World War II Propaganda in the Middle East. Lessons for today

Mark Pomerleau writing on information warfare had this to say:

“I think the United States is being strategically defeated in the information environment. We’re not even holding our own. We’re being defeated. We’re being outmaneuvered, we’re being outflanked, we’re being out persuaded,” Michael Nagata, a retired three-star general who spent most of his career in the special operations community and served as director of strategy for the National Counterterrorism Center, said Oct. 2 during a virtual presentation at a National Defense Industrial Association conference.”

He is right, of course, but this is not new. We have been losing the propaganda war in the Middle East since WWII. Partly this is inevitable and partly is a result of our inability to wrap our heads around the political culture we are trying to convince…of what I’m not really sure. From my visits to the Voice of America and the old US Information Agency, we seem to concentrate on the theme that we are really nice people and Muslims who live here feel good about it. But for Arabs, who are probably the most cynical people in the world, that doesn’t cut it. They rarely believe their own leaders – why us?

The Kaiser Wilhelm the Second

Nazi Propaganda For the Arab World by Jeffery Herf

The Arab Island and Dust in the Lions Paw both by Freya Stark

The Mufti of Jerusalem and the Nazis; The Berlin years by Klaus Gensicke, and perhaps a thousand bits and pieces half remembered over some 50 years of books, papers, conferences, lectures and conversations.

Mufti Haj Amin Husseini

So to start with the British were at a disadvantage in that they were the colonialists, in Iraq, Egypt, and Palestine, and to a large extent in Iran as well. But to Ms. Freya Stark the real danger was Zionism. As she wrote, “nearly every serious observer in the Middle East looked upon Zionism as our greatest danger.” She meant of course, the danger to British influence in the Islamic world. Ms. Stark was a famous Arabist, even an Orientalist , and like most orientalists, she was pro Arab (because it suited British interests) and a true expert on Arab culture. She was also a prodigious writer and an excellent one. She was the WWII version of Gertrude Bell. Most of the British officialdom agreed with her view of Zionism as did most of the high level British military leadership. However, Winston Churchill did not, and neither did the flamboyant and dashing General Ode Wingate. Despite the prevalent view of the British movers and shakers, the overriding British objective was to get the United States in the war. To do this, one avenue of approach was to appeal to the Jewish Advisors around President Roosevelt such as Bernard Baruch and Judge Louis Brandeis, Hans Morgenthau etc. pushing a vaguely pro Zionist viewpoint. So as it happened the British were forced to tread a delicate line, which appealed to neither the Palestinian Arabs or Jews. It severely hampered their ability to counter Nazi propaganda which focused on the zionist “threat.”

Freya Stark

Freya Stark considered herself a sort of leading propagandist for the British viewpoint in Arabia ‘ although she did not seem to have any official position. She preferred the term “persuasion for propaganda. In her books she constantly complained about the albatross of British “support” for Jews entering Palestine, and how difficult it made her job of persuading the Arabs to support the British war effort. No doubt it did. But it was by no means the whole story. Like it seems, the British psychological warfare efforts was a bureaucratic maze…a bone of contentious rivalry between various parts of the British government. Particularly between the Ministry of Information (MOI) and the brain child of Winston Churchill, the Special Operations Executive (SOE). Even when the British were fighting for their survival, British officials were fighting over control of the psychological warfare effort. Carrying on the British tradition of viewing psychological warfare with distaste, Sir Horace Wilson the Prime Minister’s principal advisor warned the PM,” that propaganda was not a good substitute for calmly getting on with the business of government.” Churchill was depicted as being disinterested in political warfare.Not only were the Brits hampered by intramural power struggles but they had no clue as to the sentiment of the German people. At the beginning of the war the psyops creators listened to the voices of the thin anti Nazi element among the German intellectuals and assumed that there was a wide division in the feeling of the German population toward their leader Adolf Hitler. Actually there was very little. Attempts to widen a non existent crack in the view of the beloved Fuehrer was a lost cause, particularly at the beginning of the war.

The Mufti and Hitler

The British approach to political warfare was mostly poorly organized, poorly conducted and generally not given much credence by the British leadership. For instance in the biographies, and memoirs of the three main British commanders ( Wavell, Auchinleck, Montgomery) in the African desert war, I could not find any reference to propaganda or political warfare.

