Gregory Baum – Israel’s creation depended on Hitler and the Holocaust

Corrupt History II – Gregory Baum on Pre-Independence Zionism

  1. The Hitler/Holocaust Thesis

by

Howard Adelman

Gregory Baum wrote, “If there had been no Hitler and no Auschwitz, Zionism would have remained a small movement.” In yesterday’s blog on Orthodox opposition and support for pre-independence Zionism, I pointed out a number of factors which suggest that, although Hitler, and to a minor extent, the Holocaust itself, had an impact on the creation of Israel, both were relatively minor factors with mixed effects, a position much against the widespread beliefs in both those critical of Zionism and its defenders, though not among most scholars.

One positive, if horrific fact, supporting the thesis is that 80% of the ultra-Orthodox – who strongly opposed secular political Zionism – were killed in the Holocaust. The slaughter of the Hasidim reduced a major source of diaspora opposition to Zionism and may even have increased the percentage of Jews supporting Zionism.  Of course, this is not generally what is meant when writers claim that without Hitler, there would have been no Israel. They really refer to enhancement of the motivations of Jews and guilt created by the Holocaust among bystanders. (“Understanding for Zionism and sympathy for its cause has waned in Western countries as the memory of the Holocaust has receded” – the Herzl Institute.) However, there is only miniscule evidence for this thesis. Nevertheless, the historical facts offer some data to suggest why the thesis could possibly be correct.

Though Ken Livingstone (Mayor of London 2000-2008) claimed that Hitler had supported Zionism, this is false news. However, there is a second argument that might suggest that Hitler enhanced the Zionist cause. On 25 August 1933, Nazi Germany and Zionist German Jews signed the very controversial Haavara (transfer) Agreement. The Anglo-Palestine Bank under the direction of the Jewish Agency had been part of the negotiations. Allowing German Jews to use a portion of their assets for Jewish businesses in Palestine to purchase German goods permitted German Jews, if they resettled in Palestine, to be compensated by those Palestine businesses. In six years between 1933 and 1939, Germany was able by this means to export about US$35,000,000 worth of goods. Jews who went to Palestine were able to recover about $US100 million of their assets. However, while a significant injection, this represented a very small part of the productivity in Palestine between 1933 and 1939. Far more than that was lost as a result of the 1936-1939 Palestinian uprising.

The deal also facilitated the migration of 60,000 Yekkes from Germany to Palestine under what today is known as an immigration investor program. Whatever the support for Zionism in Eastern Europe, among German Jews, there had been very little support in 1933 for Zionism. Their numbers represented about 2% of the German Jewish population and this is a significant source of the belief of Gregory Baum that Zionism was a small movement.

The Haavara Agreement strengthened Zionism on the ground in Palestine. However, it also set a precedent for breaching the anti-Nazi worldwide Jewish boycott imposed on Germany, a boycott instigated by the persecution of Jews with the firing of Jews from the government, the boycott of Jewish businesses, and the quotas imposed on Jewish enrolment in schools and universities. While the agreement led to the rescue of a significant number of Jews, it also created a deep chasm within the Zionist movement, a rift that some would argue seriously weakened it because of this schism. As Edwin Black wrote, “The Transfer Agreement tore the Jewish world apart, turning leader against leader, threatening rebellion and even assassination.” My interpretation is that the damage caused was more significant than the benefits, but it is a claim that is hard to make, for most of the 60,000 Jews might not have otherwise been saved.

Supporters of the H/H thesis also claim that Hitler and the Holocaust greatly increased the sympathy for Zionism. However, the reality was that the general antisemitism prevalent throughout Europe before Hitler even came to power had made Zionism a much stronger movement in Eastern Europe than most of its competitors even though it had an insignificant impact among German Jews. Zionism was NOT a small movement in 1933.

Further, the evidence seems to be clear that in 1933 there was already a movement among Orthodox Jews to support Zionism. This movement initially opposed  the community establishment and prominent rabbis that culminated in 1937 in Agudat Israel, an Orthodox political movement, formally shifting from an anti-Zionist to a non-Zionist position. On the other hand, even after Hitler, even after the Holocaust, Agudat Israel opposed the United Nations motion in November 1947 recommending partition and the creation of a Jewish state. If Hitler and the Holocaust had been so consequential in the creation of the State of Israel, then a major political party representing certainly the leadership in the Orthodox community would have shifted to support the creation of Israel. But they did not. So at least in this area, there is clear evidence that the rise of Hitler and the Holocaust had no major influence on Agudat Israel’s support for Israel.

One argument supporting the claim that without Hitler there would have been no Israel is based on the fact that WWII so weakened the British economy and military capacity after the war that Britain was unable to defeat the Zionist rebellion. On a broader scale, this position really credits Hitler for the dissolution of the British Empire, ignoring the worldwide forces behind the principle of self-determination quite independently of both Hitler and British power.

There is another argument that claims that the Holocaust benefitted Israel. As a result of the Holocaust, Germany paid Israel reparations and those reparations helped Israel to grow economically. But this happened after Israel was created and may indeed have played a role in ensuring the economic viability of the state. But it is not an argument supporting the claim that the Holocaust helped bring Israel into being. It is difficult to understand why the claim is so widely accepted that, “the Holocaust motivated large numbers of immigrants to move to Palestine” thereby creating a critical population mass. I will deal with this latter claim, namely that the Holocaust motivated large numbers of Jews to move to Palestine, in a separate blog on migration.

Further, roughly half the population of Israel came from Arab and other Middle East states. Their move to Palestine started before the Zionist movement developed tracks and mostly continued without formal Zionist help. But the really large movement came after the creation of the State of Israel. If Hitler and the Holocaust were the major sources for this movement, then the effort of Jews from Arab lands and other Middle East countries (Turkey, Iran) would have increased enormously after the war and put enormous pressure on the British attempt to limit Jewish immigration into Palestine. There was no significant pressure from Jews in Arab lands and in Iran and Turkey. The push came after the state was created, suggesting strongly that the creation of the state, for various reasons, stimulated the large migration from these sources. Migration pressure from this source did not result from the rise of Hitler and the Holocaust to influence the creation of Israel. Quite the reverse! The creation of the State of Israel instigated the mass migration.

Even within the major denomination of Jews in the New World, the sympathy for Zionism in Reform Jewry only took off well after WWII, well after the Holocaust. The latter two may have had an influence, but the evidence suggests that the Six Day War was really the turning point. The reason is that, in the build up towards that war, Jews who did not identify with Zionism identified with their fellow Jews under threat of annihilation and even feared that Israel would lose and the Jews would be slaughtered. Thus, solidarity with live Jews under threat acted as a much greater catalyst than the dead Jews murdered by the Nazis in the Holocaust, though the Holocaust had begun to haunt world Jewry as well as the rest of the world. But by then, Israel was already nineteen years old.

What about the effects of the rise of Hitler and the Holocaust on the sympathies of non-Jews? Hitler rose to power in the 1930s. Was there any dramatic effort to stop Hitler from persecuting Jews? Were there strong government boycotts? Did countries open their borders to Jews in flight? If the rise of Hitler had such an impact, why was that impact not translated into some significant action then? There were a number of options available to countries which, at the very least, they could have considered.

