The more things change, the more they stay the same.

Did a German Officer Prevent the Massacre of the Jews of Eretz Yisrael during World War I?

German General Falkenhaynon the Temple Mt with JamalPasha, Turkish governor of Syria and Palestine, 1916

(Library of Congress collection)

A version of this article was published in print edition of The Jerusalem Post Magazine on Friday, December 9, 2011, and appears in the Jerusalem Post’s online Premium Zone.

Please note the important comments below by the historian Michael Hesemann about the role played by the Vatican in the saving of the Jews of Palestine.

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


Is it true? Did a German general protect the Jewish population of Palestine from massacre?  My first impulse was to find proof otherwise.



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 balance the stain of Nazism two decades later?


Falkenhayn and Jamal Pasha in thebackseat 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). 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 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 in 1915 the Zion Mule Corps, later known as the Jewish Legion, and they fought with valor against the Turks at Gallipoli.





The two Pashas ride into Be’er Shevawhere the British army later broke

through and continued to Jerusalem

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.



Sarah Aaronsohn, NILI founder

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 Yaakov 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 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 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 vanKressenstein

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 told me, “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 withJamal 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….”



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.”



Post Script:

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 assist in the genocide of the Jews of Europe. Ultimately, survivors of the Nazi genocide would find shelter in Falkenhayn’s legacy.
The writer served as a senior Israeli diplomat in Washington.  Today he serves as a public affairs consultant.

Original article found here

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