Are Arabs Turning a Blind Eye to History?

A recently published study conducted by the Centre for Modern Oriental Studies in Berlin illustrates the complexity of the relations between Arabs and National Socialism. Lennart Lehmann read the study for

Hitler making a radio address, illustration by Raimo Bergt
Hitler making a radio address

​​Whenever the Arab world and National Socialism are spoken of in one breath, it doesn’t take long for someone to mention the name of Amin al-Husseini, the Mufti of Jerusalem, who sought Hitler’s support for the struggle against the British colonial powers in Palestine.

Either that or reference is made to the Iraqi politician Raschid al-Gailani, who attempted a revolt against the British Mandatory Power in 1941 with the help of German and Italian fighter pilots.

It is a widely held opinion that the Arabs would have taken the side of Nazi Germany, because of the latter’s opposition to the colonists from England and France, and the ever-strengthening Zionist movement. Some say that this fatal sympathy for the National Socialist state has never died and that Arabs have turned a blind eye to history.

Forgotten historic facts

An anthological study published by the Centre for Modern Oriental Studies (ZMO) shows that it is not as simple as all that. For many years, National Socialism was not a key issue for Islamic scholars; it didn’t improve their career prospects.

Moreover, the majority of historians who studied the matter could not speak Arabic. The situation was compounded by the fact that diplomatic files dating from World War II remained under lock and key for a long time. The biographies of Arab contemporaries and those people that could have shed more light on the matter have only been published in recent years.

The authors of the ZMO study hail from Germany, Israel, and Morocco. All of them are respected professionals in their field. They examined Arab sources and dug up some forgotten historic facts in the process.

The Oriental scientist Werner Ende warns "that things are always more complicated than one thinks. The result is a corrective. This is not the right book for those looking for agit-prop."

Nationalism in Arab countries

Some of the essays in the anthology are not only of an extraordinarily high quality, they are also exciting to read. They consciously highlight the activities of individual - oftentimes bizarre - personalities: after all, history is not an anonymous process.

Israel Gershoni used Egyptian publications from the 1930s and 1940s to show that while there was undisputed enthusiasm for Hitler on the banks of the Nile, there were also plenty of people who rejected the National Socialist regime.

In Syria, on the other hand, the founders of nationalist parties adopted Fascist symbols and structures, while at the same time avoiding the racist aspect of Nazi ideology.

The developments in Iraq, which were examined for this anthology by Peter Wien, read like a tragedy: a wrestling match for the future involving various generations, traditionalists, and modernists that sent people into the arms of the Nazis and has had a negative effect on Iraq ever since.

Arab collaborators and victims

Werner Ende notes: "Modernist, progressive Muslims fell for National Socialism while groups like the Muslim brothers viewed the Nazis with great reserve."

This anthology is something new in this sphere. Ende draws attention to one particular problem: this is an issue that still stirs up great emotions in the Near East and is difficult for interested outsiders to access. "There are still families that would like us to forget that some of them collaborated with the Nazis."

Research conducted by the Oriental scholar Gerhardt Höpp, who died last year, also caused a stir: he took a closer look at the stories of a large number of Arab victims who were persecuted, humiliated, and murdered in concentration camps in Nazi Germany.

"This is why it cannot be excluded that the book will always be applauded by the wrong side and criticised by the other," says Ende. "The whole issue is a minefield."

Study to be translated into Arabic

"It was not the task of this anthology to rewrite the history of the victims," says historian René Wildangel. It is instead intended to be an incentive for people to take a closer look at colonial history and the forgotten facts of the era.

"Not much has happened in the Arab world in this regard. Instead, in the Near East in particular, a lot of pseudo-scientific literature glorifying the Hitler regime from a polemic anti-Semitic perspective is doing the rounds."

"A variety of social circumstances make people in the region willing to read this rubbish," sums up Wildangel. The anthology also contains some controversial material: Götz Nordbruch noted that Fascist and racist discourse is even popular among the intellectual elite in Arab countries. This is why Wildangel feels that it is important for the study to be translated into Arabic.

Reading the anthology not only provides answers, it also raises new questions: Arabs fought in the French and English army and were captured by the enemy. What happened to them on their release? How is the history of National Socialism related in Iran? In Palestine too, many sources are missing. In short, this book inspires further research.

Lennart Lehmann

© 2004

Translation from German: Aingeal Flanagan