** war and social upheaval: World War II -- colonialism Arabs

World War II Colonialism: The Arabs

Afrika Korps
Figure 1.--This Arab boy was photographed by an Afrika Korps soldier. The location is not identified, probably Libya in 1941. Many Arabs during World War II supported the Axis and welcomed a German-Italian victory in the War. Most thought that a British defeat would have ended colonial rule. Few stopped to think that the Italians and Germans would have established their own empires. And of course German-Italian rule would have meant a far harsher colonial regime.

The Arabs reacted to the War in large measure according to who the colonial power was which in most cases was Britain and France. Islam was another factor, although more important in some countries than others. NAZI Germany's anti-semitism was another factor, especially in Palestine and the surrounding countries. Iraq attempted to join the Axis and there was also support for the Axis in Syria. The Grand Mufti had tried to drive the British out of Palestine even before the War began. The Young Officers in Egypt were prepared to welcome the Afrika Korps with open arms. The Libyans having experienced Axis (Italian) colonial rule were less enthusiastic. Arab leaders for the most part seemed oblivious to the New Order that an Axis victory would have brought. While British and French colonialism may have been unpleasant to the Arabs, it was nothing like Italin and German colonial rule would have been and that is not even including the NAZI racial attituides toward Arabs. And even after the War, Arab leaders (the Bath and Moslem Brotherhood) continued to be influnced by NAZI totalitarianism.

The Arabs and the Allies

The Colonial plower through much of recent Arab history was the Ottoman Empire which seized the Levant (16th century). The Arab world was in a state of decline, but this worsened when the West establishd maritime sea routes with the East. The arab world became one of the most backward and poorest areas of the world. It did not participate in the economic aand technical advamces that swept the West. The emirates of the west (North Africa) survived by preying on European shipping and raiding Christian lands. The Europeans fouind it cost effective tom pay tribute. The new American Republic evebtually responded with force, laeading to the Barbary Wars (1801-15). The Europeans finally followed in kind only after the Napoleonic Wars (1800-15). France set out to build a new empire and seized Algeria (1830), nomially a Ottoman emirate. Later they established and later Tunisia (1881-83). Morocco came later, largely because the European powers could not agree as to who would have control. Britan had come into coflict withe Arabs of the Indian Ocean as part of its efforts to end the slave trade. They then rstablished a protectorate over Egypt to protect the new Suez Canal (1882). The British as part of World War I seized the Arab heartland from the Ottoman Empire (1914-18). Britan and France were awarded League of Nation Mandated over these lands. Both countries began introducing represenative, secular governmental institutions as equired by the League of Nations. The Britisg negitiated treaties granting indepndence to Jordan (Trans-Jordan), Iraq, and Egypt, but wuth provisions permitting the stationing of British troops. The Britisg attempted similar steps in Palestine, but the Mufti and his followers objected to secular institutions and guarantees of minority rights. Arab nationalism was growing in the inter-War period, but the situation varied from county to county. Nationlist groups in several countries exhibited considerable support for theNAZIs because of both their anti-Semitim abd challenge to the Allies (Britain and France). The NAZIs were thus an improtant influence in the development of important nationalist movements. As a result the British intervened earky in the War to secure control over Middle East, intrvening in Syria, Iraq, and Iran (a non-Arab Muslim country) (1941-42). There was alao considerable support for the NAZIs in Egypt, but the Young Officrs Movement and Muslim Brotherhood held back from open revolt. The situation was different in North Africa, where France was he principal colonial power. After the fall of France (1940), Vichy which was collaborating with the NAZIs was the colonial power. In addition, the French did not look on Algeria as a colony, but an extension of metropolitan France.

