CULTURE APRIL 21, 2010
by Jeffrey Herf
Yale University Press, 335 pp., $30
If you want to get even more depressed about the prospects for peace in the Middle East, check out a Web page maintained by the Anti-Defamation League that offers excerpts from the Hamas charter. One of the remarkable things about this document is the way it fuses three originally separate varieties of Jew-hatred. The first comes from the Koran, in which Jews are represented as opponents of Mohammed and thus as eternal enemies of Islam: “The prophet, prayer and peace be upon him, said: ‘The time will not come until Muslims will fight the Jews (and kill them); until the Jews hide behind rocks and trees, which will cry: O Muslim! there is a Jew hiding behind me, come on and kill him.’”
The second strain comes from 19th-century Europe, where religious Jew-hatred had given way to modern anti-Semitic conspiracy theories. Thus the Hamas charter states that Jews “control the world media [and use their] wealth to stir revolutions… They stood behind the French and the Communist Revolutions… They also used the money to establish clandestine organizations which are spreading around the world, in order to destroy societies and carry out Zionist interests.” (Among these Zionist front organizations, you will be interested to learn, are the Rotary Club, the Lions, and B’nai Brith.)
Last but not least, the Hamas charter incorporates the 20th-century rhetoric of apocalyptic anti-Zionism. “Today it is Palestine and tomorrow it may be another country or other countries. For Zionist scheming has no end, and after Palestine they will covet expansion from the Nile to the Euphrates.” It follows that peace between Israel and Arab countries is, by definition, impossible: “Leaving the circle of conflict with Israel is a major act of treason and it will bring curse on its perpetrators.”
Koranic anti-Judaism, European anti-Semitism, Arab anti-Zionism: mix them together and you have an intoxicatingly paranoid worldview, in which Jews are all-powerful and totally malevolent, and Israel is not just a state but the latest incarnation of an eternal evil. You have, in fact, a 21st-century version of Nazism. The revelation of Jeffrey Herf’s new book, Nazi Propaganda for the Arab World, is that this affinity is not coincidental. Rather, between 1939 and 1945, Germany tirelessly used radio and print media to spread Nazi ideas about the Jews to Arab countries, especially Egypt. Herf, who is a historian of Nazi Germany and not a student of Arabic or Arab history, makes clear that his book is not a study of the way this propaganda was actually received. But simply by documenting, in great and horrible detail, what the Nazis were telling the Arabs about the Jews, he raises the question of whether “the impact of fascism and Nazism on the Middle East [is] inseparable from contemporary political controversies about anti-Semitism, radical Islam, ‘Islamofascism,’ and international terrorism since the attacks of September 11, 2001.”
The key source for Nazi Propaganda for the Arab World are transcriptions of German and Italian radio broadcasts made by experts at the American Embassy in Cairo. Between September 1941 and March 1945, the embassy sent the State Department weekly reports on “Axis Broadcasts in Arabic.” After the war, these transcripts, totaling thousands of pages, ended up the National Archives, and Herf is the first historian to consult them extensively. In addition to showing just what these broadcasts said, Herf puts them into historical context, showing how the German message evolved in response to wartime events. As the author of a definitive study of the Nazis’ domestic propaganda, Herf is also able to show how the Nazi message was specifically tailored for Arab and Muslim listeners.
Before World War II, German attempts to reach out to the Muslim world were made very awkward by the Nazis’ racial doctrines, which held Arabs, Persians, and Turks to be biologically inferior to Aryans. In Mein Kampf, Hitler openly declared, “I am prevented by mere knowledge of the racial inferiority of these so-called ‘oppressed nations’ from linking the destiny of my own people with theirs.” Accordingly, the Nazis frowned on marriage between Germans and Muslims; in 1935, the Hitler Youth expelled a boy whose father was Turkish, leading to a public-relations disaster in Turkey. When the 1936 Olympics were held in Germany, Egypt and Iran threatened to boycott to express their insulted racial pride. Significantly, what smoothed over these diplomatic quarrels were the Nazis’ assurances, private and public, that their anti-Semitism was directed solely against Jews, not against other Semitic peoples.
