It’s been our misfortune to have the wrong religion […] The Mohammedan religion […] would have been more compatible to us than Christianity. (Adolf Hitler, August 1942.)
It is no secret that most contemporary Muslim states and Islamist radical groups are quasi-fascistic and anti-Semitic. Oppressive, violent, irrational and pathologically obsessed with destroying the Jewish state, these modern-day fascists have inherited a great deal from the Nazis.
During the 1930s and 1940s, Mein Kampf and the notorious anti-Semitic tract Protocols of the Elders of Zion were translated and widely read in Arab countries. These books are still very popular in the Middle East.
In his day, Hitler was celebrated in large parts of the Arab world, with some newspapers likening him to Muhammad.
The Syrians were particularly susceptible to the influence of Nazism. The Syrian Social Nationalist Party (SSNP) pressed for the establishment of a single Syrian nation state spanning the present day Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Jordan, the Palestinian Territories, Israel, Cyprus, Kuwait and the Sinai, as well as parts of Turkey and Iran. Hitler had a similar expansive vision for Europe. The Syrian Social Nationalist Party’s emblem, the red hurricane, was taken from the Nazi swastika.
The political philosophy that has dominated Syria and until recently Iraq is Ba’athism. A secular Arab nationalist ideology , Ba’athism endorses a one-party state that enforces itself on the masses by means of authoritarianism and repression. The Ba’athists were fascinated by Nazism and translated Mein Kampf into Arabic. Sami al-Jundi, Member of the Syrian Ba’athist Party admitted the Ba’athists were racist. “We were immersed in reading Nazi literature and books […] Anyone who lived in Damascus at that time was witness to the Arab inclination toward Nazism.” Indeed, several shops in Syria in the early months of the second world war displayed posters declaring, “In heaven God is your ruler, on earth Hitler.” After France’s defeat in 1940, Arabs in Damascus were heard chanting, “Allah’s in Heaven and Hitler’s on earth.”
According to his own memoirs, Anwar Sadat, who later became president of Egypt, willingly collaborated with Nazi spies. In fact, Sadat was a member of the Arab ultra-nationalist Young Egypt Party which consciously modelled itself on Nazism. The paramilitary wing of the party was known as the Green Shirts, in tribute to Hitler’s Brown Shirts and Mussolini’s Black Shirts. The Young Egypt Party, which owed its raised arm salute and its slogan, “One Folk, One Party, One Leader”, to the Nazis, pressed for the boycott of Jewish businesses and abuse of Egypt’s Jewish communities. Gamal Abdel Nasser, who was president of Egypt from 1956 until 1970, was also a member of the party. It was Nasser who, with the assistance of former Nazi officers and officials, drove Egypt into a unsuccessful war with the Israelis in 1967.
Many Arab leaders in the 1930s and 1940s sought alliances with Hitler and the Nazis. One example is the alliance between the Tunisian Arabs army and the Nazis, who between them murdered hundreds of Jews in North Africa. There were Nazi-inspired pogroms in Algeria in the 1930s, and massive attacks on the Jews in Iraq and Libya in the 1940s.
Hitler admired Islam’s partiality for violence and colonial expansion. According to the Nazi leader, the Muslim religion is “perfectly suited to the Germanic temperament” and described it as a cult that “glorifies the heroism and which opens up the seventh Heaven to the bold warrior alone.” What is less well known is Hitler’s support for the Palestinian Arabs. This support was motivated by anti-Semitism and a suspicion of Britain’s colonial rule in the Middle East. In a speech made before the Reichstag in 1939, Hitler opined that Palestine is “occupied not by German troops but by the English” and accused British troops of oppressing the Arabs for “the benefit of Jewish interlopers.”
It cannot be doubted that Nazis ideology had a profound effect on Arab and Muslim behaviour in the Middle East. But did Islam exert an influence on leading Nazis?
At least one Muslim theologian has claimed that he influenced Hitler. Before the creation of Pakistan, Muhammad Inayat Allah Khan wanted a separate state for Indian Muslims. In 1926 – several years before Hitler’s rise to power – Khan met Hitler in Berlin. According to Khan, Hitler “discussed Islamic Jihad with me in details.” Khan also claimed that Hitler’s Brown Shirt movement was modelled on Khan’s own vision for an Islamic grassroots movement called the Khaksars.
