Germany had had designs on the Middle East, and particularly on Iraq, since the 1890s, driven by the Kaiser’s jealousy of Britain’s commercial empire in the East. His obsession, the Berlin–Baghdad railway, reached the Turkey-Iraq border in 1913 and was only halted by the outbreak of the Great War
The Arabists at the Auswartiges Amt, the German Foreign Ministry, in Berlin kept the idea of German influence in the Middle East alive through the Weimar period, and made an astute choice in selecting Dr Fritz Grobba as the Chargé d’affaires of the German Mission in Baghdad in 1932.
Grobba was the central figure in Germany’s Middle East policy in the 1930s and early 1940s. Although being a member neither of the Nazi Party nor of the aristocracy that traditionally ran foreign policy, he was, nevertheless, a highly able and influential German agent.
Grobba, who spoke fluent Arabic, Persian and Turkish, had served with the German Military Mission to the Turkish Army in Palestine during the Great War, and knew the people and the mentality of the Middle East. While he found an increasing radicalization of Iraqi politics and a country simmering with resentment towards the British, he also found people who were impressed by Germany’s strong leadership and militarism and inspired by the resurgence of German power and by its intimidation of Europe.
Grobba was very ambitious, some say unscrupulously so, and many thought that he had ‘Lawrentian dreams’. Grobba saw that bringing Iraq into the German camp could provide him with a springboard into a major career at the Auswartiges Amt.
Grobba was egalitarian and a very active and highly personable diplomat, and he and his charming wife worked diligently to create a wide range of relationships embracing leading political, religious, military and economic leaders in Iraq. He was very successful in promoting German trade, but his role changed after 1935 and he became much more political.
Although the Iraqi Army, and later the Mufti, had continuously requested German arms, Grobba, while sympathetic to the nationalist cause and to the trouble that the Mufti wanted to create for the British in Palestine, was caught in a policy trap.
Between 1933 and 1939 Hitler’s England Politik was designed to strike an alliance with England, which meant that Grobba was unable to be seen to support radical anti-British nationalists. Complicating the issue was the 1936 Rome-Berlin Axis agreement, where the Eastern Mediterranean was deemed to be within the scope of the Italians, who were already trying to undermine the British funding newspapers like Saut al Shab.
Grobba believed that these factors, together with Hitler’s antiSemitic and racial doctrine, the Weltanschauung, which excluded Arabs, and the Auswartiges Amt, with a greater interest in Europe, all contributed to underestimating the value of Arab nationalism. This compromised Germany’s Middle East policy, which Grobba had helped to both design and implement, and undermined his mission in Iraq.
Attitudes towards the Middle East policy in Germany were diverse. The Aussenpolitisches Amt, the Office for Foreign Policy of the Nazi Party, and the German military intelligence organization, the Abwehr, were interested in expanding Germany’s influence. In the Auswartiges Amt only a few people valued the Arab nationalist movements positively, and the prevailing view was that they were not to be taken seriously. The Wehrmacht, the German armed forces, felt that Iraq was too far away and too difficult to reach to support an armed insurrection.
Grobba also felt that Italian involvement was an embarrassment, as many Arabs viewed Italy as a colonial power with imperial ambitions in the Middle East.
As a consequence a frustrated Grobba could provide only financial support and personal encouragement rather than public displays of support, overt propaganda and arms shipments.
Nevertheless, Grobba decided to continue ‘his’ policy in a covert fashion. He intrigued with Iraqi Army officers, exploiting their Anglophobic and Germanophilic sentiments through dinners, parties and film shows, and financed pro-fascist groups and cells. From the mid-1930s his house was a central meeting point for Iraqi nationalists. He subsidized newspapers to run pro-German and anti-British propaganda as well as the serialization of Hitler’s Mein Kampf in Arabic in Al Alam, Al Arabi in 1933, and negotiated successfully for German to replace French as the second language in Iraqi schools. Grobba also began to subsidize the creation of clubs promoting Iraqi-German friendship in Baghdad, as well as reciprocal visits by politicians of the two countries. In 1937 he arranged for the Hitler Youth leader Baldur von Schirach to visit Baghdad with a delegation, and financed representatives of the paramilitary Futuwwah to attend the Nuremberg Rally in 1938.