During the Holocaust, and certainly afterwards, the West was chastised for not bombing the railroads transporting the Jews to the extermination camps. There is now ample evidence that those in positions of power knew about the transports. I happen to believe, based on my reading, that bombing the railroads leading to the camps by the West was not realistic since the fighter escort craft guarding the bombers would not have had enough fuel to get to places like Poland and back to Britain. But when I was reading documents in the British archives providing background for my research on Jewish refugees after WWII, I never read any evidence that there was a serious study of the alternatives available to interfere with the murder machine, quite aside from whether any of the alternatives was realistic.

Most significantly, immediately after the war, when the Anglo-American Committee visited the refugee camps in 1946, the concern was how to get rid of the refugees. Try to find any significant evidence of guilt over the rise of Hitler and the Holocaust influencing the decision to recommend that Britain allow the entry into Palestine of 100,000 Jews. If countries felt guilt about Hitler and the Holocaust, surely they would either have pressured Britain, a country on the economic ropes at the time, to change its policies and/or resettle the refugees. No significant pressure was applied. By 1947, the Jewish refugees collected in European camps totalled about 250,000.

When I read both the minutes of the United Nations Special Committee on Palestine as well as the archival files and memoirs of some of the members, I could not find a hint of guilt about Hitler or the Holocaust, let alone some discussion of both. Instead, a very major concern was again the disposition of the refugees, by then increased to 250,000. I would argue that this problem, as well as the difficulties of any other solution, would lead both the Majority Report that recommended partition and the creation of a Jewish state, and the Minority Report recommending a federation, to see Palestine as a repository for the Jewish refugees.

In 1946, when a survey was undertaken of the Jewish refugees about where they wanted to resettle, the majority indicated Palestine. However, there is plenty of evidence to indicate that representatives of the Jewish Agency manipulated both the refugees and the vote to ensure that outcome. In 1946, though Zionism was certainly a significant movement by then, in spite of Hitler, in spite of the Holocaust, a majority of Jewish refugees did not prioritize Palestine as a place to resettle.

However, this changed by the time UNSCOP visited the camps in 1947. The numbers had more than doubled. But genuine support for Zionism in the camps was now almost overwhelming. Why? Neither Hitler nor the Holocaust held positions as intervening causes. The reason was the recognition that Jews still were unwanted by the nations of the world. Without Palestine, the Jews might remain warehoused in camps for years. They did not anticipate that the West would begin to unlock the gates, especially in North America.

In sum, the evidence suggests that both Hitler and the Holocaust were reasons why the pressures among Jewry decreased in Europe because there were far fewer Jews, both to oppose and to support Zionism. Hitler and the Holocaust did not give Zionism a boost, but severely undermined its efforts by slaughtering 95% of the populations from which it drew its main base of support.  There is no significant evidence that either the Holocaust – which in the 1940s was still little discussed outside legal circles – or Hitler enhanced the Zionist movement in any way. The dedication of Zionists to converting more of the Jewish masses to their cause, their efforts in diplomacy with nations from whom they could get potential support, the military preparations on the ground, and, most importantly of all, the effect of the military victory in the War of Independence after the state had been created, had the most profound influence on support for the nascent state both among Jews in the diaspora and among non-Jews.

Why then the myth that Zionism became a significant movement only because of Hitler and the Holocaust. After all, even Nahum Goldmann, once president of the World Jewish Congress, claimed that “without Auschwitz there would be no Israel.” I will try to answer that question by the time I finish reviewing the other six theses that Gregory Baum put forth. In the interim, the preponderance of evidence undermines the thesis that the rise of Hitler and the Holocaust provided Israel with the resources, the population, and the approval of other nations to come into existence and subsequently thrive.

he Iranian Involvement in Blowing Up the Jewish Centre in Buenos Aries

The Iranian Involvement in Blowing Up the Jewish Centre in Buenos Aries

Part III: The Washington-Jerusalem-Buenos Aries-Tehran Quadrangle

by

Howard Adelman

This week, Iran marked the anniversary of its 11 February 1979 Islamic Revolution that ousted the U.S.-backed Shah Reza Pahlavi. Massive rallies, especially in Tehran, were held. As usual, and in spite of the ongoing nuclear negotiations with the U.S. and secret cooperation in the fight against Islamic State, the rallies were accompanied by anti-American displays as well as the customary anti-Israel chants and banners. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, addressing the crowds, promised to “spare no effort” to protect the Islamic Republic’s rights as it negotiates. “The sanctions have not forced Iran to enter the talks, but the impracticality of the all-out pressures on Iran and the significant advancements in Iran’s peaceful nuclear program made the United States come to the negotiation table.” That is the way the narrative runs in the topsy-turvy Alice in Wonderland world of Iran.

The 1979 change was more of a coup than a revolution with a group of religious fascists succeeding a more secular clique of secular fascists, though, in contrast to his father, Reza Shah Pahlavi, Shah Pahlavi, the son, was Western-oriented and not a Germanophile. Reza Shah Pahlavi seized power in 1925 in what was then called Persia. When Adolph Hitler seized power in 1933 in Germany, the Shah was obsessed with Hitler’s concept of racial purity and an Aryan master race. In 1935, Pahlavi changed the name of the country to Iran, in Farsi, Land of Aryans, to emphasize the connection between Nazi Germany and the Indo-Persian lineage. When war began in 1939, the mufti of Jerusalem served as middle man to trade Iranian oil while organizing active Islamic participation in the murder of Jews in the Mideast and Eastern Europe, mostly Croatia. Hitler, in turn, supported a Pan-Arab state and Arab rule over Palestine.

If Buenos Aries was a centre of Nazi activities in the Americas during WWII, Tehran served the same role in the Middle East as it teemed with Gestapo agents planning the 1941 pro-Nazi coup in Baghdad as the German ambassador to Iraq, Dr. Fritz Gobba, supported both anti-British and anti-Semitic Iraqi movements and organizations. On 31 March 1940, the pro-Nazi, Rashid Ali al-Gaylani from the party of National Brotherhood, became Prime Minister of Iraq. In July, with a letter of introduction from the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, Muhammad Amin al-Husayni, then living in Tehran, Gaylani sent his justice minister to meet with Franz von Papen in Greece and win support from Nazi Germany. However, the regent, Emir Abdul Ilah, who stood in for Ghazi’s four-year-old son, King Faisal II since Ghazi’s accidental death in 1939, removed him from office at the end of January 1941. Two months later, one year after he had assumed his role of PM, on 1 April 1941, Gaylani overthrew the regent.

Gaylani instigated a siege of the British Habbaniya airbase. The siege was fought off by British Air Vice-Marshal H.G. Smart and the Iraqi revolt was put down with British reinforcements from India, the 20th Indian Infantry Brigade, and troops under the leadership of Brigadier J.J. Kingstone with a mixture of regular troops, Jordanian forces led by Lieutenant-General Sir John Bagot Glubb, better known as Glubb Pasha, and a Jewish volunteer corps from Palestine after this odd military aggregation raced across 600 m of desert to reach Iran. When the latter reinforcements arrived on 30 May, Gaylani fled to Tehran. There, he was hosted by the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem.

