Parallels between Germany and the Arab World
by Raymond Ibrahim
On occasion, one finds a historical pattern that provides a paradigm useful for interpreting contemporary world events. One such paradigm is the almost eerie parallel between Germany’s history — its progress from Nationalism to Fascism and ultimately Terror — and the recent history of the Arab world.
Nationalism, of course, originated in Europe. But what nationalism came to mean or embody to any particular people varied over time and place, and its articulation had much to do with specific historical circumstances. As a result, two highly antithetical forms of nationalism eventually emerged: the one, rooted in the Enlightenment, was aligned with liberal and “rationalist” thinking; the other, child of Romanticism, came to embody everything primordial: race, “blood,” language, culture, and religion. Consider, for example, the different sorts of nationalisms espoused by France and Germany. In France, nationalism was connected with concepts of individual liberty, rational cosmopolitanism, and citizenship. Germany’s later nationalism was built almost purely on a sentimental regard for the supposedly heroic past and the mystic blood-ties of the volk.
Thus nations like Germany put more emphasis on the volk than on the citizen, and on the geist, the unique, defining “spirit” of the people, than on civic rights or political structures. According to the 18th-century German philosopher Herder, “Nature produces families; the most natural state therefore is one people [volk] with a natural character. . . . Nothing seems more obviously opposed to the purpose of government than the unnatural enlargement of states, the wild mixing together of different human species and nations under one scepter.”
As to why German nationalism developed along these lines, two considerations are important. First, when threatened, a people often find solace by withdrawing into solidarity with others who share a same common background — racially, linguistically, culturally, theologically, and historically—while viewing all who do not share in these common primordial bonds as the dreaded “Others.” Conveniently enough, during the birth of German nationalism, there was in fact another hostile Other — the French.
Secondly, prior to 1871, the “German nation” was in fact composed of many petty kingdoms and principalities. After the Napoleonic invasions, it became urgent for Germans to define and assert themselves through unification. What better way to find cohesion than falling back on common traditions and values? It is around this time that German history — or better, Teutonic myth — came to play a leading role in shaping the national consciousness: Wagnerian operas, based on the heroic Teutonic past, became popular. Historical characters like Arminius, who vanquished the Roman legions in the
Teutoburg Forest in 9A.D., became objects of veneration, if not emulation.
Similarly, Arab nationalism developed along “romantic” lines. After nearly five centuries of foreign rule — from Ottomans to the Western colonial powers, primarily French and British — the Arab peoples, in order to find cohesion and identity in the rising world of nation-states, fell back on primordial bonds of kin, religion, shared history, and culture. And just as in Germany, the liberal principles of Enlightenment nationalism came to be inextricably linked with the Arab peoples’ oppressors (the French and British), giving the Arabs even more reason to shun “Western” liberal-democratic nationalism as a foreign import, a product of the oppressive Other.
Moreover, again similar to Germany, the so-called “Arab world” was — and still is — in reality made up of some 20 different states that needed some ready-made ideology in order to unify quickly. Arab political scientist Bassam Tibi sums this phenomenon well:
Arab nationalism in the colonial period, which persists until the present time, is intellectually related to Italian and German nationalisms, which have been defined by C.J. Hayes as ‘counternationalism’. . . . Arab nationalism, once francophile and partly anglophile, changed with the British and French colonisation of the area and became anti-British and anti-French, and germanophile. . . . It [germanophilia] was closely connected with the historical circumstances which influenced Arab nationalism. Furthermore, the germanophilia was narrow and one sided. The German ideology absorbed by the Arab intellectuals at this time was confined to a set of nationalist ideas which had gained particular currency during the period of the Napoleonic Wars [i.e., when the Germans were most threatened by the Other]. These ideas carried notions of romantic irrationalism and a hatred of the French to extremes. They excluded from consideration the philosophers influenced by the Enlightenment . . . on the grounds of what was considered to be their universalism. They were particularly attracted by the notion of the ‘People,’ [Volk] as defined by German Romanticism, which they proceeded to apply to the Arab nation [emphases added].
Like Herder before them, Arab thinkers came to make similar assertions regarding the concept of the nation. For instance, Sati al-Husri (1882-1968), a very influential political figure, would “praise German Romanticism for having brought about the idea of the nation as distinct from the state, well before the French or British ever did. He then fused the German concept of the nation with the Arabic concept of ‘group solidarity’ (asabiyya), which he derived from Ibn Khaldun.” For al-Husri,
Unity was more than mere blood; there was a spiritual quality as well. Husri did not specify the form of government that could best effect the regeneration of the Arab nation he favored. He did not rule out political dictatorship, was certainly aware of the totalitarian aspects of his thinking, and, like many of his Arab contemporaries, expressed some admiration for fascism. For Husri, freedom did not mean democracy or constitutionalism; it meant national unity. For him, nation (umma) denoted a group of people bound together by mutually recognized ties of language and history. This was distinct in his mind from state (dawla), a sovereign and independent people living on common land within fixed borders. It should be emphasized that umma for Husri was a purely secular entity, not a religious one [emphasis added].
More to the point, many concepts that were embodied in German words and that were central to Germany’s nationalism — Geist and Volk — had their exact counterparts in Arabic words which also held important connotations for Arab nationalists, e.g.., Ruh (spirit) and Umma. Even today, these concepts are still prevalent in much of Arab political writings. Political scientist Hamid Rabi (d. 1989) “finds the German national school worthy of consideration . . . and admires the way the German thinkers, when faced with the humiliation of the French conquest, delved into their own Teutonic heritage in search of cultural and civilisational roots that raised the Germans’ awareness of their national distinctiveness and ‘authenticity.’”