The Arabs and the Axis

The Axis relations with the Arabs was somewhat muddled. Italian foreign policy under Musollini was focussed on a Mediterreranean empire--Mare Nosom. This began with the brutal colonization of Libya which included the use of poison gas. Musollini was intent on other Arab colonies , but was blocked by the British in Egypt to the east and the French in Tunisia to the west. With the rise of the NAZIs in Germany an anti-colonial approach to the Arabs could be launched to undermine the British and French. This had considerable appeal to the Palestinian Arabs as well as other Arabs in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Egypt. The Axis achieved considerable success, Arab opposition to the British and French. For the most part the Arabs seemed to have ignored what the Italians did in Libya. The Arabs both in Palestine and most other areas supported the NAZIs. There was only the open revoly in Iraq (1941), but most Arabs supported the NAZIs. This was for the most part because the British were the colonial power and the Germans had no Arab colonies. Anti-Semitism was a further factor in Palestine, but much less so among other Arabs. Outside of Iraq, the Grand Mufti Haj Amin al-Husseini issued a formal fatwa-- "a holy war against Britain" (May 1941). The Mufti's announced the fatwa in Iraq and helped to launch "the pro-Nazi" Iraqi uprising. At the time the NAZIs had just seized Greece and Crete, convincing the Iraqis that with Axis aid they could drive out the British. The uprising suprized the NAZIs who were not prepared for it. The NAZI Arab policy was in some way constrained because of Hitler's focus on Russia and his willingness to give deference to Musollini when dealing with the Arabs. The Arab revolt in Iraq was of considerable significance. Iraqwas the source of the oil used by the British Mediterranean Fleet and the 8th Army fishing the Afrika Korps in the Western Desert. The British supressed the Iraqi Revolt (March 1941) with a pick up force from Palestine and then an Indian Division rushed to Iraq. Husseini escaped first to Tehran and then to Italy, finally reaching Berlin. He was enthusiastic received by the "Islamische Zentralinstitut" and the small Islamic community of Germany which due deference to the NAZIs pronounced him the "F�hrer of the Arabic world." Husseini's first speech in Berlin denounced the Jews as the "most fierce enemies of the Muslims" and an "ever corruptive element" in the world. Arab supporters of the NAZIs seemed to have blithy assumed that they would be liberated by the Axis and thus achieve independence. It is difficult to see how any minimally educated observer in 1940-41 could have reached that conclusion, especially given Italian conduct in Libya and German conduct in the Occupied East. Another largely ignored question is the fact that the Arabs are also semmites. NAZI racist science claimed that the Jews had genitically carried diseases. One wonders why the Arabs did not carry these diseases. Of course the NAZIracist science was a pseudo science so they could invent an Arab people free of such contamination. Husseini was an honored guest of the NAZI's in Berlin. He was received by Hitler twice. He pressed Hitler on the last group of Jews left in NAZI hands--the Hungarian Jews. He did not want them to be allowed to escape, fearing they would come to Palestine. Adolf Eichman at the time was attempting to negotiate with the British to exchange 5,000 Hungarian children for German POWs. Husseini's point of view prevalied. The SS dispatched the children to the NAZI death camps in Poland. Husseini is reported to have visited Auschwitz and encouraged the SS staff operating the gas chambers to work harder. Husseini was exploited by Goebbels' propaganda machine and made numerous broadcasts in Arabic to the Middle East promoting the NAZIs and giving virulently anti-Semitic sermons.

Individual Arab Countries

The situation differed greatly during the War in each Arab country. Attitudes toward the beligerant countries varied as did attitudes toward Jews and the NAZI war on the Jews. Some countries were battlefield dueing the War, primarily the North African countries. Most were British or French colonies or under the influence of those countries. There was consuderable Axis sympathy in several countries, especially Egypt, Iraq, and Palestine. Most countries saw the War as the beginning of the end of British-French colonial rule. Many seemed oblivious to the fact that the Germansnd Italians were intent on empire building or the behavior of those countries in the territory they occupied.