On Friday 30 May, an imam, Jani al-Gaylani, roused the worshippers with a firebrand anti-British and anti-Semitic sermon. By Saturday, the mobs that had formed saw they could make no headway against the armed forces of the British. Red hands were painted on Jewish homes and shops. On Sunday 1 June 1941, a Nazi-inspired pogrom in Baghdad, The Farhud, targeted the city’s Jewish minority with the mob screaming, “Cutal al yehud,” “slaughter the Jews.” Why the British ambassador, Kinahan Cornwallis, ordered the British troops to stand down, contrary to an explicit order from Winston Churchill to secure the city, has never been adequately explained. In the ensuing two days of rioting, 180 Jews were killed and many hundreds wounded. The death toll would have been much higher if Muslim friends and neighbours had not stepped forward to either protect or hide Jews. 900 Jewish homes were burned to the ground and many Jewish-owned shops were looted and trashed. Finally, later in the day, on 2 June, Baghdad police backed by British troops dispersed the rioters, killing about 400 in the process.

The anti-Semitism that Hitler had successfully helped export to Iraq persisted however. It made life unbearable for the Jewish community after WWII. There were frequent arrests on false charges of spying and public hangings of prominent Jews – that of Shafiq Ades, a prominent Jewish businessman in Basra being the most notable. Though the coup had failed, the anti-Semitism had continued and expanded underground. By 1950, almost all of the 150,000 Jews of Iraq, a 2500-year-old community, left, mostly for Israel after having been forced to abandon all their property. They constituted the militant base of the Likud party in Israel.

After the failed Iraq coup, the mufti of Jerusalem in his venomous anti-Semitism broadcasts from Tehran openly advocated cutting off all oil supplies from Iran to Britain. In October 1941, British, Russian and other Allied forces invaded Iran, deposed the pro-Nazi Shah and replaced him with his Western-oriented son, Mohammad Reza. The mufti skipped off to Berlin from where he continued to rant against Jews and advocate a pan-Arab and pan-Islamic alliance with the Nazi regime and a Middle East purified of Jews. In the bazaars of Tehran’s markets, merchants could no longer celebrate Adolph Hitler, but Iranian volunteers continued to be recruited to serve in the Waffen SS divisions in Bosnia and Croatia.

For thirty-eight years, during the second Pahlavi monarchy, Iranian Jews enjoyed a virtual golden age in Iran. Not only did they enjoy an unprecedented level of cultural and religious autonomy but they prospered economically as well. But when the worship of Cyrus the Great was traded in for Mohammed and puritanical adherence to Islamic values and dogmas, there was no need for Jews to be affected by this anymore than Christian reversion to fundamentalism need target Jews. Theoretically, the turn could go either way.

Not in Iran. Jews had benefitted greatly under the Shah and had been protected by him. Further, they had been leading voices in the embrace of modernism to which Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini was much more opposed than to Jews per se. Jews were also leading figures in the culture of America in the eighties. In conspiratorial world views, some force had to be behind what Khomeini regarded as the diabolical turn in the world. The explanation was to be found in the confluence of a fundamental metaphysical construction of the world rooted in Persian Zoroastrianism going well back before Cyrus the Great where the world was governed by two opposed forces, Spenta Mainyu (progressive mentality) and Angra Mainyu (destructive mentality) under one God (Ahura Mazda, Illuminating Wisdom). Filtered through selective Shia Islamic beliefs and the Nazi heritage of anti-Semitism, Zionism was stamped as the Angra Mainyu, the evil force that had seeped into human minds. Within this Manichean world view, credit for the focus on Zionism and anti-Semitism can not only go to the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, but also the success of Zionism in the Middle East so that even Egypt embraced Israel in a peace agreement in 1979. Zionism became the Leviathan behind all the “horrific” changes in the world.

This is how Khomeini opens his book Al-Hukumah Al-Islamiyyah (Islamic Governance) that he wrote while he was still in exile in Paris. “Since its inception, the Islamic movement has been afflicted with the Jews ‘who’ established anti-Islamic propaganda and joined in various stratagems, and as you can see, this activity continues down to our present day.” The Jews of the Banú Qurayza were exterminated by the Prophet Muhammad because they corrupted Islam. Unlike the anti-Semitism of Nazism, the Jews were not genetically evil. If kept in their place, as the 25,000 Jews who remained in Iran were, they were not a problem. As long as the Jews and the Chief Rabbi of Iran, then Yedidia Shofet, recognized this, as long as Zionism did not contaminate the Iranian Jewish community, Jews could be tolerated. But if Islam allows itself to be infected and weakened by the Jewish Zionist virus, Iran and Islam will be destroyed.

How do you keep from being infected? By Shia purity, by avoiding contact with the impurity of unbelievers, by making sure that both your body and your mind are not contaminated. Don’t buy food from infidels. Don’t read books by unbelievers. Don’t allow Jews to rise above their inherent inferior status. In other words, do not allow the prime source of impurity, chizhaye napak, infect your souls, the virulent infection exemplified by the Bahá’i who were ruthlessly persecuted in Iran almost immediately upon Khomeini’s return. Even more despicable were the Christians, though, for Khomeini, almost nothing could be worse than the disease of Zionism and infected Muslims like the Bahá’i.

Within ten years, by 1989, anti-Semitism in this form of anti-Zionism had become commonplace. “For their transgression, cursed were the unbelievers of the Children of Israel.” And the military and intelligence services were ordered to develop a combat strategy both to prevent the infection from spreading and to destroy the disease to make sure not only that Iran remain immune from the infection, but to protect all other Muslims. For Khomeini was a modern globalist. Khaybar was the Jewish oasis besieged and conquered by the Prophet. Khaybar became the archetype of victory over the Iraqi Sunnis in the Iran-Iraq war and, subsequently, the basis for combating worldwide Zionism in all its forms as evidenced by The Protocols of the Elders of Zion widely available in Iran.

Clearly, the struggle with Israel was not just a struggle between two emerging nationalities, one Jewish and one Palestinian. Nor was it a dispute over territory and settlements in the West Bank. It was a Manichean dispute between Good (Shi’ite Islam as interpreted by Ayatollah Khomeini) and Jews and Zionism. The very survival of Islam was at stake. The struggle against Zionism was an existential struggle.

It is in that context that the work on nuclear plants and the bombing of both the Israeli embassy and the Jewish community centre must be understood within the first fifteen years of the 1979 revolution. What do we believe we know about Iran’s involvement in the bombing of the Israeli embassy in Buenos Aries in 1992 and the Jewish community centre in Buenos Aries in 1994?

  • Iranian intelligence planned both operations
  • The Iranian Supreme Council for National Security approved both plans
  • The plans of both operations followed the same trajectory
  • The plans were developed by Iran’s VEVAK, known as Vijeh, intelligence agency
  • The plans for the 1994 bombing were approved in August 1993 by the Iranian Supreme National Security Council with the Iranian spiritual leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, in the chair
  • Others in attendance included President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani (1989-1997), Ali Fallahian, Minister of Intelligence, Muhamed Hijazi, intelligence and security adviser to Khamenei, and Ali Akbar Velayati, Foreign Minister.

