Nazis, Islamists, and the Making of the Modern Middle East, by Barry Rubin and Wolfgang G. Schwanitz (Yale, 360 pp., $35)
In Islamic societies, Jews are still widely thought of as people of bad character who cannot help engaging in criminal conspiracy. Muslims are advised several times in their canonical writings and by Middle Eastern rulers that the rightful ordering of the world depends upon destroying Jews for fear Jews may destroy them. Recent times have fueled this murderous fantasy. The Jewish state is conceived as the outcome of a criminal conspiracy involving Britain and now the United States. Merely by existing, Israel turns upside down the superiority that Muslims believe is their God-given due and induces a sense of shame that must be wiped out by whatever means are available. Huge crowds assemble to shout “Death to America! Death to Israel!” They mean it.
Ayatollah Khamenei, the “Supreme Leader” in Tehran, describes Israel as “a cancerous tumor” that must be removed. One spokesman of his says that “Zionist officials cannot be called human,” while another goes further, finding “jurisprudential justification” to kill all Jews. The Turkish prime minister is not so far behind in his enmity. All over the region, imams are preaching that Jews are descendants of pigs and apes. Hamas, the Palestinian Islamist militia in Gaza, has the intention to annihilate Israel written into its foundational charter. Their Palestinian rivals on the West Bank treat as national heroes those who have killed an Israeli. Sunni Islamists fighting in Syria promise that after they have settled the score with the Shiites, it will be the turn of the Jews.
Barry Rubin, who recently died at age 64, was a professor involved in the cut-and-thrust of Arab–Israeli polemics; his co-author, Wolfgang Schwanitz, is in the same field. Their new book puts the case that the pathological incitement to mass murder owes more to the recent history of European politics and ideology than it does to religious faith. A combination of accident, superstition, and misjudgment left the Arabs losers rather than winners in the two world wars, and no one among them has yet been able to devise a way to be rid of the consequences.
Early chapters of the book show things beginning to go wrong in the 19th century, with the ambition of Germany’s Kaiser Wilhelm to have an empire that rivaled imperial Britain. For the purpose, Germany was to acquire a hold over Ottoman Turkey by training its army and building its railway system. The kaiser appeared so enthusiastic about Islam that he was rumored to have converted. Fifty-seven professorships were established in 21 universities to provide the expertise necessary if Germany was to increase its presence in the Middle East. With the onset of World War I, German strategists planned to undermine the British by appealing to Muslims everywhere to acknowledge the Ottoman sultan as their caliph and volunteer for jihad in his name. Christians, in short, were provoking Muslims to fight other Christians, leading to the disastrous slaughter and expulsion of a million or more Armenians by the Ottoman Turks. When the British paid the Arabs of Arabia to drive the Ottomans out of the Levant, Christians were provoking Muslims to fight one another. Treating Arabs with hostility, Britain inspired the nationalism that was soon to be her empire’s undoing.
One of the rising generation of Arab nationalists was Haj Amin al-Husseini (al-Husaini in Rubin and Schwanitz’s spelling). Several biographies and studies have already established the immense harm this single-minded and violent man did, above all to his own people. A well-connected Palestinian from Jerusalem, Haj Amin was a natural adventurer whose career is a genuine example of constant criminal conspiracy. As a junior officer in the Ottoman army, according to Rubin and Schwanitz, he became a paid agent of the British, recruiting about 1,500, mainly Palestinians, to fight the Ottomans. Wrongly believing him to be trustworthy, the British rigged his election to be the grand mufti of Jerusalem. This position further enabled him to accumulate enough money and power for the next step of betraying the British. In all but name, he became the dictator of Palestine.
Between the wars, Palestinians had to decide how to handle Jews seeking to escape from Nazism to the homeland the British had promised them. From the outset, Haj Amin launched all-out confrontation that could end only with an absolute winner and an absolute loser. Any Arab disposed to compromise was murdered on his orders. Had the Jews not been obliged to mobilize in self-defense, they might have been absorbed and the Jewish state would then not have come into being.
