Foiling Espionage in Berlin Radio’s Arabic Service
Among the Lufthansa passengers arriving in Berlin on April 5, 1939 was a cheerful, outgoing, dark-haired man in his late 30s. Though evidently a foreigner, he had a good command of the German language and confidently found his way through the crowds at the airport and into the bustling capital of the Third Reich. Yûnus Bahrî, Iraqi journalist and independence activist, had visited Berlin several times before. He had first met Joseph Goebbels in 1931, before Hitler had even come to power, to enlist the propaganda chief’s support for a newspaper Bahrî would publish in Baghdad. As war clouds were gathering over Europe, however, he was now embarked on quite a different mission: to launch and run Radio Berlin’s first-ever Arabic language service.
Bahrî was at the microphone on April 25, 1939, at the début of the new radio service. He would continue broadcasting from the German capital until April 30, 1945, after which he would make his way out of the rubble of the dying city, out of the country and, eventually back to the Middle East. There, in Beirut, Lebanon, Bahrî published a memoir of his career in Berlin under the title Hunâ Berlin! Hayiya al-'Arab! — “This is Berlin! Long live the Arabs!” — his trademark opening line from his broadcasts.
In his native Iraq, Bahrî had already made a name for himself. He was editor and publisher of the Baghdad daily newspaper al-'Uqâb ("The Eagle"), founded in 1931, and he had organized an Iraqi news agency. He had played an important role, as both an administrator and announcer, of his country’s first two radio stations (over one of which the country’s young king himself spoke each day). He also served as editor and director of the Iraqi periodical, “The Radio.”
In his memoir, Bahrî recounted how Dr. Erich Hetzler, an official with German Radio’s short wave service, visited him shortly after the Arabic-language service had begun its broadcasts. Hetzler, who was also a high ranking SS officer, invited the Iraqi broadcaster to accept a commission as a captain in the black uniformed elite. The idea, which Hetzler told him came from General Hermann Fegelein, an SS officer close to Hitler, was for Bahrî to recruit young Arabs living in Germany to form a special detachment. Bahrî agreed, but soon found that the appointment was far more than honorary. “Johannes Bahri,” as this Arab SS officer was officially known, underwent a tough course of military training from September 1939 to February 1940 to prepare him for work as a war reporter. He also recruited and sent out to various Arab countries a number of young volunteer correspondents who had to work secretly and under cover. None of the correspondents, Bahrî wrote later, ever sought payment for this extremely risky work. Bahrî himself was sentenced to death in absentia by the British-controlled Iraqi regime in late 1939.
So what was it that motivated Yûnus Bahrî and other Arabs to work so eagerly for the Third Reich? Before meeting Goebbels, Bahrî had been in the service of Saudi Arabia, the only major Arab country that was independent at the time, traveling widely to promote Arab and Islamic unity. As Bahrî later made clear in his memoir, his motivation for throwing in his lot with the Germans was not infatuation with Adolf Hitler or with the message of Mein Kampf. Bahrî, like millions of other Arabs in that age of colonialism, burned with the desire to expel the imperialist powers from the Arab world, to unite the Arab countries, and to frustrate international Zionism’s determined campaign to take Palestine. Germany alone among the great powers posed a credible challenge to the empires of Britain and France, and to Zionism. With events in Europe rapidly building to a climax, Bahrî and many of his compatriots felt that the cause of Arab liberation demanded that they contribute whatever they could to help the Reich defeat their common enemies.
Yûnus Bahrî wrote his memoir with Arab readers of the 1950s in mind. In a few places in the text he makes brief references to Arab personalities who are not directly relevant here. These have been deleted, as indicated with an ellipsis (…) In another instance, the author listed names of Arabic broadcasters in Berlin and their country of origin. Inasmuch as this long paragraph of Arabic names is of no particular relevance here, and might seem tedious to many readers, the names have been deleted. Instead, a sentence indicating the number of broadcasters from each Arab country has been added in brackets.
In the following excerpt, Bahrî recalls an episode from 1940. Shortly after the dismissal of one of the original Arab staff members, a new man, Dr. Zakî Karâm, joined the staff as a replacement.
