A Nazi Travels to Palestine
Baron von Mildenstein and the S.S. support of Zionism in Germany from 1934-1936.
In the spring of 1933 four people gathered on a platform of Berlin’s railway station ready to board a train for Trieste, where they were to take a ship bounds for Palestine. What made this group unusual was the fact that it was composed of two couples, one Jewish, the other Nazi, only two months after Hitler’s appointment as Chancellor of the German Reich and his first legislation against non-Aryans. Yet the two couples were travelling with the sanction of both the Nazi (National Socialist German Workers) Party and the Zionist Federation of Germany. They were engaged in a mission whose invisible fellow-traveller ws the fate of German Jewry.
The Nazis boarding the train were Baron Leopold Itz von Mildenstein and his wife. Von Mildenstein was a member of both the Nazi party and of Hitler’s elite bodyguard, the S.S. His Jewish travelling companions were Kurt Tuchler, an official of the Zionist Federation of Germany, who was also accompanied by his wife. What had brought them together on this journey to Palestine was their common desire, motivated by radically different objectives, to make Germany ‘free of Jews’, or, as the Nazis put it, Judenrein . Where the National Socialists had not yet worked out a solution to ‘the Jewish question’, the Zionists, with their ambition to establish a Jewish homeland and their sponsorship of Jewish emigration to Palestine, had an answer. After the boycott of German Jews of April 1st, 1933, and the introduction of the non-Aryan legislation less than a week later, Hitler remained largely aloof from the Jewish question, and up until the Party orchestrated pogrom of November 9th-10th, 1938, there was no specific policy concerning its solution. This left the field of Jewish affairs wide open to officials like von Mildenstein to advance policies they thought might solve the problem of what to do with Germany's half-a-million Jews.
Radical elements in. the Party, headed by Julius Streicher, had wanted to eject all Jews from Germany, but this course was not pursued mainly because the economic consequences of eliminating the Jews from Depression-ridden Germany would have been disastrous. Representatives of big business in Hitler's government waived their racial convictions in the face of monetary realities. The presence of von Hindenburg, the Reich President, and the possibility of repercussions on foreign opinion were additional restraining factors. The press was also by and large unenthusiastic about the boycott.
Unhappy with the Party's performance on the Jewish question, the S.S. proceeded to formulate its own Jewish policy a policy which, based as it was on the promotion of Jewish emigration to Palestine, was remarkably like the Zionist programme. With this initiative the S.S. was able to move ahead of its rivals in determining the direction of Nazi Jewish policy, and although S.S. pre-eminence in this sphere proved short-lived, lasting roughly from the end of 1934 through the spring of 1936, what success it did have it owed almost completely to the efforts of Baron Itz Edler von Mildenstein.
Von Mildenstein was a man of some accomplishment and flair. A qualified engineer with a passion for journalism and travel, avocations which he managed to convert into cash as a correspondent for the Berliner Boersenzeitung , he was also a keen student of the Jewish question. Perhaps it was his background he was born in Prague in 1902 and grew up in the twilight of the Austrian multi-national empire which predisposed him to viewing the resolution of the Jewish problem along the lines of national self-determination; at any rate, the upshot of his inquiry was a pronounced sympathy for the Zionist cause. He even began attending its congresses, familiarising himself with the issues and making friends among the delegates. Curiously, von Mildenstein became an ardent Zionist.
The Baron's peculiar fascination soon earned him the reputation among his S.S. superiors of being an expert on Zionism and its bearing on the Jewish question. His belief that the Zionist programme was both realistic and practical led his Party comrades to see it as a way out of the confusion that had for a long time prevailed among the busy theorists of Nazi Jewish policy. Not inconsequently, it was assured the co-operation of Germany's Zionists who, following the Nazi victory of January, 1933, had become a force to be reckoned with in Germany's Jewish community, where they had had only limited success before 1933. Indeed, the fortunes of Zionism soared with the coming to power of Hitler, a change reflected in the great increase in sales of the Juedische Rundschau , the bi-weekly newspaper of the Zionist Federation of Germany, with circulation climbing from a pre-Hitler average of less than 19,000 to almost 38,500 by the end of 1933.
