Writing about World War II in the Middle East is painful, political and problematic. On the one hand, the Jewish communities of North African or Middle Eastern origin feel that the suffering of their sons and daughters during the war – in countries like Libya, Iraq and Tunisia – has not been sufficiently told.
By contrast, there were many in the Middle East who opposed Nazism and fascism, and lent a hand to the Jews in their distress.
How do you analyze the story while ignoring the contemporary discourse that attempts to compare Muslims to Nazis and which is prevalent in right-wing parties in the West (and Israel itself)?
Leading the vanguard to change the narrative about Egypt (but also the Middle East in general) in World War II is Israeli scholar Israel Gershoni.
The common perception is that Egypt’s elites supported Nazi Germany and fascist Italy during World War II. The antidemocratic forces that came to power in Egypt after 1952, and the historians who perpetuated their version, created this misrepresentation – stating that Egyptian patriots supported the Axis powers because they hoped for an end to British imperialism at all costs. This story suited their postcolonial aims in the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s.
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But in the two volumes of his latest book “The War of the Weak Nations: Egypt in World War II 1939-1945” (in Hebrew), the Tel Aviv University professor totally disproves this – citing numerous articles and cartoons from the newspapers, films and radio programs of the period.
He offers a new perspective on Egyptian society during the war, focusing on two crucial periods: When Mussolini’s forces tried to challenge British control of the region in September 1940 and were stopped; and, even more important, when fierce battles took place in the El Alamein region, between July and November 1942, ending in the defeat of the German Afrika Korps led by German Field Marshal Erwin Rommel.
Gershoni explains that the erroneous idea that the Egyptian elites supported Germany and Italy was based on an assumption that the enemies of the British – namely the Germans and the Italians – must therefore be friends of Egypt.
But the author paints an entirely different picture of Egypt: A nation under siege in which aerial bombings, particularly of Alexandria, wreaked havoc on people and property, and created a refugee situation in Egypt itself.
This was a nation in which the main authorities, the Wafd Party – a democratic party that supported the Allied forces – itself and the educated people were afraid of the German enemy. Egypt, as Gershoni shows, was a nation in which the middle classes were willing to accept the partial humiliation of their king and the appointment of a government whose leaders were pro-British because they saw this as the lesser of two evils. In other words, a step that would save them from the Nazis.
Despite the fact that Egypt did not officially declare war on Germany, the Egyptian state supported the British. For example, an Egyptian workforce of some 250,000 people was employed by the British during the war, mainly in military bases and camps.
He also attempts to show the origin of the idea that the Wafd Party came to power with the help of British forces in 1942 in a cynical move that was against the will of King Farouk and lacking popular support.
Emissary of Satan
In order to present a different story of the democratic Wafd Party, whose views regarding the war received broad civilian support, the second volume of the book – and in my opinion the more important one – precisely and methodically describes the reactions of the media and the public to the war. It’s hard not to be impressed by the way in which Egyptian thinkers, artists and writers expressed themselves despite the censorship. Their thoughts were communicated in periodicals, newspapers, diaries, books, radio shows and in movie theaters, via articles, cartoons, skits and plays.
Newspapers known for their cartoons, such as Ruz al-Yusuf and Al-Ithnayn wa al-Dunya, supplied readers with key images that mocked the leaders of the Axis powers: Caricatures of Il Duce presented him as an inflated balloon and cowardly moron; the most common image of Hitler was of a power-hungry demon and emissary of Satan. The Allies were presented as courageous and noble: U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt, for example, was described as a giant who would defeat Hitler.
Egyptian culture was also a culture of cinema: Egyptians saw, and film critics reviewed, Charlie Chaplin’s masterpiece “The Great Dictator.” But more than any visual representation, the articles, speeches delivered by politicians and the viewpoints of the Wafd proved that, politically, the elites opposed totalitarianism, belligerence and dictatorship, and advanced a prodemocratic agenda.
