Jeffrey Herf, Professor of 20th century German History, provides a detailed look into Nazi ambitions and machinations in the Arab world. The effect of Nazi propaganda on the peoples of the Middle East and North Africa is investigated; from the early 1930s, to World War II, to the postwar years and beyond. Additionally, Herf investigates the long-term impact Nazi propaganda would have on contemporary Middle Eastern popular thought as pertaining to Europe and the Jewish race.
Professor Herf believes that current anti-Jewish / anti-Israeli sentiment and distrust of Western influence in the Middle East has roots in both the propaganda campaign waged by Nazi Germany and the allied counter-propaganda designed to combat it. Herf shows that the aggressive form of propaganda used by the Nazis to push their message of absolute hatred of the Jews lives on in the sort of anti-Jew rhetoric espoused by the Imams, Taliban, and many political leaders of the region.
Just as importantly, Herf addresses the often-overlooked effort put forth by the Third Reich in attempting to turn the hearts and minds of the Arab and Muslim peoples against the enemies of the Axis powers. Of particular interest are the lesser-known efforts of the Nazis to downplay the pro-Aryan elements of their rhetoric and inclusion of these `inferior races' into the Nazi worldview so as to gain their support in securing the region for eventual Nazi occupation. This is certainly a tremendous departure from the traditional view of the Nazis as totalitarian and single-minded in their quest to rid the world of lesser races.
Herf lays out significant evidence supporting his thesis in the form of first-hand accounts and careful review of surviving audio recordings, transcripts, and official correspondence. Of some difficulty in reviewing the text is that Herf is the first scholar to investigate many of the works of propaganda used in establishing and defending his thesis. Few if any others with scholarly credentials have published works on this subject in such detail that could be used to refute or reinforce a claim.
In some cases where direct information is lacking, Herf introduces secondary evidence from other sources; in one case no transcript of a Nazi propaganda broadcast remains, so Herf uses a report compiled by an Allied agent in the region describing the key points and expected effect of the broadcast instead.
Overall Herf does an excellent job detailing an element of world history that is so often overlooked by historians and laymen alike. By understanding the influence anti-Jew and anti-European propaganda exerted on the Arab/Muslim world, we can better understand the current political structure of the Middle East and its effect on the Western world.
Why the Book Exists:
The subjects of Nazi propaganda, the war effort of Nazi Germany in the North African theater, and the political instability of the Middle East following World War I are all well-researched and superbly documented subjects. Few would question that the last words have been spoken by many eminent historians on the Nazi regime.
However, the subject of Nazi propaganda in the Middle East and North Africa has rarely been explored in detail. Generally these efforts have been researched and described at a very high level, with anecdotal or limited evidence presented in support of specific events and declarations made by any side. The text notes that the Nazi efforts in the region had been documented and made well-known, but that there had been no real work done on locating and examining the exact broadcast transcripts, print materials, or official government (Allied, Axis, and otherwise) responses to the propaganda.
Seeing that there had been no comprehensive investigation into the materials produced by the Nazis for the region, Professor Jeffrey Herf, an authority on Nazi-era and 20th century Germany, decided to research the subject in great depth. He took on the enormous task of pouring over what must have been thousands of pages of radio transcripts, official and unofficial correspondence, and copies of propaganda leaflets.
Herf's efforts resulted in a very detailed and eye-opening look at exactly what the Nazis were saying to the Arabs, what the Arabs were saying to the Nazis, and what the Allies thought of the Nazi propaganda machine's effects on the Arabs. Certainly few of the transcripts and correspondence examined or reproduced in the book have ever been made available outside of archives or scholarly reference material.
One cannot begin to analyze dissect the evidence Herf provides without first noting how different the Nazi approach to propaganda was in the Middle East than in Europe. Even by Nazi standards, the tone and ferocity of their rhetoric was incredible, and their claims unbelievable. Here the Jews were quite literally the source of all the world's evils, the Bolsheviks the next most insidious threat, and the Arab world on the cusp of declaring their freedom from western oppression (in the name of Allah).
The propaganda developed for the Middle East was customized for the particular beliefs and customs of the region, with particular emphasis placed on comparing the Nazi struggle against Jewish tyranny with the fate of the Muslims at the hands of the Crusaders, the Prussians, or any other occupying invader.
While the inflammatory nature of Nazi propaganda goes without saying, its effectiveness in Europe was always tempered by the limited audience who sincerely believed the Jews were part of some sort of ancient shadow conspiracy, or that the Nazis would solve the problems of Europe by force, or that only a mythical Aryan super-race was the true chosen race to lead the world.
However Nazi propaganda had great effect on people who were already believers in similar causes, fanning the flames of racial prejudice. In regions where Jews, Gypsies, Roma, and kind were historically vilified the Nazis found a willing (if small) audience for anti-Semitism. In regions where western colonialism or meddling had caused pronounced harm or insult to national pride, the Nazis proclaimed themselves liberators and freedom fighters, fellow victims of unwelcome European and American intervention, and again found an audience. These were exactly the conditions found in the Middle East.