On the strength of this newly found popularity, Zionism claimed for itself an ever greater share of power in the Jewish community, basing its demand on the reputed failure of German Jewry's erstwhile leaders to prepare Jews for the coming of Hitler. The day after Hitler came to power, the Juedische Rundschau wrote that the struggle for Jewish rights could only be waged by those whose commitment to the Jewish people and nationality (Volkstum ) had always been beyond reproach, to wit the Zionists. On April 7th the paper declared that of all Jewish groups only the Zionists were capable of approaching the Nazis in good faith, as 'honest partners'. Two-and-a-half months later, in a memorandum addressed to the Nazi authorities dated June 21st, 1933, the Zionist Federation of Germany in fact proposed the regulation of the status of German Jewry on a group basis and petitioned for government assistance towards an orderly emigration.
That request went unanswered. But there were Nazis, von Mildenstein among them, who appreciated the unsparing efforts of the Zionists to make Germany Judenrein . (Hannah Arendt once characterised such Nazis as 'idealists', liberal constructionists of National Socialist glosses on Volk und Raum who were wont to identify with the national aspirations of the Jewish people.) Well aware of this particular current in Nazi thought, the Zionist Federation of Germany commissioned Kurt Tuchler to seek out Zionist sympathisers in the Nazi Party and enlist their aid in acquainting the German public with the Zionist cause and the progress of Jewish efforts in Palestine. Tuchler therefore contacted von Mildenstein and proposed that he write something positive about Jewish Palestine in an influential Nazi paper. Von Mildenstein agreed on condition that he be permitted to visit Palestine himself. Moreover, he asked Tuchler to come along as his guide. So on September 26th, 1934, there appeared under the name of 'Von Lim' the first instalment of 'Ein Nazi faehrt nach Palaestina' in Der Angriff , Goebbels' influential newspaper. Promoted heavily for weeks in advance, the twelve-part illustrated series ran through October 9th, though understandably enough, 'Von Lim' made no mention of his Jewish guide, other than that he was travelling in the company of someone who knew the country well.
Von Mildenstein and Tuchler boarded the train on that spring day of 1933 amidst cries of 'Shalom' from the young Jewish pioneers - Halutzim - who, likewise en route to Palestine, were saying their goodbyes to friends and relatives. The S.S.-man von Mildenstein sat observing them. The faces of the younger ones were radiant and the 'ghetto look', he noted, no longer dwelt there. Some of the older ones were making a radical break with their past, giving up professional status and money for manual occupations, since in Palestine they planned to enter a kvutza , a small collective agricultural settlement. All of them, young and old, he observed, were full of pride, for they were going to their land, Eretz Israel .
On arrival in Trieste, the Baron, his Jewish companions, and the young pioneers boarded the Martha Washington , the ship that was to take them to Palestine. Nicknamed the 'Raging Moses', the Martha Washington was an old pre-1914 tub hurriedly pressed into service by the British Lloyd Line to reap the profits to be realised from Jewish emigration to Palestine. The Martha Washington had three classes, each with its own 'kosher commissioner' and a different menu; only the third class was strictly kosher, while everything else could be had in the first and second classes. Most of the Jews on board were travelling third class, four to six to a cabin. Also present among the 700 to 800 passengers were a number of Jewish tourists, primarily German Jewish professionals, who, frightened by the advent of Hitler and fearing for their future in Germany, were about to take a look at Palestine. Suspicious of their Zionist credentials, the Halutzim aboard scornfully referred to them as 'January Zionists', by which they meant the type of Jew who had discovered his Zionist convictions on the day Hitler came to power.
The S.S.-man admitted to feeling uneasy among all those Jews, remarking that, outside of the crew, he was 'the only Goy aboard'. On the eve of the Jewish Sabbath he made himself conspicuous by writing a letter in the reading room, the only one there. Next morning he drew disapproving stares when he appeared on deck with his typewriter. Later in the day he was approached by a young Jew, who told him:
'You are going to Palestine because you... do not believe that we are truly capable of working with our hands. Many Jews today still think like you and your people. But they do not understand the fanatical will of our youth. You see, Zionism is giving us Jews a goal once more . It reminds us not only that we are a people, but also that we have a fatherland. When forty years ago our teacher Theodor Herzl wrote his book The Jewish State and told us that assimilation would not help us but only the realization on our part that we are one people with our own fatherland, our people laughed at him and said he was crazy. Herzl did not live to see his Jewish state, but we young ones have made it a reality.'
