Zionism and the Third Reich
|Early in 1935, a passenger ship bound
for Haifa in Palestine left the German port of Bremerhaven. Its stern bore
the Hebrew letters for its name, "Tel Aviv," while a swastika banner fluttered
from the mast. And although the ship was Zionist-owned, its captain was
a National Socialist Party member. Many years later a traveler aboard the
ship recalled this symbolic combination as a "metaphysical absurdity."
Absurd or not, this is but one vignette from a little-known chapter of
history: The wide-ranging collaboration between Zionism and Hitler's Third
Common AimsOver the years, people in many different countries have wrestled with the "Jewish question": that is, what is the proper role of Jews in non-Jewish society? During the 1930s, Jewish Zionists and German National Socialists shared similar views on how to deal with this perplexing issue. They agreed that Jews and Germans were distinctly different nationalities, and that Jews did not belong in Germany. Jews living in the Reich were therefore to be regarded not as "Germans of the Jewish faith," but rather as members of a separate national community. Zionism (Jewish nationalism) also implied an obligation by Zionist Jews to resettle in Palestine, the "Jewish homeland." They could hardly regard themselves as sincere Zionists and simultaneously claim equal rights in Germany or any other "foreign" country.
Theodor Herzl (1860-1904), the founder of modern Zionism, maintained that anti-Semitism is not an aberration, but a natural and completely understandable response by non-Jews to alien Jewish behavior and attitudes. The only solution, he argued, is for Jews to recognize reality and live in a separate state of their own. "The Jewish question exists wherever Jews live in noticeable numbers," he wrote in his most influential work, The Jewish State. "Where it does not exist, it is brought in by arriving Jews ... I believe I understand anti-Semitism, which is a very complex phenomenon. I consider this development as a Jew, without hate or fear." The Jewish question, he maintained, is not social or religious. "It is a national question. To solve it we must, above all, make it an international political issue. ...." Regardless of their citizenship, Herzl insisted, Jews constitute not merely a religious community, but a nationality, a people, a Volk. Zionism, wrote Herzl, offered the world a welcome "final solution of the Jewish question."
Six months after Hitler came to power, the Zionist Federation of Germany (by far the largest Zionist group in the country) submitted a detailed memorandum to the new government that reviewed German-Jewish relations and formally offered Zionist support in "solving" the vexing "Jewish question." The first step, it suggested, had to be a frank recognition of fundamental national differences:
Zionism has no illusions about the difficulty of the Jewish condition, which consists above all in an abnormal occupational pattern and in the fault of an intellectual and moral posture not rooted in one's own tradition. Zionism recognized decades ago that as a result of the assimilationist trend, symptoms of deterioration were bound to appear . . .The Federation's paper, the Jüdische Rundschau ("Jewish Review"), proclaimed the same message: "Zionism recognizes the existence of a Jewish problem and desires a far-reaching and constructive solution. For this purpose Zionism wishes to obtain the assistance of all peoples, whether pro- or anti-Jewish, because, in its view, we are dealing here with a concrete rather than a sentimental problem, the solution of which all peoples are interested." A young Berlin rabbi, Joachim Prinz, who later settled in the United States and became head of the American Jewish Congress, wrote in his 1934 book, Wir Juden ("We Jews"), that the National Socialist revolution in Germany meant "Jewry for the Jews." He explained: "No subterfuge can save us now. In place of assimilation we desire a new concept: recognition of the Jewish nation and Jewish race."
Active CollaborationOn this basis of their similar ideologies about ethnicity and nationhood, National Socialists and Zionists worked together for what each group believed was in its own national interest. As a result, the Hitler government vigorously supported Zionism and Jewish emigration to Palestine from 1933 until 1940-1941, when the Second World War prevented extensive collaboration.
Even as the Third Reich became more entrenched, many German Jews, probably a majority, continued to regard themselves, often with considerable pride, as Germans first. Few were enthusiastic about pulling up roots to begin a new life in far-away Palestine. Nevertheless, more and more German Jews turned to Zionism during this period. Until late 1938, the Zionist movement flourished in Germany under Hitler. The circulation of the Zionist Federation's bi-weekly Jüdische Rundschau grew enormously. Numerous Zionist books were published. "Zionist work was in full swing" in Germany during those years, the Encyclopaedia Judaica notes. A Zionist convention held in Berlin in 1936 reflected "in its composition the vigorous party life of German Zionists."
The SS was particularly enthusiastic in its support for Zionism. An internal June 1934 SS position paper urged active and wide-ranging support for Zionism by the government and the Party as the best way to encourage emigration of Germany's Jews to Palestine. This would require increased Jewish self-awareness, Jewish schools, Jewish sports leagues, Jewish cultural organizations -- in short, everything that would encourage this new consciousness and self-awareness -- should be promoted, the paper recommended.
