Jeffrey Herf teaches Modern and Contemporary European history at the University of Maryland, College Park. His book, Nazi Propaganda for the Arab World, was published by Yale University Press in late 2009. His previous works include The Jewish Enemy: Nazi Propaganda during World War II and the Holocaust (Harvard University Press, 2006).
Jonathan: So why study Nazi Propaganda in Arab World during the Second World War?
Prof. Herf: For three reasons. First, this propaganda campaign comprised an important chapter in the history of the war and of the Nazi regime’s efforts to work with non-European and “non-Aryan” collaborators; second, studying the campaign sheds light on Hitler’s fortunately failed efforts to extend the “Final Solution of the Jewish Question in Europe” to the Jews of the Middle East and North Africa; third, it comprised ; third, the Arab language propaganda produced in wartime Berlin was a significant chapter in the longer history of radical Arab nationalism and militant Islam.
You are a professor of European History. What challenges did you encounter when you undertook what is supposed to be an area of Middle Eastern Studies? Would you mind speculating on the reason why Middle Eastern studies scholars have apparently demonstrated a lack of interests in the Nazi Involvement in the Arab World? Do you see yourself as breaking away from your original profession?
The obvious challenge is that as a historian of Europe with a mastery of English, French and German, I could not do this research unless there were sources in those langauges. The discovery of several thousand pages of English language, verbatim transcripts of“Axis Broadcasts in Arabic” produced by the staff of the American Embassy in wartime Cairo made this book possible. I found the files in 2007 in the United States National Archives in College Park, Maryland. They had been declassified in 1977 but had been either unread or unused by scholars in the following thirty years.
I don’t want to speculate about why scholars of Middle Eastern studies did not make use of these files earlier. I hope they will view my book as helpful in their own efforts to understand the mix of external and indigenous factors that influenced the Middle East during and after World War II.
I am not breaking away from my original work on European history. Quite the contrary. Historians in many fields have spoken of the need for transnational history and for paying attention to cultural fusion and hybridity as ideas and peoples move around the globe. The meeting of hearts and minds in wartime Berlin between officials of the Nazi regime and pro-Nazi Arab and Islamist exiles is an example of this phenomenon.
The discipline of European history has long examined Europe’s efforts to influence the non-European world in the form of slavery, colonialism and imperialism or in the international communist movements in the 20th century. Studies of the efforts of Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany to exert their own influence outside Europe are no less part of writing European history.
Robert Fisk, in his memoir, The Great War for Civilization: The Conquest of the Middle East, described the alliance between Nazi and Arab as natural since the British betrayed the Arabs after the First World War. Fisk further argued that condemning the collaboration between Arabs and Nazi overlooked Zionist propaganda against Arabs. How do you respond?
Fisk repeats the apologia of those Arabs in Berlin and Rome who collaborated with the Nazis and the Fascists. As the reader of my recent book will see, the collaboration went far beyond an alliance of convenience based on shared opposition to Zionism or British presence. Hatred of the Jews as Jews, that is religiously inspired hatred rooted in a fundamentalist reading of the Koran, was central to the Arab and Islamist collaborators led by Haj Amin el-Husseini.
The opposition to British rule in Egypt, for example, was far broader than was support for Nazism and Fascism. The Nazi enthusiasts hid under the mantle of anti-colonialism, which was easy for them to do given that the Nazis presented themselves as well as anti-colonialists and anti-imperialists so long at the colonialism and imperialism at issue was Britain’s and not their own.
How can the study of Nazi Propaganda help contribute to the understanding of the modern Middle East, Islamic fundamentalism and the conflict between Israel and Palestine?
Islamic fundamentalism, like European totalitarianism in the 20th century, was and is a mixture of very old and very modern elements. It is also a product of a mixture of some indigenous currents in the history of Islam with the hatred of democracy, liberalism and the Jews that were so central to National Socialism.
The conflict between Israel and the Palestinians would have been over long ago were it not for the uncompromising, religiously inspired hatred of the Jews that were articulated and given assistance by Nazi propagandists and continued after the war by Islamists of various sorts.
Turning to Iran, I read your article on CBS. You talked about how Obama should deal with Iran. Why has Iran been more eager to adapt Nazi-type propaganda against Israel than the Arab world?
Experts with a deeper knowledge of Iran are in a better position to answer why Khomeini and his successors have become the leaders of Jew-hatred in recent decades. Khomeini’s evil genius lay in his ability to combine Nazi, Communist, and third worldlist themes in his rage against the Jews.
I repeat that Nazi propaganda is only one chapter in the longer history of militant Islam. One of the great appeals of modern anti-Semitism to any radical nationalist anywhere in the world is that it diverts attention from one’s own society and blames all problems on the powerful outsiders, in this case, the United States and the Jews. Specific messianic Shi’ite religious themes play a role as well.
The point to keep in mind is that Ahmadinejad expresses a consensus view of the dominant forces of the Iranian regime. Nuclear weapons in the hands of people with such convictions would cross a rubicon in world politics.
Let’s turn to your teaching and writing. You’ve been published on FrontPage Magazine, a conservative journal. You were critical of the Democrats and the generally the Left in the States about their positions on the war in Iraq. You own position is close to Conservatives. How do your students and colleagues respond?
Actually, I have not published in the FrontPage Magazine. My essays on contemporary politics have appeared in the past in Partisan Review and recently in The New Republic online. I’ve also published book reviews in The New Republic and in its excellent and much needed new online book review entitled the Book.
I was one of the principal authors of the 2006 internet statement, “American Liberalism and the Euston Manifesto.” It can be read here. I was pleased that several hundred scholars, writers and people who thought of themselves as liberals signed it as well. It is one of the central ironies of the post 9/11 world that so many Democrats and most people who regard themselves as leftists have not spoken out about the threat to liberal democracy posted by jihadist Islamism.
My colleagues and I made the case for liberals to make this fight their own as well in our response to the Euston Manifesto. The meaning of the word “liberalism” changes over time. I think if Franklin Roosevelt were alive today, he would have signed “American Liberalism and the Euston Manifesto.”
I see nothing conservative at all in attempting to defeat political forces that intentionally slaughter civilians, including thousands of Muslims, attack democracy, subordinate women and think a reactionary and literal reading of the very old religious texts is a reasonable basis for politics in the 21st century. The question is rather why so many people who call themselves liberals fail to make these points.
I am a professor. My primary concern is not that my students agree with me about contemporary politics. Rather I want them to have a respect for truth, accept nothing on the basis of authority alone, learn to evaluate evidence and argument, and to change their views if the evidence calls for a change. In short, I want them to enhance their ability to think for themselves.
Some of my best students do not agree with me and that is fine with me. I would hope that their convictions become more soundly based for having taken my classes. As for colleagues, well, some agree and others don’t. I suspect that many people who agree with me keep their thoughts to themselves.