Leading Nazis either died with Hitler in the bunker in Berlin as the Soviets closed in; got themselves executed by hanging after being tried by the International Military Tribunal at Nuremburg at the end of the Second World War; or simply disappeared off the face of the Earth (often to Latin America). Some Nazis though found a new home – in Egypt.
In a bizarre turn, many adopted new Arab names and even converted to Islam. Living in the Egyptian capital Cairo, they enjoyed the protection of President Gamal Abdel Nasser. These unrepentant Nazis played a massive role in poisoning the discourse between Arabs and Jews continuing the anti-Semitic propaganda they had refined and spread under Hitler’s Third Reich.
Nazis working in Egypt as propagandists against Zionism
President Nasser of Egypt was a charismatic figure on the 1950s world stage. An imposing and proud nationalist attempting to shake off the last vestiges of British Empire rule in Egypt but also embroiled in an increasingly hostile relationship with neighbouring Israel.
Without going too much into the dynamics and history of the Arab-Israeli conflict – which is well covered elsewhere – Nasser sanctioned the setting up of the Institute for the Study of Zionism in Cairo in 1955. This organisation staffed by Nazis who had worked for the Reich used conflict with Israel to stoke hatred of Jews. This was simply a continuation of the work of Hitler’s Propaganda Ministry in a different context.
Two of the Institute’s leading lights were Nazis who had reported directly to the head of propaganda in the Third Reich – Joseph Goebbels. One was the Institute’s Director Alfred Zingler who converted to Islam and adopted the name Mahmoud Saleh.
Some people seem to have even believed he was Egyptian born and bred. He was nothing of the sort. Zingler was a German Nazi who fled his homeland as the war ended.
The other leading light was Johann Jakob von Leers who had also become a Muslim and taken the name Omar Amin. His route out of Germany to Egypt had been via Argentina. While working for Nasser, Von Leers kept up a correspondence with Otto Ernst Remer, the military officer who foiled the Valkyrie plot against Hitler’s life in 1944 leading to the execution of all the main conspirators. An event dramatised in the Hollywood movie Valkyrie starring Tom Cruise.
Von Leers was no slouch when it came to attacking Jews under the Third Reich. An academic, he had produced papers likening Jews to a plague that needed to be eradicated. He and Zingler brought in other Nazi chums from their time working for Goebbels – who had committed suicide with his wife in the Berlin bunker at the end of the war. Goebbels’ wife Magda notoriously poisoned all six of her children as one last act of loyalty to the now crazed Fuhrer, Adolf Hitler.
Goebbels’ Propaganda Ministry might have been no more – but there was plenty of work for former employees in Cairo.
Dr Werner Witschale and Hans Appler were two former Goebbels operatives who now joined the Institute. Appler had taken the name Saleh Shafar. Louis Heiden had worked for the Reich’s news agency and in Egypt set about producing an Arabic translation of Hitler’s seminal work, Mein Kampf.
Predictably, the Institute also published The Protocols of the Elders of Zion – a book purporting to reveal a conspiracy by Jews to take over the world that was in fact, an early 20th century example of disinformation or fake news. Forged by the Tsarist secret police as part of the Russian state’s anti-Semitic policies. Yet, it has retained the veneer of authenticity in the Middle East to the present day. In no small part due to the activities of Nazis operating under the radar in 1950s Egypt.
Other Nazis who found a new life under Nasser in Egypt – and an opportunity to continue venting their hatred of Jewish people included ex-Gestapo officer Franz Bartel, SS espionage chief Walter Bollmann and SS officer Werner Birgel.
Doctor Death in Cairo
One of the most ghoulish Nazis to end up in Egypt was Aribert Heim – better known as the Butcher of Mauthausen. An SS doctor, Heim enthusiastically took up a medical position at the Mauthausen concentration camp as it exterminated enemies of the Reich using lethal injections, a gas chamber and a combination of starvation and backbreaking work.
Inmates referred to him as Doctor Death. Pseudo-scientific experiments were an exercise in brutal sadism. Heim kept the skull of an 18-year-old patient he murdered while under anaesthetic as a desk ornament. It’s alleged that he was responsible for the deaths of hundreds of non-terminals patients.
Incredibly, Heim was released from prison by the Allies after the war and worked as a gynecologist in Germany until 1962 when he fled the country as the West German police closed in on him. He ended up in Cairo where he followed the example of his Nazi comrades and converted to Islam adopting the name Tarek Hussein Farid. Local people came to know him as “Uncle Tarek”.
It was claimed that he died of cancer in Egypt in 1993 but this was disputed for a decade by the Simon Wiesenthal Center which has specialised in hunting down surviving Nazis since World War Two.
Nasser, Israel and the Nazis
It’s ironic that while Nasser protected former Nazis who were used to develop arguments against Zionism, he also characterised Israel as a Nazi state – something that you still hear today. Of course these Nazis – who had overseen the Holocaust of millions of Jews – were only too happy to do their bit to try and sink Israel. A country created largely as a result of what had the Third Reich had done to European Jewry.
There had been a significant Jewish population in Egypt for over two thousand years if not longer. And Nasser grew up very near a Jewish neighbourhood so it wasn’t like he’d never met a Jewish person. In fact, in his early years as a political figure in Egypt, Nasser wasn’t immediately hostile to Israel.
But as he positioned himself as the leader of a pan-Arab movement spanning the whole of the Middle East, the pressure built to adopt an anti-Israel position. Something that would play well on the street and with other Arab countries. He fell into line with the argument that Israel’s creation was a catastrophe for the Arab world that had split Arabs in North Africa from their brothers in the Middle East. Only its disappearance would resolve matters.
Today, the relationship between Israel and its Arab neighbours is becoming more complex while the plight of the Palestinian people remains intractable. But whatever one thinks of the geopolitical situation in the Middle East today – the role of undercover Nazis in stoking hatred in the region after the Second World War is a story that needs to be told and remembered.