Introduction European Powers to 1939 The Coup British Operations Overview of the British Campaign German Operations Overview of German Operations Conclusion Bibliography

The Rashid Ali revolt was, by no means, a spontaneous act committed by a group of power-hungry politicians. Rather, it was initiated by a cell of men whose intentions were both deep-seated and profound. Basically, the coup served as a sort of boiling point where the age-old frustrations of a great number of individuals converged. The primary component of the conspirators’ actions was the phenomenon of Arab nationalism. In order to truly understand the Arab nationalist movement, especially its relation to the Rashid Ali Putsch, it is necessary to recount and analyze its history. Furthermore, in order to correctly view Arab nationalism and its role in the coup properly, it is crucial to consider the parallel development of German and British policy agendas in the Arab East from the First World War onward.

Like other nationalisms, Arab nationalism aimed at independence from foreign control.4 It also possessed a pan-Arab dimension which called for the ultimate union of all Arab peoples into a single, independent state comprised of Egypt, Iraq, Syria, and Arabia.5 A ready and most relevant parallel to the pan-Arab cause was Hitler’s attempt to bring all ethnic Germans or Volksdeutsche under the umbrella of one greater German state. In theory, as the Hungarian German stood on par with the Bavarian, so too did the Yemeni stand in union with the Syrian. As will be seen, this very commonality would prove itself a major factor in the development of relations between the leadership corps of the Arab world and its Teutonic associates in the latter 1930’s.

The origins of modern Arab nationalism can be traced back to the dawn of the twentieth century. Most of the movement’s ire, at this time, was directed against the Ottoman Empire, the overlord of the Arab world. With the advent of the First World War, Turkey cast its lot with Germany and the Central Powers. As a result, Great Britain and its Entente allies sought to foment Arab revolt against the Ottomans.6 In return for Arab assistance, the British government promised to realize the dearest of all pan-Arab aspirations--the creation of an independent, unified Arab state. However, as the policy aims of their Turkish all the pan-Arabs were incongruent, any German hope of attaining collaboration with the Arabs was hindered by its alliance with the Ottoman Empire.

The extent of Britain’s assurances, prior to the initiation of the Arab revolt in June 1916, were found in an extremely vague series of letters to an Arab leader, Sharif Husayn, from the British High Commissioner in Egypt, Sir Henry McMahon.7 Although the gist of the missives reflected London’s willingness to meet Arab demands for independence, McMahon was careful to include a number of conditions. The most significant of which related to the French government’s desire to hold a certain degree of influence in the Levant. In consideration of their ally, the British deliberately excluded the coastal strip of Syria from their promises to Husayn.8 As the Arab leader found the French demand repugnant, the issue was postponed until after the war.9 Therefore, as things stood in the summer of 1916, Arab rebels found themselves wary of two things as they prepared to act: first, how reliable were McMahon’s assurances for independence, and second, how likely was the possibility of a renewed foreign presence in the Middle East.

In the spring of 1916, and unknown to Arab nationalists, Great Britain, France, and Russia concluded the notorious Sykes-Picot Treaty. The agreement called for the partitioning of the Asian sections of the old Ottoman Empire into zones of influence. Generally speaking, the treaty assigned to France, Britain, and Russia, respectively, the areas of Syria, Mesopotamia, and Turkish Armenia.10 Palestine was to fall under international control.11 The division of zones, excluding that of the newly created Soviet Union, was given finality with the April 1920 San Remo Conference.12 This meeting established that under sanction of the League of Nations, France should be granted mandatory control over Syria while Great Britain would hold the like over Iraq and Palestine.13

France and Great Britain’s policy concerns were more than adequately accommodated by San Remo. Gaining Palestine enabled Great Britain to extend its influence onto both banks of the Suez Canal, while Iraq guaranteed oil concessions and an overland bridge for transit between the Mediterranean and the Persian Gulf. France, for her part, gained undivided control over the whole of Syria. Its occupation of the Levant signaled the abolishment, in July 1920, of the Arab government at Damascus. The Damascus government (October 1918-July 1920), set-up under the leadership of Husayn’s son, Faysal, was what very little London and Paris could offer the Arabs in the form of a post-war concession. Needless to say, the conclusion of the Entente agreements proved a stinging disappointment for the Arabs.

As far as Germany was concerned, the Versailles Treaty of 1919 quickly put an end to its activities in the Middle East. The Treaty compelled the German government to cede “overseas possessions and special rights in dependent countries such as Egypt.”14 Berlin also lost properties in the Ottoman Empire.15 Furthermore, the domestic problems which besieged Germany after the war, forced the new Weimar government to look almost exclusively inward. Not for another fifteen years would Germany reappear in the Arab East.

