During my visit to Israel in March this year, I went to Haifa and came across the most extraordinary story…that of a group of nineteenth century Germans who called themselves Templars, built a town in Ottoman controlled Palestine and fell foul of the British decades later when many of them were entranced by the doctrine of National Socialism.
Georg David Hardegg arrived in a small town called Haifa in 1868 and began to build a community of Germans. They were members of an organisation called the Templar Society. This seems to have been a rather eccentric Lutheran split-off believing that the Jews were no longer entitled to inhabit the Holy Land as they had rejected Jesus – therefore, these latter day Templars decided they had to take over the holy places and rebuild the great Temple.
Truthfully, they had nothing to do with the original Knights Templar. They were industrious settlers and seem to have made a determined attempt to settle in what is now Israel, constructing houses, schools, farming, opening shops, etc. The houses they built can still be seen in Haifa and form part of what is now called Ben Gurion Boulevard.
There has been growing interest in Israel about these German settlers and an exhibition about them was organised in Tel Aviv back in 2006. The Templars arrived at the same time that the Zionist movement was taking off and idealistic Jews were arriving in the same region from Europe. But by the 1930s, the Templars began to fall out quite dramatically with their Jewish neighbours.
About 20% to 30%, according to different estimates, joined the Nazi party. The leader of the community at that time, Cornelius Schwartz, was allegedly a signed up Nazi. And rather provocatively, some decided to rally in full Hitler regalia in the streets of Jerusalem.
In faraway Brussels, a Jewish man was interrogated at the Gestapo headquarters and was astounded to find the officer asking him questions in Hebrew. It turned out he was a German Templar! The Jewish man was sent to Auschwitz but fortunately survived to tell this very odd story.
This Nazi activity came to the attention of the British, who ran what is now Israel from the end of the First World War and the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. After the Second World War – and a large influx of Jews in the wake of the Nazi holocaust – the British authorities came to the conclusion that the German Templars needed to be kicked out. So, after nearly a century in Haifa, they were deported en masse to Germany.
Israel achieved independence as a Jewish state in 1948 by which time the Templars had disappeared. Here are some photos I took in Haifa of their houses.