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Bernadotte and Shamir

Bernadotte and Shamir

Mini Teaser: Marton's qualifications to write a book about the Middle East are slightly higher than Bernadotte's were to make peace there, but in the end it comes to the same: two boy scouts setting up pup-tents in minefields.

by Author(s): Barbara Amiel

Kati Marton, A Death in Jerusalem (New York: Pantheon, 1994)

In one of those coincidences that would have delighted Arthur Koestler, the only time I met Kati Marton, author of A Death in Jerusalem, was at a dinner about ten minutes before I was asked to review her book. "My book," she said immediately upon meeting me, "tells the truth about Shamir the assassin." I thought at the time there was a little too much happy enthusiasm about this dire assessment of a former prime minister.

This is Marton's third non-fiction book and its subject is, once more, a life cut short by murder (her previous books include studies of Raoul Wallenberg and the murdered American journalist George Polk). This time it is the 1948 assassination of UN Mediator Count Bernadotte by Jewish extremists in Jerusalem. The book, as reviewers like to say before getting their teeth into the author's wrist, does raise some intriguing questions. But in the case of A Death in Jerusalem, the questions are not only about the book's subject but about the personality and motivation of its author.

The dust jacket comes studded with endorsements. Diane Sawyer enthuses about what she calls the "human pulse-point of history," while Jim Lehrer found himself unable to put it down. No author can be blamed for the remarks of admirers and anyway the essence of these plaudits is accurate. Miss Marton is a skilled journalist who writes well. The story of how a nephew of the king of Sweden, whose chief accomplishment in life was to discover a keen interest in boy scouting at age thirty-eight, came to be the UN Mediator in the Arab-Israeli dispute is intriguing. His death at the hands of members of the Jewish terrorist organization called Lehi, headed at the time by a triumvirate including former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, gave his name the sort of gravitas it never had in life. Historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., who calls Miss Marton's book "fascinating," claims indeed that the assassination "has stained the politics of Israel ever since."

In the Palestine of the 1940s, as Marton documents, the majority of Jews in the British mandate supported the moderate Jewish Agency to which Israel's first prime minister, Ben Gurion, belonged. The Jewish terrorist underground was composed primarily of two groups, one being the Irgun, which Menachem Begin headed, and the other a splinter group from Irgun founded by Avraham Stern and known as the Lehi or the Stern Gang. When World War II broke out, Ben Gurion called all sides to a truce in the fight with the British. The truce was observed by the Irgun until 1944, but not by Lehi. Ben Gurion's Jewish Agency and later the Israeli Army, the Haganah, took the wrenching decision after the 1944 murder of Lord Moyne by the Irgun to turn Jewish terrorists over to the British--an action which gave Ben Gurion's Jewish Agency the legitimacy of a governing class.

Immediately after the UN vote that created Israel, the Arab League declared war upon the new state. The UN's answer was to send the Swedish aristocrat, Count Volke Bernadotte, to find a solution. The Bernadotte plan, which leaned heavily on British input, envisioned an internationalized Jerusalem with a large chunk of the Negev given away to Transjordan. The plan was so misconceived that support for it could come from neither Jew nor Arab, but clearly it posed the greater danger to the fledging state of Israel.

Kati Marton's book sees a straight line from Bernadotte's assassination to the massacre of Arab worshippers by an Israeli West Bank settler, Baruch Goldstein, in 1994. This line, she writes "is all too tragically obvious." The purpose of her book, she continues, is to "help put in perspective the mad dance of violence in which Arabs and Jews have been locked." The purpose is noble but her ratiocination is weak. Technically one may draw a line from Bernadotte's assassination to the murders by Goldstein, but it is not the line Miss Marton sees. She is arguing that Lehi's political philosophy, as expressed in 1948, forms a continuum with the political philosophy of Baruch Goldstein. This is complete nonsense and comes perilously close to President Clinton's notion that there is a line between anti-statist talk show hosts and the Oklahoma bombing.

