The Jewish Octopus trope has 19th century roots but was most fully exploited in Nazi Germany.
This article is dedicated to the memory of Paul R. Weinstein.
A January issue of The Times of Israel reproduced, as an example of “recent anti-Semitic memes around George Soros,” a caricature of Soros as a tentacled monster hovering over North America – yet his tentacles encircle the globe. This infamous caricature had already been making the rounds online since at least 2015, and had been published three months before The Times of Israel piece – in October 2018 – by ADL to illustrate an article entitled “The Anti-Semitism Lurking Behind George Soros Conspiracy Theories.”
Ironically, the same anti-Semitic image had appeared a year earlier than the ADL article, in October 2017, in a tweet (subsequently deleted) by the chairman of the board of the Israeli American Council. Adam Milstein – the chairman – seems to have been unaware, until it was brought to his attention, that the image had its origins in an anti-Semitic trope of Jews as tentacled creatures controlling the globe.
A similar lack of awareness seems to explain a headline published by the Dutch public broadcaster Nederlandse Omroep Stichting (NOS). On October 23, 2018 – only two weeks after ADL’s article on George Soros conspiracy theories – the NOS ran an article with the headline (subsequently changed, after protests), “George Soros: invloedrijke bemoeial met tentakels ver in de wereldpolitiek” [“George Soros: influential meddling with tentacles far into world politics”]. The article went on to refer to Soros in the following terms: “The Jew Soros supports organizations openly critical of governments and has extended his tentacles into both European and American politics. And that should stop, opponents say.” In the face of internal and public criticism, the offending text was later removed and, as announced by the NOS News editor-in-chief, the article itself was subsequently withdrawn.
In July 2018, the newly-launched Freedom from Facebook coalition, which includes anti-Israel groups such as Jewish Voice for Peace and Linda Sarsour’s MPower Change as members, displayed anti-Facebook signs in a Judiciary Committee hearing on “social media filtering practices.” The signs portrayed two top Jewish Facebook officials – Mark Zuckerberg and Sheryl Sandberg – as a two-headed octopus with its tentacles extended across the globe. A Freedom from Facebook representative – in fact the cartoonist himself, also Jewish – subsequently tweeted an image of the sign. Eddie Vale, the cartoonist, later insisted that the sign was meant to evoke a famous anti-monopoly Standard Oil cartoon. However, the octopus in the Standard Oil cartoon is clearly labeled with the name of the company, and its tentacles are wrapped around the seats of power in Washington and do not have global reach. The two-headed monster, with both heads Jewish, invokes, rather than an oil company, the historically feared double-headed alliance between Jews and Freemasons.
On March 18, 2018, Columbia University College Republicans, a student group, promoted a panel event discussing “communism and its negative attributes” through an email which included an infamous anti-Semitic cartoon from 1937 featuring an octopus suspended over the Soviet Union. The Soviet octopus has its tentacles stretched over key countries in Europe. The arms above Germany and Italy – two fascist regimes as of 1937 – are severed, in a nod to the radical right strength against the Communist – and, by implication, against the Jewish-Bolshevik – menace.
The Pre-Nazi Roots Of The Jewish Octopus
The lack of awareness of the historical context in those particular instances – all occurring within a twelve-month period – may very well be the best explanation for the frequent repetition of the trope of the Jew as malevolent octopus, with tentacles controlling key aspects of the world’s political economy. Even if no ill intention lies behind the circulation of the trope, there is reason to be concerned that the images, signs, and word pictures in the preceding examples, as well as others, may be taken as dog whistles by members of the extreme right and as indirect encouragement for their further circulation. The issue is not whether motive (or the lack of it) can be established on a case-by-case basis for the repetition of the trope. Whether inadvertent or intentional, the use of the trope at all – regardless of motive – risks feeding the anti-Semitic beast.