By the beginning of World War II, the Jewish influx into Palestine (supported by the Western powers who had wronged Arabs so many times before) had upset the delicate balance in the region. Intellectuals and students were up in arms over what they viewed was a violation of their homelands; Political leaders were willing to go to bed with anyone who could promise them revenge against the Jews or the colonial powers; and common citizens were ready to listen to anyone who could give them someone to blame and a direction to follow to a better life.
It is incredible to see for oneself just how far the Nazis seemed willing to bend their own party line to keep the Arab world out of Allied hands, with Goebbels and Hitler acknowledging the apparent incorrectness of their earlier assessment of the Arab world- an example being how Hitler once reflected upon the Egyptians as "decadent cripples"; then later agreed to delete anti-Arab and anti-Muslim rhetoric from both his speeches and the official Arabic version of Mein Kampf; and eventually went on to describe his long-standing sympathy for the Arabs and his desire to offer what he termed "active assistance" to a visiting Saudi adviser.
In June 1944, Berlin in Arabic (a Nazi propaganda station broadcasting in the Arabic language) informed Palestinian Arabs that, according to information available to the broadcasters, car accidents "...in Palestine always involve the Arab people". The broadcast then warns that "...the Jews are running down the Arabs with their cars", and declared that these accidents were "...not the only methods used by the Jews to exterminate the Arabs".
While a later example of Nazi propaganda in the region, this broadcast demonstrates the astounding level of ignorance the Nazis hoped to exploit in dealing with the Arab world. The Nazis apparently went to great lengths to tailor their ideals to be understood by the Arab peoples, going so far as to proclaim their great love for the Prophet and the resilience in the face of adversity, yet maintained the same sort of intolerance and presumptions that marked the core tenets of Nazi ideology.
This is an interesting concept, that the Nazis needed the support of the Arabs, but clearly identified them as being a lesser race. In order to enlist the support of the Arabs, the Nazis would need to retool their propaganda machine and find a way to incorporate Muslims into the Nazi worldview in a more flattering light.
The text contains evidence of the significant efforts of the highest levels of the
Nazi Government to rewrite Nazi history and principles to `pencil in' the Arab peoples as allies and friends. This is a phenomenon that the text covers in great detail, using original correspondence and official records from the Third Reich to illustrate the Nazi's willingness to tone down their pro-Aryan rhetoric as it suited their needs, and adjusted their projected attitude to gain allies and defame the Allies wherever possible.
The Nazis even go so far as to actually interpret passages and quote from the Koran in ways that make the German struggle against "The World Jewry" sound like the struggles of the Islamic peoples. Efforts were made to remake Hitler into a prophet like Muhammad, eventually `settling' on portraying Hitler as the Koranic Jesus, a warrior returning to slay the enemies of Islam. Ironically, the text says, little effort was required to promote this likeness, as the Koran itself describes the rise of a Nazi-like force led by a crusading warrior. This revelation is, to my knowledge, a rarely discussed aspect of Nazi propaganda in the region that alone is worth reading the text for.
In the propaganda directed at the Arabs, Germany portrayed itself as an anti-colonial power, fighting for the rights of the downtrodden forced under the boot heels of the Jew-run colonial powers (Britain, America, etc). The Arabs would respond favorably to these ideals, especially those statements which would lead to sympathy and understanding toward Germany: Germany had never held an Arab land as their own, never interfered in the politics or governance of the Middle East, and had been reduced to a sort of vassal state to the European powers after World War I. The latter especially rung true with the Arabs, who had suffered significant hardship under the colonial ownership of Britain and other non-Arab states. However a notable failure on the part of the Nazis was in trying to ignite hatred for the Russians and Bolsheviks, two groups with which the Arab world had little contact and no real animosity towards.
While the Nazi efforts to gain allies (or at least reduce support for the Allied cause) in the Middle East and North Africa failed to have any substantial effect on the outcome of World War II, Herf shows us that the Nazi propaganda contributed immensely to the unstable political climate of the Middle East in the postwar years. The warnings of a `Jewish Invasion' issued by Nazi radio broadcasts roused popular support amongst Muslims for the war against the first Israeli settlers that would soon come. The theme of western imperialism and conquest of the Arab world would seem prophetic as petroleum interests made ancient kingdoms rich and the target of the west's hunger for oil. The Nazi theme of a worldwide Jewish conspiracy began to ring true as the U.N. sided with Israel again and again as it overstepped its bounds and contributed to the instability of the region. The Radical Islamists sounded the cry of Jewish hegemony and brutality in the Lebanon, Palestine, and Syria as they declared fatwa and jihad on Israel and its supporters.
Even today we see the after-effects of the information warfare waged by the Nazis in the form of radical anti-Semitism and anti-western ideology widespread throughout the Arab world. So many modern Arab politicians and leaders seem to be influenced by the same rhetoric spewed forth from Nazi printers and transmitters that the connection seems almost obvious in hindsight. While no evidence likely exists that could stand as incontrovertible proof that such a link exists, enough similarity is obvious that it can be said that at the very least, the modern trend of radical and fundamental Islam shares much of its ideology toward the rest of the world with Nazi Germany.
