Arab Nationalists, Nazi-Germany and the Holocaust: an unlucky contemporaneity

Peter Wien


The formative period of Arab nationalism as an ideology co-incided with the German persecution of the Jews in Europe and their genocide. The advent and finally the emergence of the Jewish State in Palestine carried the aftermath of the European catastrophy into the Middle East without Arab involvement.
The Arabs were accused after the war that they had shown sympathy with the devil, that they had taken up racial aims of the Nazis and at worst taken part in the Holocaust. The latter accusation rests on two columns one of which is the supposed involvement of the Mufti of Jerusalem Amin al-Husaini in the planning of the Holocaust during his exile in Berlin from 1942 to 1945. The second column is the short alliance between a nationalist government in Iraq and Germany during the British-Iraqi war in May 1941. It was taken for granted that this tenuous alliance rested on ideological parallels, an assumption which gained support from the ”Farhud,” a pogrom that took place in Baghdad’s Jewish quarters at the end of the war. It resulted in numerous Jewish deaths and casualties.

The allegation against the Mufti to be a collaborator in the Holocaust was in parts a consequence of Husaini’s instrumentalisation in the Arab-Israeli conflict after 1948. Especially in the course of the Eichmann trial and the 1967 war the Mufti became for one side a friend and helper of the perpetrators of the Shoah, and thus a pars-pro-toto for the Arab nationalist movement. For the other side he remained a glorified hero of the Arab struggle for freedom. In addition to doubts about the evidence against the Mufti – raised by Hannah Arendt in ”Eichmann in Jersualem”, for instance –, this triangular construction is specific for the existing views on Arab nationalism and its tenuous relation with Germany in the 1930s and early 40s. The affair could not be assessed without regard to the history of the Near East conflict after 1948: The traumatic experience of persecution and mass murder coincided with the struggle of the Jewish people for nationhood, however in a detached region. The Arab people – deprived of independence and self-determination and in a competition for land with the Jews – was demonised, an attitude apparently justified by contacts with the perpetrators of a deed, which, however, had nothing to do with these contacts. The Arab quest was for assistance against imperialism, Zionism appearing to be merely a part of it. Hence the triangle: Two uncomparable lines of relations with Nazi-Germany coincided: the Holocaust and the anti-imperialist effort of the Arabs. Both lines did not cross but in a common point of reference. Nevertheless their contemporaneity does make it impossible in hindsight to treat each in its own independent regard.

The meaning of ”Unlucky Contemporaneity” stands out clearly in the British-Iraqi war and the Farhud as well. The breakout of regional war in a framework of decolonisation was facilitated by the European war taking place parallely. Nevertheless the British-Iraqi war emerged out of regional issues. The very meagre support by a German air-squadron co-incided with the anti-Jewish pogrome that was rather a consequence of Arab concerns about Palestine and a reaction to Arab nationalist propaganda, than a consequence of racial furor, as well as it was a mob of looters, murderers and roaming soldiers who brought calamity and murder to the Baghdadi Jews. It was not a planned racist effort.
The very presence of German troops made it easier, however, first to interprete the ‘41 war in hindsight as an Arab effort in favour of the Nazis, second to interprete the pogrom as a racial anti-Semitic endeavor and thus part of the Holocaust.
To sum up, the Arab nationalist efforts and the anti-Zionist atrocities had nothing to do with German Nazi barbarity except for a parallelity of time. For Iraqi nationalists a misunderstood prospect of German support against British imperialism facilitated the declaration of war, but besides that the Anglo-Iraqi war of 1941 had in its underlying causes nothing to do with the European war.

In an elaborated version of this essay a short episode of the Iraqi diplomatic efforts of 1940/41 to gain support from Germany will highlight the misunderstandings between the two parties. The episode will underline the detached nature of the particular interests of both groups. It will present clearly how German sources manage to create artificially a link between German anti-Jewish policy and Arab anti-Zionism which had nothing in common.

