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Riffian resistance


Spain made intensive use of German chemical weapons during the Rif independence War in the 1920s to combat the Riffian resistance. To date, the Moroccan government has refused to give any openness about its effects on health and the environment in Rif. This despite repeated questions from civil societies in Rif.

Below you can read an article by Jan Hoffenaar historian connected to the Military History Section of the Army Staff Kingdom of the Netherlands.


Jan Hoffenaar NRC Handelsblad, 02 March 1991

By Rudibert Kunz and Rolf-Dieter Muller
239 pages, geill., Rombach and Co 1990, f 45
ISBN 3 7930 0196 2

The Geneva Protocol was solemnly signed on 17 June 1925. The (first) use of chemical and bacteriological weapons was therefore prohibited. Representatives from Spain, France and Germany also signed the agreement.

In the summer of the same year 1925, the use of combat gases against the rebellious Rifkabyls in Morocco reached a peak. Spain and France were the perpetrators.

This sensational coincidence is described by television editor Rudibert Kunz and historian Rolf-Dieter Muller in „Giftgas gegen Abd el Krim” associated with the Militargeschichtliches Forschungsamt in Freiburg.  Until recently, everyone assumed that the Italian-Abyssinian war (1934-1936) was the first military conflict to be decided by gas, and the war between Iran and Iraq, which included the use of combat gases by Iraq in the summer of 1988 led to a truce, as the second case.

Kunz and Muller show conclusively in their book that the war in Morocco was the actually the first and that it served as an example to the Italians. The war against the Rifkabyls, one of the few unabashed Berber peoples, was also the first war in which poison gas bombs were dropped from the air on a large scale. In Morocco happened what everyone was so afraid of after the terrible experiences with war gases in the First World War.

The authors give us a glimpse into the chemical arms trade and manage to make it plausible how the German deliveries to Iraq (they still speak of a ‘begrundete Suspect’) and their help with the construction of a battle gas factory in Libya fit in with a long German tradition.

Why was there a war in Morocco, how was it conducted and how was Germany involved? The northern part of the Sultanate of Morocco had been a protectorate of Spain since 1912. However, the protector, who had a number of enclaves on the North African coast for several centuries, was unable to actually control the area. Conventional weapons and a numerical predominance proved insufficient to bring the fanatical Rifkabyls to their knees in the inhospitable terrain.

The uprising was also followed with suspicion by the colonial powers. The actions of Abd el Krim, who proclaimed the islamic Rif Republic in February 1923, sparked the newly created Islamic nationalism and constituted a threat to the European colonial power position. The right of peoples to self-determination, so nicely enshrined in the fourteen points of American President Woodrow Wilson, clearly did not apply to non-white peoples.

Spain has sought and found support from the German Reichswehr’s military since 1920. They did everything they could to avoid the humiliating provisions of the Treaty of Versailles. Among other things, Germany was denied any interference in the field of war gases. Chemical weapons were to be collected and destroyed in Munsterlage-Breloh. In practice, however, they were stored as much as possible and partly sold to other countries, such as Spain, Italy, Yugoslavia, Japan, China, Turkey, Romania, Sweden and Brazil. The key figures in these transactions were Professor Fritz Haber, initiator of German battle gas production and in 1918 winner of the Nobel Prize for Chemistry, and Dr. Hugo Stoltzenberg, who was both an arms supplier and gas strategic advisor to the Reichswehr.

The Germans not only supplied various combat gases, but also made their technology available to the Spaniards. Under their leadership, poison gas plants were built in Maranosa, an hour’s drive south of Madrid, and in Melilla on the Moroccan coast. There, a non-toxic intermediate (Oxol), which was produced in spite of all bans in the Stoltzenberg chemical plant in Hamburg, was converted into the notorious mustard gas, also known as yperite, Lost and Gelbkreuz.

