrivalled will-to-exterminate” [Vernichtungswillens] and, secondly, that serious leaders in Germany and other states had correctly recognised “the Jewish danger” and taken the necessary policy measures to neutralise it (though without mentioning deportations or mass murder).

Publications were instructed to emphasise that “Jewry was absolutely determined to exterminate all Germans” and that “International law and international custom do not protect against the Jews' will-to-exterminate.” To illustrate the annihilatory impulses of the Jewish people it advised periodicals to present evidence of atrocities supposedly committed or orchestrated by the Jews over the millennia, from Old Testament times to the Bolsheviks.

Top of a very long list of suggested quotes and examples to be used in making this case was “Remember what Amalek did unto thee by the way…” (“5. Moses 25,17 u. 19.”) The very next, prophet Samuel’s instruction to Saul to “smite” the Amalek and slay them all “man and woman, infant and suckling” (“1 Könige 15:3”).

The following week, 11th February 1943, the lead article of Der Stürmer was headed the “The death sentence against Amalek”. It seized on a message from the Jewish community in the Soviet Union, broadcast over radio, expressing the desire that Stalin would bring about a downfall of the “fascist hordes” like that which befell Pharaoh and the Amalek. The Amalek, Der Stürmer explained, were a people who had put up fierce resistance to the Jewish emigrants from Egypt. The Jews had then “exterminated them with indescribable cruelty. Their god Yahweh knew no limits in his lust for blood."

After quoting from extracts from the bible, beginning with Samuel 15:3, and proceeding through various relevant verses from the books of Moses, the article claimed that these “gruesome murder orders are still valid today" and were now directed against all non-Jewish people. For “world Jewry all peoples are Amaleks and should suffer its fate” the article concluded, and “If the non-Jewish peoples now set out to completely exterminate Judaism, then this is just an act of resistance and defence against these robbers and murderers of the world.”

A further directive from Dietrich’s office on 2 April 1943 stated that German periodicals needed to emphasise that “… Jewry as a whole springs from criminal roots and is criminal by disposition. The Jews are not a nation like other nations, but bearers of a hereditary criminality… The annihilation of Jewry is no loss to humanity, but as useful to the peoples of the world as capital punishment or security custody for criminal offenders.” This theme too was pursued by Der Stürmer with a lead article declaring that the Jews were a “community of murderers” and as such had forfeited their “right to exist”.

Racial defamation at The Hague

From the documents presented to the Military Tribunal in Nuremberg in the trials of Streicher and Dietrich it is evident that the public incitement to the mass murder of the Jews took the form in great part of claims that the Jews were the ones intent on exterminating the German people, that they were inherently criminal, and so were only getting what they deserved. Both Der Stürmer‘s initial claim in 1933 that the Jews had an inherent “Mordlust” and the propaganda campaign nine-years-later that they had an innate “Vernichtungswillens” were supported by the Old Testament fate of the Amalek and particularly the Book of Samuel, Chapter 15, Verse 3.

It was such propaganda that the drafters of the 1948 Convention would have had in mind when they sought to proscribe ‘incitement to genocide’. Bearing this specific historical context in mind the case against Israel at The Hague can be seen in a very different light; as an attempt by the SA government - likely acting as a catspaw for others - to manipulate and subvert the original objectives of the convention, rather than to realise them.

Most damningly the SA government’s submission conjured up the same verse of the bible, and the same story of the Amalek, to prove Israel’s ‘genocidal intent’, as the Nazis had once used to prove the annihilatory intentions of the Jews, and thereby justify their “complete extermination”. Equally disturbingly, instead of being widely condemned for this, this heinous old Nazi libel was then mindlessly repeated across large swathes of the Western media.

The absence of any effective moral or intellectual immune reaction to the spread of this monstrous calumny reflects perhaps an inadequate understanding of the enduring nature and appeal of anti-Semitic-type racialism. It is likely a product too of the assumption today among many progressive activists, journalists and lawyers that it is inherently virtuous to loosely apply concepts of ‘crimes against humanity’ and now ‘genocidal intent’ to Israel in a self-righteous effort to combat the wrongs and very real suffering of the Palestinians - even if definitions have to be stretched a long way, the facts twisted, and all context discarded, to make them fit.

What has been forgotten is that crimes against humanity and genocide are capital crimes, for which there is no expiation, and the peoples responsible lose all inherent rights – to their positions, property, safety, or life – once declared guilty of them. Such “shared guilt” can endure across the generations and can be used as justification for persecution, dispossession, and calls for racial murder, decades after the fact. In other words, allegations of atrocities and a will-to-exterminate, to use the old terms, are not inherently harmless. They are a double-edged sword which once were, and still can be, used for unimaginably evil purposes. 

Note: This article was updated with additional historical material on 3rd February 2024.