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M. Sing, Introduction

Orient-Institut Studies 1 (2012) – Rethinking Totalitarianism and its Arab Readings

Manfred Sing



If it is true that a "worldwide civil war" was ranging from 1914 to 1945 and that the so-called "short 20 th century" (from 1914 to 1991) represents "the age of extremes", 1 then such a global as well as temporal characterization encompasses non-European and implicitly Arab countries as well. In fact, the intellectual, political, and at times military struggle both between liberalism and its right- or left-wing despisers and between Fascism and National Socialism on the one hand and Communism on the other is already a complicated drama played out in various stages involving changing alliances and many different actors. Things become even more complex when Arab perspectives are taken into account because most Arab countries at that time were subdued by European colonial rule, which means subdued by colonial regimes mainly installed by the nominally "liberal" powers Britain and France. Despite recent attempts to improve understanding of how "the age of extremes" affected, inspired, or scared Arab intellectuals, politicians, and political groups or how it was reflected in popular culture, a differentiated as well as comprehensive picture is still wanting. Although certain parts of the polygonal relationship between European powers and their Arab counterparts have been addressed by a lot of scholars, other areas remain in the dark or are at least under-researched. The questions which have attracted most scholarly attention – like the presumed confluence between Nazi anti-Semitism and Arab political culture or the factual Arab-German cooperation – are those which are politically controversial, if not ideologically motivated from the outset, because of the presumed importance they place on narratives about the seeds of the Arab-Israeli conflict. 2


Set against this background, this volume goes beyond the relatively well-studied cases of Palestine, Egypt, and Iraq, 3 which are usually mentioned when looking at purportedly close Nazi-Arab co-operation. In contrast, the articles strive to reflect, in a comparative mode, the impact of Fascism, National Socialism, anti-Fascism, and Communism on the whole region from Morocco to Iraq and to roughly cover the time period from the 1920s to the 1950s. Thus, this volume aims to evaluate the synchronal impact of Fascism and Stalinism on the Arab world by dealing with Arab observers, critics, and epigones. The articles in this volume are the result of a conference organized by the Orient-Institut Beirut (OIB) in October 2010 and held under the somewhat unwieldy title "European Totalitarianism in the Mirrors of Contemporary Arab Thought". The metaphor of the mirror in the title signifies that Arabs generally had no immediate experience of totalitarian rule, with the exception of visitors to Europe and Libyans who were directly exposed to Italian fascist colonialism. Furthermore, the title indicates that the contributors focus on a specific historical setting by explaining the Arab actors' social context and political self-understanding. Most of the articles link political thought both to its local and global context or stress the procedural nature of intellectual positions and the shifting nature of political loyalties or draw attention to the undesired results of political action.


However, this volume does not assume that a rudimentary Arab totalitarianism mirrors its fully-fledged European counterpart; or that later Arab regimes or movements were really "totalitarian" and that their ideological seeds can be found in the former historical period. In the contrary, this volume questions – by its historical approach – such linear genealogies that construct direct lines from former ideological encounters to later radical movements in different political and social settings. Therefore, the volume is committed to the twofold deconstructive-constructive task of rethinking historical narratives. On the deconstructive level, it casts doubt on established narratives by highlighting counter-intuitive and contradictory facts without falling into the trap of a naïve understanding of what facts are; facts, like statistics, lack value without interpretation. The second, constructive task is to contribute to what one could call "global" or "world" history by emphasizing non-European perspectives and their complex relationship with what was going on in Europe, not in an additive manner, but by questioning European perspectives that regard the global and epochal character of totalitarianism as a given. In this spirit, the intention of this volume is to contribute to a multi-layered picture of the "age of extremes" by rethinking Arab readings of European totalitarianism, although the contributors are aware that they are only providing the pieces for a larger mosaic that still needs to be put together.

The liberal Egyptian journal Ruz el-Youssef published many caricatures on political events in Europe during the 1930s and 1940s. While the first example foregrounds the perceived commonalities between Nazism, Fascism, and Stalinism, the second example mocks the axis powers’ propaganda in Arab countries.

Picture 1 (No. 599, September 2, 1939, cover page) published “on the occasion of the Russian-German treaty” imagines Italy, Germany, and the Soviet Union jointly ruling over Europe: “The Empire of Animals!! The Hyena 4 , the Eagle, and the Bear??”

