Muslims in Hitler's War
By David Motadel
Published in History TodayVolume 65 Issue 9 September 2015
Second World War Islam
The Nazis believed that Islamic forces would prove crucial wartime allies. But, as David Motadel shows, the Muslim world was unwilling to be swayed by the Third Reich's advances.
Tunis, December 19th, 1942. It was the day of Eid al-Adha, the Islamic feast of sacrifice. The retreat of Rommel's army had turned the city into a massive military camp. In the late afternoon, a German motorcade of four large cars drove at a slow, solemn pace along Tunis' main road, the Avenue de Paris, leaving the capital in the direction of the coastal town of Hamman Lif. The convoy contained Colonel General Hans-Jürgen von Arnim, commander of the Wehrmacht in Tunisia, Rudolf Rahn, Hitler's consul in Tunis and the Reich's highest civil representative in North Africa, and some other high-ranking Germans. They were to visit the Bey of Tunis, Muhammad VII al-Munsif, who had remained the nominal ruler of Tunisia, to offer him their good wishes for the sacred holiday and to show their respect for Islam. In front of the Winter Palace of Hamman Lif, hundreds of cheering people saluted the convoy; the Tunisian guard extended them an honorary welcome. In the conversations with the monarch, the Germans promised that the next Eid al-Adha, or Eid al-Kabir as it is known in Tunisia, would take place in a time of peace and that the Wehrmacht was doing everything it could to keep the war away from the Muslim population. More important than the consultations, though, was the Germans' public show of respect for Islam. Back in his Tunis headquarters, Rahn enthusiastically cabled Berlin, urging it to make full propagandistic use of the 'solemn reception' at the 'Eid al-Kabir celebration'. In the following days, Nazi propaganda spread the news across North Africa, portraying the Third Reich as the protector of Islam.
At the height of the Second World War, in 1941-42, as Hitler's troops marched into Muslim-populated territories in North Africa, the Balkans, Crimea and the Caucasus and approached the Middle East and Central Asia, officials in Berlin began to see Islam as politically significant. In the following years, they 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.
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, because 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, 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 mobilise the faithful to fight on the side of Hitler's armies.
German officials had increasingly engaged with Islam since the late 19th century, when the kaiser ruled over substantial Muslim populations in his colonies of Togo, Cameroon and German East Africa. Here, the Germans sought to employ religion as a tool of control. Sharia courts were recognised, Islamic endowments left untouched, madrasas kept open and religious holidays acknowledged. Colonial officials ruled through Islamic intermediaries who, in return, gave the colonial state legitimacy. In Berlin, Islam was moreover considered to offer an opportunity for exploitation in the context of Wilhelmine Weltpolitik. This became most obvious during the Middle Eastern tour of Wilhelm II in 1898 and in his dramatic speech, given after visiting the tomb of Saladin in Damascus, in which he declared himself a 'friend' of the world's '300 million Mohammedans' and, ultimately, in Berlin's efforts to mobilise Muslims living in the British, French and Russian empires during the First World War. Although all attempts to spread jihad in 1914 had failed, German strategists maintained a strong interest in the geopolitics of Islam.
Muslim policemen in the German colony of Cameroon, 1891.
Muslim policemen in the German colony of Cameroon, 1891.
With the outbreak of the Second World War and the involvement of German troops in Muslim-populated regions, officials in Berlin began again to consider the strategic role of the Islamic world. A systematic instrumentalisation of Islam was first proposed in late 1941 in a memorandum by the diplomat Eberhard von Stohrer, Hitler's former ambassador in Cairo. 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, who arrived in Berlin in late 1941. On December 18th, 1942 the Nazis inaugurated the Islamic Central Institute in Berlin, which became a hub of Germany's propaganda efforts in the Islamic world; the party organ, the Völkischer Beobachter, ran a headline promising, 'This War Could Bring Freedom to Islam!' 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'. An advantage of using Islam rather than ethno-national categories was that Berlin could avoid the thorny issue of national independence. Moreover, 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 legitimise involvement in a conflict and even justify violence. In terms of racial barriers, the regime showed remarkable pragmatism: (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. During the war the Germans showed similar pragmatism when encountering Muslims from the Balkans and the Turkic minorities of the Soviet Union. Muslims, it was clear to every German officer from the Sahara to the Caucasus, were to be treated as allies.
The cover of Der Islam, 1941.
The cover of Der Islam, 1941.