Germany, which also participated in the construction of a poison gas plant in Russia since 1923, had different interests in military cooperation with Spain. All this offered the opportunity to keep the knowledge up to date and the chemical plant in Hamburg up and running. Moreover, the soldiers were able to learn a lot from the first aerochemical war in history through their own observation. In addition, the Germans had economic interests in Morocco. The Mannesmann brothers had built up a network of mining concessions, trading companies and agricultural companies there in the previous decades. In the French part of Morocco they had already lost their influence after 1918. In the Spanish part they hoped to keep it by a Spanish victory.

In addition, an emotional factor played a role in the German attitude. Part of the French troops occupying the Rhineland – an extremely humiliating experience for Germany – came from Morocco. A big problem was the children they had there, the Rheinlandbastarden, which were later sterilized under Hitler.

In the middle of 1924 the Spaniards, led by General Primo de Rivera, who had taken over power in Spain the previous year with the promise to resolve the Morocco crisis quickly and honorably, proceeded to a tactical retreat. That happened entirely against the wishes of Franco, who at that time was the commander of the foreign legion. After the evacuation, the air bombing started with mustard gas bombs in the areas of the insurgents.

At the end of 1924, the French joined the battle. The revolt of the Rifkabyls, which, like the Kurds, were separated by artificial borders, had also spread to the French protectorate area. The hero of the First World War, Petain, took over the supreme command there in 1925.

Although there are too few clues to precisely reconstruct the so-called ‘contamination strategy’, Kunz and Muller suspect that it consisted of two phases based on notes from Nobel Prize Stolzenberg. First villages, farmland and water sources were contaminated with mustard gas, so that the rebels no longer had any bases, and then the roads, shelters and caves were contaminated and smoked. Fire bombs were also dropped.

The effect of mustard gas is terrible, as the horrible images from the first Gulf War have also shown. The liquid penetrates through all clothing and after a few hours causes blisters and wounds that are very painful. The vapors cause temporary or permanent blindness and affect the respiratory organs. The Rifkabyls could not protect themselves and did not know how to combat the infection and treat the wounds. Many died as a result.

With the help of gas and airplanes, a force of half a million French and Spaniards finally managed to defeat the insurgents. Abd el Krim surrendered in May 1926 and the war was finally over in 1927.

We already knew that war gases were used in Morocco. Although we do not find any clue about gas use in the official historiography of the war, Historia de las Campanas de Marruecos, David S. Woolman, among others, makes this in Rebels in the Rif (1968) report. What we did not know, however, is that the use of gas has been so extensive and decisive for the outcome of the battle. How can that be explained? Those involved kept their mouths shut as much as possible. They also diverted attention, camouflaged the effort and bluntly denied it. Moreover, agreements about chemical cooperation were usually made verbally. Journalists were excluded from the scene of war as much as possible. The victims were not heard. A cry for help to the International Committee of the Red Cross received no follow-up because the Spanish government did not allow a mission from this organization to Spanish Morocco.

Another explanation for the unfamiliarity with the true circumstances of the war in Morocco is, of course, that the important archives in question remained closed to historians. Kunz and Muller rely primarily on German archives. Official Spanish sources remained closed to them, while Morocco did not cooperate at all. In the French archives, the authors have hardly, if at all, investigated, a strange omission.

The authors did, however, have the notes of Dr. Stoltzenberg, who wrote down and commented on all his actions. Skillfully comparing the scarce data and the annotations with the better documented descriptions of the Italian-Abyssinian war, in which the circumstances were comparable to those in the Rif war, many things that have not yet been clarified could be understood. Nevertheless, the comment made twice that the gas deployment in the Rif was an example for the Italian campaign in Abyssinie is not further substantiated by Kunz and Muller.

Gift gas gegen Abdel Krim presses us again, also through many penetrating photographs, on the terrible facts of chemical warfare.  Moreover, the book teaches us that a healthy skepticism towards compliance with international agreements, especially with regard to non-conventional means of combat, is highly desirable.  Negotiations on the abolition of chemical weapons have been going on for years, but “man ist nicht weiter als 1925”, as Kunz and Muller remark gloomily.

Source: https://www.nrc.nl/nieuws/1991/03/02/marokko-als-proeftuin-voor-duits-gifgas-6958918-a70860
Translation: Najat M.

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