The Balfour Declaration widened the Anglo-Arab rift in November 1917. The document essentially promised British aid in the establishment of a national Jewish home in Palestine.16 The convenience for Great Britain in following such a policy dwelled in the notion that not only was it able to secure moral sanction for its occupation of the highly strategic Palestine, but it also won substantial kudos in the eyes of world Jewry.17 Coming as no surprise, the Arab majority in Palestine jibed at the idea of Jewish settlement. The resulting tensions between Arab and Jew festered for the next two decades. And the Palestinian situation would only find itself exacerbated by the exodus of Jews from Germany after the ascension to power of the anti-Semitic Nazi regime in 1933 (between 1933 and 1936 the Jewish population in Palestine grew from 192,000 to 355,000).18 In reaction to the Jewish influx, Arab discontent quickly was transformed itself into armed rebellion in 1936.19 Great Britain responded to the region’s instability by forming a fact-finding commission concluded that Palestine be partitioned into spheres of influence.20 However, fiery heads prevailed, as neither Jewish nor Arab camps could find satisfaction in the commission’s resolution, each side believing itself entitled to the whole of Palestine. In an effort to allay Arab fears of continued Jewish immigration, London, issued a White Paper, in 1939, which essentially placed a quota on the number of Jews allowed into Palestine.21 As the Arabs still remained dissatisfied with the British decision, it was perhaps becoming more evident that London’s hold on the Middle East was loosening.

Surfacing as one of the most crucial figures in the Arab nationalist movement in Palestine was Haj Amin al-Husayni, the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem.22 As the head of the Arab High Committee, an ultra-nationalist organization, the Mufti was viewed by pan-Arabs as the tacit leader of their movement. Exiled from Palestine for his hand in Arab dissent, the Mufti arrived in Baghdad on 16 October, 1939. The Mufti’s move to Baghdad opened a new chapter in the development of pan-Arabsim in Iraq--it provided leadership and inspiration to an ultra-nationalist mentality which had been in an incubation period in Iraq for the last two decades.

From as early as its establishment in 1920, it became clear that Iraq would be profoundly effected by the European agreements. As a country under mandatory rule, Iraq found its leadership coming from two alien entities: the British government, and the son of Sharif Husayn, Faysal of Hijaz. We can view the British government as ‘alien’ for obvious reasons: to many Arabs, Great Britain’s status as a foreign power asserting its mandate held little difference from years of Ottoman rule. England’s first act of state was the imposition of Faysal as the ruler of Iraq. Upon arriving in Iraq in 1921, “accompanied by British officials, he was a stranger to the country and his social base of support was narrow.”23 Entering a highly heterogeneous society, Faysal had to pull his support from a patch-work of religious, tribal, ethnic, and, above all, familial loyalties. With this in mind, Faysal had the unenviable task of integrating this plurality of allegiances into the alien notion of national territorial integrity.24 The anti-British, anti-Husayni attitude of the new government’s many dissidents was made manifest in a revolt which spread throughout the tribal areas of the Euphrates and the regions north and east of Baghdad.25 As a result, great Britain lost the lives of four hundred of its nationals, forty million pounds, and a great deal of confidence in its ability to fulfill the Iraqi mandate.26

The rebellion prompted London to install a system of indirect rule. The newer mode of governance, in Iraq, was established on the British model--it came complete with parliament, political parties, and cabinet.27 Great Britain maintained influence over Iraqi policy-making by making sure that its own advisors sat in all ministries.28 Such would be the case for the next eleven years, at which time, in 1932, Iraq became the first modern Arab state to obtain independence.

It is important to mention, however, that after the termination of the Iraqi mandate, Great Britain still retained a significant presence in the state’s affairs. The extent of British influence in 1932 matched the provisions of the 1930 Anglo-Iraqi Treaty. The agreement provided for a close alliance between the two states. A number of privileges given to Great Britain included the following: air bases at Habbaniya and Shaiba and the right to use the ports, airfields, and railways of Iraq.29 With these advantages in hand, Great Britain was able to exert sizable influence over the country’s economic and political life.

