The Enemies of our Enemies: Islam in Nazi Germany – By Mehnaz M. Afridi

Mehnaz Afridi on Motadel’s Islam and Nazi Germany’s War

David Motadel, Islam and Nazi Germany’s War, Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2014, 500pp., $35
David Motadel, Islam and Nazi Germany’s War, Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2014, 500pp., $35
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The study of Muslims during World War II, Muslims and their role in the Holocaust and Muslim attitudes towards Jews during the Holocaust is a burgeoning academic field. Scholars from Jewish and Muslim backgrounds are developing new research on and approaches to teaching the Holocaust. In my own study of the Holocaust and the role of Muslims, I have experienced a keen interest from audiences, especially in light of the recent sensational denial and relativism of the Holocaust in certain Muslim sectors. But although interest in Jewish-Muslim relations has grown in countries such as the United States and the United Kingdom, there is still very little research on the relationship of Arabs, Muslims and Nazi Germany. In Islam and Nazi Germany’s War, however, David Motadel examines Germany’s engagement with the Muslim World during the Second World War and illuminates the many extensive efforts to use Islam as a tool of the war effort. This research and deep historical examination offers new insights for my own work on Jewish-Muslim relations during and after the Holocaust.

I am a Muslim woman who specializes in contemporary Islam and the Holocaust — two fields that have deep and significant connections for Jews and Muslims. The stories of Muslims’ roles during World War II, the concentration and labor camps in Arab lands, Muslim rescuers of Jews, Jews and Muslims who were persecuted together in camps, and Jewish-Muslim bonds during difficult times are just a few of the buried stories. The intersection of these two fields is additionally crucial today in teaching about the Holocaust, and in fighting antisemitism and anti-Muslim acts.

The momentousness of these two fields is publicly revealed in the extremist and terroristic “Islamic” movements that target freedom of speech as in the attacks at the offices of Charlie Hebdo and the subsequent attack on a kosher grocery store in Paris in January 2015. Recent political government rallies calling for “Death to Israel!” as well as the Holocaust cartoon contests run by the Iranian Maoud Shojaei-Tabatabaei at the House of Cartoon all trivialize the Holocaust.

Such incidents, and the general rise of antisemitism in Europe (described in Gunther Jikeli’s European Muslim Antisemitism: Why Young Urban Males Say They Don’t Like Jews) all raise some deep questions about how Jews are perceived in the imagination of Muslims and how the mutual history or deep-rooted mistrust between the two groups can be understood.

The intersections between Muslim and Arab history and the Holocaust in particular opens constructive conversations and links between Jews and Muslims that are not necessarily political in nature. Exploring these links creates a contextual ground upon which one can identify the varied positions of Muslims and Jews. For Jews, this context revisits the historical issues of antisemitism in Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, and how Jews were seen as the colonizers and the tactical policies of the Allies. For Muslims, it fills an important vacuum regarding what Muslim countries were undergoing at the time because of the policies and propaganda of other nations. The Holocaust has been viewed as a European event, and very few scholars have discussed the scope of the Holocaust in Arab-African Lands (Robert Satloff, Among the Righteous) or the propaganda that Nazi Germany disseminated before and during World War II (Jeffery Herf, Nazi Propaganda for the Arab World).

David Motadel’s Islam and Nazi Germany’s War discusses how Nazi Germany manipulated and inscribed negative perceptions of Jews, the Allies, and the Bolsheviks. It describes the shrewd and detailed propaganda designed by top SS officials to disseminate to Muslims in war zones from North Africa to the Middle East and the Balkans, as well as the internal military propaganda designed to mobilize Muslim units for the benefit of Nazi Germany. The book is divided into three parts, which each describe Nazi Germany’s involvement in crafting volumes of propaganda material. Such material included Islamic translations of the Qur’an vilifying Jews, Islamic morality and codes that opposed Bolshevism, and Nazi ideology’s kinship with Islam.

The book provides some crucial material to scholars who are committed to comprehending relationships between the Jews and Muslims broader than focusing only on the contemporary (although not unrelated) Israeli and Palestinian crisis. Most historians focus on strategic and national interests when discussing the World War II. Motadel, however, follows the German troops fighting in regions as far apart as the Sahara and the Caucasus. He shows how Nazi officials saw Islam as a powerful force that shared the same enemies as Germany: the British Empire, the Soviet Union, and the Jews.

Drawing on archival research, he explains how German officials tried to promote the Third Reich as a patron of Islam not just during World War II but as early as 1914-1915 when the German military founded special camps in south Berlin for Muslim prisoners of war who were fighting with the allies.

They held several thousand soldiers from Africa, India and the tsarist empire who had fought in the British, French and Russian armies. From the outset, the Germans were at pains to win the prisoners over. To demonstrate their respect for Islam, they granted the Muslims various concessions and special religious rights. In the Wunsdorf camp the German’s even constructed a mosque, designed after the Dome of Rock in Jerusalem — it was the first functional Islamic house of worship ever built in Germany.