SS officer Leopold von Mildenstein and Zionist Federation official Kurt Tuchler toured Palestine together for six months to assess Zionist development there. Based on his firsthand observations, von Mildenstein wrote a series of twelve illustrated articles for the important Berlin daily Der Angriff that appeared in late 1934 under the heading "A Nazi Travels to Palestine." The series expressed great admiration for the pioneering spirit and achievements of the Jewish settlers. Zionist self-development, von Mildenstein wrote, had produced a new kind of Jew. He praised Zionism as a great benefit for both the Jewish people and the entire world. A Jewish homeland in Palestine, he wrote in his concluding article, "pointed the way to curing a centuries-long wound on the body of the world: the Jewish question." Der Angriff issued a special medal, with a Swastika on one side and a Star of David on the other, to commemorate the joint SS-Zionist visit. A few months after the articles appeared, von Mildenstein was promoted to head the Jewish affairs department of the SS security service in order to support Zionist migration and development more effectively.
The official SS newspaper, Das Schwarze Korps, proclaimed its support for Zionism in a May 1935 front-page editorial: "The time may not be too far off when Palestine will again be able to receive its sons who have been lost to it for more than a thousand years. Our good wishes, together with official goodwill, go with them." Four months later, a similar article appeared in the SS paper:
The recognition of Jewry as a racial community based on blood and not on religion leads the German government to guarantee without reservation the racial separateness of this community. The government finds itself in complete agreement with the great spiritual movement within Jewry, the so-called Zionism, with its recognition of the solidarity of Jewry around the world and its rejection of all assimilationist notions. On this basis, Germany undertakes measures that will surely play a significant role in the future in the handling of the Jewish problem around the world.A leading German shipping line began direct passenger liner service from Hamburg to Haifa, Palestine, in October 1933 providing "strictly kosher food on its ships, under the supervision of the Hamburg rabbinate."
With official backing, Zionists worked tirelessly to "reeducate" Germany's Jews. As American historian Francis Nicosia put it in his 1985 survey, The Third Reich and the Palestine Question: "Zionists were encouraged to take their message to the Jewish community, to collect money, to show films on Palestine and generally to educate German Jews about Palestine. There was considerable pressure to teach Jews in Germany to cease identifying themselves as Germans and to awaken a new Jewish national identity in them."
In an interview after the war, the former head of the Zionist Federation of Germany, Dr. Hans Friedenthal, summed up the situation: "The Gestapo did everything in those days to promote emigration, particularly to Palestine. We often received their help when we required anything from other authorities regarding preparations for emigration."
At the September 1935 National Socialist Party Congress, the Reichstag adopted the so-called "Nuremberg laws" that prohibited marriages and sexual relations between Jews and Germans and, in effect, proclaimed the Jews an alien minority nationality. A few days later the Zionist Jüdische Rundschau editorially welcomed the new measures:
Germany . . . is meeting the demands of the World Zionist Congress when it declares the Jews now living in Germany to be a national minority. Once the Jews have been stamped a national minority it is again possible to establish normal relations between the German nation and Jewry. The new laws give the Jewish minority in Germany its own cultural life, its own national life. In future it will be able to shape its own schools, its own theatre, and its own sports associations. In short, it can create its own future in all aspects of national life ...Georg Kareski, the head of both the "Revisionist" Zionist State Organization and the Jewish Cultural League, and former head of the Berlin Jewish Community, declared in an interview with the Berlin daily Der Angriff at the end of 1935:
For many years I have regarded a complete separation of the cultural affairs of the two peoples [Jews and Germans] as a pre-condition for living together without conflict. . . . I have long supported such a separation, provided it is founded on respect for the alien nationality. The Nuremberg Laws . . . seem to me, apart from their legal provisions, to conform entirely with this desire for a separate life based on mutual respect. ... This interruption of the process of dissolution in many Jewish communities, which had been promoted through mixed marriages, is therefore, from a Jewish point of view, entirely welcome.Zionist leaders in other countries echoed these views. Stephen S. Wise, president of the American Jewish Congress and the World Jewish Congress, told a New York rally in June 1938: "I am not an American citizen of the Jewish faith, I am a Jew ... Hitler was right in one thing. He calls the Jewish people a race and we are a race."