-- The Translator
When Dr. Kamâl al-Dîn Jalâl was dismissed suddenly from the Arabic Service (for reasons that I still don’t know), someone suggested to Hamdî Khayât, one of our translator-broadcasters, that we hire Dr. Zakî Karâm to fill the vacancy. I had gotten to know Dr. Karâm many years before the start of the war. He had chosen Berlin as his third home, for he was a Syrian of Arab ancestry — from Aleppo, I think — but he had taken Turkish citizenship because he had served as an Ottoman officer in the First World War …
I hired Zakî Karâm and he proved an excellent successor to Dr. Jalâl. He and I came to work harmoniously together. Dr. Karâm had an excellent speaking voice, but he moved slowly because of his disability. He had been seriously wounded in the right leg during the First World War. The leg had been amputated and replaced with a wooden prosthesis that kept him from moving about freely. He hobbled about with difficulty, but was for all that very active. If you gave him any assignment, he would take care of it for you quickly and cheerfully.
Dr. Karâm had extensive connections with the leaders of the National Socialist Party in general and with the personnel in the Reich’s foreign ministry in particular. Among his friends he also counted many Arab and Muslim leaders throughout the Islamic world and abroad. Whenever the name of a new Middle East leader, or would-be leader, began to circulate, Dr. Karâm would plunge ahead and write to him, establishing personal contact.
Back in 1929, the late king 'Abd al-'Azîz Ibn Sa'ûd of Saudi Arabia sent me to Java, Indonesia [then the Dutch East Indies], in order to popularize the pilgrimage to Mecca. I was accompanied by the great Kuwaiti historian Shaykh 'Abd al-'Azîz al-Rashîd. In Batavia, now Jakarta, we published a magazine called “Kuwait and Iraq” in which we were the first in modern Arab history to call for the unification of Kuwait and Iraq. At that time Dr. Zakî Karâm had sent me an article he had written supporting our call for Kuwaiti-Iraqi unity, demonstrating that these two fraternal Arab countries together constitute a social and economic unit, neither of which can do without the other. He noted also the strategic importance of the unity of the two lands as regards their position on the sea and the land. King 'Abd al-'Azîz Ibn Sa'ûd also encouraged us in this movement. He funded our mission to Indonesia, and also spent his own personal money on the magazines we published there in Arabic and Malay.
Anyway, since that time I had been friends with Dr. Karâm.
With great energy, Dr. Karâm began his work with the Arabic broadcasts in Berlin. He had a good grasp of his new job responsibilities, and would translate the secret reports that came to us every day — “for our personal information,” and not for broadcast or publication — from various German armed forces commands, and from various German ministries. The doctor’s work was, in fact, extremely satisfactory. He gave me some relief from dealing with the laziness of Professor Faraj Allâhverdî (a Turkoman who was one of the station’s original translators), which was to become such a chronic problem by early 1941 that I took to calling him chief of the “gentry” of the station, where he had been chief of translation.
I helped get Dr. Karâm appointed as an additional broadcaster, thereby joining an elite group of announcers whom I had trained for the radio. [Altogether these now numbered three from Iraq, one from Lebanon, two from Palestine, two from Syria, and one each from Jordan, Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia.] Thus the staff of the Arabic service in Berlin became a miniature Arab League. This was in addition to a tumultuous army of editors, writers, translators, and male and female typists.
When [after the fall of France] we set up the Arabic service of Radio Paris as a branch of our service in Berlin, I was asked to go to Tangier (Morocco) to recruit broadcasters for the North African Arabic service of Paris Radio. I excused myself because of the heavy accumulation of work as a result of the raucous “war of the ether” being waged against us from London, Cairo, Omdurman, Baghdad and Ankara.
I requested instead that one of my assistants fly to Madrid, and from there to Tangier. The next day Dr. Karâm came to me and asked that I send him on the mission to Tangier. He said he could carry out the job well, on account of the fact that he had a Turkish passport and would not attract the attention of Allied spies in that international city, a place overrun with spies, mercenaries, and colonial agents.
I asked, skeptically, “Won’t your leg give you trouble on the trip?”
He replied smiling, “I'm an old soldier. I can carry out the mission. After all, I'm not going there to compete in an international track meet.”
“Be ready to travel tomorrow,” I told him. And in fact Dr. Karâm did the job very well, and he earned everybody’s trust.
Two months after Dr. Karâm returned from his trip to Tangier, I received a visit by Herr Schabeu, Near East specialist for the National Socialist Party’s philosopher, Alfred Rosenberg, and also one of Admiral Wilhelm Canaris' most important men in Berlin. Schabeu was, beside all that, a close friend of mine. He and I had spent many pleasant evenings in his home, and we would maintain our friendship until the last days of Berlin.
