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Francis R. Nicosia. The Third Reich and the Palestine Question. Austin: Texas University Press, 1985. xiv, 319 pages.
The relationship between Nazi Germany and the Palestine Question of the 1930s is widely misunderstood. Except for a few scholars here and there, this subject lends itself to a pervasive kind of misconception: we tend to read the Nazi policies of World War II back into the 1930s. The Nazis' "Final Solution of the Jewish Question," their pro-Arab attitudes, and their battle against Great Britain makes it difficult for most of us to imagine that before the war the Nazis, even the SS, aided the illegal immigration of Jews into Palestine, and that Hitler so feared British displeasure that he absolutely prohibited German support for the Arabs of the Palestine mandate. Yet this is exactly what Francis R. Nicosia has described and proved in his excellent scholarly study.
Nicosia clearly shows in his impressive introductory chapter that Germany's policy on Palestine remained unchanged from the late Empire through the Weimar Republic. German policy makers supported Zionist efforts because they recognized that Zionism could be an effective instrument of German foreign policy. During the 1930s, the Nazis continued this traditional policy because they wanted to use Zionism and please the British.
Nicosia wants "to provide a comprehensive analysis of National Socialist attitudes towards Zionism from the early years of the movement to World War II (p. 17). To do so, Nicosia had to examine the formative years of the Nazi movement, where ideological hostility toward the creation of a Jewish state (derived from the conspiratorial vision of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion) clashed with the ideological commitment to promote Jewish emigration for the creation of a judenreines Germany. This conflict between different aspects of the same Nazi ideology existed for about two decades, from the founding of the movement in the early 1920s until the beginning of World War II.
In the summer of 1933, soon after assuming power, Hitler's government signed the Haavara Transfer Agreement with Zionist representatives. It reflected Germany's battle against unemployment and depressed agricultural prices as well as the Nazi party's goal of forcing the Jews to leave the country. The agreement made possible the emigration of large numbers of Jews, and it also opened Palestine and the Middle East to German exports. Large-scale immigration of Jews to Palestine and the development of the country by the Zionists made this British mandate a likely candidate for German industrial goods; at the same time the agreement would undermine the worldwide boycott against German goods.
I found Nicosia's discussion of the intra-Jewish divisions of particular interest. The non-Zionists opposed the Haavara Agreement because they hoped that the boycott would pressure the Nazis to restore Jewish rights. In contrast, "most Zionists worked from the premise that the Jewish position in Germany was irrevocably lost and that emigration to Palestine was their only option" (p. 41). But the Zionist position was not unanimous; there were also Zionists who opposed any form of cooperation with Germany because they wanted to force her to change her anti-Jewish policies.
This schism between Zionists and non-Zionists and within the Zionists ranks resembles the clash of views that took place in 1937 after the Peel Commission to Palestine recommended the partition of the Mandate into a large Arab and a tiny Jewish state. The nonZionists as a body came out against the State. The Zionists split over this issue: one group refused the proposed state because it was too small; another was ready to accept any state, regardless of size, because any state was better than no state. This pragmatic group in the end convinced all others when it accepted the idea of partition but not the recommended boundaries.1 This pragmatic group of Zionists had also wanted to save as many German Jews as possible and had thus been willing to sign the Haavara Agreement even if they had to deal with the devil to gain this goal.
As a result of the Haavara Agreement, German exports to Palestine increased so rapidly that by 1937 Germany had moved into first position among countries exporting to Palestine, exceeding even Great Britain, the mandatory power. The exported goods included cement, steel girders, iron plates, aluminum, brass products, watches, photographic equipment, agricultural machinery, carbonic acid, leather, and roofing felt (see Appendix 5, pp. 208-9). Great Britain was obviously not too pleased with Germany's economic activities in Palestine. My own research, corroborated by Nicosia's findings, has shown that Great Britain actually pressured certain Palestinian Jews to cancel their orders of large German machines and to reorder them from the United Kingdom.2
Until the Peel Partition Plan of 1937 forced Germany to reexamine its policy on Palestine, the Haavara Agreement did, for a while, meet both the goals of the Nazi regime and the goals of the Zionists. This becomes clear as Nicosia explores the impact on the Palestine issue of intra-German governmental and party considerations; he also investigates the roles English and Arab nationalism played in German policy calculations.
Nicosia examines the role of the SS, and it is noteworthy that there was some cooperation between the SS and the Revisionist Zionists in the period 1933-1937. There is of course some logic to this, since the SS recognized that the Revisionists were vigorously pursuing Jewish emigration from Germany to Palestine. This too was the rationale behind the German government's support of the Zionists' agricultural retraining program; incidentally, Nicosia thoughtfully provides a map showing the distribution of the retraining centers (Appendix 11, p. 217). In retrospect, it is difficult for us to imagine that the Nazis encouraged Zionists from Palestine to enter Germany, teach Hebrew, educate German Jews about Palestine, and even display the blue and white Jewish national flag; the Revisionist Zionists even wore uniforms. Clearly this was all done for the promotion of purely German domestic and economic ends, with no concern for the Palestine situation itself.
