Swastikas in Damascus

Syria under the Assads has long harbored a soft spot for Nazism. The revolution is changing that

Swastikas in Damascus
Hitler stamps at a stall in Beirut’s Sunday market/ Photo credit: Asser Khattab

A new death notice appeared in a Lebanese village north of Beirut last September, glued to a public wall. As residents of the village went about their days, some of them probably stopped, out of habit, to read the name of the man who had recently died. It would have been a scene repeated every day in Syrian and Lebanese villages: Those who didn’t know the deceased proceeded to peruse the names of his surviving family members to find out whether condolences were in order.

There was more to this particular death notice, however, than the news of the death itself. People took pictures of it and posted it to social media, where it immediately went viral. Incredulous, people read the name of the deceased man, written in big, bold font in the center of the poster: Hitler Zakhia Bassil.

Not much was shared about Mr. Bassil himself. But the names of his sons, Adolf and Addie, hinted at something of a family tradition. I was aghast when a photo of the poster reached me via WhatsApp, from a friend looking for a laugh.

I spent my life between Aleppo, Damascus, and Beirut before moving to Paris a year ago. I’ve encountered countless such anecdotes, which seem to be the haphazard leftovers of some combination of enduring government propaganda and a lack of actual World War II and Holocaust education.

Despite the rejection of the ideology by the vast majority of the population in Syria and Lebanon, symbols associated with Nazism were there, out in the open, and having a swastika tattoo or waving a Nazi flag did not land a person in jail or lead to a financial penalty. The first time I remember seeing a swastika was at the all-boys Presbyterian school I attended for 12 years in Aleppo. Al-Saleeb al-Ma’qouf, the Hooked Cross, was one of many symbols that boys would mindlessly carve into their desks, scribble on the walls of the bathroom, or sketch in textbooks. Most of them, I would learn, didn’t even know what the symbol meant. Those who did, didn’t know much.

School management didn’t rush to remove those symbols, or try to ban them, more than they did any other symbol or writing on the wall.

Every Syrian school had to provide “National Socialist Upbringing” classes from seventh to 12th grade. We were taught about the “immortal leader” Hafez al-Assad and the achievements of “the leader of the march of development and modernization,” his son, Bashar al-Assad. Their dictatorial regime has been in power in Syria for 50 years, decades longer than Hitler managed.

The subject also addressed Syria’s permanent state of war with the Israeli occupation, which the Assad regime used to justify decades of state-of-emergency repression. Teachers of this subject often attacked “the Jews” who robbed Palestinians of their land and turned them into refugees.

The regime itself reportedly benefited firsthand from Nazi help. Alois Brunner, an SS officer who was a close aide of Adolf Eichmann and was responsible for the deaths of an estimated 130,000 Jews during World War II, managed to flee Nazi Germany and ended up in Syria, where he remained until his death, allegedly in 2001. Brunner was reportedly granted political asylum in Syria in exchange for sharing his knowledge and expertise in intelligence work and torture methods with the Syrian mukhabarat.

Two Syrians I spoke with recently – one now in Italy, the other in Lebanon – remembered how, out of all of Shakespeare’s works, “The Merchant of Venice” was chosen in the Syrian curriculum. They suspected the reason was the play’s perceived antisemitism. Shylock, the antagonist, is a Jewish moneylender with many of the stereotypes that anti-Semitic people ascribe to Jews.

But as kids, our minds were elsewhere. At some point, it seemed that every student around me with an interest in history wanted to talk about one thing: World War II.

I would read books on the subject: key battles, political events in the lead-up to the war, the Weimar Republic after the Treaty of Versailles. My friends seemed more interested in other things. They asked me if I knew that Hugo Boss had produced uniforms for the Stormtroopers (SA) and the Protection Squadrons (SS), and that Hitler ordered production of the Volkswagen because he wanted ordinary German people (the volk) to have an affordable car (wagen). They didn’t seem to know about Kristallnacht, the camps, the gas chambers. Most hadn’t read a book about Hitler, including his own “Mein Kampf,” of which mostly abridged Arabic-language copies are still found in almost every bookshop in Syria.

