The original Knights Templar in the Holy Land was established in 1119 CE and served as an elite Catholic military order during the Crusades. Templars combined military skill and bravery with a monastic lifestyle. Their purpose was to defend Christian holy sites and to protect and guide pilgrims in the Middle East. Headquartered in Jerusalem, they were an important component of the Crusader armies, having been formally endorsed by the Catholic Church. Pope Clement V officially terminated the initial Templar Order in 1312 CE.
The modern Templars were a pious Protestant sect founded by Christoph Hoffmann (1815-1885) in Wurttemberg, Germany, in the mid-19th century. Hoffmann had a devout Christian upbringing and a Christian religious education. As a young man, he studied theology and was elected to the First National German Parliament, which met in Frankfurt in 1848. He hoped to create a better Christian state through politics, but his failure to do so motivated him to return to the roots of Christianity, which he believed had been articulated by Jesus Christ.
Hoffmann dedicated his life to uniting people who also strived to establish a Kingdom of God that would express itself in daily life. Known as the “Friends of Jerusalem,” in 1868 the group formed itself into an independent Christian religious organization known as the Deutscher Tempel (German Temple). Originally, the sect was a part of the Lutheran Church. But in 1858, the Lutheran Church expelled them. The Templars then established their own society and named it the Templegesellschaft (Temple Society). It initially had a membership of about 5,000 and had no connection to the medieval Knights Templars, who are perhaps best known today as the order supposedly in possession of the Holy Grail, the cup that Christ allegedly drank from and used to serve wine to his disciples at the Last Supper, in the 1989 Harrison Ford movie Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.
Hoffmann believed that humanity’s salvation would lie in the gathering of God’s people in a Christian community. He also believed that the second coming of Christ was imminent and would take place in Jerusalem, where God’s people would rebuild the Second Temple. In the movement’s publication, the Sentinel, Hoffmann stated that their intention was to establish a way of life based on the word of God. Hoffmann met Georg David Hardegg (1812-1879), and they became close friends and partners.
On Aug. 6, 1868, Hoffmann, Hardegg, their families, and a group of fellow Templars left Germany to settle in the Holy Land, arriving in Palestine on Oct. 30. Initially, they wanted to settle in Jerusalem but after concluding that the location was impractical, they settled near Haifa, which had a good harbor and a moderate climate.
After settling in, the Templers devoted themselves to developing the city, which then had a population of approximately 4,000. They constructed an attractive main street, which was 98 feet wide with trees planted on both sides. The German architect Joseph Schumacher designed the houses, which were built of stone, with red shingled roofs instead of the flat roofs common in Palestine. The harsh climate and epidemics claimed many lives before the colony became self-sustaining.
While Hardegg remained in Haifa, Hoffmann moved on to establish other colonies, first in Jaffa and then, in 1871, a third colony in Sarona—the Templers’ first agricultural colony. In 1873, a fourth colony was established in the Valley of Refaim, outside of Jerusalem’s Old City. The colony’s oranges were the first to carry a “Jaffa orange” label that became one of the better-known agricultural brands in Europe. The label “Jaffa orange” is still used to market Israeli oranges.
In 1898, Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany visited the Holy Land. When he visited Jerusalem, the Templers turned out in their finest attire to cheer for him. They even named their Jaffa colony Wilhelma in his honor. Theodor Herzl left Vienna secretly and traveled to Turkey and Palestine in order to meet the kaiser. He hoped to get the kaiser to influence the Turkish sultan to seriously consider the Zionist proposals for a Jewish home in Palestine. Herzl met with the kaiser twice, but the kaiser made no promises.
However, one of Kaiser Wilhelm’s companions, Colonel Joseph Freiherr von Ellrichshausen, initiated the formation of a society for the advancement of German settlements in Palestine. It enabled the settlers to acquire land for new settlements by offering low interest rates. Some Templers who settled in Palestinian cities built hotels and set up workshops and small industries. Some years later, in 1925, they established the Bank of the Temple Society to fund their activities.