Hitler's attitude toward the British Empire was a crucial factor determining his approach to the Palestine question. "Hitler's Englandpolitik during the 1930s was the single most important factor that influenced the attitudes and policy of his regime toward the Arab world in general and Arab aspirations in Palestine in particular" (p. 83). To support the Arab cause in Palestine would have alienated Great Britain, which saw Palestine as strategically important at a time when Hitler was trying to obtain an Anglo-German alliance. It also would have violated racial ideology by supporting an inferior race (the Arabs) against a superior race (the British).
Most Arabs never realized that the Nazis viewed them as racially inferior and that Germany was directly responsible for the increase in Jewish immigration during the 1930s. It was the Arabs, especially Palestinian Arab leaders like Haj Amin al-Husayni, the Mufti of Jerusalem, who openly made their pro-German feelings known. But Nicosia's analysis of the scholarly biographies of the Mufti shows that these biographies cannot be relied on for an accurate account of Nazi Germany's involvement in Palestine (p. 250, n. 3). Like others, I had relied on these biographies; now I must, however, agree with Nicosia's conclusion that Germany was not involved in the ArabJewish conflict in Palestine of 1936-1937.
However, I find it hard to believe, despite Nicosia's scholarly presentation, that the German Christian communities, the Palastinadeutsche, especially the Templars, were not more actively involved in propaganda, spying, and subversion. Maybe logic dictated that Nazi Germany stay out of internal Palestinian affairs in order to ensure the survival of the German communities there, a survival that depended on the protection of the British authorities. But the emotional lure of a dynamic new German Reich may well have overruled such logic for many younger German Christians.
The recommendations of the Peel Commission in 1937 set off a major policy debate in Berlin, and could have led to a reevaluation of the Haavara Agreement as well as of the policy vis-a-vis the Arabs. However, after carefully concluding that Hitler's role in the debate is difficult to assess, Nicosia states that "the available evidence indicates that Hitler opted for continued Jewish emigration from Germany to Palestine, in spite of the partition plan and the possible creation of an independent Jewish state" (p. 140). Why Hitler intervened is still an open question. Perhaps the explanation can be found in his overall foreign policy initiatives and his plans for war. His continued support of German Jewish emigration to Palestine was part of his broader efforts to complete the new racial order in Germany before the planned war for Lebensraum. One change that did take place was the assumption of control over Jewish emigration by the SS, who were responsible only to Hitler and possibly also to Goring. The SS had consistently favored Jewish emigration to Palestine and continued to do so until 1941 when the new policy of the Final Solution prevailed.3 The SS even cooperated with the Committee for Illegal Immigration, the Mossad le-Aliyah Bet, to smuggle German Jews into Palestine, despite British limitations on legal immigration.
As German expansion increased the European dimensions of the so-called Jewish problem, and as the realization grew that the millions of Jews living in Germany's new Lebensraum in the East might never fit into tiny Palestine, the idea of dumping millions of Jews on the island of Madagascar gained popularity among certain circles of German policy makers.3 Of course Germany would retain control over this huge "reservation"; however, this chimeric project was abandoned as Germany attacked the Soviet Union and launched the Final Solution.
Francis R. Nicosia's volume is a pleasure to read; he does everything that scholars are taught to do when writing scholarly monographs, but which few do in such an easy and fluid style. Using all pertinent secondary works, Nicosia based his study on a thorough exploration of German, British, American, Jewish, and Israeli archival sources; only Arabic documentation, should it exist and be accessible (something Nicosia does not tell us), is missing.
The structure of Nicosia's study is logical, arguments and conclusions are forcefully presented, and the progression from chapter to chapter is coherent. The concluding chapter provides an excellent summation, and the concluding paragraph, which recapitulates Nicosia's thesis, deserves to be cited:
Germany's Palestine policy between 1933 and 1940 was based on a fundamental acceptance of the post-World War I status quo in the Middle East. For different reasons, the Hitler regime continued in the footsteps of the various Weimar governments by identifying German interests with the postwar settlement in Palestine. That settlement embodied a growing Jewish presence and homeland in Palestine, as well as the establishment of British imperial power over Palestine and the Middle East. It also represented a denial of Arab claims to national self-determination and independence in Palestine and throughout the Middle East. Between 1933 and 1940, German policy encouraged and actively promoted Jewish emigration to Palestine, recognized and respected Britain's imperial interests throughout the Middle East and remained largely indifferent to the ideals and aims of Arab nationalism. (p. 201)
2. The most outstanding example was Pinchas Rutenberg, who had contracted to buy German diesel engines for his Jordan River development project; British Government pressure forced him to "buy British" instead. London, Public Records office, Colonial office Papers 733/33: Minutes, 99 Feb. 1922, and Churchill to Military Secretary, 21 Mar. 1999.