How much of a reality von Mildenstein would soon be able to discover for himself.
As the 'Raging Moses' pulled into the harbour of Jaffa, the Nazi discerned a change of mood among the passengers: their restlessness, he surmised, was caused as much by the thrill of seeing the land of their dreams as by the fear of the British immigration authorities. For the British, under Arab pressure, had virtually closed the gate to Palestine, limiting the entry of unskilled and pauper Jews to 5,000 for the first six months of 1933. This quota, however, explained von Mildenstein, did not affect skilled labourers with at least four years' experience in their trade and some savings, or the so-called 'capitalists', i.e. Jews with assets of at least 1,000 British pounds. In addition, tourists were required to limit their stay to three months. To circumvent the prevailing restrictions, £1,000 in notes were being passed from hand to hand, and since the British did not follow the practice of some European countries of requiring tourists to register with the police, Palestine soon harboured a large number of 'forgotten tourists', prompting the Arab complaint that illegal Jewish immigration was at least equal in scale to legal immigration. The British responded by making possession of a return ticket and the payment of a security deposit conditions for entry into Palestine, the latter being subject to forfeiture should the tourist overstay his three month limit.
Since he was not scheduled to disembark until Haifa, von Mildenstein remained on board after most of the passengers had left the ship. On arrival there, he was further delayed while waiting for his car to be unloaded. Meanwhile, it was very clear to him, even from so limited a vantage point as a ship's deck, that Britain was making great strides in developing its 'gateway to India'. The harbour was being enlarged to accommodate the increased flow and volume of trade expected to result from the expanding road and rail network linking the Mediterranean with the Persian Gulf. At its massive stone pier, Shell tankers lay at anchor, sea-borne extensions of the British pipeline which originated in the Mosul oil-fields and terminated in Haifa. And further down, attesting to the city's booming construction industry, the grey chimneys of Haifa's cement factories jutted into the sky.
Ironically two Arabs took von Mildenstein for a stranded Jew and offered to smuggle him into Palestine for money. Once disembarked, he had planned to drive straight to Tel Aviv, some 200 kilometres away. But by the time his car had been taken off the ship, his passport and travel papers inspected, the fees paid and the baksheesh distributed, it was afternoon and he was advised by a petrol pump attendant against travelling after nightfall because of the bad condition of the roads and the danger of robbers. Von Mildenstein decided nevertheless to risk it and late that evening arrived in Tel Aviv.
Tel Aviv was Palestine's Jewish city par excellence a 'city without Goyim', to quote von Mildenstein's allusion to Hugo Bettauer's popular novel of 1922, City without Jews . 'Only Jews', wrote the Baron, 'live here, only Jews work here, only Jews trade, bathe and dance here.' The language of the city, he noted, was Hebrew, down to the menus in the restaurant. But though the language was ancient, the city itself, with its broad avenues and attractive shops, had a thoroughly modern and indeed Western look to it. Of the 'East' it had nothing, concluded von Mildenstein, certainly not its lethargy and torpor. For Tel Aviv virtually shook with the rumble of cement mixers and steam-rollers as construction struggled to keep pace with the city's population explosion. Building contractors were hard put to it to fill the demand for housing; so dire was the shortage that prospective tenants had been known to pay rents on apartments that had barely reached the blueprint stage; while some occupied the bottom floors of units whose upper floors were still under construction. Conditions were so primitive that many a newly arrived Jew from Germany, used to the comforts of middle-class well-being and the society of non-Jews, took one look at Palestine and headed back home. 'Nothing but Jews here, it's hard to take; and then the primitiveness of existence!' von Mildenstein quoted a member of a well-to-do German-Jewish family as saying. He and his family had come to Tel Aviv with all their possessions, including a hunting dog, fully intending to make a home in Palestine. But after eight days they could stand it no longer and returned to Germany without even bothering to unpack.
