About 7,000 Germans lived in post-war Cairo

Egypt’s secret Nazi brains trust

After a humiliating defeat in the war over Israel, the Egyptians wanted revenge

Books Magazine

This article is taken from the December/January 2023 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

One of the paradoxes of the early postwar era is that, after Germany’s defeat, the Nazis were vilified at the same time that their expertise was sought after by both Cold War superpowers. Germans played key roles in both sides’ space programmes. Less infamous is the part they also went on to play in the Egyptian rocket programme, one of the subjects in this fascinating and disturbing book.

Nazis on the Nile: The German Military Advisers in Egypt 1949-1967, Vyvyan Kinross (Nomad Publishing, £19.95)

After suffering a humiliating defeat in the war that followed the establishment of Israel, the Egyptians wanted revenge. As the British had refused to help them — despite maintaining a deeply unpopular and large presence astride the Suez Canal — Egypt’s sybaritic King Farouq turned to his enemy’s enemy instead. In 1949 he commissioned an Afrika Korps general, Artur Schmitt, to review the Egyptian army.

Having checked in to a Cairo hotel under the name “Herr Goldstein”, Schmitt inspected Egyptian units and went on to Syria to survey Israel from the Golan Heights. The Egyptians’ failure to combine tanks, artillery and infantry effectively, he decided, explained their “inability to take advantage of the early stages of fighting to wipe the State of Israel off the map”.

Schmitt’s forthright conclusions were unwelcome, and he did not stay long. But some younger Egyptian army officers shared his views and, after they had overthrown Farouq in 1952, they picked up where the king had left off. Within days they offered Fritz Voss, the former head of the Skoda arms factory in Pilsen, the job of masterminding the retraining of the army and the establishment of a military industrial base that could produce jet aircraft and missiles.

Voss in turn invited old contacts to join him, including Wilhelm Beisner, an SS officer who had been part of Einsatzkommando Egypt, which would have spearheaded the Holocaust in Palestine had Rommel won at El Alamein. The Germans found Egyptian working conditions challenging. “Here one has to act much more slowly than in Prussia,” complained a German instructor who found “Oriental sloppiness” irritating. Of forty tanks lined up for a parade to celebrate the first anniversary of the coup, just twelve made it past the junta’s rostrum.

The author, Vyvyan Kinross, is a consultant by profession. He has advised Arab governments and clearly understands the fundamental problems. “The battle” for the Germans, he writes, “was always to reconcile finance, resourcing and the expertise required to execute a sophisticated manufacturing process with the challenging conditions and logistics that prevailed in a country that was late to industrialise and financially underpowered.”

The most urgent task was the training of the fedayeen, guerrillas whom the Egyptian leadership wanted to set on the British, partly to stop them causing trouble elsewhere. For this Voss hired a tenacious former general, Wilhelm Fahrmbacher, who had held the German submarine base at Lorient until the bitter end of the war. Kinross, a natural raconteur, enjoys recounting how, to feed his men, Fahrmbacher mixed his dwindling stock of flour with the sawdust made from grinding up French railway sleepers. He had been imprisoned by the French for damaging state property after the war.

It did not take the British long to discover that the Germans were training their assailants. As many of these were members of the Muslim Brotherhood, and since Germany had encouraged the Ottomans to declare a jihad in 1914, the association touched a nerve. In 1953 Churchill personally raised the matter with the West German chancellor Konrad Adenauer, who said there was little he could do about private contractors plying a legitimate if distasteful trade. As a result, one journalist described seeing “blonde Afrika Corps giants” drinking beer and eating imported sausage by the pool of the Heliopolis Sporting Club.

Dr Johann von Leers

Having tried, through the jihad, to weaponise pan-Islamic feeling during the First World War, the Germans in the Second tried to rouse Arab antisemitism instead. One man they relied heavily on was the former Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, Hajj Amin al-Husseini, who spent much of the war in Berlin. Put under house arrest in Paris after the war, he conveniently escaped and bobbed up in Cairo. From there he reputedly put the Egyptian military attaché in Buenos Aires in touch with an old German colleague. The man’s name was Dr Johann von Leers.

While some of Kinross’s book is very darkly comic, the same cannot be said of the parts dealing with von Leers and his associates, who kept a much lower profile. One of Hitler’s earliest supporters, von Leers was a committed anti-Semite and a driven, effective propagandist. His output included books entitled Jewry and Knavery and Blood and Race. “Israel is abnormal,” he declared. “It is not big enough or fertile enough to supply millions of Jews for the homeland. It must go.”

Von Leers moved from South America to Cairo in April 1956, just before the Suez Crisis. Operating under the cover of an academic job as a translator and German teacher at a Cairo university, he may have been behind a film that came out at the end of the year and alleged, quite correctly, that the short Suez war resulted from collusion between Israel, France and Britain. When he suffered a stroke he was nursed back to health by a doctor, Hans Eisele, who had worked at Dachau and was accused of murdering at least 200 people with lethal injections.

Another of von Leers’s close associates was Alfred Zingler. He ran the Institute for the Study of Zionism, which published Arabic translations of Mein Kampf and, inevitably, the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. An Israeli spy reported that, in parallel, the Egyptians had set up a state security apparatus that seemed modelled on the SS.

Mossad embarked on a campaign of intimidation and assassination of the scientists

By 1956 it had a section registering Jewish property. Jews were rounded up when war broke out that autumn and shaken down — some of them aboard a disused Italian freighter that became known as “The Floating Hell”. The Jewish population of Egypt in 1956 was perhaps 50,000. By 2014 it was down to just twelve.

The Germans never numbered more than about 7,000 of Cairo’s then 3.5 million population. Egypt’s defeats in 1967 and 1973 raise the question of how much they mattered. The British chiefs of staff had argued in 1953 that the German presence was important because it “provides the Council of the Revolutionary Command just that amount of confidence which might well lead them into dangerous ventures”.

How accurate that was, was demonstrated in 1962 when, following a decade of German help, the Egyptians announced they had successfully launched four rockets. Nasser boasted that he could now hit anywhere “south of Beirut”. Mossad embarked on a campaign of intimidation and assassination of the scientists. Security around the rocket programme was tightened up and the scientists given pistols to protect themselves. Mossad’s campaign succeeded, however, and by 1967 the Germans had abandoned Cairo.

In his conclusion, Kinross does not mention one crucial consequence of the rocket programme, which was to push the United States and Israel together. The Egyptian test came just as the Americans were deliberating whether to sell the Israelis their state-of-the-art surface to air missile, HAWK; Nasser’s bellicose grandstanding gave the Israelis a clinching argument. The Egyptian decision to buy German know-how was ambitious, but ultimately came back to bite them.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover