Thursday, May 22, 2014

Chapter: World War I:
Did a German Officer Prevent the Massacre of the Jews
of Eretz Yisrael during World War I?
And Later His Son-In-Law Conspired to Kill Hitler

German General Falkenhayn on the Temple Mt with Jamal
Pasha, Turkish governor of Syria and Palestine, 1916
(Library of Congress collection)

This 2011 posting was one of our most popular features. It is presented here with updates.  A version of this article was published in The Jerusalem Post Magazine on December 9, 2011.

The Ottoman war effort in Palestine in 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 which claims that Falkenhayn prevented a Turkish massacre of the Jews of Palestine [Unfortunately, permission was not granted to use the photo, but it can be viewed here]:
"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. 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."'" (1994, 485)
General Erich Von
Falkenhayn (Bundesarchiv)
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."

Again, is this true, or is this self-serving German testimony to scrub the stain of Nazism two decades later?

Falkenhayn and Jamal Pasha in the backseat of a car
in Jerusalem (The New Zealanders in Sinai
and Palestine, 1922)

The German general is pictured here in a car with the Turkish ruler of Syria and Palestine, Jamal (also written as Cemal) 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. 

Two of the "Young Turks" - Enver Pasha (center)
and Jamal Pasha (right). 1916. Were they responsible for
 the Armenian massacre? What were they
planning for the Jews?

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 Be'er Sheva.

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 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 in 1915, later known as the Jewish Legion, and they fought with valor against the Turks at Gallipoli.

The two Pashas ride into Be'er Sheva where the British
army later broke through and continued to Jerusalem
Sarah Aaronsohn, NILI founder

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 hung by the Turks as a NILI spy.  Sarah Aaronsohn of Zichron Ya'akov 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 spy ring.  Caught by the Turks in October 1917 in Zichron Ya'akov and tortured, Sarah committed suicide before surrendering information.

At the time, the British were moving north out of Sinai and pressing along the Gaza-Be'er Sheva front.

Sarah's brother Aharon 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."

"Tyrant" Hassan Bey
One Zionist activist described the cruelty of the Jaffa Commandant, Hassan Bey, already 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."
The most egregious act undertaken by the Turks 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 of the 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. 

Col. Kress van Kressenstein

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."

Falkenhayn's biographer, Prof. Holger Afflerbach of Leeds University explained, "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."

Kressenstein reviewing troops with Jamal Pasha

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."

"Falkenhayn's role was crucial, " Afflerbach explained.  "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, the German historian, cites Dr. Jacob Thon, head of the Zionist Office in Jerusalem, who wrote in 1917, "It was 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...."

[Hesemann has written extensively about the Vatican's role in aiding the Jews of Palestine: "Eugenio Pacelli, who in 1939 became Pope Pius XII, actively supported Zionism during World War I, German historian Michael Hesemann claims in his book “The Pope Who Defied Hitler. The Truth About Pius XII.” Hesemann, who is one of the few historians with access to the Vatican Secret Archives, states he found evidence that Pacelli in 1917 as Apostolic Nuntius in Munich, successfully intervened in favour of the Jewish settlers in Palestine."]

Falkenhayn, his daughter Erika, and Jamal Pasha at the Jerusalem train station, 1917. In 1926, Erika married a
young German officer, Henning von Tresckow, who rose through the ranks. A general in 1944, he was involved
in an attempted coup against Adolf Hitler. He committed suicide in June 1944. Erika and her children were arrested.

Erika von Falkenhayn and her
husband Henning von Tresckow
Falkenhayn had no particular love for Jews, according to his biographer, Afflerbach.  "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."

Perhaps Falkenhayn was also erased from German history for many years because of his son-in-law's Valkyrie conspiracy against Hitler.

Post Script: Falkenhayn Saved Jerusalem

Turkish troops evacuate Jerusalem
Turkish sources indicate considerable tension between Jamal Pasha and Falkenhayn. The following account appears in the English-language Turkey in the First World War:

"The British attack on Jerusalem began on 8 December. The city was defended by the XX Corps, commanded by Ali Fuad Pasha. Falkenhayn did not send reinforcements to Jerusalem because he did not want the relics and the holy places damaged because of severe fighting. [emphasis added.]"

"After withdrawing from Jerusalem, Ali Fuad Pasha sent a cable to Jamal Pasha: "Since my first day as the commander of the defense of Jerusalem, I did not receive any support except one single cavalry regiment.... The British, who benefited from the fatigue of my poor soldiers..., invaded the beautiful town of Jerusalem.  I believe that the responsibility of this disaster belongs completely to Falkenhayn!"

"Falkenhayn put the blame on Von Kressenstein and his chief of staff...Dissatisfaction with the advice and command of General Falkenhayn was growing.  His inability had resulted in the loss of the Gaza-Beersheba line.  His refusal to send reinforcements had resulted in the loss of Jerusalem.... Enver Pasha was losing patience too.  On 24 February 1918, he replaced Falkenhayn."

