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An Unyielding Account of One of the Most Contentious Issues in Jewish History

September 27, 2009

The Transfer Agreement: The Dramatic Story of the Pact Between the Third Reich and Jewish Palestine. Edwin Black. Dialog Press. 1983, 1999, 2001, 2009. 430 pages.

Twenty six years ago, author Edwin Black asked a question at the end of a long and difficult journey: Was it madness or genius?  This journey would begin further back in time, at a bleak moment in world history when a madman named Adolf Hitler was democratically elected Chancellor of Germany. Although this could be the start of any number of narratives regarding the Third Reich, The Transfer Agreement involves a particular esoteric agreement between Jewish Zionists and Nazis.

The Zionists wanted to assist (and direct, if necessary) their German Jewish brethren to emigrate and reestablish themselves in the land promised long ago by God and more recently by the British: Palestine.

The Nazis, for their part, not only shared the goal of wanting the Jews out of Germany, but also wanted to quickly end the rapid, worldwide boycott that was organized against them by other Jewish and non-Jewish groups in 1933. Thus begins a complex web of reactions, rationalizations, back-stabbing, misrepresentation, and ultimately, hard-nosed negotiations on the part of each side.

Despite the odiousness of dealing with the Nazis, the Zionists that took part in the agreement held their national aspirations above all else and offered to break the boycott in exchange for Jewish refugees and their capital in the hopes that these could be used to establish a new Jewish state. This arrangement would come not only in form of political support to stymie the boycott, but also in the deliberate promotion of German goods to Jewish Palestine. Other historians have supported the book’s premise that the influx of foreign capital, resulting from both Jewish emigration and sale of German goods abroad, was an irresistible incentive to the Nazis, as this currency was in dangerously short supply for a Germany wracked by the Great Depression.

While the end result is a dramatically ironic pact between the most unlikely of participants, the book’s main focus is the path that led to such an arrangement. This comes in the form of behind-the-scenes intrigue among Jewish groups, both Zionist and otherwise. On display are their reactions to the situation, which vary widely – from unwavering, angry defiance, to guilt and self-blame.

The text raises the uncomfortable question that links these two disparate groups: do extreme nationalist tendencies mirror each other more than we like to believe? In the end, this account, which both sides labeled as ‘the deal with the devil’ arouses an array of powerful emotional responses.

This intensity comes from the immediacy of its narrative style that would become a trademark of Edwin Black’s later books, such as IBM and the Holocaust and War Against the Weak. This book makes you want to believe in the anti-Nazi boycott. Page by page, the only solace to the unending reminders of Jewish suffering throughout the book comes in the form of newsflash style reporting of widespread fiscal damage to the new Nazi state resulting from the rapid, negative world reaction. Black offers the reader repose in periodic and dramatic descriptions of Nazis fretting over the economic precariousness of their situation.

This apparent moment of vulnerability for the Nazis makes the collaboration with Jews to break the boycott all the more shocking. With the awareness of the horror of the Final Solution that was to come after this era, The Transfer Agreement adds an unmistakable emotional resonance.

The center of Edwin Black’s argument is nothing less than the extremely controversial subject of the foundation of the state of Israel itself. He contends that this particular transfer of people, money, and goods to the burgeoning Jewish nation was a catalyzing moment for its founding. The Transfer Agreement also supports the idea that this group of Jewish settlers and goods that arrived in Palestine as the result of such a pact would serve as a critical foothold for Jews seeking asylum who would survive the Holocaust. While the objective merit of any historical argument can be debated, the author’s personal views are apparent throughout the text.

Other historians have argued that this agreement ultimately facilitated the emigration of only a small handful of mostly wealthy Jews, a situation which did not fulfill the requirements of either party in the Transfer Agreement. Actually, some 60,000 Jews transferred in Palestine under the agreement. Not only was Nazi Germany losing tax revenue instead of gaining badly needed foreign currency, it was also failing to hasten the removal of all Jews quickly from the Reich. Additionally, this result did not appear to help the Zionist cause either, hardly resembling the widespread exodus to Palestine they had envisioned. Thus, the benefits of the Transfer Agreement can still be debated today – which adds continued relevance to this book.

In hindsight, we now know that both a Nazi economic recovery and a state of Israel would eventually result, but one of the most important aspects of this text goes beyond its argument to what it represents: Although some information regarding the Transfer Agreement had been available in select Hebrew-language and German-language academic circles before this book was first published, it has brought this subject to an infinitely wider audience. [1] The importance of public accessibility to extremely controversial issues like this one cannot be understated. They enrich us and teach us the painful lessons of the past, which give rise to the hope that we are not doomed to repeat them. With this newest 2009 edition, the lessons to be learned from The Transfer Agreement are likely to reverberate throughout continuing generations of people.

Uncompromising and intense, Black’s work takes the reader to a place where they will never return the same.

The Transfer Agreement turns out to mirror any number of significant human endeavors: They are both madness AND genius.

[1] David Yisraeli, “The Third Reich and The Transfer Agreement.” Journal of Contemporary History 6, no. 2 (1971) 129-148.

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