David Mikics: The Nazi Romance With Islam Has Some Lessons for the United States

It is not surprising, then, that there are those today who draw a direct line between modern Jew-hatred in the Islamic world and the Nazis. A poster currently at Columbus Circle’s subway entrance proclaims loudly that “Jew-hatred is in the Quran.” The poster features a photograph of Hitler with the notoriously anti-Jewish Mufti al-Husaini of Palestine, who is erroneously labeled “the leader of the Muslim world.” The truth is considerably more complex. The mufti made himself useful to the Nazis as a propagandist, but he had little influence in most Muslim regions. Few Muslims believed Nazi claims that Hitler was the protector of Islam, much less the Twelfth Imam, as one Reich pamphlet suggested.

The Nazis’ anti-Jewish propaganda no doubt attracted many Muslims, as historian Jeffrey Herf has documented, but they balked at believing that Hitler would be their savior or liberator. Instead, they sensed correctly that the Nazis wanted Muslims to fight and die for Germany. As Rommel approached Cairo, Egyptians started to get nervous. They knew that the Germans were not coming to liberate them, but instead wanted to make the Muslim world part of their own burgeoning empire. In the end, more Muslims wound up fighting for the Allies than for the Axis.

Hitler’s failed effort to put Muslim boots on the ground still stands as the most far-reaching Western attempt to use Islam to win a war. Such is the judgment of David Motadel, the author of a new, authoritative book, Islam and Nazi Germany’s War . Motadel’s detailed and fascinating explanation of how and why the Nazis failed to get Muslims on their side is a must-read for serious students of World War II, and it has an important message as well for our own policy in the Middle East.

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To grasp why the Nazis had such high hopes for Muslim collaboration—and why their hopes failed—we need to go back to the great war that made Hitler the fanatical monster he was. One hundred years ago, a few months into World War I, Germany looked like it might be in trouble. The German offensive had failed to break through at Ypres after a month of bloody fighting. The waves of German soldiers stumbling through no-man’s land slowed to a stop. The kaiser’s army was exhausted, and its commanders suddenly realized that the quick Western Front victory they had dreamed of was impossible. Meanwhile, Russia was massing troops around Warsaw, and the tsar had just declared war on the Ottoman Empire.

There was one bright spot, though. On Nov. 11, 1914, the highest religious authority of the Ottoman caliphate, Sheikh al-Islam Ürgüplü Hayri, issued a call for worldwide jihad against Russia, Britain, and France. Suddenly, the Great War was a holy war. Surely, the Germans dreamed, Muslims would join their side en masse and turn the tide of battle.

In the early years of World War I the German Reich caught Islam fever: Muslims became the great Eastern hope against the Entente. Helmuth von Moltke, chief of the German general staff, planned to “awaken the fanaticism of Islam” in the French and British colonies, making the Muslim masses rise up against their European masters. Max von Oppenheim , the German diplomat and orientalist, described Islam as “one of our most important weapons” in his famous position paper of October 1914. Oppenheim wanted to spark a Muslim revolt stretching from India to Morocco that Germany could use for its own purposes. Germany just needed to get the message across, Oppenheim insisted: Russia, Britain, and France were the oppressors of Muslims, whereas the Germans would liberate them.

The German strategy didn’t work. Instead, Britain and France won the game when they capitalized on the Arab uprising against a crumbling Ottoman Empire. T.E. Lawrence, rather than the kaiser, inspired the Arabs. After the war, Britain and France sliced up the Middle East pie between them in the Sykes-Picot agreement of 1916.

Germany tried once again to mobilize Islam in WWII. Astonishingly, in 1940 Oppenheim, at that point 80 years old, championed the same plan that had failed so badly in the previous war. Even more surprising, Hitler and Himmler warmly embraced the part-Jewish Oppenheim’s idea: They too thought that Islam would help bring about a Nazi triumph.

“German officials would always refer to global Islam, to pan Islam,” Motadel told me over the phone from his home in Cambridge, England, where he is Research Fellow in History at the University of Cambridge’s Gonville and Caius College. The Nazis spoke of the Muslims as a “bloc” that could be “activated” against the British, the French, and the Soviets. Their belief that Islam was monolithic led them to ignore differences of region, sect, and nationality, which helped to ensure the failure of their efforts.

As Motadel documents, those efforts were indeed considerable. Germans sought out imams who would issue fatwas for their side, and they told their soldiers to be especially careful of religious sensibilities when traveling through Muslim territory. They gave special privileges to Muslims who joined the Wehrmacht: The Nazi leadership even allowed them to follow Muslim dietary laws. Astonishingly, German forces in the East permitted Muslims to practice both circumcision and ritual slaughter, proving more liberal on these two issues than many Europeans are today. At the beginning of Operation Barbarossa, the Germans murdered many Muslims because they were mistaken for Jews: They didn’t realize that Muslims were also circumcised. But Berlin soon corrected the error and cautioned troops in the East to make sure to treat Muslims with respect, since they were Germany’s potential allies. In December 1942 Hitler decided he wanted to recruit all-Muslim units in the Caucasus. He distrusted Georgians and Armenians, but the Muslims, he said, were true soldiers.