Once the war began, Germany turned its attention to the Muslim world in earnest. In particular, the Arab countries of the Middle East and North Africa were important to the Nazis’ geopolitical designs. During World War I, the British had inspired the Arabs to revolt against Ottoman Turkey with promises of independence. But when peace came, the region was divided up between the British and French empires, breeding a resentment among the Arabs comparable to the Germans’ feelings about the Treaty of Versailles. Adding fuel to the fire was the Balfour Declaration, in which the British promised to support a Jewish home in Palestine.
The key themes of Nazi propaganda, accordingly, were anti-imperialism and anti-Zionism, with a sideline in anti-Communism. It may seem incredible that, at the very moment Germany was occupying almost every country in Europe—and exploiting them for slave labor—it could pose to the Arabs as a champion of native peoples against foreign rule. But in some quarters, the Arab resentment of Britain was so intense that Germany could be taken for a potential liberator.
The Nazis found a valuable ally, for instance, in Haj Amin el-Husseini, the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, who found refuge in Berlin after fighting the British in Palestine and Iraq. Germany’s Arabic-language radio made great use of Husseini’s speeches, such as the one he delivered in Berlin in 1943, explaining that the Jews “lived like a sponge among peoples, sucked their blood, seized their property, undermined their morals…. All this has brought the hostility of the world down on them and nourished the Jew’s hatred against all the peoples that had been burning for two thousand years.” As Herf notes, despite spending the war as a guest of Hitler and Himmler, the Mufti was never tried for war crimes, but returned to Egypt as a national hero.
One of the things Husseini and Hitler talked about, when they met in November 1941, was their plans for the Jews in Palestine and throughout the Middle East. Hitler, who still hoped that he was on the verge of a quick victory over Stalin, promised that once the USSR fell, German forces would cross the Caucasus mountains and proceed to the “destruction of the Jewish element” in the Middle East. That plan was blocked by the resistance of the Red Army, but eight months later, when Rommel’s Afrika Korps invaded Egypt, it seemed that the Nazis might reach Palestine from the west instead. At that desperate moment for the Allies, German radio issued a broadcast in Egypt whose title was “Kill the Jews Before They Kill You.” “It is the duty of the Egyptians to annihilate the Jews and to destroy their property,” the announcer said. “Egypt can never forget that it is the Jews who are carrying out Britain’s imperialist policy in the Arab countries and that they are the source of all the disasters, which have befallen the countries of the East.” If it were not for Montgomery’s victory at El Alamein, it is certain that the Holocaust would have extended to Palestine and North Africa. In fact, the SS had already set up an Einsatzgruppe for the region, like the ones that initiated the Holocaust in Eastern Europe.
Given the extreme vulnerability of the Jews in Palestine, and the utter destruction being visited on the Jews in Europe, what is most striking in the Nazis’ Arabic-language propaganda is the unquestioning assumption of Jewish power. Again and again, the British and the Americans are described as pawns of the Jews; Roosevelt is alternately said to be Jewish or surrounded by Jews (including Eleanor); Chaim Weizmann is considered as powerful as Roosevelt and Churchill put together. “Had it not been for the Jews, neither London, Washington, nor Moscow would have been linked together,” explained one broadcast in December 1943. It is a perfect example of the Nazi “Big Lie,” for of course the truth is exactly the opposite: it was Germany’s aggression that brought together those unlikely allies.
Reading Nazi Propaganda for the Arab World is a reminder of how powerful such lies can be. They are so shameless, so contrary to every evident fact, that they seem to render facts meaningless. If you could believe, for instance, that following the American landings in North Africa, “the Jews” bestowed on Eisenhower the title “the Glittering Sword of Israel”; or that on the way home from the Tehran Conference, Roosevelt and Churchill stopped in Jerusalem to confer with their Zionist masters; or that the tiny Jewish settlement in Palestine was the nucleus of a planned Jewish empire that would include the entire Middle East and all of North Africa—then what wouldn’t you believe?
Herf does not show that such Nazi propaganda claims were actually accepted by Arab listeners, and surely the vast majority discounted them. But sadly, as the Hamas charter shows, we have not yet heard the end of the ideas whose birth Herf documents in this frightening, necessary book.
Adam Kirsch is a senior editor at The New Republic. This piece originally appeared in Tablet Magazine.