The book changes our hierarchy of intellectual history. It shows that sharp and effective criticism was created in the Middle East as well, by a series of leading intellectuals – including playwright and author Taufiq al-Hakim, journalists and essayists, and Naguib Mahfouz, who later won the Nobel Prize for Literature.
If scholars like Hannah Arendt did a masterful job of reconstructing the connection between totalitarianism and colonialism, Gershoni shows how the Egyptian intellectuals – themselves victims of British rule – engaged in a type of comparative colonialism: They concluded that the Italian occupation, and even more so the German occupation, involved a new type of racism, far worse than the types of occupation they had known in the past. These thinkers, some of whom were educated in France, were well aware of the dangers of fascism; saw the connection between colonialism, racism, dictatorship and despotism; and demonstrated an amazing understanding of the international arena.
Those same Egyptian intellectuals, Gershoni explains, saw Egypt as a small and weak nation under siege, mainly during the period when Rommel’s forces were advancing in North Africa. Many advanced the claim that, as a weak nation, Egypt was unable to stand alone against the cruel monsters created in Europe, and therefore should maintain solidarity with other weak nations and support Britain during the war.
Early fears of fascism
Gershoni demonstrates, although indirectly, that there was a certain similarity between the dilemmas pointed out by David Ben-Gurion and those of Egyptian nationalist thinkers – namely, a desire to be freed of dependence on the British and, on the other hand, the realization that Britain was leading a new move aimed at liberating the world of the Nazi monster.
The book also shows that early fears of fascism were already prevalent in the ’30s when Ethiopia was occupied by the Italians. But very soon, World War II was seen as one between enlightenment and the forces of darkness. In a series of philosophical essays, Hakim showed how the Allied forces had defended human civilization against the forces of evil, meaning worshippers of territorial power, violence, war and barbarism.
For the same reason, Gershoni explains, Egypt opposed the pro-German rebellion in Iraq in 1941 – at the end of which the Farhud pogrom against Baghdadi Jews took place – and called its leaders a gang of tyrants. The Muslim Brotherhood also toned down its anti-British activity until late 1944.
Theologians argued that Islam, a religion based on the personal responsibility of the individual to his sovereignty, stands in contradiction to the monstrous godlike state and collectivism of fascism. Others treated anti-Semitism specifically as a disease that grew in the totalitarian hothouse of Nazi Germany, which “expels the Jews by foolish means and in the ugliest ways, the likes of which were unknown even in the Middle Ages.” Still others pointed to the fact that Aryanism had even excluded the Arabs, whom the Germans despised as inferior creatures.
I would have been happier had Gershoni explained why he didn’t place more emphasis on Jewish persecution during the war. Egyptian culture was no different than Western countries, but I would have been pleased to read more about it. Gershoni would also have done well to discuss the intellectuals and forces who supported the fascists and Nazis, which would not have minimized the importance of his argument but reinforced it.
Finally, it would have been worthwhile to read more about the criticism leveled against Great Britain during this period. Did the Egyptians feel exploited at the time? Such criticism was voiced in India – particularly in light of the deaths of millions by starvation during the major famine in Bengal, when resources in India were directed toward the war effort.
The book represents a tremendous achievement and presents the wartime situation in Egypt in all its complexity. The story told by Gershoni is also connected to other stories about opposition to Nazism and fascism in the Middle East: to the communists in Iraq who warned the military elites not to harm the Jews in 1941; to Jewish academics who found asylum in Turkey; to the Palestinian activist Najati Sidqi, who fought in the Spanish Civil War and afterward wrote a book about the contradiction between fascism and Islam (and about which Gershoni wrote an important essay in English), and many others.
The education system today is working on a new way of teaching the history of Islamic countries. Although Gershoni’s book is aimed at an older and more educated audience, I hope that teachers and educators are able to find passages in the book that can be taught in Israeli high schools. It is important to learn about pogroms and violence, but it is also important to recognize old-new allies, whose humane actions Gershoni has recreated with great care and admiration.