Home > Columnists > Could the Boycott Have Beaten Hitler? | Stanley Heller

Could the Boycott Have Beaten Hitler? | Stanley Heller

by Stanley Heller

One can argue that the Holocaust began with the November 9-10, 1938 Kristallnacht, 75 years ago, when 1,000 synagogues were burned, 30,000 Jews thrown into concentration camps and around 100 killed outright. From discrimination and violent outrages, the Nazis had moved on to mass murder.

Could they have been stopped? What could have stopped them?

Twenty nine years ago Edwin Black’s published “The Transfer Agreement”, a proud Zionist’s account of how Palestinian and German Zionists dealt with the new Nazi government of 1933 and used German Jewish money to build up Jewish Palestine (The Transfer Agreement, First Dialog edition 2009). For a Zionist, the book is as respectable as they come. It has an “Afterwords” by the head of the ADL, Abraham Foxman.

Black thinks the deal was a grand achievement, but he also knows full well that the “Transfer”, as it was called, completely undermined the first serious attempt to stop Hitler, the worldwide boycott of German goods. He ends the book, “Was it madness or was it genius?”

The Transfer Agreement was controversial in the U.S. in the 1930’s, then mostly forgotten for 50 years until it was “rediscovered” by Lenni Brenner in a book he wrote in 1983 “Zionism in the Age of the Dictators.” In it he uncovered the whole sorry history of Zionist appeasement of anti-Semitism and Zionist willingness to make deals with Nazis and Fascists. He has a large section on the Transfer Agreement.

Black’s book came out in 1984 as a kind of answer to Brenner. It’s well written and well documented, told as a drama. He marshals all the old arguments about why the Zionists were justified in what they were doing. What’s very valuable about his book, however, is the wealth of material Black gathered about what the Zionists destroyed, the anti-German boycott. Black shows how powerful the anti-Nazi boycott actually was. It’s really staggering.

Six weeks after Hitler became Chancellor, thousands of war veterans marched down the streets of New York City demanding a boycott of German goods and were received by the mayor. A few weeks later 20,000 people filled Madison Square Garden and an estimated 35,000 more surrounded it, demanding an end to anti-Jewish attacks in Germany. An even more massive rally was to come. Boycotts began around the world from Poland to Egypt.

Who then threw a cold wet blanket on all this? The Zionists. They made a deal with the Nazis. German Jewish money was used to buy German goods which Zionists in Palestine sold in the Middle East as a way of building up Palestine and partially compensating German Jews for Nazi theft of their wealth. The Zionists scabbed on the boycott and broke it.

This betrayal of the Jews by this maneuver has already been exposed by Brenner and others. The Zionist answer (and Edwin Black agrees) was that German Jewry was a lost cause and the best that could be done was to get Jewish money and refugees out of Germany. But was it? Could the boycott have succeeded?

The question is not just of historical curiosity, a what if? It’s also an answer to the incessant misuse of the Holocaust by Israeli and Zionist leaders. If they demand total amnesty for Israeli government crimes against Palestinians and other nations because “the world” betrayed the Jews in the ‘30’s and ‘40’s, we strip away their authority to speak for Jews by revealing their own betrayals.

Earlier Boycotts

Edwin Black tells about earlier campaigns where Jews fought for their rights with boycotts. The first attempt was led by an international banker named Jacob Schiff. He took on the Czar and the Russian empire in the early 1900’s, after a number of bloody anti-Jewish riots/massacres. He used his power to get banks to boycott Russia, to deny it loans. When the Russo-Japanese war broke out, he arranged for Japan to get $100 million in loans, a major factor in its victory. The Czar never relented and the outrages against Jews continued, but Schiff never backed down. He started the American Jewish Committee and, even though more and more Russian Jews were killed, Schiff didn’t call off the boycott. As Black puts it “the Committee held that the anti-Semitic outrages of one regime could spread infectiously if not quarantined.”