Algeria was the center of French power in North Africa. At the time of World War II, Algeria was a part of France and not a French colony. The French Government had promoted French colonization and there was a substantial French population in Algeria. Political power was in the hands of the French. The French saw the local Islamic people as backwards and inferior and were very suspicious of them. The local Algerian population were French subjects, but not French citizens with political rights. French policy was acculturation. Most Algerians resisted acculturation. Those that did not dound that racism limited opportunities even with a French education. The French colonial regime was unpopular, but there was not serious independence movement before the War. Algerian nationalists for years worked within the system to achieve civil rights. This was resisted by the French settlers saw this as a threat. The nationalists formed a militant anti-French party in 1939 called the Friends of the Manifesto and Liberty. The fall of France (1940) changed the strategic ballance in North Africa. French bases in North Africa and the Mediterrean coast kept the Mediterranean firmly in Allied hands. With the Vichy regime under the thumb of the NAZIs and the entry of Italy into the Wart, the British were now isolated. surprised many nationalist leaders who now begin to see independence from a weakened France a realistic possibility. The French Vichy Government maintained their hold on Algeria under the terms of the Franco German Armistice. Vichy authorities introduced anti-Semetic laws. Italy entered the War (June 1940) and a few months later launched an invasion of Egypt. Fighting was at first in the Western Desert, but a propaganda campaign was also launched. The Axis was primarily attempting to undermine the British position in Egypt and Iraq, but the Algerians were also listening to radio broadcasts. Allied and Axis propaganda appealed to the local populations throughout North Africa. Both sides offered civil rights and freedom. With the entry of the United States in the War the strategic ballance began to shift. Under pressure from Stalin to open a seconf front, the Allies launched Operation Torch with landings in Morocco and Algeria (November 1942). The objective was to race east and cut off Rommel's Afrika Korps retreating west from El Alemain. The Germans, however, were able to seize Tunisia and rush in reinforcements, delaying the allied victory. The Germans could not, however, match the manpower and material superority of the allies. The Axis forces were caught in the pincers of a two-prong Allied advance from Algeria and Libya. The French Government after the War attempted to revive the political process. This proved futile. The Algerian nationalists were increasingly demanding indeperndence while the French settlers continued to oppose even basic civil rights for Muslims. The result was armed revolution and a vicious civil war.


Britain seized control of Egypt making it a kind of defacto colony (1882). The British interest was of course the Suez Canal which significantly shortened the sea route to India. The British granted Egypt independence (1922), but continued to station troops there and supported the royal Government, thus retaining political control. Egyptian forces played no role in the War, but the Suez Canal did. The British had it and the Axis, especially Mussolini wanted it. Mussolini ordered the massive Italian Army in Libya to invade Egypt (September 1940). A small British force defeated the Italians and drove them back into Libya (December 1940). The British drove into Libya and seemed poised to take Bengazzi. Hitler dispatched Rommel and a small German force which came to be known as the Afrika Korps. What followed was a see-saw battle in the Western Desert in which Rommel effectively taught the British the principles of modern mechanized warfare. Superior British forces, the interdiction of the Afrika Korps' supplies, and copious American supplies eventually led to the victory of the 8th Army at El Alemain (October 1942). The Axis persued a propaganda campaign to win over the Egyptian nationalists. The most imprtant faction was the openly Fascist Young Egypt movement. They decided not to openly attack the British and to await the Germans who never came. Colonel Gamal Abdul Nasser an early adherent of Young Egypt seized power after the War, overthrowing the royal government (1952).


Iraq was a backwater of the war, but a very important backwater. Iraq was an imprtant in maintaining comminication lines between India and the British position in Egypt protecting the Suez Canal. Even more importantly, Iraq was the principle source of oil for the Desert Army and the Royal Navy Eastern Mediterranean Squadron. Iraq had been a Turkish Province until seized by the British during World war I. The Anglo-Iraqi Treaty of 1930 provided for a major British stake in Iraq. The British obtained a stake in the developing Mosul and Kirkuk oil fields and air bases near Baghdad in central Iraq and Basra in the south. To help protect the bases the British had a mixed force which included Iraqis recruited for this purpose. The British were also given transit rights. Britain with these guarantees granted independence to Iraq (1932). Nationalists criticized the treaty, but the Nuri es-Sa'id Governent was pro-British. The royal governent created a small army consisting of of five divisions, a navy consisting of river patrol craft, and a small airforce with obsolete aircraft. When war broke out in Europe (September 1939) Sa'id wanted to support Britain and declare war on Germany, but Iraqi nationalists oppsosed this. Sa'id Government did break off relations. A new Government led by Rashid Ali took power (March 1940). Ali was backed by the pro-Axis Golden Square. The fall of France (June 1940) dramatically changed the military ballance in the Mediterranean and thus the Middle East. Ali initiated various intrigues against Britain. British military successes in the Western Desert caused Ali to resign. The next primeminister acted to breakup the e Golden Square. A military coup placed Ali back in power (April 3, 1941). At the same time, spectacular German successes in Yugoslavia, Greece, and Crete convinced the Iraqi nationalists that the Germans would quickly defeat the British. Ali tore up the 1930 Treaty and struck at the British air base at Habbaniya. The French Vichy authorities controlling Syria assisted Ali by allowing the German and Italians to deliver some assistance. General Wavell, the British Middle East commander was hard pressed at the time. He had to contend with Rommel in the Wester Dessert and the disaterous intervention in Greece. He was reluctant to commit forces to Iraq, but Churchill insisted. An Indian division struck from the south landing at Basara. The Habforce (a British brigade and the Arab Legion) struck west from Jordan.


