ISLAM AND NAZI GERMANY’S WAR
By David Motadel
Belknap Press, $35, 512 pages
Wartime alliances are rarely rational. Battlefield allies usually share little but a common enemy.
The close relationship between Hitler’s top generals and policy planners and the devout Muslim soldiers who fought in Nazi Germany’s army was strange and unnatural. The two groups shared almost nothing — except common enemies. David Motadel’s “Islam and Nazi Germany’s War” tells how this unique relationship evolved and survived notwithstanding deep-rooted differences.
Hitler’s army mounted a vigorous, methodically constructed and substantially successful campaign to use a religious group’s rituals, festivals and observances for political and military gain. The fervor of Islam’s followers and their passion for their faith — then and now — transcends national borders and the patriotic loyalty demanded by the nation-states in which they resided. The Nazis’ campaign to make Muslims feel welcome in the fuhrer’s army capitalized on this.
In the 1940s Mohammedanism was the majority religion in all of the countries on the Mediterranean’s southern and eastern shores, in much of the Balkan Peninsula and in six of the Soviet Union’s independent republics. Encouraging and promoting Islam’s latent hatred of the English, French and Russians while making its leaders admirers of Nazism was part of Hitler’s grand strategy. Much of the effort targeted the USSR’s Muslims. They passionately hated the Stalinist-Bolshevism regime that outlawed all forms of religious worship and embraced the Marxist notion that religion was “the opiate of the masses.”
In the USSR Muslims were forbidden to observe their holidays in groups or congregations, to pray in public and to celebrate births, marriages and deaths according to their tradition. Muslims were considered a “lesser breed” by the white males from England and France who controlled most of the governments and economies on the Mediterranean’s southern and eastern shores. For more than 1,000 years, followers of Islam and Jews saw each of them as enemies. By unique coincidence, all of Germany’s enemies were also Islam’s longtime foes.
Although the Nazis used most of the well-established propaganda methods, like circulating pamphlets, postcards and posters, and broadcasts by organizations similar to the Voice of America and Radio Liberty, they understood that traditional methods would be only marginally successful. A large percentage of the Muslims were illiterate, and the few owned radios.
The Nazis’ approach to Islam was creative and original. They organized — and aggressively publicized — the all-Muslim troop units within the German army. These units were given special privileges: Fridays off from duty, menus without pork and Ramadan fasting concessions. The fuhrer’s propaganda machine made the worldwide Muslim community aware of how Hitler’s army included all — Muslim troop units where their religion’s rites and ceremonies were honored and treated with respect.
Additionally — and maybe more importantly — the Nazis established schools for the training of Islamic religious leaders (imams and mullahs) in occupied sections of the USSR. Two-and-a-half decades of rigid, doctrinaire communism had depleted the number of the mullahs and imams with theological and ritualistic training. Few, if any, were younger than 50. The army’s “chaplain schools” were welcomed by the Muslims throughout the world. In addition to their military duties the German-trained mullahs advanced the Nazi cause within the sacred confines of mosques.
Hitler’s well-publicized friendship with the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem gave his program cachet throughout the Islamic world. The Grand Mufti (who lived in Berlin during much of World War II) was a revered figure. Before moving to Berlin, he was an anti-colonial political leader in the Middle East and a direct descendent of the Prophet, who had made an official pilgrimage to Mecca.
During Hitler’s last days in his Berlin bunker, he confessed to Martin Bormann, the head of the Nazi chancellery and his personal secretary, that one of the great mistakes in Nazi strategy during the war was not making a greater effort to mobilize Muslim support, and promote local insurrections. Hitler told Bormann, “All Islam vibrated with news of our victories.” He believed the Mohammedan world was ready to rise in revolt, and the Nazis’ failure to capitalize on Islam’s unrest was an important error. He attributed this to Germany’s deferral to Italian, Spanish and Vichy French interests in North Africa and the Middle East.
Mr. Motadel’s “Islam and Nazi Germany’s War” is a superb analysis of little-known but important facts about World War II. Still, it is a tedious book. More than 50 Nazi generals, cabinet officers and policymakers are identified by name and title, but not a single one is described in more than two sentences. The only exception is the Mufti of Jerusalem. Mr. Motadel’s book should be part of every major library with a World War II history section. But it is not a book for the casual war buff or recreational reader.
Islam is a vital force — political as well as spiritual — that transcends the borders of nation-states and short-term alliances. Its potency is often underestimated. Mr. Motadel’s book tells how Hitler failed to fully exploit Islam’s power. It also implicitly warns that some future dictator may succeed.
• Herman J. Obermayer, a former newspaper publisher, is the author of “Soldiering for Freedom: A GI’s Account of WWII” (Texas A&M University Press) and “Rehnquist: A Personal Portrait of the Distinguished Chief Justice of the United States” (Simon & Schuster).