The next boycott was a success. It took place in the 1920’s against the world’s then most famous anti-Semite, Henry Ford. A genius car maker, he was crackbrained politically. For seven years he used his Dearborn Independent newspaper to publish the infamous “Protocols of the Elders of Zion” and other such sludge. Immediately Jews starting boycotting Ford cars. In Connecticut in 1921 there was a 400 car procession to greet Albert Einstein. One of the parade rules said “Positively no Ford machines permitted in line” (p. 27). By 1927 Ford caved in, issued an abject letter of apology and burned five truckloads of his pamphlet “The International Jew.”

Hitler certainly knew all about the later boycott. Henry Ford was his “inspiration” and was lauded right in Hitler’s “Mein Kampf.” So Hitler worried plenty about an economic boycott of Germany.

He had reason to worry. He had triumphed because of the incredible unemployment in Germany due to the Great Depression. People were seething. The Nazis were the biggest political party in Germany, but by no means a majority. It was the old general Hindenburg who had put Hitler in office. If the Nazis couldn’t get people working major rebellion was likely to break out and the German Army could toss the Brownshirts right out.

Germany depended on foreign trade. “If exports fell too low Germany as a nation would again be faced with starvation. It had happened just 14 years earlier…” (p. 187). Germany had another problem, colossal foreign debt to pay reparations levied by the Allies for war damages in World War I. A boycott of Germany was a serious threat.

It had broken out spontaneously in many countries. In the U.S. it was the group, Jewish War Veterans which started out in the streets with their thousands on March 23, 1933. The Madison Square Garden rally took place four days later. It was broadcast live on the radio to 200 cities around the country. At the same time there were rallies in Chicago, Washington, Houston and over 70 other cities. Black estimates that as many as two million Americans took part (p. 43). William Green of the American Federation of Labor pledged support of his 3 million members for Jewish rights.

Mass meetings were held in Poland and a boycott declared in Vilna spread to other cities. In London Jewish ship “were displaying placards denying entry to German salesmen….” (p. 47). Teenagers patrolled the streets with boycott flyers.

In the U.S. the Jewish War Veterans set up an office and began a project to connect U.S. merchants with non-German suppliers. “Pickets were thrown around U.S. stores carrying German goods” (p. 47). Big stores would cancel orders of German goods and announce it in press conferences.

Hitler and Goebbels responded with a violent anti-Jewish boycott on April 1. Jewish stores were surrounded. Customers were threatened or beaten. Good were ruined.

Yet, the international boycotts of German goods continued and grew larger. In Salonika , Greece on April 3, 70,000 Greek Jews gathered in a mass protest. Major orders were cancelled in Holland, France, Belgium, Egypt, Denmark and Finland (p. 110).

This was combined with threats of military attack on Germany. Polish forces were put on high readiness. They were very aware of Hitler’s demands on territory given it in the Versailles treaty. “German officials were in fact astonished that at the historically anti-Semitic Polish people would allow Jewish persecution in Germany to become the pretext for a war. But it was happening” (p. 113). Germany also had to worry about France. If it didn’t pay its war debts France might invade and seize property just as it did in 1923.

On April 23 the German Ambassador to Italy sent a telegram to Berlin saying that the Czech President was considering joining Poland in an attack on Germany. Three days later the German Ambassador in Czechoslovakia confirmed the news.

In May Samuel Untermeyer, a very influential millionaire and Jewish leader made headlines when he called for a U.S. boycott of all German goods to start right away. On May 10 commerce in New York City virtually stopped and a parade of 100,000 Jews took to the streets. “At Seventeenth Street, thousands of assembled labor unionists, their ranks extended to the East River, flowed in to the mainstream” (p. 119).

And then the Zionists threw it all away.