Sources of Evidence:
In the text, Herf draws upon numerous examples of radio transcripts, print materials, and official correspondence. He also draws upon the experiences of several notable characters who are either key players or witnesses to the events and broadcasts that are under review in the text.
Of particular interest are the reports and correspondence of two Allied personnel in the region: Miles Lampson, the British Ambassador to Egypt; and Alexander C. Kirk, first head of the U.S. legation, and later Ambassador to Egypt. These two men became the Allies' primary source of information regarding the Nazi propaganda efforts in the Middle East. They reported, in great detail and often with sobering honesty, the effects of the propaganda campaign and the Nazi war effort in the region. Much of their correspondence is reprinted in the text, and all of it is very telling of the uncertain future of the region under Axis or Allied control.
The Nazi propaganda machine may not have been as effective or as memorable as it was had it not been for the efforts of Fritz Grobba, an authority on the Arab world who managed to exert a great deal of pressure upon every level of the Nazi regime, and forced compromises in rhetoric and ideology that would allow the Nazis to retain the services of the Arabs without necessarily negating their core tenets of racial bigotry and Aryan supremacy.
Also of note are the efforts of one Haj Amin Al-Husseini, political exile and eventual leader of the 1941 pro-Axis coup in Iraq. This man looms large in the Nazi dealings with the region, having an involvement in the Arab Committee and dealing directly on several occasions with the German Foreign Minister, Joachim von Ribbentrop. The conversations between the two men and their representatives are extremely telling of Husseini's thirst for power and Ribbentrop's willingness to work with the leaders of the Arab world to derail the Allies wherever possible. Husseini was instrumental in establishing a group known as The Arab Committee. Made up of Husseini, his entourage, and any number of fellow exiles or disenchanted leaders from the Middle East, the committee became an unofficial voice for the pro-Axis supporters and anti-Semites in the Arab world.
Having also lost no love for their former homelands, the Arab Committee drew up a plan that was presented to the Axis powers promising resistance to the Allies and allegiance to the Axis in exchange for guaranteed independence and armaments. The Axis agreed, and so the propaganda campaign began again in earnest with Husseini as the mouthpiece. He frequently broadcasted on Nazi radio in the region, reading a mix of Nazi propaganda tailored for the region and Arab Committee party rhetoric slamming Europe and Jews.
While a plethora of other persons, material, and events are presented, Herf's narrative seems to return to these key characters and their actions or reports on Nazi activity in the region. This is not necessarily a bad thing- these characters are extremely important in understanding the mechanics of the propaganda machine in the Arab world and how the Allies viewed the progress and possible repercussions of the pro-Axis and anti-Allies sentiment in the region.
Alternate Perspectives and Comparison:
Herf does not directly reference other authors or historians in the text. Since he is essentially trailblazing as he goes along, there are few opportunities to contrast his findings with those of other historians. However the bibliography is awash with references to other works closely related to the text. It is entirely possible that Herf purposefully did not introduce differing viewpoints or additional sources so as not to interrupt the narrative, which does indeed move along at a consistent and very readable pace.
Additionally I can think of no other works that could be directly compared to the text, though much has been written on the subject of Nazi Propaganda in Europe. I have already made some allusions to my disbelief that the Nazis actively tailored their propaganda to the particular religious and cultural requirements of the Arabs- for me this seems to come from the prevailing wisdom that the Nazis would not and did not make compromises to their racial hierarchy and ideology for the convenience of minor regional allies.
By detailing a lesser-known aspect of World War II that has direct repercussions in the modern world, I feel strongly that this text provides an excellent challenge to the traditional view of the Nazis and their propaganda.
I cannot over-emphasize how much this book broadened my horizons. I am astounded at the layers of intrigue and complex maneuvering involved in running the Nazi propaganda machine in the Middle East, and what consolations were made at the absolute highest levels of the Nazi regime to enlist Arab support. While I cannot claim to be a historian by any means, I do have more than a passing scholarly interest in the underlying causes and aftereffects surrounding the Nazi regime. When faced with direct evidence that the Nazis could bow to anyone, let alone Hitler bowing to an Arabic scholar on a translation of Mein Kampf, is truly mind-blowing. Beyond that, the unique perspective offered by Herf's evidence gives any reader new insight into the operations of Nazi Germany as it moved beyond simply hating the Jews and conquering Europe into having to manage the Axis and courting possible allies outside their core racial ideology.
The text is clearly written and flows well from page to page. The narrative is highly present and carries the reader from key event to key event in what seems like an agreeable manner. At no time did I find myself drowning in a sea of information or struggling to understand an oblique concept. I would have absolutely no reservations highly recommending this text to anyone with even a passing interest in Nazi propaganda or contemporary Middle Eastern history.
Bibliography for this review:
Herf, Jeffrey. Nazi Propaganda For The Arab World. Ann Arbor: Yale University Press, 2009. Print.
"Jeffrey Herf, Professor." University of Maryland Faculty Directory, History Department, Jeffrey Herf
n.d. Web. May 21, 2010 .