Duff Cooper, the head of the MOI, for one long year expressed his disenchantment with propaganda business this way.” a monster…so large, so voluminous, so amorphous, that no single man could cope with it.”Harold MacMillan, the future two time prime Minister of the UK as the British Minister Resident in North Africa, during WWII spent much time trying to moderate the squabbles of the political warfare people, writing, “All the people concerned with propaganda and publicity and political warfare are a neurotic, feminine type, and quarrel with each other a great deal.”

In addition to the obvious burden the British has as a “colonial power was their zigzagging and ambivalent policy on Palestine. The Nazis had a unique confluence of interests and common hatred in sync with the intellectual political class of Arabs and Islamist view of Jews… at best….. as a tolerated second class minority, and at worst as villainous subhuman creatures. With the indefatigable Mufti Haj Amin Al-Hussein leading the Palestinian, Arab nationalist, and Islamic drive to put the Arab nations in the service of the Nazis, the Nazis had a most valuable tool for fomenting trouble against the British. The Mufti’s hatred for the Jews were very compatible with those of Hitler, who was very impressed with the Mufti. He was a charismatic figure who seemed to favorably influence all those he met. Freya Stark met him and wrote, “the Mufti sat there all in white, spotless and voluminous, a man in. his early forties, wearing his turban like a halo. His eyes were light, blue and shining, with a sort of radiance, as of a just fallen Lucifer.” The Mufti had been on the German and Italian payroll for quite some time and one can say he definitely earned his pay. The best book to read on him is Klaus Gensicke, The Mufti of Jerusalem and the Nazis: the Berlin Years.Hitler, despite the fact he was very Eurocentric, he did at one time compare the fate of the Germans in Sudetenland under Czech control with the Palestinians under British control. General Helmuth Felmy, commanding the Nazi project in Iraq, stated quite presciently, ” the only real political rallying point among Arabs was their comm0n hatred of Jews.” Unfortunately for the Germans that was not enough.

A third advantage of the Germans was the Arab idealization of violence and “strength.” An Iraq educator in 1933 gave a speech to high school students which epitomized the “new” Arab view of the “Profession of Death” as he called it. He praised Mussolini and the totalitarian government he created. The democracies were viewed as namby-bamby edifices of jello. The constant Germans depiction of their military power appealed to the Arabs. While the Allies were harping on the huge discrepancy between Nazi claims of their sympathy for the downtrodden Arabs and their Aryan racial theories…… which put Arabs and Jews on about the same level…. Arab leaders like the Mufti were not the least bit interested in racial theories. Once again the lesson that has to be relearned over and over again. Pious bleating of purity and goodness have no traction against raw depictions of power…….. Not anywhere in the world but especially not in the Arab World.

MaxVon Oppenheim German Orientalist and Von Vivant

But the Germans had a few disadvantages as well. Number one was that their kite had the Italian and Vichy French tail tied to it. Both had horrible colonial history, the French almost everywhere and the Italians in Libya where they put down a revolt with utmost barbarity. Moreover the Germans had to play nice with General Franco’s government in Spain. They were also a colonial power in North Africa. Secondly the Germans ran into the usual Arab problem, personal ambitions and disunity. n The Mufti had a rival for Axis affections, Rashid Ali Al-Gaylani, three time Prime Minister of Iraq who with the “golden square” four Iraq colonels, tried to wrest control of Iraq from the British but failed badly. With the Mufti he made nice with the Axis but was soon eclipsed by the Mufti who was much more dynamic and appealing to the Germans. They became bitter rivals. Other than usual personality clashes, Al Gaylani was an Iraqi nationalist and was only tepidly interested in Pan-Arabism or Islamism. The Mufti however was a pan -Arabist and Islamist.

It should be noted that while the Axis went down in flames, the evil has lingered after them. The Ba’ath party ideology, the Islamic State Islamist ideology, which somewhat recalls the wacko nordic mythology of Heinrich Himmler, has embedded within them the strains of fascism.

In the end, as someone quite astutely observed, the best propaganda is always on the side of the battlefield winners.

Fritz Grobba German Dip;lomat

Rashid Ali Kaylani Iraq nationalist and pro-Nazi propagandist
“The Eternal Jew” Nazi typical propaganda poster


About Tex

Retired artillery colonel, many years in a number of positions in the Arab world. Graduate of the US Military Academy and the American University of Beirut. MA in Arab studies from the American University in Beirut along with 18 years as Middle East Seminar Director at the JFK Special Warfare Center and School, Served in Vietnam with 1st Inf Division, Assignments in Lebanon, Jordan and Egypt, plus service with Trucial Oman Scouts in the Persian Gulf. Traveled to every Arab country on the map including Iraq, Syria, Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco.
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