The Interior Ministry's Jewish affairs specialist, Dr. Bernhard Lösener, expressed support for Zionism in an article that appeared in a November 1935 issue of the official Reichsverwaltungsblatt:
If the Jews already had their own state in which the majority of them were settled, then the Jewish question could be regarded as completely resolved today, also for the Jews themselves. The least amount of opposition to the ideas underlying the Nuremberg Laws have been shown by the Zionists, because they realize at once that these laws represent the only correct solution for the Jewish people as well. For each nation must have its own state as the outward expression of its particular nationhood.In cooperation with the German authorities, Zionist groups organized a network of some forty camps and agricultural centers throughout Germany where prospective settlers were trained for their new lives in Palestine. Although the Nuremberg Laws forbid Jews from displaying the German flag, Jews were specifically guaranteed the right to display the blue and white Jewish national banner. The flag that would one day be adopted by Israel was flown at the Zionist camps and centers in Hitler's Germany.
Himmler's security service cooperated with the Haganah, the Zionist underground military organization in Palestine. The SS agency paid Haganah official Feivel Polkes for information about the situation in Palestine and for help in directing Jewish emigration to that country. Meanwhile, the Haganah was kept well informed about German plans by a spy it managed to plant in the Berlin headquarters of the SS. Haganah-SS collaboration even included secret deliveries of German weapons to Jewish settlers for use in clashes with Palestinian Arabs.
In the aftermath of the November 1938 "Kristallnacht" outburst of violence and destruction, the SS quickly helped the Zionist organization to get back on its feet and continue its work in Germany, although now under more restricted supervision.
Official ReservationsGerman support for Zionism was not unlimited. Government and Party officials were very mindful of the continuing campaign by powerful Jewish communities in the United States, Britain and other countries to mobilize "their" governments and fellow citizens against Germany. As long as world Jewry remained implacably hostile towards National Socialist Germany, and as long as the great majority of Jews around the world showed little eagerness to resettle in the Zionist "promised land," a sovereign Jewish state in Palestine would not really "solve" the international Jewish question. Instead, German officials reasoned, it would immeasurably strengthen this dangerous anti-German campaign. German backing for Zionism was therefore limited to support for a Jewish homeland in Palestine under British control, not a sovereign Jewish state.
A Jewish state in Palestine, the Foreign Minister informed diplomats in June 1937, would not be in Germany's interest because it would not be able to absorb all Jews around the world, but would only serve as an additional power base for international Jewry, in much the same way as Moscow served as a base for international Communism. Reflecting something of a shift in official policy, the German press expressed much greater sympathy in 1937 for Palestinian Arab resistance to Zionist ambitions, at a time when tension and conflict between Jews and Arabs in Palestine was sharply increasing.
A Foreign Office circular bulletin of June 22, 1937, cautioned that in spite of support for Jewish settlement in Palestine, "it would nevertheless be a mistake to assume that Germany supports the formation of a state structure in Palestine under some form of Jewish control. In view of the anti-German agitation of international Jewry, Germany cannot agree that the formation of a Palestine Jewish state would help the peaceful development of the nations of the world." "The proclamation of a Jewish state or a Jewish-administrated Palestine," warned an internal memorandum by the Jewish affairs section of the SS, "would create for Germany a new enemy, one that would have a deep influence on developments in the Near East." Another SS agency predicted that a Jewish state "would work to bring special minority protection to Jews in every country, therefore giving legal protection to the exploitation activity of world Jewry." In January 1939, Hitler's new Foreign Minister, Joachim von Ribbentrop, likewise warned in another circular bulletin that "Germany must regard the formation of a Jewish state as dangerous" because it "would bring an international increase in power to world Jewry."
Hitler himself personally reviewed this entire issue in early 1938 and, in spite of his long-standing skepticism of Zionist ambitions and misgivings that his policies might contribute to the formation of a Jewish state, decided to support Jewish migration to Palestine even more vigorously. The prospect of ridding Germany of its Jews, he concluded, outweighed the possible dangers.
Meanwhile, the British government imposed ever more drastic restrictions on Jewish immigration into Palestine in 1937, 1938 and 1939. In response, the SS security service concluded a secret alliance with the clandestine Zionist agency Mossad le-Aliya Bet to smuggle Jews illegally into Palestine. As a result of this intensive collaboration, several convoys of ships succeeded in reaching Palestine past British gunboats. Jewish migration, both legal and illegal, from Germany (including Austria) to Palestine increased dramatically in 1938 and 1939. Another 10,000 Jews were scheduled to depart in October 1939, but the outbreak of war in September brought the effort to an end. All the same, German authorities continued to promote indirect Jewish emigration to Palestine during 1940 and 1941. Even as late as March 1942, at least one officially authorized Zionist "kibbutz" training camp for potential emigrants continued to operate in Hitler's Germany.
