Academic journal article Arab Studies Quarterly (ASQ)

The Arabs and the Axis: 1933-1940

Academic journal article Arab Studies Quarterly (ASQ)

The Arabs and the Axis: 1933-1940

Article excerpt

In his latest book, the Middle East: A Brief History of the Last 2,000 Years, Bernard Lewis has rekindled the debate over the Arabs' relations with the Axis powers during the 1930s. While it has been generally accepted that the Palestinian leader Hajj Amin al-Husayni turned toward Germany as a result of British intransigence in pursuing the Jewish national home (JNH) policy and the employment of brutal and harsh measures to suppress the Palestinian revolt of 1936-39, Lewis wrote that "as far back as 1933, immediately after Hitler's accession to power, the British-appointed Mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin al-Husayni, made contact with the German consul to declare his support and offer his help."(1) Lewis explained the Arab enthusiasm for the Axis in terms of the deterioration of the Arab democratic institutions during the interwar period, the Arab ideological attraction to the German and Italian models of achieving national unity by force, and the Axis powers' opposition to Britain, France and the Jews. While paying little attention to many of the important details of that unfortunate episode in the Arab modern history and failing to verify other important facts upon which his generalizations were based, Prof. Lewis made no mention of the pro-Zionist policy of the Nazis between 1933 and 1939.

There is no doubt that certain Arab statesmen and activists, especially in the Eastern part of the Arab World, began to turn toward Germany after the outbreak of the Palestinian revolt, and the French refusal to ratify the Franco-Syrian treaty which was negotiated and initialed in Paris in 1936. The intensifying radical mood in the mashriq reached a climactic point during the Iraqi crisis in early 1941 and the subsequent Iraqi-British war, where the Arabs' siding with the Germans, or rather the Arabs' pursuit of German support, became unmistakably visible. Was this shift in Arab attitudes an expression of ideological conviction or a mere reflection of the old game of real politic? And is it true that the Palestinians initiated their first contacts with the Nazis in 1933? If so, why? Finally, what contribution, if any, did the Germans make to the Arab movement during the 1930s?

The development of the Arab radicals' relations with the Axis powers was in many respects the result of the deterioration of Arab ideological and political views of the West rather than the evolution of positive Arab views of the Axis. Germany was of course an ally of the Ottoman state during World War I, but only a few Arabists were still recalling this alliance with special sentiments in the 1930s. Among those who came to be known for their pro-German views were Shakib Arslan, who returned to his Swiss exile after a short sojourn in Syria in 1937, as well as 'Aziz All al-Misri and Muhammad Salih Harb, ministers of Ali Mahir's deposed government. A senior officer in the Ottoman army until 1915, al-Misri's fascination with Germany essentially had military roots. This fascination, however, posed no hindrance to the cultivation of amicable relations between him and the British when he was briefly appointed by Sharif Husayn to command forces of the Arab Revolt, or later during his military career in Egypt.(2) Salih Harb was a pro-Ottoman officer in the Egyptian Border Guards who defected to the Ottoman side in the Libyan liberated zone where the Germans were also active.(3) Upon the deterioration of relations between Mahir's government and the British after the outbreak of World War II, both Harb and al-Misri seemed predisposed to develop a pro-German outlook based on the belief that a German victory would lead to the freeing of Egypt from British domination. Arslan was perhaps a different case. Germany was his first exile after the Ottoman defeat, where he and his idol Anwar Pasha established ties with German Foreign Office officials.(4) But these ties were of little if any relevance to the Arab interwar movement, firstly for being on the margin of the German political machine, and secondly for the absence of a German Arab policy, even after the Nazi rise to power. …

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