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Strategic Alliances for a Secure, Connected, and Prosperous Region

Rolf Behrens on Deutsche Orientalistik zur Zeit des Nationalsozialismus 1933 – 1945 (German Oriental Studies during the time of National Socialism 1933 – 1945), by Ekkehard Ellinger

Filed under: Anti-Semitism, International Law, Israel
Publication: Jewish Political Studies Review

Jewish Political Studies Review

Jewish Political Studies Review 20:3-4 (Fall 2008)


Scientists for the Regime

Deutsche Orientalistik  zur Zeit des Nationalsozialismus 1933 – 1945 (German Oriental Studies during the time of National Socialism 1933 – 1945), by Ekkehard Ellinger, Deux Mondes, 2006, 595 pp. [German]

Reviewed by Rolf Behrens


To readers familiar with the nature of political discourse currently prevalent in Germany, many of the positions cited in Ekkehard Ellinger’s study will sound strangely familiar: the United States’ efforts in the Middle East are primarily motivated by oil interests (396), whereas Germany’s activities are of a purely idealistic nature (405), Zionism is the root cause of the conflict in Palestine and across the Middle East as a whole (369), whereas the Palestinians are the victims of imperialist powers that deny them even the basic necessities of food and clothing (416).

These were some of the more moderate analyses presented by German professors of Oriental Studies during the time of National Socialism. That these opinions are widespread among German thinkers and lay people today may at least in part be attributed to the fact that most of these scientists kept their jobs after the war and went on to educate countless German students. No wonder that there has not been a serious attempt at Vergangenheitsbewältigung or “coming to terms with the past” in this field.

Ekkehard Ellinger set out to fill that gap with his doctoral thesis – and he does a remarkable job at exposing the personal, structural, institutional and ideological interaction between the school of Oriental Studies and the NS regime. In his extremely well-researched and original study he shows how German Orientalists lined up to become enthusiastic service providers for the Nazis’ ideology and war efforts. In the first part of his comprehensive work, Ellinger describes the network of people, organizations and institutions in German Oriental Studies.

In the second, even more revealing part of the book, he analyzes and deconstructs the actual publications of German scholars, frequently juxtaposing their statements with facts, thus exposing often cynical distortions made by German scientists. The author also gives a fascinating glimpse into scholars’ careers after the war. The book is accompanied by a very helpful 80-page lexicon presenting short biographies of the scholars dealt with in the book.

According to Ellinger, German professors of Oriental Studies showed remarkable alacrity to cooperate with the new ruling powers from the beginning. Only two Orientalists dared to question decisions by the NS regime, but their opposition was overrun as early as May 1933. Most scientists manifested an “inconceivable readiness to denounce” their Jewish colleagues, thus helping to remove them from universities in accordance with the anti-Jewish Gesetz zur Wiederherstellung des Berufsbeamtentums (Law for the Restoration of the Professional Civil Service). Seven Jewish Professors of Oriental Studies lost their positions due to this law.

As Ellinger shows in his analysis, German researchers were not at odds with the new ideology: they had strong contempt for democratic ideas even before National Socialism’s rise to power and racism and anti-Semitic views were rampant among German academics at the time. Orientalists – including the academic elite – were thus anxious to participate in the new system and serve the Nazi regime. The regime in turn recognized the huge potential of these scholars for their ideological and military efforts. Oriental Studies were officially defined as a kriegswichtig (strategically important) field of science. Accordingly, the state not only financed and expanded institutes for Oriental Studies, but also enlisted scholars in military and intelligence organizations: a large number of German Orientalists subsequently served in the Wehrmacht and in German secret services.

Re-Making the History of the Middle East

The German Orientalists’ task was twofold. On the one hand they were to give scientific support to the Aryan myth upon which large parts of the NS ideology were based. On the other hand they were to foster alliances with Middle Eastern states in accordance with Germany’s military needs. Germany’s Orientalists were happy to oblige.

Many scholars went about re-interpreting Middle Eastern history in a selective way. Before the invention of Christianity and Islam, these scholars claimed, the Orient was a region ruled by Aryans who had come there from the North. German scientists seriously created and supported a myth whose goal was to establish cultural and racial supremacy, laying the ideological groundwork for a new National Socialist world empire which purportedly had its roots in the Indo-Germanic empires of the past. One such case was Iran, whose culture was founded by Aryans according to German Orientalists – and which was an important potential partner for Germany both due to its strategic location and its oil wealth.

One of the most interesting alliance partners for Germany was the Islamic World. Thus, one of the Orientalists’ tasks was to define Germany’s relation with Islam. Whereas religion was normally one of the Nazis’ declared enemies, in the case of Islam, it was lauded as a marker of identity. Arabic Islam was declared a racial character trait and thus incorporated into the NS ideology of “blood and soil”. To avoid alienating the Islamic countries of the Middle East, German Orientalists were put under strict guidelines by the top decision makers: the alleged racial inferiority of the Semitic Arabs was not to be discussed in publications. Hitler himself even ordered that Orientalists should see to it that the statements about race in a planned Arabic translation of Hitler’s book Mein Kampf were changed to concord with the “mentality and sensitivities of the Arabs” (192). A thorough examination of the racial composition of the Iranian nation was also shelved so as not to offend this important partner.

