Nazi Propaganda for the Arab World
Neil Gregor reviews a title by Jeffrey Herf.
Nazi Propaganda for the Arab World
Yale University Press 352pp £20
ISBN 978 0300145793
The European-wide implementation of the Holocaust is usually – and quite rightly – taken as a marker of the horrifying scale of both the Nazis’ ambitions and their impact. Yet, as Jeffrey Herf’s fascinating new study reminds us, there were other crucial theatres in which Jewish issues were of more than passing interest: indeed, for a while, British setbacks in North Africa in the Second World War led many Jews in Palestine to fear that the Nazis might yet be able to extend the reach of the Holocaust. Conversely, Arab hostility to Jewish immigration into Arab territories meant that anti-semitism could be a crucial tool in the mobilisation of support for the Axis powers.
On one level, this book describes how Nazi propagandists sought to use anti-Jewish propaganda in North Africa and the Near and Middle East to generate support among Arab nationalists. Using many previously uncited sources, Herf shows how Nazi broadcasts in Arabic linked the war aims of the British, the Americans and the Soviet Union to the presence of a wider Jewish conspiracy whose Zionist agendas would inevitably be implemented at the expense of the Arabs should the Allies win the war. As with all Nazi propaganda, the message was repetitive: essentially, that ‘a victory for the Axis would be a victory for Arabs and Muslims, while a victory for the Allies would be a victory for the Jews and Zionists.’ In advancing this message, the Nazis blended their own racist invective with aspects of anti-semitism drawn from a (highly selective) reading of the Qur’an and more secular elements of Arab anti-colonialist politics. Not only is the propaganda itself predictably unpleasant, but the evident refusal of Britain to challenge anti-semitism in its own broadcasts, or of the postwar American refusal to consider putting the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem on trial for reasons of Cold War realpolitik, make for sometimes uncomfortable reading.
More questionable is the wider argument the book offers about the link between the spread of Nazi propaganda and contemporary manifestations of radical Islamism. Herf contends that the momentary alliance between Nazism and some Arab nationalists had a significant impact in shaping postwar Muslim anti-semitism and anti-Zionism. Indeed, he sees a direct line between Nazi anti-semitism and the politics of radical Islam in the modern day. In fact, the book reminds one of certain studies of the Darwinian origins of Nazism itself: one starts out thinking one is reading a book which seeks to understand Nazi ideology, but ends up suspecting that the real target is actually Darwin, especially once one realises that the author is a Creationist who wishes to blame evolutionary biology for the origins of all evil. Here, of course, the unspoken agenda is quite different. But in drawing these simple, straight lines from Nazism to contemporary radical Islam Herf is in similar danger of misleading his readership about the complex causes of the latter, whose roots lie not so much in the legacies of Nazi imperialism and genocide per se as in the longer, wider histories of colonialism, decolonisation and neo-colonialism (in all its economic, cultural and military variants), acted out by nearly all Western powers in the course of the last century and a half. Herf, quite clearly, does not wish to contemplate this.
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