The continuum or kinship that does exist is the one that joins those few hundred (or perhaps thousand) people in the world who find it justifiable to murder people for disparate ideologies. Most people can subscribe to anti-statism or oppose the peace process in Israel without committing monstrous crimes. Goldstein's extremism belongs to the realm of pathology. Lehi's assassination of Bernadotte was wrong, but it was not, alas, irrational.

As for the Bernadotte mission itself, Marton blames its tragic end on Bernadotte's optimistic naïveté. What Marton misses is that it was not Bernadotte's naïveté that led him to his death but rather the fact that he was quite dense. The significant fact about the Middle East, in terms of which a 1948-1995 line may well be drawn, was that only two ways of limiting Arab-Israeli hostilities existed: either one could say that Israel was not a viable entity and should be scrapped, or, in the alternative, the world had to commit to the establishment of a State of Israel with secure borders. This was a dichotomy that Bernadotte simply had not the wit to grasp.

Ends and Means

Israel's short history raises an astonishing number of vexing issues. After one has stated, unequivocally, that the assassination of Bernadotte was morally wrong, for example, more difficult questions follow. If it was morally wrong, was it nevertheless a practical success in blocking Bernadotte's scheme? The guideposts one uses through such terrain might include a number of assumptions. It is quite possible to disapprove totally of terrorism while recognizing that the interpretation of the world that a political terrorist holds may be accurate, and the policies he adopts effective. The fundamental basis of my disapproval for terrorism is moral not practical. Terrorism, alas, all too often does work, if not immediately, then in a roundabout way. And while it is perfectly true that terror also often fails to achieve the terrorists' aims, in that respect it is no different from diplomacy and war, which also do not guarantee success.

There is a further consideration I would bring to evaluating the Bernadotte mission. Both his personality and his work for the United Nations in 1948 were very much in line with an approach that goes back at least to the Congress of Vienna. The representatives of the most powerful nations of the world would meet in some palace and agree on solutions to handle what Henry Kissinger called, after Bismarck, the "sheep-stealers of the world." I am not entirely sure that this approach to problem-solving is much worse than those that have replaced it today, and those named as sheep-stealers were not always undeserving of that appellation. Nevertheless this sort of approach to crises has not worked well for the last fifty years. Whether you send in Count Bernadotte to sort out the Middle East or the infinitely cleverer Lord Carrington to redraw the map of Yugoslavia, the result is likely to be as barren. The Bernadotte mission was matched in its silliness only by its arrogance--the arrogance not of a single man, as Kati Marton suggests, but of a tradition.

What are Kati Marton's guideposts? She is censorious of Shamir's role in the Bernadotte affair, but one cannot blame her for disapproving of assassins and those who sanction assassination. One might have expected the author of The Polk Conspiracy--an earlier book of hers which sailed pretty close to the wind in libel matters, with its rather wild speculation about an alleged right-wing plot and cover-up in the murder of an American journalist--to be unsympathetic to the anguish that formed part of the mental landscape of Israeli terrorists. But she is not. She is well aware of the pain felt by those Jews in Palestine who watched the British turn back Jewish refugees during World War II, condemning them to concentration camps and the gas chamber--and who then turned this pain into terrorism. Nor is she oblivious to such matters as the intellectual failings of Bernadotte. Her research meets or exceeds normal journalistic standards, even if she does not reach those of historical scholarship.

Ultimately the difficulty with the book lies more in its tone and the pedestrian nature of its conclusions. It is not that the bits and pieces of analysis in the book are wrong but rather that they are severely secondhand. There is no insight or inspiration here, but only that deadly, plodding, evenhanded reporting that to some extent is the hallmark of modern American journalism. What in the end it all seems to say is that this nice noble scoutmaster, descended from the throne of Sweden, came at considerable bother to himself to offer a solution to these unruly sheep-stealers and all they could do was shoot him. This does not help us understand the world in which we live.The book is not adequate to its subject.

