Did Nazis and Zionists Temporarily Join Forces?
Ed. note: Because the article covers a controversial topic, and a rightfully emotional subject, many readers have been asking for our editorial sources. While we've double-checked many of the facts in multiple places, the primary sources for the text are listed below the body copy.Â
By Erik Sass
Cue The Odd Couple theme song. During the 1930s, Nazis and Zionists joined together with a common goal—getting the Jews out of Europe.
The Nazi agenda always included ridding Germany of its Jews, but it didn't always include mass murder. Prior to 1939, before the outbreak of World War II, the plan was to get Germany's 500,000 Jews to leave voluntarily.
This task fell primarily to Heinrich Himmler, the head of the Schutzstaffel (SS), Hitler's security guard. Initially opposed to the idea of mass murder, Himmler once described genocide as "un-Germanic and impossible." In search of an alternative, Himmler and his colleagues brainstormed locations to send the Jews. But due to widespread anti-Semitism at the time, welcoming nations were in short supply.
In 1936, Himmler received counsel from Edler von Mildenstein, a well-educated member of Germany's covert intelligence service. A Nazi who rejected anti-Semitism, von Mildenstein had connections in the Zionist movement, which encouraged Jews worldwide to "return" to Palestine—then a de facto British colony. Von Mildenstein believed Zionism offered a perfect solution to Germany's "Jewish Question."
On the surface, the Zionists and Nazis couldn't have been more at odds. Zionism was an attempt to rescue Jews from a long history of European persecution, while the Nazi movement represented its most barbaric manifestation. Yet, they shared some surprising common ground. Extremists in both groups believed Jews were a separate race that shouldn't mix blood with non-Jews. In other words, they believed Jews would be better off living separately, without the temptation of intermarriage. Also, they both loathed the British. During World War I, Great Britain defeated Germany and took control of Palestine—and then blocked Jewish immigration there.
But the real trick wasn't overcoming British resistance, it was convincing German Jews to go to Palestine in the first place. Even in the face of unrelenting persecution, most Jews were hesitant to flee Germany for Palestine. So, the Nazi party teamed up with the Zionists to launch a coordinated propaganda campaign. Zionists from Palestine came to Germany to teach Hebrew and display the blue-and-white Zionist flag. And an editorial in the Schwarze Korps, the official newspaper of the SS, proudly proclaimed, "Before long, Palestine will again be able to accept its sons who have been lost for over 1,000 years. Our good wishes and official goodwill go with them."
By 1937, only about 24,000 German Jews had left for Palestine, prompting the Nazis to double their efforts. To help coordinate the Nazi-Zionist project, von Mildenstein recruited 30-year-old Adolf Eichmann, who'd been spinning his wheels in the SS.
Eichmann wasn't the sharpest tack in the Nazi drawer, but he was a hard worker who knew how to get people's attention. He reached out to the top leadership of the Hagana, the real power behind the Zionist movement. Founded by the first Zionist settlers in 1920, the Hagana smuggled Jews past British patrols and actively (sometimes violently) sought to protect Jewish interests.
In February 1937, Eichmann arranged a meeting in Berlin with Feivel Polkes, a high-level Hagana commander. In exchange for encouraging Jews to leave Germany, Polkes asked the Nazis to relocate Jews to Palestine. Eichmann agreed. During this period, the harsh truth is that both sides felt increased persecution of the Jews would benefit their causes. During a second meeting later that year in Cairo, Polkes confirmed that the Hagana leaders were pleased with Nazi policies because more Jews were coming to Palestine. By 1939, another 36,000 Jews had moved there from Germany.
Friends Become Enemies
Of course, the strange partnership was doomed from the beginning. Hitler's invasion of Poland in September 1939 launched World War II and, as fighting spread throughout Europe, Jewish emigration became impossible.
Meanwhile, the Nazis explored other ways to rid themselves of the Jews. With Eichmann in charge, they began herding the Jewish population into ghettos to await the death camps. Serving as the head of transportation during the war, Eichmann played a key role in finding and deporting Jewish communities from all across Europe.
After World War II, the U.S. military captured Eichmann, but he managed to elude authorities long enough to escape in 1946 and flee to Argentina. In 1960, however, the Israeli secret service (composed of former Hagana members) captured Eichmann and smuggled him back to Israel. There, he was put on trial and found guilty of crimes against humanity. On May 31, 1962, Eichmann was hanged in Israel—the country he helped create for all the wrong reasons.
Hohne, Heinz. The Order of the Death's Head. The Story of Hitler's SS. Penguin, 1966, reprint 2000: pgs. 324-352 (chapter 13)
>> (In his book, Hohne cites the following microfilm copies of Nazi correspondence, including letters and reports by Eichmann and his colleague Herbert Hagen to their superiors in 1937, which can also be found at the National Archives in Washington, D.C.: "Records of the Reich Leader of the SS and Chief of the German Police [RFSS]. Microfilm Publication T-175. 678 rolls.")
State of Israel Ministry of Justice. The Trial of Adolf Eichmann: Record of Proceedings in the District Court of Jerusalem. Jerusalem: Trust for the Publication of the Proceedings of the Eichmann Trial, in cooperation with the Israel State Archives and Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Martyrs' and Heroes' Remembrance Authority, 1992-1995.
>> (Hannah Arendt also recounts Eichmann's testimony in Jerusalem, in her book Eichmann in Jerusalem. At his trial, Eichmann recounted the meetings with Polkes and his journey to Palestine and Egypt in 1937. The judges believed him but said it was an "espionage" mission.)
Eichmann Interrogated: Jochen von Lang, Farrar Straus Giroux, 1983. Contains the full transcript of his interrogation by the Israeli police, which lasted 275 hours. Eichmann was interrogated by Captain Avner W. Less, a German Jew who had survived the Holocaust.
Relevant parts of these are available online via Google Books:
Cesarani, David. Becoming Eichmann: Rethinking the Life, Crimes, and Trial of a Desk Murderer. Da Capo Press, 2006: pgs. 7-10.
Lozowick, Yaacov. Hitler's Bureaucrats: The Nazi Security Police and the Banality of Evil. Translated by Haim Watzman. Continuum International Publishing Group, 2003: pgs. 26-27.
Nicosia, Francis R. The Third Reich & the Palestine Question. Transaction Publishers, 2000: pgs. 62-64.