Irony of ironies. 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 Falkenhayn.  Some 25 years later the German army would take part in the eradication of the Jews of Europe. Ultimately, survivors of the Nazi genocide would find shelter in Falkenhayn’s legacy.


  1. Actually General Falkenhayn was ORDERED to protect the Jewish settlers in Palestine after a VATICAN intervention in Berlin time by Nuncio Eugenio Pacelli, as, the Israeli historian and diplomat Pinchas Lapide wrote in his book “The Last Three Popes and the Jews” (1967). In the Zionist Archive in Jerusalem, Lapide had located a copy of an official letter, sent by Pacelli as Nuncio in Munich to the Bavarian Secretary of State, Otto Ritter von Dandl, on November 16, 1917:
    “The undersigned Apostolic Nuncio has the honour to inform Your Excellency that the Israelite Congregations of Switzerland asked the Holy Father to appeal for the protection of the sites and the Jewish population of Jerusalem. His Eminence, the Cardinal Secretary of State had ordered the undersigned to act accordingly and with all care and to draw this subject to the attention of the Imperial Government. The Undersigned requests from Your Excellency to enforce the realization of this purpose with everything in your capacity. In advance gratefully, signing with the assurance of my highest appreciation, … Eugenio Pacelli, Archbishop of Sardes, Apostolic Nuncio.”

    The Jews had all reason to be worried. The Ottoman Empire – modern-day Turkey – was an ally of the Reich and England had instigated the Arabian rebellion to force it into a two-frontline war. The Turks suspected the Jews to collaborate with the British. After the Turkish genocide against the Armenians, who were believed to be on the side of the Russians, they could expect the worst.

    In April 1915, the Turkish Secretary of War, Enver Pasha, ordered the Deportation of great parts of the Armenian population of the Ottoman Empire into the Syrian desert. What was officially declared a strategically necessary “evacuation” of a politically unreliable minority turned out to be the first great genocide of the 20th century. The Young Turk movement, which had taken over political power, intended to transform the multi-ethnic Ottoman Empire into a national state according to the Panturkish ideology, which left no room for the Christian Armenians. Genocide became the final solution of this minority problem. Its executive became the Commander-in-Chief and Gouverneur of Syria, General Cemal Pasha. In total, the number of victims exceed 1,5 Million. Some became victims of the Turkish massacres, most were forced into the Syrian desert where they died of thirst, starvation, exhaust or diseases.

  2. In 1917, Cemal Pasha turned brutally against the Jewish-Zionist settlements in Palestine. After Jewish settlers in Jaffa were accused of collaboration with the British, the Ottoman Gouverneur ordered their deportation. Ober 8000 Jews were expelled from their houses without the permission to take any of their belongings or even food. In front of their eyes, their houses were looted by the Turks. Outside the Jewish Quarters, two Jews were hanged as a warning for all who dared to resist the looters. Eyewitnesses reported about the exsessive cruelty of the soldiers. Later, dozens of Jews were found dead in the dunes of Jaffa. By the end of March 1917, the “Reuters” news agency reported that “masses of Jews” were expelled “to share the fate of the Armenians”. A Report of the Zionist Office in Copenhagen ends with the warning that after the threats of Cermal Pasha the Jews of Palestine could indeed expect the same treatment as the Armenians – being sent into the desert to die of thirst, starvation and epidemics.

    On May 7, 1917, the German Member of Parliament Oskar Cohn brought the antijewish violence in Palestine on the agenda of the Reichstag in Berlin. Only one day later, Deputy Secretary Arthur Zimmermann of the State Department played the matter down. He called the order to evacuate Jaffa a mere “protective measure”. Furthermore, the Government of the Reich had no interest to get involved into affairs which were solely in the responsibility of the Turkish Forces. Obviously, it did intend to bother Germany’s Ottoman ally. This makes the intervention of the Apostolic Nuncio, quoted by Pinchas Lapide, even more significant.

    Unfortunately, at least as far as I know, no other historian ever tried to investigate and verify it. Cornwell & Co. completely ignore the incident, since it does not fit into their claim of Pacelli being an Antisemite. The majority of the defensors of Pius XII either just quote Lapide or concentrate on his position towards National Socialism. Instead, the Pacelli-debunkers simply question Lapides credibility. Without any reason, still, since he backs all his quotes with perfect citations, as this one, too. The quoted document, Lapide states, can be found on “Microfilm K 179 90 293 in the Zionist Central Archive, Jerusalem”.

    I trust Lapide, but still prefer to verify. I soon had the opportunity, when in November 2008, I was granted permission to do research in the Vatican Secret Archive. After I wrote a biography on Pius XII, “The Pope who defied Hitler”, I wanted to learn more about Pacellis position towards the Jews and his dealings with Antisemitism and National Socialism. The verification of the incident quoted by Lapides had a prominent position on my wish list.