The Germans assumed that the Muslim world would naturally flock to the Nazi banner, since Muslims like Germans knew that Jews were the enemy, and since Germany was offering them freedom from France, Britain, and Russia. But for the most part, they were wrong. Muslims only embraced the Nazi cause in places where they were desperate to arm themselves against local persecutors, the Crimea, the Caucasus, and the Balkans. In most of the Muslim world, Hitler failed to attract a large following.

North Africa was a miserable failure for German recruitment. “230,000 Muslims fought for the Free French against the Axis from North Africa,” Motadel pointed out to me in our interview, far more than those who enlisted with Germany. The Germans had their millions of leaflets, but they were not the only propagandists in the field. “The Free French mobilized them with anti-colonial rhetoric. The British and French were the ruling powers; they had much more control over propaganda.”

The East was much more favorable than North Africa to the German recruitment drive. The Muslims of the Caucasus and the Crimea had many reasons to choose Germany over Stalin’s Soviet Union. “In the East the Muslim population had really suffered under Stalin, economically and religiously,” Motadel remarked to me. They had nothing to lose, they thought, by siding with “Adolf Effendi.” The Crimean Tatars took a notorious place among Germany’s most loyal and ruthless battalions, fighting both in the East and, near the end of the war, in Romania. The Tatars made the wrong choice: Stalin mercilessly deported many of them to his gulags after the war.

In the Balkans many Muslims turned to Germany in the middle of a brutal civil war, fleeing the rampages of the Croatian Ustase. The infamous all-Muslim Handžar battalion of the SS, organized in the Balkans late in the war, committed many atrocities. In Serbian areas, noted one British officer, the Handžar “massacres all civil population without mercy or regard for age or sex.”

The Nazis made sure, with few exceptions, that the Nuremberg laws could be applied only to Jews, not to those other Semites, the Arabs, nor to Turks and Persians—which paradoxically allowed certain communities of Jews in Muslim regions to also survive the Shoah. In Crimea, two puzzled officers of the Wehrmacht, Fritz Donner and Ernst Seifert, reported on “Near Eastern racial groups of a non-Semitic character who, strangely, have adopted the Jewish faith,” while also noting that “a large part of these Jews on the Crimea is of Mohammedan faith.” What to do? In the end the Reich ruled that the Karaites, traditionally seen as a Turkic people, could be spared, while the Krymchaks should be murdered as Jews, though both these Crimean tribes followed Jewish law. In the northern Caucasus, the Nazis decided that the Judeo-Tats, a tiny Torah-observant island in a sea of Muslims, had only their religion in common with Jews. In effect, they became honorary Muslims and were saved from death. The Karaites were close to the Muslim Crimean Tatars, and the Judeo-Tats also had deep ties to their Muslim neighbors. It was their supposed affinity to Islam that saved the lives of these observant Jews. In these cases the Nazi wish to cultivate the Muslim world even affected to a small degree their anti-Semitic policy—to the Jews’ advantage.

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Hitler cultivated many parts of the Muslim world, but he was fanatically enthusiastic about only one country: Turkey (the Nazis officially decided in 1936 that the Turks were Aryans). Stefan Ihrig’s brilliant new book Atatürk in the Nazi Imagination demonstrates convincingly that Mustafa Kemal Atatürk’s conquest of Turkey was the most important model for the Nazis’ remaking of Germany, far more so than Mussolini’s 1922 March on Rome, which is usually cited as Hitler’s main inspiration. Turkey had taken control of its destiny in manly fashion, in proud defiance of the international community—if only Germany would do the same! So argued many on the German right, including Hitler, during the 10 years between Atatürk’s victory and the Nazi seizure of power.

The victorious Entente had vastly curtailed Ottoman territory under the Treaty of Sèvres after WWI, just as the Treaty of Versailles shrank German territory. But the new nation of Turkey threw off the victors’ shackles and, after Mustafa Kemal (later renamed Atatürk) marched from Ankara westward, the Turks won the right to a homeland in the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne. The Weimar Republic’s newspapers obsessively celebrated the Turks’ victory and endorsed their claims to the disputed region of Hatay (the Turks’ Alsace-Lorraine), portraying the Turks as more advanced than the Germans, trailblazers on the path to strong nationhood. “If we want to be free, then we will have no choice but to follow the Turkish example in one way or another,” the right-wing military man and journalist Hans Tröbst announced in the newspaper Heimatland in 1923. Nearly every item in Hitler’s playbook can be found in such Weimar-era endorsements of Atatürk: All Turkey had mobilized for the war; strong faith in their leader had saved them.

