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The German Officers Who Prevented the Massacre of the Jews of Palestine in World War I

Filed under: Jerusalem in Historical Context

The German Officers Who Prevented the Massacre of the Jews of Palestine in World War I
German General Erich von Falkenhayn on the Temple Mount/Noble Sanctuary with Jamal Pasha, the Turkish governor of Syria and Palestine, 1917. (Library of Congress collection)1

This article is a chapter of the forthcoming book “Secrets of World War I in the Holy Land,” which is being serialized by the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.

An abridged version of this chapter appeared in the Jerusalem Post on December 8, 2011.

The Ottoman war effort in Palestine during World War I was often led by German officers, and their involvement was recorded by the American Colony, Ottoman, and German photographers. German Generals Friedrich Kress von Kressenstein, who helped direct the Ottoman Army in World War I from 1915, was followed by Erich von Falkenhayn, a Prussian officer who served as the Chief of Staff of the German Army, who was the commander of the Turkish, Austrian, and German troops during the critical 1917 period.

Kress is pictured in the Sinai desert, where he commanded two failed attempts to capture the Suez Canal, a strategic British asset. Falkenhayn is shown on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem with the Turkish ruler of Syria and Palestine, Jamal (also written as Cemal) Pasha. Jamal was a ruthless ruler and one of the “Young Turk” leaders accused of carrying out the expulsion and massacre of hundreds of thousands of Armenians across the Ottoman-controlled regions during World War I.

Generals Von Kress and Baron Lager, of the Austrian Army, in the Sinai, circa 1916
Generals Von Kress and Baron Lager, of the Austrian Army, in the Sinai, circa 1916.

A German photographic collection contains the rare picture of Falkenhayn leaving Palestine in 1918, standing at a dock ready to board a ferry that connected Tiberias with the Ottoman railway station at Samach, at the southern tip of the Sea of Galilee. It bears the incredible caption that claims that Falkenhayn prevented a Turkish massacre of the Jews of Palestine. [The author has permission to publish the photo only in book form and not online.]

“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 wrote: ‘His positive legacy is his conduct during the war in Palestine in 1917. As his biographer Holger 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).2

General Kress von Kressenstein
General Kress von Kressenstein (Library of Congress, 1916)
General Erich von Falkenhayn
General Erich von Falkenhayn (Bundesarchiv)3

How Did German Generals Protect the Jews of Palestine from a Massacre?

A Falkenhayn family genealogy posted on the Internet in 2013 – but unavailable today – elaborated 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.”

Is this account accurate, or is this self-serving German testimony to scrub the stain of Nazism two decades later?

Ottoman Governor Jamal Pasha suspected the loyalties of the Jews of Palestine. The explosion of nationalistic movements across the Empire eroded 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.4 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. They fought with valor against the Turks at Gallipoli. Jamal was reportedly furious, and his fury turned murderous when a Jewish spy cell aiding the British, “NILI,” was discovered in the Jewish town of Zichron Ya’akov in 1917. The Turkish commander saw all Jews as traitors, especially the leader of NILI, Aaron Aaronson, who had joined the British intelligence branch in Cairo. (See chapter “The Spies of the Holy Land.”)

Jamal sought to expel the Jews of Jerusalem and beyond. Expulsions of Jews from Jaffa and Tel Aviv areas had already taken place in late 1914 and again in early 1917.

The crew of USS Tennessee registering refugees
The USS Tennessee evacuated thousands of Jews who were expelled by the Ottoman ruler in Syria/Palestine, Jamal Pasha, in 1915. They disembarked in Alexandria, Egypt. (Department of the Navy, U.S. Naval Historical Center.)

Early on, Kress opposed Jamal’s genocidal intentions. When Falkenhayn arrived in Palestine in 1917, he also argued against Jamal Pasha’s plans. Both appealed to their political leaders in Germany, even the Emperor of Germany. “In Kress’ opinion, Jamal’s intention of transferring the entire population of Jerusalem to the east of the River Jordan and the Syrian interior bordered on the insane,” according to one account.5

(See Lenny Ben-David, American Interests in the Holy Land, “The U.S. Navy Saved the Jews of the Holy Land 100 Years Ago.”)

Who Saved the Jewish Community?

Several accounts confirm that German officers and diplomats protected the Jews. According to historians, the Vatican was also involved.

The London Zionist Organization presented a report to the 1921 Zionist Congress, which credited foreign consular officials who “during the whole period of their stay in the country [Palestine] showed themselves always ready to help, and performed valuable services for the Jewish Yishuv [the Jewish community]. Especially deserving of mention is 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 von Kressenstein, who on several occasions exerted his influence on behalf of the Jews.”6

Falkenhayn’s biographer, Prof. Holger Afflerbach of Leeds University, explained to the author, “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 spoke about evacuation of all Jewish settlers in Palestine.”7

Col. Kress von Kressenstein reviewing Turkish troops with Jamal Pasha on the Emek Rafaim parade grounds near Jerusalem, 1917
Col. Kress von Kressenstein reviewing Turkish troops with Jamal Pasha on the Emek Rafaim parade grounds near Jerusalem, 1917. (Library of Congress)8

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 the 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 there were single cases of cooperation between the English and a few Jewish radicals, but 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.”

