Jeffrey Herf, professor of modern European history at the University of Maryland, College Park, recently authored Nazi Propaganda for the Arab World, published by Yale University Press. In 2006 he published The Jewish Enemy: Nazi Propaganda during World War II and the Holocaust. Al-Masry Al-Youm spoke with Herf to discuss his latest publication.
Al-Masry Al-Youm: The West in general uses the term anti-Semitism, although both Arabs and Jews are Semitic. Are there other terms that are more apt?
Jeffrey Herf: The answer to this and other questions are in my book,
Nazi Propaganda for the Arab World. An entire chapter explores the extensive efforts made by the Nazi regime to avoid the use of the term “anti-Semitism.” It was, its officials stressed, a regime animated by antagonism toward the Jews but not towards Arabs and Muslims in general. The term anti-Semitism has long entered academic discourse to refer to hatred of Jews.
Al-Masry: Most Arab historians agree that the Nazis did not contribute great ideas that grew in the region, but you posit the opposite. What evidence supports your position?
Herf: The Nazi Arabic language radio broadcasts during World War II to the Middle East simultaneously attacked Zionism and the Jews. The absurd and false notion that an international Jewish conspiracy existed and was a major force in world politics was a key theme of Nazism’s wartime propaganda. Conspiratorial thinking focused on the supposed power of the Jews persisted after the war in the Middle East. The pejorative and hateful depictions of Jews in Nazi propaganda, the belief that they were inherently evil and that they should be punished as a result found echoes in the postwar publications of the Muslim Brotherhood, the writings of Sayyid Qutb, the postwar activities of Haj Amin al-Husseini, the Egyptian government’s propaganda under Nasser and in the Hamas Covenant of 1988.
Al-Masry: You claim in your book that the Nazis used Islamic heritage to increase hostility towards Jews. How was this done?
Herf: Nazi officials dealing with propaganda aimed at Arabs and Muslims concluded that a selective reading of the Quran and the commentaries about it was their most effective means of reaching this audience. In so doing they drew out the already existing anti-Jewish themes. They presented Islam — not radical, fundamentalist, political or jihadist Islam, but Islam in general –as a religion infused with and inseparable from hatred for the Jews. In their view, from the time that the Jews rejected Prophet Mohammed’s demands that they convert to Islam, the Jews became an “enemy” of Islam. In so doing, Nazism’s Arabic-language propaganda placed the events of the mid-20th century into the far longer context of a supposed, but actually false, Jewish antagonism to Islam as a religion. They described Zionist aspirations as only the most recent chapter in a supposedly ancient Jewish effort to “destroy Islam.” In this effort they found quotations from the Quran and the commentaries on it that included pejorative and hateful comments about the Jews.
Al-Masry: You mention that the most important figure used by the Nazis in the region was Haj Amin al-Husseini, Grand Mufti of Jerusalem from 1921 to 1948. Al-Husseini struggled against the English occupation and Zionism in Palestine long before going to Germany, where his ideas were not radically changed. Is there new evidence to support your position?
Herf: Al-Husseini’s collaboration with the Nazi regime was never only an alliance of convenience based on the principle that “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.” In wartime Berlin there was a genuine meeting of hearts and minds between himself and other Arab and radical Islamist exiles with Hitler and officials in the German Foreign Ministry and the SS. On a number of occasions the Arabic language broadcasts which al-Husseini and the other pro-Nazi Arab and Islamist exiles helped to write and broadcast openly called on listeners to “kill the Jews.”
The new evidence in Nazi Propaganda for the Arab World includes more documentation of the Jew-hatred that al-Husseini brought with him to Berlin and of his skill at blending his bigotry with the conspiracy theories coming from the Nazi regime. This new evidence comes from the files of the American Embassy in wartime Cairo and the files of the German Foreign Ministry and SS in Germany. The Americans in wartime Cairo transcribed and translated the broadcasts by al-Husseini, Younis Bahri and others, and sent the texts back to the State Department in Washington. These documents in US government archives were important for my new book. This new evidence makes clear that one chapter in the longer history of radical Islamism was written in Berlin in World War II where there was not a clash of civilizations but a meeting of hearts and minds based on their worst elements.
Al-Masry: If we assume that Nazi propaganda against Jews had an impact in the Arab region, why did it not end with the fall of Nazism?