Picture 2 (No. 665, December 7, 1940, cover page) scoffs at Hitler‘s and Mussolini’s attempt to gain Arab support: “Radio Berlin and Rome are still wooing the Arab peoples. – You left me, but my soul is still with you! 5 – Okay, Sir, why don’t you take your soul and leave me alone? I want neither you nor your soul!”


It would be wrong to assume that the comparative approach of this volume is far from being controversial. On the contrary, Arab as well as European scholars were highly skeptical about the overall approach of the Beirut conference and some even declined the invitation because they thought it was either another attempt to blot out the differences between Fascism and Communism altogether or to suggest that the Arab world was either (easily) seduced by or (naturally) prone to "totalitarian" thought – especially at a time when the US administration was justifying its neo-imperialist wars in Afghanistan and Iraq by maintaining it had to fight "Islamo-fascism". There is no getting away from the fact that terms like Fascism, Communism, racism, or anti-Semitism served and still serve as battle cries in the political arena in spite of all attempts to define them as scholarly reliable concepts. This does not only apply to the struggle between the political right and left, but also to the term "totalitarianism" itself which is quite generally inscribed into a liberal meta-narrative which equally condemns "extremism" on both the political right and the political left.


Therefore, some clarifying words on the concept of "totalitarianism" and its applicability to the Arab world are in order. The triangle of Fascism, Communism, and the Arab world consists of three sides each of which is liable to be over-simplified and misunderstood: the relation (1) between Arabs and Fascism, (2) between Arabs and Communism, and (3) between Fascism and Communism.


(1) The intimacy of modern Arab thought with Fascism and especially with Nazism has often been overstated. After World War I a similar political destiny was seen as the main reason for an Arab "admiration" of the rebirth of Germany, which seemed to have risen like a phoenix from its ashes. A pars-pro-toto argumentation held that this "admiration" led – In combination with ideological and cultural "intersections" – to an easy adoption of Nazi thought and anti-Semitism. The Arab struggle first against Zionism and then against the state of Israel has led many writers and scholars to believe that today's Arab or Islamic ideology already has its roots in the contemporary impact of Nazism; for this view, a figure like al-Hajj al-Amin al-Husseini serves as the genealogical link that bridges the gap between imported Nazism and homegrown Islamism. New scholarship has challenged and rebutted this picture as well as its genealogy; it underlines al-Husseini's marginality as well as the ambiguity of ideological adaption and political positioning in the Arab countries before 1948. For example, Arab sympathizers of Germany's rebirth were not automatically admirers of Nazism, and even admirers of fascist order had difficulties to come to terms with its racism and the genocide of European Jews. In their articles, Götz Nordbruch , Stefan Wild , and Peter Wien take stock of the current state of the scholarly debate, and Jakob Krais studies the writings of Shakib Arslan, one of the prominent Arab admirers of Mussolini.


(2) While scholars have over-emphasized the Arab reception of Fascism, the impact of Communism has been understated. If this difference in impact was real, "the age of extremes" would have been rather one-sided and the "Arab Cold War" 6 would not have taken place. In the Cold War narrative of the 1950s, however, the impact of Marxism-Leninism, though partly seen as a modernizing force, was subsumed under the "dangerous" influences of other non-liberal ideologies. Communists were not seen as the opponents to Arab nationalist chauvinism, but as part of the wider anti-Western trend: "The teachings of Fascism and Nazism, along with Soviet theory, have had more influence than Western liberal nationalism". 7 Thus, it seemed quite natural that Communists in the Middle East had developed working alliances with "extreme right-wing and fanatical religious groups […] throughout the area". 8 The Communists' success in the Middle East came about much more easily than in Europe, 9 because they were the profiteers of the decay of traditions and the dwindling importance of Islam for the urban elites; their growing influence was an expression of frustration and the loss of Arab self-esteem, in short "the utter inability of the ruling classes to give their countries moderately efficient governments, to promote social and economic progress (however slow), and to create a minimal atmosphere of hopefulness instead of the present climate of despair". 10