In mid 1940 the core group of pan-Arab nationalists in Iraq sent Amin al-Husaini’s private secretary Uthman Kamal Haddad as an emissary to Berlin in order to negotiate the resumption of diplomatic relations between Iraq and the Third Reich. Result of this first of several diplomatic contacts between the Axis powers and the Arab nationalists in Iraq during the war was a joint declaration of both Germany and Italy in favour of Arab nationalism.
Since the fall of France many Arab nationalists had been convinced that Germany was on her way to victory and thus was the right partner to combat British and French imperialism in the region. Especially in Iraq there was a group of nationalist politicians and army officers whose strength had been growing ever since a series of military coups had started in Iraq after 1936. After the outbreak of the Arab Revolt in Palestine in 1936 Zionism and the Palestine problem had increasingly become an issue of nationalist rhetorics in Iraq. This had repercussions on the situation of the Jews in Iraqi society as well. After more than a decade of successful co-existence between the commercially dominant Jews and the politically dominant Muslims, Jews became more and more marginalised and were accused of Zionist activities. This tendency gained support when Iraq became a refuge for many Arab nationalist activists who had had to leave Palestine and Syria, among them Amin al-Husaini. Shortly after his arrival in Baghdad late in 1939 he gained influence on politicians such as Rashid Ali al-Kailani – Prime Minister of the government that later went to war with Britain – and a group of four officers, known as the ”Golden Square”, who were in control of the army. The Mufti was deeply affected by his experiences during the Arab revolt and the high costs of lives and loss of fatherland. He had become an embittered hater of Britain and Zionism. This combination had driven him since several years before to seek unsuccesfully the assistance of Hitler’s Germany.
In Baghdad Husaini met people who had been active over years in trying to implement Arab nationalism on a deeply segregated society, a rather hopeless effort in a country which counted a large number of Kurds among its population and a majority of Arab Shi’ites who were not keen on a Greater Arabia which would have turned them into a small minority among the mainly Sunni Arab peoples. Nevertheless the dominantly Sunni political elite believed in the strength of the imagery they used in their nationalist endeavor: the strong state, the national awakening and the need for a strong personal leadership as they encountered it in neighboring states such as Turkey, Iran, but also in European Fascism. This imagery met a certain sympathy with Germany which had been brought into nationalist curricula of schools and army by the former Iraqi Ottoman officers who had accompanied Iraq’s first king Faisal into the country after they had fought under him in the Arab revolt of World War I. During their officer education on Istanbul academies they had been taught by German instructors, and some had been sent to Germany for further study and training. Some of these officers became crucial figures in the formation of the Iraqi state and occupied high ranks in pivotal institutions such as the army. However, Germany was never much more than a remote example in Iraqi nationalist imagery, and in the 1930s there were only few attempts to increase economic and cultural exchange which never came to a level to challenge the British political, economic and cultural influence in Iraq. Palestinian Arab nationalists approached several German diplomatic missions in the Arab world in order to gain financial support in their struggle, but they were always turned down.
However, there was an ambitious group among German diplomats who regarded the Arab East as their starting point of a career. An outstanding character in this framework was Fritz Grobba. Grobba is an example of a further triangular construction in the framework of Middle East diplomacy. The first and only German envoy to Iraq between 1932 and 1939 had a good reputation among Arab nationalists in Iraq following his personal efforts to exert influence on Iraqi politicians and to create sympathy for the Nazi regime. In the same time Grobba was a protagonist of a faction of Middle East specialists in the German Foreign Ministry. They favoured a strong commitment of Nazi-Germany for Arab nationalism. This group was opposed to a group of diplomats that had started their career in the oriental adventures of the German Reich during World War I. It appears that much of the controversy about Nazi-Germany’s political role in the Middle East and the commitment during wartime functioned along the lines of envy and personal dislike between diverging factions in the German foreign service. At the end of the day the Arab politicians fell victim to tactical moves and promises made in order to preserve personal influence.

Uthman Kamal Haddad’s mission to Berlin shows how the emissary had to weigh promises and reservations of the different German players he encountered. In that context we find the record of a German declaration as proposed by the Arab emissary. At one point it mentions that the Arabs would claim the right to solve the ”Jewish Question” in Palestine according to the German model. Naturally this formulation gives rise to a lot of painful questions. However, a comparison of several sources gives hints that this clause entered the respective document rather through personal interference of the German diplomat Fritz Grobba than through a deliberate adoption of Nazi principles from the Arab side. Clearly, this event was driven by dynamics of the Arab-German-Jewish triangle: Jews were involved as victims of Nazi-German racism, but in the same time as one of several opponents of the Arab nationalists in the framework of their anti-imperialist efforts. The Arabs were confronted with a set-up they could not see through at this moment in history.

Peter Wien, M.A. M.St.
Zentrum Moderner Orient, Berlin
Kirchweg 33
14129 Berlin
Tel.: 0049-30-80307-224


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August 2001