Herf: As I explained in my previous book, The Jewish Enemy: Nazi Propaganda during World War II and the Holocaust, the Nazi regime claimed that the Jews were responsible for starting World War II and that they controlled the governments of Britain, the US and the Soviet Union. In the minds of die-hard Nazis, the fact that the Allies won World War II meant that “the Jews” had won the war. The extermination of Europe’s Jews did not, in their minds, undermine this ideologically driven distortion. This idea was carried over to the Arab world by Nazi Germany’s Arabic language propaganda broadcasts, which asserted that a victory for the Allies, led by the US, Britain and the Soviet Union, would be a victory for the Jews. In the minds of Nazi sympathizers and their radical Islamist, Arab and Persian supporters, the foundation of the state of Israel in 1948 appeared to confirm that the predictions of Nazi propaganda had been accurate.
Al-Masry: What do you think of the position that the founding of the Jewish state was the main reason for Arab hostility against Israelis?
Herf: Of course, the conflict between Israel and the Arab states, as well as with the Palestinians, has caused enormous hostility on all sides. But the question reverses the causality of the 1948 war and of the failure to reach a lasting peace since then. There have always been Arabs, including Palestinians, who were willing to reach a compromise solution with Israel. President Anwar Sadat was the most prominent among them. Yet from the beginning those who found common cause with Nazism, such as al-Husseini, and those who, like Hassan Al-Banna and Sayyid Qutb, fashioned a blend of Nazism and Islamism, always rejected any compromise with the state of Israel. They made no distinction between Jews and Zionists and rejected not just the policies of Israel but the very existence of a Jewish state in Palestine. As the assassination of Sadat made clear, those Arabs and Muslims who advocated compromise have faced the threat of assassination from nationalist and Islamist extremists.
Al-Masry: How do you explain Egyptian Jews maintaining rights as citizens until their departure from Egypt following the war in 1956?
Herf: The flight of Egyptian Jews began shortly after anti-Jewish violence in Egypt in the years following World War II. It dramatically increased during and after the war of 1948. About 700,000 Jews used to live in Arab countries before the state of Israel was founded. Faced with threats and hostility in their own countries, they too became refugees and fled for their lives and well-being to Israel. Yet somehow this massive exodus of the Jews from the Arab countries does not register in international politics.
Al-Masry: You claim Nazi propaganda influenced contemporary Islamic movements, how so?
Herf: The lineages are traceable from al-Husseini through Qutb, the Muslim Brotherhood and related organizations such as Hamas and Hezbollah. The Hamas Covenant of 1988 contains a host of the same absurdities about European history that one could find in Nazi propaganda of the 1940s. The blend of Jew-hatred with hatred of the United States and liberal democracy that one finds in the public statements of Al Qaeda also recall similar sentiments from the Nazi era.
Al-Masry: Most radical Islamic groups are hostile towards the US and Israel, so why do your writings focus almost solely on anti-Semitism?
Herf: As I indicated above, modern anti-Semitism in Europe and the Jew-hatred that diffused to the Middle East, to contemporary Iran and to Islamists more generally, was and remains anti-American. It is both anti-Israeli and anti-American because both the United States and Israel are liberal democracies that reject the idea that there is one absolute truth grounded in religion that should govern all of life. Both the United States and Israel rest on the idea of the rights of the individual and both are defending themselves against wars launched against them in the name of radical Islam. I do not emphasize anti-Semitism only. However, as has been the case in previous totalitarian movements, modern anti-Semitism has always been inseparable from rejection of liberal modernity as a whole.
Al-Masry: How do you explain the contradiction of democratic countries, supposedly defending freedom of expression, enacting laws that imprison anyone who denies the Holocaust?
Herf: In the US, denying the Holocaust is not a crime. It is understood as what it is, namely a way of expressing sympathy for Nazism and as a contempt for fact and evidence. To engage in denial of the most well-documented crime in human history certainly disqualifies someone from being a professional historian. A Holocaust denier is a liar, a fool and one with a not at all concealed hatred of the Jewish people. But in my country he or she is not therefore thrown into prison. In Germany and Austria, the countries that gave rise to National Socialism, denial of the Holocaust is a crime. In these local contexts, authorities have decided that in view of their nation’s past, it is simply too dangerous to risk lending any legitimacy to such ideas. This is a difficult issue that Egypt has struggled with for decades.