From the 1970s onwards, when the Communists were perceived as less effective than Arab socialists (like Nasserists and Baathists) and Islamists, this narrative was replaced by another one that depicted Arab Communists as puppets of Moscow who regularly missed their historical opportunities. 11 Now, their relative failure to mobilize the masses for revolution was explained both by "rigidity" in their interpretation of socialist thought and their uneven relationship with Moscow which confronted them with solitary decisions like the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact in 1939 and the vote for the UN partition plan for Palestine in 1947, not to mention the Soviet disinterest in the persecution of Arab Communists under "progressive" pro-Soviet regimes. What is missing in both narratives is the actors' perspective which can better explain their self-positioning, engagement, and disappointment. Allison Drew , Jamaâ Baida , Abdallah Hanna , and Maher Charif show, for the Algerian, Moroccan, Syrian and Palestinian experience, how Communists adapted Marxism-Leninism to the very complex situation of anti-colonial struggle and self-determination. For the Syrian and Lebanese Communists under the French Mandate and their comrades in the colonized Maghreb countries not only the Soviet Party but also the French Communist Party, supporting the French government from 1936 to 1939, was an important point of reference, not only concerning its Stalinization and Moscow orientation from the late 1920s onwards, but also because of its critical support for French colonial policy – a position that determined the Arab sister parties' attitude before and even after World War II and proved to be a heavy burden. Abdallah Hanna , Leila el Houssi , and Jamaâ Baida also deal with what anti-Fascism meant in Syria, Tunisia, and Morocco and where it was embedded in the political landscape. Being embedded in a multi-facetted political setting may also be part of the explanation why Communists who clearly condemned the inhuman character of Fascism did not, with the exception of Trotskyites 12 and other "deviators" from the party line, develop a fundamental criticism of Stalinism before the 20 th Party Congress of the CPSU in 1956, but rebuffed such a criticism as bourgeois propaganda that aimed at weakening the Communist camp. There seems to have been no comparable discussion about the "totalitarian" nature of Stalinism inside the Arab Communist parties prior to 1956 (maybe because other political issues were more pressing), in spite of the irritation caused by the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact.


(3) The legitimacy to compare red, black and brown movements has often been discussed since the proliferation of the term "totalitarianism" in the 1950s – very controversially in the so-called "Historikerstreit" (historians' quarrel) 13 in Western Germany in 1986 and even more so after the demise of the Soviet Union in works like the "Black Book of Communism" 14 which, as the sub-title indicates, depicts Communist rule as a continuous chain of "crimes, terror, and repression". It is worth noting the anti-Communist underpinnings in this kind of historiography, 15 before we can turn back to question of the legitimacy of comparisons. In the "Historikerstreit", Ernst Nolte expressed the idea that Fascism was merely a reaction to Bolshevism and that the camps of the Archipel Gulag were the precursor to the Holocaust. As the Bolshevist Revolution was the original trauma for the European bourgeoisie, German Nazis not only imagined themselves as potential victims of Bolshevism, but they also imitated it. Therefore, the Holocaust in reality was, according to Nolte, an "Asiatic act" ("asiatische Tat"). This kind of fabrication of interdependencies serves the exculpation of Fascism and Nazi Germany. For the sake of his argument, Nolte dated the beginning of the "worldwide civil war" not back to 1914 (as Hobsbawm and others did), but to 1917. The debate which was provoked by the "Black Book of Communism" in the 1990s also heavily focused on the criminal character of Communism and equated the Soviet "class genocide" to the Nazi racial genocide.


Such historiography did not pass unchallenged. 16 A general objection to the aforementioned interdependencies is the hint at the fact that concentration camps were neither a Communist nor a fascist invention, but a colonial practice or, according to Giorgio Agamben, 17 a general feature of modern bio-politics; even "liberal" democracies spread "crimes, terror, and repression" in their colonies. Apart from this, it is certainly true, on the one hand, that ideologically opposed extremists need each other as a bogeyman; but this does not imply, on the other hand, that the firstborn (whoever it may be) inherits all the guilt, that political crimes are causally linked to each other or that right- and left-wing conceptions for "the enemies of mankind" are symmetrical. 18 Scholars who insist on a fundamental difference between Communism and Fascism often draw on the argument that Communism understands itself as an heir of the Enlightenment whereas Fascism is systematically based on anti-Enlightenment positions, which means that it tried to turn back the clock to the time before 1789. 19 Thus, two understandings of what is modern and justifies determined action would be opposed to each other: a left one which tries to put the promise of the equality of men into practice, and a right one which intends to overcome egalitarianism and defends racist superiority. A less flattering, but still fundamental distinction between Communism and Fascism recently prompted Avishai Margalit – when pondering over the difference between compromise and rotten compromises 20 – to draw a decisive line between "evil" and "radical evil" 21 which allowed him to justify Western war co-operation with Stalin whereas he found bargaining with Hitler morally unacceptable and politically wrong (and doomed to fail).


