Paul Berman on Nazi sheikhs in sheep’s clothing

Paul Berman, author of ‘The flight of the intellectuals’

‘A mishmash of Nazi ideas using Islamic rhetoric’: that’s how Paul Berman, in this interview with Guernica, describes the anti-Jewish ideology of the 1930s, spearheaded by the Mufti of Jerusalem, which primed the Arab world to abet the genocide of the Jews of the Middle East. Today we know this ideology as radical Islam or Islamic fundamentalism. Berman’s latest book,The flight of the intellectuals, argues that one of radical Islam’s key exponents, Tariq Ramadan, has, by suppressing the Nazi roots of the movement, seduced well-meaning western liberals into believing he is one of them: (with thanks: Eliyahu)

Paul Berman: The Germans had a research center at the University of Tübingen of orientalists, looking for ways to present the Nazi project in Muslim terms. German theoreticians and scholars were coming up with all kinds of ideas of their own, like, couldn’t they present Hitler as somebody perhaps granted a new revelation beyond Mohammed; or in relation to Shiism, couldn’t Hitler be presented as the twelfth imam? Of course, the Mufti didn’t think there was going to be a new revelation because that would be against Islam; Mohammed is the final prophet. But he did go along with recasting some German ideas in Islamic terms, the most important of these was how to think about the Jews. In the Nazi idea, we sometimes forget what Nazi antisemitism was. There were two aspects: one was biological. The Nazis were racists on biological grounds and the Jews were inferior. And the Germans wanted to exterminate these and other inferior races for the genetic good of the future of Aryan mankind. But there was another strand, which was paranoid, based on a paranoid conspiracy theory.

Jeff Herf is a great historian on this topic. The Nazis pictured themselves as under assault from the Jews. There was a danger that the Aryans, the German race, was going to be exterminated by the Jews, so the Nazis were fighting a war of self-defense against this gigantic Jewish conspiracy to exterminate Germany. The war against the Soviet Union and communism was really a war against Jews because the Soviet Union and communism were controlled by the Jews. On the other front, the Nazis were at war against the British Empire. The British Empire was likewise controlled by the Jews. This was another element of the conspiracy. When America entered the war it turned out that America too was controlled by the Jews. So Nazis were fending off in their own minds this gigantic conspiracy. Of course, the meaning of this is that the Nazis were picturing Jews as a supernaturally powerful and demonic force. So the Nazis had to massacre the Jews simply out of self-defense. This is why, as the war went worse and worse for the Nazis and they needed more and more to send troops to go fight the Soviets or the Western allies invading from the West, instead they sent forces to exterminate the Jews. This was their doctrine. Now they, in collaboration with the Mufti and other exiles, began to present this whole series of ideas in Koranic and Islamic terms. Herf was able to turn up the actual transcripts of the broadcasts which had never been seen before.

Guernica: Via the State Department?

Paul Berman: Via the State Department. The Germans had a vast short-wave radio propaganda system going on throughout the Arab world and no one has ever found the tapes of those broadcasts. And no one has ever found a German transcript. But Herf had the brilliant idea of checking around to see what might be available in the State Department archives. And there he found it. The American embassy in Cairo, under its Ambassadors Alexander Kirk and “Kippy” Tuck (laughs)—you can’t make some of this up, it was just beyond fiction—had supervised the transcribing into English of the Nazi broadcasts and they were regularly sent to Washington for analysis and then went into storage. It’s odd to think that no one has gone into them in depth until Herf. So we see the actual creating of this mad doctrine which I think was a sort of mishmash of Nazi ideas using Islamic rhetoric. The most important of the ideas is that the Jews are a demonic and supernatural force. The goal of the Zionist project in this picture was to destroy the Arab world and replace it with a giant Zionist state.

Guernica: Now this is all laid out in radio broadcasts. But is this the Mufti himself speaking in these broadcasts?

Paul Berman: Sometimes.

Guernica: And he rises, you write, to inciting genocide.

Paul Berman: Yes, the Mufti calls on the Arabs and Muslims to rise up and massacre the Jews.

Guernica: This happened especially during key turning points in the war, as when Rommel was waging his campaign in the North African desert?

Paul Berman: Exactly. As the Nazis invaded various countries they called on their supporters to rise up in support of them. The best known instance of this is one of the smallest instances. When the Jews were arrested in France and sent to Auschwitz, they were arrested by French police. This was a relatively small number of Jews, only 76,000. But the really mass instances of this took place in Eastern Europe, where the Nazis called on Ukrainian volunteers and other people to round up the Jews and massacre them or to send them off to the extermination camps. Now the whole program was to do the same in the Middle East, where there was a large Jewish population, maybe a million people, a chunk in Palestine, but very large and ancient Jewish populations in Morocco, Algeria, Egypt, Iraq, and throughout the region. So the Nazi propaganda, mostly radio, but also leaflets, called on Arabs and Muslims to rise up and massacre the Jews. And the Mufti was especially virulent in his calls for this and issued these calls in an ancient Islamic language, sometimes quoting some hadith or scriptural traditions from Islam.

Guernica: Didn’t the Mufti even stop the Nazis from showing clemency to some children?

Paul Berman: Yes, the Mufti had a great prestige among the Nazi leaders and agitated forcefully and publicly in Europe to urge the Nazis to go further and kill still more people. There were a number of times when the Nazis were willing to allow some groups of Jews to leave Europe and escape to Palestine and a large number of children. The Nazis had wanted to do this as a kind of phony propaganda effort to show that they were nice (and anyway expected the Jews to be exterminated in Palestine by the Arabs, or by themselves when they eventually got there). And the Mufti agitated against this. The Mufti was calling successfully for the Nazis to show no clemency and instead send these Jews to Poland, which is to say to be murdered.

Guernica: So he’s a war criminal.

Paul Berman: Yes, he was a war criminal and you have to ask yourself, why was he so influential among the German leaders? When the Mufti spoke to the Nazis, the Nazis had reason to think that this is a man with real power potentially in the Arab world. The Nazis respected him, he was a genuine war criminal who was able to convince them to take a harder line. And one of the real reasons for the Mufti’s power and influence among Nazis was the support and fealty he was getting from the Supreme Guide of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, Hassan al-Banna. So there were close connections and an ideological development.

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