“Distorted historical narrative is not Netanyahu’s invention”

Author of “Islam and Nazi Germany's war”, David Motadel answered our questions about Netanyahu’s recent statement.

Last week, Israel’s Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu claimed that, “Hitler didn't want to exterminate the Jews; he wanted to expel them. Mufti of Jerusalem Amin al-Husayni convinced him to genocide,” and this statement still resonates internationally. Though it is said that Netanyahu’s claim is a part of Israel’s policy, the debates on the relation between Muslims and Nazis is reawakened. We talked to historian David Motadel from Cambridge University about Netanyahu’s claim.  

As reawakened by Netanyahu's statement, the relation between Muslims and Nazis is a controversial issue. How do you define that relationship?

Netanyahu's claim is a textbook example for the misuse of history. It not only inflates the role of the mufti of Jerusalem during the Second World War, but also relativizes Germany's responsibility for the Holocaust. Netanyahu says that 'the biggest battle we have to fight is the battle for the facts' but that does not mean that we should distort them. 

The relations of Muslims with Nazis is quite complex. In 1941-42, as Hitler's troops marched into Muslim-populated territories in North Africa, the Balkans, the Crimea, and the Caucasus, and approached the Middle East and Central Asia, officials in Berlin began to see Islam as politically significant. Yet the reason for the Third Reich's engagement with Islam was not only that Muslim-populated regions had become part of the warzones, but also, more importantly, that, at the same time, Germany's military situation had deteriorated. In the Soviet Union, Hitler's Blitzkrieg strategy had failed. As the Wehrmacht came under pressure, strategists in Berlin began to seek broader war coalitions, thereby demonstrating remarkable pragmatism. The courtship of Muslims was to pacify the occupied Muslim-populated territories, and to mobilize the faithful to fight on the side of Hitler's armies. Nazi Germany made significant attempts to promote an alliance with the ‘Muslim world’ against their alleged common enemies – the British Empire, the Soviet Union, America, and Jews.

David Motadel

A systematic instrumentalization of Islam was first proposed in a memorandum by the diplomat Eberhard von Stohrer, Hitler’s former ambassador in Cairo, in late 1941. Stohrer suggested that there should be ‘an extensive Islam program’ which would include a statement about ‘the general attitude of the Third Reich towards Islam’. Between late 1941 and late 1942, the Foreign Office set up an Islam program, which included the employment of religious figures – most prominently the Mufti of Jerusalem, Amin al-Husayni. On 18 December 1942, the Nazis inaugurated the Islamic Central Institute in Berlin, which became a hub of Germany’s propaganda efforts in the Islamic world. As the war progressed and German troops moved into Muslim areas in the Balkans and in the Soviet Union, other branches of the Nazi state followed up on these policies. German officials tended to view Muslim populations under the rubric of ‘Islam’. Religion seemed to be a useful policy and propaganda tool to address ethnically, linguistically, and socially heterogeneous populations. The Germans saw Islam as a source of authority that could legitimize involvement in a conflict and even justify violence.

There is the wider story of attempts by (non-Muslim) Western powers to instrumentalize Islam for political and military purposes. In the imperial age, European empires regularly employed religious policies and propaganda to stir up the Muslim subjects of rival colonial powers. During the Crimean War, the British, French, and Ottomans tried to incite the Muslims on the Crimean Peninsula and in the Caucasus. One of the most significant attempts to employ Islam in political and military strategy was the Central Powers' efforts to revolutionize pious Muslims in the First World War. In autumn 1914, the German and Ottoman governments commissioned a series of fatwas from the shaykh al-Islam, the highest religious authority of the caliphate in Constantinople, calling for holy war against the Entente. Over the course of the war, Berlin and Constantinople made extensive efforts to incite, as Wilhelm II put it, "the whole Mohammedan world to wild revolt" against the British, Russian, and French empires. This history continued with Western support of radical Islamic anti-Communist movements in the Cold War-an episode that ended with the backing of the mujahidin in Afghanistan, where Washington distributed not only stinger missiles but also Qur'ans.

Are you describing the Mufti of Jerusalem as instigator or aide of the Nazis in Middle East?  

Amin al-Husayni's wartime support for Nazi Germany has been examined by a vast body of scholarly literature. The mufti came to Berlin on 6 November 1941 and became extensively involved Nazi Germany's propaganda towards the Muslim world, which Berlin tried to win over. Al-Husayni was full of hatred against Jews. Yet we should not overestimate his influence in Nazi Germany. His influence was strictly limited. Officials in Berlin saw in him mainly a tool for their propaganda. His attempts to secure concrete German guarantees for Arab and Palestinian independence, which was his major concern, failed. The only time he was received by Hitler was on 28 November 1941. Their conversation was limited to an exchange of empty courtesies. When the mufti asked for a written guarantee of Arab, and especially Palestinian, independence, Hitler evaded the issue. In 1943, al Husayni made another request for a meeting with Hitler, which was rejected.

