What did the Nazis think of Arabs?

Qantara.de - Dialogue with the Islamic World

Even scientists currently feel compelled to create moral clarity on the question of whether the majority of Arabs in North Africa were collaborators with the Wehrmacht and the SS or were resisting. If you look at local newspapers from that time, you know that reactions in the Arab world were just as different as in Europe. This, of course, is a truism. It seems necessary today, however, in view of debates that consider historically anchored anti-Semitism in the Muslim world to be the cause of the Middle East conflict and regard the Arabs as willing (or unwilling) executors.

Questions as to whether these helpers were in the majority or minority cannot yet be answered because not enough sources have been developed and historical research is still at the very beginning to make generalizing statements. From the available sources we know that there were collaborators as well as those who actively campaigned for the protection of Jews.

But in order to be able to make a definite judgment about the reaction of Palestinians or Egyptians at that time, two things are necessary: ​​On the one hand, one must not write counterfactual historiography according to the motto, what would have happened if the British had not expelled the Germans from Egypt ? On the other hand, scientists should not only base their judgment on one-sided sources, such as the Arabic-language radio propaganda from Berlin.

Arab prisoners in concentration camps

Many Arabic sources from the 1930s and 1940s, such as daily newspapers, cultural magazines, cartoons or even memoirs, prove an astonishingly far-sighted rejection of European anti-Semitism and discrimination against Jews in Germany. They report on the German attacks on neighboring countries as an inherent part of a fascist imperialism that the Arabs had already got to know through the rise of Mussolini.

The collaboration of a notorious anti-Semite such as Amin Al-Husseini, the Mufti of Jerusalem, who offered his active support to Hitler immediately after the NSDAP came to power, has been studied by historical scholars for around 50 years. The story of Arab prisoners in German concentration camps, however, has not yet been told. Today it is particularly difficult to do so.

The historian Gerhard Höpp researched the fate of Muslim Arabs in almost all archives of concentration camps in Germany. But he died too early in 2003 to be able to publish his results.

With the standstill in the Middle East conflict in the last ten years, Arab experiences (Jewish as well as Muslim!) In the Holocaust became endlessly politicized. The "Museum of the History of the Holocaust" in Yad Vashem set up a new section on the Jewish communities in North Africa because their fates have not yet been discussed in the exhibition. However, Yad Vashem resisted politicization and focused on portrayals of the atrocities committed by Europeans in North Africa.

An Arab as "Righteous Among the Nations"?

Robert Satloff, director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, also went in search of lost history and discovered cases in which Arabs saved the lives of their Jewish neighbors. In 2007 he proposed that the Tunisian Khaled Abdulwahab be the first Arab in Yad Vashem Righteous among the peoples to honor.

The application was rejected on the grounds that Abdulwahab did not have to risk his life when he housed two Jewish families whose houses had been confiscated by the German occupying forces because it did not violate current Tunisian law. Having risked your own life is an elementary requirement for the honorary title.

This decision sparked a lively debate between Mordecai Paldiel, former director of the "Righteous Among the Nations" department in Yad Vashem, and his successor Irena Steinfeldt on the "principle of personal risk". Paldiel called for Abdulwahab to be recognized as a Righteous, as some Europeans have already been awarded for "the risk of possible punishment". But to this day no Arab has been honored in Yad Vashem.

The second World War

Like all French colonies and protectorates, Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia came under the rule of the Vichy regime from 1940. Anti-Semitic laws and guidelines were immediately introduced overseas. For the second time, a great European war unfolded before the eyes and front doors of the North Africans. Germany and Italy competed for North African territories.

The Israeli historian Nir Arielli reconstructed a plan drawn up by the Italian government in July-August 1940 for the future division of the Middle East. To do this, he used two documents from Ufficio Operazioni of the Italian Army.

This plan not only envisaged Italian dominance over its "classic" strongholds such as the Horn of Africa, Libya or Chad, but also over the Middle East; a plan that clearly clashed with Adolf Hitler's ideas for the region. These distribution plans were of course withheld from the regional rulers in order not to endanger possible cooperation with the rebels against the British and French.