That family, however, was not typical. The overwhelming majority of Jews that von Mildenstein encountered in Tel Aviv and elsewhere in Palestine were optimistic, hard-working and idealistic, intent on building the country by the sweat of their brow the exact opposite of the Jewish stereotype of Nazi anti-Semitic dogma.
Nowhere indeed was the combination of exuberant optimism and earnestness that characterised Jewish life in Palestine more sharply brought in to focus than at Tel Aviv's annual Purim carnival. Von Mildenstein was there as the climax approached of the festivities surrounding the celebration of the Jews' deliverance from the murderous designs of the Persian official Haman. The streets were decked with banners, garlands, and Purim arches; parties lasted well into the night and there was endless hora dancing. The round of activities culminated in a parade which attracted thousands of Jews to the city from the surrounding area.
Von Mildenstein won an unobstructed view of the proceedings from the top of a coachbox. The theme of that year's parade was 'Jewry of the World, Past, Present, and Future', and chronicled the odyssey of the Jews from the time they entered history as a united people, through their dispersion after the destruction of the Second Temple, down to their latter-day reunification in Palestine. Von Mildenstein watched the floats roll by, beginning with ones representing the twelve tribes of Israel, depicting the Jews as sturdy and fearless warriors. Then came those representing the Jews of the present day: persecuted in Poland and Russia; completely assimilated in France where they danced in a bar beneath the sign, 'We are not Jews at all'; rolling in money and deaf to the needs of Palestine in America. Then a green, three-headed dragon, its body stamped with red Swastikas, came lumbering down the street, while a drum kept up a steady beat alongside. On the float's bed were mounted masks shaped like books, each one bearing the title of a work burned by the Nazis in the literary auto-da-fé of May 10th, 1933. Von Mildenstein thought that in this depiction of Germany the organisers had not 'used their intelligence to any great extent'.
The 'Future' presented the spectators with a panorama of economic, social, and cultural accomplishments of the Zionists. Von Mildenstein concluded that Jews were properly proud of their achievements, if to a fault, for with that pride, with that 'childish joy' they took in all that they had created, went a relaxation of critical judgement, which led them, for example, to buy products that were both shoddy and expensive. But given the organisational and commercial talents of the Jews, the day might not be far off, he predicted, when the Jews of Palestine would emerge as formidable rivals of Europe for the commerce of the Near East, in much the same way that they were already proving fierce competitors in Europe with their export of oranges.
But 'Von Lim' was not content merely to experience the pageant of Jewish life vicariously as a spectator at a carnival parade. Eager to take a closer look for himself, he embarked on a journey which took him on a trip of several months round the whole of Palestine. During this sojourn he showed a particular interest in Zionist education and colonisation.
That Zionists considered education of paramount importance and that they held rather advanced ideas on the subject was no secret to the Nazi Baron; but what he witnessed at Ben Shemen, a children's colony situated a short distance east of Tel Aviv, must have seemed bizarre indeed to one raised on Teutonic notions of childhood and adolescence. There, several hundred children from all parts of the world, ranging in age from six to seventeen, were encouraged to look after themselves and their peers with a minimum of supervision from their elders. Combining work with study, they went to school in the morning and worked in the fields or in the various workshops - repair, carpentry and dairy - in the afternoon. Their pride and joy was a swimming pool they had built with their own hands. They even had their own court of justice which heard cases and meted out punishments. Von Mildenstein was impressed, but not so impressed that he could resist poking fun at the educational philosophy which taught the children of Ben Shemen self-reliance, remarking that these young folk became so independent that they soon believed themselves to be smarter than the adults.
From Ben Shemen he went on to Givat Brenner, a kvutza south-east of Tel Aviv. Here, too, the children received preferential treatment, the largest dwelling having been set aside for them. Specially-trained guardians took care of their needs, while the parents worked on the farm, in the repair shops or central kitchen. In the evening, at dinner-time, the parents would come to the children's home to eat and relax for a few hours with them before returning to their own sleeping quarters, Von Mildenstein was told the history of the settlement, a history of striving against overwhelming odds, a veritable Kampfzeit (time of struggle), crowned ultimately with success. He learned how a small band of pioneers, sharing their labour and possessions, had pitched their tents on the barren soil and had made it bloom. Such an achievement, the leader of the kvutza assured him with pride, would have been unthinkable but for the use of the collective methods that governed the operation of the colony.
