When the former London mayor Ken Livingstone said in an interview that Hitler was “supporting Zionism” before he “went mad and ended up killing six million Jews”, he was quickly suspended from the Labour Party, which was already in the throes of a painful row over anti-semitism. But while Livingstone’s tone-deaf comments came at a very politically sensitive moment, the historical error at their heart is all too familiar.
Claims that Hitler was a Zionist, or supported Zionism, before his anti-Jewish policies turned into murder and extermination flare up at regular intervals. They usually cite the controversial Haavara Agreement (Transfer Agreement) of August 1933 as the most potent evidence of a wilful cooperation between Hitler and the Zionist movement. When viewed in a certain way, this deal does superficially seem to show that Hitler’s government endorsed Zionism – but just because it was a mechanism to help German Jews relocate to Palestine it does not imply it was “Zionist”.
The Haavara Agreement was the only formal contract signed between Nazi Germany and a Zionist organisation. The signatories were the Reich Ministry of Economics, the Zionistische Vereinigung für Deutschland (Zionist Federation of Germany) and the Anglo-Palestine Bank (then under the directive of the Jewish Agency for Palestine).
Under the agreement Jewish emigrants had to hand over their possessions before they left Germany, and the proceeds were used by a company specifically set up for this purpose in Tel Aviv to purchase German goods for sale in Palestine. The proceeds of these sales were then paid in Palestinian currency to the emigrants in Palestine.
The agreement was immediately criticised from all sides. The Zionist Federation was accused of collaboration with the Nazis, and the Nazi authorities were criticised by fellow Nazis for helping Jews when their official policy was to “solve the Jewish question”. Still, at this point in time, both sides no doubt saw potential benefits for themselves in such an agreement.
For the Zionist Federation, it was a way to save Jews from the claws of an increasingly hostile regime and attract them to Palestine, while for the Nazi state signing an international agreement was further proof of its legitimacy, broke the Jewish movement of boycotting German goods, and helped the recovery of German exports at a time when the German economy was still in the depth of depression.
The Haavara Agreement does not mean the Nazis were ever Zionists. Instead, it is testament to the fact that Nazi policy towards the Jews was not clear-cut from the beginning, but evolved greatly over the years. The only constants were a fanatical hatred of Jews, the insistence that the Jews were the root cause of all of Germany’s problems, and that the “Jewish question” must be “solved” once and for all.
While this implicitly always suggested murder and extermination, it took time until it became clear how this extermination could be effectively executed and until the Nazi authorities felt that such a radical “final solution” could be pushed through. In the meantime, the Nazis tried various means of “ridding” Germany of its Jewish population – including “encouraging” Jews to emigrate, forced relocation, and outright evictions – while at the same time pauperising them and confiscating their possessions.
The Haavara Agreement is the first example of a Nazi programme of organised Jewish relocation. Other and more radical examples include the mass expulsion of Polish and stateless Jews from Germany to Poland in October 1938, and the so-called Madagascar Plan, the attempt to relocate the Jewish population to the island of Madagascar, then a French colony. The latter plan became unfeasible when Germany was unable to defeat Great Britain in 1940.
But it is crucial to remember that at the same time as these and other forced relocation plans were discussed, Jews were being increasingly marginalised and disenfranchised in Nazi Germany. They were expelled from German civil service and from the professions, their shops and businesses were boycotted and their German citizenship was taken away. Step by step, they were excluded from German political, economic, legal, social and cultural life.
And in the aftermath of the “night of broken glass” pogrom of November 9 1938, widely known as Kristallnacht, more and more Jews were deported to concentration camps.
These policies do not in any way resemble Zionism. However critical one might be of Zionist policies in action, Zionism was a movement based on the right of self-determination. It originated as a national liberation movement, both mirroring the aims and aspirations of other national movements in 19th-century Europe and responding to the surge of anti-semitism in the newly established European nation-states.
The Nazis' plans for “concentrating” Jews in specific territories, be they Palestine or Madagascar, had nothing whatsoever to do with self-determination. These were expressions of the complete opposite: the use of force to strip Jews of all their rights, property and dignity.
As was proved by the establishment of the General Government in central Poland in October 1939, the Nazis were not in the least concerned that the territories where they intended to “concentrate” Jews were in a position to help their populations sustain themselves. They were looking for dumping grounds for Jews and other “undesirables”. These people were at best treated as ‘assets’ to exploit or, later, a stock of slave labour, and at worst simply expected to die of disease and starvation.
Any claim that Nazis and Zionists ever shared a common goal is not only cynical and disingenuous, but a distortion of clearly established historical fact.