Rafsanjani was the de facto commander-in-chief of the Iranian military during the Iraq-Iran War and thought to be the richest person in Iran. He has a reputation as a pragmatic centrist and is often portrayed as a softie, but since he was in charge of the assassination in Europe of the regime’s opponents as well as domestic dissidents and Bahá’is, since he refused to lift Khomeini’s fatwa against Salman Rushdie, this is a very questionable presumption. More to the point, for our purposes, Rafsanjani strongly supported Iran’s nuclear program while insisting it was only for peaceful purposes, which, in part, helped him earn a reputation within Iran as the only Iranian with both the guile and clout to negotiate a deal with the West acceptable to Iran. Rafsanjani was very careful with his words and is often quoted about Jews as saying, “We have no problems with Jews and highly respect Judaism as a holy religion,” but that was fully consistent with Khomeini’s version of anti-Semitism.

The other members of the Iranian clique that decided to bomb the Israeli embassy and the Jewish cultural centre in Buenos Aries were of the same ilk. Ali Fallahian presented himself as an economic reform candidate, advocated ending the uranium enrichment program and was in favour of outreach to the West – the latter prospect having a particular inducement for him since he was wanted by Interpol for the AMIA bombing, by the German justice system for the murder of four Kurdish-Iranian opposition leaders, including Sadegh Sharafkandi, in the Mykonos restaurant assassinations, and by the Swiss courts which -indicted him for sending his agents to Geneva to assassinate Kazem Rajavi. Within Iran, he was the organizer of the 1998 “Chain Murders” allegedly by Saeed Emami, a deputy minister of intelligence. Saeed, widely rumoured to be Jewish, which might partly explain his role as an early Iranian Holocaust denier. He was indicted as a co-conspirator in the AMIA bombings. Arrested for the 1998 Chain Massacres; in prison, Emami purportedly tried to commit suicide on 16 June 1999 and died three days later. I believe, like many others assassinated by the Iranian intelligence service, he himself was murdered because he knew too much.

Hasin Baro, a member of Hezbollah, implemented the bombing of AMIA. Much of the information comes from Mossad, Abolghasem Mesbahi, a former VEVAK agent, from Interpol, from the investigations and charges of German and Swiss departments of justice, and mostly from the Argentinian investigations. Recently, the pattern was repeated in Uruguay where 32-year-old Iranian diplomat Ahmed Sabatgold left Uruguay because the Uruguayan intelligence services had evidence that he was involved in plans to blow up a building housing Israel’s new embassy in Montevideo. These boys were more akin to Mafia mobsters than religious clerics.

Why was AMIA targeted? For two reasons. First, in revenge for Argentina reneging on the Iran-Argentina dealings over Argentinian nuclear expertise and supplies. Secondly, because, for both the Argentinian and Iranian intelligence services, Jews were expendable.

Enough is known about Argentinian-Iranian nuclear negotiations to offer a reasonable portrait of motivation. Argentina did not have nuclear weapons. But it had a covert nuclear weapons program as well as an overt peaceful one. Argentina had refused to accede to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and did not sign the Treaty for the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons in Latin America (the Tlatelolco Treaty). From 1983 until the early 1990s, Argentina also had missile development underway, the Cóndor II program.

However, all of this became moot when Argentina and Brazil negotiated a comprehensive safeguards agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and on 24 March 1993, ratified the Treaty of Tlatelolco. What to do with all the expertise, equipment and end enriched uranium? The nuclear program, which had been supposedly mothballed with the return of democracy on 10 December 1983, was not the only one that was being scrapped. Under U.S. pressure, President Menem had also cancelled the Cóndor 2 missile program.

The Military Intelligence of the Islamic Republic of Iran, VEVAK, which, because of the shared roots of both the Iranian and Argentinian intelligence programs in anti-Semitism, came shopping. Just as Juan Perón had run a two-track program, favouring and protecting Nazis while, at the same time granting Jews full rights as citizens, the two track program now became vertical rather than horizontal, with a subterranean negotiations over nuclear and missile technology and an overt renunciation of nuclear weapons. While President Raúl Alfonsin put the missile and nuclear weapons programs on a shelf, it also became a commodity to trade with Iran for oil and cash, the cash intended to line the pockets of the negotiators, including Carlos Saúl Menem who had been elected President in 1989. The once covert nuclear program and the recently cancelled missile program had become a covert trading package even though Menem had appointed many Jews to his cabinet and released the files about Argentina’s coddling of Nazis under Juan Perón. Nevertheless, if there was a personal profit to be made, nuclear and missile knowledge and materials were offered up to the Khomeini regime. Only the mechanisms for transfers remained to be worked out.

But Menem undercut his own intelligence negotiations with Iran and cancelled the deal. Why is uncertain. Fear of U.S. retaliation, the threat to make the bribes he received public? I do not know. What we do know is that Iran was furious at Argentina for cancelling the covert oil and cash deal for knowledge and materials. It is not known if this rage was also motivated because Menem had already benefited with the deposit of his bribes in Menem’s bank account in Switzerland. Whether or not suggested to Iran as expendable targets by Argentinian intelligence agents, the plot first to bomb the Israeli embassy followed with a bombing of the Jewish community centre was hatched. To what degree the Argentinian intelligence service or some of its agents were involved, is not known, at least not by me. What is known is that Iran was surprised at the reaction to the AMIA bombing since Iranian intelligence knew that the vast majority of Argentinians held the belief that Jews were only interested in money and half of Argentinians believed Jews used the Holocaust to promote their own advantage.

3,000 of the 15,000 to 30,000 disappeared had been Jews even though Jews only made up one per cent of the Argentinian population. Soon more Jews as well as non-Jews would be sacrificed on the twin pillars of aborted international diplomacy and anti-Semitism, both compounded by corruption. Nisman’s later revelations of Iranian-Argentinian arrangements to cancel the inquiry onto the bombings in return for oil seemed to be of the same ilk.

Sunday: The Washington Corn

The Argentinian Nazi Swamp

The Argentinian Nazi Swamp

Part II: The Jerusalem-Buenos Aries-Tehran-Washington Quadrangle

by

Howard Adelman

Unlike my knowledge of Africa, I know very little about Latin America except what I have learned from my oldest son’s books and articles. Jeremy Adelman is the Henry Charles Lea Professor of History at Princeton University where he once chaired the History Department and directed the Centre for Latin American Studies. He is an authority on Argentina. So what I know is mostly stolen from him. The mistakes are all mine.

As many of you know, this year I have been living in Mexico for the winter. Most readers are familiar with the scandal of the disappearance of 43 students here. On 26 September 2014, a group of Ayotzinapa rural teachers college students in the state of Guerrero, in the southwest of Mexico, were traveling to participate in a protest in nearby Iguala. Along the way, they were ambushed, evidently by the police. Three died and several were injured. A few escaped to tell the tale, but 43 disappeared. What happened to them?

What you probably do not know is that the parents of the missing students hired an experienced Argentinian investigative team that had honed its skills originally in the hunt begun in 1984 for Argentina’s 9,000 “disappeared” under the military dictatorship between 1976 and 1983. Mexico’s government claimed that the youth were handed over by the police to the Guerreros Unidos drug cartel who killed them, burned their bodies in Cocula in southern Guerrero, threw the remains onto a garbage dump where they were burned and then flushed the ashes into a river to hide the evidence. Using forensic evidence on the ashes, the investigative team could only identify one student.