Later on the tour von Mildenstein was to visit yet another kvutsa , one located in the large Plain of Jezreel in the north of Palestine. Where today, Jewish settlements prospered in large numbers, he wrote, less than ten years before malaria-breeding swamps had effectively shut out native and colonist alike. Parts of the Plain of Jezreel were being developed by individual farmers for personal profit, which was known as moshav . Having visited both forms, kvutza and moshav , in a single day, von Mildenstein questioned the leader of the kvutza Gewa, a Russian Jew named Gurion, on the relative merits of the two. In the ensuing discussion, the Baron steered the conversation toward money, something never far from his mind when the subject happened to be Jews, and asked Gurion whether many Jews were not tempted to go to the city where they could earn more money. Gurion replied:
'I don't worry about that. I myself have already been here far twelve years. We have persevered and love our land and our communities.... We know that we are building our homeland and that it can only be built when everyone is satisfied with little. We don't get our new land on a silver platter. We must work for it.'
For von Mildenstein Gurion signalised the birth of a 'new Jew', a Jew at one with the soil. 'The stocky figure of Gurion', he wrote, 'stands before us in the moonlight. He suits the soil. The soil has reformed him and his kind in a decade. This new Jew will be a new people.'
This 'new Jew' was developing the land in a setting rife with tension and conflict. The more the British imposed their authority on the Mandate territory, the greater grew Arab demands for independence; the greater the numbers of Jews that entered the country, the more the Arabs resented them. Of the Arab-Jewish conflict von Mildenstein saw evidence enough: Moslems pelting refuse at Jews bent in prayer at the Wailing Wall; the burnt-out Jewish quarter of the city of Hebron, a casualty of the anti-Jewish riots of 1929; the need to fly the German pennant from his car in areas where Jews were not welcome; moreover, any stranger out of uniform was automatically taken for a Jew.
Although the Arab-Jewish conflict did not erupt into open violence during von Mildenstein's visit, the Arab-British one did. Toward the end of October, 1933, shortly before von Mildenstein was due to leave Palestine, the Arabs rose in protest against the entrenchment of British power. The occasion was the planned inauguration of Haifa's new harbour facilities which the British had scheduled for October 31st. The rebellion started up a few days beforehand and quickly spread to all major urban centres of Palestine.
Von Mildenstein happened to be in the city of Safad, north of Lake Tiberias, when the news of the disturbances reached him and he was advised to remain there until they had subsided. But the fearless Baron, not wanting to miss the ceremonies, flew his German pennant and made a successful 'breakthrough' to Haifa, only to find that because of the disturbances they were on a very muted scale. Von Mildenstein was disappointed; security was tight, and of promised glitter and pomp there was little or no evidence.
The Arabs' rebellion, coupled with what he had seen and learned of their anti-Jewish feeling, prompted von Mildenstein to offer an assessment of the Palestinian situation which, given the time, was remarkable for its astuteness. Palestine, he wrote, was 'a country of powerful contradictions', inexorably headed for an explosion unless Arab and Jew found a way to settle their differences and learned to live together in peace. The presence in Palestine of more than a quarter-of-a-million Jews was a reality that could no longer be denied. But the Jews there, he added, did not need to have a separate state of their own, as statehood offered no automatic guarantee of the survival and preservation of a Jewish national identity. The possibility of a significant Jewish return existed, despite Palestine's underdeveloped economic base, provided that, von Mildenstein cautioned, Jews 'creat[ed] their own homeland by working their own land'. From such a return, concluded von Mildenstein in his final article, not just the Jews but the entire world would benefit, in that 'it point[ed] the way to curing a centuries-long wound on the body of the world: the Jewish question'.