Applying a similar framework to the Arab world may seem tempting, but would be rather problematic. If we understood the interwar, the World War II and the Cold War period in Margalit's sense as a challenge to make the morally "right" choice, then Arab actions would necessarily be reduced to limited choices: either Arab rulers, politicians, intellectuals or masses remained loyal to the colonial motherland and hoped for benevolent decolonization for the period to come; or they had the choice between a "compromise" with the Soviets to defeat Western imperialism and a "rotten pact" with the fascist devil to fight the French and British Empires. What the following papers make clear is that Arab views on Fascism and Stalinism were not simply guided by a unilateral quest for decolonization although it was a pressing issue; Arab observers were forced and willing to see the bigger picture, discussing the pros and cons of allegiances and shifting their loyalties according to the course of events. When the ideological controversies reached their military climax in World War II, all sides – the liberal powers, Italian Fascists, German Nazis, and Soviet Communists – enhanced their propaganda efforts to convince potential partners in the Arab world that they would be the ones who would bring colonialism to an end. Yet, the colonized peoples had learned for many years to mistrust the foreigners' rhetoric of decolonization.


What Peter Wien found when working on Arab intellectuals and politicians who borrowed freely and in an eclectic manner from Fascism and Nazism, can also be said of Arab liberals and Communists: "They re-worked what they adopted and adapted it to a particular local debate overshadowed by the demands of decolonization." However, one should not commit the error of regarding Arab allegiances – liberal, fascist, or communist – as mere expressions of pragmatism. Neither should one confound political expectations with ideological choices. Antoine Hokayem shows that Nazi propaganda casting Germany as a supporter of the Arab struggle for independence, partly produced effects that ran counter to German interests by prompting French and British politicians to counter German influence and move Syria and Lebanon faster towards independence. There was no linear ideological "influence" which translated in singular political "consequence" but a simultaneous struggle of different forces that produced results that were partly desired and partly unexpected – to make a rather general argument.


If we now turn away from decolonization and moral considerations and back to the question of whether comparisons between Fascism and Communism are legitimate, then it should have become clear that comparisons indicate similarities as well as differences. Assembling articles on Arab sympathizers of Nazism, Fascism, and Communism in a single volume does not imply that one has to view all of them as having been equally pragmatic or evil. Classifications can only be limited equations and do not cover all features of the equated entities. The adequacy of an equation is conditionally, not absolutely valid and hinges on the researcher's perspective and the historical context of the equated entities. The term "totalitarianism" in this respect is an abstraction which serves the comparison between right- and left-wing political movements and systems. It is a call to give a better explanation for the common features and dividing lines between radical political positions of whatever color. In this sense, t he first few articles in this volume question the scholarly discussion about the Nazi impact on the Middle East. Then the concept of "totalitarianism" and its applicability is directly addressed. The ensuing articles represent case studies from different countries, dealing firstly with Fascism, secondly with Communist actors and thirdly with anti-fascist activities. Although the term "totalitarianism" does not pop up in all of these articles, it serves as a heuristic framework for the whole volume. The comparative approach intends to shed a light on the historical context in which radical right- and left-wing political thought was adapted and interacted both in Maghreb and Mashreq countries.


The scholarly debate on Arab encounters with Nazi Germany is dealt with in three papers. Götz Nordbruch objects to two paradigms which continue to characterize historical studies of Arab responses to Nazi Germany: the first paradigm suggests that there was an ideological collusion, the second focuses on pro-German voices engaged in cooperation with the Axis powers. Against these paradigms, Nordbruch argues "that the public interest for Nazism was not superficial, but was immediately shaped by local concerns and conditions". His article highlights that the public in Arab societies shared many of the concerns and challenges of European debates over the future of society which were echoed in intellectual and organizational pluralism and paved the way for new political players to emerge.


Stefan Wild finds that many Western studies written after World War II on the influence of Nazi ideology in the Arab political arena were prejudiced because they were often constructed according to the narrative "the enemy of my enemy is my friend". He argues against an Arab pre-disposition towards Nazism and Fascism and highlights that there was a big difference between "an informed opinion" (in journalism and literature) and sentiments among the masses.