A Bizzaro World View

They had never fought the Nazis. When socialists and communists were battling Nazis in the streets of Berlin the German Zionists were collecting money for trees in Palestine. It came out of their worldview. Starting with Theodore Herzl they adopted the bizzaro nationalist idea that Jews living outside of a national home had a culture that was abnormal and that attempts to assimilate in the larger society actually caused anti-Semitism. As Black describes it, “Herzl declares that Jewish persecution is not an aberrant facet of bigoted society, but a natural reaction to the appearance of a foreign group — the Jews” (p. 73). Herzl was half agreeing with anti-Semites. This led him to to meet with reactionary leaders in their common desire have Jews leave Europe. So Herzl met with Kaiser Wilhelm, and most notoriously with Russian Interior Minister von Plehve who had personally arranged a massacre of Jews at Kishnev years earlier.

As mentioned earlier once Hitler became Chancellor the spontaneous reaction of Jews around the world was to mobilize against him. For Zionists their immediate thought was to see if the German disaster could be used to the advantage of their colonial project.

On March 25 Herman Goering, then President of the German Reichstag, summoned German Jewish leaders to meet with him privately. Kurt Blumenfeld, the President of the German Zionist Federation got himself included. This was actually quite a feat since as Edwin Black writes German Zionists really represented only 1 or 2% of German Jews (p. 35).

Goering ordered the Jewish leaders to stop worldwide demonstrations and boycott efforts especially the upcoming Madison Square Garden rally. Three of the leaders said they didn’t have the influence to do so, but Blumenfeld said that as part of an international group, Zionists were “uniquely capable” of talking to Jewish leaders around the world. Black states, “Once uttered the words uniquely changed the relationship between the Nazis and Zionists” (p. 36).

The Nazis realized these Zionists would actually do it. They were willing to undercut the overwhelming desire of German Jews to be Germans and would work with the Nazis to send the Jews out of Germany.

“A Stake Through the Heart”

At the end of March while tens of thousands were marching and calling for the boycott a Zionist businessman named Sam Cohen was in Frankfurt making a deal with German government officials. It would allow German Jews to bypass a law that was set up a few years before Hitler to keep virtually all German money inside of Germany. The Zionists would get an exemption. The way it worked was that a German Jew would give over all his property to a German bank and in return would get a thousand British pound sterling once in Palestine. The amount was what the British demanded for entry into the colony.

As it turned out the initial deal had to be reworked. The Nazis didn’t want to give out precious foreign currency, but they were willing to send German goods to Palestine. There it could be sold and the proceeds go to immigrants to Palestine and to Zionist institutions. To make a very long story short the equivalent of tens of millions of 1930’s U.S. dollars were sent to Palestine. The actual amount is unclear. Black first says $100 million (p. xxi), but later that $30 million came from the Transfer Agreement (p. 379).

With Palestinian Jews selling massive amounts of German machinery, a strong boycott of German goods was impossible. Black is quite clear, the deal would “pierce a stake through the heart of the Jewish-led anti-Nazi boycott” (p.86).


In purely economic terms German Jews were being ripped off. According to Black Jewish assets in Germany were “around RM 10 billion” (p. 187). In the ’30s the exchange rate of marks to dollars was between 4.25 to 2.5 depending on the year. So a rough estimate is that German Jewish wealth was about $3 billion of which in Black’s estimate about 3% made it to Palestine.

Black says the Transfer Agreement directly brought 20,000 Jews to Palestine and claims 40,000 more came indirectly (p. 379). That means 90% of German Jews went elsewhere or were left behind.

So a small portion of German Jewry and a tiny part of their money was saved for Palestine, but at what cost? As Black states it drove a stake into the heart of the boycott. When the Zionist Congress met at Prague that year they refused to consider any measure in support of boycott. How could they? They were preparing to become salesmen of tens of millions of dollars of German goods.

Rabbi Stephen Wise of the U.S. had led the 100,000 New York Jews in the march in May. He headed the World Jewish Congress which was meeting in Geneva shortly after the Zionist Congress. The Congress had been set up to meet the challenge of Hitlerism. Wise had frequently praised the boycott and was expected to make the Congress’ major order of business the organizing of the boycott. A resolution was prepared to empower a Central Jewish Committee to ban any Jewish dealings with the Reich, to end the Transfer Agreement and to organize what had been a spontaneous boycott (p. 359). At the climactic moment, however, Wise pulled back and made no effort to give the boycott organization. Wise was a major Zionist and in the end he adopted their logic. He gave lip service to the boycott and then gave over running it to a Paris based Zionist organization. As Black writes “The boycott would be led by leaders who in fact opposed it” (p. 359).

