Zionism and the Third Reich by Mark Weber

Excerpts from Zionism and the Third Reich by Mark Weber

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.”/1 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 Reich.

Common Aims

Over 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. /2 Zionism, wrote Herzl, offered the world a welcome “final solution of the Jewish question.”/3

Active Collaboration

On 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.”/7

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. /8

The Transfer Agreement

The 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 Haavara (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. /32

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.”/43

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.”/44 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. /45

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.

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