Before he sat down, Herr Schabeu asked with an uncharacteristic frown, “Does this person work at the radio?” And he showed me a passport.
I said that we had sent the owner of this passport to Tangier two months earlier on a secret mission, and he had carried it out admirably.
He stared at me inquiringly and asked, “Do you trust him?”
“Completely,” I replied. “But everybody trusts him!”
“Where is he now?” he asked.
“We gave him a week’s leave starting tomorrow,” I told Schabeu, “to go to Vienna to visit his wife. She’s undergoing medical treatment there.”
“Yesterday your colleague applied for an exit visa from Germany to go to Turkey,” he told me.
“And what’s wrong with that?” I asked.
Herr Schabeu looked at me in surprise and then said, “Your colleague trusts you completely. Can you help us uncover what’s really going on with him?”
“How can I help you?” I asked.
“Catch a flight tonight to Vienna,” he said. “Be in the main lobby of the Imperial Hotel tomorrow morning at ten. A room has already been reserved for you at the hotel.”
I hurriedly recorded my political commentaries for the next day’s radio broadcast, and at nine o'clock that night I was in Vienna. I had lots of friends there, but I really just wanted to enjoy an evening away from the dreadful darkness and silence of the Berlin nights during the blackout — die Verdunkelung — that now was in force in most of the country’s major cities. Vienna, in contrast, would remain bathed in bright electric lights until the end of 1940.
My old friend Faraj Tûmâ was the former director of Iraqi Immigration. He had come to live in Vienna in 1932 when a chest ailment forced him into retirement. The doctors had advised him to go to Vienna for treatment. Mr. Tûmâ was an Arab who particularly loved helping other Arabs and looking out for their needs. It made no difference to him whether one was from Iraq or Syria or Egypt or Morocco — anyone who spoke Arabic represented to him the Arab world, with all its diverse ways, countries, and dialects. The fact is, Faraj Al Tûmâ was an example of those generous Arabs who would never turn down any request. Because he had lived for a long time in Paris, Berlin and Vienna, he knew the long-time Arab residents of Germany better than anybody…
I telephoned Mr. Tûmâ from the Victoria Café in the aristocratic Vienna district known as Schottentor, or “Scottish Gate.” He asked, “Where are you calling from?”
“I'll be at your place in less than a quarter of an hour,” I told him.
At the appointed time I was next to my friend Faraj, who was a walking encyclopedia of information on the Arabs living in Germany, France and Austria. Given that he had been director of the police department that oversaw immigration and residence in Iraq, he would keep track of everyone’s comings and goings just because he liked to be in the know, as well as out of a certain cop inquisitiveness that by now had become an instinct.
Mr. Faraj Al Tûmâ was, unlike his “namesake” Faraj Allâhverdî at the radio station, a fierce enemy of everything Turkish or Ottoman. Around the time the war broke out he was in Germany, and he went out of his way to uncover any slip-ups made by Turks or their supporters, especially because the province of Alexandretta had been detached from Syria and given to Atatürk’s Turkey [by the French mandate authorities in 1937].
My friend Faraj welcomed my arrival and asked about my beautiful lady friends Gerda Mason and Fräulein Jeneka. I assured him they were still fine and that I still enjoyed mutual love and affection in my relations with each of them.
“So, what’s the secret behind this sudden visit?” he asked.
“Just a change of atmosphere,” I replied.
“The political atmosphere — or the love atmosphere?”
“Both,” I answered.
With the self-assured tone of a policeman he said, “Come on, Yûnus, you've come to ask me about some Arab guy, isn’t that right?”
“Actually I'm not in town to visit you exactly,” I said. “I was asked to go to Vienna, and once I was here I phoned you to see if we could spend a wild night in the bars of Grinzing, listening to Schrammelmusik, and enjoying Hans Moser and his famous orchestra.”
“Okay, just tell me clearly. I'm ready to help you,” he said.
“Do you know Dr. Zakî Karâm?” I asked.
“Yes,” I said.
And without hesitating or thinking he responded, “He’s a Turkish agent.”
At ten o'clock the next morning I was in the big lobby of the Imperial Hotel. Ten minutes later I saw my friend, Herr Schabeu, enter the lobby and look to the right and left. I waved to him and he came over. Without shaking hands he said, “Let’s go outside.”
