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Book Review: Islam and Nazi Germany’s War

By (November 24, 2014) No Comment

islam and nazi germany's warIslam and Nazi Germany’s War

by David Motadel

The Belknap Press of the Harvard University Press, 2014

There’s a cheap opportunism lurking around the title, cover, and concept of David Motadel’s new book Islam and Nazi Germany’s War, obviously: the Nazis are the easiest shorthand for pure evil that the 20th Century provides, an evil that’s meant to be considered so vigorous and unshaded that it’s an ideological tar baby, staining anything that comes in contact with it, and the Western press and common folk in the young 21st Century have certainly shown no hesitation to make Nazi comparisons with either what’s maddeningly called “the Moslem world” or, more narrowly, “radical Islam.” The basically thoughtless lure of a book called Islam and Nazi Germany’s War would be that linkage: two super-villains, teaming up at last.

Motadel’s book resoundingly dispenses with such reductions; Islam and Nazi Germany’s War is a valuable ground-breaking work, energetically readable and unabashedly complicated. His Nazis are often so busy administering their suddenly sprawling European domain that they forget to be evil personified, and his Muslims steadily refuse to conform to the generalizing slanders of a later century. As Motadel points out, the collision between the two was an inevitable by-product of Blitzkrieg:

Geographically, as the European war turned increasingly into a world war, Muslim areas became war zones. In 1942, German soldiers had occupied a vast territory from the Channel Islands in the West to the Caucasus mountains in the East; they stood in Scandinavia and in the Sahara desert. At once, German troops were encountering large Muslim populations in the Caucasus and the Crimea, in the Maghrib and the Balkans. Countless minarets now stood on Hitler’s invaded territories.

Through an extensive amount of research in some fairly recondite primary sources, Motadel tells the story of Nazi Germany’s interaction with its Muslim conquests and would-be conquests in greater detail and with greater skill than any English-language historian before him. He stresses the at first odd-seeming fact that when it came to dealing with Muslims, the Nazis were almost jarringly accommodating. At one point he relates comments made in 1944 by Heinrich Himmler in greeting a group of Muslim military commanders:

“It is quite clear to me,” he proclaimed: “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.”

Himmler couldn’t help it, and so neither can we: you read that comment and can’t help but hear the unspoken threat. With Hitler’s boss it was a bit more complex; Hitler had long idealized the Turkish revolution of Mustafa Kemal “Ataturk” and had long demonized the non-Muslim inhabitants of Eastern Europe. He was, Motadel shows, skeptical of Slavic volunteers to the Nazi cause, but “he considered Muslims to be the only truly trustworthy soldiers and supported their recruitment unconditionally.” The scenes our author shows us about that recruitment are unfailingly eye-opening; the Wehrmacht operated under strict instructions to respect the “special religious rights” of its Muslim recruits – field battalions had “daily prayers, religious holidays, burial rites, dietary requirements, the employment of field imams, and the introduction of a religious-military hierarchy. “It has to be emphasized,” the Nazi recruitment instructions went, “that we grant complete religious freedom, whereas Bolshevism has suppressed the church.”

As Motadel writes, these recruits were told that, “in the name of Islam, they were to liberate their countries from foreign rule. It became one of the greatest mobilization campaigns of Muslims led by a non-Muslim power in history, by far surpassing similar efforts made by the Reichswar in the First World War.” This rather ham-handed attempt to manipulate nationalistic fervor had international and very real war-aim goals:

Germany’s courtship of Muslims was not only an attempt to control and stabilize Muslim areas behind the front. It was also, and perhaps more importantly, an effort to stir up unrest behind enemy lines, most notably on the unstable Muslim fringes of the Soviet Union, as well as in British (and later Free French) colonial domains in Africa, the Middle East, and Asia.

In fact, the closest the book ever comes to that opening unwanted suggestion of a linkage of evils comes in the drearily predictable methods the Nazis used in order to speak to the worst elements of the Muslim communities they wanted to suborn. German recruitment papers, Motadel tells us, stressed a commonality of evil between the Nazi warrior-cult and the faith of Islam:

Finally, the papers carried anti-Jewish propaganda. One of the most vicious anti-Jewish texts was printed by Idel-Ural. In the article series “The Jews: The Worst Enemies of the Muslims,” anti-Jewish hatred was connected to the Qur’an and to the life of the Prophet. In Muslim parts of the Soviet Union, readers were told, the Bolsheviks had deliberately given power to Jews so that they could rule over Muslims.

Motadel ranges his story over the whole the Nazi and Soviet entanglement with Muslim enclaves throughout the East (his quick but insightful look at the tension and violence of the Croatian Muslim experience under the Ustasa regime is especially good), and the bigger picture that emerges would almost be comical if it weren’t so brutally tragic. The coarseness of the Nazi overtures to “the Muslim world” and their Muslim recruits is so hopelessly tone-deaf, so openly manipulative, that it scarcely fools anybody even in its first flush. The Third Reich never makes any serious attempt to understand these new vassals and would-be servants; usually, the best it can muster is a gun barrel multiculturalism of a kind the Muslims of Eastern Europe knew ruefully well from the wake of the First World War.

At heart, Motadel’s revelatory book describes a mutual bafflement, and in that sense alone it’s perhaps prescient. Either way, Islam and Nazi Germany’s War is an indispensable enlargement of our understanding of the Second World War’s Eastern European theater.