PARIS — For the first time since the end of the Third Reich, Mein Kampf has been republished in Germany. With copyrights having expired on Jan. 1, the Institute of Contemporary History of Munich has released a critical, annotated edition of the only book written by Adolf Hitler, first published in 1925. And it's a best-seller. Again.
A development of obvious importance in Germany, the "official" return of Mein Kampf is basically a non-event in the Arab-Muslim world, where it never left. There, the infamous book has long been in circulation and available for purchase.
As early as 1933, soon after Hitler came to power, Yunis al-Sabawi, an Iraqi journalist enamored by the Führer's ideas, translated long excerpts from Mein Kampf into Arabic and published them as a series in the Iraqi press. Nowadays there are "a proliferation of pirated and easily obtainable copies everywhere," says Sven Felix Kellerhoff, author of the recently published Mein Kampf, die Karriere eines deutschen Buches ("The Career of a German Book").
Kellerhoff credits new technologies and the current political context for the book's widespread availability not just in the Arab world, but also in places like India, Indonesia and Iran. For years, the German Foreign Ministry sought to restrict illegal distribution of the book. More recently, though, "Embassies have officially reached an agreement not to take any steps, for fear it might aggravate German-Arab relations," the historian says.
An early audience
The creation, in May 1948, of the state of Israel played a clear role in reviving the appeal of this heinous lampoon against Jews. But interest in national-socialism emerged in the region long before then, originally more for geopolitical than ideological reasons.
What grabbed the attention of the Middle East wasn't so much Adolf Hitler's anti-Semitism as his virulence against the "diktat" of the Treaty of Versailles (1919). There was also anger in the Middle East at that time towards France and Britain for dividing up the remains of the Ottoman Empire instead of granting independence to the Arabs as a reward for their support against the Turks, who had been Germany's allies.
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Hitler in Nuremburg in 1935 — Photo: Charles Russell Collection
Hitler's diatribes against the British colonizer who "only oppresses and exploits" small nations, in violation of the self-determination principle, seduced groups of people going through a political and nationalist awakening. The doublespeak of the colonial powers took the luster off the Western Enlightenment model that had inspired, in the 19th century, the al-Nahda period, the political and intellectual Renaissance of the Arab world.
Little by little, people there also showed an ideological interest in national-socialism and its ethnic "message," which bolstered pan-Arabic movements and their sovereignty claims. A widespread distribution of the full text of Mein Kampf, in which racism isn't limited to the Jews, might have watered down their enthusiasm. "I am prevented by mere knowledge of the racial inferiority of these so-called "oppressed nations' from linking the destiny of my own people with theirs," Hitler wrote.
Still, the book's Arab version, edited without Berlin's approval in 1937, had little success on the whole, especially since illiteracy was widespread in these countries at the time.
A give and take of ideas
Mystical rituals, the cult of personality, a glorification of strength and youth, the importance given to popular culture and to ancestors are other aspects of fascism and Nazism that captured people's attention at that time — and not just in the Middle East.
The ideas were so influential that, in the period between the two World Wars, they inspired the creation of new Arabic political groups, such as the Syrian Social Nationalist Party, the Lebanese Phalanges Party, the Young Egypt Party, the paramilitary group al-Futuwwa in Iraq, and also a branch of Syria's future Ba'ath Party, which is still in power with Bashar al-Assad. These movements all shared an admiration for the political model of the Reich, which some would openly support during the war.
The growing influx to British-run Mandatory Palestine of European Jews persecuted by the Nazis helped forge a new point of agreement. Years before, in 1917, top British diplomat Lord Balfour promised to help establish "a national home in Palestine for the Jewish people." That's when Nazi anti-Semitism, with its obsession regarding a global Jewish conspiracy destined to dominate the world, stepped into the breach, thanks to some figures of Islamic fundamentalism.
"During the First World War, Jews spread the "poison of the revolution" among the German navy and army, for services rendered to England in exchange for its commitment to give Palestine up for them," the Cairo-based Syrian intellectual Mohammed Rashid Rida wrote in 1934 in his monthly publication al-Manâr. "If we want to preserve our homeland from Jewish influence, then we must follow the path of our ancestors who expelled them from the Arabic peninsula."
Rida was one of the main inspirations of the Muslim Brotherhood society, founded in 1928 in Egypt by one of his followers, Hassan al-Banna. During the 1930s, the organization, which seeks to establish a caliphate by political means, "received financial support from the German delegation in Cairo," says historian David Motadel, author of the 2014 study Islam and Nazi Germany's War.
One of al-Banna's close allies was Amin al-Husseini, Grand Mufti of Jerusalem and, as early as the 1920s, a leader in the fight against the British occupier and the project of the Balfour Declaration. He was the same man whom Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, at last year's World Zionist Congress in Jerusalem, accused of having "a central role in fomenting the Final Solution."