Netanyahu claimed that 'Hitler didn't want to exterminate the Jews at the time, he wanted to expel the Jews. And Haj Amin al-Husayni went to Hitler and said, "If you expel them, they'll all come here." "So what should I do with them?" he asked. He said, "Burn them."' Such a conversation never took place. It is invented. The mufti was not involved in the planning of the Holocaust. SS Einsatzgruppen already begun with the systematic murder of Jews in Poland and Ukraine in late summer 1941, long before the mufti arrived in Germany. The 'only' time when al-Husayni became directly involved in the Holocaust was when he intervened to stop the emigration of Jews from Nazi Germany's southeastern European satellite states to Palestine during the war.

Also, Netanyahu's claim that al-Husayni was 'sought for war crimes in the Nuremberg trials because he had a central role in fomenting the final solution' is incorrect. The Mufti was never sought for his role in the 'final solution' in the Nuremberg trails. After the war, Yugoslavia issued a request to put him on trial for his involvement in the formation of a (predominantly Muslim) SS division in Bosnia, which had committed various war crimes in 1944. This never happened though. Officials in London did not support the request since they considered him not important enough to be put on trial in Nuremberg and also because they worried about popular unrest in mandate Palestine.

How did Muslims in Europe see the Nazis?

The first major Muslim minority the Nazis encountered in Europe were France’s Muslims. Around 100,000 Muslims lived in France during the war. One of the most important centers of Islam in France, and indeed Nazi-occupied Europe, was the Grande Mosquée de Paris. The mosque had been built by the French government after the First World War to express its gratitude for the Muslims’ war efforts and was directed by the Algerian religious scholar Si Kaddour Benghabrit. German officials in Paris supported Si Kaddour Benghabrit and made some attempts to use the mosque for their propaganda. Benghabrit, for his part, tried to improve conditions for his community by cultivating cordial relations with the authorities. He was particularly concerned about the well-being of Muslims in the prisoner of war camps. In early 1941, he consulted with officials of the German embassy in Paris. He asked for special provisions for the prisoners and even proposed to send a number of North African imams into the camps, assuring the authorities that he would personally take responsibility for their loyalty. He also offered his own services, proposing to supervise the religious affairs of the prisoners and indicating that he was prepared to speak on Germany’s Arabic broadcast propaganda service. 

Another European Muslim minority the Nazis encountered was the Tatars of Poland and the Baltic states; and they tried to win these over as well.

The most significant Muslim populations in Europe, which the Germans encountered was in the Balkans: When the Germans invaded and dissolved Yugoslavia in 1941, they initially did not get involved in the Muslim-populated regions – most importantly Bosnia and Herzegovina, which came under the control of the newly founded Croatian Ustaša state. The Ustaša regime officially tried to court its Muslim subjects – while murdering Jews and persecuting Orthodox Serbs. From early 1942, however, the region became increasingly engulfed in a severe conflict between the Croatian regime,  Tito’s Communist partisans, and Orthodox Serbian Četniks. The partisans clashed with both Ustaša troops and Četniks. The Četniks fought against Ustaša troops and Tito’s partisans. And the Muslim population was attacked by all three parties. Ustaša authorities employed Muslim army units to fight Tito’s partisans as well as Četnik militias, and had used them to control Serbian Orthodox areas. Soon, Muslim villages became the object of retaliatory attacks. Estimates of the number of Muslim victims grew into the tens of thousands. Eventually, leading Muslim representatives turned to the Germans for help, asking for Muslim autonomy under Hitler’s protection. Berlin was receptive. As the civil war in the Balkans spun out of control, the Germans got more and more involved in the Muslim-populated areas. In their attempt to pacify the region, the Wehrmacht and, more importantly, the SS saw the Muslims as welcome allies and promoted Nazi Germany as a protector of Islam in Southeastern Europe. This campaign began in spring 1943, when the SS sent the Mufti of Jerusalem on a tour to Zagreb, Banja Luka, and Sarajevo, where he met religious leaders and gave pro-Axis speeches. When visiting the great Gazi Husrev Beg Mosque in Sarajevo, he gave such an emotional speech about the Muslim suffering that parts of the audience burst into tears. In the following months, the SS recruited almost 20,000 men from Bosnia and Herzegovina into a (predominantly Muslim) SS division, which was later called SS-Handžar. Moreover, they spread religiously charged propaganda and began engaging more closely with Islamic dignitaries, as they believed that religious leaders yielded most authority among the people. In contrast to the Caucasus and the Crimea, the Germans found Islamic institutions intact: Muslims were formally under the authority of the highest religious council, the Ulema-Medžlis. Army officials repeatedly consulted with its members and tried to co-opt them. Many members of the ‘ulama hoped that the Germans would help them founding a Muslim state. Soon, though, it became clear that the Wehrmacht and the SS were not able to pacify the region. At the same time, the German support for the Muslims fuelled the hatred against them among partisans and Četniks. Violence escalated. In the end, a quarter million Muslims died in the conflict.