On the ground in North Africa, in contact with the coastal populations, army officials tried to avoid frictions. As early as 1941, the Wehrmacht distributed the handbook Der Islam to train the troops in correct behaviour towards Muslims. In the Libyan and Egyptian desert, German authorities courted religious dignitaries, most importantly the shaykhs of the influential Sufi orders. The problem was that the most powerful religious force in the Cyrenaican warzone, 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 and the Germans ultimately failed to incite a major Muslim pro-Axis movement in the region.
On the Eastern Front the situation was very different. The Muslims of Crimea and the North Caucasus had confronted the central state ever since the tsarist annexation in the 18th and 19th centuries and the Bolshevist takeover had worsened the situation. Under Stalin, the Muslim areas suffered unprecedented political and religious persecution. Islamic literature was censored, sharia law banned and the property of the Islamic communities expropriated. Party cadres took over mosques, painted Soviet slogans on their walls, hoisted red flags on their minarets and chased pigs through their sacred halls. Still, Islam continued to play a crucial role in shaping social and political life. After the invasion of the Caucasus and Crimea, German military authorities, eager to find local collaborators to stabilise the volatile rear areas, did not miss the opportunity to present themselves as the liberators of Islam. General Ewald von Kleist, commander of Army Group A, which occupied the Caucasus, urged his officers to respect the Muslims and to be aware of the pan-Islamic implications of the Wehrmacht's actions: 'Among all of the German Army Groups, Army Group A has advanced the furthest. We stand at the gates to the Islamic world. What we do, and how we behave here will radiate deep into Iraq, to India, as far as to the borders of China. We must constantly be aware of the long-range effect of our actions and inactions.' Similar orders were issued by General Erich von Manstein in Crimea. In his infamous order of November 20th, 1941, which demanded that 'the Jewish-Bolshevist system be exterminated once and for all' and which became one of the key documents used by his prosecution at Nuremberg after the war, Manstein urged his troops to treat the Muslim population well: 'Respect for religious customs of the Mohammedan Tartars must be demanded.'
In their attempt to control the strategically sensitive rear areas, the Germans made extensive use of religious policies. They ordered the rebuilding of mosques, prayer halls and madrasas and the re-establishment of religious holidays. In the Caucasus, they staged massive celebrations at the end of Ramadan in 1942, of which the most notable was in the Karachai city of Kislovodsk. Under Soviet rule, the Muslims of Kislovodsk had not openly observed Eid al-Fitr and the celebration became a key marker of difference between Soviet and German rule. Attended by a large delegation of high-ranking Wehrmacht generals, it included prayers, speeches and exchanges of gifts; the Germans had brought captured weapons and Qurans. In the centre of Kislovodsk, a parade of Karachai horsemen was organised. Behind the honorary tribune for Muslim leaders and Wehrmacht officers, an oversized, open papier-mâché Quran was arranged, displaying two pious quotations in Arabic script. On the right-hand page there was the shahada, the statement of faith: 'There is no god but Allah/Muhammad is his Prophet' (La ilaha illa Allah/Muhammadan rasul Allah). On the left was the popular Quranic verse (61:13): 'Help [comes] from Allah/and a nigh victory' (Nasr min Allah/Wa fath qarib). Nailed above the Quran was an enormous wooden Reich eagle with a swastika. In Crimea the Germans even established an Islamic administration, the so-called 'Muslim Committees'. In the end, the hopes for freedom among the Muslims of the Soviet borderlands were shattered. The attitudes of Nazi officials towards the Muslim population cooled the longer the occupation period lasted. Ordinary German soldiers, influenced by propaganda defaming the Asiatic peoples of the Soviet Union as sub-humans, were not prepared for dealing with Muslims. Even worse, after the German retreat, Stalin accused the Muslim minorities of collective collaboration with the enemy and ordered their deportation.
The attitudes of Nazi officials towards the Muslim population cooled the longer the occupation period lasted.
The situation in the Balkans was different again. 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, led by Hitler's puppet dictator Ante Pavelić, officially tried to court its Muslim subjects, while murdering Jews and Roma 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 Dragoljub 'Draža' Mihailović's Orthodox Serbian Četniks, who were fighting for a greater Serbia. The Muslim population was repeatedly attacked by all three parties. Ustaša authorities employed Muslim army units to fight both Tito's partisans and Četnik militias. Soon, Muslim villages became the object of retaliatory attacks. The number of Muslim victims grew to the tens of thousands. Ustaša authorities did little to prevent these massacres. Leading Muslim representatives turned to the Germans for help, asking for Muslim autonomy under Hitler's protection. In a memorandum of November 1st, 1942 they professed their 'love and loyalty' for the Führer and offered to fight with the Axis against 'Judaism, Freemasonry, Bolshevism, and the English exploiters'. Officials in Berlin were thrilled.
German soldiers talk to a Muslim woman in Mostar, Herzegovina, 1944.