  3. After I introduced myself to the Prefect of the “Archivio Secreto”, Bishop Sergio Pagano, my work in the “Sala Studio”, the study room of the Archive, begun. The complete inventory of the Vatican Secret Archive – at least until 1939 – are catalogized. If you want to study one of the files, you first have to go through these voluminous catalogues, before one of the friendly coworkers gets the file for you. In one of these catalogues, which carefully lists the inventory of the “Archive of the Nunciaturee Munich/Bavaria” I found the promising entry: “Guerra Europ., Palestina # 1. Pop. Giudaica e della Citta Santa della Palestina” – “World War I, Palestine # 1, Jewish Population and those of the Holy City of Palestine”. After I wrote down the file title and number (Arch. Nunz. Monaco d.b. 385; Fasc. 2: Pos. XIII), I asked for it. I was not disappointed. Indeed it contained not only Pacellis handwritten draft for the letter quoted by Lapide, I also learned more about the background of this intervention.

    On November 15, 1917 at 4.30 PM the Papal Cardinal Secretary of State, Pietro Gasparri, sent an encoded message to the Nuncio Pacelli in Munich, which was received and decoded it on the next morning at 7.30 AM. It stated: “The Israelite Community of Switzerland asked the Holy Father to commit himself to the protection of the sites and the Jewish population of Jerusalem. He asks Your Excellency through us, to influence the German government accordingly in the name of the Holy Father. Card. Gasparri”.

    The decision to delegate this difficile affair to Pacelli was wise indeed. It was more than questionable if an intervention by the Pope himself would had any impact in Constantinople. Only Germany as their most important ally was able to stop the Turks from performing a massacre. That Pacelli always had an open ear for Jewish affairs he had already demonstrated when he met the Zionist leader Sokolov.

  4. Indeed, Pacelli immediately acted. Still, it was a rather difficile affair. At that time, no diplomatic relationship existed between the Emperor’s Germany and the Holy See. The only Nunciaturee on German soil was the one in Munich, the capital of the still semi-independent Kingdom of Bavaria. Any diplomatic approach had to go through the Bavarian government. Therefore, Pacelli presented his case on November 16, 1917 to the Royal Bavarian Secretary of State, Sir Otto Ritter von Dandl, and urgently requested an intervention of the Imperial State Department.

    This time, other than half a year before, the Berlin State Department acted. Eleven days later, on November 27, 1917, we find the following note in their file “Jews in Turkey”. According to the reply they received from Constantinople, “there is no reason to fear that the Turkish authorities in Palestine order measures against the Jewish population. We learned from the Turkish side that the Holy City and all sites which are subject of Christian and Jewish veneration are spared and respected as far as the military necessities by all means allow.”

    Consequently, the German government declared two days later: “According to the available information from the Turkish side, care was already taken for the protection of the the holy sites of Jerusalem which are also subject of veneration by the Muslims and also for the population. Of course this includes the Jews, who don’t have to fear any exemptions.”

    Eventually, Ritter von Dendl reported to the Apostolic Nuncio on December 8, 1917: “Your Excellency allow me to reply to your precious note of the 16th of last month and to inform you that I did not miss to bring the request of the Israelite Communities of Switzerland regarding the protection of the sites and the Jewish population of Jerusalem to the attention of the State Department in Berlin. With regard to this, I received the reply that according to the information received, there was no reason to worry that the Turkish authorities apply any measures against the Jewish population.”

    Only three days later, on December 11, 1917, the British Forces under command of General Allenby conquered Jerusalem. The Jews of Palestine could indeed feel relieved.

    According to Pinchas Lapide, the intervention of the Nuncio Pacelli contributed to “save the Jews of Jerusalem as well as the holy sites from an almost certain doom.” It was even more significant, since at that time the Turkish troops in Palestine were under command of a German General, Erich von Falkenhayn. About him, his biographer Holger Afflerbach stated: “An inhuman excess against the Jews in Palestine was only prevented through Falkenhayns conduct, which has a special significance in respect to the German history of the 20th century.” Since von Falkenhays was a man who strictly followed orders, it is reasonable to assume that his “conduct” was ordered from Berlin.

    Indeed, Pinchas Lapide quotes a letter written by Dr. Jacob Thon, at that time leader of the Zionist Office in Jerusalem, in December 1917: “It was an special stroke of good fortune that in the last critical days General von Falkenhayn had the command. Cemal Pasha in this case – as he announced often enough – would have expelled the whole population and turned the country into ruins. We and the whole population, Christians as well as Muslims, must remember P.(acelli) with deep gratitude, since he saved the civil population from doom when he prevented the planned evacuation of this area.”

  5. If this history of 1917 is all true, odd that he was so impotent and unhelpful during WW II unless his concern was for Jews only of the Holy Land, not of Europe.

    1. @ YMedad:
      Do you mean General Erich von Falkenhayn? He was completely impotent during WW 2 because he died in 1922.

      — Malte S. Sembten