Last Tuesday Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu caused a stir when he told the World Zionist Congress that the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin al-Husseini, inspired Hitler to proceed with the mass murder of European Jews during the Second World War. “Hitler didn’t want to exterminate the Jews at the time, he wanted to expel the Jews,” Netanyahu told his audience, referring to the Fürhrer’s meeting with the Mufti on 21 November 1941. “And Haj Amin al-Husseini went to Hitler and said, ‘If you expel them, they’ll all come here.’ ‘So what should I do with them?’ he asked. He said, ‘Burn them.’” According to Netanyahu, al-Husseini had “a central role in fomenting the Final Solution.”

The political objective of Netanyahu’s statement was obvious: to imply that the fundamental cause of today’s violence is not Israel’s military occupation of the West Bank, now in its 49th year, but the visceral, murderous Jew-hatred allegedly prevalent among the Palestinian Arabs. The historical accuracy of this claim is disputable, however. I’ve taken some interest in the matter, primarily because of the Mufti’s central role in recruiting the Muslims of Bosnia for the SS in 1943, and my view is that al-Husseini had a significant but by no means central role in engineering the Endlösung der Judenfrage.

BACKGROUND – With the emergence of Zionism in the early twentieth century, the Muslims faced a “Jewish problem” for the first time since Mohammad. This time they faced it from a position of weakness, with the Jews for the first time since the destruction of the Temple poised to reestablish a polity that would be territorial as well as spiritual and cultural. The result was a massive outpouring of Muslim Judeophobia between the two world wars, as vitriolic as anything seen in Hitler’s Germany, with the important difference that Nazism could not claim any scriptural grounding or divine mandate, even if it had wished for one.

It was a rude awakening for the Muslim world, after the phenomenal successes of the earlier centuries, to find itself by the early twentieth century on what looked like the losing side of history. It was even more difficult to explain the decline, bearing in mind the Kuranic promise that the Umma consisted of the best of all people. The many military, technological and economic weaknesses produced the sense that something had gone terribly wrong, but it did not result in creative self-examination. The question never was “What have we done?” but always “What have they done to us?” The Western imperialists have had their share of blame apportioned, but in the 1930s the Jews were included among those to be blamed.

Hitler’s Germany sensed this and made a concerted and successful effort to plant “modern” anti-Semitism in the Arab world. As Bernard Lewis points out, “The struggle for Palestine greatly facilitated the acceptance of the anti-Semitic interpretation of history, and led some to attribute all evil in the Middle East—and, indeed, in the world—to secret Jewish plots.” Even before Israel was created, that struggle turned into an existential battle of identity, with the complete denial of the legitimacy of Jewish existence as a central component of this campaign. When the Mufti of Jerusalem declared at the Dome on the Rock in 2001 that the negation of Jewish existence is an existential need of Islam, he was merely reflecting a mainstream Muslim position and continuing a well-established tradition.

THE WARTIME RECORD – In 1945, one name was missing from the Allies’ list of war criminals, that of Haj Mohammed Amin al-Husseini, the Mufti of Jerusalem and the former President of the Supreme Muslim Council of Palestine. In May 1941, the Mufti declared jihad against Britain, “the greatest foe of Islam,” and made his way to Berlin. He pledged “to solve the question of the Jewish elements in Palestine and in other Arab countries as required by national interests, and in the same way as the Jewish question in the Axis lands is being solved” [emphasis added]. When he met Hitler, on November 21, 1941, he declared that the Arabs are Germany’s natural friends, ready to cooperate with the Reich with all their hearts by the formation of an Arab Legion. Hitler promised that the German armies would liberate the Arabs from the British yoke, but fell short of making a public statement to that effect. 

The Mufti’s part of the deal was to raise support for Germany among the Muslims in the Soviet Union, the Balkans, and the Middle East. He conducted radio propaganda through the network of six stations and set up anti-British espionage and fifth-column networks in the Middle East. Partly thanks to his recruiting efforts, the Muslims in Bosnia and Kosovo volunteered for SS divisions Hanjar and Skenderbeg famous for their savagery. His recruitment efforts among Soviet POWs from Islamic regions were proportionately less successful, but nevertheless yielded tens of thousands of volunteers.