Ihrig argues that the Turkish treatment of minorities, both under Atatürk and earlier, was the true precursor for Hitler’s murderous policy in the East. Those “bloodsuckers and parasites,” the Greeks and Armenians, had been “eradicated” by the Turks, Tröbst explained in Heimatland. “Gentle measures—that history has always shown—will not do in such cases.” The Turks had achieved “the purification of a nation of its foreign elements on a grand scale.” He added that “Almost all of those of foreign background in the area of combat had to die; their number is not put too low with 500,000.” Here was a chilling endorsement of genocide, and one that surely did not escape Hitler’s eye. Shortly after his articles appeared, Hitler invited Tröbst to give a speech on Turkey to the SA.

From 1923 on, Hitler consistently praised Atatürk in his own speeches as well. Berlin, like Istanbul, was cosmopolitan and decadent. Munich, site of Hitler’s beer-hall putsch, was the place for a German “Ankara government.” When Hitler seized power in 1933 his Völkischer Beobachter cited Atatürk’s victory as the “star in the darkness” that had shone for the beleaguered Nazis in 1923, after the putsch’s failure. Turkey was “proof of what a real man could do”—a man like Atatürk, or Hitler.

The Third Reich produced many idolizing biographies of Atatürk. Six years after the Turkish leader’s death, in late 1944, a delusional Hitler was still dreaming of a postwar alliance between Turkey and Germany. He never got his wish. During the war, Turkey, as a neutral power, kept its distance from the Nazis until it finally declared war against Germany in February 1945.

In Turkey, criticizing Atatürk can still get you three years in jail, though the country’s increasingly unhinged President Recep Tayyip Erdogan broke the law himself last year when he called Atatürk a drunkard. While Erdogan wants to reverse his predecessor’s program for secularizing Turkey, he appears to be imitating Atatürk’s extravagant cult of personality along with his habit of demonizing his enemies. But while Atatürk disdained Hitler’s anti-Semitism, Erdogan is obsessed with Jews. The 2014 Gaza operation, he has remarked , was worse than anything Hitler ever did, and the Israelis have been committing “systematic genocide every day” since 1948. Perhaps if Erdogan had been in power in the 1940s, the Nazis would have found the Muslim ally they so desperately sought.

Weaponizing Islam has often been a temptation for the United States, just as it was for Germany. In its battle against Moscow, Washington recruited Islamic leaders after WWII, most famously Said Ramadan, a major figure in the Muslim Brotherhood. The United States even smiled on Saudi Arabia’s funding of radical Islamist organizations, hoping that religion would serve as a bulwark against Soviet Communism. Then the Muslim Brotherhood killed U.S. ally Anwar Sadat, and its follower Ayman al-Zawahiri became, along with Osama Bin Laden, the founder of al-Qaida. We supported the Mujahedeen in Afghanistan, until the Mujahedeen turned into the Taliban.

We are still trying to turn the Muslim world to our own purposes, but this time by supporting Shiite against Sunni. In addition to courting Erdogan, President Barack Obama hopes to make use of Iran as a stabilizing regional force. In his most recent personal letter to Ayatollah Khamanei, Obama seems to have made a promise: We will repeal sanctions, fight against ISIS, and preserve the rule of Iran’s client Bashar al Assad as long as Iran agrees to a deal on nuclear weapons. But what will the United States get in return? In the best-case scenario—which is far from assured—Iran’s bomb-making abilities will be hindered by the deal they sign. But even an Iran without the bomb cannot be relied on to make the Middle East less conflict-riven, unless we are aiming at the kind of stability famously mocked by Tacitus: They make a desert and call it peace. Iranian actions speak for themselves: support for Hezbollah, with its hundred thousand weapons aimed at Israel, and support for Assad, who has massacred his people endlessly and thrown massive numbers of them into concentration camps. Anyone who looks at the Syrian defector “Caesar” ’s photographs of the thousands of starved, mutilated bodies produced by Syria’s bloodthirsty optometrist-in-chief, which are now on permanent exhibition at the Holocaust Museum in Washington, a few blocks from the White House that has refused to grasp their meaning, will ask the same question: Don’t these Arab bodies, resembling so exactly the bodies of Jews at Auschwitz, have the same call on our conscience?

One thing is certain: If Khamanei and Rouhani are given a larger role in the Middle East, they will not serve U.S. interests, nor those of the majority of Muslims. They will serve their own interests, which are inimical to ours. We still have not learned the major lesson of 20th-century history so adeptly conveyed by Motadel and Ihrig: Western leaders who try to get Islam on their side through propaganda and favors will be unpleasantly surprised.