After its release from mandatory rule, the Iraqi state had seemingly come of age. Despite evident vestiges of British control, Iraq stood as a model for the many states within the Arab world which aspired to one day gain independence and serve as an active participant in the world community. However, in 1936, Iraq became the first Arab state to experience a coup d’’etat. The 1936 Bakr Sidqi coup appears to hold significance for two reasons. First, the event introduced the highly nationalistic Iraqi military as a prime player in the formulation of state policy-making, a position that lasted until 1941. And second, along with the military’s ascension came the subsequent reappearance of Germany as a primary figure in the development of Middle Eastern affairs. Much of this German reemergence can be attributed to the great admiration which Iraqi ultra-nationalists, primarily those in the army, had for the German nation and its National Socialist ideals.30

One may look at the 1936 Putsch as a political christening of sorts for the Iraqi military as the event made it, in the words of Majid Khadduri, “virtually the sole deciding factor in the rise and fall of almost all Cabinets from 1937 and 1941.”31 As the army rose, its political doctrine followed in accordance. The military was extremely nationalistic and was comprised of officers who believed that a strong army-led regime in Iraq was imperative if the country was to exorcise foreign control, unite all Arabs, bring aid to fellow Arab states in the fight against imperialism, and provide a strong sense of law and order in the country.32 The military’s leading clique was known as the “Golden Square,” and was comprised of Colonels Salah ad-Din as Sabbagh, Kamil Shabib, Mahmud Salman, and Fahmi Sa’id. Under the “Golden Square’s” leadership, the army was able to galvanize its strong influence on the Baghdad government through its close relationship with various civilian officials, the most significant being Rashid Ali al-Kilani.33 Al-Kilani was unmistakably anti-British and a founding member of the Ikha al-Watani party which came to prominence with its opposition to the previously mentioned 1930 Treaty of Alliance. However, Iraq’s extremists did face opposition in a more moderate group of nationalist politicians. Led by the Iraqi prime minister, Nuri Sa’id, this cell as Khadduri states, “was favorably disposed towards Great Britain and foresaw grave danger to the Arab world from identification of Arab nationalism with totalitarian ideologies.”34 Nuri essentially believed that the only sensible way of gaining a pan-Arab union was through patience and compromise with Great Britain and France. Furthermore, he saw any alliance with Germany as a fast and sure way of alienating Great Britain and destroying the progress already made. But, as things stood in 1937, the military had, quite evidently, entrenched itself as the predominant force in Iraqi politics.

How can one explain the presence of a pro-British prime minister in a government dominated by a pro-German military? Nuri’s rise to prime minister had been sanctioned by the four colonels because of a mutual dislike both camps had for the deposed Jamil Midfa’i regime (1937-1938).35 Furthermore, it may also have been the case that when the military chose to champion Nuri’s rise in December, 1938, it did not realize the true extent of the candidate’s pro-British convictions. In the following pages, further light will be brought to the estrangement of Nuri and the military.

The Iraqi military’s ascent followed in conjunction to events which were taking place in Europe. One such occurrence was the appointment of Adolf Hitler as Chancellor of Germany. Based on an amalgam of historical, cultural, and racial awareness, the new government’s platform, sought to restore the greatness which Germany had known prior to Versailles. It was stated earlier that the Nazi regime endeavored to bring about the union of all ethnic Germans. Accordingly, by 1939, Germany had made great strides in doing such--Austria and the Sudetenland had both become part of Hitler’s greater German Reich.

Aptly enough, the Nazi state’s ability to effectively achieve its ethnic union drew the admiration of many Arab nationalists, particularly those in Iraq.36 Germany’s accomplishments excited the Iraqis who looked upon themselves and the Germans as two peoples who shared similar historical experiences. In order to better understand Iraq’s strong interest in the Nazi German rise, one must analyze the relationship which existed between Germany and the Ottoman Empire, prior to, and during the First World War.

At the turn of the century, Wilhelmine Germany looked upon the flaccid Ottoman Empire as an entity prime for colonization as well as economic exploitation.37 The Germans also viewed the Empire as a vehicle which might enable them to compete with British and French interests in the region.38 In order to achieve these policy goals, Germany sought to inculcate Turkish political and military officials with the benefits of “cultural nationalism.”39 Surfacing with the rise of German Romanticism at the beginning of the nineteenth century, this school of thought emphasized the glories, past and present, of a people’s language and history. In essence, the Wilhelmine government sought to utilize “cultural propaganda” as a means of assimilating Turkey’s educated military and civilian elite to the ways of Imperial Germany, and, as a result, galvanize Turko-German ties.

The Wilhelmine government’s policy had indeed affected a wide portion of Turkish society. However, it is important to mention that just as ethnic Turks were digesting the ideal of “cultural nationalism” so, too, were many ethnic Arabs within the Ottoman military and government. Arabs were becoming increasingly wary of the Ottoman government’s Turkification of the Empire. In view of this growing Turkish cultural influence, Arabs looked to their owns cultural past by reading books which spoke of heroes and the Arab conquest of Spain.40 Furthermore, those Arabs who were most effected by German policy, the military, surfaced as the movement’s vanguard and helped perpetuate various secret societies which sought to spread Arab identity and culture.41 In essence, a new form of nationalism was developing from the pattern which had been handed to the Turks by the Germans.