Once in power after 1933, Adolf Hitler set about another and more intensive promotion of German interests in the Middle East. A reliable network was set up of officials, Nazi Party members with local connections of one sort or another, and intelligence agents under cover as scholars or archaeologists. Among the well-known figures were Fritz Grobba, the ambassador in Baghdad, and Paula Koch, a nurse and a spy in Aleppo. Others are more obscure but nevertheless important, for instance Willi Steffen, a Nazi as well as the head of a Christian mission who became “a key figure in planning how to make Iraq into a German client state.” In the Beirut area alone, there were 36 agents. Subsidies were paid to anyone in a position to damage British interests. Four thousand rifles and ammunition were smuggled via Saudi Arabia to the Palestinians.
On the principle that my enemy’s enemy is my friend, Haj Amin hurried to offer Hitler his allegiance. Both men hoped to benefit from making the British position in Palestine untenable, and both anticipated doing down the Jews. After encouraging the Palestinians to revolt and then participating in the fiasco of the pro-Nazi uprising in Iraq, Haj Amin fled to Berlin, where he was to spend the rest of the war. He was given a palatial house, a capital sum of 100,000 reichmarks, and a monthly income of 20,000 more. In an exchange of letters and at subsequent meetings face to face, he and Hitler assured each other of their common hatred of Britain and of the Jews. He and the leading Nazi exponents of racism and anti-Semitism, Josef Goebbels and Alfred Rosenberg, indulged in mutual admiration.
In July 1943, Heinrich Himmler confided to him that 3 million Jews had already been murdered. Adolf Eichmann was Himmler’s man in charge of the logistics of genocide, and, according to an Eichmann aide with no reason to lie, he escorted Haj Amin in person on an inspection of the killing centers of Auschwitz and Maidanek. It was entirely in keeping with Haj Amin’s conspiratorial character that he wrote secretly to the Yugoslav Communist Josip Tito, asking to be put in touch with the Soviets. He did his utmost to ensure that no Jew was spared in the Holocaust, and furthermore arranged that when the Germans won the war they would extend genocide to the Jews of the Middle East. In which case, as Haj Amin later exulted, “no trace would have been left of Zionists in Palestine and Arab areas.” In the judgment of Rubin and Schwanitz, Haj Amin was Hitler’s most important non-state ally.
Arrested after the war, he conspired with the Allies to escape trial. Returning to the Middle East, he immediately mobilized Palestinians all over again to fight the emerging state of Israel. Obsession drove him to keep promising what he could not perform. The Muslim troops that he had been able to enroll in the German army were a mixed and untrained lot unable to back up his words with action. Drumming the Palestinians into battle against Jews determined to do or die, he made certain that they, and then other Arabs as well, were absolute losers. Hitler had similarly misled and abused the German people.
In common with Haj Amin, innumerable Arabs had concluded that Hitler would and should win the war. Two final chapters are devoted to the fallout of this wishful mistake. Germans compromised by their Nazi past took refuge in Arab countries. Among them were Walter Rauff and Alois Brunner, two of the more sinister practitioners of genocide. Fugitive and unrepentant Nazis were saying what many in the Middle East wanted to hear, namely that dictatorship is better than democracy and that it is only right and proper to kill Jews. Rubin and Schwanitz take care to make a necessary distinction: Haj Amin and his successors and imitators are not themselves actual Nazis, but the process of interaction led them to adopt whatever they found congenial in that inhuman ideology.
Thoroughly researched and closely argued, this book exposes the reality that the selfsame follies and crimes that wrecked the continent of Europe are now wrecking the Muslim Middle East. The stalemate will endure until rationality ultimately breaks through primitive misrepresentation. Rubin and Schwanitz are suggesting that Muslims in the grip of murderous fantasy should take the indispensable first step by looking at the big historical picture and doing some serious rethinking.