“I consider Jewish practices to be acts of a very small extreme party,” Falkenhayn cabled to Johann Heinrich Graf von Bernstorff, the German ambassador in Constantinople: “Mass Judaism has nothing to do with it.”9 Indeed, the “mass” of the Palestinian Jewish leadership opposed the NILI spy operation, with one telling German diplomats that he saw the spy ring as a “bunch of adventurers” and “irresponsible individuals.”10

The German historian, Michael 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. We and the whole population, Christians as well as Muslims, must remember [Vatican official] P(acelli) with deep gratitude since he saved the civil population from doom when he prevented the planned evacuation of this area,” according to the Catholicism Pure and Simple blog site.11

Hesemann has written extensively about Eugenio Pacelli and the Vatican’s role in aiding the Jews of Palestine. Pacelli has long been accused of turning his back on the Jews of Europe during World War II when he served as the Roman Catholic Pope Pius XII. “Eugenio Pacelli, who in 1939 became Pope Pius XII, actively supported Zionism during World War I,” Hesemann claimed 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 favor of the Jewish settlers in Palestine.”12

Details on the Vatican Request to Germany and Turkey

In an email with the author, Hesemann reported, “On November 15, 1917, 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. 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. Gasparri.’”

Eugenio Pacelli, nuncio to Bavaria, 1922. (Wikimedia) In 1939 he became Pope PiusXII.

“Only Germany, as their most important ally, was able to stop the Turks from performing a massacre.” Hesemann wrote. “Pacelli presented his case on November 16, 1917, to the Royal Bavarian Secretary of State and urgently requested intervention…. 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,” Hesemann continued, “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 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.’”13

Falkenhayn Saved the City of Jerusalem

Turkish troops entering Jaffa Gate from the countryside gathered in Jerusalem before their retreat on December 8, 1917
Turkish troops entering Jaffa Gate from the countryside gathered in Jerusalem before their retreat on December 8, 1917. (Author’s collection). The building on the left is a store where the Bezalel Art School sold souvenirs. The name Bezalel is on the tower top.

Turkish sources indicate considerable tension between Jamal Pasha and Falkenhayn as the war progressed, and British forces moved north after the capture of Be’er Sheva in October 1917. The British forces were also moving north along the coast, and the Turks feared fifth columnists among the Jewish community. The following account appears in the English-language Turkey in the First World War:

“The British attack on Jerusalem began on December 8, 1917. 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.]”14

“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 February 24, 1918, he replaced Falkenhayn.”

Gen. Erich von Falkenhayn’s Legacy and His Daughter, Erika

Falkenhayn, his daughter Erika, and Jamal Pasha at the Jerusalem train station, in 1917
Falkenhayn, his daughter Erika, and Jamal Pasha at the Jerusalem train station, in 1917. (Ottoman Imperial Archives)

In 1922, Gen. Falkenhayn died of kidney disease. In 1926, his daughter Erika married a young German officer, Henning von Tresckow, who rose through the ranks.

A general, he was involved in the failed coup and assassination attempt, “Operation Valkyrie,” against Adolf Hitler. He committed suicide in July 1944. Erika and her children were arrested. After the war, she worked as a teacher and died in 1974.

Erika von Falkenhayn and her husband Henning von Tresckow
Erika von Falkenhayn and her husband Henning von Tresckow (Wikipedia)

Falkenhayn had no particular love for Jews, according to his biographer, Prof. 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… As a result, 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 precisely because he saved Jews and because of his son-in-law’s Valkyrie conspiracy against Hitler.

The irony of ironies. The Jews of Palestine owed their survival during World War I to German army officers, and, by extension, the State of Israel’s foundations were established thanks to Falkenhayn and Kress. Some 25 years later, the German army would take part in the eradication of the Jews of Europe despite the efforts of General von Tresckow. Ultimately, survivors of the Nazi genocide and from Arab countries would find shelter in the Kress-Falkenhayn legacy.

* * *


  1. Photograph of General Erich von Falkenhayn at the Dome of the Rock, 1916, Library of Congress,↩︎

  2. Gunter Hartnagel collection, “Tsemach, Sea of Galilee, General Falkenhayn leaves the Palestine war theater,” Flickr,↩︎

  3. Portrait of von Falkenhayn,↩︎

  4. Nir Mann, Haaretz, “Unlikely Saviors: How Germany Helped Save Palestine’s Jews During WWI,” July 31, 2014,↩︎

  5. “German Intervention on Behalf of the Yishuv, 1917,” by Isaiah Friedman, Jewish Social Studies.↩︎

  6. “Palestine during the War, the Preservation of the Jewish Settlements in Palestine,” Report to the 12th Zionist Congress, September 1921.↩︎

  7. Prof. Holger Afflerbach personal conversation with the author, November 2011.↩︎

  8. Photograph, Review of Troops by Jamal Pasha and General von Kressenstein in Jerusalem, Library of Congress,↩︎


  10. Comments by Arthur Ruppin, cited by Isaiah Friedman, Ibid, “German Intervention.”↩︎

  11. Michael Heseman cited in “Pius XII helped Jews to settle in Palestine. Documents confirm Papal involvement,” Catholicism Pure and Simple blog site, January 22, 2011.↩︎

  12. Ibid.↩︎

  13. Michael Hesemann email to the author, May 23, 2014↩︎

  14. Dr. Altay Ath, Turkey in the First World War,↩︎