The Holocaust Historiography Project

Book review

The Third Reich and the Palestine Question

  • THE THIRD REICH AND THE PALESTINE QUESTION by Francis R. Nicosia. Austin: The University of Texas Press, 1985, Hardbound xiv+ 319 pages, $35.00, ISBN 0-292-72731-3.

Reviewed by John M. Ries

Although Zionists today are loath to admit it publicly, the fact remains that the Zionist movement, during the period leading up to the Second World War, worked closely with the National Socialist government in Germany to solve the so-called Jewish question. Needless to say, professional historians have largely neglected this surprising cooperation. Two works by Jewish journalists, Lenni Brenner’s Zionism in the Age of the Dictators and Edwin Black’s The Transit Agreement, have dealt with the aspects of it, but their books must now be regarded as superseded by Francis R. Nicosia’s The Third Reich and the Palestine Question, the first (and probably definitive) study of National Socialist Germany’s Palestine policy in the 1930's.

On August 25, 1933, the Ministry of Economics issued a circular to all German currency control offices informing them of the recently concluded agreement with the Jewish Agency for Palestine. Known as the Haavara, or Transfer Agreement, it tied the emigration of Jews to Palestine to the sale of the German goods. By permitting each Jew who indicated a willingness to emigrate to Palestine the opportunity to take along a fixed portion of assets in the form of German goods, Germany’s tight currency restrictions were circumvented, while the depressed export economy of the Reich received a much needed stimulus. Above all, the arrangement greatly promoted the removal of Jews from Germany, a principal domestic goal of the Hitler regime.

Nicosia also feels that there is reason to believe that the Jewish anti-German boycott, begun shortly after Hitler came to power in January 1933, may have been neutralized as a result of Haavara. In any event, even though Germany became the number-one exporter of goods to Palestine by 1937 due to the Haavara Agreement, its significance did not reside in its economic benefits, but in the fact that it created a consensus in the German government for Palestine as the principal destination for German Jews. This lasted until the effects of the Arab revolt beginning in 1936 and the Peel Partition Plan the following year forced a reconsideration. Thereafter, the consensus was altered, but the policy of promoting Jewish emigration remained the same.

The German Zionist Organization was employed by the government to “re-educate” the largely liberal assimilationist German Jewish community on the desirability of the Palestine option. The SS oversaw the establishment of occupational retraining centers run by the Hechalutz, the principal Zionist youth organization, to teach young Jews the necessary skills in demand in Palestine. Located throughout Germany, the centers also provided training for Jews who planned to emigrate to other countries. The British Embassy in Berlin issued its stamp of approval in a memorandum of April 3, 1936, pointing out that they “enabled the Jewish Agency to select suitable candidates for admission to Palestine, better prepared for absorption into the economy of the country.”

The German government accorded preferential treatment to Zionist organizations at the expense of liberal/assimilationist ones. For example, in February 1935, Heydrich ordered the prohibition of speeches and activities that counseled Jews to remain in Germany. The SD (Sicherheitsdienst) attended Jewish meetings, censoring speakers who advocated the continuation of a Jewish presence in Germany while encouraging propaganda activities on the part of Zionists. By May 1935, “a general ban on all meetings and speeches of Jewish organizations in Germany was issued by the Gestapo … although local Jewish cultural and sports activities, as well as the activities of Zionist organizations, were exempt.” Nicosia’s statement that “this was in keeping with the Nurnberg laws of September 1935, according to which all German Jews were formally placed beyond the pale of German citizenship” is in error, since the Nurnberg laws had not yet been enacted. Nevertheless, it is important to note that when they were passed on September 15,1935, they were welcomed by Zionist groups which considered them important in breaking down the resistance of the majority of German Jews, who still regarded the Hitler regime as a temporary phenomenon. The net effect of this German-Zionist connection was to make Zionism the principal movement among Jewish youth in Germany in the 1930s, relegating support for liberal assimilationism to the older generation.

An important aspect of German Palestine policy was the relationship of Germany to Palestine’s Arab population. From 1933 on, the Arabs of the Middle East sought German help against the influx of Jews into Palestine, feeling that the anti-Jewish policies of the Hitler regime could be employed in behalf of the Arab cause for independence from the British Mandate. However, this was not to be the case. German policy in the 1930’s was based on the acceptance of two things: Zionism and British imperialism. Any official encouragement of Arab nationalism would have upset the status quo in the region, a state of affairs totally unacceptable to Germany. As a result, aside from a few insignificant shipments of arms to Arab insurgents in the late 1930s, along with a brief dalliance on the part of German Intelligence at the same time (probably without the approval of Hitler), nothing substantial was done to change this policy of willful neglect.

As mentioned earlier, the outbreak of an Arab revolt in 1936 forced a reconsideration of Germangs Palestine policy and prompted the first genuine debate over the primacy of Palestine as the destination for German Jews. The Peel Partition Plan, an unsuccessful attempt to divide the country into Jewish and Arab sectors, conjured up the specter of a Jewish state, a state which was opposed by all German government and party figures. Nicosia points out that it was not simply for ideological reasons that National Socialism opposed the Jewish state (a section of the book is devoted to just such a discussion). Rather it was the fact that “the anti-Semitic policies of the Hitler regime would make a Jewish state a natural enemy of the Reich and a dangerous addition to the growing coalition of nations hostile to the new Germany.” However, as the chances for such an occurrence began to diminish, Hitler reaffirmed his support for Palestine as the Zielland for German Jews, although efforts were made to explore alternatives, such as Madagascar (Poland had already made repeated overtures to the French for its use as a site for the large Polish Jewish population). This change was prompted by the realization that Palestine had a limited capacity to absorb the growing number of Jewish immigrants, as the resistance of the Arab population and the resultant tighter restrictions placed on Jewish immigration by British authorities made increasingly clear.

Nicosia claims that by late 1937 Hitler began to “prepare for war” as the chances for British cooperation with his proposed changes in the European territorial arrangement seemed more and more remote. This thesis has been challenged by Revisionists, if for no other reason than the meeting held between Hitler and British foreign secretary Halifax at Berchtegaden in November 1937, at which Halifax agreed in principal to all of Hitler’s territorial demands. In any event, a transfer of authority over Jewish policy in Germany took place at this time, with the SS given complete control over all its aspects. The mechanism for voluntary emigration established by the Ha'avara Agreement earlier became obsolete with the confiscation of Jewish capital from 1938 on. Henceforth, the legal niceties of the Reich’s previous Jewish emigration policy were overlooked as the SS began to cooperate with the Zionist Mossad le Aliyah Bet (Committee for Illegal Immigration) with the full knowledge of both British and U.S. authorities. This policy of “compulsion” was to continue until the “Final Solution,” the nature of which Nicosia is careful to avoid specifying.

Aside from a couple of minor discrepancies which in no way detract from the credibility of this book, e.g. January 27 instead of January 26, 1932, as the date given for Hitler’s Düsseldorf Industry Club Speech, the main thesis of The Third Reich and the Palestine Question is quite convincing. Perhaps Nicosia’s rather strong reliance on Hitler’s musings in Mein Kampf as a blueprint for his later foreign policy initiatives should be challenged, as they indeed have by various Revisionists, but that is more properly the subject of another study. What is important is the author’s recognition that Hitler had no desire to go to war against England or to challenge the integrity of the British Empire. The German acceptance of the status quo in the Middle East is further confirmation of this fact.