The real target of the book, in fact, is Yitzhak Shamir. By his own account, Shamir was told of the assassination plans by four members of Lehi, and as he said in his memoirs, "I offered no resistance." For Kati Marton, this is the confession that gives her open season on Shamir, his supporters and, ultimately, and by extension, Israel itself. If a man who knew of an assassination can not only escape punishment by the State of Israel but be elected its prime minister and allowed to serve in office, then the entire country exhibits a moral deficiency that offends Marton's sensibilities.

Though even a rather dense aristocrat deserves a better fate than Bernadotte's, Marton seems to feel it necessary to make him a more attractive and heroic figure, perhaps in order to demonize Shamir further. This requires some historical dexterity, but that, unfortunately, is not her strong suit. Her attempt to demonstrate it--in the process of denying or disguising some of the shortcomings of the Count--brings her into combat with British historian Trevor-Roper. The match is, to put it generously, an unequal one.

The Kersten Affair

Readers unfamiliar with the story of the Latvian-born Finnish masseur, Felix Kersten, will find this one of the most fascinating chapters of Marton's book. Through a bizarre combination of circumstances, Kersten ended up as Reichsfuhrer Heinrich Himmler's therapist. He used his influence to help prisoners of the Third Reich, beginning with the release of some Swedish businessmen in 1942 (not 1944 as Marton reports). Kersten became the conduit between Hitler's chief of espionage, Walter Schellenberg (who later became a close personal friend of Bernadotte and ghosted a book of his memoirs), Heinrich Himmler, and supplicants that included the World Jewish Congress and the Swedish government. Most importantly, he helped both Dutch and Finnish Jews, and when Hitler ordered the blowing up of the concentration camps in 1945, Kersten managed to persuade Himmler to issue orders protecting prisoners, especially suspending the killing of Jews and treating them equally with other prisoners. This is confirmed in a 1947 World Jewish Congress memorandum. In the 1950s, the Dutch nominated Kersten for the Nobel Peace Prize.

Unfortunately for Kersten, Bernadotte was rather keen on making his mark at the masseur's expense. Whether reading Bernadotte's own memoirs or Marton's account of him, it is evident that while the Count was a man of very limited abilities and intelligence, he was full of great ambitions for himself. This disparity between talent and ambition, as we all know, is a special kind of hell and it can lead people to behave in swinish ways. Bernadotte's royal relatives had managed to get the scoutmaster a perfectly respectable job as vice president of the Swedish Red Cross, and there is no gainsaying that from a Hollywood Central Casting point of view, the aristocratic, unflappable Swede had the appearance of a man cut out for greatness. Few people dared suggest that gravitas may require more than an ability to look calm under fire, in khaki shorts. Bernadotte's path crossed Kersten's when, in his role as representative of the Swedish Red Cross, he met Himmler to work out the transport arrangements to move camp victims to Sweden in the last weeks of the war. In fact, in a book of his memoirs after the war, Bernadotte claimed that he himself was responsible for the deal Kersten had authored to obtain the release of thousands of women prisoners from Ravensbruck concentration camp in 1945. It was this that gave Bernadotte the credentials to be appointed to the job that no one else really wanted: UN Mediator in the 1948 Arab-Israeli war.

In the controversy over the effectiveness of Bernadotte--waged largely on Bernadotte's side by his relatives and the Swedish royal family and their friends--most historians have taken the side of Kersten, albeit with some reservations. One of the most neutral assessments I could find is the 1994 essay by Raymond Palmer in The Journal of Contemporary History entitled "Felix Kersten and Count Bernadotte: A Question of Rescue." While this gives credit to Bernadotte for the valuable job he performed in making logistical arrangements for the transportation of the concentration camp victims, it comes down firmly on the side of Kersten.

