Port Elizabeth of Yore: Antisemitism and Nazi Acolytes

During the 1930s in South Africa, the right-wing politicians emulated their brethren in Germany and Italy by adopting the stance that all of the evils visited on their country were as a consequence of the Jews. They even adopted a similar form of attire except that it was grey in hue hence they adopted the nomenclature The Greyshirts. They embraced all the odious memes and rhetoric of their European counterparts accusing the Jews of all manner of perverted acts.

This blog covers their activities in the Port Elizabeth region.

Main picture: The Gryshemde – South Africa’s Nazi Party

This extreme right-wing demagoguery, hatred and thuggery manifested itself largely within the Afrikaans community, attracting little support amongst the English-speaking community. Hence the impact of these forces were less pronounced in Port Elizabeth. Nevertheless their rhetoric was no less hurtful to the recipients of this propaganda.

As an echo of the boycott instituted by the Nazis in Germany in 1933, from 1934 Jewish traders and shopkeepers were subjected to an organized boycott in various districts. The Nationalist Party of the Transvaal instituted an official trade boycott of Jewish businesses. Fortunately for the small yet influential Jewish community in Port Elizabeth led by the well-respected Mosenthals and Richardsons, formal boycotts are not recorded to have occurred in the town. The Jews in Port Elizabeth were predominantly of high-class German extraction and wealthy whereas the Jews in the Transvaal were generally of Litvak or Lithuanian extraction. From the 1880s, the predominant portion of Jewish immigrants were of eastern European heritage and were of a decidedly lower class than their German cousins. Being less educated they occupied a lower stratum in society and were not as well accepted as the Germans who had made an extremely favourable impression in their dealings with all and sundry.  

Parodying the Bolshevik playbook and love of truth distortion, the Gryshempde named their main newspaper after its Russia equivalent of Pravda, or Truth. The name Die Waarheid or Truth  was adopted  for the Greyshirts propaganda broadsheet. This paper kept up a steady tirade of racist and anti-Semitic invective, with headlines such as “Kaffirs and Jews indecently assault white girls.” The similarities between anti-Semitic publications in South Africa and Nazi propaganda materials were increasingly evident in the leaflets, posters, and pamphlets distributed by the Greyshirts. Much like Tucker Carson’s show on Fox news in the USA, or Goebel’s rantings at the Nuremburg rally, blatant lies are substituted for facts and the truth. But what is more pernicious is the continual, incessant expounding of the same incorrect facts until their adherents facilely accept the lies as fact.

Spread of the cancer

The South African wing of the Nazi party was established in 1932 by engineering professor Hermann Bohle at the University of Cape Town. Within months, the party had operations in all major urban centres of the country, including Johannesburg, Pretoria, Durban, East London, Port Elizabeth and Bloemfontein.

Greyshirt membership was canvassed openly among the railway workshops and civil service in the government departments in Bloemfontein. Greyshirt publications bearing the swastika were plastered around Johannesburg and other urban centres.

Jewish sporting societies

Jewish sporting societies, with the Bar-Kochba Gymnastics Society being the best known, attests to the interest in the development of a strong body as a means of collective Jewish regeneration. In 1895, the Jewish Lads’ Brigade was established in London. Its popularity grew rapidly in subsequent years, and by 1909 it had no fewer than two regiments in South Africa in Johannesburg and Port Elizabeth, with a global membership of between four and five thousand. Based on the ideals of Baden Powell’s Boy Scouts, the brigade sought to instil cleanliness, discipline, and physical fitness in its membership base.

Right-wing activity

On January 15 1934, a meeting was held in the Feather Market Hall to protest against “undesirable immigrants” being allowed into the country. This turned out to be basically an outburst of anti-Semitism and it was immediately followed by articles in the ‘Herald and sermons in the churches warning against “panic” and this “alien growth” among Port Elizabeth’s citizens.

Two weeks later on January 29th, the S.A. Grey-shirts (P.E. Division) organised a meeting in the Feather Market Hall at which a fight ensued. The movement was formed in Cape Town in October 1933 by L.T. Weichardt as the S.A. Gentile (later ”Christian”) National Socialistic Movement. They were rabidly anti-Semitic. The Greyshirts were initially a uniformed section to protect Weichardt at meetings. In 1948 the movement was dis­banded and the members joined the National Party. Weichardt contested the P.E. North seat in 1936 and later became a Senator.

Judicial resistance

The Jewish community’s responses to the Greyshirts took various forms, reflecting heterogeneous opinions regarding the significance of the threat that the Greyshirts posed and the nature of an appropriate reaction. “Judicial resistance”—the use of the courts to expose libellous and criminal Greyshirt activity—was among the first responses.

Western Road Synagogue. On the extreme right is Western Court and with Durban House the complex is called Rollnick Court

The first and most influential of these cases was one in Port Elizabeth. It is tantamount or analogous to a “false flag operation” such as the one on the 4th May 2023 where the Russians crashed their own drone onto the Kremlin’s roof and blamed the USA. This related to the case a document which allegedly had been stolen from the Western Road Synagogue by Harry Victor Inch, and which had been read at a meeting on 4 April. On 10 July Rev Abraham Levy brought a libel action against the three men, which he won. The document was shown to be a crude forgery designed to incite local feeling against the Jewish community. Von Moltke, an unemployed journalist, was leader here of the S.A. Gentile National Socialist Movement. Inch, the caretaker of an SAR and H refrigeration plant, was leader of the Greyshirt movement in the Eastern Cape and Olivier was the owner and publisher of “Rapport”, the organ of the movements.

On the 13th Aril 1934, the Supreme Court in Grahamstown forbade J. von Moltke and the Aberdeen newspaper “Rapport”, published by D.H. Olivier jr, from printing this document.

En passant

Fortunately the antisemitism never gained traction in Port Elizabeth but as members of the Ossawa Brandwag and The Greyshirts sought a new political home after the war, they were welcomed with open arms into the National Party while also being antisemitic bore a greater hatred for which they reserved to vent against the Blacks of South Africa. Three years after WW2 the National Party would win the National General Election with a minority of the voters.   


Free Fight on the Grand Parade: Resistance to the Greyshirts in 1930s South Africa by Rebecca Hodes (International Journal of African Historical Studies Vol. 47, No. 2 (2014))

Port Elizabeth: A Social Chronicle to the end of 1945 by Margaret Harradine (1996, E H Walton Packaging (Pty) Ltd, Port Elizabeth, on behalf of the Historical Society of Port Elizabeth).

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