In the wake of the recent commemorations of the 70th anniversary of the historic assault on Nazi-occupied France, the well-respected Arab analyst and commentator Hussein Ibish posted a tweet suggesting that the participation of some forces recruited from Arab countries invalidated what he called the “myth” that “Arabs sided with the Nazis.”
When I responded that the “fact that some Arabs were recruited for the Allies doesn’t make Arab Nazi collaboration a ‘myth,’” a heated exchange ensued. Ibish countered that while there were only few Arab Nazi collaborators, there were “HUGE numbers of Arabs who took up arms against Axis forces.” He proceeded to cite specific numbers, claiming e.g. that “9,000 Palestinians enlisted in the British army during the war,” and while he did not link to any sources, Ibish definitely does not deserve to be suspected of making up his own facts.
However, even if one assumes it is correct that 9000 Arabs from British Mandate Palestine enlisted in the British Army, this number is dwarfed by the 30,000 Jewish volunteers from British-ruled Palestine who served with the British forces during World War II. In addition, Jewish refugees who had escaped Nazi-controlled areas in Europe also volunteered to join the fight against Hitler’s Germany. Altogether, some 1.5 million Jews fought in the regular Allied armies – which is to say: roughly 10 percent of the global Jewish population in 1940. Of course, by the end of World War II, some six million Jewish civilians had been murdered by the Nazis, and a quarter of a million Jewish soldiers had lost their lives fighting with the Allies.
The number – and percentage – of Jewish fighters is staggering, and it is perhaps little wonder that at one point during the exchange, Ibish moved from his original focus on Arabs to Muslims, even including Muslims from British-ruled India to bolster his numbers. But this shouldn’t be a numbers game; and it also makes no sense to assume that Arab and Muslim recruits from areas under colonial rule fought with the Allies because they were motivated by a passionate opposition to Nazi ideology and Nazi Jew-hatred. Towards the end of the exchange, Ibish claimed that I wanted to believe that “Arabs/Muslims were generally pro-Nazi,” and he added all too confidently: “Good news: they weren’t!”
Given that I did my Ph.D. on a somewhat related topic – US intelligence on Germany during the 1940s – I’m not quite as unsophisticated as Ibish seems to assume. I doubt that there are reliable studies about how Arabs and Muslims in general felt about the Nazis during World War II, and given that countless millions of Arabs and Muslims lived in great poverty and had very little education at the time, many likely knew too little to have an informed opinion. However, we do know that the Nazis invested considerable efforts to appeal to Arab and Muslim audiences through broadcasts and other propaganda, and several scholars have made a convincing case that the poisonous legacy of this propaganda and the collaboration between the Nazi regime and some Arab leaders lives on in the Middle East.
So while it is obviously true that Arab and Muslim forces participated for various reasons in the Allied efforts to defeat Nazi Germany and the Axis powers, it is unfortunately also true that the ideologies developed by Arab and Muslim Nazi collaborators and sympathizers have remained deeply entrenched in the Middle East throughout the seven decades that have passed since D-Day.
Syrian edition in 2005 of the “Protocols of the Elders of Zion”
It is interesting in this context that Ibish linked in the exchange on Twitter to one of his articles where he decried the “very disturbing tendency by both Western and, to some extent also Arab, observers to apply different standards […], to be very tough on Western populists, demagogues and religious fanatics on the one hand and to be neutral, blasé or ‘understanding’ about their Arab counterparts on the other.”
But unfortunately, such very different standards are also applied when it comes to the legacy of Nazism in the Middle East. In Europe and the US, no group that identifies with a text even remotely resembling the Hamas Charter would stand a chance to gain any political legitimacy; yet, when the Western-supported Palestinian Authority forms a “unity government” with Hamas, there is no shortage of analysts and politicians who argue that this is acceptable because after all, Hamas has a sizeable constituency among Palestinians and if they don’t mind the unmistakable echoes of Nazi ideology in the group’s charter, everyone else should be willing to along with it.
There is a similar willingness to ignore the Nazi connections of the Muslim Brotherhood. According to an American intelligence report from June 1, 1946, the return of Hitler’s ally Amin al-Husseini to Egypt was welcomed by Hassan Al-Banna, the leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, who praised Husseini in a statement to the Arab League as a “hero who challenged an empire and fought Zionism, with the help of Hitler and Germany. Germany and Hitler are gone, but Amin Al-Husseini will continue the struggle.”