Most of the Middle East was dominated by Britain and France thus the rise of European Fascist in Italy and Germany appealed to many Arab nationalists. Libya was an exception because the colonial power was Italy. As Europe moved toward war, Libyan nationalists began to see that Italian defeat in a war would create an opportunity for independence. After Germany invaded Poland and launched Wotld war II (Seprember 1939), Italian nationalists mets in Alexandria, Egypt (October 1939). Sayid Idris emerged as the most prominent leader, but the nationalist movement was badly divided. The early victories of Italian ally NAZI Germany were, however, not incouraging for the Libyan nationalists. Italy entered the War once the German victory over France was assured (June 1940). At first it seemed that the massive Italian army in Libya would easily overwealm the British in Egypt. Nationalist forces were divided on how they should react. Some (the Cyrenaicans and Idris) supported the British. Others (the Tripolitanians) were more hesitant, fearing that the Axis might win the War. Formal meetings in Cairo with Idris and some of the nationalists resulted in a formal afreement by the nationalists would support the British and the British would support a move toward independence after the WAr (August 1940). The Italians invaded Egypt (September 1940), but were defeated by a small British force which invaded Libya. This suprising British victory surprised the Libyan nationalists and first created the realistic prospect that the Italians would be defeated. The Libyan Arab Force commonly referred to as the Sanusi Army was small, but did assist the British during the campaigns in the Western Desert. German intervention in Libya resulted in a sea-saw battle that was not settled until the decisive Battle of El Alemaine (October 1942). The British 8th Army then proceeded to drive the Afrika Korps out of Egypt and Libya and liked up with the Allied Norces landed in Morocco and Algeria as part of Operation Totch. The German and Italian forces finally surremdered in Tunisia (May 1943). Possession of Cyrenaica (eastern Libya) provided airbases from which targets in NAZI-domicated Europe could be attacked from the south. The first attacks on the vital Ploesti oil fields in Romania came from Libyan bases. After the Allied invasion of Italy (September 1943), Libya became a backwater of the War.


France in the early 20th century expanded its position in Morocco. Morocco was the scene of provocative incidents with Germany. Morocco became a French protectorate under the terms of the Treaty of Fez (1912). Moroccan units fought for France on the Western Front during World War I. Oposition to French colonial rule existed and serious figting occurred during the 1920s. French military force, however, firmly secured the Protectorate during the inter-war era. After the World War II began, the fall of France (June 1940) shocked many nationalists who thought French military power was invincible. The situation did not immetiately change because under the Franco-German Armistice the Vichy regime retained control of France's colonial dependencies. This essentially created an associated with the Germans and thus Moroccan natioinalists viewed the Germans differently than other Arab nationlists. French Moroccan authorities were loyal to Vichy. They instituted actions against Jews based n Vichy racial laws. The Allied Torch landings changed the situation radically. American forces rapidly occupied Morocco (November 1942). Morocco was used as a supply base for the Allied forces driving east toward Tunisia. The actual fighting thus took place to the east. The Allies held one of the most important conferences of the War at Casablanca (January 1943). Roosevelt, Churchill, and DeGualle attended, but Stalin declined. It was at Casablanca that the call for "unconditional surrender" was issued and the decession to launch an expanded strategic bombing campaign was made. President Roosevelt gave personal assurances to the Sultan (future King Mohammed V), that the United States swould support independence. The French in Morocco went over to the Free French and Allied side. The Allies promised Morocco independence within 10 years if they cooperated with the war effort. Nationalist groups later based their campaign for independence on such Allied pronouncements as the Atlantic Charter. The Istiqlal (Independence) Party issued a manifesto demanding independemce (1944). France after the War, however, did not honor the pledge.


