How thousands of people that the Nazis categorized as subhuman ended up volunteering in the Free Arab Legion to fight for the Third Reich.
Easily the most pervasive, enduring, and pernicious fallacy about World War II, at least in the U.S. and the U.K., is that it was “the good war,” a wholly noble, heroic endeavor (for its victors), one now rendered unto history in morally satisfy shades of black and white, good and evil.
And surely the largest reason for that fallacy’s very existence is that, on the evil side, World War II had perhaps history’s most easily detestable villains: the Nazis.
While the Nazis’ appalling wartime atrocities may indeed be without equal in the annals of history, a black-and-white understanding of “the good war” obscures, among many other things, the fact that those atrocities were augmented by the permissiveness and even the willing collaboration of dozens of foreign groups living well beyond Germany’s borders.
Perhaps most surprising, although not as numerous, among these foreign groups are those made up of some of the very people that the Nazis were rightly vilified for subjugating. This is precisely what makes truly uncommon groups like the Free Arabian Legion — a largely volunteer Nazi military unit made up of black and Muslim soldiers — both so empirically jarring and so discordant with the simplistic notion of “the good war.”
The Free Arabian Legion
When something sits far enough outside the agreed-upon narrative of history, it rarely makes the history books. And if it rarely makes the history books, information on it can be hard to come by. So it is with the Free Arabian Legion.
What we do know, at least according to Nigel Thomas’ The German Army 1939–45 (2): North Africa & Balkans, is that the Free Arabian Legion came together in Tunisia in January 1943 as an outgrowth of the German-Arab Training Battalion, formed by the Nazis almost exactly one year earlier.
That battalion, according to Robert Satloff’s Among the Righteous: Lost Stories from the Holocaust’s Long Reach into Arab Lands, represented the Nazis’ overall efforts to create and command units made up of Middle Eastern and North African troops, following cooperative strategical meetings between Nazi and Arab leaders in late 1941.
Given such cooperation, the Nazis were able to conscript some Arabs who had been taken prisoner after involuntarily serving in the opposing armies of the region’s colonial rulers: the French and British. However, many of the other men who joined the Free Arabian Legion did so as volunteers.
These men — some of whom could be categorized as black, some as Middle Eastern — hailed from places like Egypt, Iraq, Syria, Saudia Arabia, Tunisia, Algeria, and beyond. Taken together, Satloff writes, they made up between three and four battalions totaling as many as approximately 6,500 soldiers under Nazi command.
While these men were now officially soldiers in the German armed forces, Nazi bigotry still shone through.
So, although the Free Arabian Legion served in the Caucuses, Tunisia, Greece, and Yugoslavia, often fighting the local anti-fascist partisans, the Nazis nevertheless “placed little value on the competence of these Arab volunteer units,” Satloff writes. “Even when they were pressed into battle, the Germans still did not view them as capable of doing more than rearguard duty or coastal defense.”
This kind of Nazi disdain for these men who had sworn allegiance to them begs the central question lurking behind the Free Arabian Legion, which is not where or how these men served the Nazis, but why.
For the Nazis, the answers to that question were fairly straightforward: more manpower at a time when it was greatly needed, a greater foothold in the Middle East and North Africa, and new fodder for their propaganda mill which could now claim that yet another group had joined the Nazi cause.
But why would the members of the Free Arabian Legion join the Nazis, aligning themselves with an ideology that looked down upon their very races and religions, and entering into a war that didn’t directly threaten their safety and that took place largely beyond their borders?
Some of the reasons were relatively banal and practical — they needed work and pay, they wanted to ally themselves with what they thought would be the war’s winning side — but other reasons tap into deeper political and historical realities.
First, many of the Free Arabian Legion’s volunteers and the Nazis found two common enemies: the British and the French. For the Nazis, these two countries comprised their wartime enemies. But for the Free Arabian Legion’s volunteers, Britain and France were the region’s old colonial overlords, and aligning with the Nazis offered the volunteers a chance to unleash decades of pent-up anti-imperialist anger.
The Nazis played shrewdly upon this anger, using propaganda to remind locals that, unlike Britain and France, Germany had never colonized North Africa and the Middle East and had no plans to do so in the future.
And even the Free Arabian Legion’s very name, emblazoned on a patch worn by every member, was surely meant to cater to the prospective volunteers and suggest to them, erroneously, that the Nazis nobly supported their stand against the region’s colonial powers.
The other major reason why some, not all, of the Free Arabian Legion’s volunteers would join up with the Nazis is altogether more malevolent, inflammatory, and perhaps likely to be misunderstood: shared anti-Semitism.
And that reason brings us to one of the very men (and a very controversial man at that) largely responsible for bringing together the Free Arabian Legion — and other similar units — in the first place.