Himmler was particularly struck by Islam and he wasted no time in exploiting Muslim anti-Semitism in the Middle East to further the Nazi cause and undermine British rule. He was impressed by Islam’s attitude towards war, which made Muslim jihadists natural allies of Nazi soldiers. The creation of a Bosnian Muslim Waffen-SS division also appealed to Himmler, partly because Bosnian Muslims provided the missing link between National Socialism and Arabism. Under the guidance of Husseini, the 13th Hanzar Division of the SS was created in 1943 and was largely comprised of Bosnian Muslims. The Hanzars participated in the massacre of Serbian Jews and Christians, and volunteered to join the hunt for Jews in Croatia.
Hitler, like Houston Stewart Chamberlain before him, was a great admirer of Islam, which he believed was vastly superior to Christianity. According to Albert Speer, Hitler imagined an alternate history in which Islamized Germans would have been the crowning glory of the Muslim empire. The dream of a German-led Islamic caliphate may explain his own drive to create a Greater Germany, a kind of Nazi Ummah without any Jews.
Once Hitler came to power, he set about stripping the Jews of their citizenship. Since the Muslim conquest of Spain and the Middle East, Jews were dhimmis or second-class citizens. Depending on the time and the place, Jews were barred from public office and made to wear distinctive clothing, both of which foreshadow Nazi legislation. And like the Nazis, Muslims had the option of simply killing the Jews en masse, which is exactly what happened in Granada in 1066, when 4,000 Jews were massacred.
Maimonides, the great 12th century Jewish scholar, was shocked by the level of violence and discrimination meted out by Muslims. Islam, he said, had done the most harm to the children of Israel. “None has matched it in debasing and humiliating us,” he wrote in an epistle to the Jews of Yemen. His letter cites the “imposed degradation”, “the lies” and “their absurdities,” which are “beyond human power to bear.” He continues:
“We are not spared from the ferocity of their wickedness and their outbursts at any time. On the contrary, the more we suffer and choose to conciliate them, the more they choose to act belligerently toward us.”
Fast-forward to the 18th and 19th centuries when Jews were systematically expelled and/or massacred by Muslims. Between 1770 and 1786, Jews were expelled from Jedda in Saudi Arabia. Massacres took place in Morocco (1790), Baghdad (1928), Iran (1839, 1867), Syria (1840, 1848, 1850, 1875, 1890), Lebanon (1847, 1862, 1874), Jerusalem (1847), Egypt (1844, 1870, 1871, 1873, 1877, 1882, 1890, 1891, 1901–08), and Turkey (1864, 1866, 1868, 1870, 1872, 1874).
There were also more innocuous – but still shocking – incidents that deprived the Jewish people of dignity. In Righteous Victims: A History of the Zionist-Arab Conflict, 1881-2001, Benny Morris writes that one symbol of Jewish degradation was the phenomenon of spitting and stone-throwing at Jews by Muslim children. The victims of these abuses were in no position to retaliate.
Pogroms, humiliations, expulsions, massacres. Islam’s disregard for the Jews was a shocking precursor to the Third Reich’s treatment of the Jewish people. However, such similarities do not prove that Hitler’s genocide hatred was directly influenced by Islam.
The Armenian example
Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians? (Adolf Hitler, August 1939.)
It has already been argued that Hitler’s attitude towards the Jews was partly influenced by the rabid anti-Semitism of Haj Muhammud Amin el-Husseini, the exiled Mufti of Jerusalem and spiritual leader of the Palestinians. Husseini not only urged Hitler to spread fascism in the Middle East, he also stands accused of helping to initiate the Holocaust, if testimony given at Nuremberg in June 1946 by Dieter Wisliceny can be trusted.
But would Hitler have carried out the ‘Final Solution’ in the first place if there hadn’t been a recent precedent? It is impossible to answer, but the fact that Muslim colonialists had succeeded in wiping out more than a million Armenian Christians just a couple of decades ago, must have had some effect on Hitler’s vision for a Jew-free Europe. And the fact Husseini was an Ottoman staff officer during the Armenian genocide may also have played a part.
The Armenian Christians had come largely under Ottoman rule during the 15th and 16th centuries. Like the Jews, the Armenians were second-class citizens and were subject to the cruel urges of their oppressors. British ethnographer William Ramsay writing in the late 1890s after having visited the Ottoman Empire, described the conditions of the Armenians:
“Conceive the inevitable result of centuries of slavery, of subjection to insult and scorn, centuries in which nothing belonged to the Armenian, neither his property, his house, his life, his person, nor his family, was sacred or safe from violence – capricious, unprovoked violence – to resist which by violence meant death.”
Even before the disaster of the Armenian Holocaust, the Armenian people were being slaughtered. Between 1894 and 1909, around 250,000 Armenians were murdered by Muslim Turks.
