The irony of it all

Did a German officer prevent the massacre of the Jews of Palestine during World War I?

Falkenhayn (photo credit: Library of Congress collection photo)
(photo credit: Library of Congress collection photo)
The Ottoman war effort in Palestine during World War I was led by German officers, and their involvement was recorded by the American Colony photographers. German General Erich von Falkenhayn, an able Prussian officer who served as the chief of staff of the German Army, was the commander of the Turkish and German troops during the critical 1917-1918 period.
A German photographic collection contains a picture of Falkenhayn leaving Palestine in 1918 and bears an amazing caption that claims Falkenhayn prevented a Turkish massacre of the Jews of Palestine (unfortunately permission was not granted to use the photo):
“Falkenhayn and the German Staff need to be credited with have [sic] prevented an Ottoman genocide towards Christians and Jews in Palestine similar to the Armenian suffering.
According to Wikipedia, “His positive legacy is his conduct during the war in Palestine in 1917. As his biographer Afflerbach claims, ‘An inhuman excess against the Jews in Palestine was only prevented by Falkenhayn’s conduct, which against the background of the German history of the 20th century has a special meaning, and one that distinguishes Falkenhayn.’”
IS IT true? Did a German general protect the Jewish population of Palestine from massacre?
A Falkenhayn family genealogy, posted on the Internet, elaborates further: “While he was in command in Palestine, he was able to prevent Turkish plans to evict all Jews from Palestine, especially Jerusalem. As this was meant to occur along the lines of the genocide of the Armenians, it is fair to say that Falkenhayn prevented the eradication of Jewish settlements in Palestine.”
The German general is pictured in Palestine in a car with the Turkish ruler of Syria and Palestine, Jamal Pasha, a ruthless ruler and one of the “Young Turks” leadership accused of carrying out the expulsion and massacre of hundreds of thousands of Armenians across the Ottoman-controlled region during World War I.
Another leader was Enver Pasha, who led the Ottoman Empire during World War I and on occasion visited Palestine, where he was photographed with Jamal on the Temple Mount and in Beersheba.
Jamal Pasha suspected the loyalties of the Jews of Palestine. The explosion of nationalistic movements across the empire was eroding Turkish control, and Arab and Jewish nationalism had to be crushed.
Zionists were particularly suspected of leading opposition to Ottoman rule, and leaders such as David Ben-Gurion were frequently arrested, harassed or exiled. Many were relative newcomers from Russia, an enemy state. Meanwhile, over the horizon, 1,000 Jewish volunteers for the British army, including some from Palestine, formed the Zion Mule Corps, later known as the Jewish Legion, in 1915. They fought with valor against the Turks at Gallipoli.
The Jews of Palestine feared that after the Armenians, the Jews would be next. The fear motivated some to form the NILI spy network to assist the British war effort.
Eitan Belkind, who infiltrated the Turkish army and served on Jamal Pasha’s staff, witnessed the killing of 5,000 Armenians. Later his brother was hanged by the Turks as a NILI spy.
Sarah Aaronsohn of Zichron Ya’acov was traveling by train and wagon from Turkey to Palestine in November 1915. On the way, she witnessed atrocities committed against Armenians. In 1916, she joined her brother Aharon Aaronsohn, a well-known agronomist, in forming the NILI ring. Caught by the Turks in Zichron Ya’acov in October 1917 and tortured, Sarah Aaronsohn committed suicide so as not to reveal information.
At the time, the British were moving north out of Sinai and pressing along the Gaza-Beersheba front.
Aharon Aaronsohn wrote in his memoirs, “The Turkish order to confiscate our weapons was a bad sign. Similar measures were taken before the massacre of the Armenians, and we feared that our people would meet the same kind of fate.”
One Zionist activist described the cruelty of the Jaffa commandant, Hassan Bey, in 1914: “It would suddenly come into his head to summon respectable householders to him after midnight... with an order to bring him some object from their homes which had caught his fancy. Groundless arrests, insults, tortures, bastinadoes [clubs] – these were things every householder had to fear.”
