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Islam and Nazi Germany’s War

 By David Motadel. 500 pp. Harvard University Press, 2014. $35.

A Middle Eastern proverb observes that “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.” Tat ancient nugget is the key to Islam and Nazi Germany’s War. Scholar David Motadel describes a process that at first might seem inexplicable: the alliance between Nazi Germany and various Muslim communities during World War II. Hitler despised all “non-Aryan” peoples as racially inferior, and devout Muslims should have seen plenty to fear in Hitler’s brutal, expansionist ideology.

But remember the proverb. Hitler was at war not only with Britain and France, but with their overseas empires, which included regions teeming with millions of disaffected Muslims eager to throw of the hated imperialist yoke. As the Wehrmacht advanced into regions with Muslim populations, the Nazis could make plausible propaganda claims that they had arrived not to dominate, but to liberate. The Allies claimed they opposed Hitler to stand for human freedom, a narrative we tend to accept today. But these same Allies had been longstanding and brutal oppressors of hundreds of millions of people worldwide, hypocrisy the Germans were able to successfully exploit. Japan benefited from a similar dynamic in its East Asian war, since it could plausibly declare to the conquered populations that its real mission was not conquest, but the destruction of western imperialism.

As the Wehrmacht advanced into North Africa, the Balkans, and finally the Soviet Union, millions of Muslims came under German control, as did great Islamic cities like Sarajevo and Tunis. In all these places, Nazi propaganda emphasizing anti-Western and anti-Soviet themes attracted thousands of Muslims, men who enlisted in the Wehrmacht’s “Eastern Legions” (54 battalions worth by 1943) or the SS-Handžar division. Provided with halal food, the right to celebrate holy days, and the spiritual care of imams, these troops fought loyally and bravely, mainly in the East but in Italy, France, and the Balkans as well, until the bitter end in 1945. Most paid with their lives, vanishing into the Soviet Gulag or being shot outright by the NKVD. Stalin would go even farther, deporting the Crimea’s entire Muslim population to Central Asia and Kazakhstan for the ostensible crime of collaborating with the Germans.

If the reader is willing to wade through nearly 500 pages of turgid academic prose, Islam and Nazi Germany’s War offers food for thought. Motadel sees the recruitment of Muslims as an exam ple of Berlin’s increasing “pragmatism.” As the war dragged into 1942 and 1943, devastating defeats at Moscow and Stalingrad bled the master race. The Germans needed fresh manpower and they could no longer be selective about the racial composition of their recruits.

While the author deliberately down plays ideology, it seems only fair to point out that one other link existed between the Nazis and Muslim leaders like Haj Amin al-Husseini, the Mufi of Jerusalem: their mutual and murderous hatred of Jews. The enemy of my enemy is my friend, and during World War II, the haters tended to stick together.

—Robert M. Citino is a professor at the U.S. Army War College and a frequent contributor to World War II magazine.

Originally published in the April 2015 issue of World War II. To subscribe, click here.