How Nazi Germany's leaders tried to recruit Muslims to their war against Jews, Britain, and Bolshevism.
ON JULY 25, 1940, JUST AFTER THE FALL OF FRANCE and at the outset of the Battle of Britain, retired German diplomat Max von Oppenheim sent Berlin’s Foreign Office a seven-page memorandum. It was time, he argued, for a comprehensive strategy to mobilize the Islamic world against the British Empire.
Oppenheim knew the concept well; few had shaped Germany’s policy towards Islam in late imperial period and during the First World War as much as he had. Yet, the memo created few ripples at the Foreign Office. German officials showed little interest in the Middle East, and even less in the wider Muslim world. Hitler’s plans were focused on eastern Europe. In the non-European world, Berlin acknowledged the imperial interests of Italy and Spain, which Hitler sought as allies. A policy of Muslim mobilization was deemed unnecessary.
As Germany’s war expanded into Muslim-populated lands, that outlook changed.
In 1941, with German troops fighting in North Africa and advancing toward the Middle East, policymakers in Berlin began considering the strategic role of Islam more systematically. In November, German diplomat Eberhard von Stohrer wrote a memo asserting that the Muslim world would soon become important to the overall war. After the defeat of France, he wrote, Germany had gained an “outstanding position” and won sympathy “in the eyes of the Muslims” by fighting Britain, “the suppressor of wide-reaching Islamic areas.” Convinced that Nazi ideology was aligned with “many Islamic principles,” Stohrer claimed that in the Muslim world, Hitler already held a “a pre-eminent position because of his fight against Judaism.” He suggested that there should be “an extensive Islam program,” including a statement about the “general attitude of the Third Reich toward Islam.”
In the following months, as more and more officials in Berlin became convinced of such a scheme, 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 the Jews. This policy was first targeted at the populations in North Africa and the Middle East, but was soon expanded toward Muslims in the Balkans and the Soviet Union. In the end, almost all parts of the regime, from the Foreign Office and the Propaganda Ministry to the Wehrmacht and the SS, became involved in the efforts to promote Germany’s as a patron and liberator of Islam.
THE ATTEMPTS TO COURT MUSLIMS AROUND THE WORLD were first and foremost motivated by material interests and strategic concerns, not ideology. The willingness to deal pragmatically with questions of race, as well as the lack of anti-Islamic attitudes among the Nazi leadership, made the promotion of such an alliance possible.
Indeed, the most obvious obstacle to an inclusive policy towards Muslims was, of course, Nazi racism. In Mein Kampf, Hitler had postulated the racial inferiority of non-European peoples. Praising the idea of European imperial hegemony, he had ridiculed anti-imperial movements as a “coalition of cripples,” which because of “racial inferiority” could never be an ally of the German people. Soon after the seizure of power, however, German officials showed themselves to be more pragmatic.
For diplomatic reasons, Berlin had tried to avoid any explicit racial discrimination against non-Jewish Middle Easterners. That line was substantially complicated by the introduction of the Nuremberg laws in 1935. In codifying racism, the laws referred to “Jews” and persons of “German or kindred blood;” in practice, these categories were refined to “persons of German and kindred blood” and “Jews and other aliens,” with the peoples of Europe and their descendants in the non-European world considered “kindred.”
After inquiries from the Turkish embassy, which was concerned about legal discrimination against Turks and German citizens of Turkish descent, German authorities issued an internal decree: Turkey was part of Europe; other Middle Eastern countries, including Egypt and Iran, could not claim to be European. This statement soon leaked to the foreign press, and on June 14, 1936, Le Temps reported that Berlin had decided to exempt Turks from the Nuremberg laws, while Iranians, Egyptians, and Iraqis were considered “non-Aryan.” In the coming days, similar articles caused an uproar among Iranian and Egyptian officials.
At once, the German Foreign Office issued a press release stating that the reports were unfounded. The Egyptian and Iranian ambassadors were assured that the Nuremberg laws targeted only Jews. Whereas the Egyptian ambassador had merely requested clarification that Egyptians were not targeted by German racial laws, Tehran’s ambassador demanded a clear statement that Iranians were considered racially related to the Germans. A year earlier, Riza Shah had ordered that his country be called “Iran” instead of “Persia” in international affairs — the name “Iran” is a cognate of “Aryan” and refers to the “Land of the Aryans” — and Iranian officials made no secret that they believed this term useful given that “some countries pride themselves on being Aryan.”