During and just after the first world war, Ottoman Turks systematically killed up to 1.5 million Armenians in what has been dubbed the forgotten Holocaust. Starting in 1915, the Ottomans systematically uprooted Armenians from their homes, forcing them to march for hundreds of miles, without food and water, to what is now Syria. Not surprisingly, many Armenians died on the journey or in the Syrian desert. Rape was commonplace.
The massacres were horrific. Mass burning, drowning and poisoning were among the methods used by the Ottomans to eliminate the unwanted Armenians. Other forms of torture were employed, too gruesome to mention. In a grim foreshadowing of the Nazi atrocities, the poisonings were carried out by doctors and sometimes involved the use of gas. The Turks also prefigured the Nazis in the use of infrastructure. Many Armenians were crammed into cattle cars and sent away. Many were kept in concentration camps.
And it wasn’t just the Armenians who were targeted. In 1914, ethnic Greeks were uprooted in order to make room for Muslims from the Balkans. Torture, rape and forced conversions were routine. Between 1914 and 1925, as many as 750,000 Assyrians were slaughtered by the Ottomans and their Turkish successors. This led to a large-scale migration of Assyrian people into Syria, Iran, and Iraq, where they were to suffer more violence at the hands of Arabs and Kurds.
The hatred of the Armenians and other minorities is eerily prescient of how the Nazis treated the Jews and other ‘inconvenient’ populations. The desire to create an exclusive Muslim-Turkish empire in Asia Minor presages Hitler’s attempt to create an Aryan empire in Europe. The Armenians (and Greek and Assyrians) were robbed of their dignity and subjected to terrible acts of cruelty. And in the end, they were victims of the world’s first systematic case of ethnic cleansing.
How could Hitler have failed to be impressed?
The shared ideology of Nazism and Islamism did not disappear after the 1940s. There was an influx of several hundred SS and Gestapo officers into Arab countries following the war, including Eichman’s deputy, Alois Brunner. Following the Second World War, Nazis war criminals collaborated with Arabs in Cairo and Damascus in an effort to reverse Israel’s independence. Husseini was also involved in providing safe havens to former Nazis. He was visited three times after the second world war by Francois Genoud, the Swiss financier of the Third Reich and the ODESSA, the Organization of Former SS Members. The purpose of the ODESSA was to facilitate the escape of SS members to South America and the Middle East. (Genoud set up a sham import-export company in Morocco and Egypt that circulated anti-Semitic propaganda.)
The Egyptian army made full use of Nazi expertise. With the aid of Luftwaffe pilot Hans-Ulrich Rudel and SS commando Otto Skorzeny, the army recruited Nazi fugitives who went on to fill key posts in Egypt. According to the Israelis, around 80 former Nazi officials military experts and SS officers, were active in the Egyptian military and police. Another 200 scientists from Germany and Austria were employed at an aircraft and missile centre in Egypt. In 1956-57, 4,000 Jews were expelled from Egypt and many more were stripped of citizenship. Three years later, many synagogues – as well as Jewish orphanages, schools, hospitals – were shut down. In 1967, Jews were barred from public office.
Having escaped to Egypt, Husseini used his influence to persuade the Arabs to reject the UN’s partition plan. He also encouraged the participation of Egypt in the 1948 Arab-Israeli War.
On June 1st, 1946, US intelligence in Cairo sent a report to Washington about a statement made by Hassan Al-Banna, the leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, to the Arab League. Banna praised Husseini as a “hero who challenged an empire and fought Zionism, with the help of Hitler and Germany. Germany and Hitler are gone, but Amin Al-Husseini will continue the struggle.”
As the world’s attention shifted to the US standoff with the Soviets, the legacy of the war against the Jews in Europe had gone underground in the Middle East, only to re-emerge gradually in the 1960s, reaching a crescendo in the first years of the 21st century.
The absorption of Nazi themes, literature, propaganda and personnel before, during and after the war has had a disastrous effect on stability in the Middle East. The multi-pronged attack on Israel in 1948, 1967 and 1973 were all motivated by Arab nationalism and anti-Semitism. Even today, newspaper cartoons throughout the Muslim and Arab world rely heavily on Nazi propaganda. Editorial cartoons routinely depict Jews (not just Israelis) as spiders, vampires and octopuses. Another frequent depiction is that of the bearded Orthodox Jew with a hooked nose and dressed in black, which is reminiscent of Nazi propaganda. Jews are depicted as inhuman and an enemy of both Islam and humanity. Some cartoons repeat the well-worn canard that the Jews killed God. Another motif is that Jews are in control of the United States and the media. Other themes include the rich Jew, the blood-drinking Jew, and Jews as killers of children. All of these motifs can be found in Nazi literature.