‘History isn’t black and white’: Guestbook sheds light on senior Nazi’s Zionist link

A recently uncovered signature in a guestbook has shed new light on a Nazi's visit to Jerusalem in 1933, and Israel's National Library is highlighting the find for Holocaust Remembrance Day.

‘History isn’t black and white’: Guestbook sheds light on senior Nazi’s Zionist link
Symbol photo shows the Star of David. Photo: DPA

The visit, illustrated through Leopold von Mildenstein's signature in the guestbook, is further testimony to the Nazis' evolving ideas about how to deal with what they called the “Jewish problem”, historians say.

SEE ALSO: 'I'm afraid it can happen again': German born holocaust survivors in the US reflect on anti-Semitism

The eventual result was the murder of six million Jews in the Holocaust, and Israel held its annual commemoration of the victims on Thursday.

Mildenstein in 1933 was touring what was then British Mandatory Palestine along with a German Jewish friend, Kurt Tuchler, and their wives.

It was part of his efforts to facilitate the solution to Germany's “Jewish problem” by relocating them to their historic homeland.

Mildenstein would eventually become head of the SS department dealing with Jews.

While Mildenstein's visit and relationship with Tuchler has been well-documented, including in the 2011 film “The Flat”, his signature — and participation in a Jewish cultural open house — were yet unknown.

“It was — wow,” Stefan Litt, the archivist responsible for German collections at the Israel National Library, said of the moment he came across Mildenstein's name in the guestbook several months ago.

Speaking with AFP on Wednesday, Litt said he then sought more information in the diary of host Moshe Yaakov Ben-Gavriel, a prolific writer and fervent Zionist whose home the Nazi visited. 

'Unsure what to think' 

The Zionist movement advocated the founding of a Jewish state in Jews' biblical-era homeland, which occurred with the creation of Israel in 1948.

Ben-Gavriel was “unsure what to think” about the presence of a senior member of the German ruling party that upon rising to power in 1933 began expelling Jews from public life, Litt said.

While some guests left, others remained and conversed with Mildenstein, who “was very excited about the building going on in the land, even attempting to say a few words in Hebrew and generally trying to act in a cultured manner,” Ben-Gavriel wrote.

Mildenstein continued to advocate the relocation of Jews to Mandatory Palestine up to 1936, when he was replaced as the SS pointman for Jewish issues by the infamous Adolf Eichmann, who eventually helped orchestrate the mass-murder of Jews as the “final solution”.

The efforts of Mildenstein — who left the SS but remained a Nazi — and the Zionist movement oddly shared an interest though obviously for different reasons, according to an expert.

The Nazis “were interested in what they called distancing the Jews — by emigration”, said Moshe Zimmerman, professor emeritus of history at Jerusalem's Hebrew University.

“And the emigration with which they could collaborate with the greatest ease was Zionist emigration.”

The fundamental change came with the 1939 outbreak of the war and the Nazi's occupation of eastern European countries and their Jewish populations.

“They then needed to find a larger-scale 'solution',” he said. 

“Up to the war, the 'solution to the Jewish problem' applied to Germany's Jews. After the war (began) they needed to think of 'solutions' for Jews from other places too,” Zimmerman said.

Mildenstein's signature and his relationship with Tuchler remains a “terrific story which shows that never, actually, history is black and white”, said Litt, the archivist. 

“There's a lot of grey in-between.”

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German justice contaminated by Nazis in post-war years

Germany's justice system was still filled with former Nazis well into the 1970s, as the Cold War coloured efforts to root out fascists, according a damning official inquiry presented Thursday.

Professors Friedrich Kießling and Christoph Safferling present their report
Professors Friedrich Kießling and Christoph Safferling present their report "State Security in the Cold War". Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Uwe Anspach

In the 600-page collection of findings entitled “State Security in the Cold War”, historian Friedrich Kiessling and legal scholar Christoph Safferling focused on the period from the early 1950s until 1974.

Their research found that between 1953 and 1959, around three in four top officials at the federal prosecutor’s office, which commissioned the report, had belonged to the Nazi party.

More than 80 percent had worked in Adolf Hitler’s justice apparatus, and it would take until 1972 before they were no longer in the majority.

“On the face of it they were highly competent lawyers… but that came against the backdrop of the death sentences and race laws in which they were involved,” said Margaretha Sudhof, state secretary at the justice ministry, unveiling the report.

“These are disturbing contradictions to which our country has long remained blind.”

‘Combat mission’

It was not until 1992, two years after Germany’s national reunification, that the last prosecutor with a fascist background left the office.

“There was no break, let alone a conscious break, with the Nazi past” at the federal prosecutor’s office, the authors concluded, stressing “the great and long continuity” of the functions held and “the high number” of officials involved in Hitler’s regime.

Chief federal prosecutor Peter Frank commissioned the study in 2017. The federal prosecutor’s office is one of Germany’s most powerful institutions, handling the most serious national security cases including those involving terrorism and espionage.

With more than 100 prosecutors, it is “the central actor in the fight against terror,” the report authors said, underlining its growing role in the decades since the September 11th, 2001 attacks in the United States.

The researchers were given unfettered access to hundreds of files labelled classified after the war, and found that rooting out alleged communists was often prioritised over other threats, including from the far right.

“In the 1950s the federal prosecutor’s office had a combat mission – not a legal but a political one: to pursue all the communists in the country,” the daily Süddeutsche Zeitung said in a summary of the report.

‘Recycling’ Nazis

The fact that West Germany widely used former officials from the Nazi regime in its post-war administration had long been known.

For example, Hans Globke served as chief of staff and a trusted confidant to former conservative West German chancellor Konrad Adenauer between 1953 and 1963 and was responsible for recruitment to top posts.

However, Globke had also been a senior civil servant in the Nazi-era interior ministry and was involved in the drafting of the 1935 Nuremberg race laws that imposed the first dramatic restrictions on Jews.

In recent years, systematic digging into the past of key ministries and institutions has unearthed a troubling and previously hidden degree of “recycling” of Third Reich officials in the post-war decades.

A 2016 government report revealed that in 1957, more than a decade after the war ended, around 77 percent of senior officials at the justice ministry had been members of the Nazi party. That study, also carried out by Safferling, revealed that the number of former Nazis at the ministry did not decline after the fall of the regime but actually grew in the 1950s.

Part of the justification was cynical pragmatism: the new republic needed experienced civil servants to establish the West German justice system. Furthermore, the priorities of the Allies who won the war and “liberated” the country from the Nazis were quickly turned upside down in the Cold War context.

After seeking to de-Nazify West Germany after 1945, the aim quickly shifted to building a capitalist bulwark against the communist threat. That approach often meant turning a blind eye to Germans’ previous involvement in the Third Reich.

In recent years, Germany has embarked on a twilight attempt to provide justice for concentration camp victims, placing several former guards in their 90s on trial for wartime crimes.