NAZIS, ISLAMISTS AND THE MAKING OF THE MODERN MIDDLE EAST by Barry Rubin and Wolfgang Schwanitz

(Hajj Amin al-Husaini and Adolf Hitler)

As we witness the increasing level of anti-Semitism in Europe exemplified by recent attacks against Jews in Paris the role of Islamist ideology appears ever present.  The perpetrators of the attacks were of Mideast origin and claimed to be associated with the Islamic State or ISIS.  With renewed interest in the role of anti-Semitism and Islamist radicalism in Europe it is important to seek out the origins of these movements.  Some political commentators point to the actions of Israel against the Palestinians, particularly its war against Hamas last summer resulting in the carnage caused by repeated missile launches to and from the Gaza Strip.  Others, like historians, the late Barry Rubin and Wolfgang Schwanitz, acknowledge the role of Israel, but point out in their new book, NAZIS, ISLAMISTS AND THE MAKING OF THE MODERN MIDDLE EAST that the historical and ideological roots of the latest conflict between Israelis and Arabs goes much deeper.  Citing the recent release of Nazi and Arab documents dealing with World War II from American and Russian archives, a more complete account of the interactions between Arabs, Muslims and Germans can now be presented.

To support their views the authors bring together a number of key elements.  First, they explore the German role in the Middle East dating back to the late 19th century.  Beginning with the beliefs of Kaiser Wilhelm II, the ideological, political, and strategic goals of Germany are presented by analyzing the intellectual and practical development of employing Islam and jihad as a vehicle for German expansion in the region which would continue through the reign of Adolf Hitler.  Secondly, after the collapse of Nazi Germany in 1945 the alliance forged with these Middle East groups during the war would have long term ramifications.  These groups would experience political victories over their European masters and over more moderate Arab and Muslim rivals.  “Their success was so thorough that liberal democratic forces-not uncommon in the Arab speaking world before the 1930s-do not emerge again as contenders for power” until the Arab spring in 2011.  Today, we are in the midst of another round in the conflict between revolutionary Islamism, one of the movements that cooperated with Imperial Germany through the end of World War I.  Its cooperation would continue with Nazi Germany up until 1945, then reemerge to challenge its former partner Arab nationalism, that had crushed it in the 1950s.  I agree with the authors that an “Islamist spring” has emerged today that spews its anti-Semitism and hatred of the west and it can only be understood by examining the role of the Nazi-Islamist alliance that culminated during World War II.

The narrative begins in June, 1942 as SS Chief Heinrich Himmler prepares for visitors at the Sachsenhausen concentration camp.  Earlier in 1941 the facility had tested new camouflaged gas chambers with four new crematoria which proved very successful.  At that time, the Arab visitors witnessed the results and they planned to build their own facilities near Tunis, Baghdad, and Jericho.  The authors then present a letter from Amin al-Husaini, the Palestinian political and religious leader, to Adolf Hitler in January 1941 that asked the Nazi leader to “assist the Arabs in solving their Jewish problem the way it was carried out in Germany.”  The introduction of al-Husaini, who was also the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem is critical to the author’s arguments.  During the First World War, the Kaiser tried to foment a jihad to encourage Muslim support during the war.  His plan was doomed to failure as relying the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire as his spokesperson was not sound, as most Muslims did recognize him as the religious leader of the Middle East (or caliph).  By 1933, with Hitler’s ascension to power al-Husaini offered his services to the German Chancellor to carry out his plan against the Jews laid out in MEIN KAMPF.  Thus, the relationship and alliance between the Fuhrer and the Grand Mufti began.  Throughout the 1930s the Nazis supplied weapons and money to be employed in the 1936 Intifada against the Jews in Palestine, a people that al-Husaini referred to as “scum and germs.”  al-Husaini saw himself as the leader of the Arab world and in return for Germany’s assistance in eradicating the Middle East of its Jewish population, and supporting his goal for the creation of a unified Arab state in the Middle East under his leadership, he would work to bring Muslims and Arabs into an alliance with Germany, spread Nazi ideology and wage terror against England and France.  As a result of al-Husaini’s cooperation Germany was able to establish a special relationship with the Muslim Brotherhood, the Ba’ath Party and other radical groups in Syria, Iraq, and Palestine, which still exist today.  The author’s provide a detailed history of al-Husaini’s activities throughout his career as the self-styled political and religious leader of the Arab world.  The evidence presented affirms the similarities between al-Husaini’s beliefs and those of the Nazis.  To further their critique the authors offer a list created by al-Husaini that offers “parallels between the Islamic world view and National Socialism.”  The list highlights eight parallels, with al-Husaini “backing each assertion with quotes from al-Qur’an and Muhammad’s sayings.”  Views presented deal with the hatred of Jews, belief in a single powerful leader, the role of woman, and holy war. (182-183)

(Hajj Amin al-Husaini and Heinrich Himmler in Berlin, 1942)

The documentation that the authors present is extensive in dealing with al-Husaini’s paramount role in Hitler’s vision for the Middle East.  One aspect that they discuss even places some level of the blame for the Holocaust on the Grand Mufti.  Up until 1941 the Nazis had not decided on the Final Solution and the Hitlerite regime concentrated on expelling Jews from Germany.  The problem for al-Husaini was that most of those Jews would wind up in Palestine.  Since part of the agreement with the Nazis was to close Palestine’s doors to Jewish immigration, that process was stopped.  With one of the last places Jews could be sent now closed the Nazi regime moved on to plan the Final Solution.  The timing of the Wannsee Conference in January 1942 and al-Husaini’s activities including a conversation with Adolf Eichmann, “who had prepared the background briefing for the genocide discussion at Wannsee, was ordered to be give[n] to al Husaini….before any high-ranking Germans.” (163)  As the war progressed and the German hierarchy realized the conflict was lost, they began to try to soften their role in the Holocaust and began trying to arrange the exchange of Jews for prisoners of war and low level war material.  When al-Husaini learned of these activities in Bulgaria, Rumania, Hungary and Turkey he immediately interfered to put an end to them.  As a result, even more Jews perished in the ovens, all because of his hatred of Jews.

