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Delving Into Nazi Germany's Arabic Language Propaganda

A new study offers clarity and insight into the strange World War II propaganda alliance between Nazi Germany and nationalist Arabs in Palestine.

Nazi propaganda chief Joseph Goebbels (center) checking radio devices in 1938
Nazi propaganda chief Joseph Goebbels (center) checking radio devices in 1938
German Federal Archives https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Bundesarchiv_Bild_183-H10250,_Berlin,_Funkausstellung,_J._Goebbels,_H._Kriegler.jpg
Sven Felix Kellerhoff

BERLIN — The enemy of my enemy is my friend. There's a logic to the old proverb that's as simple as it is logical, and can sometimes lead to some very strange alliances.

Such was the case of the relationship, both before and during World War II, between Germany's Third Reich and the nationalistic Arabs of Palestine. The two parties had not just one, but two common enemies — the British and Jews — thus it "made sense" for Germany to support the potential allies, even if the Nazis saw the Arabs as racially inferior.

That contradiction is precisely what made Germany's radio propaganda in Arabic so interesting. It is a chapter of history, nevertheless, that had largely been forgotten until the release, in 2009, of the book Nazi Propaganda for the Arab World by U.S. historian Jeffrey Herf. The author's most important findings were also published in an essay for the prestigious Journal for Contemporary History.

Herf's book was fascinating, but it also drew criticism for its limited range of sources: The author mainly used English-language summaries, filed between 1942 and 1945 by U.S. authorities, of Arabic-language broadcasts by Radio Berlin, the foreign radio station operated by Hitler's Ministry of Propaganda.

It was with that shortcoming in mind that Hans Goldenbaum, a PhD candidate at the Max-Planck-Institute for Social Anthropology in Halle, Germany decided to revisit the topic, only this time using a much more diverse range of sources.

The researcher looked at material from various government archives. He also delved into the personal collection of renowned Middle Eastern and oriental studies expert Gerhard Höpp (1942-2003). But what proved to be Goldenbaum's most important source of information are transcripts of the Arabic-language broadcasts that were translated into Hebrew by Jews in Palestine. The documents are housed mostly at the Zionistic Central Archives in Jerusalem. Goldenbaum also found some of the transcripts in the archives of the former underground organization Haganah.

After examining the various documents in detail, Goldenbaum penned his own essay for the Journal for Contemporary History. In it, the researcher revises Herf's main findings and presents a treasure trove of previously unknown details on the subject.

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Grand Mufti of Jerusalem Haj Amin al-Husseini and Adolf Hitler in 1941 — Photo: German Federal Archives

Until now, for example, it wasn't clear when exactly the broadcasts were first recorded. The best historians could do was say that it happened between early 1938 and the autumn of 1939. Goldenbaum, in contrast, came up with an exact date: Feb. 28, 1939. His source? The personal diaries of Joseph Goebbels, Nazi Germany"s infamous propaganda chief. "We are working on a system of radio broadcasts to hurt the British. In English, Arabic and Irish," Goebbels wrote.

The propaganda was designed as an answer to the BBC, which, to the Nazi minister's dismay, had increased its broadcasts to the Reich beginning in September 1938. Goebbels had high hopes for these new foreign-language broadcasts. "With this," he wrote, "the British will soon lose their taste for broadcasting into the Reich." Based on these primary sources, Goldenbaum was also able to prove that the radio shows were first aired on the week of Mar 20, 1939. This demonstrates that the Goebbels' Ministry for Propaganda established its basic structure for broadcasting very quickly.

But Goldenbaum did more than just clarify key dates. By comparing the broadcasting timetables to the transcripts and summaries done by Jewish organizations in Palestine, he also came up with a far clearer picture of the actual content of the broadcasts. Goldenbaum shows that the "news" portion of the propaganda, for example, selectively focused on German victories, mixed with highly anti-Semitic rhetoric about the supposedly Jewish-dominated political machinations of Britain.

Goldenbaum was able to prove, furthermore, that the texts were supplied by German personnel and not, as sometimes believed, by the reader of the Arabic broadcasts, Yunus Bahri, who claimed he wrote the material himself.

The vivacious Bahri, a secular Arabic nationalist who described his time in service to the Nazis in his memoir This is Berlin calling! Hail to the Arabs!, wasn't the only Muslim working for the Germans. Others included Mohammed Taqi ad-Din al-Hilali, a Moroccan and New Salafist whom Goldenbaum calls "an early Islamist."

The author also concluded, however, that the man who was long regarded as the Reich's most important Muslim of all, Mohammed Amin al-Husseini, the Mufti of Jerusalem, did not play any particularly important role in this case. Despite the fact that his Arabic speeches were broadcasted by Radio Berlin and he was always presented as a role model, al-Husseini did not have any influence on the broadcasted content.

The Arabs in general did not seem to have been partners with equal rights. Instead they were secondary recipients of propaganda and orders, Goldenbaum concluded. Cooperation never went beyond the emphasized common battle against colonialism. The Germans also had some choice words, at times, for these enemies of their enemies. At one point they accused the pro-British regent of Iraq, Abd al-Ilah, of being a "Masonic Jew" — three enemies all rolled into one person.

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