Even though Germany and the Arab world have faced similar circumstances, thereby generating similar responses, there is one final element that helped increase radicalization: war, defeat, and humiliation, as experienced by Germany in WWI and the Arab debacle at the hands of the Israelis in 1967, the culmination of Islam’s long decline before the rising power of Europe. As a result, both Germany and the Arab world, after experiencing these defeats to their arch-enemies — their most despised Other — proceeded to fall into a stricter, more radical mode of primordial nationalist thinking.
Far from abating, German nationalism, after Germany’s defeat in 1918 in WWI would become more ossified; race, and all “authentically German” aspects (e.g., culture, history) came to have an even more exaggerated importance to many Germans in defining themselves (again, vis-à-vis the Other). This is when that ever so tenuous line separating nationalism from fascism was crossed. With the rise of the Nazi party, German nationalism went to the extreme: the supposed superiority of the Aryan race (while quite popular during the turn of the century already) became the starting point for the ensuing (and megalomaniacal) German world view. All “non-Aryans” — gypsies, Slavs, and of course the Jews — were ostracized or slaughtered; “deviants” (i.e., obviously non true-blooded Germans, such as homosexuals and liberals in general) were also persecuted. All things became black or white, good or bad, right or wrong. A “right” form of “German” conduct was expected from the people. Democracy was nonsense. Women were expected to lead traditional lives, keeping their husbands and families their first priority. Medieval German symbols and even pagan cults dedicated to the dark gods of the Teutoburg Wald (such as Wotan) became commonplace. Indeed, that the Nazi party itself was greatly associated with the swastika — a historic, Teutonic symbol — demonstrates the importance that perceived attachments with the past had for the Germans.
An ideal example of the radicalization that Germany experienced is well demonstrated by the life of an average German man who fought in WWI and underwent a profound change — that is, the Fuhrer himself, Adolf Hitler. The evidence indicates that Hitler had little personal bitterness towards Jews (not withstanding his purported vow of vengeance on the art academy that rejected him and was possibly headed by Jews). Yet after the German defeat of WWI, increasingly to both Hitler and other Germans the Jews became even more singled out as traitors to the Fatherland — after all, they were not “true” Germans. As for Germanic history/legend, Hitler was a zealous fan: his favorite books were about Teutonic gods and pure German lineages; Wagner’s wildly passionate dramas of the heroic and romantic held a special place in his heart. Hitler himself would proclaim, “Any who wish to understand me must first understand Wagner.” Thus on the eve of WWII, Germany, once defeated and humiliated a mere two decades ago, stood taller and prouder than ever, with a form of uncompromising and ruthless nationalism.
Based on this brief outline of Germany’s overall transformation after their major defeat, many parallels with Arab responses vis-à-vis the continuous Arab defeats to Israel (not to mention recent American humiliations) can be discerned. Again, an enemy Other — the Jews — helped shape a people’s nationalism. With one disastrous defeat after another — 1948, 1956, 1967, 1973 (accompanied with extreme humiliation and indignation) — at the hands of the Jews, many Arabs, far from forfeiting their primordial form of nationalism, have delved deeper into their roots, seeking for elements that are glorious and heroic, and most importantly, that are authentically “Arab” — and what can be more “authentically” Arab than Islam itself, founded by an Arabian Prophet, revealed in the Arabian tongue, and preaching victory in face of oppression?
In many respects, it is precisely for this reason that there has been an Islamic resurgence in parts of the Arab world: seen by some as the Ruh of the “true” Arab Umma, many Arabs, trying to rationalize why they have fallen from once proud heights, have found the answer in Islam. In their frantic search for identity and cohesion vis-à-vis the Jewish menace, many Arabs find in Islamic fundamentalism the logical conclusion of nationalism, for it provides a divinely sanctioned identity — and a war commanded by God Himself. Thus out of an already romantic (i.e., fascist) though disaffected nationalism, Islamic Fundamentalism was born.
So even though Islam is a religion, the historic rise of Islamic fundamentalism betrays certain commonalities with the German response of Nazism. And that it is also a religion, gives it more import and legitimacy, as God himself is at the heart of it. The Jew becomes a more pronounced and hence more despised Other: for now he is no longer just a foreign invader; he is also an impious infidel defiling God’s holy lands. And just as was the case in Nazi Germany, a greater intolerance for others takes place: non-Muslims are condemned and often persecuted. Right and wrong ossify; conformity to “correct” Islamic conduct is stressed. Deviants such as homosexuals are rooted out. Jihad takes on renewed and urgent importance; talk of the crusades and heroes like Saladin (compare with Arminius) become commonplace. Osama bin Laden et. al. are very fond of musing on and evoking the prowess, dignity, and piety of Islam’s forbears — such as 7th century Khalid, “the Sword of Allah.” Women are to return to traditional roles — husbands and family are prioritized. And, just as symbols of Germany’s historic past (e.g., the swastika) played an important role in keeping the link with the glorious and “authentic” past alive, so too do Arab symbols become prominent: beards, turbans, and veils — back by popular demand — are to an extent symbolic, evidencing this link to the past.
And so, in certain respects, Islamic fundamentalism is an old phenomenon in a different form. Just as for Germany, wars and wounded egos have produced a vicious backlash in many parts of the Arab world. But these commonalities and shared histories are not only instructive regarding the causes of Nazism and Islamic fundamentalism; perhaps they can also shed some light on how to handle the latter.