Peter Wien objects to a historical argumentation which draws on Arab relations with Nazi Germany in order to "explain" anti-Semitism and "Islamo-fascism" in today's Arab world. By way of counter-examples, he wants to establish a differentiated picture of the Arab perceptions of National Socialism and Fascism on the one side; on the other side, he is also interested in establishing a phenomenology of pro-totalitarian and pro-fascist trends in the interwar period. Thinking about how a typology of global fascism could look like, he concludes that frequently mentioned candidates like the Muslim Brothers, Antun Saadeh, and the Baath Party do not meet all the requirements to categorize them as plainly fascists. It would be more fruitful to locate Middle Eastern "fascistic" movements "on a map of social conflicts specific to their environment than giving them too much ideological weight" because they "merely mimicked fascist style (discipline, uniform, a discourse of violence) but did not meet the core criterion of Fascism to be based on revolution expectations and a radical rejection of the Enlightenment – at least during the interwar period, if not beyond".


After this critical survey on the narrative of the Nazi-Arab encounter, two authors deal with the concept of totalitarianism and its application in the Middle East. Faleh A. Jabbar reminds us that totalitarian rule should not be misunderstood as "total". Although totalitarian rulers dreamed of installing a socio-political totality, they were unable to abolish social tensions. Totalitarian states tried to curb civil society and the division of powers but could not reach total hegemony, "simply because such totality is a myth, or, at best, an elusive aim". Jabbar traces the intellectual roots of the concept of "totalitarianism", starting with the early use of the term "totalitario" by the fascist thinker Giovanni Gentile and proceeding to Benito Mussolini's conception of the fascist state. He then compares different approaches like Hannah Arendt's historical archaeology and Franz Neumann's structural analysis. To explain basic common features and differences inside the classical family of totalitarianism – Germany, Stalinist Russia and Italy –, he highlights the social structures in each society, the suspension of representative institutions, and the state-party's tool of mass mobilization, persuasion, and coercion. He concludes that the frame for analyzing totalitarian states can be applied to the Iraqi Baath regime because "in the 1970s, Iraq's sociological profile was not far from that of 1930s Russia".


Jens Hanssen looks at the ways in which Hannah Arendt's The Origin of Totalitarianism has been read and translated in the Middle East, from Beirut to Tehran. He argues that "mobilizing Hannah Arendt – often for conflicting causes – says a great deal about wider intellectual developments in the Middle East over the past half century". He even sees a link between Arendt's non-violent ideas and the Arab revolutions of 2011, the boycott campaign against the Israeli occupation and campaigns for a bi-national state in Palestine.


Three case studies deal with the impact of Fascism and Nazism on a society (Libya), a writer (Shakib Arslan), and the interaction of political players in the Near East. Francesca Di Pasquale deals with the failure of the fascistisation of colonial Libya from 1931 to 1940. She describes the Italian educational policy in Libya and the inhabitants' reaction to it and concludes that the Fascists' failure was due to the brevity of the fascist experiment and the contradictory nature of colonial rule. The Governor-General Italo Balbo promoted the Libyans' integration into the fascist system as an expression of modernization. At the same time, however, the practice of colonial rule was more concerned with strengthening the structures of traditional society than with its modernization.


Shakib Arslan was one of the prominent anti-colonial propagandists in the interwar period and is known for articles in which he expressed his admiration for Mussolini and even justified Italian colonialism. Jakob Krais distinguishes a critical (1930-1933) and a conciliatory phase (1933-1938) in Shakib Arslan's writing on Italy and Libya. There is no evidence that this change was triggered by direct financial Italian influence. Krais concludes that Arslan was certainly no racist or fascist, although some ideological elements in Fascism appealed to him. Arslan can be labeled a nationalist-conservative who admired strong leaders and longed for a united Islamic world.


Antoine Hokayem describes, as already mentioned, how Syrian and Lebanese independence was mainly an unintended outcome of the interplay between French, British, German, Turkish, American, and Italian political and military activities. He differentiates three stages of Nazi Germany's engagement in Lebanon, Iraq, and Syria. After the defeat of France in 1940 and with the collaboration of the Vichy regime, Nazi propaganda sought to convince the Arab liberation movement that they were "natural allies" against Great Britain. The German engagement in Iraq as well as in Syria and Lebanon worried Great Britain and prompted it to defeat the Vichy troops in the Levant. In order to orchestrate the military intervention, British politicians surged ahead with promises for Lebanese and Syrian independence and thus prompted de Gaulle to follow suit.


