Hitler: Arab hero or villain?

By Khaled Diab

A shop called Hitler in Egypt raises some uncomfortable questions about Arab perceptions of the Nazi dictator.

Wednesday 29 May 2013

Photo: Ayman
Photo: Ayman

An old friend of mine in Egypt was out and about in his neighbourhood when he stumbled upon a shop that made him stop in his tracks. Although the establishment looked like thousands of other small boutiques across Egypt, it had one key difference. Emblazoned on the shop front, in Arabic script, was the name “Hitler” with a swastika underneath.

“I couldn't believe it at first. I just stood there and gawked at it for a few minutes,” Ayman, my friend, admitted.

As someone who is keenly aware of Hitler and his Nazi legacy, I could not help but feel furious at this exhibition of total callousness and nonchalance. My only hope for the proprietor's humanity was that, separated by huge expanses of time and space, (s)he was not fully aware of just who Hitler was and the horrendous crimes he had committed.

This boutique put me in mind of the restaurant and clothes shop in which had, according to their proprietors, used Hitler's name “innocently” as a marketing gimmick.

“I chose the name innocently,” the restaurateur maintained, while the clothes shop owner admitted: “I was not aware of Hitler being responsible for the killings of six million people before the shop's inauguration.”

For those who find this hard to believe, consider how the lens of time, place or perception colours people's views in other contexts. For example, in the West, is rightly viewed as a hero for his determined resistance to Nazism and his stoical and steadfast leadership.

However, in India, where Churchill starved the population, and many other parts of the British empire, he was seen as a racist, a thug and a mass murderer who refused to countenance the same liberty for the subjects of the British empire as he did for the European victims of Nazism.

In contrast, Hitler, through his well-oiled propaganda machine, promised subject peoples who had never experienced the Nazi killing machine the elusive prospect of liberation and salvation from their colonial masters.

Ayman is not convinced, and says that though there is ignorance, there is also sufficient knowledge and awareness of the Nazi legacy in Egypt. Despite this, there are some Arabs who regard Hitler as some kind of hero.

One small Arabic-language newspaper even went so far as to write a fictional interview with Hitler in which the Führer is depicted as a man of principle who picked on the strong European powers, and sought, as powerful Nazi propaganda once claimed, to liberate the weak in and Asia.

But given Hitler's views on the racial inferiority of Arabs, and non-Europeans generally, Hitler's Arab cheerleaders do not seem to have stopped to consider what would have happened the day after “liberation”. “If there had been Muslims in Germany at the time, they would have joined the Jews…in the ovens of the ,” Maher, an Egyptian friend, points out.

In the build up to and during the war, some Arab nationalists, far away from the devastation Hitler was inflicting on Europe, became pro-Axis, although most seem to have become so out of pragmatic attachment to the principle of “my enemy's enemy”.

That said, some individuals, such as Rashid Ali in , and certain movements in the were directly inspired by Nazism and European fascism in general, including the al-Futuwwa movement in Iraq, the “Green Shirts” of the Misr el-Fatta party in Egypt or the Lebanese Phalanges (Kataeb) party.

Although it is tempting in the West today, saturated as it is with a “never-again” attitude towards Nazism, to see Hitler as an evil aberration or a solely German phenomenon, the Führer was an extreme product of his times and had many Western admirers. In addition, a number of prominent American businessmen helped to bankroll the German dictator's rise to power, some prominent historians have shown.

The Palestinian struggle against the British and Zionists also drove some Arabs towards the German camp. Among these groups, the seems to have awoken a latent hatred of Jews or instilled a deep distrust towards them in general. This was nowhere more apparent than in Hajj Amin al-Husseini, the object of fear and hatred in the minds of Jews and of embarrassment for Arabs.

Outlandish and politically motivated claims that the mufti of Jerusalem knew about the Holocaust and actively encouraged the extermination of European Jews while he resided in Berlin are ungrounded in fact and contradict the evidence. Nevertheless, what is plain is that al-Husseini played a key role in spreading antisemitic Nazi propaganda across the Arab world and he exerted efforts to block the transfer of European Jews to Palestine.

Sadly, the ideologising of the period by both Zionists and pan-Arabists has led to the absence of an honest, balanced and open debate about the mufti and his legacy.

Arab apologists for Hajj Amin portray him as little more than an overzealous nationalist driven by opposition to the which was overtaking his native land, ignoring the dark face of Husseini's more general hatred of Jews, his pronounced dictatorial tendencies and his Arab-Islamic supremacist ideas.

Meanwhile, Israeli and pro-Israeli depictions of the mufti as a two-dimensional satanic caricature, an Arab Hitler in a turban, more often than not veil transparent attempts to discredit the entire Palestinian struggle by association.

That is not for a moment to suggest that Judeophobia does not exist in the Arab world, as some Arabs assert. Although at its best has generally had a more tolerant record towards the Jews, there is an intrinsic tension between the two faiths, and Muslims have been guilty of episodes of ugly discrimination against Jews and even periodic persecution.

Interestingly, however, in the Arab-Israeli context, the traditional formula has been inverted, and the Jew is no longer the defenceless victim. In fact, over its short life, Israel and Zionism have proven that, at its worst, Judaism, like Islam and Christianity, is susceptible to monotheistic supremacism.

Although it is understandable that Jews are troubled by Arab antisemitism, including Holocaust denial, its magnitude is generally exaggerated. In addition, the inconvenient fact that some segments of the right wing of the Zionist movement, such as the Lehi (Stern Gang), also sought to collaborate with Germany is also ignored. Moreover, some Revisionist Zionists, surprisingly, admired Nazism as a “national liberation” movement that had “saved” Germany, and only opposed Hitler's antisemitism.

Although Arab antisemitism receives wide publicity, opposition to it often goes unnoticed. By way of example, the prominent and much-admired Egyptian writer and intellectual Abbas al-Aqqad was so vocal in his criticism of Hitler that he was placed on a Nazi blacklist, forcing him to flee Egypt when it looked like Rommel, the Desert Fox, was on the verge of overrunning the country.

Today, many journalists, including in ultra-conservative Saudi, condemn admiration for Hitler. Like in the West, debate in the Arab world also seems to conform to ‘Godwin's Law', and Hitler is used as a term of insult, not praise.

Take one Egyptian newspaper which described what it claimed were 30 parallels between Hassan al-Banna, the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, and Bothaina Kamel, a famous TV presenter, political dissident and former presidential hopeful, likened the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamists to Hitler in admiration of fascism.

What all this suggests is that, even if a small percentage of Arabs regard Hitler as a hero, the vast majority see him as a murderous villain.

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This is the extended version of an article which first appeared in Haaretz on 22 May 2013.

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