After Munich, Germany paid less attention to appearances, and in 1938 followed Italy’s lead by broadcasting anti-British propaganda in Arabic from Radio Zessen, near Berlin, using an Iraqi announcer, Yunis al Bahri.
With high levels of illiteracy throughout the Middle East, the radio was an ideal instrument for spreading propaganda. As early as 1934 the Italians had launched an Arabic-language service from Radio Bari, glorifying Italy and its achievements and supporting the Arab nationalist cause against the British and French. The Italians provided radio sets at nominal prices throughout the Middle East, which was extremely popular with the owners of Arab cafés, the centre of social life, who installed the sets for their patrons.
Perceptions of weakness
The fall of France in May 1940 changed the Iraqi cabinet’s attitude towards Britain. The view prevailed, even among the pro-British faction, that a British defeat was inevitable and that the best course of action was to adopt a strictly neutral stance and limit the fulfilment of treaty obligations towards Britain to a minimum.
When the Ambassador requested Iraqi agreement to land British troops in Basra to proceed to Haifa across Iraq in June, the government responded by limiting the number of troops and imposing a fixed time for their presence on Iraqi soil. Although there were intense negotiations between the British and the Iraqis, particularly over changes in policy in Palestine, the British rejected the Baghdad proposals.
This inevitably led to the Iraqis’ increasingly turning towards Germany. Several visits were made by Iraqi government ministers and by the Mufti’s private secretary, Osman Kemal Haddad, in June and July 1940 to Fritz von Papen, the German Ambassador in Ankara, to discuss opportunities for collaboration with Germany.
In September 1940 Haddad travelled to Berlin to see Grobba, Otto-Werner von Hentig, the Head of Pol VII, the section of the political department of the Auswartiges Amt responsible for the Middle East, Dr Ernst Woermann, the Under-Secretary of State and Ernst von Weizsacher, the Secretary of State.
Haddad’s visit was designed to solicit German support in the form of an immediate formal statement guaranteeing Iraq’s independence.
The Germans were cautious, and while agreeing in principle, were unwilling to make a public commitment, and Haddad returned to Baghdad with vague promises rather than firm undertakings. The Germans also requested that the Iraqis should not act militarily against the British without German agreement, or encourage the British to occupy Iraq.
However, the Mufti and Rashid Ali continued to pressure the Germans, and finally, in October 1940, the Germans, together with the Italians, issued a joint communiqué which, while expressing sympathy with Arab aspirations, was more aimed at anti-British propaganda than a full statement of support.
Anglo-Iraqi relations deteriorated further, and despite Nuri’s attempt at conciliation Rashid Ali refused to change his stance. Although the majority in the government rejected Nuri’s viewpoint that Britain would prevail, and felt that Britain was now isolated and on the brink of ruin, many in parliament were pro-British and favoured cooperation with Britain. When the Italian forces under Maresciallo d’Italia Graziani took a beating from the British in the Western Desert in March 1941, neutrality had an aura of safety about it. The majority feeling in the country was that Iraqi neutrality was essential: if Britain were to win, Iraq would be safe anyway, and if the Germans won, Iraq’s best hope was to do nothing to offend them.
Haddad undertook a second visit to Berlin in December 1940 with the specific objective of securing economic and military aid, in particular captured British weapons. As increasing political tension in Baghdad was weakening Rashid Ali’s position, he became desperate to clarify the attitude of the Axis towards Iraq and to obtain arms.
This time Rashid Ali’s requests fell on sympathetic ears, as Germany needed to put pressure on Britain to counteract her successes against the Italians in Cyrenaica. Creating a new battleground in the rear would distract the British.
Despite the fall of Rashid Ali’s government in January 1941 in response to his ongoing dispute with the British and the Regent, the Germans were well advanced in their plan to ship weapons to Iraq. The Germans correctly believed that the new regime of Taha al Hashimi was an extension of previous nationalist governments. al Hashimi was a known admirer of Germany and of the Golden Square, a cadre of four extreme nationalist Iraqi colonels – Salah el Din al Sabbagh, Fahmi Said, Mahmud Salman and Kamil Shabib – whom he regarded as his protégés.
With the promise of German arms on the way and a Britain becoming increasingly weaker, the Mufti, the Golden Square and Rashid Ali and his cabinet of ultra-nationalists began to plan their coup.