Further, the Argentine Forensic Anthropologists team said that there was absolutely no scientific evidence to support the Cocula garbage dump thesis. The narrative concocted by the office of attorney general Jesȕs Murillo Karam, supposedly based on 39 confessions, 386 declarations, 487 forensic tests, 16 raids and two reconstructive investigations, was suddenly highly suspect, especially when tests showed a dump fire could never turn a human body to ashes since the temperature would never be hot enough. The tooth found was from a denture and none of the students wore dentures. Most significantly, the attorney messed up the process of collecting 20 genetic profiles from family members, making then totally useless. Yet the mayor of the town of Iguala, José Luis Abarca, and his wife, María de los Ángeles Pineda, have been in prison since November, along with 90 police accused of the crime.

Critics have insisted that the federal authorities and police were complicit in the crime all along. Key witnesses had been tortured according to Anabel Hernández, the lead investigative reporter for Proceso, and Steve Fisher of the Investigative Reporting Program at the University of California Berkeley.

What has this to do with the 18 January mysterious death of the Argentinian federal prosecutor, Alberto Nisman, hours before he was due to testify on his investigations of the 1994 bombing of the Jewish community centre, Asociación Mutual Israelita Argentina (AMIA) in Buenos Aires which left 85 people dead and 300 more injured? The large number of civilian dead, the alleged attempt to cover up the crime by federal officials, finding evidence in the trash (in the Argentine case, the discovery of a draft arrest warrant for President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner in Nisman’s garbage), the whodunit common theme, the involvement of security forces, the mixture of incompetence and corruption, and the ultimate irony of Argentinians, who cannot get to the bottom of their most puzzling case in history, helping unravel Mexico’s scandal.

The Argentinian case is more interesting because it involved, probably until very recently when it was dissolved by the President, the Argentinian intelligence service. A former investigator into the case, Claudio Lifschitz, claimed he was abducted and tortured by SI agents. The Argentinian case also involved a foreign government, Iran, allegedly in cahoots with the government in Buenos Aries. After the AMIA bomb went off, corrupt police officers were arrested, but extraditions were deliberately bungled. An Iranian spy, Abolghase Mesbahi, had reported that Tehran had deposited $10 million into the Swiss bank account of Prime Minster Menem to thwart an investigation. Juan José Galeano, overseeing the case, was impeached 10 years later. In 2006, Nisman accused Tehran of abetting the Lebanese militants, Hezbollah, in the bombing.

But I want to go back to a much earlier period in Argentina well before the Iran-Argentina AMIA bombing link link via earlier Nazi connections and the swastika. The Iran link will be developed in a separate blog.

Before and during WWII, Argentina had close links with the three axis powers, Germany, Spain and Italy, the three major sources of European immigrants to Argentina. A solid phalanx of Germans lived in Argentina and preserved their language and culture. In the thirties and during WWII, Nazi agents were very active in Argentina and both Jewish and Polish immigrants in Argentina bore an understandable animus towards their “German” fellow citizens.

Juan Perón went even further when he took power in 1946. He had been a fascist admirer if not an outright fascist and had served as a military attaché to Benito Mussolini in the late thirties. He not only tolerated the Nazi presence in Argentina, but, through his agents, recruited Nazis as immigrants to Argentina, including wanted war criminals like Adolf Eichmann (Ricardo Klement in Argentina). Other Nazis fleeing prosecution included: the infamous Josef Mengele (Helmut Gregor in Argentina), the “Angel of Death” notorious for his “scientific” racial experiments and whose notoriety was publicized in the film, The Boys of Brazil; the Prussian aristocrat, Ludolf-Hermann Emmanuel Georg Kurt Werner von Alvensleben (Carlos Lücke in Argentina), nicknamed “Bubi” (Little Boy), the SSGruppenführer and Major General of the Police responsible for the Intelligenzaktion in Pomerania in the “Fordon Valley of Death” and mass murders in Piaśnica; Eduard Roschmann (Frederico Wegner in Argentina), the commander of the Riga concentration camp (the Butcher of Riga) known best through his portrayal in Frederick Forsyth’s novel, The Odessa File, and the movie adapted from it.

Aribert Ferdinand Heim (Tarek Hussein Farid in Cairo), a member of Hitler’s Waffen SS, the Doctor Death at the Buchenwald, Sachsenhausen and Mauthausen concentration camps, was also rumoured to be hiding in Argentina, but had actually relocated to Cairo, whereas Adolf Eichmann, who was for years rumoured to be hiding in the Middle East, had actually relocated to Argentina.

Most of these Nazis were assisted in their escape from war prisoners’ camps after the war, provided with temporary false German identification papers until they were spirited out of Germany on passes supplied by the International Red Cross with the assistance of Alois Hudal, a titular bishop of the Catholic Church in the Vatican who had published a book, The Foundations of National Socialism (1937). Hudal was a critical nexus in the so-called ratline used to relocate Nazis fleeing arrest warrants to Argentina. In Argentina, the so-called Odessa network helped them find jobs or become managers and owners of businesses, often in Perón-sponsored cover firms for Third Reich technocrats. Though he had none of the requisite engineering skills, Adolf Eichmann was soon working for Compañia Argentina para Proyectos y Realizaciones Industriales, a company incorporated to provide electricity in the City of Tȕcamán.

Argentina was not only a haven for Nazis, but the largest centre for Nazis in the Americas. They dreamt of resurrecting National Socialism. It would take far more than this short blog to indicate the extent that Argentina had been a haven for Nazis. Note, I do not call them ex-Nazis because to a man they retained their allegiance to National Socialism throughout their lives. But the following additional select list can give you a sense not only of the Nazi presence in Argentina, but of the Nazi war criminals who found a relatively safe haven in Argentina. Most died natural deaths in Argentina, but some fled to Paraguay and Brazil when things became hot in Buenos Aries. Others returned to Europe. A few were caught and tried like Adolf Eichmann in Israel and Josef Franz Leo Schwamberger in Germany. Most were protected by the Argentinian government which refused requests for extradition.