In the annual protest against the Balfour Declaration held in 1943 at the Luftwaffe Hall in Berlin, the Mufti praised the Germans because they “know how to get rid of the Jews, and that brings us close to the Germans and sets us in their camp.” (This and other quotes come from Joseph B. Schechtman, The Mufti and the Führer: The Rise and Fall of Haj Amin el-Husseini. New York, 1965.) Echoing Muhammad after the battle of Badr, on March 1, 1944, the Mufti called in a broadcast from Berlin: “Arabs! Rise as one and fight for your sacred rights. Kill the Jews wherever you find them. This pleases God, history, and religion. This saves your honor.”

Bernard Lewis says that, in addition to the old goal of Arabia being free of the presence of Jews, the Mufti “aimed at much vaster purposes, conceived not so much in pan-Arab as in pan-Islamic terms, for a Holy War of Islam in alliance with Germany against World Jewry, to accomplish the Final Solution of the Jewish problem everywhere.” According to SS-Hauptsturmführer Dieter Wisliceny who knew the Mufti well,

The Mufti was one of the initiators of the systematic extermination of European Jewry and had been a collaborator and advisor of Eichmann and Himmler in execution of this plan… He was one of Eichmann’s best friends and had constantly incited him to accelerate the extermination measures. I heard him say, accompanied by Eichmann, he had visited incognito the gas chamber of Auschwitz . . . The Mufti had repeatedly suggested to the various authorities with whom he was maintaining contact, above all to Hitler, Ribbentrop, and Himmler, the extermination of European Jewry. He considered this as a comfortable solution of the Palestinian problem.

Perhaps the “Nazis needed no persuasion or instigation,” as el-Husseini was later to claim, but the foremost Arab spiritual leader of his time did all he could to ensure that the Germans did not waver in their resolve. He went out of his way to prevent any Jews to be allowed to leave Hungary, Romania, and Bulgaria, which were initially willing to let them go: “The Mufti was making protests everywhere—in the Office of the (Foreign) Minister, in the antechamber of the Secretary of State, and in other departments, such as Home Office, Press, Radio, and in the SS headquarters.” In the end, Eichmann said, “We have promised him that no European Jew would enter Palestine any more.” In 1943, he wrote to the Hungarian foreign minister:

If there are reasons which make their removal necessary, it would be indispensable and infinitively preferable to send them to other countries where they would find themselves under active control, for example, in Poland, in order to protect oneself from their menace and avoid the consequent damage.

The choice of Poland as the Mufti’s favored location for the deportation of Europe’s Jews was chillingly uncoincidental. In his letter of June 5, 1944, addressed to the Reichsfuehrer SS and Minister of the Interior Heinrich Himmler, the Mufti referred back to their conversation in which he asked Himmler to take all the measures to prevent the Jews from leaving Nazi-controlled Europe. On July 27, 1944, he wrote to Himmler again: “I ask you, Reichsfuehrer, to do everything necessary to prevent the Jews from emigrating.”

IDEOLOGICAL AFFINITY – It was with the architect of the holocaust, Heinrich Himmler, that Islam had found its most ardent admirer and promoter in the pre-multicultural Europe. Himmler’s hatred of “soft” Christianity was matched by his liking for Islam, which he saw as a masculine, martial religion based on the SS qualities of blind obedience and readiness for self-sacrifice, untainted by compassion for one’s enemies. While Hitler did not think much of Himmler’s neo-pagan mysticism, he was happy to let Islam become the “SS religion.” By creating an SS division composed of Bosnian Muslims, Himmler was only taking the first step in the planned grand alliance between Nazi Germany and the Islamic world.

One of Himmler’s closest aides, Obergruppenführer Gottlob Berger, boasted that “a link is created between Islam and National-Socialism on an open, honest basis. It will be directed in terms of blood and race from the North, and in the ideological-spiritual sphere from the East.” Indeed, as Nicholas Stargardt (University of Oxford) notes, the Nazi regime pushed a crude but fairly consistent anti-Orientalist line in order to forge a Muslim alliance: “This went beyond the coincidence of shared enmities against the British, the Bolsheviks and the Jews, and promised to open up a true partnership based on shared key values: obedience to the leader, belief in the family and commitment to a holy war.”

After the war, with the Mufti re-established as the spiritual leader of the Palestinian Arabs, the Muslim line was that he had “killed nobody” and had only done his duty against Zionism. In part thanks to him, the most potent heirs to the Nazi worldview in our own time as regards the Jews are not skinheads and Aryan Nation survivalists. They are religious leaders and mainstream intellectuals in the Muslim, primarily Arab, world.