As the fall of 1940 approached, the Nazi war machine was truly on the move. In a mere four-year period, from 1936 to 1940, German aggression had partially or fully occupied Austria, Czechoslovakia, Poland, Denmark, Norway, the Low Countries and France.
The continued freedom of both England and the Soviet Union notwithstanding, Adolf Hitler had clearly become the master of Europe. One had to wonder how far the ambitious tentacles of Nazi expansion were to extend. Would Hitler be content with his string of foreign policy successes in Europe, or would he aim at a proliferation of German influence elsewhere?
In the latter months of 1940, Great Britain stood virtually alone. France had fallen, the Soviet Union was tied into a non-aggression pact with Germany, and America's isolationist ways keeping her aloof from the European war. With the new year approaching, the British found it necessary to consider the possibility of a German invasion. An additional point of concern dealt with the nation's overseas possessions. The worl-wide scope of the British Empire automatically entailed a good number of responsibilities: the protection of trade routes, lines of communication, raw materials, and within the context of world war, points of strategic interest. Clearly, despite the formidable size of the Royal Navy, both the breadth and Britain's holdings and the modest size of its army persisted to keep the Empire, in the early stages of the Second World War, in a position of great vulnerability.
One zone of English influence which appeared especially susceptible to potential problems was the Middle East. The spring of 1941, in the eastern Mediterranean, presented many pressures. Of primary concern to Great Britain were German operations in North Africa and the Balkans. In addition, there were some within leading British circles who believed that the advent of war, and the many Axis victories which accompanied it, might bring resurrection to the always burdensome factor of Arab nationalism. The impending Nazi rush on the Middle East, not to mention the Arab national threat, had the potential to turn Great Britain's Middle Eastern position into one of great instability.
The status of the British-dominated Middle East seemed tailor-made for the opportunistic nature of German foreign policy--a simple combination of Nazi scheming with a bit of cooperation from the Arab nationalists could prove a massive foreign policy boon for Germany and a great step for pan-Arabs in their effort to rid the Arab east of the Union Jack. Clearly, as victory for those fighting under the Axis banner continued, and British prestige, the chances of such contact occurring increased.
British fears reached their highest point with the Rashid Ali al-Kilani Revolt of April and May 1941. Perhaps the brightest flash-point of Arab dissent during the Second World War, the Iraqi coup d''etat represented a great number of things. First, the revolt reflected the attempt by a subjugated state to break the yoke of foreign domination. Second, it represented the age-old imperialistic rivalry which had existed between European powers. Third, the timing of the coup took place within the context of world-wide conflict, and also at a time when the British Empire's prestige was at its nadir. Fourth, it provided a rare moment in Iraq's history where it was able, through German intriguing, to wield a certain degree of leverage in its dealings with Great Britain. And finally, the coup was a watershed--it clearly defined the extent to which Great Britain was willing to go, not only to save its Empire, but also save itself.
In August 1965, Valentin Berezhkov, interpretor in the Soviet embassy at the time of operation "Barbarossa," the German invasion of Russia, provided a fascinating account of a meeting which took place between German Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop, and the Soviet Ambassador to Germany, Vladimir Dekanozov. During the 22 June 1941 interview, Ribbentrop explained that in view of Soviet provocation, Germany had been forced to launch a preemptive attack. However, according to Berezhkov, just as Soviet officials were leaving the room, the Nazi foreign minister hurried after them in an effort to explain his aversion to "Barbarossa." Berezhkov went on to recount Ribbentrop pleading the following: "Make it known in Moscow that I was against the invasion!"
The Berezhkov recountal provides us with just one of many references to the apparent skepticism Ribbentrop had for "Barbarossa." This dissencion was most prominently manifested in his attempted construction of a series of anti-British, pro-Soviet alliances between 1937 and 1941. The crowning achievement of Ribbentrop's diplomatic crusade was the Nazi-Soviet Pact of August 1939. Ribbentrop reveled in this diplomatic victory--there were few who believed it could be done, and like Prince Otto von Bismarck (1815-1889) and his policy against france seven decades earlier, the foreign minister saw Great Britain's defeat as a mere matter of time.
However, "Barbarossa" precluded all that Ribbentrop had worked so hard to achieve. Hitler's gravitation toward an anti-Soviet stance more apparent after the Winter of 1940/41. And, after the Berghof conference of January 1941, it should have appeared to most high-ranking Nazis, including Ribbentrop, that Hitler was sold on a move against the Soviet Union. If we assume that Ribbentrop as well as other Nazis were opposed to an invasion of the Soviet Union, how might they dissuade Hitler from attempting as much? An analysis of the failed Baghdad coup may help in providing an answer.
The coup, in as far as German foreign policy in 1941 was concerned, should be viewed as significant. It provided an opportunity for those who opposed "Barbarossa" to expose the great vulnerability of British possessions in the Middle East, and in doing so provided an alternative strategy. In attempting to understand Germany's conduct during the coup, it is vital to analyze the varied attitudes within the German government regarding their relation to the future of German foreign policy. Accordingly, the revolt can be viewed as a crossroads, where German foreign policy, under the endorsement of Hitler, opted for a distinctly anti-Soviet stance as opposed to that advocated by Ribbentrop and others.
In view of this, one must consider a few crucial questions. First, how could this area have meant so much to the British and, at the same time, so little to Adolf Hitler? Furthermore, one might wonder, after considering Hitler's disinterest in the coup, what the revolt represented to those in the German government who supported its full exploitation? For example, was it an instance much like the Rashid Ali coup which Ribbentrop had in mind when he, on 7 March, ordered the Foreign Ministry to develop greater activity in Arab lands and to pay clode attention to the question of "how this problem [was] to be handled with reference to [Germany's] aim of achieving England's defeat"? And finally, how plausible is it that the Rashid Ali revolt could have played a sixable role in altering the course of the global war? In addressing such issues, this study will endeavor to analyze as well as criticize the foreign policy paths chosen by both Great Britain and Germany during the revolt.
The coup will not serve as this work's focal point. Rather, the primary purpose of the revolt should be likened to a prism--its initiation created a dispersion of events which reflected the policy attitude of the events' primary players. Acting as a "prism of history," the coup exposed both the weaknesses and strengths of the foreign policy goals of Great Britain, Germany, and, less importantly, of Italy and the Arab world.
To address the post-coup responses of these states adequately, it is vital to consider a certain degree of background material. It would be haphazard to try and analyze the events of April and May of 1941 without placing them within their proper historical context. Accordingly then, the next chapter will attempt to elucidate the fundamentals of Arab nationalism in Iraq and the Middle East, and its ties to Great Britain, Germany, and, of course, the coup.