Trevor-Roper actually suggested in an earlier article, "Kersten, Himmler & Count Bernadotte," (Atlantic Monthly, February 1953) that Bernadotte refused to take Jews back to Sweden in 1945. Marton's response is to attack Trevor-Roper at length in an epilogue to her new book. In that epilogue she maintains that Trevor-Roper refused all requests to discuss Bernadotte with her, although the historian says he has no record of any such requests. Had Marton contacted him she might have received the same written response I got. "In particular," wrote Trevor-Roper in answer to my questions, "I am not certain that Bernadotte refused to take Jews. I have some reservations about the documentation here. If he did, it may well have been that he simply had no instructions except in respect of Norwegians and Danes." Certainly, Marton is wrong in stating that Trevor-Roper published a letter purporting to be written by Bernadotte to Himmler that is anti-semitic and clearly a forgery. The letter, which Marton includes in her book, was not published by Trevor-Roper. In his preface to Kersten's memoirs, he noted that he was dubious about the letter and "since its authenticity cannot be proved, I prefer to disregard it for the time being."

Marton accuses Trevor-Roper of disliking Bernadotte because in 1947 Bernadotte wrote a critical letter to Trevor-Roper about his book, The Last Days of Hitler. This letter, says Marton, was "unavailable" to her because it is lost or missing. In fact, the letter--which makes no reference to Jews, is made up largely of a defense of Schellingberg and a mild complaint that the book neglects to give sufficient prominence to Bernadotte's rescue activities--is easily available since Bernadotte asked permission of Trevor-Roper, which was granted, to have their exchange published as a foreword to the Swedish edition of The Last Days of Hitler.

Judging Shamir

All this is minor stuff, but once one unearths an author behaving tendentiously, doubt is cast on all the material. One begins to look at the text and footnotes and bibliography more carefully. If Bernadotte's bust as hero is being assiduously polished, what is being done to Shamir?

The source for much of Shamir's early life is given in the footnotes as Marton's interviews with an Israeli named Baruch Nadel. "Without Nadel," says Marton, "it would not have been possible for me to breathe life into a forty-five year old murder." Well, perhaps. But Nadel is a well-known character in Israel, one who simply would not be taken as a serious source for material on Shamir or Lehi by any substantial journalist or historian--left- or right-wing--that I could find. Indeed, as the polymath Middle East analyst Eric Breindel (credited by Marton in her book for his guidance on the region) puts it, "Nadel is an engaging personality. But he was, by most accounts, a minor figure at the time of the assassination and some feel that later in life he came to see himself as playing a more pivotal role in the events in question." Marton's other source is the left-wing ideologue Lenni Brenner (not to be confused with Professor Y.S. Brenner), whose thoughts also show up, unattributed, in footnotes referring to articles published by Alexander Cockburn in The Village Voice. Lenni Brenner and Baruch Nadel simply cannot provide the basis for a serious book. One senses here the dilemma that faces the inexperienced or--to be less generous--truly tendentious journalist who parachutes into a country and simply has dinner with the wrong people.

One can take issue with the research and the arguments of Marton without being an apologist for Shamir. She points, for example, to the futile attempts of Lehi to make contact with the Nazis in Vichy-occupied Syria during the war, and she sees them as evidence of a pro-Nazi stance and a general pull towards totalitarianism on Shamir's part. What she never grasps is that Lehi--and Shamir--were no more pro-Nazi in 1941 than they were pro-Soviet in 1948, when they briefly wooed the Soviet Union. Lehi was exclusively a nationalist group, pro-Israel, and willing to try to deal with anyone who might help the Jews. Which is why, unlike the Irgun which developed into the Likud party, once Lehi dissolved its members could be found all over the political spectrum from the far left to the extreme right. They had no ideology in common and were united only by the common goal of throwing out the alien British and establishing a Jewish state.

The fact is that there was a brief period at the beginning of the Cold War when the Soviet Union simply had not decided whether it would be in its national interest to be pro- or anti-Israel, and during that short time, it was in Lehi's interests to try to gain the Soviet Union's support. Indeed, there has always been an assumption in Israeli politics in general and the Mossad (for which Shamir later worked before entering party politics) in particular that for Israel, putting all one's eggs in one basket was hellishly dangerous. After all, there was an entire generation of people out there whose philosophy and careers were staked on traditions of Anglo-Arab, Franco-Arab, and even American-Arab cooperation and for whom the interests of Jews and Israel did not take precedence. Further, it was clear that the greatest potential source of Jewish emigration to Israel was in the Soviet Union or countries in the Soviet sphere of influence.

