Scientists for the Regime

By Behrens, Rolf | Jewish Political Studies Review, Fall 2008 | Go to article overview

Scientists for the Regime

Behrens, Rolf, Jewish Political Studies Review

Scientists for the Regime Deutsche Orientalistik zur Zeit des Nationalsozialismus 1933-1945 [German Oriental Studies during the Time of National Socialism 19331945], by Ekkehard Ellinger, Deux Mondes, 2006, 595 pp. [German]

Reviewed by Rolf Behrens

To readers familiar with the nature of political discourse currently prevalent in Germany, many of the positions cited in Ekkehard Ellinger 's study will sound strangely familiar: the United States' efforts in the Middle East are primarily motivated by oil interests (396), whereas Germany's activities are of a purely idealistic nature (405), Zionism is the root cause of the conflict in Palestine and across the Middle East as a whole (369), whereas the Palestinians are the victims of imperialist powers that deny them even the basic necessities of food and clothing (416).

These were some of the more moderate analyses presented by German professors of Oriental studies during the time of National Socialism. That these opinions are widespread among German thinkers and lay people today may at least in part be attributed to the fact that most of these scientists kept their jobs after the war and went on to educate countless German students. No wonder that there has not been a serious attempt at Vergangenheitsbewältigung or "coming to terms with the past" in this field.

Ekkehard Ellinger set out to fill that gap with his doctoral thesis and he does a remarkable job at exposing the personal, structural, institutional and ideological interaction between the school of Oriental studies and the National Socialism regime. In his extremely wellresearched and original study he shows how German Orientalists lined up to become enthusiastic service providers for the Nazis' ideology and war efforts. In the first part of his comprehensive work, Ellinger describes the network of people, organizations and institutions in German Oriental studies.

In the second, even more revealing part of the book, he analyzes and deconstructs the actual publications of German scholars, frequently juxtaposing their statements with facts, thus exposing often cynical distortions made by German scientists. The author also gives a fascinating glimpse into scholars' careers after the war. The book is accompanied by a very helpful 80-page lexicon presenting short biographies of the scholars dealt with in the book.

According to Ellinger, German professors of Oriental studies showed remarkable alacrity to cooperate with the new ruling powers from the beginning. Only two Orientalists dared to question decisions by the National Socialism regime, but their opposition was overrun as early as May 1933. Most scientists manifested an "inconceivable readiness to denounce" their Jewish colleagues, thus helping to remove them from universities in accordance with the anti-Jewish Gesetz zur Wiederherstellung des Berufsbeamtentums (Law for the Restoration of the Professional Civil Service). Seven Jewish professors of Oriental studies lost their positions due to this law.

As Ellinger shows in his analysis, German researchers were not at odds with the new ideology: they had strong contempt for democratic ideas even before National Socialism's rise to power, and racism and anti-Semitic views were rampant among German academics at the time. Orientalists - including the academic elite - were thus anxious to participate in the new system and serve the Nazi regime. The regime in turn recognized the huge potential of these scholars for their ideological and military efforts. Oriental studies were officially defined as a kriegswichtig (strategically important) field of science. Accordingly, the state not only financed and expanded institutes for Oriental studies, but also enlisted scholars in military and intelligence organizations: a large number of German Orientalists subsequently served in the Wehrmacht and in the German secret services.

Re-Making the History of the Middle East

The German Orientalists' task was twofold. …

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