Friday, 29 April 2016

Was Hitler a Zionist?

Yesterday, British politics was plunged into an improbable, yet nonetheless frenzied discussion of Adolf Hitler and Zionism.  Despite the multifarious threats of ISIS, the Migration Crisis, the EU's slow-motion car crash and the faltering world economy - journalists were quoting Mein Kampf and dissecting the finer points of Hitler's policies towards the Jews.

The reason for this rather preposterous state of affairs was the veteran left-wing politician, Ken Livingstone, who - on riding to the support of a Labour MP, Naz Shah, who was exposed as having made anti-Semitic remarks - successfully poured fuel on the flames.  Apropos of not very much, he said in a radio interview:

"Let’s remember when Hitler won his election in 1932, his policy then was that Jews should be moved to Israel. He was supporting Zionism – this before he went mad and ended up killing six million Jews."

Now, given the obvious historical ignorance on show in that sentence - Hitler didn't "win" an election, he was appointed Chancellor in 1933, he didn't "go mad" and Israel was not established until 1948 - it is perhaps surprising that Livingstone's suggestion that Hitler supported Zionism was given any credence at all, but the press (and others) nonetheless had a field day.  So let's give the subject the once over.

Hitler was an anti-Semite.  He was an ingrained and impassioned anti-Semite.  Anti-Semitism was the guiding principle of his political life and it ran through his career like the text in a stick of seaside rock.  Hitler's primary political ambition was to remove the Jews from Germany.  As we all know, this he would later do by extermination in the Holocaust - but in the early years of the Third Reich, he sought to do it by "encouraging" emigration; making conditions for Jews within Germany so bad through boycotts, purges and persecution, that they would opt to leave of their own accord.  In this, indeed, he was relatively successful.  Between 1933 and 1939, the Jewish population of Germany fell from over 500,000 to little over 200,000, with German Jews finding refuge across Europe and the wider world.

Some of those emigrants found their way to British Mandated Palestine - or, as Ken Livingstone would put it: "Israel".  Indeed, there was a scheme in place called the Ha'avara Agreement, made in 1933 between the new Nazi government and Zionist German Jews, to facilitate emigration to Palestine.  It required the payment, up front, of a £1,000 fee, which would be used to effectively 'purchase' the possessions of would-be emigrants, thereby neatly getting around the fundamental problem that the Nazis did not allow German Jews to remove their property and wealth from the country.

This shakedown of the desperate might feasibly be what Livingstone was referring to when he stated that Hitler "supported Zionism".  But, there are a number of caveats that he should perhaps have borne in mind.  For one thing, Hitler was no fan of the Ha'avara arrangement, fearing that the Jews - if concentrated in Palestine - would simply form a new outpost of his imagined "Grand Jewish Conspiracy".  Neither were all German Jews "Zionists" - Zionism was a particular strand of Jewish political thought and was by no means shared by all German Jews, even in the increasingly perilous situation that they found themselves in the 1930s.  Also, the British in Palestine were far from enthusiastic about encouraging a wave of Jewish emigration that would be bound to upset their fractious province.  In addition to all that, the up front costs of the Ha'avara deal meant that many German Jews were unable to take up the offer, even had they wanted to.  In the end, some 50,000 German Jews used the scheme, barely one in six of the total that left Germany between 1933 and 1939.

So, there was a Zionist arrangement of sorts with Hitler's Germany - but to conclude that Hitler therefore "supported Zionism" is not only historically inaccurate, it is historically illiterate.  But then, this particular storm in a teacup was never really about history.