Four papers situate Communist activities in the political landscape of Algeria, Morocco, Palestine, and Syria. Drawing on the Algerian experience, Allison Drew argues that the concept of "totalitarianism" which has mainly been used for Communist parties after having gained state power cannot be generalized for parties in colonized societies. She shows that the Communists' engagement in anti-colonial struggles cannot be understood solely by reference to ideology or abstract concepts, but was shaped by the historical context. The Algerian Communists, who conceived of the nationalist independence movement as "fascist" at first, were pushed, when fighting both for reforms and self-determination, into an antagonistic relation to the colonial state that hounded, imprisoned, and tortured them.


In a similar vein, Jamaâ Baida sketches the development of Moroccan Communism before and after World War II. In the 1930s, the colonial powers hampered the clandestine Communist actions interdicting their journals in French. After 1945, the Moroccan Communists, like their Algerian counterparts, were at first hostile to the nationalist "bourgeois" independence movement. Yet, the Moroccanization of the party basis led to a rapprochement with the independence movement. The nationalists, however, organized the Moroccan National Front in 1951 without the Communists who were soon to be outlawed.


Maher Charif chooses the case of the League of National Liberation in Palestine (1943-1948) to argue that the concept of "totalitarianism" would be an inappropriate characterization for this group. The League emerged after the fragmentation of the Palestinian Communist Party into a Jewish and Arab wing during the uprising in Palestine and after the outbreak of World War II. The group subscribed to democratic values and the right to self-determination and criticized the mufti and the Nazi movement because of their enmity to the alien "other". After the end of World War II, the group published a petition demanding an international solution to the problem of the Jewish refugees. The majority of League members accepted the UN partition plan, although they did not see it as the best solution, and opposed the invasion of the Arab armies in 1948.


Abdallah Hanna argues that the main European impact that helped form political thought in Syria (and Lebanon) after World War I came from the ideas of the French revolution and secular liberalism. After briefly sketching the outlines of the liberal, nationalist, and socialist tendencies in the different Syrian parties, he describes the positions of the Syrian Communist Party, mainly from the 1930s to 1945. He singles out the anti-fascist stance by the Marxist thinker Salim al-Khayata and the journal al-Ṭalīʿa (1935-1939). Hanna argues that Stalin and the Soviet Union were generally not perceived as "totalitarian", but enjoyed great popularity among Arabs because of the revolution in 1917, the anti-imperialist agenda, and the victory over Nazi Germany – although Syrian (leftist) nationalists were rather critical in their political judgment of Syrian Communists, Stalin, and the Soviet Union.


Anti-fascist activities are highlighted in two more papers. Leila el-Houssi describes the partly intersecting, partly conflicting interests of anti-fascists and anti-colonialists in Tunisia. The anti-fascist movement which comprised French and Italian expatriates countered the fascist propaganda which tried to sell the Italian community in Tunisia as loyal to Rome. Especially during the 1930s, the anti-fascist movement and Tunisian nationalists marched hand in hand for some time, although their main aims were different – one fighting against Mussolini and fascist penetration of Northern Africa, the other against (Italian, French) colonialism in general. However, the Italian section of the International League for Human Rights found itself isolated when proposing a union of democratic forces together with the Tunisian nationalists because their French counterparts hesitated to formulate an open condemnation of colonialism.


Nezam al-Abbasi explains the political line which six Palestinian newspapers under the British Mandate followed when reporting on Germany before and during World War II. He shows that a positive picture of Germany prevailed during the first few months of Nazi rule, but that it soon was replaced by a rather critical view that comprised Nazi domestic and foreign policy. A main factor for this shift was that the Palestinian press made German policy responsible for the increasing number of Jewish refugees coming to Palestine.


In most articles presented here the potentially "totalitarian" nature of a group or an intellectual seems to be rather elusive. One simple reason is that the Arab sympathizers of European revolutionary social engineering were unable to put their ideas into – presumably – deadly practice; therefore, it is rather difficult to diagnose their totalitarian disposition or quantify the scope of their totalitarian determination. A second reason is that the left-right divide re-emerges in some studies. In comparison, it seems less problematic to expose "totalitarian" features on the political right since statements for strong leaders and racist-like or at least ultra-nationalist sentiments can be singled out here and there. But how and where a Communist grouping showed "totalitarian" signs on the practical level, seems much harder to decide (irrespective of Stalin veneration, strong group cohesion, and a rigid dogmatism about world revolution and the dictatorship of the proletariat). Therefore, most authors dealing with Arab Communists are rather critical of the explanatory value of the totalitarianism concept. A third reason is that most authors argue that the occurrence of certain elements that could be classified as "totalitarian" still confront us with an irrevocable space for interpretation when read in their textual, social, or political context. When done so, an obviously racist sentence may contradict other sentences in the same text, reflect traditional or contemporary prejudices or express changeable political intentions.


