Martin Heidegger and Hannah Arendt. Stalin and his string of Jewish mistresses. Novelist Henry Miller and the tragic June née Smerdt. Behind every good anti-Semite seems to lay a Jewish lover. As strange as it sounds, some of history’s most famous Jew haters have also had their pulses quickened and their knees weakened by a Jewish paramour.
The phenomenon of Jews entering into relationships with those who loathed them did not begin recently. No, these romances date as far back as first-century Rome, when the famed fiddling emperor Nero married Poppaea Sabina, a member of a Judaist cult known as “God-fearers” whose members worshipped the Jewish God but were not fully Jewish. Nevertheless, Poppaea interceded on behalf of the Hebrews and appealed to her husband when several Jewish priests were imprisoned in Jerusalem. But when Rome burned in 64 BCE, Poppaea could do nothing as Nero blamed both Jews and Christians, torturing and killing them. The tradition would continue through the centuries, eventually reaching the world’s most notorious anti-Semite.
As a young man in Linz, Austria, Adolf Hitler pined for a girl named Stefanie Isak, who he believed to be Jewish. He admired her from afar, writing love poems he never gave her and watching her consort with military officers in the town’s plaza. Because they never spoke, Hitler imagined kidnapping and marrying her. That Isak wasn’t Jewish in reality is of little consequence; the fact remains that the archetype of anti-Semites once yearned for a woman he considered Jewish.
Hitler is hardly the only example of a famed anti-Semite fraternizing with the enemy. In fact, his ally Benito Mussolini carried on a long affair with Margherita Sarfatti, scion of a wealthy Jewish family from Venice. For twenty years, Sarfatti was not only Mussolini’s mistress but also an ardent political supporter, writing both a highly favorable biography and articles under his name for the Heart Newspaper Service. The relationship soured in the 1930s, when Mussolini abandoned his Jewish lover in order to strengthen his image.
The World War II era seems to have been rife with liaisons between Jews and anti-Semites—and not just male anti-Semites. Leni Riefenstahl, the German filmmaker best known for Triumph of the Will and other documentaries funded by the Nazi Party, was courted by an Austrian Jew named Harry Sokal. Riefenstahl apparently made no attempt to hide her admiration of the Nazi agenda; she once showed Sokal a copy of Mein Kampf and called it a “beautiful book,” saying Hitler was, “the coming man.” Despite these differences, Sokal and Riefenstahl continued their romance for years. With his wealth from currency trading, Sokal even provided financial support for some of Riefenstahl’s films.
These famous anti-Semites wouldn’t be anywhere without the help of Wilhelm Marr, the nineteenth century German writer and political instigator who invented the term “anti-Semitism,” imbuing anti-Jewish sentiment with a racial bent. Marr argued that Jews controlled German finance and industry and that the conflict between the German and Jewish races would end only when one died out entirely. He created Germany’s Anti-Semitic League in 1879, 25 years after he married Betha Callenbach, whose father—a businessman—was Jewish. Their 20-year marriage was an unhappy one, and after their divorce he married Helene Behrend, a woman of full Jewish heritage. Behrend died as a result of a miscarriage in 1874, less than two years after marrying Marr. But Marr didn’t stop at wife number two; his third wife, Jenny Kornick, was—you guessed it—of mixed Jewish-Christian descent. Hoping for a happy resolution to Marr’s bad track record with marriages? Sorry—the pair divorced in 1877, within two years of their wedding.
Marr may have coined the term “anti-Semitism,” but no one has yet pinpointed the neologism for anti-Semites with Jewish lovers. A plethora of history’s notable figures remain uncategorized. Hopefully someone will come up with one before Mel Gibson is discovered picking up women at Jewish weddings.