German soldiers talk to a Muslim woman in Mostar, Herzegovina, 1944.
As the civil war in the Balkans spun out of control, the Germans became more and more involved in the Muslim-populated areas. In their attempts 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 South-eastern Europe. The 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 grand Gazi Husrev Beg Mosque in Sarajevo, he gave such an emotional speech about Muslim suffering that parts of the audience burst into tears. In the following months the Germans launched a massive campaign of religiously charged propaganda. At the same time, they began to engage more closely with Islamic dignitaries and institutions, as they believed that religious leaders wielded most influence on the people. Muslims were formally under the authority of the highest religious council, the Ulema-Medžlis, and Nazi officials repeatedly consulted with its members and tried to co-opt them. Many Islamic leaders hoped that the Germans would help them found a Muslim state. Soon, however, 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 Muslim population fuelled partisan and Četnik hatred against them. Violence escalated. In the end, a quarter of a million Muslims died in the conflict.
In the southern borderlands of the Soviet Union, however, Nazi killing squads still had difficulties distinguishing Muslims from Jews.
As the tide of war turned against the Axis from 1941 onwards, 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. German army officers granted these recruits a wide range of religious concessions, taking into account the Islamic calendar and religious laws, such as dietary requirements. They even lifted the ban on ritual slaughter, a practice that had been prohibited for antisemitic reasons by Hitler's 'Law for the Protection of Animals' of 1933. A prominent role in the units was played by military imams, who were responsible not only for spiritual care but also for political indoctrination. When speaking to Nazi functionaries about the recruitment of Muslims into the SS in 1944, Himmler explained that the support of Islam had simple pragmatic reasons: 'I don't have anything against Islam, because it educates men in this division for me and promises them paradise when they have fought and been killed in combat. A practical and attractive religion for soldiers!' After the war, many Muslims who had fought in German units, especially those from the Soviet Union and Balkans, faced gruesome retaliation.
The Germans' engagement with Muslims was by no means straightforward. Nazi policies towards Islam, as worked out by bureaucrats in Berlin, regularly clashed with the realities on the ground. 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. A high-level meeting of the Wehrmacht, the SS and the Reich Ministry for the Occupied Eastern Territories was held in the summer of 1941, in which Colonel Erwin von Lahousen, who represented Wilhelm Canaris, the head of the Wehrmacht intelligence, became embroiled in a fierce argument with Gestapo chief Heinrich Müller, the infamous 'Gestapo-Müller', about these executions. In particular the selection of hundreds of Muslim Tatars who had been sent for 'special treatment' because they were taken for Jews, was brought up. Müller calmly acknowledged that the SS had made some mistakes in this respect. It was the first time, he claimed, that he had heard that Muslims, too, were circumcised. A few weeks later, Reinhard Heydrich, Himmler's chief of the SS Reich Security Head Office, sent out a directive cautioning the SS Task Forces to be more careful: 'The circumcision and Jewish appearance do not constitute sufficient proof of Jewish descent.' Muslims were not to be confused with Jews. In Muslim-populated areas, other characteristics, like names, were to be taken into account.
In the southern borderlands of the Soviet Union, however, Nazi killing squads still had difficulties distinguishing Muslims from Jews. When the Einsatzgruppe D began murdering the Jewish population of the Caucasus and Crimea, it encountered a special situation with regard to three Jewish communities which had long lived closely alongside the Muslim population and were influenced by Islamic culture: the Karaites and Krymchaks in the Crimea and the Judeo-Tats, also known as 'Mountain Jews', in the northern Caucasus.
In Crimea, SS officials were puzzled when encountering the Turkic-speaking Karaites and Krymchaks. Visiting Simferopol in December 1941, two Wehrmacht officers, Oberkriegsverwaltungsrat Fritz Donner and Major Ernst Seifert, reported that it was interesting to note that: 'A large part of these Jews on the Crimea is of Mohammedan faith, while there were also Near Eastern racial groups of a non-Semitic character, who, strangely, have adopted the Jewish faith.' The confusion among the Germans about the classification of Karaites and Krymchaks, which were, in fact, both Jewish communities, was striking. In the end, the Karaites were classified as ethnically Turkic and spared, while the Krymchaks were considered ethnically Jewish and killed. According to Walter Groß, head of the NSDAP Race Office, the Karaites were excluded from persecution because of their close relations with allied Muslim Tatars.