  • Hans Fischböck, finance minister of occupied Holland, responsible for the expropriation of Jewish property and sending Jewish labour to work in the arms industry
  • Hans Hefelmann responsible for the Führer’s office for euthanasia and aiding in the murder of 75.000 people
  • Fritz Lantschner, Gauamtsleiter. Government Director of the Reichsstatthalterei Tyrol-Vorarlberg; arrived in Argentina in 1948, subsequently becoming an Argentinian citizen; managed a building company in San Carlos de Bariloche, Río Negro
  • Erwin Fleiss, former SS Sturmbannfȕhrer leader of the SS in the Gauleitung Tyrol and active in the pogroms in Innsbruck; arrived in Argentina ten years later and lived in Río Negro where he died in 1964
  • Franz Rubatscher, police officer for the illegal NSDAP, arrived in Argentina in 1947 but was subsequently allowed to resettle back in Europe
  • Fridolin Guth, SS-Hauptsturmfȕhrer, accused of taking part in the murder of French Partisans; arrived in Argentina in 1948
  • Josef (Francisco) Vötterl, SS-Hauptsturmführer; arrived in 1948 and lived in Buenos Aires
  • Josef Janko (José Petri), SS-Obersturmfȕhrer, arrived in Buenos Aires in 1951 and in 1955 obtained an Argentinian residency permit
  • Josef Franz Leo Schwammberger, SS-Oberscharfȕhrer and commander of the forced labour camp in Rozwadów and then in the Przemyśl Ghetto, which was officially declared a work camp; arrived in Buenos Aires in 1949 and became an Argentinian citizen under his own name until an arrest warrant was issued by Argentinian authorities after which he arrested in 1987 and extradited to Germany where he was sentenced to life imprisonment
  • Erich Rajakowitsch, member of the SS responsible for the deportation of Jews in the Netherlands; moved to Buenos Aires in 1947 but returned to Graz in 1952 where he lived for the rest of his life
  • Gerhard Böhne, a lawyer with a doctor of laws, a Nazi war criminal guilty of the extermination of 62,000 people in psychiatric hospitals deemed too “defective” for a pure society and one of the very few Nazis who settled in Argentina in 1949 who was extradited back to Germany in 1966 to stand trial, a pyrrhic success since he was found to be unfit to be tried
  • Johann von Leers, a legal scholar on racial-based legislation, who fled to Argentina in 1950 and five years later followed Aribert Ferdinand Heim (Tarek Hussein Farid) to Cairo to be reborn as Amin Omar van Leers
  • Josef Vötterl, a member of the German Einsatzgruppen who arrived in 1949, returned to Germany in 1955 only to return once again to Argentina three years later to a good position
  • Kurt Christmann, a twin of Josef Vötterl with a similar criminal record, head of the Gestapo in Klapenfurt and Salzburg, and in Russia served as head of the Einsatzgruppen in the town of Kransnoda, spent 5-7 years in Argentina before returning to Germany where he was tried and sentenced to ten years in prison.

There were many more. Most of these Nazis landed on their feet, most with new identities, jobs and financial security. They could, like Adolf Eichmann, even risk reuniting with their families. They also enjoyed the camaraderie of fellow Nazis, even publishing Nazi and anti-Semitic propaganda in the newspaper, Der Weg. Further, they had the additional support of Argentinian homegrown Nazis like Eberhard Ludwig Fritsch head of the Dȕrer publishing house in Buenos Aries, and the fawning services of a skilled “journalist,” Wilhelmus (Willem) Sassen. Adolf Eichmann may have been a very big fish in the Dȕrer swamp, but he still suffered mostly from the enforced anonymity in the world at large where he dreamed of recognition for what he believed were his great accomplishments in the extermination of the Jews.

In 1948, when Dr. Otto Günth, went to Buenos Aires as the first post-war Austrian consul, the sole focus was economic, not the repatriation of alleged war criminals. The Austrian Amnesties of 1955 and 1957 further reduced even tiny efforts to render justice for these escaped murderers. Austria was not the exception but the rule. Countries were keen on burying the past, not resurrecting tales of Nazi crimes. Argentina was just the worst in actively protecting and aiding Nazis. That is why it is so difficult to swallow the complete myth, a myth even believed in by most Jews, that Israel was created because of the Holocaust. In my research in UN archives, I could not find one reference to the Holocaust as a motive for supporting the partition resolution in 1947. What to do with the 200,000 Jewish refugees in Europe was a problem since no country then wanted them. As Bettina Stangneth wrote in her book on Eichmann, “Today it’s difficult to imagine what people in the early 1950s wanted to know about the National Socialist crimes – namely almost nothing.”

1955 was a turning point for two reasons. Juan Perón was deposed. The most active protector of the Nazis in Germany was gone. Further, scholarly books began to appear on the Holocaust. The Jews were not the only ones to suffer from this bracketing of history. So did Adolf Eichmann. In 1955, the French documentary Night and Fog was being shown around the world. Scholarly book after scholarly book was published documenting the atrocities of the Nazi regime with Eichmann’s name repeatedly mentioned as the orchestra conductor of the extermination. This should have made Adolf Eichmann alert to the dangers of his position, as it did Mengele who fled to Brazil. But Eichmann grew even more careless and, as the world knows, Israel’s Mossad finally tracked him down, abducted him and he stood trial in Jerusalem. There he was able to convince even as astute an intellectual as Hannah Arendt that he had only been a cog in a bureaucratic machine, an expression of the banality of evil, rather than a committed and innovative exterminator. However, convincing Arendt was a pyrrhic victory for that was precisely how he did not want to go down in history. He eventually received a posthumous victory of sorts in spite of his skillful acting in the courtroom in Jerusalem in the effort to avoid the death penalty.

However, the Eichmann trial had succeeded in making the Holocaust part of our world historical memory instead of just a subject of study for a small coterie of committed scholars. Eventually, it would lead to the resurrection of Adolf Eichmann as the operational head of a mass extermination machine and not a no-name bureaucrat.

If we transition through the years of Argentinian military dictatorship and the “Dirty War” from 1976-1983, a highly disproportionate number of Jews were among the estimated 9,000 (Nunca Más) disappeared; the Mothers and Grandmothers of the disappeared claim a figure of 30,000. Richard H. Curtiss in his book, In Memoriam: Jacobo Timerman, 1923- 1999, offered a figure of 15,000. In either case, there were many more than the 43 Mexican students who disappeared this past September. Jacobo Timerman, the famous Argentinian-Jewish journalist and publisher, founder of Primera Piana in 1962 and another news weekly, Confirmado, in 1965, both repressed by the military dictatorship that took power in 1966, founded La Opinión in 1971, the Le Monde of Latin America. On 27 July 1972, he was one of the targets of the 20 bombings in Buenos Aries on the twentieth anniversary of Eva Perón death.

In 1973, Juan Perón returned to Argentina when his front, Héctor Cámpora, was elected President but stepped aside upon Perón’s return. Juan was succeeded by his wife, Isabel Perón, when he died the following year. It might appear that after a hiatus of twenty years, the anti-Semitic fascists were back in full power. But, by and large, they had really never left power except for a few years of democracy, and, even then, they had only gone underground. Only the Peronist populist version versus the Catholic religious or the military faction resumed power. The military, just as they had in 1955, returned once again with a coup in 1976 and General Jorge Rafael Videla initiated military rule – el Proceso. .

Anti-Semitism continued to increase throughout the 1970s especially targeting Jews in the media. In 1977, Plan Andinia was published accusing the Jewish international conspiracy of trying to control Argentina. Bombs targeting Jews were going off at the rate of ten per month. An enormous bomb went off when Victory at Entebbe was screened in Córdoba causing enormous damage and many deaths. Timerman was soon arrested, but in 1979 was exiled to Israel where he wrote his 1981 famous book, Prisoner Without a Name, Cell Without a Number, about the years of Argentinian misrule, his torture and the anti-Semitism permeating Argentina. When he was being escorted out of Argentina, he learned that, “fifteen minutes after departure from my house, a group of military men arrived intending to kidnap me.” He would have become one of the disappeared.