The rapid-fire pace of well-publicized examples – at least four dating to 2017-2018 alone – is no aberration. Similar examples can be enumerated for previous years, many originating in mainstream media outlets. Many of those who have pointed out the anti-Semitic connotations of octopus images trace the use of the image for anti-Semitic purposes back to the time of the Nazis. Yet the history is much older than even that. Examples have streamed forth since the middle of the nineteenth century, making it one of the longest-lasting anti-Semitic tropes.
Space does not permit more than a brief mention of the seemingly limitless examples arising in Czarist Russia and Fascist Italy as well as amongst the UK, American, and Canadian extreme right, among other sources. Instead, this article will focus on German examples leading up to and including the time of Nazi Germany.
In his novel Der Hungerpastor [The Hungry Pastor], first serialized in 1863 and widely reprinted in book form, Wilhelm Raabe writes of the thoughts of young Moses Freudenstein who, arriving home after having earned his diploma, is told by his father Samuel that he would be a rich man like his father: “Von diesem Augenblick liefen tausend dunkle Fäden in die Zukunft hinaus; was dunkel in Moses’ Seele war, wurde von diesem Augenblick an noch dunkler, heller wurde nichts; der Egoismus richtete sich dräuend empor und streckte hungrige Polypenarme aus, um damit die Welt zu umfassen.” [In English translation: A thousand dark threads stretched from this moment into the future; what was dark in Moses’s soul became even darker in this instant, nothing became brighter. Egotism rose up and stretched its hungry octopus arms out to encircle the world.]
In the early 1920s, this trope of greedy Jews was picked up by the virulent anti-Semitic writer Theodor Fritsch. In a pamphlet entitled Der jüdische Zeitungs-Polyp [The Jewish Newspaper-Octopus] (1921), Fritsch used the metaphor of his title to symbolize alleged Jewish domination of the German press:
The majority of the newspapers are in the hands of non-Germans and serve their special purposes [….] From the following we clearly see that the German press is for the most part in Jewish hands. And those who are somewhat versed in the Jewish question know that Jewish is almost always anti-German [….] It is not too much to say that at least 90% of the German press is under Jewish control [….] The significance and effect of this Judaization of German newspapers can only be judged by those who know the true character of Judaism and its last ‘subtle, veiled aims.’ […] What interest does Judaism have in the monopolization of the German press? This question is answered by a statement made by Moses Montefiore (Blumenberg) on the Sanhedrin (Jewish Supreme Council) in Krakow in 1840: ‘Unless we have the newspapers of the world in our hands to deceive and stun the people, our rule remains a pipe dream!’ […] With the press, Judah rules Germany, Europe, and the world.
As extreme as these sentiments were, there was nothing new in what Fritsch wrote. His arguments date back to the 1880s, when the modern “anti-Semitic movement” began. Catholic World reported in 1889, for instance, that: “the Austrian press goes under the name of ‘Rabbiner [P]resse,’ because all important papers are owned or controlled by Jews and devoted to the promotion of the interests of the Jewish race.” Catholic World even quoted the same proto-Protocols Montefiore canard. In a survey of the Jewish “invasion” of Western Europe for the Saint Petersburg right-wing magazine Nablyudatel‘ [Observer] in January 1896, Aleksei P. Liprandi found that two-thirds of the German, Austrian, and French press was “controlled by Jews, and the same is the case with most of the telegraphic agencies. Berlin has only two papers which are still free from the far-stretching arms of the Jewish octopus— the Kreuz-Zeitung and Reichsbote.”
In Mein Kampf (1925-26), Hitler used the words Tintenfisch and Polyp to refer to octopus – in both instances, to the Jewish octopus. In the first of these examples, Hitler attacked “these scoundrels of the press” in much the same terms as Fritsch did:
While one of these scum is attacking his beloved fellow men in the most contemptible fashion, the octopus covers himself with a veritable cloud of respectability and unctuous phrases [hüllt sich dieser Tintenfisch in eine wahre Wolke von Biederkeit und salbungsvollen Phrasen], prates about ‘journalistic duty’ and suchlike lies, and even goes so far as to shoot off his mouth at committee meetings and congresses – that is, occasions where these pests are present in large numbers – about a very special variety of ‘honor,’ to wit, the journalistic variety, which the assembled rabble gravely and mutually confirm.
