In the spring of 1934, Fritz Grobba, Germany′s ambassador to Iraq, reported that an Iraqi newspaper has begun to print extracts from Hitler′s Mein Kampf in Arabic. In his letter to the foreign office in Berlin, the diplomat advocated turning the translated extracts into a book and giving the project German financial backing.
″As with all publications of a National Socialist kind,″ Grobba wrote, the translation has ″been received by the Arab readership here with great interest; one could almost say delight in some quarters.″
Five years before the start of the Second World War, the Arab world was ruled by two major western powers: France and Great Britain. Nationalist movements, campaigning for independence, were growing ever stronger. The fact that Hitler viewed the two occupying countries as enemies won him the Arabs′ sympathy; they saw him as a strong man who could put the hated colonisers in their place. A popular slogan on the streets of Aleppo and Damascus went as follows: ″No more Monsieur, no more Mister; Allah in heaven and on earth, Hitler.″
Nazi propaganda for the Arab world
Ambassador Grobba′s appeal was heard. The Bonn-based Arabist Stefan Wild would later collate the correspondence between Berlin and Baghdad and pen an academic article entitled ″National Socialism in the Arab Near East between 1933 and 1939″, which examined the discussion over the translation of Mein Kampf.
According to this article, Grobba broached the question of whether a few passages should be altered ″to suit the mentality and sensitivities of the race-conscious Arabs″. Despite the Semitic status of the Arab peoples, anti-Jewish feeling was widespread in the region. Grobba therefore suggested translating the German word ″Antisemitismus″ as ″Anti-Judaism″.
Meanwhile in Halle, a good 4000 kilometres from Baghdad, an unassuming man widely regarded as an exceptional linguist was collecting thousands of notes. The man′s name was Hans Wehr and he was a philologist in his early 30s. As a result of polio he was unable to move his right arm and so was unable to take part in paramilitary sports or Nazi training camps.
Instead, he buried himself in books, studying Oriental and Romance languages, Egyptology, Chinese, philosophy and the history of religion, at universities in Berlin, Leipzig and Halle. He was particularly interested in the Islamic Orient. He began collecting newspaper cuttings containing Arabic expressions from Egypt, Syria, Iraq and Palestine as well as literature by Taha Hussein or Gibran Khalil Gibran; he also analysed terms from the Egyptian state almanac and dictionary entries for something that would become his life′s work: an Arabic-German dictionary.
In November 1936, the propaganda ministry informed the foreign ministry that Hitler had agreed to the printing of an Arabic version of his book. Passages that Arabs might find particularly offensive were to be omitted ″out of consideration for the current political situation.″
Incorrect translations and false information
The Arabic version – meaning the first translation from Iraq – was to be run past the privy councillor Bernhard Moritz, who worked for the Pol. VII department of the foreign office responsible for the Orient. He was an Arabist and at the time almost 80 years old. His verdict was damning. The translated passages, he said, had been ″taken out of context; the translations were incorrect and frequently unintelligible.″ Moritz also rejected other Arabic translations in circulation at the time for their obvious failings. In one edition of Mein Kampf on sale in Cairo, Hitler′s statement: ″I became a nationalist″ had been turned into the confession: ″I became a socialist″.
Alongside such unauthorised translations, false information was also threatening to destroy the propaganda effect the Germans had been hoping for. The German consulate in Beirut reported that people believed the ″invented claim″ that ″the National Socialists have compiled a scale of races on which the Arabs come 14th.″
In the foreign office′s Oriental department, someone proposed the idea that the translation should have ″something of the tone of the book that every ′Mohammed′ understands: the Koran.″ Berlin entrusted the job to a Druze prince from Lebanon, Shakib Arslan – in co-operation with privy councillor Moritz.
Arslan, the grandfather of the current Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, was 75 years old at the time. He was a nationalist living in Switzerland. He based his translation largely on the French version of Mein Kampf; the Oriental department would then check the Arabic edition. But it quickly became clear that there was no adequate Arabic-German dictionary to help them with this task.
The foreign office stumbled across the name of Hans Wehr, by then a lecturer at Greifswald University; people said he had been collecting material for such a book. There being no political objections, Wehr continued his work from that point on by order of the ministry′s department for cultural politics.
Painstaking translation work
Working in painstaking detail on the more than 1000-page book, he and his colleagues collected Arabic word roots – consisting of three or four letters – from which a huge variety of terms can be derived in practical usage. His team included his long-time colleague Andreas Jacobi, whose father was a Jew, and the German-Jewish Arabist Hedwig Klein. Neither would survive the years that followed: Hedwig Klein was murdered in Auschwitz and Andreas Jacobi had to enlist and was reported missing.
Hans Wehr finished his ″Dictionary of Modern Written Arabic″ in 1945 – yet it would be another seven years before it was published. Also available in English, it remains one of the best Arabic dictionaries in the world.
An official Arabic translation of Mein Kampf was never published. An internal memo, probably written in 1940, reads that the matter was ″no longer current due to the outbreak of war.″ The unauthorised editions, however, are still being sold in kiosks all over the Arab world.
© Qantara.de 2017
Translated from the German by Ruth Martin