For the independence movements, the question arose as to which power to join in the hope of support. In the fight against France, both England and Italy could appear as possible partners. Many believed the Allied promises of freedom and independence for all. The Egyptian Wafd government proved to be a loyal partner to the British until the end of the war. Other independence movements, on the other hand, hoped that the Axis powers would drive the British and French colonialists out of the region.

Of course, military successes, such as Erwin Rommel's rapid advance on El-Alamein, also played a role in deciding which European power was currently in high demand. But for the national movements, achieving national independence remained the primary goal.

Fear of war

Some understood the fascist ideology as a form of ultra-nationalism and sympathized with the Italians from this point of view. But none of this says anything about the underlying convictions of Arab sympathizers: while some nationalists were outspoken anti-Semites, others had no doubts about the racist nature of fascism and national socialism. They were horrified how enlightened Germany could surrender to such a "barbaric warrior horde" (Ahmed Zayyat).

Historian Israel Gershoni has examined a number of Egyptian interwar cultural magazines as to how Al-Hillal (The Crescent) or Al-Risala (The message): The persecution of the Jews in Germany was criticized here very early on.

Still other parts of the population were completely apolitical. Little information about the Holocaust leaked to the North African population. And one can safely assume that many, like members of the resistance in other parts of the world, could hardly believe what was being reported from the extermination camps in Eastern Europe.

In Egypt, people were primarily concerned with whether the transition to a war economy would bring about a decline in cotton prices, as historian James Jankowski shows in a previously unpublished article. They later feared that the British occupation forces might drag them into the war, as the British stifled the efforts of the Egyptian parliament to declare Cairo an "open city" like Nanking. Jankowski's contribution also shows that for the British the "potentially dangerous movement of the Muslim Brotherhood had come to an agreement with the Wafd party and remained politically silent".

Jankowski evaluated the reports of British embassy officials who traveled through Egypt in order to assess pro-fascist tendencies within the population. Jankowski's sources show an "almost unreserved approval" of the military progress made by the British and French troops in 1941. Reports for the British embassy in Cairo certainly did not downplay sympathy for Hitler (even if it cannot be entirely ruled out that informants passed on what was happening was desired).

John Hamilton, the British Embassy Deputy Middle East Advisor, reported in 1939 that "Egyptian state radio was the most popular, while foreign stations were only available to certain listeners." The Italian broadcaster was the most popular among these. Jankowski describes how an Egyptian told Hamilton that "people quickly switch off German radio because it spreads obvious nonsense".

The establishment of the Arab League

Even before the Second World War ended, the Arab regimes condemned the German genocide. During the preparations for the founding of the Arab League in 1944, the committee issued a statement saying that the committee was "second to none" when it came to that To mourn the suffering that the Jews of Europe suffered from the European dictatorships. " “But,” added the committee, “this question should not be confused with Zionism. For there can be no greater injustice and aggression than trying to solve the problem of the Jews in Europe by another injustice, that is, by trying to solve the problem of the Jews in Europe Do another injustice to the Palestinian Arabs of different religions and denominations. "

With a view to the Middle East conflict, a completely different perception of this story threatens today. Or as one Israeli historian recently summed it up: "The policy of the Mufti of Jerusalem has backfired. Now its own people are being hit; they have bet on the wrong horse - now their land is gone."

The Holocaust is meanwhile being instrumentalized by Israelis and Arabs in the Middle East conflict. Meir Litvak and Esther Webman show in their latest book "From Empathy to Denial: Arab Responses to the Holocaust" how Holocaust denial also became an answer to the so-called Holocaust industry (Finkelstein 2000). As Ha'aretz reported, the Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman sent the well-known photo of a meeting between Hitler and the Mufti in 1941 to the PR departments of the Israeli embassies in order to use this photo to "counter the worldwide criticism of the Israeli settlement plans".

The "Arab participation" in the Holocaust is exaggerated for political reasons. Collaboration cannot be overlooked. But to portray the perpetrators as representatives of an Arab majority or even unity, and to deliberately suppress the Arab victims and the Arab resistance to fascism and National Socialism, does not do justice to the common history.

Sonja Hegasy

© Qantara.de

Sonja Hegasy is an Islamic scholar and deputy director of the Center for the Modern Orient in Berlin.

Translation from English: Christian Horbach

Editor: Nimet Seker / Qantara.de

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