Arab Victims of National Socialism

"Where Is Your Grave, O Arab Victim?"

Among the victims of National Socialism were many Arab immigrants who were interned in concentration camps. However, they were not subject to the same systematic persecution as the Jews, the Sinti and the Roma.

Götz Nordbruch explains the background.

photo: ZMO
Höpp's study aims to throw light on the situation of Arab prisoners in the various internment and concentration camps

​​"Beirut, Berlin, Beirut" is the title of an autobiographical report published by the Lebanese journalist Kamil Mrowa a few months after the end of the Second World War. Istanbul, Sofia, Vienna and Berlin were the staging posts of his enforced exile between 1941 and 1944.

Mrowa worked for a German press agency which was responsible for disseminating national socialist propaganda throughout the Middle East. He fled from the British and French troops as they liberated Lebanon from the pro-German Vichy regime in summer 1941.

Collaborators with National Socialism

The book relates the experiences of Kamil Mrowa, who went on to found the highly regarded newspaper al-Hayat, as he fled into the area controlled by the National Socialists. It's one of the few works in which an Arab author tells of his daily life under national socialist rule.

In spite of the difficulties and restrictions of the war-years which Mrowa describes, he enjoyed many privileges as a member of the group linked to the Mufti of Jerusalem, Hajji Amin al-Husseini, who worked closely with the Axis powers.

His experiences were very different from those of other Arabs, who were students, workers or prisoners-of-war under National Socialism.

Gerhard Höpp,a historian of the Middle East who died only recently, had in recent years been carrying out painstaking research, reconstructing the traces of those Arab migrants who did not collaborate or curry favour with National Socialism while they lived in Germany.

Arab victims of the Nazi regime

Höpp's work tells of day-to-day confrontation with racist ideology and persecution based on racial theories. The repression he portrays ranged from being badly treated by German civilians to imprisonment and murder in concentration camps.

The Nuremburg laws of 1935 were the legal basis for state persecution. They included particularly heavy penalties for so-called "racial defilement" (or sexual relations between the "races").

The punishments included in the Nuremburg laws, together with forced sterilisation of those who had "blood foreign to the race", were among the direct consequences of national socialist racial theory.

Special laws and popular racism were the day-to-day framework under which Arabs, like other "non-Aryans", had to suffer.

A particular interest pursued by Höpp was to throw light on the situation of Arab prisoners in the various internment and concentration camps.

As well as the up to over 80,000 North African prisoners-of-war who were imprisoned as members of the French army in the many prisoner-of-war camps, the records of almost every concentration camp show evidence of Arab and Muslim prisoners.

Resistance, participation in the Spanish civil war, sabotage, but above all even the smallest offense against property or infringement of the rules for foreign or enforced labourers could serve as grounds for imprisonment.

Höpp was able to identify by name over 450 people of Arab, mostly North African origin from surviving documents, but the real number is likely to have been much higher.

Remembering the victims as a political act?

The absence of commemoration of these victims of national socialist policies, who are mentioned neither in German nor Arab memorials, led the Arab television station Al Jazeera to broadcast a report from the Sachsenhausen concentration camp in January 2003.

"Where is your grave, O Arab victim?" was the question posed by Akthan Suliman, the station's Germany correspondent, and he called for Arab victims to be commemorated in the same way as Jewish victims of the Holocaust.

This call has to be understood as a political one. The introductory text to the programme said that Israel monopolises the role of victim, and that it's finally time to commemorate the Arab victims of national socialism.

Such a parallel is historically untenable. In the course of a conference on "Educating for commemoration in the German immigrant community" held at the Neuengamme concentration camp memorial centre, a workshop was held on the fate of Muslims in concentration camps which dealt with precisely this issue.

Rosa Fava, an education officer at the centre, came out strongly against such a comparison and the message it sends. In spite of the importance of remembering the Muslim and Arab victims, it was also important to distinguish between their persecution and the systematic policy of extermination of the Jews and the Sinti and Roma.

Differentiation absolutely essential

She argued that it was necessary instead, when talking to visitors, to emphasise the multifaceted nature of the subject. It was clear that the question "Were there also Muslims in the concentration camps?" which was frequently asked by young people visiting the centre, could clearly be answered positively.

But Rosa Fava insisted that it was important to emphasise that the Muslims were not imprisoned in concentration camps because of their faith. All the same, the presence of Muslim prisoners would in future be a topic at the centre.

In spite of racist oppression, Muslims were not systematically persecuted and murdered, as were the Jews.

In the case of the Neuengamme concentration camp memorial centre, the educationalists have a special problem: the Muslims imprisoned there were not typical victims.

Most of the Muslim prisoners were former members of the Muslim "Handschar" SS unit, who were selected from the Muslims of the Balkans and trained by the National Socialists to fight partisans.

At the end of 1943, over 800 SS recruits from this unit were deported to various concentration camps following a mutiny. It's necessary to understand the fact that they were previously collaborators in order to understand their situation in the camp.

Arab and Muslim victims, who long remained "in the shadow of the moon," as Gerhard Höpp put it, thus raise many questions, not just for historical research.

As far as educational work is concerned too, their fate challenges the memorial centres to deal adequately with the sometimes contradictory policies of the National Socialists towards Muslims and Arabs.

Götz Nordbruch

© Qantara.de 2005

Translation from German: Michael Lawton

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