Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Nazis and Islamists

I am grateful to John Rosenthal for clearing out much of the ideological fog and academic ego-thumping that smother the important question of the relationship between the Third Reich and the Islamists.

Once the fog machine is turned off and the egos are sent to time out, the picture becomes more clear, if more complex, than any of the invested sides have allowed.

On the one hand, you have the somewhat counterintuitive assertion in some quarters that Hitler was a "Zionist." And thus had no truck with the Islamists except for an exchange of common rhetoric. The element of truth in that is tiny, but not hard to reconcile with Hitler's plans and visions, especially in the early stages of his rule:

Moreover, for at least part of the Nazi leadership ... the immigration of German Jews to Palestine represented a tolerable solution to Germany’s supposed “Jewish problem.” This attitude was obviously inimical to the plans of the mufti, who pleaded with German authorities to restrict Jewish immigration. Starting in August 1933, however, they did the opposite: in effect, facilitating Jewish immigration under the complex terms of the so-called Haavara or “Transfer” Agreement. The Haavara Agreement simultaneously permitted German Jews to transfer part of their wealth to Palestine and favored German exports to the region — the latter aspect earning it the support also of the Economics Ministry. “It cannot be denied that the Haavara Transfer made a considerable contribution to the development of Jewish settlement in Palestine,” Gensicke writes.

As with all things Hitler, the gloves came off when the war began.

A special ss commando unit was formed in 1942 and attached to Rommel’s African Panzer Army. Its writ was in large part identical to that of the infamous Einsatzgruppen that accompanied the Wehrmacht during the invasion of the Soviet Union and that were responsible for the murder of upwards of one million Soviet Jews. On Mallmann and Cüppers’s account, only the defeat of Rommel at the second Battle of El Alamein prevented German forces from entering Palestine and carrying out similar operations against the Jewish population there.

Rosenthal's conclusion seems right to me. He notes that in "the undisputed bible of the National Socialist movement, Hitler’s Mein Kampf," Islam and the Arabs hardly even appear in print.

In the nearly 800 pages of the two volumes of his would-be magnum opus, Arabs are not mentioned a single time as such and Islam is mentioned just once, in a neutral remark on the relative appeal of Islam and Christianity in Africa. The fevered mental universe of the discharged corporal and aspiring “race theorist” was amply populated by different varieties of Slavs, the occasional “Negro” [Neger], and, of course, always and everywhere the conniving and threatening Jew: the racial antipode of the honest “Aryan.” But Arabs and the “Muslim world” seem barely to have crossed his radar. Only once does Hitler implicitly offer his “racial” assessment of the latter: this in considering the prospect of German National Socialists forming an alliance with Egyptian insurgents fighting against British colonial rule. Hitler even alludes tantalizingly to the insurgents’ “Holy War” — in scare quotes, suggesting his clear disdain for the idea. “As [someone] who assesses the value of humanity according to racial criteria,” Hitler writes, “the knowledge of the racial inferiority of these so-called ‘oppressed nations’ forbids me from linking the fate of my own people with theirs.”

It was only during the war that Hitler would, in effect, be confronted in a far more practical and urgent form by the very same question of “linking” the Nazi cause to religiously-tinged Arab nationalism. And when he was, as Gensicke’s volume shows, he would find not only a willing ally, but also a kindred spirit, in Haj Amin Al-Husseini [mufti of Jerusalem].

Naturally, when that happened, Palestine loomed large in the conversation. Here is Hitler, writing to Al-Husseini in November 1941:

"Germany stands for an uncompromising struggle against the Jews. It is self-evident that the struggle against the Jewish national homeland in Palestine forms part of this struggle, since such a national homeland would be nothing other than a political base for the destructive influence of Jewish interests. Germany also knows that the claim that Jewry plays the role of an economic pioneer in Palestine is a lie. Only the Arabs work there, not the Jews. Germany is determined to call on the European nations one by one to solve the Jewish problem and, at the proper moment, to address the same appeal to non-European peoples."

But what is also surprising -- or not -- is that the other focus of the vague Nazi dreaming of a Middle Eastern policy was Iraq. The inescapable place:

After guiding the Arab Revolt from exile in Beirut, the mufti had in the meanwhile taken refuge in Iraq. There he allied himself with the pro-Axis circle around new Prime Minister Rashid Ali al-Gailani, who had recently replaced the pro-British Nuri as-Said. On August 26, an emissary of the mufti by the name of Osman Kemal Haddad met with Fritz Grobba of the German Foreign Office in Berlin. According to Grobba’s notes, Haddad asked for a declaration from Germany and Italy recognizing the right of the Arab countries to independence and “self-determination” and that they might resolve the “question of the Jewish element” just as Germany and Italy had done. In return, Haddad promised that Iraq would accord Germany and Italy “a privileged place” in its foreign relations: notably as concerns the “exploitation of Iraq’s mineral resources and in particular its oil reserves.”

That I did not know.