To discuss the issue, representatives of all major ministries assembled at the Foreign Office on July 1, 1936. Walter Groß, head of the Nazi Office of Racial Politics, made it clear that any formal declaration was out of the question. Yet, it was agreed upon that ambassadors should be informed that the racial laws did not target (non-Jewish) foreign citizens, and that Iranian and Egyptian citizens would be treated the same as other non-Jewish foreign nationals; marriages between non-German men and German women were accepted, while marriages between non-German women and German men were possible, pending a ‘racial examination’ of the woman. Officials in Egypt and Iran were conciliated.
While race theory could justify excluding Persians and Turks from racial discrimination, the case of the Arabs was more complicated: they were seen by most racial ideologues as “Semites.” Regime officials were well aware that the term “anti-Semite” was problematic, as it targeted groups they did not wish to offend. As early as 1935, Goebbels’ Propaganda Ministry therefore instructed the press to avoid the terms “anti-Semitic” or “anti-Semitism,” and to instead use words like “anti-Jewish.” During the war years, German officials became more concerned about offending Arab sensibilities, and efforts to prohibit the use of these terms intensified. In early 1942, the Propaganda Ministry’s Office of “Anti-Semitic Action” became the Office of “Anti-Jewish Action.” Even the Nazi Office of Racial Politics would support the abolition of the terms, with Walter Groß writing an open letter to Iraqi nationalist and Axis collaborator Rashid Ali al-Kilani, insisting that Jews had to be “strictly distinguished” from the peoples of the Middle East, and writing that the Nazi government “recognizes Arabs as members of a high-grade race, which looks back on a glorious and heroic history.” The fight was against Jews, not Semites in general.
With the German involvement with the Muslims of Southeastern Europe and the Turkic minorities of the Soviet Union, here too, racial guidelines were relaxed. In 1943, when the Germans moved into Bosnia and Herzegovina, the SS even declared the Muslims of the Balkans part of the ‘racially valuable peoples of Europe’.
TO THE NAZI ELITE, any undesirable racial classification of Muslim populations was a wholly different question from the desirability of Islam as a faith. In fact, many of them, including Hitler, distinguished between race and religion when speaking about Islam.
A number of high-ranking Nazis expressed their sympathy for Islam. Perhaps most fascinated with the faith — and enthusiastic about what he believed to be an affinity between Nazism and Islam — was Heinrich Himmler. Recounting a meeting between Himmler and Hitler in Berlin in February 1943, Edmund Glaise von Horstenau, a Wehrmacht general, noted that Himmler had expressed his disdain for Christianity, while finding Islam “very admirable.” A few months later, Himmler would again “speak about the heroic character of the Mohammedan religion, while expressing his disdain for Christianity, and especially Catholicism,” wrote Horstenau.
The most intimate insights into Himmler’s attitude toward Islam are given by his doctor, Felix Kersten, whose notorious memoirs devote an entire chapter to Himmler’s “Enthusiasm for Islam.” To be sure, the Kersten memoirs are a problematic historical source. While some of the parts, especially those about his role in the rescue of Jews and other victims of the regime, were manipulated and fabricated by the author, others have proven to be accurate; the passages about Islam match other accounts of Himmler’s views about Muslims, and can be considered credible.
According to Kersten, Himmler saw Islam as a masculine, soldierly religion, telling him in late 1942:
Mohammed knew that most people are terribly cowardly and stupid. That is why he promised every warrior who fights courageously and falls in battle two [sic] beautiful women. … This is the kind of language a soldier understands. When he believes that he will be welcomed in this manner in the afterlife, he will be willing to give his life; he will be enthusiastic about going to battle and not fear death. You may call this primitive and laugh about it … but it is based on deeper wisdom. A religion must speak a man’s language.
Himmler, who had left the Catholic Church in 1936, bemoaned that Christianity made no promises to soldiers who died in battle, no reward for bravery. Islam, by contrast, was “a religion of people’s soldiers,” a practical faith that provided believers with guidance for everyday life. Himmler, convinced that Muhammad was one of the greatest men in history, had apparently collected biographies of the Prophet, and hoped to visit Muslim countries and continue his studies after the war was won. In discussions with Haj Amin al-Husayni, the legendary Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, who sided with the Axis and moved to Berlin in 1941, from where he called for holy war against the Allies, Himmler lamented the failed invasions by Islamic forces in centuries past which, he said, “depriv[ed] Europe of the flourishing spiritual light and civilization of Islam.”