Plaestine was part of Ottman Empire for several centuries. The province has a largely Arab population. Zionism was founded in Europe during the 19th century and promoted emmigration to Palestine with the purpose of founding a Jewish homeland. The Ottomons permited small-scale Jewish emmigration. THe Ottomans joined the Cetral Powers in World War I seeking to regain lost territory in the Balkans. As part of the operations of the Arab Army and Col T.H. Lawrence and a 1917 Britih offensive undeder Allenby, Palestine fell. After the War, the British administered Palestine under a League of Nations trusteeship. The rise of Fascism in Europe encouraged many Jews to seek refugee and strengthened the Zionist movement. The British attempted to restrict Jewish immmigration. The expanding Jewish population also resulted in growing anti-Semitism among the Palestinians. This had opposition to British colonial rule caused many Palestinians to sympethize and seek support from the NAZIs.

Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia in the years leading up to World War II established good relations with the European Axis powers (Italy and Germany). Axis propagand sought to exploit the anti-British and French feeling in the Arab world. NAZI anti-Semitism was another factor. The Saudis negotiated an arms agreement with NAZI Germany prior to the outbreak of the War. Abd al Aziz, the founder of the Saudi state, maintained relations with the NAZIs and neutrality through much of the War. Gradually as the War turned against the NAZIs, the Saudis began to favor the Allies. Aziz finally issued a oerfunctory declaration of war agains NAZI Germany (early 1945). This made the Saudis eligible to become one of the founding members of the United Nations. President Roosevelt met with Aziz on the way back from Yalta. Oil had been discovered in Saudi Arabia before the War. The outbreak of the war stopped oil sales because of shipping difficulties. The importance of oil in the War made Saudi Arabia a country of strageic importance. President Roosevelt declared the defense of Saudi Arabia as of vital interest to the United States (1943). This was a declaration needed to make the Kingdom eligible for Lend-Lease aid. After the War, British influence was declining and the United States begame the major force in developing the Saudi Oil industry. By the end of World War II, British power and influence in Arab affairs had begun to wane, and during the late 1940s and early 1950s the United States emerged as the dominant Western power on the Arabian Peninsula. Aziz played a role in establishing the Arab League (1945).


Sudan was a British-Egyptian colony at the time of World War II. Its primary role in the War was after Italy ntered World War II by declaring war on Britain and France. Sudan was on of the staging areas for the liberation of neighboring Ethiopia from Italian Fascist occupation.


After the fall of France. French authorities in Syria, recognized the authority of Vichy Government. This included a military force totling about 40,000 Legioneers and Muslim soldiers backed by 90 tanks and prepared fortifications. Admiral Darlan provided logistical support to the Germans and Italians in efforts to support the Rashid Ali revolt in Iraq. This was a clear violation of Vichy's neutrality. Syria located in the Eastern Mediterranean was of some strastegic importance. The British feared that Vichy would allow the Luftwaffe to establish air bases in the country. This would have threatened the British position in Egypt as well as provided a jumping off point to seize the oil fields in Iraq. Churchill thus ordered Wavell after putting down the Iraqii Revolt to seize Syria (June 1941). Degualle assured Wavell that the Vichy garison would come over to the Free French with little resistance. They did not. The British and Free French forces entered Syria from Palestine. There was toughh fighting, but the Allies reached Damascus (June 17).


