The Third Reich and Palestine

Martin Kramer, “The Third Reich and Palestine,” Middle Eastern Studies, October 1989, pp. 563-65. The article is a review of Francis R. Nicosia, The Third Reich and the Palestine Question, published by the University of Texas Press.

Well before Hitler’s ascent to power, he assigned the three peoples in the Palestine triangle to their respective racial categories. The English properly belonged to the master race, and throughout most of the 1930s Hitler pursued a policy that respected the imperial prerogatives of Britain, abjuring Weltpolitik for Kontinentalpolitik. The Jews were consigned to the ultimate subhuman standing, destined first for expulsion and later for physical extermination. The Arabs were deemed racially inferior, incapable and unworthy of independence, destined to be dominated by others. Francis Nicosia’s book is concerned with German decision-making toward Zionism and Palestine during the 1930s, a question of policy complicated by the uneasy interaction of racism and raison d’état.

For Nazi Germany, the issue of Palestine did not begin as one of foreign policy. Hitler immediately designated the excision of German Jewry from the fabric of German society as a foundation of domestic policy, and German authorities did everything in their power to encourage the emigration of German Jews. The Nazi regime first pursued the idea of concentrating German Jews in remote ‘reservations’ such as Madagascar or Guyana, but such plans encountered serious obstacles. Policy circles also agreed that the dispersal of Germany’s Jews throughout the world would create a powerful economic class hostile to Germany everywhere. Various departments of the German government debated among themselves whether a German Jewish influx to Palestine would or would not pose an even greater threat to Germany, since it was assumed that a future Jewish state in Palestine would constitute the center of the ‘international Jewish conspiracy’.

But the immediate aim of ridding Germany of its Jews as fast as possible produced a certain preference for Palestine, since the Zionist movement had already put the emigration of German Jews on a well-organized footing. The resulting coincidence of interests between Nazi Germany and the Zionist movement was institutionalized in the so-called Transfer Agreement of 1933, by which German Jews emigrating to Palestine were allowed to take some of their assets in the form of German goods, a measure that modestly contributed to German export trade, assisted the progress of the Zionist enterprise, and worked against the efforts of non-Zionist Jews to effect a boycott of German goods.

Nicosia therefore has much to offer to the debate over the Transfer Agreement—a debate which stirred again following publication several years ago of two books on the subject by journalists Lenni Brenner and Edwin Black. Brenner and Black argued, each in his own way, that the Transfer Agreement represented a grave moral compromise (and one that Zionism, by sharing the Nazi view of the Jews as inassimilable, accommodated too readily), and that the agreement foiled a chance to undermine Nazi Germany through a worldwide economic boycott.

Nicosia undermines both propositions. From the German sources, the Transfer Agreement emerges as an arrangement born of the deepest mutual enmity, in order to speed the total disengagement of Germans and Jews. Nicosia’s evidence also suggests that the economic significance of the Transfer Agreement was marginal both for Germany and Palestine, and that the boycott collapsed under the weight of economics, not the alleged effect of the Transfer agreement. Even if the Zionists had backed the boycott to the hilt, Nicosia does not see how it could have halted the march of Nazi Germany or altered the course of its Jewish policy.

To decide and to decide under duress are different processes, and much of the inquest into Zionist decision-making has been fundamentally ahistorical, for it rests upon the backward projection of the great momentum Zionism achieved after the war. Zionism would later muster the means to save itself, but in Nicosia’s reading, no decision then within Zionism’s power could have saved Europe’s Jews. Nicosia’s book shifts the debate to the more interesting ground of German decision-making, where the alternatives were real ones.

The book is more than a contribution to the study of German foreign policy; it is a valuable case-study in Jewish policy. The great majority of Israel’s immigrants came from countries governed by regimes hostile to their Jewish populations and the idea of Israel, yet they assisted Zionists in organizing the Jews’ departure. Other partial or complete deals for the organized ‘transfer’ of Jews would later be sealed by Israel with the governments of Iraq, Yemen, the Soviet Union and Ethiopia. And since we are not likely to have a comparable study drawn from the Iraqi, Soviet or Ethiopian archives, this book will long stand alone as a documented account of what happens when anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism pull a government in opposite directions.