Jacobo Timerman’s son became a famous Argentinian human rights advocate, then a diplomat and is currently Foreign Minister of Argentina. How did he become involved in alleged negotiations with Iran and the purported cover-up of the investigation of the 1983 Jewish community centre bombing? Or was he also a target of leaks from the intelligence service with its long tradition of anti-Semitism? Two years before the destruction of the Jewish community centre in Buenos Aries, the Israeli Embassy in Argentina was partially destroyed by a car bomb on 17 March 1992. What is the connection between these two culminations of a half century of anti-Semitism in Argentina in 1992 and 1994 and Tehran?

Two intervening tales need to be told. One is the story of the Argentine intelligence service and the other of the Iranian connection. Until the late 1990s, and, to some degree, right up to the present, the despicable role of the intelligence service and of the government has not been sufficiently exposed. In 1998, when the Argentine foreign minister Guido di Tella was opening the Commission for the Clarification of Nazi Activities in Argentina, he described the collaboration between Argentina and Nazi Germany as a ‘painful and shameful’ episode in Argentina’s history.

Let me finish by quoting my son. The origins of the Argentinian intelligence service “date to the first Juan Perón government (1946–55), which enlisted Nazi war criminals to serve as Perón’s spies. During the military junta’s rule in the late 1970s and early 1980s, the services were deeply involved in repressing the opposition and colluding with neighboring dictatorships.” (http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/foreigners/2015/02/alberto_nisman_s_mysterious_death_and_president_cristina_fern_ndez_de_kirchner.html) It was the intelligence service that provided the leaks of immanent arrest warrants for Nazis in Argentina in the 1950s as regular scoops, thereby giving the Nazis time to flee to Paraguay or Brazil. It was the intelligence service through Antonio Stiusso who, like Deep Throat in the Watergate scandal, was feeding the key information of wiretapped conversations between top aides of Fernández and senior Iranian officials, to Alberto Nisman about squelching the AMIA inquiry and food-for-oil bargaining. The intelligence service may also have been responsible for Nisman’s death. Finally, following his death and the zig-zag responses of the government, President Fernández dissolved the intelligence service.

Tomorrow: The Iranian Involvement in Blowing Up the Jewish Centre in Buenos Aries

Haunted by Humans: The Book Thief

Haunted by Humans: The Book Thief

by

Howard Adelman

Last night, we saw Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel, the delightful elegant comic book movie with more extravagant action scenes than a Batman, Superman or 007 movie. It is chock full of deadpan sight gags and visual delights. Nothing more needs to be said. Enjoy yourself.

Some movies provide a different sort of delight and pleasure even when set against the background of the Nazis and the Holocaust. I did not see The Book Thief when it first came out in theatres. We had been intrigued by the preview, but we were deterred by the reviews so the movie somehow dropped to the bottom of our priority list. Basically, the movie is an adaptation of a coming-of-age very popular and excellent novel by Marcus Zusak about a girl in Nazi Germany from 1938, three month after I was born, until the end of the war, with a postscript about her death of old age in her Upper West Manhattan apartment after having lived a wonderful and fulfilling life.

Two days ago we watched it on Netflix. We were delighted. So I wanted to see what in the reviews had turned us off. Most reviews repeated the story line and served as spoilers. Almost all the reviews applauded the acting, especially the French-Canadian actress, Sophie Nélisse, in the starring role of Liesel Meminger. The excellent cast included the kind Geoffrey Rush and the outwardly hard-hearted Emily Watson as Liesel’s foster parents, Hans and Rosa Hubermann — named as a true understanding of Friedrich Nietzsche’s űbermann, one who does not give into the sentimental demands of mob morality but overcomes oneself and one’s inner fears to evince a higher level of values. Reviewers also heaped enormous praise on the score written by John Williams that was deservedly nominated for an Oscar, but one critic used its quality to further undercut the movie – John Williams’ score, “a quieter, more somber echo of his music for ‘Schindler’s List’ — lends the film an unearned patina of solemnity, for ‘The Book Thief’ is a shameless piece of Oscar-seeking Holocaust kitsch.”

That theme ran through almost of all of the reviews. While acknowledging that the movie was faithful to the novel, the movie was considered soppy, contrived and sentimental and the Director, Brian Percival (of Downton Abbey fame), was generally judged as having reinforced and even over-emphasized that propensity of the original work of fiction on which the film was based. Review aggregations were generally bad, ranking the movie below 50% approval – Rotten Tomatoes 46%. Metacritic gave it a 53 rating, that is a so-so movie.

“The years-spanning film, which observes traumatic historical events through Liesel’s eyes, looks and tastes like a giant sugar cake whose saccharinity largely camouflages the horrors of the war…Except for the Nazi flags hanging from every building, the town, under a glistening blanket of snow, could be the cozy setting for a holiday greeting card. The pieces of the story, which begins in 1938, are so neatly arranged that the movie has the narrative flow and comforting familiarity of a beloved fairy tale.”

“Brian Percival’s adaptation retains much of Zusak’s hefty source material (including that narrator), but the chill is replaced by a chocolate box prettiness, making it cousin to those respectable lit adaptations Chocolat, The Cider House Rules, Memoirs of a Geisha and The Reader. And Percival’s own episodes of Downton Abbey.”

“Bringing this qualified idealism to crooked-grinned, bittersweet life is Rush’s Hans, a man quietly outcast by acquaintances for not joining the Party and whose remorse at an act of quick, but dangerous heroism captures ever-present fear in a fascist state. But, while an accessible entry point to WW2 for younger viewers and never less than watchable for adult audiences, this is ultimately too Oscar showreel polished for its own good.”

“The use of Death as the narrator, and the artfully dream-like set – which looks almost as if it has fluttered out of the pages of an illustration – lend an artistic gloss to the horrors of Nazi repression…I felt manipulated. One can understand why storytellers and filmmakers are drawn to Nazi Germany: its choices were so stark, and the price of courage so great, that it arrives already freighted with emotion. Still, I came away from The Book Thief with the uneasy sense that history had been subjected to a wealth of sentimental fictional tweaking, a kind of self-indulgent wallowing in the human drama of the era without a profound understanding of its reality. And that, combined with the detailed croonings of an imaginary Death about how he garnered the souls of the dying, began to make me feel a little queasy.”

Peter Bradshaw in The Guardian wrote that the movie looked like “a creepy new version of the Anne Frank story”. Brian Viner headlined his review: “It’s Downton with Nazis: Lightweight and glossy, you can tell this war film is made by an ex-director of ITV’s hit costume drama.”

“The Book Thief will undoubtedly have its admirers and, indeed, has one in my 15-year-old god-daughter Lydia, who pronounces it one of the best films she’s ever seen. That might be significant, for the book has been categorised as young-adult fiction, and that’s probably how the film should be marketed, too.”

Even a favourite reviewer, David Denby, wrote, “Markus Zusak’s enormously successful young-adult novel seems to have been adapted as a movie for middle-aged children. The brute facts of the Second World War in Germany—Nazi oppression, hunger, people hiding in basements—have been turned into a pleasantly meaningless tale of good-heartedness, complete with soft lyrical touches and a whimsical appearance, as a narrator, by Death, who should have laid this movie to rest.”

If you happened to read one or two of these reviews, would you have seen the movie? The exceptional critic who praised the movie was not much help either.

