Tuesday, April 17, 2018

National Socialism (Nazis) and Arab Socialist Ba’ath Party


scotsman |  In Arabic, baath means renaissance or resurrection. The Baath Arab Socialist Party, to give the organisation its formal title, is the original secular Arab nationalist movement, founded in Damascus in the 1940s to combat Western colonial rule. But since then, the Baath Party has undergone many chameleon-like twists in belief and purpose. Even the young men in Iraq who today claim its discredited banner might be surprised at the party’s real origins. 

Those beginnings lie thousands of miles to the west, in the leafy streets and pavement cafes of the left bank of the Seine in Paris. 

Here, in the 1930s, the two founders of the Baath Party were educated at the Sorbonne University. They were middle-class Arabs from the then French colony of Syria. 

Michael Aflaq was a Greek Orthodox Christian and would become the main ideologue of Baathism, preaching freedom from Western colonialism, Arab unity and socialism. And Salah al-Din Bitar, born of a Muslim family in Damascus, would be the practical politician, later becoming prime minister of an independent Syria. 

Back home in French Syria, they became teachers by day and political intriguers by night. Early Baathist ideas were strongly fringed with fascism, as you might expect from a group of men whose ideas were formed in France in the turbulent Thirties. 

The movement was based on classless racial unity, hence the strong anti-Marxism, and on national socialism in the scientific sense of the word, such as nationalised industry and an autarkic economy serving the needs of the nation. Hence, the antipathy towards Western capitalism. 

But the rise of German fascism also played a role. Many in the Arab world saw Hitler as an ally. In 1941, the Arab world was electrified by a pro-Axis coup in Baghdad. At that time, Iraq was nominally independent but Britain maintained a strong military presence. An Arab nationalist by the name of Rashid Ali al-Kailani organised an army coup against the pro-British Iraqi monarchy and requested help from Nazi Germany. In Damascus, then a Vichy French colony, the Baath Party founders immediately organised public demonstrations in support of Rashid Ali. 

After the Second World War, the Baathists emerged as the leadership of Arab nationalism for two reasons. First, they were the only force with a coherent ideology. Second, the existing Arab political elites were blamed for the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948. Nor was Islam a competitor. For the Western-educated founders of Baathism, Islam smacked of backwardness. For the nascent Islamic fundamentalists, the Baathists were substituting Arabism for the much wider historic conquests of Muslim civilisation. But it was that pan-Arab nationalism that appealed to discontented Arab youth in the Fifties and Sixties. 

Baathism had something else to offer these youths: its tight, disciplined internal organisation which - at any rate, before the party became corrupt - stood in sharp contrast to the ramshackle nature of many Arab civil institutions. 

Like the Nazi and Communist parties, the Baath is organised through small cells in a rigid hierarchy. Members are expected to devote their life to the party. In Iraq, would-be members pass through four stages even before becoming a full member: supporter, sympathiser, nominee and trainee. Currently, there are about two million Iraqis in these categories. The system requires passing successfully a series of tests, so full members of Saddam’s Baathist organisation are the most hardened and fanatical of his supporters. 

With war looming, Saddam has extended this principle with the establishment of Fedayeen Saddam, many of whom have been in action against allied troops. The Fedayeen consists of teenage level members or novices eager to move up in the Baath hierarchy ladder. In this respect, they are very reminiscent of the Hitler Youth. 

It is estimated that there are about 40,000 full members of the Baath Party in Iraq. Each is assigned to an autonomous cell. A cell consists of three to five members, only one of whom would have a link to the next level of operation. This limits the ability to penetrate the organisation from without. This structure was born of the original clandestine and illegal life of the Baathists before they came to power.