We got in a car and headed for the Turkish consulate.
There, in front of the entrance to the Turkish consulate at half past ten a traditional Vienna taxicab pulled up and stopped. Dr. Karâm got out carrying a briefcase bulging at the seams. As soon as Herr Schabeu saw him he bolted out of our car like lightning, overtook Karâm, and whispered some words to him that I couldn’t hear. The doctor retraced his steps to our car, looking troubled and alarmed. But when he saw me he seemed reassured, and said, “Everything’s okay, right? What’s going on?”
I said, “I really don’t know anything about it.”
The doctor got into our car, his brow wet with perspiration, and asked, “So what’s this story you're acting out with me?”
I said, “The matter isn’t about you personally. It’s about Germany.”
“How am I related to Germany?” he asked.
“Like the wolf to the lamb,” I said.
“What do you mean?”
Schabeu intervened, “You are working both sides of the street, the Turkish and the German, or to be more precise, you're working for the Allies.”
“That’s a dirty crime I'd never stoop to,” he protested.
Schabeu replied, “We'll sort this out soon enough.”
In a splendid suite in the Imperial Hotel in Vienna we sat, the three of us, studying each other’s faces. We sat in silence, like ones beheaded. We could almost hear the powerful throb of the doctor’s heartbeat. After half an hour I wanted to leave to go to my room and change my shoes, but there were two giant Sicherheitsdienst security service agents barring the door. When I tried to go out, a third guard standing in the middle of the hallway motioned politely for me to go back inside.
I returned and tried to interpret the face of my friend Schabeu, but it told me nothing. After a quarter hour, the double doors opened and four men, all in civilian clothes walked in. The senior one stepped forward, opened a door to an adjacent second room, and asked Dr. Karâm to please step inside. The doctor picked up his briefcase and went into the room with the four men. Schabeu and I remained alone.
An hour passed and we still waited.
As the clock struck one p.m., a German officer with the rank of lieutenant-colonel looked in on us, gave a military salute and then spoke to me in Turkish!
“I believe you can read Turkish written in the Arabic alphabet?”
I replied in the affirmative.
[Prior to the 1920s, Turkish was written in the Arabic alphabet. After the fall of the Ottoman empire, Kemal Atatürk’s nationalist government banned the use of Arabic script, replacing it with a version of the Latin alphabet. Anyone studying Turkish from that time on, including presumably the German lieutenant colonel, would learn the language in the Latin alphabet. Bahrî, on the other hand, grew up and was educated in Iraq when it was still an Ottoman province, and was familiar with the older written form of Turkish. — The translator]
He said, “Please …” and motioned us to the door through which the doctor and the four men in civilian clothing had passed earlier. There was no sign of the doctor inside, but on a massive table lay his briefcase with its contents spread out — various maps, statistics from the Todt Organization and from Hitler Youth institutions, photographs of the most important secret reports that came to us in the radio service from various commands of the German armed forces!
More noteworthy than all of this was a detailed account of all the employees of German radio’s Indian, Iranian, Turkish, and Arabic services, with our pictures, addresses, telephone numbers, citizenship statuses, countries of origin, and the dates each of us had started work for German radio.
I was astonished at this mass of information about us. Even I was not privy to all this kind of detailed data about our staff.
I stared in dismay at the papers and documents. I looked at the captivating yet frightening scene and pictured to myself the delight that these rare documents would excite in the soul of whoever would take possession of them in Ankara. He would be either an American or a Briton, for Turkey would not be interested in anything about us. This proved that the Turkish capital was serving only as a “post office box” for the British and their allies.
As he handed me one of the three fat file folders that lay next to Dr. Karâm’s briefcase, the German lieutenant colonel asked me, “Where did this report come from?”
I read in the Turkish written in the Arabic alphabet that the source was “Berlin, No. 21", and I wanted to read more, but he politely interrupted me, “I'd like you to stop there.” Then he asked me: “Have you taken the oath?”
I told him, “I'm a German officer with the rank of captain,” and I presented my military identification card, which had the authority of a diplomatic passport.
“Read, in the name of the Führer,” he told me.
“Report number 63, dated December 10, 1940.” I read the report in a loud voice in Turkish while the German lieutenant colonel, whose name I never learned, translated and wrote out the text in German.