“And now for my first fight with my fiancée Debbie Ross. She did not like the film The Book Thief. She thought it too photogenic. I thought it the best film of the year by far… The trouble with critics nowadays is that they know about life under German occupation from Hollywood. I know about it first-hand, over the course of three long years. Most German officers acted impeccably, as did simple soldiers…the great majority were civilised and acted within the rules…The Red Army raped close to three million German women, the German army in occupied Europe raped nearly zero. Go see The Book Thief.”

Such reviews, even though they praise the film, are terrible because they too think that the movie is about a realistic depiction of Nazi Germany when it is clearly and unequivocally a modern fairy tale told within a realistic format. After all, the narrator, Roger Allam in a deliberate British accent, is DEATH. We are told that many times throughout the movie that we are not dealing with realism. The Grimm Reaper would not begin the film addressing us if it were. The fairy tale setting and characterization are intrinsic to the poles necessary to depict the contrast between the horrors of Hitler’s regime and the delightful empathy of the main characters.

Reviewers of the book got it. John Green, when he reviewed Zusak’s novel back in 2006 in The New York Times called it brilliant, beginning with Death and fear of death and loss of the other that is central to the invocation of empathy and sentiment. Why did the vast majority of film critics fail to understand at least what was being tried even if they still might disagree on whether it succeeded?

I believe it did succeed and did so exceptionally well. First of all, the Grimm Reaper is not grim at all. He does not come from the riches of a Grimm fairy tale. However, he exudes the same indifference to the living as the Grimm Reaper in the Grimm story, “Godfather Death”. But when the Grimm Reaper lets his feelings undermine him when he has a godson who grows up to be a physician whom he rewards with the ability to both prophecy and prevent death by using herbs, and that son betrays him, he eventually, overcomes his feelings for his own godson and extinguishes his life. Death, however, in this movie is British rather than German. He is dressed in a long frock coat and a bowler hat when we glimpse him from the rear near the end of the movie. The foster daughter does not die but leads a long and successful life even though everyone she loved, but Max, the Jew hidden in the basement by her foster parents, does die.

It is no surprise that the first book which she found on top of her young brother’s grave, and from which she first learned to read with the help of Hans, is called, The Gravedigger’s Handbook. It is no surprise that the book she returns to read over and over again, and one which she reads to Max in the basement, is H.G. Wells, The Invisible Man, written from a third-person perspective rather than the first-person point of view of The Time Machine or The Island of Doctor Moreau. For The Invisible Man as a science fiction novel anticipated how stealth aircraft could be unseen by radar by playing with refractive qualities of radar instead of light to make an object invisible. Somehow, the film worked too well and made the film as seen and felt invisible and deaf to most reviewers.

There are two invisible men in The Book Thief, Hitler, who is omnipresent seen only through flags with Nazi swastikas, and Max who is hidden in the cellar under a swastika flag when the Gestapo search the cellar. He can be seen only by Liesel, Hans and Rosa. Like Well’s science fiction novel and virtually all of Grimm’s fairy tales, this story takes place in a small town, though in The Invisible Man, it is a British town and, in that story, the man responsible for the invisibility, Griffin, is captured, beaten and killed by a British mob, whereas in this German town, the citizenry sing Deutschland Über Alles, burn books after Kristallnacht and watch as Nazi thugs bash in the windows of Jewish shops and assault the Jewish owners.

However, I do not think the film reviewers miss the genre of the film simply because they are caught up in the performances, the visuals and the sound track and ignore the literary references and symbolism, even when the film (and the novel) has an ironic title like The Book Thief, though not one reviewer I read who felt quite comfortable with retelling the whole story and serving up spoilers, ever made mention of any of the literary references. I think they just do not understand the difference between sentimentality and sentiment. Contrary to their erroneous judgments, the movie is totally unsentimental while its main theme is a celebration of sentiment which even the Grimm Reaper cannot prevent himself from being touched by. For it is that quality of humanity that haunts him. The inversion of Death haunted by life seems also to have escaped every reviewer that I read.

The philosophers of the Scottish enlightenment – including Francis Hutcheson, Lord Shaftesbury, David Hume and Adam Smith, yes the same Adam Smith whom the cold-hearted neo-liberals cite as their guru – saw sentiment as the key to understanding morality. Sentiment is NOT sentimentality. Whatever the original connection of the two terms, sentimentality now means an appeal to shallow emotions at the expense of reason and disproportionate to the occasion. Sentimentality means playing on one’s heart strings to turn one’s heart into mush instead of a centre for acute discrimination. The pat pathos awakened and feeding on itself rather than the Other is naive and usually excessive, a contrived product of artificial stimulation rather than a natural impulse.

In contrast, sentiment is the foundation of morality rooted in a universal human empathy and concern for others indifferent to self interest. It is benevolence or kindness. Unlike reason, sentiment motivates action, but, to avoid naiveté, requires reason as a complement to assent to, explicate and order those moral decisions within a matrix of understanding built on justice that enables different circumstances and relationships to be comprehended within a system. Sentimentality dispenses with reason. Sentiment requires reason to validate its intuitive sense.

After Death introduces the fairy tale, when Liesel arrives in the little town and Heaven Street where Hans and Rosa Hubermann live, Hans first greets his new foster daughter as a princess rather than a foundling as in a standard Dickens novel, and addresses her as, “Your majesty”. His wife turns out to be a real momma and not the pretend mean stepmother of a Grimm tale as she at first displays. For this is a British fairy tale told by Death with a British accent and not the Grimm fairy tales that Hitler praised as portraying children with sound racial instincts seeking racially pure marriage partners in the spirit of a sentimentalized romantic nationalism even though the Grimm brothers satirized such sentiments as in the story of Hans and his fiancée Gretel who gives a gift to her each day by mindlessly following the instructions of his mother from the day before and each time destroying that gift. “That’s how Hans lost his bride” tells the story with the moral that he failed because he was dis-engaged – like Godfather Death.

Liesel, like Zusak’s previous protagonists, is a fighter who at the very beginning beats up the town’s young bully who mocks her for illiteracy, but she soon learns to fight back with more than her fists through the magic of words and learning to read. And she reads and re-reads The Invisible Man to the Jewish fighter (unless I missed it, the film for some reason leaves out the important reference that Max was a boxer) and insists that he, like everyone else in her life, must not disappear. And true to his word and the magic of the word and her diary that she wrote on the painted-over pages of Mein Kampf that Max made for her, Max returns and he too defeats death, the same death that visits her best friend, the lemon-haired archetypal Aryan, Rudy Steiner, acted with impeccable youthful intelligence by Nico Liersch. Rudy loves Liesel but he too is a worshipper, but unlike the Nazis who select him for an elite corps, he worships the black fastest man in the world, the runner, Jesse Owens. Liesel and Rudy both hate bullies, especially Hitler.

Do movie reviewers ignore the script and therefore miss the allusions? Max Petroni’s screenplay was not flawless, but clearly some key scenes that would have helped viewers understand the message were either elided or left on the cutting room floor. One is Max’s dream sequence in which he boxes endlessly with the Führer for whom he is just a punching bag until he lands one punch and knocks Hitler down. Hitler, in defeat, heartlessly whips the crowd into a furious mob with his evocative words so that the “fists of an entire nation” can be used to attack Max and beat him to a pulp. However, through Liesel, Death learned what it meant to have a heart and Death has been haunted by humanity ever since.