Thus, the scholarly analysis is confronted with the problem that the actors on the ground often shared a clear feeling that they participated in a local and global struggle against "liberal", "fascist", or "Bolshevist" adversaries; the analysis can even re-construct the actors' sense for the political field drawing on their self-understanding. Yet, this analysis has difficulties in grabbing the elements that allow us to clearly designate certain sympathizers as fully-fledged "totalitarian" actors, setting them apart from less extremist, "ordinary" right- or left-wing protagonists. This is also a reason why this collection of papers leaves the metaphor of the "mirror images" in the original conference title behind. The authors do not deal with simple reflections, but strive to take a glance behind the looking glass. In other words: They do not follow a European narcissistic impulse to find (or not to find) distorted images of European radical movements in the Middle East; they are interested in the social contexts in which such mirror images were produced and circulated for different reasons.


What then is left of European totalitarianism in Arab societies? It could be described as a certain totalitarian style : the radical language game, the denial of the existing world order, the longing for a purification of man, community, society, and the determination to overcome social, political, and ideological contradictions. This style had its sympathizers and its audience: political groups taking up radical identities, masses who cheered the struggle against the ideological enemy, intellectuals who explained or subscribed to mass politics, its techniques and ideologies. It is important to underline that these Arab encounters with totalitarianism were neither wholly arbitrary nor entirely opportunistic nor merely imitative. They were situated in the local, regional, and global context of ideological and political conflicts in which it made perfect sense for the actors to take sides and follow a certain style. What was absent in the Arab world was a totalitarian movement capable of acquiring state power and a state capable of putting a totalitarian style into practice; in this sense, the reception of totalitarianism remained a truncated phenomenon.


State rule in Arab countries acquired totalitarian capacity only in later decades when the technocratic, economic, and social basis for it had emerged, as Faleh A. Jabbar argues with reference to Baathist Iraq. There is no doubt that Arab societies had entered the era of mass mobilization, ideological education, and propaganda earlier in the 20 th century, but only from the 1950s or 1960s onwards were post-colonial one-party systems or developmental dictatorships capable of employing totalitarian elements of rule, often mixing ruthless iron fist policy both with "fascist" ideas of national purity and strength and with "Stalinist" control of economy and society. Therefore, reading Hannah Arendt to understand one's own totalitarian rulers is a rather recent phenomenon in the Middle East, as we can argue with Jens Hanssen . However, the question, whether these post-colonial regimes can or should be classified as truly "totalitarian" (and not as dictatorial, despotic, authoritarian, autocratic, or kleptocratic), is beyond the scope of the current volume and must remain unanswered for the time being. After the "Arab spring" has shaken the region as a whole in 2011, it can be assumed that the character of the post-colonial regimes in the Middle East will be re-evaluated in the future and this process will certainly lead to a new awareness for such conceptual questions as well.


There were some adversities and obstacles to overcome on the long way from the first idea to organize a conference on the Arab reception of totalitarianism up to the publication of this volume. This enterprise would not have been possible without the help of many colleagues who gave their advice and support. I want to express my special thanks to the team of the OIB who was involved in organizing the Beirut conference in 2010 and to the German Research Foundation (DFG) which provided the financial means for it. I also want to thank Dr. Michael Kaiser and Tobias Wulf from perspectivia.net who made this first online publication in the new series "Orient-Institut Studies" technically possible and oversaw it with due diligence.


Dr. Manfred Sing is associated researcher at the Orient-Institut Beirut. He currently works on the transformation process of Communist activists and Marxist intellectuals in Lebanon and Syria.

1 Eric J. Hobsbawm: The Age of Extremes: A History of the World, 1914-1991, New York 1994.

2 Compare for example Gilbert Achcar: The Arabs and the Holocaust. The Arab-Israeli War of Narratives, New York 2010; Götz Nordbruch: 'Cultural Fusion' of Thought and Vision? Memory Politics and the History of Arab-German Encounters, in: Middle Eastern Studies 47, No. 1, January 2011, 205-216.

3 For the respective literature see the references in the articles by Götz Nordbruch, Stefan Wild, and Peter Wien in this volume.