The critique of al-Husaini continues after the war and the evidence offered reflects al-Husaini’s role in the 1947-8 war that saw the creation of the state of Israel.  After W.W.II, al-Husaini and his cohorts, many of which were Nazi collaborators worked to prepare for the next war, i.e.; uncovering Nazi weapons hidden since 1942, using Nazi funds to purchase new weapons, and employing escaped Nazis to train and lead Arabs.  “Without al-Husaini’s presence as the Palestinian Arabs’ and transnationalist Islamist leader there might have been other options.” (200) The author’s conjecture that had moderate Arab leaders not bowed down to al-Husaini’s radical Arabism, and perhaps had the allies treated him as a war criminal as they should have the course of Middle Eastern history might have been different.  Whether things would have progressed in another fashion is fine to speculate about but American, British and French fears of losing Arab support, the need for oil, and the emergence of the Cold War was more important and al-Husaini was allowed to proceed with his machinations for the rest of his life.

Another fascinating aspect that the authors address is the relationship between former Nazis and the Arab world following W.W.II.  A detailed chapter is put forth that explores the role of ex-Nazis in Arab governments, particularly that of Nasser’s Egypt.  Cairo became a haven for escaped Nazis and many were employed in Egyptian industries, intelligence operations, and military training to enhance Nasser’s national security apparatus.  Another home for these men was Syria, under the Ba’athist regime, an Arab version of National Socialism, that mimicked Egypt to a lesser scale, but did hid the likes of Alois Brunner, who Nazi hunter, Simon Wiesenthal labeled as “Eichmann’s right-hand man with brains.”  In addition, he accompanied al-Husaini on his tour of Auschwitz around June, 1943. (225)  Another important individual was Francois Genoud, al-Husaini’s personal banker since 1933, who worked with German military intelligence during the war.  Later, he would finance the ODESSA network and bankroll the Ayatollah Komeini when he was in Paris until he came to power in 1979, and later helped fund al-Qaida and Hamas, until his operations were shut down after 9/11.

What is especially relevant about the author’s narrative is how they link the actions of al-Husaini and his radical Islamist allies to today’s political situation in the Middle East.  As the authors explain, Nazi ideology may have died in defeat in 1945, but its basic concepts changed surprisingly little as practiced by radical Islamists today.  Just substitute the word “Israel” for “Jew” and the similarities are clear.  It is the belief in many Nazi principles by Islamists and Pan Arabs today that contribute to the inability to solve the Arab-Israeli conflict.  A case in point are the comments made by Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif on March 8, 2015 that “Israel should be annihilated.”  These sentiments were offered earlier in November,, 2014 by the Supreme Leader of Iran, Ayatollah Ali Khameini that the fate of Jewish state should be “elimination and annihilation.”  If one examines the beliefs of Osama bin-Laden, Saddam Hussein, the Assad rulers, spokespersons for Hamas and Hezbollah, and of course ISIS, their comments have a certain familiar tone.  But if we return to the earlier period, the speeches of Gamal Abdul Nasser and Yasir Arafat, who was a distant relative of al-Husaini and a disciple, we hear the same ring of Nazi ideology.  It is fascinating to me that al-Husaini would only accept the leadership of an Arab state because of violence, in 2000, Arafat refused what many consider a reasonable deal with Israel because he too could not accept a Palestinian state unless it germinated from violent revolution.  They are many more examples offered, the most important of which is the Muslim Brotherhood, that supposedly moderate organization that came to power in Egypt in 2011 during the “Arab spring.”  I agree with the author’s assessment that “any effort to persuade the West that it should tolerate the Muslim Brotherhood requires erasing its legacy of cooperation with the Nazis, and of equal importance, the ideological parallels between the Nazis and the Brotherhood, as well as Islamists generally.” (250)  However, what   cannot be denied is that currently Europe and the Middle East are witnessing an increase in violent anti-Semitism, and Islamist anti-western hatred, that had its origins in the calls for jihad dating back to World War I.

There is much more to Rubin’s and Schwanitz’s effort including the intellectual development of many individuals and groups throughout the period under discussion.  The range from Wilhelm I to Adolf Hitler to radical Islamist proponents today, for many will be startling.  However, if one examines this scholarly and well researched monograph any doubts of their linkage will disappear.  I would recommend this book to all who have an interest in the Middle East, and in general, the peace that seems so elusive.

Other books you might wish to consult:

Achar, Gilbert. THE ARABS AND THE HOLOCAUST (New York: Picador, 2010).

Dalin, David G.; Rothmann, John F. ICON OF EVIL (New York: Random House, 2008).

Motadel, David. ISLAM AND NAZI GERMANY’S WAR (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2014).

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