HITLER SHOWED HIMSELF EQUALLY FASCINATED WITH ISLAM. After the war, Eva Braun’s sister, Ilse, remembered his frequent discussions on the topic, repeatedly comparing Islam with Christianity in order to devalue the latter. In contrast to Islam, which he saw as a strong and practical faith, he described Christianity as a soft, artificial, weak religion of suffering. Islam was a religion of the here and now, Hitler told his entourage, while Christianity was a religion of a kingdom yet to come — one that was deeply unattractive, compared to the paradise promised by Islam.
For Hitler, religion was a means of supporting human life on earth practically and not an end in itself. “The precepts ordering people to wash, to avoid certain drinks, to fast at appointed dates, to take exercise, to rise with the sun, to climb to the top of the minaret — all these were obligations invented by intelligent people,” he remarked in October 1941 in the presence of Himmler. “The exhortation to fight courageously is also self-explanatory. Observe, by the way, that, as a corollary, the Mussulman [sic] was promised a paradise peopled with houris, where wine flowed in streams — a real earthly paradise,” he enthused. “The Christians, on the other hand, declare themselves satisfied if after their death they are allowed to sing Hallelujahs!” Two months later he commented in a similar vein: “I can imagine people being enthusiastic about the paradise of Mahomet [sic], but as for the insipid paradise of the Christians!” Hitler would also compare Islam with other Asian religions that he admired. “Just as in Islam, there is no kind of terrorism in the Japanese State religion, but, on the contrary, a promise of happiness,” he said on April 4, 1942.
By contrast, Christianity had “universalized” the “terrorism of religion,” which in Hitler’s eyes was a result of “Jewish dogma.” Once, while engaging in his usual agitation against the Catholic Church — which was, he told his audience, foisted on the Germans by “Jewish filth and priestly twaddle” — he expressed anger that the Germans had been haunted by Christianity, “while in other parts of the globe religious teaching like that of Confucius, Buddha and Mohammed offers an undeniably broad basis for the religious-minded.”
Raging against the Christian Church’s adherence to “proven untruth,” he came again to speak of Islam: “It adds little to our knowledge of the Creator when some person presents to us an indifferent copy of a man as his conception of the Deity. In this respect, at least, the Mohammedan is more enlightened.” Reflecting on history, he described the Islamic reign on the Iberian peninsula as the “most cultured, the most intellectual and in every way best and happiest epoch in Spanish history,” one that was “followed by the period of the persecutions with its unceasing atrocities.”
Hitler expressed this view repeatedly. After the war, Albert Speer remembered that Hitler had been much impressed by a historical interpretation he had learned from some distinguished Muslims:
When the Mohammedans attempted to penetrate beyond France into Central Europe during the eighth century, his visitors had told him [Hitler], they had been driven back at the Battle of Tours. Had the Arabs won this battle, the world would be Mohammedan today. For theirs was a religion that believed in spreading the faith by the sword and subjugating all nations to that faith. The Germanic peoples would have become heirs to that religion. Such a creed was perfectly suited to the Germanic temperament. Hitler said that the conquering Arabs, because of their racial inferiority, would in the long run have been unable to contend with the harsher climate and conditions of the country. They could not have kept down the more vigorous native, so that ultimately not Arabs but Islamized Germans could have stood at the head of this Mohammedan Empire.
While Hitler did not perceive Islam as a “Semitic” religion, the race of its followers remained a silent but persistent problem. To be sure, our knowledge of the ideas about Islam that circulated within the Nazi elite mostly comes from memoirs and postwar testimonies, which must be read with caution. Nonetheless, these accounts draw a remarkably coherent picture of the ideological notions prevalent among the higher echelons of the regime.
Throughout the war years, the Propaganda Ministry repeatedly instructed the press to promote a positive image of Islam. Urging journalists to give credit to the “Islamic world as a cultural factor,” Goebbels in autumn 1942 instructed magazines to discard negative images of Islam, which had been spread by church polemicists for centuries, and instead to promote an alliance with the Islamic world, which was described as both anti-Bolshevik and anti-Jewish. References to similarities between Jews and Muslims, as manifested in the ban of pork and the ritual circumcision, were to be avoided. In the coming months, the Propaganda Ministry decreed that magazines should depict the U.S. as “the enemies of Islam” and stress American and British hostility toward the Muslim religion.