As Nicosia demonstrates, German policy toward the Arab nationalist movement rested upon a fundamental respect for Britain’s imperial position in the Middle East and a loathing for the Arabs grounded in their supposed racial inferiority. As long as Hitler hoped to avoid war with Britain, Nazi Germany did nothing to encourage Arab nationalist insurgency against the Palestine Mandate, despite numerous Palestinian Arab overtures to German officials.

The Arabs themselves, these officials pointed out time and again, had no understanding of the comprehensive nature of Nazi ideology, appreciating only its anti-Jewish substance. Most Arabs failed to understand that Hitler’s anti-Semitism rested not upon traditional religious and social prejudice—which was widespread among the Arabs themselves—but upon an obsession with racial purity. Arab observers usually missed Nazism’s special regard for empire and their own subordinate place in the Nazi racial scheme. (In a recent article, Stefan Wild shows how Hitler deigned to perpetuate Arab ignorance by permitting the deletion of passages ‘offending the mentality and sensitivity of race-conscious Arabs’ from a projected Arabic translation of Mein Kampf.)

Indeed, so taken were many Palestinian Arabs with the anti-Jewish message of Nazi ideology that they failed to link the worsening of their own predicament with Nazism’s rise. In the vulgar wording of the German Consul in Jerusalem, the Arabs were ‘too primitive politically to fully appreciate the fact that Germany and German Jewish policy were greatly intensifying their problem’. That there were Palestinian Arabs who professed admiration for a doctrine that held them in such utter contempt must be counted as the other great irony of Nazi Germany’s growing impact on Palestine in the 1930s.

Nicosia ends his account with the approach of war. The formulation of the ‘final solution’ and the arrival of the Mufti of Jerusalem in Berlin, both events of 1941, would have seemed improbable to anyone who had followed German policy toward Palestine in the 1930s. That policy had promoted Jewish emigration and rejected Arab pleas for support. But war completely disinhibited Nazi Germany. It made the annihilation of the Jews not only thinkable but feasible, and created an obvious German interest in stirring resistance to Britain among the Arabs.

Still, there were no fundamental discontinuities between the policies of emigration and extermination of the Jews, or between neglect and manipulation of the Arabs. The Jews were driven out or exterminated in the pathological pursuit of racial purity; the Arabs were simple instruments, used or ignored depending upon whichever approach best served to neutralize Britain. The ultimate effect of Nicosia’s work is to demonstrate how an ideological foreign policy remains consistent even as its methods are transformed by exigencies of the moment.

The tight structure of this book, the lucid narrative, and the exhaustive use of the relevant sources (including the principal archives and many interviews), all lend this book a definitive character. A few lesser themes do deserve further elaboration, and there is undoubtedly room for a study from the Arab perspective.

And, given the preoccupation of present scholarship with the past politics of scholarship, an account of the contribution made by German Orientalists to the policy debate would be timely. The careful reader will note the cameo appearance of Carl Heinrich Becker as an honorary member of the pro-Zionist ‘Pro-Palästina Komitee’ in 1929. At the time, Becker was Minister of Culture, and once had been Germany’s most prominent Orientalist, although he had left scholarship for liberal politics. Nicosia lists him with other committee members, but it would be interesting to learn how Becker reconciled his vision of Arab civilization with the Zionism advocated by the ‘Pro-Palästina Komitee’. Nicosia does not mention Georg Kampffmeyer, another German Orientalist and Becker’s bitter opponent over the reform of the Seminar für Orientalische Sprachen in Berlin. In 1934, Kampffmeyer visited Palestine and published an account in the journal of the Seminar (his ‘Bericht über meinen Studienaufenthalt in Palästina April-September 1934’). Here many of the assumptions of German policy are systematically ‘academized’.

The subversion of German Orientalism by the state after 1933 makes the commonplace accusations against British and French Orientalism seem trivial. Those forgotten ‘scientific’ works that traced the Führerprinzip in the life of the Prophet and the history of the Arabs are reminders of a time when the militant right led the revolt against the liberal spirit of Orientalism. Fortunately, Orientalism prevailed.