The Transfer AgreementThe centerpiece of German-Zionist cooperation during the Hitler era was the Transfer Agreement, a pact that enabled tens of thousands of German Jews to migrate to Palestine with their wealth. The Agreement, also known as the Ha'avara (Hebrew for "transfer"), was concluded in August 1933 following talks between German officials and Chaim Arlosoroff, Political Secretary of the Jewish Agency, the Palestine center of the World Zionist Organization.
Through this unusual arrangement, each Jew bound for Palestine deposited money in a special account in Germany. The money was used to purchase German-made agricultural tools, building materials, pumps, fertilizer, and so forth, which were exported to Palestine and sold there by the Jewish-owned Ha'avara company in Tel-Aviv. Money from the sales was given to the Jewish emigrant upon his arrival in Palestine in an amount corresponding to his deposit in Germany. German goods poured into Palestine through the Ha'avara, which was supplemented a short time later with a barter agreement by which Palestine oranges were exchanged for German timber, automobiles, agricultural machinery, and other goods. The Agreement thus served the Zionist aim of bringing Jewish settlers and development capital to Palestine, while simultaneously serving the German goal of freeing the country of an unwanted alien group.
Delegates at the 1933 Zionist Congress in Prague vigorously debated the merits of the Agreement. Some feared that the pact would undermine the international Jewish economic boycott against Germany. But Zionist officials reassured the Congress. Sam Cohen, a key figure behind the Ha'avara arrangement, stressed that the Agreement was not economically advantageous to Germany. Arthur Ruppin, a Zionist Organization emigration specialist who had helped negotiate the pact, pointed out that "the Transfer Agreement in no way interfered with the boycott movement, since no new currency will flow into Germany as a result of the agreement. ...." The 1935 Zionist Congress, meeting in Switzerland, overwhelmingly endorsed the pact. In 1936, the Jewish Agency (the Zionist "shadow government" in Palestine) took over direct control of the Ha'avara, which remained in effect until the Second World War forced its abandonment.
Some German officials opposed the arrangement. Germany's Consul General in Jerusalem, Hans Döhle, for example, sharply criticized the Agreement on several occasions during 1937. He pointed out that it cost Germany the foreign exchange that the products exported to Palestine through the pact would bring if sold elsewhere. The Ha'avara monopoly sale of German goods to Palestine through a Jewish agency naturally angered German businessmen and Arabs there. Official German support for Zionism could lead to a loss of German markets throughout the Arab world. The British government also resented the arrangement. A June 1937 German Foreign Office internal bulletin referred to the "foreign exchange sacrifices" that resulted from the Ha'avara.
A December 1937 internal memorandum by the German Interior Ministry reviewed the impact of the Transfer Agreement: "There is no doubt that the Ha'avara arrangement has contributed most significantly to the very rapid development of Palestine since 1933. The Agreement provided not only the largest source of money (from Germany!), but also the most intelligent group of immigrants, and finally it brought to the country the machines and industrial products essential for development." The main advantage of the pact, the memo reported, was the emigration of large numbers of Jews to Palestine, the most desirable target country as far as Germany was concerned. But the paper also noted the important drawbacks pointed out by Consul Döhle and others. The Interior Minister, it went on, had concluded that the disadvantages of the agreement now outweighed the advantages and that, therefore, it should be terminated.
Only one man could resolve the controversy. Hitler personally reviewed the policy in July and September 1937, and again in January 1938, and each time decided to maintain the Ha'avara arrangement. The goal of removing Jews from Germany, he concluded, justified the drawbacks.
The Reich Economics Ministry helped to organize another transfer company, the International Trade and Investment Agency, or Intria, through which Jews in foreign countries could help German Jews emigrate to Palestine. Almost $900,000 was eventually channeled through the Intria to German Jews in Palestine. Other European countries eager to encourage Jewish emigration concluded agreements with the Zionists modeled after the Ha'avara. In 1937 Poland authorized the Halifin (Hebrew for "exchange") transfer company. By late summer 1939, Czechoslovakia, Romania, Hungary and Italy had signed similar arrangements. The outbreak of war in September 1939, however, prevented large-scale implementation of these agreements.
Achievements of Ha'avaraBetween 1933 and 1941, some 60,000 German Jews emigrated to Palestine through the Ha'avara and other German-Zionist arrangements, or about ten percent of Germany's 1933 Jewish population. (These German Jews made up about 15 percent of Palestine's 1939 Jewish population.) Some Ha'avara emigrants transferred considerable personal wealth from Germany to Palestine. As Jewish historian Edwin Black has noted: "Many of these people, especially in the late 1930s, were allowed to transfer actual replicas of their homes and factories -- indeed rough replicas of their very existence."