As Rubin and Schwanitz note (p.233), al-Husseini indeed “remained the historic Palestinian Arab leader until he was able to anoint [Yassir] Arafat as successor during meetings between them in 1968, and selected Said Ramadan [his son-in law and father of Oxford professor Tariq Ramadan] as his successor to lead the European-based Islamist movement. Even more important was al-Husaini’s role as leader of the international Islamist movement, ensuring that it survived the lean years of the 1950s and 1960s. When Islamism revived in the 1970s, its ideology bore the mark of al-Husaini and the other wartime collaborators, especially the Muslim Brotherhood.”
But while al-Husseini continues to be hailed as a Palestinian hero – including by Mahmoud Abbas –, a Palestinian professor who earlier this year dared to take his students to Auschwitz was threatened and vilified and eventually resigned his position.
As these and countless other examples illustrate, even if sizeable Arab and Muslim forces helped to defeat the Nazis 70 years ago, the Nazi legacy in the Middle East still needs to be defeated.
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After posting this piece at my JPost blog, I came across an article at the excellent Tablet, where David Mikics writes about the book “The Eternal Nazi: From Mauthausen to Cairo, the Relentless Pursuit of SS Doctor Aribert Heim.” As Mikics notes:
“When Heim landed in Egypt in 1963, he found himself on welcoming, even familiar ground. President Nasser, if one trusts his own words on the subject, was as true a disciple of the Nazi cause as had ever lived. “During the Second World War, our sympathies were with the Germans,” Nasser told the Deutsche Nationalzeitung in May 1964, adding that “The lie of the 6 million murdered Jews is not taken seriously by anybody.” Wehrmacht Gen. Wilhelm Fahrmbacher prepared the Egyptian army for its effort to destroy Israel in 1948, and Wilhelm Voss, a former SS weapons expert, developed the Egyptian missile program. Johann von Leers, a convert to Islam known as Omar Amin, served Nasser as an anti-Semitic propagandist.”
This highlights a fact that is too often ignored: while Nazi Germany was defeated in 1945, Israel’s Jews still had to fight Nazis – not just Nazi sympathizers – years later. Another example I noted in a recent post concerns a group of some 40 Bosnian Muslims – veterans of the units “Hitler’s mufti” al-Husseini had recruited for the Nazis – who fought in Jaffa in January 1948.
By now, Hussein Ibish has also published a column on the topic of our exchange on Twitter, though it was important for him to let me know that I shouldn’t “flatter” myself by assuming it had anything to do with this exchange. Under the title “Second World War record of Muslims is worth marking,” Ibish repeats the numbers he presented in our exchange, once again without citing any sources; and as the title of his piece already indicates, he again ultimately focuses on the numbers of Muslims who fought with the Allies to defeat Nazi Germany and the Axis Powers. While Ibish argues that “it is essential to remember and recognise that huge numbers of Arabs and Muslims fought in the war, and that – in spite of the constant misrepresentation, distortion or downplaying of this reality – they did so almost entirely on the Allied side and against Nazi Germany,” he also openly acknowledges that “there were significant groupings with sympathy for Nazi Germany in Arab and Muslim societies. Some of this was clearly driven by anti-colonial sentiment. But at times it clearly crossed the line into outright ideological support, such as by the short-lived Rashid Ali government in Iraq.”
Ibish refers to al-Husseini as the “most notorious Arab collaborator with the Nazi regime,” but falsely claims that
“following the war, after receiving a hero’s welcome in Egypt by the Muslim Brotherhood, Al Husseini quickly slipped into obscurity and played no further role in Palestinian politics until his death. He remains a largely forgotten figure, with even Hamas according him no real historical significance.”
As I’ve shown repeatedly, there is plenty of evidence to conclude that a majority of Palestinian Arabs regarded al-Husseini as their leader in the years after his return from Europe, and it is an indisputable fact that he continued to play a leading role in the Islamist movement for decades. Unfortunately, Ibish is also wrong to claim that Palestinians no longer see him as a significant historical figure. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas explicitly honored al-Husseini in speeches he gave in 2010 and in 2013.
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Note: I just came across a very interesting and relevant review of a book by Derek Penslar, Jews and the Military: A History, Princeton University Press, 2013.