ONE OF the most egregious acts the Turks undertook was the sudden expulsion of the Jews of Jaffa-Tel Aviv on Passover eve in April 1917. Between 5,000 and 10,000 Jews were expelled. The Yishuv in the Galilee and Jerusalem sheltered many Jewish refugees, but with foreign Jewish financial aid blocked by the Turks and the land suffering from a locust plague, many of the expelled Jews died of hunger and disease. By one account, 20 percent of Jaffa’s population perished.
A German historian, Michael Hesemann, described the horrible situation:
“Jamal Pasha, the Turkish Commander who was responsible for the Armenian genocide... threatened the Jewish-Zionist settlers. In Jaffa, more than 8,000 Jews were forced to leave their homes, which were sacked by the Turks. Two Jews were hanged in front of the town gate, dozens were found dead on the beach. In March, Reuters news agency reported a ‘massive expulsion of Jews who could face a similar fate as the Armenians.’”
In 1921, a representative from Palestine reported to the 12th Zionist Congress on “Palestine during the War”: “In Jerusalem [apparently in 1917]... dozens of children lay starving in the streets without anyone noticing them. Typhus and cholera carried off hundreds every week, and yet no proper medical aid was organized.... Through this lack of organization a considerable portion of the Jerusalem population perished. The number of orphans at the time of the capture of Jerusalem by the English Army was 2,700.”
He continued, “In Safed conditions were similar to what they were in Jerusalem; if anything, worse.... The death-rate here also was appallingly high; towards the end of the war the number of orphans was 500.”
WHAT SAVED the Jewish community before the British completed their capture of Palestine in late 1917 and 1918? Several accounts confirm that German officers and diplomats protected the Jews.
The Zionist Congress report credited foreign consular officials who “during the whole period of their stay in the country showed themselves always ready to help, and performed valuable services for the Jewish Yishuv [the Jewish community]. Especially deserving of mention are the German vice-consul Schabiner in Haifa...The Jewish population also benefited by the presence of the head of the German military mission, Colonel Kress van Kressenstein, who on several occasions exerted his influence on behalf of the Jews.”
Last month, Falkenhayn’s biographer, Prof. Holger Afflerbach of Leeds University, said, “Falkenhayn had to supervise Turkish measures against Jewish settlers who were accused of high treason and collaboration with the English. He prevented harsh Turkish measures – Jamal Pasha was speaking about evacuation of all Jewish settlers in Palestine.”
The professor continued, “The parallels to the beginning of the Armenian genocide are obvious and striking: It started with Turkish accusations of Armenian collaboration with the Russians, and the Ottomans decided to transport all Armenians away from the border to another part of the Empire. This ended in death and annihilation of the Armenians. Given the fact that Palestine was frontline in late 1917, something very similar could have happened there to the Jewish settlers.”
According to Afflerbach, “Falkenhayn’s role was crucial. His judgment in November 1917 was as follows: He said that there were single cases of cooperation between the English and a few Jewish radicals, but that it would be unfair to punish entire Jewish communities who had nothing to do with that. Therefore nothing happened to the Jewish settlements. Only Jaffa had been evacuated – by Jamal Pasha.”
Hesemann cites Dr. Jacob Thon, head of the Zionist Office in Jerusalem, who wrote in 1917, “It was a special stroke of good fortune that in the last critical days General von Falkenhayn had the command. Jamal Pasha in this case – as he announced often enough – would have expelled the whole population and turned the country into ruins.”
Falkenhayn had no particular love for Jews, according to his biographer. “He was in many aspects a typical Wilhelmine officer and not even free from some prejudices against Jews, but what counts is that he saved thousands of Jewish lives.”
Why has no one heard about Falkenhayn and his role in protecting the Jews of Palestine? Afflerbach responded, “The action was forgotten, because Falkenhayn prevented Ottoman actions which could have resulted in genocide... The incident was not discussed for decades. It restarted only in the 1960s when scholars started to remember it.”
Thus, the Jews of Palestine owed their survival during World War I to a German army officer, and by extension, the State of Israel’s foundations were established thanks to him. And 20-some years later, the German army would assist in the genocide of the Jews of Europe. ■
The writer served as a senior Israeli diplomat in Washington. Today he serves as a public affairs consultant and publishes