The question remains: how are we to judge Shamir? In his memoirs and in a subsequent conversation I had with him, Shamir reiterated his stance on the Bernadotte assassination: "The idea was conceived in Jerusalem by Lehi members operating there more or less independently. Our opinion was asked and we offered no opposition." This, of course, is in the tradition of "Who will rid me of this troublesome priest?"

There is a personality trait in some human beings as well as in nations which ascribes an overwhelming importance, superseding all other considerations of humanity, wisdom, and common sense, to the power and the glory of the nation or the tribe. Such human beings will suffer for it, endure famines and torture for it, and die for it. The tribe and national glory are worth any sacrifice--or indeed any barbarism. This attitude may be unattractive to many of us, but if you have it, you measure your achievement by the success of your efforts to make your group significant on the world stage. Which, I suppose, is why, when I asked Shamir, he confirmed Marton's claim that he greatly admires Mao Tse-tung. When I pointed to Mao's mass murders and brutality, Shamir's response was simply to say, ". . . but China is a world power and Mao was its father."

The trouble with this is transparent: if Stalin or Hitler had been successful (and a case can be made that Stalin was), one would have had to admire them. All the same, I find it difficult to condemn (or condone) Shamir for his attitude to Bernadotte any more than I can condemn the Jewish terrorists for their activities against the British during the late Thirties and Forties. Jews all over Europe were being sent to their deaths, and after the war to internment camps. It was all very well to call for a truce against the British because they were fighting Hitler, but Shamir and his fellow terrorists could see their relatives and families from occupied Europe being turned back from the beaches of Palestine by the British. In judging such matters, I lean to a British Admiralty court hearing that, when faced once with a captain's actions in a particularly complex life-and-death situation, ruled it had no jurisdiction--the circumstances, it said would have to be re-created and experienced in order to render judgment.

What one can properly ask, I think, is whether, later on, Shamir's election as prime minister compounded the stain on Israeli politics that the assassination of Bernadotte created. The answer to that must, I believe, be yes. That election fixed the stain and gave it a sort of good housekeeping seal of approval. If Shamir could only have admitted publicly that, while still believing in the necessity of his action in the desperate days of the Forties, he had realized that his involvement in so terrible a deed would hurt the reputation of the country he loved. It is the inability to see the consequences of such awful, if necessary, acts--the willingness to forgive himself sufficiently to seek and accept the office of prime minister--that frightens me. In this respect Shamir is unlike Menachem Begin who, after the invasion of Beirut and the Shattila refugee camp episode, went into self-imposed exile.

So Kati Marton and this review arrive at the same point in a sense: we both condemn Shamir. But, the route she treads on the way to this conclusion is, in my view, the low road, signposted by banal, left-liberal assumptions which would allow readers to say, if they took her book at face value, that obviously all the good guys in Israel are doves and everyone on the other side of the fence is in the same compound as the mad Goldstein. All the same I think it simplistic to label Marton as a leftist. Her book is not devoid of the sensibility one might expect from the daughter of Hungarian Jews who were persecuted by the communists. What one senses in her writing, and what is indeed explicit in interviews she has given is her formidable ambition and realization that in order to be taken seriously by the mainstream media world, one must endorse the shibboleths, mouth the psychological observations, and endorse history according to the creed of contemporary liberalism.

In the end, Bernadotte and Marton--subject and author--are perfectly suited to one another; there is a curious psychological affinity between the two of them--each overly ambitious and too poorly equipped for the arenas in which they want to play. Perhaps Marton's qualifications to write a book about the Middle East are slightly higher than Bernadotte's were to make peace there, but in the end it comes to the same: two boy scouts setting up pup-tents in minefields.

Essay Types: Book Review