Most importantly, German Orientalists were responsible for changing the definition of anti-Semitism. In order to enable alliances with the Semitic Arab countries, general anti-Semitism was to be transformed into anti-Judaism. In order to achieve this goal, the definition of Semites, which had originally consisted of linguistic, cultural and racial traits, was now to be extended to a religious dimension. Semites were divided into Muslim Arabs and Jews – and at the same time a natural enmity between those two groups was postulated.

NS and Islam: Common Enemies?

One of Germany’s most prominent professors of Islamic studies, Franz Taeschner of Münster University, devised a three-pronged antagonism between Jews and Arabs. He claimed that Arabs cannot coexist with Jews, and the Arab’s race and language are superior to those of the Jews (367). Hatred of Jews was propagated as a fundament of understanding between the German and Muslim “community of interest” and early Islam was lauded as a role-model for what the Nazis wanted to achieve: a judenrein society. Thus, the groundwork was laid for fruitful cooperation between the two sides.

The well-known role of the Mufti of Jerusalem, which is recounted in Ellinger’s study, is only one example of collaboration. Later, the SS also officially defined German relations toward Islam, emphasizing their common enemies namely Jewry, Anglo-Americanism, Communism, Freemasonry and Catholicism, as well as their shared “positive traits”: a militaristic attitude, a moral-ethical upbringing and a völkisch education. (265) Both Germans and Muslims were defined as Opfervölker (victim peoples), persecuted and discriminated against by the same enemies.

Accordingly, the German regime also set out to Islamize entire peoples to enable a partnership based on these alleged common enemies. One target group was the so-called Turkish peoples of the Soviet Union, which were to be imbued with Islamic beliefs to exploit their manpower in the war of extermination waged against the Soviets. In this case, Bertold Spuler, Professor of Islamic Studies at the University of Göttingen, was tasked with teaching basic facts about Islam such as key ceremonies and obligations to Wehrmacht members of Turkish origin.

As Ellinger points out, these so-called Mulla courses which were held in Göttingen are one especially blatant example where science was used – and proffered its expertise – to achieve the political and military goals of a criminal regime. In another effort with the same goal, Germans opened 50 new mosques in the Crimea, hoping to re-vitalize Islamic life and keep the Turkish peoples united. Tellingly, the Turkish peoples were elevated from subhuman beings to a civilized people only once they were needed for the war effort.

A Lasting Legacy

Through these endeavors, the German regime and German Orientalists abetted a number of historical developments whose impact can still be felt today: the Islamization of whole regions, the self-definition of Muslims as victims of some type of Western-Jewish conspiracy and perhaps most importantly the omnipresence of modern anti-Semitism in the Arab world. (The role the Nazi regime played in this latter development was analyzed by Matthias Küntzel in his book Jihad and Jew-Hatred, see JPSR Volume 20.)

Ekkehard Ellinger proves beyond the shadow of a doubt that many leading scientists in Germany out of their own free will published studies filled with racist, anti-Semitic and anti-Human positions which directly legitimized and supported Germany’s efforts to exterminate “inferior races” such as the Jews. Shockingly, almost all of these scientists remained in their positions after the war. The same people who had charted Orientalist discourse in Germany before and during the War held decisive positions after 1945 as well.

Take for example Franz Taeschner, who played a key role in defining anti-Semitism as anti-Judaism and was professor of Islamic Studies in Münster uninterruptedly from 1935 to1956. Or Hans Heinrich Schaeder, who researched the “Bolshevik danger for the world” and called Germany’s war of extermination a war “to save the European people”: he held a professorship at the University of Göttingen until his death in 1957.

But the problem is not mainly the individuals, writes Ellinger, the problem is the self-image and structure of Oriental Studies in Germany. Even today, German institutes of Oriental Studies define themselves as researching foreign countries and cultures to refine the self-view of German history and society. Thus, scholars are mostly committed to current discourse and public opinion in Germany. This point is illustrated by the fact that the study of the modern State of Israel has never been integrated into German Oriental Studies, as part of a deliberate strategy of defining the Middle East as purely Islamic-Arabic in sharp contrast to Jewish Israel. Thus, writes Ellinger, the indications are that German Oriental Studies are today “a scientific discipline with a biased and undifferentiated purpose, supporting the popular discourse in Germany, which once again presents Israel as problem and culprit in the Middle East conflict” (452).

Ellinger’s pioneering study succeeds not only in analyzing the role of German Orientalists during the Third Reich, but also goes a long way to explain current phenomena, both in Germany and in the Arab world. It undoubtedly deserves a wide readership.

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ROLF BEHRENS is a specialist in communication science and the author of Missiles against Stone Throwers. The Image of Israel in the Newsmagazine ‘Der Spiegel’ during the Intifada 1987 – 1992 and the ‘Al Aqsa Intifada’ 2000 – 2002. (German)