Adolf Hitler’s sketches of a Nazi Utopia revealed that it was to be a project for Germans only. He saw it as axiomatic that the new Reich, stretching far into the Soviet Union, would “push out” the Jews completely and transform the Slavic nations into helots to serve the master race. But what was to happen to the millions of Muslims that the German military encountered during 1941 and 1942 as it invaded North Africa and the Middle East, the Crimea, the Caucasus and the Balkans? Although David Motadel argues that almost immediately the Germans presented themselves as the friends of Islam and “they began recruiting tens of thousands” of Muslims into the Wehrmacht and the SS, the text also provides evidence that most Nazi leaders had persistently grave reservations about enrolling any of these people.
There was indeed some confusion on the issue among the German leaders. The Führer provided no definitive order, hardly mentioned Islam in his major ideological tomes and speeches, and rarely referred to them in his wartime directives, conferences and conversations. To the extent that he said anything about Islam at all, it is difficult to agree with Motadel that Hitler or most other Nazi leaders had much confidence in Muslims battling for the Third Reich. Instead, given the empirical evidence presented in the book, the impression that emerges is that Hitler simply left his underlings to their own devices. Most upper-echelon Nazis looked upon any link to the followers of Islam in entirely instrumental terms, and arming any of them as soldiers would at best be a short-term expedient to meet emergency troop shortages.
True, in June 1941, Hitler briefly mentioned his vague hope of “exploiting the Arab Freedom Movement” after the Soviets were defeated, and in November he agreed to meet Amin al-Husseini, the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, to talk about his “uncompromising fight against the Jews”. Nevertheless, the German leader became evasive when asked to issue written guarantees of Arab independence; little wonder, given that he considered them Semites and racially inferior. In the event, the Allies had far more success than the Axis in mobilising followers of Islam in North Africa and the Middle East.
On the other hand, in the case of the Soviet Union, Hitler grudgingly approved that the Wehrmacht work with Muslims. Yet in December 1942, and in spite of facing a more critical situation in the east, he quibbled over which of the peoples in the Caucasus were trustworthy. Even though he believed that the Muslims “would always charge” in battle – because of their mythical fanaticism – he flatly said that he was unable to assess whether or not they would be “militarily useful”. In Germany’s brief occupation of the North Caucasus, the Wehrmacht enlisted several Muslim groups, although what would happen to them under a Nazi peace was at best “sketchy”, as Motadel notes. The same was true in the Crimea, where the invaders recruited Tatars and others. Ultimately, the occupation would have “cleansed” the peninsula and resettled it with Germans. In the Balkans, Heinrich Himmler enlisted thousands of Muslims and others, although not quite as fully fledged members of the Waffen SS. In spite of the SS leader’s publicised respect for Islam, he thought little of Muslim fighters and, even in the dire situation in 1944, dissolved their few units.
Motadel tells us that Hitler ruminated in his last days to Martin Bormann, his private secretary, that had his New Order in Europe come into being he would have adopted “a bold policy of friendship toward Islam”. Yet there were no deathbed conversions for Hitler, because his racist dogma would inevitably damn all or most such non-Germans to second- or third-class status. In the end, the relatively few Muslims in Wehrmacht or SS uniforms attained brief and limited success in fighting on the side of Third Reich. When the Axis powers withdrew, however, followers of Islam paid a stiff price, as, for example, in the Balkans, where they were widely stigmatised in the post-war era for having teamed up with the enemy. Stalin used wholesale ethnic cleansing to exact a terrible revenge on Muslim nations in the USSR for such real or imagined treason.
In offering an interesting and important account of Islam in Nazism’s war, Motadel reveals a little-known chapter in the conflict. This is a nuanced and sensitive account of a topic that is too important to ignore.
Islam and Nazi Germany’s War
By David Motadel
Harvard University Press, 512pp, £25.00
Published November 2014