Staying true to the boycott was Samuel Untermeyer, a millionaire U.S. businessman. He had organized a “World Jewish Economic Conference” in Amsterdam in July of 1933. It had attracted delegates of 16 countries and came up with the slogan “Germany will crack this winter.” The New York Times gave the conference front page coverage. When the 75 year old Untermeyer returned to the U.S. in August he was met on the gangplank by 5,000 cheering supporters (p. 276). He spoke on a national radio hookup and denounced as “traitors” any Jews who bought German products or traveled on German ships. Hundreds of thousands of dollars were raised for boycott offices, flyers, telephones, etc.

Yet he could not in the end overcome established Jewish leadership, neither the wealthy Jews who thought that crying out too loud would create an anti-Semitic backlash nor the Zionists who in the words of Rabbi Abba Silver of Cleveland acted as if they were involved in a “bankruptcy sale and that the Jews of Palestine were endeavoring to salvage a few bargains for themselves.” Germany introduced many populist rationing measures to keep afloat and it did not crack in the winter of 1933 nor in the years afterwards.

The Nazis gleefully used the Zionist scabbing on the boycott to their advantage. Lenni Brenner quotes British fascist Oswald Mosely in 1935 “Can you beat that! We are cutting off our nose to spite our face and refuse to trade with Germany in order to defend the poor Jews. The Jews themselves, in their own country, are to continue making profitable dealings with Germany themselves. Fascists can’t better counter the malicious propaganda to destroy friendly relations with Germany than by using this fact.”

Far From Hopeless

But back to the original question. Could the boycott have broken Hitler? Or did the Zionists properly reject “sentimentality” as they called it and do the right thing?

First let’s understand what was at stake. It wasn’t only the 600,000 German Jews who were in peril, but the entire world’s Jewish population. In the Afterword to “The Transfer Agreement” Abe Foxman claims that Jews in the ’30’s couldn’t imagine that the Nazis might kill them by the millions “nor could anyone” (p. 382). Untermeyer could. In 1933 he told his “World Economic Conference” that Hitler’s government would “annihilate them economically, to deprive them of their citizenship …and eventually exterminate them” (p. 206). From the start of the “Thousand Year Reich” it was obvious that Hitler and his gang were unparalleled in their viciousness. It was also clear that Nazi ideas wouldn’t be confined to Germany. By the summer of 1933 Edwin Black lists Nazi incidents in 15 countries.

In 1933 the Zionists decided the cause of German Jews was hopeless and started bargaining for as much of the assets of German Jews as they could get. They cynically welcomed the boycott to a point, because the greater the threat the boycott was to the Nazis the more the Zionists could get out of them by breaking it.

But why would anyone in 1933 think that the cause of German Jews was hopeless?

It’s already been shown that internationally Germany was under threat of invasion. Popular sentiment had put hundreds of thousands into the streets, both Jew and non-Jews. Even in the face of opposition by Jewish leaders the boycott was strong enough in early 1934 to get retail giants Macy, Gimbels, Woolworth, Bloomingdale’s and Lord and Taylor to sign an agreement to refuse to import German goods.

As Black showed again and again Germany was in really bad shape. He has a whole chapter called “Near the Cracking Point.” By the summer of of ’33 he says boycotting had “virtually bankrupted” the German shipping industry. Ironmaking was in trouble because of lack of exports. The German export surplus “was down 68%” from May to June and kept on dropping in the rest of the summer (p. 264). Seizing Jewish owned property and giving it to totally untrained “Aryans” had brought about chaos. Germany was witnessing “mass corporate flight” by foreign companies each one dismissing German workers. The Nazis were keeping men employed by firing hundreds of thousands of women workers, and banning all workers from having a second job.

