Nazi authored Arabic-English dictionary causes stir at University of Minnesota

Lauren Meyers, a student of Arabic, told the paper that she takes the Hans Wehr dictionary on loan from the library because she does not want to finance the dictionary.

October 24, 2019 03:18
4 minute read.

Landmark Center, completed in 1902, originally served as the Federal Court House and Post Office for the Upper Midwest, near Rice Park in St. Paul, Minnesota July 3, 2013. (photo credit: REUTERS)

The revelation that the late German scholar Hans Wehr, who authored the preeminent Arabic-English dictionary, was a Nazi, has triggered a debate about the ethics of using his book.

One of the world’s leading Islamic historians, Dr. Daniel Pipes, tweeted on Tuesday: “ Hans Wehr’s Nazi role has- after 70 years - suddenly become a public issue at the University of Minnesota 'after second-year student @Rodrigo_Tojo Garcia found information online about Wehr”s background."'

The student Rodrigo Tojo Garcia located shocking material about Wehr’s Nazi history online and reported it to another student who approached Katrien Vanpee, the director of Arabic language instruction at the university. The campus newspaper The Minnesota Daily first reported on Sunday the unease of using Wehr’s dictionary.

“...I was amazed that it hadn’t come up, that no one had talked about it,” Tojo Garcia said. “You would think with something like that, especially in the modern political climate ... that someone would’ve mentioned at some point that Hans Wehr did this — but they didn’t. And that was a shocking thing to know,” Rodrigo Tojo Garcia told The Minnesota Daily.

Wehr was born in 1909 and joined the Nazi party in 1940. The German Arabist died in 1981. Wehr argued in an essay that Germany should promote an alliance with "'the Arabs’ against England and France, not to mention against the Zionists in Palestine,” according to an article by Stefan Buchen on the website of

The Minnesota Daily reported that Vanpee did not expect to discuss Nazis on the first semester day.

“I don’t want to require a dictionary that is a product of Nazi Germany, even if you could technically argue that the Hans Wehr dictionary that’s being used here is not exactly the same as the original one,” Vanpee told the campus paper, adding “...The fact that ‘Hans Wehr’ is still on the cover is, of course, still really problematic.”

“What I find most problematic about the dictionary's name is the fact that all of us who are familiar with the dictionary, refer to it as "Hans Wehr." (i.e. automatically crediting him and only him, and not his contributors),” Vanpee wrote by email to the paper.

Wehr’s dictionary was funded by the Nazi regime and published years after the defeat of the Hitler movement in 1952. Hitler’s foreign affairs specialists wanted to use the dictionary project to produce an Arabic translation of the Nazi leader’s "Mein Kampf.”

The Minnesota Daily reported that the dictionary was a requirement for all Arabic language classes but Vanpee has not made it obligatory since the disclosure of Wehr’s Nazi past.

Tojo Garcia told the paper. “I have the [Hans Wehr] dictionary, and it poses something of a problem because it’s not exactly completely ethical for me to resell it knowing exactly what that is,” adding “But at the same time, my use of this dictionary is also problematic, so at this point I am looking into alternatives.”

The Arabic language student, Nibraas Khan, told the campus paper she uses a free PDF version of the dictionary. Khan said that “I personally just don’t feel comfortable ever buying anything that incorporates any sort of Nazi ideologies, symptoms et cetera.”

Lauren Meyers, a student of Arabic, told the paper that she takes the Hans Wehr dictionary on loan from the library because she does not want to finance the dictionary.

Meyers added that “If we’re operating with a dictionary every day that was named after someone who learned this language as a tool to use the Middle East and Arabic-speaking countries for their heinous motives, that’s really disrespectful and really harmful.” “I think making the book optional and having that conversation is very important for Arabic learners to understand.”

Hedwig Klein, a German-Jew, received an assignment to analyze modern Arabic literature for the Wehr dictionary. Klein, an academic Arabist in Hamburg, sought to escape Nazi Germany in 1939 to India aboard a vessel but the outbreak of WW2 prevented her from reaching Bombay.

 Buchen  writes  that Wehr’s colleagues praise "the excellent quality" of Klein’s entries. "Though of course it will be completely impossible for her to be credited as a contributor later," said one person involved in the dictionary project. In 1942, the Germans deported Klein to Auschwitz on the first train from harbor city of Hamburg. The Nazis murdered Klein, her sister, mother and grandmother.

Buchen wrote  that after the war, Wehr “was called to appear before a denazification commission. On 20 July 1947, he wrote in his defence that ‘I managed to save a Jewish academic colleague, Dr Klein from Hamburg, from transportation to Theresienstadt [sic] in 1941, by requesting that the Gestapo release her for work supposedly important to the war effort, on the Arabic dictionary."’

Wehr was defined as a follower (Mitläufer) of the Hitler movement.

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