Finally, in Greece, too, the Germans encountered Muslims. The population exchange of 1923 had diminished the Muslim community of Greece significantly. The German military authorities estimated that circa 130,000 Muslims lived in occupied Greece in 1944, but his number needs to be treated with caution. In some regions, the Germans tried to win Muslim support. In the Epirus region of north-western Greece, for instance, German military authorities sought cooperation with the Albanian Muslim Cham minority, which provided militias to pacify the region. At the end of the war the Muslim Cham Albanians were accused of collaboration and targeted by the militias of Napoleon Zervas's National Republican Greek League, which plundered and burned down Cham villages, and expelled them to Albania. In the Aegean, army officials tried to co-opt religious figures like the mufti of Rhodes, Seyh Suleyman Kaslioglu, to stabilize the late German occupation regime. Kaslioglu, however, was not very receptive. During the war, he hid some invaluable Torah scrolls in the pulpit of the Rhode's Murat Reis Mosque. Today he is venerated at the synagogue of Rhodes Town: in the synagogue's museum, there is a wallboard telling his story. It is a wonderful museum, well worth visiting.

There is a widespread rumor about Aliya Izzetbegovic's Nazi background. Have you seen a proof about that issue?

No, there is, to my knowledge, no proof for this. Alija Izetbegovic was a member of the Young Muslims (Mladi Muslimani), the youth organization of the religious society El-Hidaje (The Right Path). Some members of these organizations supported the Germans. The head of El-Hidaje was the Al-Azhar-educated scholar of the Mehmed Handžić, who was also a member of the Ulema-Medžlis and Handžic tried to work with the Germans. During al-Husayni’s tour of the Balkans, he met with the mufti in Sarajevo, gave him a warm welcome address at a banquet at city hall, and afterward published an article about the visit in El-Hidaje, the official organ of his society.

Were there any Muslim collaborators who were tried due to committing crimes against humanity with Nazis?

From 1941 onwards, as the tide of war turned again the Axis, the Wehrmacht and the SS recruited tens of thousands of Muslims, among them Bosnians, Crimean Tatars, and Muslims from the Caucasus and Central Asia – mainly to save German blood. Muslim soldiers fought on all fronts – they were deployed in Stalingrad, Warsaw, and in the defence of Berlin. Some of these soldiers committed war crimes. Muslim SS soldiers in Kosovo were even involved in deportations of Jews. But this was, to my knowledge, an exception. I don’t know of any other involvement of Muslim SS or Wehrmacht units that were directly involved in the Holocaust. The reactions of the Muslim civilian population to the persecution of Jews in North Africa, the Balkans, the Caucasus and the Crimea were diverse, ranging, as elsewhere, from collaboration and profiteering to indifference and, in some cases, empathy. There were also some cases in which Muslims helped their Jewish neighbors. Yet some Muslims in the warzone were themselves affected by the Shoah. In the first months after the invasion of the Soviet Union, SS squads executed thousands of Muslims, specifically prisoners of war, on the assumption that their circumcision proved that they were Jewish. Eventually, Reinhard Heydrich, the chief of the SS Reich Security Head Office, sent out a directive, cautioning the SS Task Forces to be more careful and not to confuse Muslims with Jews. In the southern borderlands of the Soviet Union, however, Nazi killing squads still had difficulties distinguishing Muslims from Jews. In the Bosnia and Herzegovina, the privileged position of Muslims seemed, to many Jews, to offer an opportunity to avoid persecution. Many tried to escape repression and deportation through (official) conversion to Islam. In Sarajevo alone, around 20 percent of the Jewish population is estimated to have converted to Islam or Catholicism between April and October 1941; given their circumcision, many found Islam to be the easier option. A number Jews managed to flee concealed as Muslims; some of them – women and men – literally disguised themselves in the Islamic veil. And also the murder of Europe’s gypsies involved Muslims directly. As the Germans began screening the occupied territories of the Soviet Union for the Roma population, they soon encountered many Muslim Roma. In fact, the majority of the Roma in the Crimea were Islamic. They had, for centuries, assimilated with the Tatars, who showed remarkable solidarity with them. Backed by the Tatars, many Muslim Roma pretended to be Muslim Tatars to escape deportation and death – some were successful.  In the Balkans, too, there were many Muslim Roma and when the Germans and their Ustaša allies persecuted the Roma population, they eventually excluded Muslim Roma from persecution and deportation – at least formally. 