Then there are all the forces that could be organized to help the Jews. Black mentions trade unions several times. By 1933 unions were showing signs of fight in the U.S. 900,000 workers went on strike that year, triple that of the year before. And militancy would be growing in the years to come. Unemployed Councils were spearheading hunger marches demanding jobs. Veterans had staged a huge Bonus March in 1932. These were natural allies against Nazism.

Black almost totally ignores the Left, but in the depths of the Depression it was growing by leaps and bounds. Untermeyer was as capitalist as they come, but the rank and file of his American League for the Defense of Jewish Rights was full of radicals. The Left had been deeply divided in the late ’30’s partly by Stalin’s mad Third Period strategy where he refused to ally with any other forces and called all other socialists “social fascists” and partly by the anti-revolutionary and patriotic Socialists who refused to work with Communists. Divided, the Left in Germany was crushed. But getting slugged in the face does get your attention and the takeover of Germany by the Nazis was a mighty blow. Little by little Stalin abandoned “ultra-leftism” moving on to “Popular Front” strategy. Hitler saw his mission as destroying the Soviet Union and Stalin knew this full well. A boycott movement would be enormously attractive to the radical Left.

Even Orthodox Jews could be recruited. The common impression is that the Orthodox stayed out of politics for Talmudic reasons and confined themselves to prayer. Yet Hitler’s rise changed things, at least for some. The Assembly of Hebrew Orthodox Rabbis was meeting in New York on Sept. 6, 1933. They were furious about the Zionist breaking of the boycott and were considering making them Cherem. Cherem is a curse of untouchability. If they made the Zionist Organization Charem all Orthodox Jews would have to steer clear of it. The rabbis were addressed by Untermeyer who advised that only German goods be put under the curse. This they did in a solemn ritual (p. 351).


There were, of course, barriers, too. One huge barrier was FDR. Though approached many times by various Jewish leaders his Secretary of State Cordell Hull would not raise a whisper of protest of Nazi persecution. In FDR’s defense he literally had just become president in March of 1933 and was facing the Great Depression at its absolute bottom. He was trying to increase world trade as a way of fighting unemployment and feared a German collapse will mean default on $2 billion owned to the U.S.

The problem with FDR was would be the same problem with all the capitalist governments. They were meeting frequently with Germany to revive trade. Boycott was the last thing on their minds.

Another barrier is the very difficulty of carrying out a boycott. Publicity is one thing, but to be effective you have to have pickets out in front of stores looking possible shoppers right in the eye. Plus there is the counter measures that could and were taken by Germany, exporting via third countries or mislabeling products as “Made in Saxony” or “Made in Austria.”

The final barrier was the nature of the German Nazis themselves, almost by definition the most brutal regime in history. They were not going to go quietly no matter what the difficulties in Germany.

The Nazis would have be thrown out physically by the Wehrmacht or a Left wing revolution. It would take a deadly serious alliance of world Jewry, the Left and threatened East European nations along with at least neutrality from “the West” to forge the immense pressure on Germany in which overthrow might be possible.

On Not Appeasing Hitler

Yet even if we look back from the 21st century and say that the barriers were too great and the boycott could not have taken down the Nazis there was still reason to pursue it and not “liquidation” of German Jewish assets and emigration of German Jews.

The boycott restrained and weakened Germany. As Edwin Black himself pointed out in the early ’30 it forced Hitler to pull back on some anti-Jewish attacks to prevent the growth of the anti-Nazi movement. It denied Germany foreign exchange and the ability to “acquire the raw materials needed to rebuild its war machine” (p. 372).

But the biggest reason was that giving in to Hitler’s psychotic nationalism established a very bad example. If Jews, who were his biggest target, abandoned resistance and started appeasing him then it made reasonable sense for others to go down that same fatal path.

So there is an answer to Edwin Black’s question about the Transfer Agreement, his “Was it madness or was it genius?”

It was madness.

Stanley Heller is host of “The Struggle” TV News, www.TheStruggle.org mail@thestruggle.org.

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