Ken Livingstone, a former Labour Party Mayor of London, has never shied away from controversy. Two years ago he hit the headlines by claiming that Hitler had supported Zionism, a claim that he repeated recently. The ensuing protests eventually led to his resignation from the Labour Party. Speaking at a conference in London on July 2, the Holocaust historian Deborah Lipstadt said that Livingstone had “completely twisted the truth.” She believed anti-Semitism and “softcore Holocaust denial” were on the rise in the UK in part due to the Labour Party.
I am a pastor in London, and Livingstone’s statements caused me great concern. London has a youthful demographic. Although Livingstone is a senior citizen, he still has influence among London’s left-leaning younger adults. In Europe today, memory of the Holocaust is fading. A survey by the UK-based Holocaust Education Trust showed that only 37 percent of school students understood the term “anti-Semitism.” The report also noted that students had “little grasp of the scale of the Holocaust, when and where it happened, or—crucially—why and how it could have happened.” This generational shift could lead to misunderstanding between Western Europe and the United States. In the US there is still a broad understanding of the pressures Israel feels, and American foreign policy reflects this. In Europe, such sympathy is harder to find. Here history’s lessons are in danger of being forgotten, and misunderstood even when they are remembered.
Livingstone’s comments on Hitler’s “help” for Zionism are a good illustration of the problem. Superficially, the facts might seem to support Livingstone’s interpretation. In the Ha’avara (“Transfer”) agreement, Nazi Germany agreed to work with Zionists in Palestine to facilitate Jewish emigration there. However, German Jews were allowed to take only a fraction of their wealth. A Reichsfluchtsteur, or departure tax, had to be paid, and there were other deductions. The German Exchequer itself estimated that Jews transferring their money had to surrender between two-thirds and three-quarters of their capital.
After this stripping of their wealth, up to 50,000 Reichsmarks per family could be deposited in a special account for emigration to Palestine. But this could not be sent as hard currency. Instead, the money was used to buy goods in Germany that were sent to Palestine. These imports could then be sold or used by the emigrants to set up new homes or businesses. In addition, £1000 per family could be remitted because the Mandate government required a guarantee of self-support.
These facts are sometimes used by right-wing online commentators to undermine our usual understanding of the Holocaust. But there was a strong element of German self-interest in setting up the transfer agreement. German manufacturers’ exports that the Jews paid for helped boost German industry. Moreover, until mid-1935 the Nazi government worried about an international trade boycott that Jewish organizations called for. The Ha-avara project countered this by projecting a benign image of Germany even as it persecuted its Jews.
Moreover, emigration was hardly a free choice. Consider the plight of German Jews under successive waves of anti-Semitic legislation. Professionals such as doctors and professors were dismissed from their posts. Jewish business owners were forced to sell enterprises to “Aryan” owners, often at an enormous discount to the real value. Jewish students were excluded from examinations. Jews could buy groceries from a limited number of shops at reduced hours. They were not allowed to go to swimming pools or spas. Jewish actors could not perform on stage or screen. Radios were confiscated, and eventually even beloved pets had to be given up.
The sense of isolation must have been profound. Not surprisingly, the suicide rate rose. Hitler and his henchmen were not “facilitating” emigration. In reality, they created conditions that made life in Germany unbearable. With many countries closing their doors to Jewish refugees, Palestine was one of the few possible destinations. Those Jews who made use of the transfer agreement often felt that they had no other choice.
There is also a sinister aspect to any claim that “Hitler was a Zionist.” This yokes together the words “Hitler” and “Zionism” and might imply that the Nazis cooperated with Zionists to build up the Jewish population of Mandate Palestine. Through guilt by association, this claim could subtly assist campaigns that question Israel’s right to exist. Israel, Zionism, and Hitler are all made to seem connected.
The final criticism is the most obvious one. We know that Hitler’s hatred of the Jews led to at least five million Jewish deaths. Helping a small number of German Jews travel to Palestine could never outweigh the genocide that he unleashed. Hitler’s earlier decision to allow limited Jewish emigration did not assist in any meaningful way the creation of Israel. If the Allies had lost the battle of El Alamein in November 1942, then Palestine would have been within striking distance. The Yishuv—the Jewish community in the Mandate—could have been destroyed. In fact, the Nazis had a unit of SS troops for this purpose on standby in Athens, ready to join Rommel’s troops if they marched into Palestine. To say that Hitler was a Zionist is to stand the truth on its head.
Terry Tastard is a Catholic pastor in London. He was formerly a journalist and has a PhD in Holocaust history.
Photo Credit: Hitler in October 1930. German Federal Archives, via Wikimedia Commons.