The role of Germans in Muslim lands was crucial, and they were seen as an ally. Meanwhile, Germans saw an opportunity to fuel anger and resentment against colonizers (Britain and France) and the last standing empire (the Ottomans). This is not to say that the Ottomans were not themselves corrupt or racist, but at this juncture Ottoman Palestine and the North Africa had been weakened by colonial expansion. Motadel explores some of this history, but for the interest of readers who are focused on how and why the propaganda worked or was even attempted, there was a parallel narrative that Muslims were creating centered on their own struggle for independence through nationalism and pan-Arabism, with the weighty fear of European colonization in the Middle East as a crucial backdrop. Most Muslim nations saw Germany as an ally at a time of severe loss of finances, spirituality, and independence. As Motadel observes, “It was the SS, however, which eventually took the lead in Germany’s Islamic mobilization campaign, most importantly from 1943 on. In the end, almost all parts of the regime were involved.”

One must note here that Jews were migrating in large numbers to Palestine, and the Ottoman Empire had already disintegrated. Many saw Palestine as a place that was already being imperialized by the Allies and European Zionist Jews since 1882. The migration of Jews to Palestine grew: in 1882 the Jewish population in Palestine was 24,000, and by 1914 it had grown to 85,000. This growth had a deep impact on Palestine and the surrounding countries like Syria.

Motadel presents archival letters and research that clarify the role of Amin-al-Husayni (Mufti of Jerusalem) in the Holocaust and in relationship to Hitler, and allows us to rethink the image of Arabs and Muslims conspiring with Nazi Germany. The recent statement by Benjamin Netanyahu at the Zionist Congress in October 2015, that the Mufti was the engine behind the Final Solution of Jews, is preemptively corrected by Motadel who recounts the precise nature of the meeting between Hitler and the Mufti as well as the minimal role of the Mufti in the Holocaust or extinction of all Jews. In my own lectures around the country, I am confronted with the image of the Mufti and Hitler sitting side by side, making alliances. The alliance is not a myth, but it is vital for readers to comprehend that Muslims or Arabs were not planning the extermination of Jews at any point but were aligned with Germany for strategic purposes.

The calls for the annihilation of Jews by some Muslim extremist rhetoric have fed the hatred towards Israel and its alliance with the Allies at the time that Israel was formed. Antisemitism as we know it today was and has been a European prejudice that has rooted itself in Muslim and Arab communities for very different reasons. I also would argue that the German Nazi propaganda took many verses of the Qur’an to convince Muslims (who had never read these verses as antisemitic) to mean that Jews should not be trusted. Motadel’s own thesis on the propaganda points to how religion was usurped in many of these cases because of the keen fascination of Islam and its strategic position in the eyes of Nazi officials.

Mufti of Jerusalem, 1929. Image via Wikimedia Commons.
Mufti of Jerusalem, 1929. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Islam and Nazi Germany’s War describes the political and vulnerable position of the Mufti and Palestine, decades before it became the Israel-Palestine dispute we recognize today. Indeed, Motadel offers another narrative for the involvement of the Mufti and the Holocaust; it reconsiders the role of Muslims and their concessions about the Holocaust. According to Motadel, the Mufti was seen as a religious influential figure rather than a political mover, and he was used by the Nazi officials as a religious pawn for the purposes of recruiting Muslims and Arabs to their own ideology and even armed forces.

[Al-Hasayni] His proposals were successful only insofar as they coincided with the German interests. The most dramatic example, was his intervention to hinder the emigration of Jews from Germany’s southeastern European satellite states to Palestine. Instead of putting the mufti at the center of the narrative, it seems more reasonable to see him as a part of a more general German policy directed toward the Islamic world. German officials used him as a propaganda figure when circumstances necessitated. After all, he was paid well for his services. He received a monthly salary of no less than 90,000 reichsmarks and was provided with several residences for himself and his entourage.

In Part II, Islam and Nazi Germany’s War reveals how German troops on the ground in North Africa, the Balkans, and the Eastern front dealt with Muslim populations, including Muslim Roma and Jewish converts to Islam. For instance, Muslims in North Africa were under tremendous pressure because of the presence of the Italians, the French, and the British. Germany never controlled North Africa and Mussolini was in charge of Libya, but it is well-documented in Motadel’s research that German propaganda still reached these lands. For example, Der Islam, a sixty-four-page German handbook distributed to the military discussed how to behave properly toward Muslims and focused on Islamic foundations, culture, and rituals. This section discusses invaluable archival material that is crucial in understanding how detailed and committed the Nazi party was to keep Muslims as allies even under the Vichy government. Meanwhile, Muslims on the frontlines complained about the brutal treatment by German soldiers:

March 1942, written by Ahmed Biyoud, a North African exile in France who was working for the Germans and who tried to alert them to the problems North African prisoners of war were facing in their daily contact with the Wehrmacht guards…”Everywhere,” Biyoud claimed, “we are termed colored or even black; almost every German soldier gives us clearly to understand that he counts us to be one of the most despised races of the world. Even expressions like ‘Jew,’ ‘Nigger,’ ‘black scoundrels’ etc. are not uncommon. (130)

In my own work I have discussed Algerian National Resistance fighters who ended up in camps with Jews and how the treatment was similar and painfully racist towards both Jews and Muslims under the Vichy controlled by the German military. One of the most fascinating documents (fig 6.1, p.243) is a chart entitled: “Account of the Inmates of the Islamic Faith”:

…it listed all male and female Muslim prisoners in the camps Auschwitz (I-III), Buchenwald, Dachau, Flossenburg, Gros-Rosen, Mauthuasen, Natzweiler, Neuengamme, Ravensbruck, Sachsenhausen, Stutthof, and Bergen-Belsen. Altogether, 1,130 Muslim men and nineteen Muslim women were recorded. Most of them were from eastern and southeastern Europe and had presumably been interned as political prisoners. Still, the list was incomplete, as some groups, most notably Muslim prisoners from Arab countries, were not included.

This chart and more work on these aspects of the Nazi party might provide some deeper clues to Jewish-Muslim relations in the camps and where they were from before they were imprisoned.

The book also describes encounters with Muslims in the Soviet-controlled Caucasus. The Germans were regarded as rescuers for the many Muslims in the Caucasus, and especially in cities like Nalchik and Kislovodsk where “Next to the flag of the Reich waves the green banner with crescent and star, under which once Muhammad prevailed over the Jews.” Crimean Tartars were also seen in German uniforms in front of newly reopened mosques. Motadel delves deeper into the stories of lands where Muslims were severely persecuted for their religion and as Tartar minorities — places such as Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, and Belarus. He also explores the issues faced by Muslims who fought with the Red Army as nationalists versus the Muslims who were seduced by Nazi-inflected ideological Islam.

Motadel goes on to discuss the SS Handzar division, which was formed primarily through Imams and Bosnian soldiers who spread propaganda to parts of the Balkans. The SS Handzar division was to act as a vehicle to join the ideology of Islam and National Socialism, and while it was not a division that was reporting to concentration or death camps, the relationship between the SS Handzar and camps is still unclear in many of the sources. Further research is need to understand better the exact orders given to the SS Muslim division. Motadel’s purpose, however, is not to look at these sources for Jewish-Muslim relations, but more precisely to show how intricate the plan of the SS Party was to rally more recruitment from Muslims — and how unsuccessful the Nazi party was in many parts of the Muslim world. Motadel discusses this division as a propaganda military division headed by Imams, and he described the rigorous religious education and training as such: “According to al-Husayni, fifty imams graduated in Guben in two terms of four months each. In the final months of the war, the SS would indoctrinate Bosnian imams…In late autumn 1944, when the division was already dissolving; it organized a training course for sixty imams of Handzar near Budapest.”

In the final part of his book, Motadel illustrates the profound impact of World War II on Muslims around the world and provides a new understanding of the lives and recruitment of Muslims in the military. This section shows the extent of the war and how it touched the lives of Muslims from East Africa to Bulgaria. He argues that German efforts to mobilize and utilize Islam were consistent throughout, not only reflected in literary propaganda but also in mutual active interests and sometimes shared ideology. This was, as Motadel demonstrates, for purely military purposes in the areas where Muslims were weakened during the war.

Overall these attempts failed. In North Africa and the Middle East, the reception was mixed. In areas like the Balkans or the Eastern territories, where Muslims often lived under terrible conditions, German courtship initially sparked some hope. In the end, many thousands of Muslims from these areas fought in the German armies. Religious policies and propaganda certainly sent the right messages. Still, it remains open to question whether religious policies and propaganda were the major reasons for this; in many cases other motivations were stronger.

Motadel further expands the maneuvers of the SS by providing an analysis of how Muslims were recruited and taken care by the SS and Wehrmacht (1941) from East Africa to Bulgaria. The German efforts were to gain power, mobilize armies and gain allies in the lands where the war reached in 1941-42 in Muslim territories. Motadel also provides the context for why this worldview or as it was termed Weltmusselmanentum (idea of Islamic unity) failed because its reception in North Africa and the Middle East was ambiguous. He provides several examples that are important: first, Muslims were not interested in waging war in North Africa and the Middle East because they were not like the Eastern European Muslims who had been oppressed under communism and saw Germany as some hope; second, the Nazis had oversimplified Islam and possessed too many misconceptions about it; and third, the timing of their propaganda and mobilization was not thought through as they confronted the realities of war.

Motadel’s book analyzes material that is critically important for thinking about religion and ideology as part of World War II as well as today, especially in a historical moment in which the conversation about religion and politics tends too often toward the sensational.