In September 1943, the Nazi Party explicitly stated that it accepted members who were “followers of Islam,” emphasizing that as the party accepted Christians as members, there was no reason to exclude Muslims.
AS GERMAN TROOPS MARCHED into Muslim-populated warzones in North Africa, the Balkans, and the borderlands of the Soviet Union, German authorities on the ground frequently considered Islam to be of political importance. As early as 1941, the Wehrmacht distributed the military handbook Der Islam to train the troops to behave correctly towards Muslim populations. On the Eastern front, in the Caucasus and in the Crimea, the Germans ordered the rebuilding of mosques and madrasas previously dismantled by Moscow, and the re-establishment of religious rituals and celebrations, with the intention of undermining Soviet rule. German military officials also made extensive efforts to co-opt religious dignitaries in the Eastern territories, the Balkans, and North Africa. Nazi propagandists in these areas tried to use religious rhetoric, vocabulary, and iconography to mobilize Muslims against Germany’s enemies. Perhaps the most important part of this policy was the recruitment of Muslims into the German armies.
In the autumn of 1941, after the failure of Operation Barbarossa and Hitler’s blitzkrieg strategy in the East, Hitler’s military command was confronted with a drastic shortage of manpower. By the end of November 1941, Berlin had registered 743,112 men as dead, wounded, or missing in action — almost a quarter of their entire eastern army. German soldiers, it became clear, could not win the war alone.
In late 1941, the Wehrmacht began recruiting among prisoners of war and the civilian populations in its eastern occupied territories. Azerbaijanis, Turkestanis, Kalmyks, Ukrainians, Georgians, Armenians, and various others fought as part of the Wehrmacht’s so-called Eastern Troops. In mid-1943, the Eastern Troops numbered more than 300,000; a year later, that number had doubled, the vast majority were non-Slavic minorities from the southern fringes of the Soviet empire, and many thousands of them were Muslims from the Caucasus, the Crimea, the Volga-Ural region, and Central Asia. At the same time, Himmler began enlisting non-Germans into the Waffen-SS, first West and North Europeans and later non-Germanic peoples, among them Muslims from Bosnia, Herzegovina, Albania, and from the Soviet Union. It became one of the greatest mobilization campaigns of Muslims led by a non-Muslim power in history.
This recruitment campaign was not the result of long-term strategy, but a consequence of the shift toward short-term planning after the failure of the Barbarossa plan. Most of the recruits were driven by material interests. For many of the Muslim volunteers from the Soviet Union who were recruited in prisoner of war camps, a significant incentive was the prospect of pay and better provisions — fighting for the Germans was an attractive prospect compared to the appalling conditions of the camps. Others, most notably Muslim recruits from the civilian population in the Balkans and the Crimea, hoped to protect their families and villages from partisans. Some were driven into the German ranks by ideology, nationalism, religious hatred, and anti-Bolshevism. Under the banner of the swastika, the volunteers believed that they would be supporting the fight against Bolshevism or British imperialism and for the liberation of their countries from foreign rule. The Germans, for their part, did everything they could to play up the potential ideological motives of their foreign helpers.
In January 1944, Himmler greeted a group of Bosnian Muslim military commanders in Silesia. “What is there to separate the Muslims in Europe and around the world from us Germans? We have common aims. There is no more solid basis for cooperation than common aims and common ideals. For 200 years, Germany has not had the slightest conflict with Islam.” Germany had been friends with Islam, Himmler declared, not just for pragmatic reasons but out of conviction. God — “you say Allah, it is the same” — had sent the Führer, who would first free Europe and then the entire world of the Jews. The head of the SS then evoked alleged common enemies — “the Bolsheviks, England, America, all constantly driven by the Jew.”
Himmler told the assembled Muslim military leaders that God — “you say ‘Allah,’ it is the same” — had sent Hitler, who would rid the entire world of Jews.
German army officials granted their Muslim recruits a wide range of concessions, taking into account the Islamic calendar and religious laws such as ritual slaughter. A prominent role in the units was played by military imams, who were responsible not only for spiritual care but also for political indoctrination. They were educated at special imam courses, which the Wehrmacht and the SS established in Potsdam, Göttingen, Guben, and Dresden.