4 A reference to John Heartfield’s 1932 collage “Krieg und Leichen – die letzte Hoffnung der Reichen” with Mussolini as hyena.

5 The musicians intone a famous song line by Umm Kalthoum, composed in 1931.

6 Malcom Kerr: The Arab Cold War, 1958-1964: A Study of Ideology in Politics, London 1965; idem.: The Arab Cold War: Gamal 'Abd al-Nasir and His Rivals, 1958-1970, 3rd ed., London 1971.

7 Marver H. Bernstein: The Appeal of Communism in Arab Countries, in: World Politics, vol. 9, no. 4 (July 1957), 623-629, here: 625. The article is a positive review of Walter Z. Laqueur: Communism and Nationalism in the Middle East, New York 1956.

8 Bernstein: The Appeal of Communism (see FN 5), 624.

9 Bernstein: The Appeal of Communism (see FN 5), 626.

10 Bernstein: The Appeal of Communism (see FN 5), 629; and Laqueur: Communism and Nationalism (see FN 5), 280.

11 See Tariq Y. Ismael: The Communist Movement in the Arab World, London / New York 2005, especially chapter 6 "The crisis of communism in the Arab world", 102-123.

12 In August 1937 Leon Trotsky wrote his critique Stalinism and Bolshevism on http://www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/1937/08/stalinism.htm <1.11.2011>.

13 For an overview on the debate and its assessment in retrospect by historians see Volker Kronenberg (ed.): Zeitgeschichte, Wissenschaft und Politik. Der "Historikerstreit" 20 Jahre danach, Wiesbaden 2008.

14 Stéphane Courtois: The Black Book of Communism: crimes, terror, repression, Cambridge / London 2004.

15 For a critical reading from a Marxist point of view see Enzo Traverso: Der neue Anti-Kommunismus: Nolte, Furet und Courtois interpretieren die Geschichte des 20. Jahrhunderts, in: Kronenberg: Zeitgeschichte (see FN 11), 67-88.

16 For an overview of the debate see Kronenberg: Zeitgeschichte (see FN 11).

17 Giorgio Agamben: Homo Sacer. Sovereign Power and Bare Life, Stanford 2000.

18 Compare Eckhard Jesse: Funktionen und Strukturen von politischen Feindbildern im politischen Extermismus, in: Bundesministerium des Inneren: Feindbilder und Radikalisierungsprozesse. Elemente und Instrumente im politischen Extremismus, 5-22. Online: www.bmi.bund.de <1.11.2011>.

19 See for example Traverso: Anti-Kommunismus (see FN 13), 86f.

20 Avishai Margalit: On Compromise and Rotten Compromises, Princeton 2010.

21 Margalit: On Compromise (see FN 18), 175.

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PSJ Metadata
Manfred Sing
Rethinking Totalitarianism and its Arab Readings. Proceedings of the Conference "European Totalitarianism in the Mirrors of Contemporary Arab Thought", Beirut, October 6-8, 2010.
Neuere Zeitgeschichte (1945-heute), Neuzeit / Neuere Geschichte (1789-1918), Zeitgeschichte (1918-1945)
Abbildung 1 Abbildung 1 A caricature from the liberal Egyptian journal Ruz el-Youssef, foregrounding the perceived commonalities between Nazism, Fascism, and Stalinism, was published "on the occasion of the Russian-German treaty" (No. 599, September 2, 1939, cover page): "The Empire of Animals!! The Hyena, the Eagle, and the Bear??"
Abbildung 2 Abbildung 2 Caricature from Ruz el-Youssef scoffing at Hitler's and Mussolini's attempt to gain Arab support (No. 665, December 7, 1940, cover page): "Radio Berlin and Rome are still wooing the Arab peoples. - You left me, but my soul is still with you! - Okay, Sir, why don't you take your soul and leave me alone? I want neither you nor your soul!"
PDF document sing_introduction.doc.pdf — PDF document, 512 KB
M. Sing, Introduction
In: Rethinking Totalitarianism and its Arab Readings. Proceedings of the Conference "European Totalitarianism in the Mirrors of Contemporary Arab Thought", Beirut, October 6-8, 2010, Hg. Manfred Sing (Orient Institute Studies, 1)
URL: https://prae.perspectivia.net/publikationen/orient-institut-studies/1-2012/sing_introduction
Veröffentlicht am: 24.04.2012 10:00
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