What do you think about the reasons of Netanyahu's statement? Did he instrumentalize even the Holocaust for the sake of his political agenda or did he really believe in what he said?

He definitely did it for the sake of his political agenda. In Israel, some radical politicians have increasingly tried to use the history of the mufti's collaboration to connect Palestinian opponents - and at times Muslims in general - to the Nazis, representing the ultimate evil. In 2009, Israel's Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman sent his diplomats the photograph of the 1941 meeting between al-Husayni and Hitler, instructing them to use it to promote Israeli interests. In 2014, Pamela Geller's infamous American Freedom Defense Initiative printed an ad with the same photograph on busses in Washington DC. These attempts serve the sole purpose of defaming Palestinians or Muslims more generally by connecting them to Nazism. In recent years some political commentators went further, claiming that the mufti was directly responsible for the Holocaust. In fact, Netanyahu did not make up this distorted historical narrative. It has been promoted by a number of political writers for some time.

In “Mein Kampf”, Hitler wrote about the inferiority of Arabs. Did Nazi Germany manipulate his claims to collaborate with Arabs?

Yes. Germany’s attempts to build an alliance with the Islamic world were first and foremost the result of pragmatic considerations. Ideology caused some problems. The most obvious obstacle to the regime’s policy toward the Muslim world was its racism. Hitler had already postulated the racial inferiority of non-European peoples, particularly Arabs and Indians, in “Mein Kampf”. Once in power, however, German officials showed themselves to be more pragmatic. Non-Jewish Turks, Iranians, and Arabs had already been explicitly exempted from any official racial discrimination in the 1930s, following diplomatic interventions from the governments in Tehran, Ankara, and Cairo. And during the war, the Germans showed similar pragmatism when encountering Muslims from the Balkans and the Turkic minorities of the Soviet Union. In terms of religion, the situation was easier. Leading Nazis, particularly Hitler and Himmler, repeatedly expressed their respect for Islam. When denouncing the Catholic Church, Hitler routinely contrasted it with Islam; while he denounced Catholicism as a weak, effeminate religion, he praised Islam as a strong, aggressive, martial religion. Overall, however, it was strategic considerations, not ideology, that led to Nazi Germany's campaign for Islamic mobilization.

Who were the biggest Muslim supporters of the Nazis in Middle East? Can we say that Arabs sympathized Nazis or were there some groups struggling against the Nazis?

The Nazis failed in inciting any major pro-Axis uprising in the Arab world. In the North African warzone Hitler’s ally Mussolini had run an oppressive colonial regime in Libya and many Muslims in the region had reservations against the Axis, to put it mildly. The most powerful religious force in Cyrenaica, the Islamic Sanusi order, was the spearhead of the anti-colonial resistance against Italian rule and fought alongside Montgomery’s army against the Axis. In any case, Berlin’s promises to liberate the Muslims and protect Islam stood in sharp contrast to the violence and destruction that the war had brought to North Africa. On the Eastern front the situation was very different. The Muslims of the Crimea and the North Caucasus had confronted the central state ever since the tsarist annexation in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and the Bolshevist take-over had worsened the situation. Under Stalin, the Muslim areas suffered unprecedented political and religious persecution. After the invasion of the Caucasus and the Crimea, many welcomed the Germans with goodwill and hope. Yet, here too, relations between the German authorities and the local population soon cooled. The situation in the Balkans was similar. In the end, German attempts to find Muslim allies were less successful than the strategists in Berlin had hoped. They had been launched far too late, and had clashed too often with the violent realities of the war. More importantly, the Third Reich’s claims that it protected the faithful lacked credibility, as most Muslims in the warzones were aware that they served profane political interests. The Germans also failed to incite a major Muslim uprising against the Allies. Although tens of thousands of Muslims were recruited into the German armies, in the end the British, French, and Soviets were more successful in mobilizing their Muslim populations: hundreds of thousands fought in their armies against Hitler’s Germany. From French North Africa alone, almost a quarter of a million Muslims enlisted in de Gaulle’s forces, eventually liberating Europe.

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Vartan Estukyan