Away from school, I was active in Syria’s scouts. I never joined the marching band, which mostly participated in political events – such as the time it celebrated Bashar al-Assad’s victory in a 2007 sham referendum to extend his presidency for a second seven-year term. But I do remember one of the members playing “Horst-Wessel-Lied,” the anthem of the Nazi Party, on his phone. We were members of the same “pack,” hanging out at one of our weekly meetings. He suggested to us that the marching band should play the song at their next event.

As terrible as the prospect of hearing that song in the streets of Aleppo sounded, I thought it wouldn’t be completely out of place at a pro-Assad march. I didn’t share that thought.

Those around me who sported some vague admiration for Hitler almost always supported the Assads, Iraq’s Saddam Hussein, or Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Some of them sought to join the Syrian Social Nationalist Party (SSNP), established by Antoun Saadeh, a 20th century politician who spoke of the superiority of Middle Eastern Arabs over Africans and Syrians over neighboring peoples. Unlike the Assads’ Arab Socialist Baath Party and the many other political and social movements that called for a unity of Arab nations, the SSNP believed in the Syrian nation, a Greater Syria that would include modern Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, Iraq, and Jordan. Saadeh himself was Lebanese.

The anthem of the SSNP, its flag, and its own version of Führerkult around Saadeh seem to some as the closest one could get to a Nazi ideology that is alive and well in the region, though today’s SSNP tries to distance itself from some of Saadeh’s right-wing racial theories.

I’ve tried understanding where some of this right-wing sentiment, of a seemingly Nazi-esque flavor, may have originated. In 1939, Hitler and his Minister of Propaganda, Joseph Goebbles, launched the Radio Berlin Arabic-language program. The program broadcast across the Middle East and North Africa and told Arab listeners that everything they had heard about Hitler hating Arabs and assigning them a low “racial status” was wrong. It even broadcast Quran recitations, in what seemed to have been an attempt to steal listeners from the BBC’s Arabic-language radio service.

The Nazis also developed relations with Muslim public figures, most notably Hajj Mohammad Amin al-Husseini, the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem at the time. Husseini knew Hitler personally. And, despite what Radio Berlin used to say, Arabs suffered because of Nazism too. Hundreds of Arab nationals, Muslims, Christians, and Jews alike, were led to concentration camps under Hitler.

Adolf Hitler talking to Grand Mufti Hajj Mohammad Amin al-Husseini/Photo by Keystone/Getty Images

We were never taught this. And yet at some point, I began hearing a startling number of Syrians quoting Hitler and discussing his views and political career. Some would mutter the common, and not altogether accurate, claims that Germany “rose from the ashes” of World War I and from the confines of the Treaty of Versailles and that the lives of German citizens greatly improved under Hitler before World War II began in September 1939.

Those were mostly teenagers who had seen a clip of the dictator delivering a tirade and went about glorifying him without any real knowledge of who he was. Some might have heard a quote out of context and went about repeating it. Others, perhaps, were filtering their world through a warped understanding of anti-imperialism and anti-Zionism, cornerstones of the ruling Baath Party, whose ideologies we learned at school.

“I could have killed all Jews, but I left some of them alive in order to show you why I was killing them.” Hitler never once said these words, but I remember the made-up quote circulating on Facebook since the site gained popularity among Syrians around 2009. It was usually paired with a black background and a photo of Hitler himself.

Made-up Hitler quotes were so common that one had him saying: “Stop making up quotes and attributing them to me.” One of the most shared ones was: “Give me a Syrian soldier and a German weapon and I will conquer the world.” This one reincarnated several times, appearing as a Palestinian soldier, or an Iraqi, an Algerian or a Moroccan – and so on.

As a journalist, I used to roam the streets of Damascus and Aleppo, oftentimes with colleagues who were visiting from abroad. We always attracted curious attention from passersby and shopkeepers.

One day, a few years into the war in Syria, I was walking with German colleagues in Damascus’ Old City when a group of children approached us.

“Where are you from?” one boy asked, in broken yet understandable English.