At its height, the Templer community in Palestine numbered approximately 2,000 people, but with the advent of World War I, many Templers left Palestine to fight for Germany. Today, a memorial to 24 of the WWI Templer dead stands in the Templer cemetery, tucked away behind two large green gates on Emek Refaim Street in Jerusalem, where German Templers lent their name to the German Colony neighborhood and where German script can still be seen on the lintels of some homes.
Germany’s defeat in WWI proved disastrous for the Templers. Their loyalty to Germany led the British to view them as enemy aliens. In 1918, most of the Templer population, numbering 850 people, were sent to internment camps in Egypt, and their property and livestock were confiscated. In 1920, 350 of these internees were deported to Germany. It would be three years before they were allowed back into Palestine to rebuild their now-dilapidated settlements.
In their absence, the British placed all the property owned by Templers of German nationality into a public guardianship, from which the British administration collected rents. After the 1920 San Remo Conference of WWI Allies, the Templer owners of the property received the rents and also received a fully protected legal position as proprietors of the land. The Templers who had been deported to Germany were now allowed to return to Palestine. The British Mandate government in Palestine further paid the Templers a 50% restitution fee for war losses of livestock and other property.
The Bank of the Temple Society, which had a head office in Jaffa and branches in Haifa and Jerusalem, became one of the leading credit institutions in post-WWI Palestine. During the Mandate period (1920-1948), Jews who came to Palestine in those years began competing with the Templers for jobs. This created tension between the Templers and the newly arriving Jews. As a result, many of the German Templers perceived their position in Palestine as under threat by the Jewish newcomers.
Despite the growing tension between the Templers and the Jews, the memoirs of German children born in Palestine recount happy memories of their childhood. The German children describe feeling that it was like living in their own homeland. And they had many Jewish, English, and Arab friends.
All this was to change after the Nazis came to power in Germany. The anti-Jewish sentiments voiced in Germany spread to expatriate German communities, including those in Palestine. In 1933, a branch of the Nazi Party was established in Haifa by the Templer Karl Ruff. Ruff, an architect by profession, had been born in Haifa in 1904 to German Templer parents, He made contact with the German Nazis in 1931, two years before Hitler came to power. Ruff helped form a core of support that grew into a full-blown Palestinian Nazi branch by 1933.
A year later, Ludwig Buchalter, a teacher in the Templer school in Jerusalem and the head of the Nazi Party in Jerusalem’s German Colony, actively campaigned to get the German consul removed from office for having a Jewish wife. Buchalter argued that “a person who has relations with Jewish circles cannot be loyal to German interests.”
Buchalter’s activities, combined with the widespread pro-Nazi German sentiments, led to joint Nazi and Templer events becoming common in Jerusalem. The events included marches in the city in which participants wore swastika armbands and carried swastika flags. Although only 30% of the Palestinian Templers officially became members of the Nazi Party, it was still double the highest rate of Nazi Party membership in Germany.
National Socialism also caught the imagination of many of the young German Templers, especially those who had studied in Germany. When they returned to Palestine, they were enthusiastic and excited about Nazism. In Jerusalem, Buchalter, as the local Nazi Party chief, led efforts to ensure that Nazi ideology permeated all aspects of German life in the city.
Throughout their history in Palestine, the Templers maintained close ties with Germany. With the rise of the Nazis, many younger Templers formed Palestinian Nazi Party cells, and the Nazis even employed some of them in their own intelligence service. The British Boy Scouts and the British Girl Guides, which operated in Palestine’s German Colony, were replaced by the Hitler Youth group and the League of German Maidens. German workers joined the Nazi Labor Organization and Nazi Party members greeted each other in the street with “Heil Hitler” and gave the Nazi salute. Under pressure from Buchalter, some Germans boycotted Palestinian Jewish businesses. In retaliation, Jews boycotted Palestinian German businesses.
