The Secret War for the Middle East: The Influence of Axis and Allied Intelligence Operations during World War II

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By: Youssef Aboul-Enein
Basil Aboul-Enein

The Secret War for the Middle East: The Influence of Axis and Allied Intelligence Operations during World War II. Naval Institute Press, Annapolis, MD, 2013. 256 pp. $32.43. ISBN: 978-1612513096. eBK: $30. 21. ASIN: B00G1SRA5I.

Volume: 1 Issue: 8

December 2013

Review by:

Josef Olmert, PhD

University of South Carolina

Columbia, SC

Wars are a catalyst to changes, as big wars are to big changes. Clearly a truism in general, not without exceptions though, but not in the case of the Middle East, where the two world wars brought momentous changes, the effects of which have been felt, not just in the region itself, but rather throughout the entire world, and in many cases continue to be felt until our days.

Youssef and Basil Aboul-Enein are not professional historians; they are American military persons. Judging by their recently published book, however, they definitely are going to have a place of distinction among historians of the modern Middle East. They deal with a subject which has been somewhat neglected by other historians, who–generally speaking–referred to the Middle East in the Second World War by describing the main military moves. They also referred to the political designs planned in London–the capital of the most important colonial power–chief among them, the establishment of the League of Arab Nations, as well as the plans to solve the ever-escalating “Palestine problem.”

What was lacking was the local input, that of the local people–mostly the Arab population of the region–and with it, the synthesis between their activities, aspirations and expectations and the actions and policies of the powers involved, and in that context, barely any attention was given to the connections between them and the Axis powers, Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy.

The authors have done a good job of setting the record straight, and they are absolutely right when referring to “the most important lesson to be learned is …[that] it is vital to know the region, the area of operation… get inside the history of the region; walk around between perception, conspiracy, and fact” (p. 190). And sure enough, there was a lot of all of that in the Middle East during WWII, and the authors dutifully deal with it. In particular, they are referring to the element of conspiracy.

Conspiracy (Muamara in Arabic) is a key word when analyzing the Middle East. This is the part of the world, where deep-seated mistrust of rulers has created a sense of disbelief in almost anything official, and so the authors rightly refer to one, Captain Anwar Sadat, who was jailed by the British during the war for his pro-Nazi activities, a man who, after the end of the war, wrote a letter congratulating Adolph Hitler, calling him “the real victor”… (p. 1). This is the same Anwar Sadat, who made the famous peace visit to Jerusalem, in 1979, ending the historic conflict between Egypt, the largest Arab state, and Israel, the state established by the people that Adolph Hitler worked so hard to completely annihilate.

Another plotter, much more important than Sadat, was the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, Hajj Amin al-Husseini, whose infamous meeting with Adolf Hitler on 28 November 1941 receives its due attention in the book. This was clearly a dark page in the annals of the Palestinian National Movement, of which Husseini was its undisputed leader at that time. The two leaders definitely shared the same vision–to kill all the Jews; and the Grand Mufti helped recruit an SS Muslim division, mainly composed of Bosnians. (There were also Turkistani soldiers in the Red Army, who were taken prisoners by the Nazis and then were recruited by them to the SS). An interesting book about these details is Stephen L. Crane’s The life of Isakjan Narzikul, Survivor from an Unknown War (Diane Publishing, Upland, PA, 1999). According to a new book by Edy Cohen on Nazi influence in the Middle East, in May 1943, the Mufti torpedoed a German-British plan to trade 4000 Jewish children for 20,000 German civilians held by the British. This and many other episodes like this shed light on the role of the Mufti and with it, about Nazi activities. But then, what was this role? How did it fit into the grand scheme of things?

The authors do not shy away from this question, and they rightly put it in proper context. They refer to the Italian Bruno De Cordier and some “extremist Zionists,” who “have attempted to present the existence of Muslim units in the Wehrmacht and the SS… as proof that Islam and Muslims have a weakness for Fascism” (p. 186). No, Islam and Muslims have NO particular weakness for Fascism and Nazism, and the authors are absolutely right about that.

In fact, this is a fundamental theme of the book as it deals with “perception, conspiracy and fact,” and as such, deserves to be presented as part of a bigger context. The great historian, Bernard Lewis, referred to the 1930’s in the Middle East as being the “era of the shirts,” the era when many in the region–Ahmad Hussein and the Green Shirts in Egypt, the Phalange Christians in Lebanon, the Syrian Social Nationalist Party of Antun Sa‘ada in Lebanon and Syria, and many others–seemed so fascinated with the rising power of the Axis, mainly in Germany. The parades, the youthful spirit so much on display, the discipline and order–all were captivating to so many young Arabs, among them many intellectuals, army officers and would-be influential politicians–and sure enough, also the anti-Jewish Nazi propaganda; but above all, it was the sense in the Arab Middle East that the real enemy were the Western Colonial powers, Britain and France, and the burning desire to rid the Middle East of their yoke. It was NOT racism, as Islam’s sense of solidarity is strictly religious, not ethnic, racial, or linguistic. And there are so many other differences, but in a world of misguided perceptions, so many were attracted to support the Nazi cause, much less so the Fascist one. In the war itself, whenever the pathetic Italian army was defeated in the Western Dessert, the newspaper boys in Cairo screamed “inkasara al-makaruni,” the makaruni was broken.” Rommel and Hitler were considered the modern-day incarnations of Abu Ali, the mythological Arab hero. The authors refer to these manifestations of Arab pro-Nazi tendencies as “sound bites,” and they are right, though some of these sound bites caused a hell of a headache to the British during the war.

Such was the case with Aziz Ali al-Masri, who founded the Arab Nationalist societies Al-Qahtaniyya and Al-‘Ahd who worked with the Hashemite in WW1, but defected to the Nazis in WW2, not an inconsequential episode, but it is not covered by the authors. Also the Iraqi situation in the 1930’s and early years of WW2 caused the British a lot of trouble. It was in Iraq, where the influence of the Grand Mufti was significant, particularly after 1937, when he fled from Palestine. The Iraqi Golden Square, the group of four officers, led by Salah al-Din al-Sabbagh, were the plotters who made possible the revolt of Rashid Ali in May 1941. The revolt is widely and adequately covered in the book, but not the Golden Square. This revolt, a dramatic indication of the anti-British in Iraq as well as the pro-Nazi sentiments, was also a dramatic indication of the Arab misunderstanding of Nazi foreign policy.

It was Bismarck who famously said that he would not the risk the bones of one Pomeranian soldier for the sake of the “Eastern Question,” and Adolf Hitler simply adhered to this policy. For him, the East was the vast lands of Russia, where the “Jewish-Bolshevik” connection could be destroyed, and the German race would have its living space, the much-coveted Lebensraum. How could young, agitated, enthusiastic and less educated Arab officers and plotters know and understand all that? They could not, nor could they know that the German Luftwaffe was preparing to attack the Soviet Union in June 1941, and hardly had anything to spare for the Iraqi rebels.

The authors refer to the actual complexities of Nazi Middle East policy, relying on Francis Nicosia’s writings, as well as others. They also cover the activities of Fritz Grobba, but they failed to mention Werner Otto Von Hentig’s activities, and his opposition to the line advocated by the former, supporting more Nazi involvement in the Middle East. This and other omissions may be related to the scarcity of primary sources, but even this weakness cannot take away from the importance of the book, its usefulness and the desire it leaves with the reader to have more from these promising authors.

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