By Shaykh Mustafa Umar
“A Dictionary of Modern Written Arabic” is one of the best and most widely used Arabic-English dictionaries in the world. Islamic Studies scholars who need a translation from Arabic to English often rely on it as their primary source for checking words. It is the first dictionary listed in the online Arabic Almanac hosted on ejtaal.net. Although Lane’s Lexicon is richer, the Dictionary of Modern Written Arabic is more usable and up to date.
The dictionary was primarily authored by Hans Wehr. It was published in German in 1952 (titled Arabisches Wörterbuch) and continues to be reprinted. Many people refer to it as “The Hans-Wehr Dictionary”. Most people don’t know, and probably don’t care, about the author of a highly technical work like a dictionary or a math workbook. That is because there is little room for a writer to insert their own ideas into such a text. The same is the case with this Arabic dictionary: there was no opportunity for Hans to insert his own personal bias into the dictionary. Nonetheless, it is interesting to know the author’s history and how the book came about.
A Nazi Project
Hans Wehr was born in 1909 in Germany. For his career he became an Arabist, focusing on Arabic language and culture. He joined the Nazi party in 1940 and wrote an essay convincing his government to ally with “the Arabs” against England and France by supporting his dictionary project. The Nazi government liked the idea and funded the dictionary. It would then be used to translate Adolf Hitler’s autobiography ‘Mein Kampf’ into proper Arabic using just the right words that resonate with Arabs.
Hitler died in 1945 and the Nazis surrendered a week later. Hans Wehr appeared before a denazification commission in 1947 and there is an entire file on him with the excuses he presented for himself. He was classified as a “Mitlaufer” (follower) and was ordered to pay 36.40 deutschmarks for “atonement” and legal costs for his trial. Hans was eventually freed, and his dictionary was finally published in 1952, seven years after the downfall of the Nazis. An English version of the dictionary was later published and was edited by J. Milton Cowan. Hans Wehr became professor at the University of Münster from 1957–1974 and died in 1981.
An Unacknowledged Jewish Contributor
Hedwig Klein was a Jewish woman born in Germany and was a naturalized German citizen. She eventually joined the University of Hamburg to study Islamic Studies, Semitic Studies, and English Philology. She was admired by her teachers who gave her the Arabic nickname shakkākah (a female skeptic) since she would ask so many questions.
She completed her PhD dissertation in 1937 preparing a critical edition of an Arabic manuscript on early Islamic history. Her PhD supervisor Rudolf Strothmann later called her dissertation “a worthy contribution to Islamic Studies” and it received the distinction of summa cum laude (with highest honors). However, a decree issued by the Minister for Education and National Culture on April 15, 1937 stated that Jews could no longer be allowed to attend doctoral examinations. She appealed the decision and managed to convince the heads of the university to grant her an exemption. On the list of graduates being considered it was written: “Hedwig Klein. Jew, admitted as an exception.”
Her thesis was scheduled to be printed in 1938. The PhD certificate was already printed but then a “senior government advisor” convinced the university to not issue the degree anymore. On the cover of her doctoral exam it was written: “No doctoral certificate issued: Jew.”
She began writing letters pleading for help. Her friend Carl Rathjens was an economic geographer and managed to get Klein a job as professor of Arabic in Bombay. She left Hamburg on August 19, 1939 heading towards British India. A few days later, the Germans invaded Poland, and the second World War began. The ship was ordered to return to Hamburg immediately.
Klein was stuck. Her former professor tried to help her by reaching out to Hans Wehr. She got the job to analyze modern Arabic literature for his dictionary project. She wrote down the meanings of Arabic words on slips of paper and mailed them to the editor’s office. She was paid 10 pfennigs for every entry and was praised for her “excellent quality”. Despite the great work, her former professor was told by someone working on the project on August 8, 1941: “Though of course it will be completely impossible for her to be credited as a contributor later.” Klein was saved from deportation for a few months because, as a project manager wrote, “unfortunately the number of Aryan contributors is not sufficient.”
But six months later, the university could not keep her any longer. On July 11, 1942, Klein was forced to leave Hamburg to the Auschwitz concentration camp. She did not survive. After the war, her friend Carl Rathjens managed to get 56 copies of her doctoral thesis printed. Despite being dead, on August 15, 1947, Hedwig Klein is officially declared a “Doctor of Philosophy”. On April 22, 2010, a brass plate inscribed with her name, along with other murdered Jewish academics, is placed outside the main buildings of the University of Hamburg.
Ethics of Using the Dictionary
Arguments have been made that a dictionary produced by Nazi Germany should be boycotted for various reasons. First, it was funded and produced for a Nazi agenda. Second, contributors like Dr. Klein are not properly credited. Third, Hans Wehr did join the Nazi party and therefore his name does not deserve to be referenced respectfully.
Do these reasons, and others, warrant a boycott? I do not think so, for the following reasons. First, boycotts are supposed to be functional and not just symbolic. Does boycotting the dictionary actually hurt the Nazi cause in any way, shape, or form now? No. Second, there is no Nazi ideology in the book at all. Third, the book was published seven years after the downfall of the Nazi party. It never accomplished its objective of a Mein Kampf translation or even got published in time. This means that non-Nazis saw great value in completing and publishing the work. Fourth, Hans was acquitted after paying a fine and was allowed to live as a free person. Perhaps he really changed his ways and regretted having joined the Nazi party. A court did not deem him a threat to society, so why should we continue to tarnish his name for what he might have done in the past? Lastly, Wehr did thank “Miss Dr Klein” in the foreward to the first edition in 1952, even though he failed to mention what happened to her. The 6th edition, published in 2020, rectified this mistake and added information about her death in the Auschwitz camp.
There are many authors and books we may personally dislike but which are still useful for humanity in general. It is important to know the background of a book and its author, so we understand its historical context. It is not, however, necessary to boycott a useful book purely for symbolic reasons.