Buchalter drove everywhere with swastika pennants attached to his car. He later remembered how he once forgot to remove them when he drove through a Jewish neighborhood, and the Jewish residents stoned and shot at his car.
It is unclear to what extent the Templers as a collective adopted Nazism. While some Templers were enthusiastic followers, others were less committed, and still others expressed defiance and resistance. Since they were never polled, however, we don’t know the specific percentages of each. According to Heidemarie Wawrzyn’s 2013 book Nazis in the Holy Land: 1933-1948, about 75% of the Germans in Palestine who belonged to or were somehow associated with the Nazi Party were Templers. After WWII, when Jewish refugee families moved into former Templer houses, they discovered hidden Templer belongings attesting to the sect’s support of Adolf Hitler and the Nazi regime. The items discovered included Nazi Party pennants, badges, banners, pamphlets, flags, and photographs.
The swastika was openly displayed in Jerusalem, and Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany and Austria were often mockingly greeted with shouts of “Sieg Heil” whenever Hitler Youth groups gathered. And anti-Semitic German propaganda was widely and openly distributed everywhere in Palestine.
As war loomed in Europe, the position of the Templers in Palestine became increasingly insecure. In August 1939, all eligible male Germans in Palestine received army call-up papers from Germany. By the end of the month some 250 German Templers had left to join the Wehrmacht (German army).
On Sept. 3, 1939, when Britain and France declared war on Germany, all Germans in Palestine were classified as enemy aliens. Four Templer settlements were sealed off and turned into internment camps. German men of military age were sent to prison near Acre, while their families were ordered into the camps.
For the next two years, the Templers were allowed to function as agricultural communities behind barbed wire and under guard. But their presence in Palestine was reaching its end. In July 1941, more than 500 Templers were deported to Australia. And between 1941 and 1944, about 400 more were repatriated to Germany by train, as part of three exchanges with the Nazis for Jews held in ghettos and concentration camps. In addition, 1,000 Templers were sent to Germany in exchange for Palestinian citizens who happened to be in Nazi-occupied territories.
Jewish underground organizations, concerned that the German Templers would be allowed to remain in Palestine, mounted a campaign to expel them. On March 22, 1946, five members of the Palmach assassinated the Templer mayor of Sarona, Gotthilf Wagner.
The Palmach was the elite fighting force of the Haganah, the underground paramilitary army of the Jewish settlement in Palestine during the British Mandate period. The hit, which occurred on the outskirts of Tel Aviv, was a protest against the return of former non-Jewish German residents to normal civilian life in Palestine.
Wagner was ambushed and shot while driving with a police escort from the Wilhelma Detention Camp near the Lydda airport. As his car entered the outlying streets of Tel Aviv, it slowed down on account of the heavy traffic. Two men darted out from each side of the street and approached the car. Each of them fired a shot that mortally wounded Wagner, who collapsed over the steering wheel. The shooters then escaped through the crowd. Contemporary reports claimed that Wagner was targeted because he had been a prominent Nazi.
In 1948, two more Templers were killed by members of the Haganah. To avoid further assassinations and avoid further problems before the Templers left Palestine, the British evacuated almost all the remaining Templers to an internment camp in Cyprus. The last Templers left Israel in April 1950.
Yet, despite their sordid enthusiasm for Hitler and the Nazi Party, the Templers cannot be easily erased from the history of modern Palestine. They were the first to introduce modern methods of agriculture and the first to utilize chemical fertilizers, seed selection, and farm machinery. Their dream of a holy German Christian Palestinian homeland whose leaders would eventually fly Nazi pennants and idolize Hitler may have been fatally cracked, but it was not without issue.
Robert Rockaway is professor emeritus at Tel Aviv University, and the author of But He Was Good to His Mother: The Lives and Crimes of Jewish Gangsters.