It's undeniable that the mufti moved progressively towards concrete collaboration with the German Reich and support of the Nazis' murderous anti-Semitism. But "his influence in Berlin was very much limited," says Motadel. Hitler only agreed to meet with him once, on Nov. 28, 1941, and "their conversation was essentially just a courteous exchange," the historian explains.
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Grand Mufti and Hitler during their only encounter. — Photo: Bundesarchiv
Anyone who claims that the then almighty Führer could have let himself be "seduced" by a Muslim dignitary with limited authority in the Arab world, and whose blood Hitler despised, shows ignorance of ancient foundations of anti-Semitism in Europe and of the obtuse and formidable Nazi ideology.
For the Reich, Amin al-Husseini was first and foremost a useful pawn for its propaganda, at a time when German General Erwin Rommel was fighting the British on Egypt's doorstep. Throughout the war, millions of leaflets were distributed across the region, and a radio station (Berlin in Arabic) was even created to this effect, with Arabic broadcasts proclaiming Jewish hatred ad nauseam in a rhetoric in keeping with both Nazi and Islamic stereotypes.
"German propaganda contributed to combine in people's minds Islam and anti-Jewish campaigns in a dimension that was until then unknown to the Muslim world," says U.S. historian Jeffrey Herf, author of Nazi Propaganda for the Arab World.
My struggle" to Our struggle
Nazi influence by no means vanished with the collapse of the Third Reich. After the war, countries such as Egypt and Syria recruited hundreds of former Nazis to train and reform their armies, intelligence services and police, and boost their military industrial capabilities.
As early as 1950, the then leader of the Muslim Brotherhood Sayyid Qutb — one of the most influential ideologues of Islamic fundamentalism, including of terrorist organizations such as al-Qaeda — published Our Struggle Against the Jews, a barely veiled reference to Mein Kampf (My Struggle).
Drawing on Hitler's register, Qutb described Jews as "creatures" with an "animal sexuality" who "spill human blood" to dominate the Muslims. He also paid tribute to the Führer. "Allah sent Hitler to subjugate them," Qutb wrote. "Let's pray that Allah sends others to inflict the worst punishment on the Jews, thus fulfilling his implicit promise."
In 1964, this Egyptian "thinker" did it again in his best-seller Signposts on the Road, in which he advocates resorting to jihad in order to establish sharia law. As for Mein Kampf, an unabridged Arabic translation was published around 1963 by Louis al-Hadj, whose real name was Luis Heiden, a former Nazi exiled to Egypt who had converted to Islam.
Among the political parties that were influenced by fascism and Nazism between the two World Wars, three still exist in the Middle East: The Syrian Social Nationalist Party (SSNP), Lebanese Phalanges Party, and the Ba'ath Party.
The SNNP, a Christian and secular organization, works hand-in-hand with Hezbollah in the armed fight against Israel, and continues to display its original emblem: a four-blade helix with the reversed colors of the Nazi swastika flag. Some of the group's militants still worship founder Antoun Saadeh, a great admirer of national-socialism.
The Lebanese Phalanges Party, or Phalange, as it's also known, is a Christian party founded in 1936 by Pierre Gemayel and militarized since the civil war in 1975. It was behind the massacre of Palestinian civilians in 1982 in the camps of Sabra and Shatila, in Beirut, during the Lebanon War.
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Iraqi Ba'ath party student group, including Saddam Hussein — Source: Wikimedia Commons
The Ba'ath Party in Syria experienced a turning point in 1966 when its moderate wing, inspired by founder Michel Aflak, was ousted in favor of a more radical faction that considers the real founding father to be Zaki al-Arsuzi, theorist of Arab nationalism and also an admirer of the Nazi regime. The Ba'ath party is still ruling in Syria and did so in Iraq until the fall of Saddam Hussein, in 2003. A Ba'athist network survived, nevertheless, and some of its officials have joined the ranks of ISIS.
As Lebanese-French historian Gilbert Achcar writes in The Arabs and the Holocaust, the influence of Nazi anti-Semitism is also visible in the "Islamized anti-Semitic ravings" of Hezbollah and Hamas, and in the affinity some in the Arab world have toward Holocaust-denial arguments. In 1996, French Holocaust denier Roger Garaudy, who converted to Islam in 1982, went on a Middle East tour where he received a "triumphant welcome," according to Achcar.
Garaudy was received by religious and political leaders, such as the imam of Cairo's al-Azhar's mosque, one of the highest religious authorities in Egypt. Star journalist Mohamed Heikal, a former advisor to President Gamal Abdel Nasser and one of the most read authors in the Arab world, wrote the introduction to the Arabic version of The Founding Myths Of Israeli Politics, published in 1996, in which Garaudy writes that a "Zionist conspiracy invented the Holocaust."