As the government communications specialist and Middle East watcher Vyvyan Kinross reveals in this darkly gripping story, this wasn’t a question of a handful of advisers. At its height, the colony of German experts in Cairo – working across the entire spectrum of the military and security portfolio, from rocket and missile programmes, arms manufacturing and internal security to foreign service, intelligence and propaganda – may have numbered around 6,000.
The author admits that these characters were ‘sometimes unsavoury but always compelling’. This seems an understatement when it comes to Johann von Leers, a key Nazi propagandist and ideologue, honorary Sturmbannführer in the Waffen-SS and a baby-faced anti-hero of Nazis on the Nile. An acolyte of Joseph Goebbels, this was a man who dashed off 27 hate-filled books, including Jewry and Knavery, Blood and Race and Jews are Looking at You, between 1933 and the end of the war.
Having spent several years spewing out anti-Semitic propaganda in Juan Perón’s regime in Argentina, in 1956 von Leers relocated to Cairo, where he served as a political adviser and anti-Israel propagandist for Gamal Abdel Nasser, Egypt’s firebrand president, until 1965. When a Toronto Star journalist ferreted him out in his office in the ministry of national guidance in 1956, after a few nervous moments the unrepentant Nazi revealed his true self, launching into tirades against American Jews, Zionist-driven press attacks on Nasser and his uncompromising position on the new Jewish state. ‘Israel is abnormal,’ he told the newspaperman. ‘It must go. It causes trouble.’ Like several of his compatriots, he later converted to Islam, and changed his name to Omar Amin.
Kinross’s timeline is carefully chosen. It encompasses the trio of humiliating Egyptian military defeats: the Arab-Israeli War of 1948-9, Suez in 1956 and the Six-Day War of 1967. By the time Egypt suffered its fourth military loss in the Yom Kippur War of 1973, the German military, scientific and intelligence advisers at the heart of this engrossing narrative had long gone.
Humour is a scarce commodity here, but there is something bleakly comic about the clash of Teutonic efficiency with the rather more relaxed Egyptian approach to work and the inability of former Nazi and Wehrmacht officers to bend the world around them to their will.
At the centre of the hub of military advisers was Dr Wilhelm Voss, a hyper-efficient man who combined a flair for big-picture thinking with an impressive command of detail – ‘a skillset with which Egyptian management culture at the time was not widely blessed’, Kinross writes. General major Oskar Munzel, a highly decorated Wehrmacht tank officer, shared his frustrations with the Israeli spy Paul Frank: ‘A thousand times I’ve tried to beat into their dead heads that pretty paint and big identification numbers do not a fighting panzer force make.’
In 1952, the German war hero Baron Theodor von Bechtolsheim, a senior naval officer-turned-military adviser, complained that ‘the oriental sloppiness irritates me again and again, while here they just shake their heads about it. Malaish!’ This will sound an echo for anyone familiar with Egypt in the 1980s when the old expatriate joke was that the country was run by IBM – Inshallah (God willing), Bukra (tomorrow) and Maalesh (never mind).
Notwithstanding their many talents, the Germans often struggled to adapt to the different professional challenges in Egypt, not least being their strictly advisory roles. This meant, for example, that they could advise on the persecution and deportation of Jews rather than eliminating them directly, as the Nazis had done in Europe.
One of the darkest chapters in the book surrounds the persecution of Egypt’s embattled Jews who, with the arrival of cold-blooded German know-how, were subjected to oppressive legislation, economic strangulation, dispossession, detention, torture and deportation. The FBI claimed that the 1948 pogrom against Egyptian Jews in the wake of the Arab-Israeli War had been instigated by Adolf Eichmann, one of the key architects of the Holocaust, who was in Cairo at the time. Mass expulsions of Jews began with the Suez invasion of 1956 and within three months around 10,000 had left. ‘The methods used are so similar to what Hitler did before the war as to be frightening,’ the New York Times reported.
The similarity was no mystery. The leading light of Egypt’s new state security cadre was Leopold Gleim, an SS Standarten-führer and former head of the Gestapo’s Jewish affairs department in Poland. Serving under him was the former SS Gruppen-führer Alois Moser, then wanted in the USSR for crimes against Jews, and Bernhardt Bender, a former SS Sturmbannführer, who ran an interrogation centre in a disused cargo ship nicknamed ‘The Floating Hell’ by Jewish victims. Bender was alleged to have been the brains behind five camps for Jews, one of which was supposedly modelled on Dachau’s Block 10 sterilisation unit. Kinross acknowledges that if there is uncertainty here and over-reliance on western, especially American and CIA, sources, this is because ‘Egyptian records still remain inaccessible’.
Although the competition for most disgusting Nazi exile in Cairo was stiff, the Waffen-SS Untersturmführer Aribert Heim, known as ‘Dr Death’, arguably made it to the podium. As a doctor at Mauthausen concentration camp in Austria, one of his party tricks, according to the testimony of a survivor, was to kill a prisoner selected for his impeccable teeth by injecting him with poison, cut off his head, cook it in the crematorium until the flesh had been burnt off and then give the skull to a friend as a desk ornament. To evade an international arrest warrant issued in 1962, he fled to Cairo, where he successfully dodged justice until his death in 1992, having lived quietly as the Muslim convert Tarek Hussein Farid.