In the Caucasus, representatives of the Judeo-Tats, a minority of Iranian ancestry, took their case to the German authorities. The SS started investigations, visiting houses, attending celebrations and enquiring into the customs of the community. SS-Oberfüher Walther Bierkamp, then head of Einsatzgruppe D, personally visited a village of the 'mountain Jews' in the Nalchik area. During this visit, the Judeo-Tats were extremely hospitable and Bierkamp found that, aside from their religion, they had nothing in common with Jews. At the same time, he recognised Islamic influence, as the Tats also practiced polygamous relationships. Bierkamp swiftly gave the order that these peoples were not to be harmed and that, in place of 'Mountain Jews', the term 'Tats' had to be used.
In other war zones, too, Nazi authorities and their local helpers faced difficulties in distinguishing between Jews and Muslims, particularly in the Balkans. The privileged position of Muslims (and indeed Catholics) in the Ustaša state seemed, to many Jews, to offer an opportunity to avoid persecution. Soon, many tried to escape repression and deportation through official conversion to Islam. In Sarajevo alone, around 20 per cent 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. In the autumn of 1941, Ustaša authorities finally intervened, prohibiting these conversions, and even those who had converted were still not safe from persecution as it was race, not religion, which defined Jewishness in the eyes of German and Ustaša bureaucrats. Still, a number of converted and non-converted Jews managed to flee the country disguised as Muslims; some of them – women and men – wearing the Islamic veil.
Finally, the murder of Europe's Gypsies involved Muslims directly. As the Germans began screening the occupied territories of the Soviet Union they soon encountered many Muslim Roma. In fact, the majority of the Roma in Crimea were Islamic. They had, for centuries, assimilated with the Tatars, who now showed remarkable solidarity with them. Muslim representatives sent numerous petitions to the Germans to ask for the protection of their Roma co-religionists. Backed by the Tatars, many Muslim Roma pretended to be Tatars to escape deportation. Some used Islam. One example was the round up of Roma in Simferopol in December 1941, when those captured tried to use religious symbols to convince the Germans that their arrest was a mistake. An eyewitness noted in his diary:
The gypsies arrived en masse on carriages at the Talmud-Thora Building. For some reason, they raised a green flag, the symbol of Islam, and put a mullah at the head of their procession. The gypsies tried to convince the Germans that they were not gypsies; some claimed to be Tatars, others to be Turkmens. But their protests were disregarded and they were all put into the great building.
In the end, many Muslim Roma were murdered, but as the Germans had trouble distinguishing Muslim Roma from Muslim Tatars, some – an estimated 30 per cent – survived. During his interrogation at the Nuremberg Einsatzgruppen Trial, when asked about the persecution of Gypsies in Crimea, Ohlendorf explained that the screening had been complicated by the fact that many Roma had shared the same religion with the Crimean Tatars: 'That was the difficulty, because some of the gypsies – if not all of them – were Muslims, and for that reason we attached a great amount of importance to the issue to not getting into difficulties with the Tartars and, therefore, people were employed in this task who knew the places and the people.'
German armoured personnel carriers in a Bosnian Muslim village, 1944.
German armoured personnel carriers in a Bosnian Muslim village, 1944.
Muslims in the Balkans, too, were affected by the persecution of the Roma, as there were many Roma of the Islamic faith. When the Germans and their Ustaša allies began persecuting the Roma population, they initially also targeted the largely settled Muslim Roma of Bosnia and Herzegovina, the so-called 'white gypsies'. In the summer of 1941 Muslim Roma complained to the Islamic religious authorities about their discrimination. A delegation of leading Muslim representatives petitioned the authorities that Muslim Roma should be considered part of the Muslim community and that any attack on them would be considered an attack on the Islamic community itself. Eager to court Muslims, Ustaša and German officials eventually excluded Muslim Roma from persecution and deportation. When launching their pro-Muslim policies, German bureaucrats had not considered that the (religiously defined) population group ('Muslims') they tried to win as allies could overlap with (racially defined) population groups ('Jews' and 'Roma') that were to be persecuted.
In the last months of the war, holed up in the Berlin bunker, Hitler lamented that the attempts of the Third Reich to mobilise the Muslim world had failed because they had not been strong enough. 'All Islam vibrated at the news of our victories and the Muslims were ready to rise in revolt', he told his secretary, Martin Bormann. A movement could have been incited in North Africa that would have spilled over to the rest of the Muslim world. 'Just think what we could have done to help them, even to incite them, as would have been both our duty and our interest!'
In the end, German attempts to find Muslim allies were less successful than the strategists in Berlin had hoped. They had been launched 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 war zones 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 mobilising 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, taking part in the liberation of Europe.
David Motadel is Chancellor's Fellow at the University of Edinburgh and Research Fellow in History at Gonville and Caius, Cambridge and the author of Islam and Nazi Germany's War (Harvard, 2014).
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