Nazi Germany’s effort to recruit supporters in the Arab world is attracting new attention among scholars.
With the 70th anniversary of a Palestinian Arab leader’s sabotage of a plan to rescue Jewish children from Europe coming up next month, Israeli scholar Edy Cohen spoke exclusively to JNS.org about his current research on the role of Nazi and Axis propaganda in the Middle East. Cohen, 41, is on the staff of the Israel State Archives.
During the Holocaust years, Haj Amin el-Husseini, better known as the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, lived in Berlin, where he recorded pro-Nazi radio broadcasts that were beamed to the Arab world and recruited Bosnian Muslims to join an all-Muslim unit of the SS. Seventy years ago, on May 13, 1943, Husseini caught wind of a plan to permit 4,000 Jewish children, accompanied by 500 adults, to travel to Palestine in exchange for the release of 20,000 German prisoners of war. Both the Germans and the British had agreed to the exchange, but the Germans backed down when the Mufti objected.
The Mufti was the most prominent Arab figure to support the Nazis, but he was not alone. “My research tracks the effort by the Germans, Italians, and Japanese to spread their propaganda and influence in Palestine and various Arab countries,” said Dr. Cohen, who was born and raised in Beirut and immigrated to Israel in 1995. “They worked hard at it and, to a significant extent, they succeeded.” Cohen has been combing through Arabic-language Nazi and Axis leaflets and radio broadcasts that were collected and analyzed by Haganah intelligence in the 1930s and 1940s.
Some of the leaflets found by Cohen feature stark headlines such as “Kill the Jews and the British!” Some were printed on the back of facsimile British pounds or American dollars, so that when they were dropped by German planes over Arab regions of Palestine, they looked like money and immediately attracted attention.
According to Cohen, some of the Arabic-language Nazi propaganda promised that those who attacked Jews would be rewarded by being given “the most beautiful of the Jewish girls” after Palestine’s Jewish community was vanquished. “That sort of language makes one think of the promise that Muslim terrorist leaders today sometimes offer—that those who die while killing Jews will receive seventy virgins in heaven,” Cohen said.
The text of the leaflets and broadcasts were composed by Nazi authors, and then translated into Arabic by members of the Mufti’s entourage in Berlin. Some of the Mufti’s men in Germany were more than writers: several parachuted into Palestine in 1944 with vials of poison that they intended to dump in the Tel Aviv water system. They were intercepted by the British police before they could carry out the attack.
Cohen found an internal memo from British police headquarters in Jerusalem in 1939 reporting, “The Arab population in Palestine are listening to the Berlin Broadcasts in Arabic most attentively, particularly in town and village coffee shops where large crowds gather for the purpose.” The report stated that the “uneducated classes are undoubtedly being influenced” by the Nazi propaganda.
In 1945, the activists known as the Bergson Group successfully lobbied the government of Yugoslavia to indict the Mufti as a war criminal, because of atrocities committed against Allied soldiers and civilians by members of the Bosnian Muslim SS unit, known as “Handschar,” that he helped create. The Yugoslavs never took steps to extradite him, however.
Husseini fled Berlin during the final days of the war but was briefly detained by the French authorities and placed under house arrest in a Paris villa. In response to Arab pressure, the French permitted the Mufti to stage a faux escape, and he found haven in Cairo. Later he moved to Beirut, where he passed away in 1974.
Earlier this year, Palestinian Authority chairman Mahmoud Abbas stirred controversy when, in a PA television broadcast, he listed the Mufti’s name among a number of “martyrs and heroes” who have died while fighting Jews or Israelis.
Dr. Rafael Medoff is founding director of The David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies, in Washington, DC. His latest book is “FDR and the Holocaust: A Breach of Faith,” available from Amazon.