Reeva Spector Simon – Iraq Between the Two World Wars

Reeva Spector Simon - Iraq Between the Two World Wars

Reeva Simon’s 2004 book, “Iraq Between the Two World Wars,” shows how Nazi Germany gained influence in Iraq and helped cultivate a militarist society.

Reeva Simon, in his 2004 book Iraq Between the Two World Wars, tries to answer why did a group from the Iraqi army seize control of the government and wage a disastrous war against Great Britain, rejecting British and liberal values, for those of a militaristic Germany? These army officers who turned to Germany were not Nazis. However, they did like the German idea of cultural nationalism, which they were taught in Ottoman schools in Istanbul. In these schools, they received their first taste of westernization at the hands of German military officers. Education was, thus, the key link between Germany and Iraq.

The Sharifians

This group of army officers who would influence the Iraqi military were known as “Sharifians.” They were a group of former Ottoman military officers who had been the backbone of the Arab revolt under King Faisal. They were mainly young men who were the products of a bureaucratic military education. They were dependent on their position within the military for their livelihood.

The Sharifians provided a new country with a new ideology. German influence led them to transmit a cultural nationalism with a militaristic bent. The 1871 German unification was seen as the model for Arab unification. The Iraqi officer corps, which was a distinct social class, learned to place an emphasis on the distinction between the ruler and the ruled.

German Influence in the Middle East

Simon shows what kind of influence Germany had in the Middle East. Germany never colonized the Middle East and, therefore, was not seen by many of the people as an enemy. When Britain began to acquiesce to Jewish immigration in the 1930s, more in the Middle East began to support the German anti-Jewish policy.

German radio broadcasts reached the Middle East in the 1930s and 1940s. These broadcasts emphasized British imperialism and its weakness while contrasting that with German strength and its support for pan-Arabism. German agents were also in Iraq. By 1942, British intelligence concluded that 95 percent of the Iraqi population was pro-German.

The most important chapter in the book is the chapter regarding German influence on Iraqi education. The British had lost control of Iraqi education in 1923. Much like in Germany under the Nazis, Iraqi schools would teach order, discipline, cooperation, love of the fatherland, and the role of the individual in service to the nation. Language and national history was emphasized. Students were taught to abandon their comfortable life and sacrifice for the nation.

Nationalists and pan-Arabists fought over control of education. From 1936 to 1940, historic “national” heroes became “Arab” heroes. Arab strength and unity was emphasized. Teachers, in effect, became political agents. The British were concerned about the violent anti-imperial and anti-British tone of the textbooks. Anti-British student riots and an increased militarism in schools also worried the British.

Army Led the Movement Toward Militarization

The army became an instrument of propagation for this militarism. It created loyalty to the country and stifled individualism. Following a 1933 military victory over the Assyrians, support for the Iraqi military grew. While the British did regain control of education in the 1940s, many Iraqis believed their form of “liberalism” was a sham and resisted it. The 1958 revolution brought back Arab nationalists who had been underground since 1941. By the mid-1960s, nationalism had once again become emphasized and accounts of the 1941 revolution had become a source of inspiration for Iraqi youth, including Saddam Hussein.


  1. Simon, Reeva. Iraq Between the Two World Wars: The Militarist Origins of Tyranny. New York: Columbia University Press, 2004.