Aptly enough, after the creation of the kingdom of Iraq, many of the Arabs who had been educated by the Germans in the Ottoman Empire carried this sense of “cultural nationalism” southward. Especially after receiving its independence in 1932, Iraq was quick to develop as a hot-bed of Arab nationalism.42 With Syria and Palestine still under foreign control, the instinct for Arab nationalist leaders to turn to Iraq was natural. Truly, as it soon became vaunted as the Prussia of the Arab East, many Arabs looked to Iraq as the most promising country to achieve the pan-Arab union.43

Iraq’s fervent nationalist and pro-German sentiments did not elude the watchful eye of Berlin as the new German regime began to realize the importance in attaining an Arab-German rapprochement.44 In an effort to fan the Arab fire, as early as 1937, the German government initiated propaganda activities in the Arab East.45 And, in that same year, the head of the Hitler youth, Baldur von Schirach, made a visit to Baghdad.46 Nazi propaganda found an echo in the rise of paramilitary organizations such as Iraq’s Futuwwa, a group which was designed with the specific intent of bringing the nationalist ideal to the country’s youth.

Germany’s most effective agent in the Middle Eastern propaganda was Dr. Fritz Grobba. Schooled in Arab culture and history, and fluent in Arabic and Turkish, Grobba was no stranger to Middle Eastern affairs.47 He harbored much faith in the great potential of the pan-Arab movement. In late 1937, he believed that “the friendship of the Arabs for Germany [was] almost instinctual.” Grobba also felt that “the friendship of the Arabs for Germany [was] still active in the leading class in Iraq, Syria, and Palestine . . .” Grobba expressed his own views on the future of German policy in the Arab East by stating that “Even if Arab friendship towards Germany is determined above all by the Arab’s own interest, it is an important factor for Germany, which we can make both political and economic use of.”48 Quite clearly, it was not just those within the pan-Arab camp who saw promise in German-Iraqi collaboration.

Clearly, during the inter-war period, pro-German, nationalistic sentiment could be found both within the Iraqi military and government. And, as addressed, this ideology was to become especially poignant after the army’s rise to power in 1936. These attitudes coupled with the lingering sting of the wartime and post-war European agreements made Iraq a country which would be hostile to British interests while, at the same time, stand wide-open to those of Germany. With the Mufti’s move to Iraq in April 1939, the pan-Arab movement quickly surfaced as a significant threat to Great Britain’s Middle Eastern status quo. General Sabbagh of the “Golden Square” expressed his pre-coup Anglophobia by stating the following:

There is no murderous wolf for the Arabs and no deadlier foe of Islam than Great Britain. As for the Arabs, they have been torn apart into small coup-, tries communities and tribes that fight each other. Three hundred and fifty million Muslims are still groaning under the yoke of British imperialism. The bloody ‘Lion Heart’ of the Crusaders’ wars was an Englishman an so was Allenby, who conquered Jerusalem and said, ‘Now the Crusades are over.’ If you give some attention to the location of countries and continents, and if you understand the strategic significance of the British wars, you will then see that the Arabs have no future unless the British Empire comes to an end.49

Quite clearly, the Iraqi situation, on the eve of the war, was prime for revolt--Sabbagh’s words were truly representative of many within the Iraqi government.50 However, despite such pervading sentiment, there were several factors which the prospective conspirators faced. First, the steady Nuri Sa’id was wise to the intent of many of the ultra-nationalists within the government and endeavored to forestall any move to revolt by the extremists. Second, the Iraqi government was still bound to the 1930 Treaty of Alliance with Great Britain. Any breach of this treaty could signal a quick and resounding response from the British who persisted, despite their tenuous stance in the Arab East, to be the region’s most dominant military force. Thirdly, Germany was far away from Iraq--in 1939, the Hitler’s mind was set on attaining European hegemony, and fifteen hundred miles, in the meantime, kept German involvement in Iraq at a minimum. By no means would a nationalist coup be a ‘sure thing.’

Against this backdrop the Rashid Ali al-Kilani revolt took place--the Arab nationalist movement had found a home in Iraq, leadership in the Mufti, the military and Rashid Ali, an enemy in Great Britain, and in its eyes, an ally in Nazi Germany. Needless to say, by the fall of 1939, the smell of revolution permeated the Baghdad air. In the next chapter the events which made up the coup will be recounted in brief.

Top of Page


Last updated August 9, 2001. Please send comments, questions, and reports of problems to jcscott@saclink.csus.edu. Composed by: James C. Scott, CSUS Reference Librarian. Copyright ©: 2001.