In the second example, Hitler employed the word Polyp, one of whose long-established meanings is a “destructive element which creeps through an organism or a system”: “If our people and our state become the victim of these bloodthirsty and avaricious Jewish tyrants of nations, the whole earth will sink into the snares of this octopus [so sinkt die ganze Erde in die Umstrickung dieses Polypen]; if Germany frees herself from this embrace, this greatest of dangers to nations may be regarded as broken for the whole world.”
From 1930 on, the image of a tentacled Jewish monster permeated German, and then Nazi, propaganda and entertainment. A German poster from 1930 portrays Jewish discount houses and department stores as evil institutions which threaten small businesses. In the poster, the Jewish owner of a large department store is pictured as an evil-looking octopus spread over the top of his store. While crowds press against the entrances to his store, his tentacles suffocate the neighboring small businesses, which have no customers. A German cartoon by “Seppla” [Josef Plank], published under the Third Reich, depicts Churchill as an octopus with a Star of David over his head, hugging the globe with his tentacles. The cartoon, which is probably the most frequently cited image of a Jewish octopus, links British imperialism to a supposed Jewish conspiracy.
On 1 August 1940, Der Stürmer, Julius Streicher’s viciously anti-Semitic magazine, featured a cover illustration, captioned “Der politische Tintenfisch”, of an octopus bearing a Star of David upon its chest – being skewered by spears labelled Wahrheit und Aufklärung [“Truth” and “Enlightenment”]. Lustige Blätter, a weekly German humor magazine, featured as its covercartoon for the issue of 2 July 1943, a Jew with tentacles grasping figures representing China, the USSR, England, and the United States. The four figures are positioned, as it were, across the four corners of the earth, symbolizing the Jewish reach. The cartoon, by Nyary, was captioned “Der Polyp.” In the introduction to his book of the same year, Der Jüdische Ritualmord: Eine historische Untersuchung [Jewish Ritual-Murder: A Historical Investigation] (Berlin: Theodor Fritsch Verlag, 1943) – the title referencing another anti-Semitic trope – Hellmut Schramm wrote: “this treatise has fulfilled its goal of supplying a further useful weapon for the final struggle with the Jewish world-octopus [zum bevorstehenden Endkampf mit dem jüdischen Weltpolypen] which is before us, if it can be put in the hands of every comrade of the people.”
Similar examples in English may be found in publications of The Britons (a UK proto-fascist group in the 1910s and 1920s); Count Cherep-Spiridovich (in The Secret World Government(1926)); Gerald Winrod (a Jew-baiting magazine publisher) (and more); Louis T. McFadden (an anti-Semitic U.S. representative); John Ross Taylor (a Canadian fascist); Archibald H. M. Ramsay(founder of the fascist Right Club in Britain); Elizabeth Dilling (in the title of her fiercely anti-Semitic book The Octopus (1940)); Walter Edwin Peck (an American professor and literary scholar turned anti-Semitic pamphleteer); Arthur L. McKenney (a publisher of labor magazines); E. J. Garner (a pro-Axis propagandist); William Aberhart (a Canadian politician); Ezra Pound (the American poet indicted for wartime treason); Emory Burke (co-founder of the Columbians, a postwar Georgia-based hate organization); Lyrl Clark Van Hyning (of the blatantly anti-Semitic Women’s Voice); California State Senator Jack B. Tenney; George Lincoln Rockwell (head of the American Nazi Party); Court Asher (the anti-Semitic publisher of X Ray, a weekly issued during World War II); Gerald L. K. Smith (a notoriously anti-Semitic professional rabble rouser); in the Cotswold Agreements of 1962; Edward R. Fields (editor of the Thunderbolt) (and more); and Ben Klassen (Christian Identity ideologue); not to mention, most recently and frequently, Stormfront.
The truth is out. With a genealogy like that, is there any reason why anyone in today’s press would want to stand in their company?
Dr Archie Henderson is Head of Research at CARR. His profile can be found here:
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