“Almania!” said one of the journalists I was with, proud that he knew the name of his home country in Arabic.

“Almania! Almania!” the children cheered, as the journalist grinned.

“Hetlar! Hetlar!”

His grin disappeared.

Further into the Old City lies the beautiful neighborhood of Al-Qaimarryeh. Iconic shops line its main street, one after the other: a carpet seller, a saj restaurant, a vintage DVD shop, a bakery famous for its croissants, boutique hotels and traditional eateries, and a few gift shops. One of those gift shops is famous for using an Israeli flag as a doormat (or it may have been that the flag was painted on the floor) because its owner wanted every customer to step on it when entering and leaving. The shop also had a few swastika necklaces in stock, and it wasn’t the only place you could find them in the city.

I never knew anyone who possessed such a necklace: Who buys them, and the extent of their knowledge about the symbol, is a mystery to me.

I remembered this shop, a few years later, when I lived in Beirut. On one of my weekend trips to the Sunday Market, where you can find anything from secondhand clothes to antique tableware, shishas, gramophones, and wooden backgammon boxes, I stopped by a stall selling old coins, stamps, vintage posters, and vinyl records. My friends flipped through old rock albums and film posters, while I browsed the stamps. To my horror, I saw the face of Adolf Hitler on at least a dozen of them, solemnly staring off to the side. “Third Reich Stamps,” a small piece of paper pinned below the collection read.

The next time I visited the Sunday Market, the Hitler stamps were gone.

When I first thought to write this article, I reached out to several friends to see whether they had their own anecdotes. I thought maybe it was just me who kept running into Nazi tropes and symbols.

I was wrong.

“I once bought a necklace engraved with the word ‘freedom,’” a friend who lives in Beirut told me. “The same shop sold swastikas.”

Another friend, who lives in Aleppo, said, “I also know a guy named Hitler. … he used to work at my university.”

Someone else in Lebanon told me that during the 2010 World Cup, some Mannschaft supporters there carried not only the German flag but also a Nazi flag.

When hundreds of thousands of Syrians entered Germany seeking asylum in 2015, some observers feared they may not be able to integrate in German society, not only because of cultural and religious differences but also because of a perception that Syrians are somehow antisemitic.

Germany’s acceptance of those refugees, however, gave way to a far bigger rise in right-wing sentiments and xenophobic hostilities, which Europe had not seen since the collapse of the Third Reich, than it did to antisemitism. Many of the anti-migrant right-wingers indirectly expressed their yearning for the era of National Socialism, without bluntly expressing support for it, which is forbidden in Germany. Some wore shirts that read “12 Golden Years” at right-wing concerts in small German towns, a reference to the duration of Hitler’s reign. (It no doubt says something about fascism’s lingering appeal in the Levant that the most recognizable Syrian refugee in Germany is Kevork Almassian, a staunch defender of the Assad regime and an apologist of its war crimes. Almassian works for Germany’s neo-Nazi and staunchly anti-migrant party Alternative für Deutschland, or AfD, in which capacity he has advocated banning additional Syrian refugees from entering Germany and falsely portrayed Syria as safe. German authorities revoked Almassian’s asylum in January, claiming he was not under threat of persecution.)

Over the past 10 years, millions of Syrians have seen the lengths an oppressor is willing to go to preserve his power and consolidate it further.

I am still in touch with many of my friends from school days, and none of them espouses any National Socialist ideology or has any admiration for Hitler. Many of those who went to Germany have learned about the country’s history and the suffering of Europe’s Jewish population.

It’s been years since I last saw a photo of a swastika or Hitler on Facebook. But I believe this has not simply been the result of enhanced Facebook algorithms or the hard work of content moderators. Over the past 10 years, millions of Syrians have seen the lengths an oppressor is willing to go to preserve his power and consolidate it further. They have been victims of discriminatory acts outside Syria by people who espouse views similar to those of Hitler and his followers.

Misinformed infatuation with a long-gone dictator from a distant country might have been easy before, but Syria’s own misery may be dealing it a much-deferred, fatal blow.

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