Initiated primarily to save German blood and balance the drastic shortage of manpower, the commands of the Wehrmacht and the SS also saw a propagandistic value of non-German units, which they hoped would damage the morale in the enemy’s armies and hinterland. German officials insisted that once these units were deployed, they would win over broader Islamic support — showing, in the words of one internal SS report, the “entire Mohammedan world” that the Third Reich was ready to confront the “common enemies of National Socialism and Islam.” This misconception — this notion that Islam was a monolith that need only be activated — dominated the views of the Nazi leadership.
In the end, Muslim units were employed in Stalingrad, Warsaw, and Milan, and in the defense of Berlin. On all fronts, Muslim soldiers kept fighting until the end. Only in the chaos of the last months of the war, when all hopes for a German victory were shattered, did it become difficult to maintain morale and discipline in the units. The number of desertions rose. Soldiers left individually and in groups, or simply did not return from furlough. Others engaged in acts of self-mutilation to enforce discharge.
AFTER THE WAR WAS LOST, the fate of Germany’s Muslim soldiers was grim. In the Balkans, they faced Tito’s retribution, where the imams of the SS units were the first to be punished with executions, imprisonment, or forced labor. In the East, Moscow saw the collaboration of all those who had fought in German units as high treason.
At the Yalta Conference, the Big Three had agreed to repatriate all former Soviet citizens. Accordingly, the British and Americans disarmed all soldiers of Hitler’s non-German units and detained them in special camps. Eventually, they turned the legionnaires over to the Red Army.
The extradition began in the summer of 1945 and was accompanied by dramatic scenes. Dozens jumped from moving trains. As they docked in Odessa, many leaped from the deportation ships into the Black Sea; some committed suicide. One of the imams died in an act of self-immolation. Once in the USSR, most were massacred by Soviet cadres or deported to gulags. “All during 1945 and 1946 a big wave of genuine, at-long-last, enemies of the Soviet government flowed into the Archipelago,” Alexander Solzhenitsyn later recalled in The Gulag Archipelago.
Protests by the Red Cross made no impression on British and U.S. authorities, and the international press showed little interest.
Protests by the Red Cross made no impression on British and U.S. authorities. The international press showed little interest. One of the few to publicly criticize these deportations was, in fact, George Orwell, who was working as a war correspondent on the continent. “These facts, known to many journalists on the spot, went almost unmentioned in the British Press,” he noted in 1946, condemning the apparent public disinterest. Only when it became indisputable that the extraditions ended with executions and slave labor did the Allies abandon their repatriation policy. Those Muslims who had remained in the camps or had escaped were granted the status of “displaced persons,” and several thousand stayed in the West.
IN THE LAST MONTHS OF THE WAR, IN THE BERLIN BUNKER, Hitler lamented that the Third Reich’s efforts to mobilize the Muslim world had not been strong enough. “All Islam vibrated at the news of our victories,” and Muslims had been “ready to rise in revolt,” he told Bormann. “Just think what we could have done to help them, even to incite them, as would have been both our duty and our interest!” Instead, Germany had too long respected Italian interests in the Muslim world, which had hindered, as Hitler put it, a “splendid policy with regard to Islam.” “For the Italians in these parts of the world are more bitterly hated, of course, than either the British or the French.” The German-Italian alliance had “created a feeling of malaise among our Islamic friends, who inevitably saw us as accomplices, willing or unwilling, of their oppressors,” he bemoaned.
Unbound from its allies, Germany could have liberated the Muslims from Vichy and Italian rule in North Africa, which would then have found strong repercussions in Muslim lands under British rule. A movement could have been incited in North Africa that would have spilled over to the rest of the Muslim world. “Such a policy would have aroused the enthusiasm of the whole of Islam,” Hitler said. “It is a characteristic of the Moslem world, from the shores of the Atlantic to those of the Pacific, that what affects one, for good or for evil, affects all.”
Reflecting on his visions of a European New Order, Hitler insisted that his New Europe would have engaged in “a bold policy of friendship toward Islam.” In Hitler’s view, Germany’s Islam policy had not gone far enough.
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David Motadel is a Research Fellow in History at Gonville and Caius College, University of Cambridge. This piece is adapted from his book, Islam and Nazi Germany’s War, available from Harvard University Press.
Cover image courtesy of Das Bundesarchiv