Report number 63 contained a detailed description of the course of the Spanish-German negotiations concerning the future relations between the Führer and the Caudillo — the Spanish leader Francisco Franco — and about the [proposed] unification of Morocco by combining Tangier and the French occupied zone, together with the Khalifal areas, and placing Sultan Mohammed V, king of Morocco, and his country under a Spanish protectorate. In accordance with this arrangement, the three parts of Morocco would be transferred from French occupation to Spanish occupation. In return for this “modification” of North African politics, General Franco would commit himself to declare war on Britain and to join with the German and Italian armed forces in occupying Gibraltar and closing the Strait, or, more precisely, closing the Mediterranean Sea in Britain’s face.
Report 63 was actually a collection of 15 reports that had come from different agents and sources in 15 cities, and in particular from Madrid, Rome, Paris, Tangier, and Tétouan. They had been sent to the “number 21” headquarters in Berlin, where they were studied, correlated and given their final form in the light of the private reports drawn from trusted sources.
Our work on the papers took just three hours. During that time I also took pictures of all the documents, reports and photographs. False reports that looked like the originals were inserted in the papers and folders. They brought in a briefcase that looked exactly like the doctor's, full of its contents, and sealed with the same wax seal and initials.
The German counterintelligence department, headed by Admiral Canaris, accomplished miracles of outstanding forgery so precise that they bordered on genius. The department had kept Dr. Karâm under surveillance since Hitler attacked Poland, that is since early October 1939. When I hired him to work at Berlin radio, his massive leather briefcase made Canaris’s men suspicious. The doctor used to carry the big case, in spite of its weight, and despite the fact that he was of slight build, was disabled, and couldn’t walk half a kilometer in an hour. So they measured his briefcase, and noted its appearance inside and out. I myself never wondered at the doctor’s case, for I never knew anything about these details until after the dove had fallen into the trap …
Indeed, it caused them to be suspicious when the doctor replaced his old briefcase with a attractive new one made of expensive pigskin. This was particularly remarkable because all types of leather were considered wartime necessities and rationed according to the Third Reich’s wartime measures.
When the first four men escorted the doctor from the room where we were all sitting, they took away his original briefcase and replaced it with their own sealed copy of his case. Then, after we had done what we needed to do with his original briefcase, the duplicate one was slipped away, and his own case was returned to him, the sealed security band indicating it had never been opened.
Thus Dr. Zakî Karâm was made to feel secure. He returned to us by himself at five o'clock and told me, now with his usual voice again, “You did me wrong, Mr. Bahrî. Didn’t I tell you I was innocent?”
I said, “Congratulations! Thank God for such a good outcome.”
We let Dr. Karâm finish his mission quite freely and without surveillance. He was in the Austrian capital only as a “postman,” after all, taking “mail,” some authentic and some forged, to its addressee. And only God really knows secrets. After he had left his briefcase or “mail” in the care of the Turkish consulate, he rejoined us. We returned to Berlin, with our valuable catch, on a special military flight. Then, the next day, the doctor caught a flight for Istanbul. Altogether, Dr. Karâm spent a week on leave in Vienna and in Turkey. Then one day I heard the familiar clumping of the doctor’s heavy military boot as he made his way down the long wooden hallway leading to my office.
The doctor came in and embraced me like a long lost brother. He asked, “When do I start work?”
“Doctor,” I said, “the fact is, and I won’t hide it from you, that here at the Arabic service we don’t really need high level scientific qualifications or great scholars of the Arabic language. We need young people who want to finish their study. We help them materially to continue their education. You, on the other hand, by God’s grace and by virtue of your old military exploits, have already amassed property and wealth that anyone would envy. I'm prepared to give you six months' salary as compensation.”
Now, Dr. Karâm was greedier than a locust, always on the lookout for new ways to make money, to count it and to relish it. With lightning speed he calculated the sum, for he was a Turkish artillery officer and knew his math. It amounted to a mouth-watering amount.
Thus it was that the doctor’s mission ended. He left the radio station for his home, where he remained under surveillance for the rest of the war. And with that we turned another page in the history of Berlin Radio’s Arabic service.
This account is a translation of a portion of the memoir of Yûnus Bahrî (1902?-1979), Hunâ Berlin! Hayiya al-'Arab!, volume five, pages 79-93, published in Beirut in 1956 by Matb'at al-Jihâd. It is translated from the Arabic by E.G. Müller, an Arab studies specialist with a Master’s degree in political science who is currently working on a Ph.D. at an American university.