Von Mildenstein was no friend of the Jews (he was, after all, a member of the Nazi Party and of the S.S.). His sympathy went out only to that segment of Jewry that called itself Zionist. For the so-called assimilated Jew, the Jew who claimed to be a German first and a Jew second, or denied his Jewish-ness altogether, and for the Jew who eschewed all racial feeling, he held no brief, his view of them being close to the official Party position. The Baron's support of the Zionist cause was not, however, grounded in expediency alone; rather it stemmed from a liberal application of Nazi racial theories. Briefly, according to these theories, a race was the product of a union - a mystical union between a people and the soil in which it was historically rooted. And because Jews were said to lack this vital relationship to the German soil, Nazis considered them an alien force in their midst, branding them as a rootless, decadent, parasitical and inferior species of mankind.
In Palestine, on the other hand, von Mildenstein encountered a Jew that he liked, a Jew who cultivated his own soil, the 'new Jew' typified by the stocky figure of Gurion. There he saw a Jew who was struggling against great odds to re-establish his roots in the land of his forefathers; a Jew who gave the lie to the Nazi stock-in-trade that the Jew hated to get his hands dirty and was incapable of idealism. Of this Palestinian Jew von Mildenstein painted a highly flattering portrait, in a manner, to be sure, which left no doubt as to his own superior Aryan pedigree; still, the image of the 'new Jew' projected by von Mildenstein must have left the regular Angriff reader shaking his head in disbelief. It is doubtful, though, whether the Baron succeeded in changing many minds about Jews, even though Der Angriff had a medal struck to commemorate the voyage of a Nazi and a Jew to Palestine, a medal with the Swastika on one side and the Star of David on the other. Where von Mildenstein did succeed, however, was in securing, early in 1934, the approval of and acceptance by his S.S. superiors for his idea that the solution of the Jewish question lay with the mass emigration of Jews to Palestine. Indeed, the articles earned him promotion, and he was assigned, in the summer of 1935, the Jewish desk in Reinhardt Heydrich's Security Service, the intelligence arm of the S.S. Once installed in his new post, von Mildenstein proceeded to give muscle to the policy he had fathered.
The gist of that policy was to assist the expansion of Zionist influence among Germany's Jews who, despite the oppressive conditions under which they lived, still showed no great desire to emigrate to Palestine. By making a distinction between race-minded, emigration-conscious Zionists and 'assimilationists' out to destroy National Socialism, the S.S. strove to strengthen the Zionist position in the Jewish community. Accordingly, S.S. officials were instructed to encourage the activities of Zionists and to discourage those of non-Zionists. Zionists were given privileges denied to other groups. A police decree of March, 1935, for example, ordered officers to favour Zionist youth groups over non-Zionist ones; the former were to be allowed to don uniforms but not the latter. The S.S. also looked with favour on the Zionist vocational and agricultural training centres which groomed young Jews for a life of toil in Palestine, and access to Nazi functionaries generally proved easier for Zionists than for assimilationists. Even the Nuremberg Laws (September 15th, 1935), which deprived Jews of their German citizenship and condemned them to pariah status, contained a special 'Zionist' provision: forbidden to fly the German colours, Jews were given the right to hoist their own flag, i.e. the Zionist emblem, the blue Star of David between stripes, also blue, against a white background.
But the new direction in Jewish policy did not outlast its sponsor's stay in office. After ten months in the Security Service's Jewish Department von Mildenstein resigned, a victim of internal departmental rivalries and jealousies and, more specifically, of the failure of his policy to bear the expected fruit, as emigration to Palestine was decreasing rather than increasing.
With von Mildenstein's departure a new era of S.S. Jewish policy began. From supporting Zionism the S.S. changed to a policy of repression and harassment, occasioned as much by von Mildenstein's reputed failure as by a 1936 pamphlet which raised the spectre of a strong Jewish state in the Middle East. The author of that pamphlet was Adolf Eichmann. Ironically, it was von Mildenstein who had invited Eichmann to work in Section II/112, as the Jewish department was then known. Hence it seems fitting to conclude this story by citing Eichmann's opinion of his former boss's dealings with Jews, all the more since that opinion is both accurate and reasonable. Von Mildenstein was, Eichmann stated at his 1961 Jerusalem trial, 'very fair and mild... sincere in his efforts to find a just solution to the Jewish question'. And that, given the Nazi attitude toward Jews, is saying not a little.