The total amount transferred from Germany to Palestine through the Ha'avara between August 1933 and the end of 1939 was 8.1 million pounds or 139.57 million German marks (then equivalent to more than $40 million). This amount included 33.9 million German marks ($13.8 million) provided by the Reichsbank in connection with the Agreement.
Historian Black has estimated that an additional $70 million may have flowed into Palestine through corollary German commercial agreements and special international banking transactions. The German funds had a major impact on a country as underdeveloped as Palestine was in the 1930s, he pointed out. Several major industrial enterprises were built with the capital from Germany, including the Mekoroth waterworks and the Lodzia textile firm. The influx of Ha'avara goods and capital, concluded Black, "produced an economic explosion in Jewish Palestine" and was "an indispensable factor in the creation of the State of Israel."
The Ha'avara agreement greatly contributed to Jewish development in Palestine and thus, indirectly, to the foundation of the Israeli state. A January 1939 German Foreign Office circular bulletin reported, with some misgiving, that "the transfer of Jewish property out of Germany [through the Ha'avara agreement] contributed to no small extent to the building of a Jewish state in Palestine."
Former officials of the Ha'avara company in Palestine confirmed this view in a detailed study of the Transfer Agreement published in 1972: "The economic activity made possible by the influx German capital and the Haavara transfers to the private and public sectors were of greatest importance for the country's development. Many new industries and commercial enterprises were established in Jewish Palestine, and numerous companies that are enormously important even today in the economy of the State of Israel owe their existence to the Haavara." Dr. Ludwig Pinner, a Ha'avara company official in Tel Aviv during the 1930s, later commented that the exceptionally competent Ha'avara immigrants "decisively contributed" to the economic, social, cultural and educational development of Palestine's Jewish community.
The Transfer Agreement was the most far-reaching example of cooperation between Hitler's Germany and international Zionism. Through this pact, Hitler's Third Reich did more than any other government during the 1930s to support Jewish development in Palestine.
Zionists Offer a Military Alliance With HitlerIn early January 1941 a small but important Zionist organization submitted a formal proposal to German diplomats in Beirut for a military-political alliance with wartime Germany. The offer was made by the radical underground "Fighters for the Freedom of Israel," better known as the Lehi or Stern Gang. Its leader, Avraham Stern, had recently broken with the radical nationalist "National Military Organization" (Irgun Zvai Leumi) over the group's attitude toward Britain, which had effectively banned further Jewish settlement of Palestine. Stern regarded Britain as the main enemy of Zionism.
This remarkable Zionist proposal "for the solution of the Jewish question in Europe and the active participation of the NMO [Lehi] in the war on the side of Germany" is worth quoting at some length:
In their speeches and statements, the leading statesmen of National Socialist Germany have often emphasized that a New Order in Europe requires as a prerequisite a radical solution of the Jewish question by evacuation. ("Jew-free Europe").There is no record of any German response. Acceptance was very unlikely anyway because by this time German policy was decisively pro-Arab. Remarkably, Stern's group sought to conclude a pact with the Third Reich at a time when stories that Hitler was bent on exterminating Jews were already in wide circulation. Stern apparently either did not believe the stories or he was willing to collaborate with the mortal enemy of his people to help bring about a Jewish state.
An important Lehi member at the time the group made this offer was Yitzhak Shamir, who later served as Israel's Foreign Minister and then, during much of the 1980s and until June 1992, as Prime Minister. As Lehi operations chief following Stern's death in 1942, Shamir organized numerous acts of terror, including the November 1944 assassination of British Middle East Minister Lord Moyne and the September 1948 slaying of Swedish United Nations mediator Count Bernadotte. Years later, when Shamir was asked about the 1941 offer, he confirmed that he was aware of his organization's proposed alliance with wartime Germany.
ConclusionIn spite of the basic hostility between the Hitler regime and international Jewry, for several years Jewish Zionist and German National Socialist interests coincided. In collaborating with the Zionists for a mutually desirable and humane solution to a complex problem, the Third Reich was willing to make foreign exchange sacrifices, impair relations with Britain and anger the Arabs. Indeed, during the 1930s no nation did more to substantively further Jewish-Zionist goals than Hitler's Germany.
Journal of Historical Review 13/4, (May-June 1993), 29ff. Mark Weber's footnotes have been removed from the text that appears above. The complete article is available on the IHR website. For further discussion of this subject, see Ingrid Weckert's (off-site) study of Jewish emigration from the Third Reich, available at CODOH.