The French established a protectorate over Tunisia (1881). Although supported by the British, the action was protested by Italy which also had designs on Tunisua. The French colonial era had a modernizing influence on the country, but also also served to foment Tunisian nationalism. Nationalists founded the Young Tunisian Party (1907) which worked for Tunisian autonomy. Another group Destour ('constitution') demanded independence (1920). The Bey endorses Destour (1922), but the French make few concessions. With the rise of Mussolini in Italy, the French fortify the Libyan-Tunisian border. More assertive nationalists led by Habib Bourguiba break away from Destour and form Neo-Destour (1934). As in the other French colonies, the fall of France shocked Tunisian nationalists (June 1940). One of the reasons Italy entered the War was to gain Tunisia. Hitler refused, however, to countenance the transfer. The Franco-German Armistice recognized continued French control of its colonies. Vichy thus controlled Tunisia. The Allies invaded Morocco and Algeria as part of Operation Torch under the Supreme Allied Commander General Dwight D. Eisenhower (November 8, 1942). Landings in Tunisia were impossible because of Axis airfieds in Sardinia and Sicily. The plan was to dash east and seize the Tunisian ports, thus trapping the retreating Afrika Korps. Hitler immediately decided to resist the Allied offensive and ordered substantial forces rushed to Tunisia, even as the Soviets surround the 6th Arny at Stalingrad. German troops begun to arrive in Tunisia (November 9, 1942). This was possible because Vichy authorities in Tunisia cooperated with them. The initially small German force was heavily reinforced by air. Hitler poured planes, men, and tanks into Tunisia. Rommel's retreating Afrika Korps occupied the Mareth Line (French fortifications near Libyan-Tunisian border. Rommel attacked U.S. forces moving east through the Tunisian dorsals (February 14, 1943). It was a baptism under fire for the fledling U.S. Army. The U.S. II Corps was commanded by Maj. Gen. Lloyd R. Fredendall. Rommel planned to drive through the Kasserine Pass, then move northwest seizing an Allied supply base at T�bessa and then drive to the coast and trap the Allied units in Tunisia. Poor coordination between Von Arnem in the north and Rommel in the south weakened the Axis position and Rommel's force was inadequate to exploit his victory at Kasserine. Eisenhower gave George S. Patton, who had commanded the landings in Morocco, command of II Corps. The Americans had a great deal to learn about modern war, but after Kasserine the learning curve was steep. Hitler's decession to contest the Tunisia delayed the Allied victory, but it also meant that he deployed substantial forces that he could not supply because of overwealming Allied naval and air supperority. Thus the final surrender was very costly. With the German surrender, over 275,000 prisoners of war were taken (May 13, 1943).


Britain created Trans-Jordon after World War I by partioning Palestine. As the name of the country indicates, it was the area of Palestine beyond or east of the Jordon. This was former Ottomon territitory seized during the War as administered as a League of Nations Mandate. The British because of their relationship with Sharif Hussein, installed his son Abdallah as emir of Transjordan (1923). Two military forces were formed in Jordon, the Tranjordan Frontier Force and the Arab Legion. Both were led by British officers. The Transjordan Frontier Force (TJFF) was formed (April 1926). It was a para-military border guard tasked with guarding Trans-Jordan's northern (Syria and Iraq) and southern (Saudi Arabia) borders. (The eastern border with Palestine did not need to be defended because the British were there.) The TJFF an Imperial Service regiment whose members had to agree to serve wherever required and not just within Trans-Jordon. Emir Abdullah was an Honorary Colonel of the TJFF. After the War, the TJFF was incoroprated iunto the Arab League. The other military force was the Arab League (AL). The term Arab Legion was used rather than Trans-Jordon Legion because Sharif Hussein had wanted to form an Arab nation (including Arabia, the Levant, and Mesopotamia) far beyond the limits of Trans-Jordon. At the time, the Aran Legion was one of the few Arab military forces. Britain was also helping to form the Iraqi Army and an Egyptian Army existed.) The AL in contrast to the TJFF was an internal security militia to protect Emir Abdulah and the new monarchy. It was recruited from men who conducted the Arab Revolt and intensely loyal to the Hashemite monarchy. The AL evolved into the regular army of Trans-Jordon. There was considerable support for the Axis inthe Arab world, epecially mandates like Egypt, Iraq, Palestine, and Syria. Trans-Jordon was a British ally during the War. John Bagot Glubb, known as Glubb Pasha, was appointed the AL's commander. Major General Abdul Qadir Pasha Al Jundi, a Jordanian, was appointed deputy commander. These two men created the best trained Arab army during World War II, albeit very small and lightly armed. The AL at the time of World War II consisted of 1,600 men. It was part of Iraqforce and made an important contribution in the Anglo-Iraqi War and in the Syria-Lebanon campaign (1941), two rare Allied victories in the early years of World War II. Syria was being used by the Germans to funnel arms to the pro-NAZI Iraqi Government. The Arab League foiught in the First Arab-Isreali War (1948-49). Itvmanaged to seize much of Jerusalem. Several years became the regular Jordanian Army (1956), altgough at first called the Arab Army, but Legion was used informally by the men for years.


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Created: 10:34 PM 7/10/2008
Last updated: 9:51 PM 3/27/2021