Muslims in the SS II

Der Großmufti von Jerusalem [Amin al Husseini] bei den bosnischen Freiwilligen der Waffen-SS. Der Großmufti ist auf dem Truppenübungsplatz ein[getroffen] und schreitet die Front der angetretenen Freiwilligen mit erhobenem Arm ab.

Amin al-Husayni, alongside SS-Brigadeführer und Generalmajor der Waffen SS Karl-Gustav Sauberzweig, greeting Bosnian SS volunteers in November 1943.

The Eastern Turkic SS Corps under Harun al-Rashid was to become a reservoir of all Eastern Muslim volunteers. Its base became the 1st Eastern Muslim SS Regiment, although it was restructured into three, and later four, battalions (Crimea, Turkestan, Idel-Ural, and finally Azerbaijan). Al-Rashid’s most prominent volunteer was Prince Mansur Daoud, a distant cousin of King Faruq of Egypt, whose recruitment strengthened the unit’s pan-Islamic character. Impressed by his performance, al-Rashid reported that Daoud had proven to be a “substantial political factor” and that he, “in the closest cooperation with the chief mullah,” conducted “effective propaganda.” By December 1944 around 3,000 Muslims had been enlisted in the Eastern Turkic SS Corps; in early 1945 it had grown to 8,500. Ultimately, the formation of the complete corps failed, but the SS managed to mobilize significantly more Muslims than had fought in the 1st Eastern Muslim SS Regiment. In the end, the SS began enlisting every Eastern Muslim within its reach. In the summer of 1944, for instance, 800 former soldiers of the Tatar units, which had been evacuated from the Crimea to Romania, were recruited into the Tatar SS Waffen Mountain Brigade (Tatarische Waffen-Gebirgs-Brigade der SS) and fought, armed only with carbines, in Hungary before being integrated into al-Rashid’s corps. SS recruiters would even screen the Reich Commissariat Ostland for Muslim cannon fodder. In March 1944 the head of Vienna’s Islamic community, Salih Hadzicalić, was consulted by the SS Head Office about the Muslims of Vilnius, prompting the SS to contact Mufti Szynkiewicz about Muslims there. As late as November 1944, the SS command in Danzig reported to the SS Head Office on the “transfer of Muslim members of the police to the Waffen-SS,” specifically two Muslim soldiers who had been recruited in the Ostland. In late 1944 Himmler decided to organize some of the Eastern Muslims into two regiments of a newly founded Caucasian SS Corps (Kaukasischer Waffenverband der SS). Varying in size between 1,000 and 2,000 men, the corps was split into four regiments, of which two were to be Muslim or dominated by Muslims: Northern Caucasian and Azerbaijani (the non-Muslim regiments were Armenian and Georgian). The Azerbaijanis of the Eastern Turkic SS Corps, however, successfully petitioned not to be mixed with Christian Armenians and Georgians in this new corps but to remain in al-Rashid’s purely Islamic formation. As the war was nearing its end, the recruiting process became more and more chaotic. The morale of the troops suffered. In late December 1944 some of the men of the Turkestani regiment, led by their commander, Ghulam Alimov, revolted in the Hungarian-Slovakian border area. Along with 400 to 500 of his men, Alimov arrested all German officers and even executed some of them before escaping into the woods to join the Slovak partisans. In January 1945, however, many of the deserters returned, while only 250 to 300 stayed with the partisans. In the last months of the war, the corps fought in northern Italy, where it finally surrendered to the US Army.

From the beginning, officers in the SS Head Office understood the massive mobilization of Eastern Muslims as part of a general campaign that aimed to revolutionize all Muslims of the Soviet Union against Moscow. A particularly eager proponent of this policy was Emil Hermann. A veteran officer of the SS, Hermann had been responsible for the military and political organization of the Eastern Muslim SS troops before briefly taking over command of the 1st Eastern Muslim Regiment. Olzscha explained after the war that Hermann had hoped to advance his career through the Islamic question and in fact aspired to run an office for Islamic affairs, planned in the SS Head Office. As early as 14 December 1943, Hermann referred to the endeavor to “set Islam in motion” (den Islam in Bewegung bringen werden) in a general memorandum about the foundation of the Eastern SS formation. Although the paper spoke in general terms about the “registration of the currently available Muslim peoples with the aim of employing them in the fight against the enemy powers,” it was mainly concerned with the Muslims of the Soviet Union. Compared to the Arabs, their hatred of foreign rule, which was based on their religiosity, was even more powerful, Hermann wrote. Their “great love of freedom” and the “teaching of Islam” generated a “tremendous pride,” which the SS had to consider in order not to make the same mistakes as the Wehrmacht. Berger reacted to the memorandum with one of his simple notes in the margins: “Yes, agreed!” Five days earlier, when meeting Gerd Schulte, an officer of the SS Head Office who was assigned to oversee the establishment of the Muslim division, Mayer-Mader suggested that the SS should become the protector of the Eastern Turks. Schulte corrected him, emphasizing that one would have to speak about the “patron of all Muslims.” Mayer-Mader understood. In a special report, he outlined his idea for a unit that was organized strictly along Islamic lines and would accommodate Muslims from all parts of the Soviet Union. He also pointed to the division’s effects on the wider Islamic world and discussed its employment in terms of Germany’s general policy on Islam. “Our enemies well know that the interests of Islam and Germany run parallel,” he claimed, describing Muslims and Germans as “the most natural allies.” Almost the entire Muslim world was colonized by the Soviets, British, and French. But even though many Muslims saw “the only hope for Islam in an alliance with Germany,” more had to be done. Apart from propaganda, practical measures were needed “to show the common man that Germany sees in Islam an equal friend and ally.” The most efficient measure was the formation of the division of Eastern Turkic Muslims, which would soon influence all Muslims of the Soviet Union. On 4 January 1944, Mayer-Mader, joined by Heinz Billig, who at that time still led the staff of the new division in Berlin, met Schulte again and established the future goals of the new division. The “short-term objective” was to function as a “task force against Bolshevism.” The “long-term objective,” the SS men decided, would be not only the “liberation of Turkestan” but also the broader “activation of the Muslims” (Aktivierung der Moslems) of the Soviet Union. It was this misconception, the notion that Islam was a bloc that could be “activated,” which dominated the views of German SS officers toward the end of the war.

This idea came even more to the fore in the summer of 1944, when the plans for the Eastern Muslim SS formation were reorganized. Reiner Olzscha wrote a whole series of reports on this matter, all roughly based on his general memorandum of 24 April 1944 about the involvement of the SS in Eastern Muslim affairs. In a report dated 7 June 1944, he discussed the Eastern formation in terms of a wider aim to mobilize Eastern Muslims against the Soviet Union. Stressing that the Muslims were the strongest non-Slavic and non-Christian minority of the Soviet Union, that their religion was a genuine bulwark against Moscow, and that their history of uprisings had proven their anti-Russian and anti-Bolshevist stance, Olzscha argued that the “struggle for freedom of the Mohammedan Turk people” provided an ideal basis for an alliance with Germany, an alliance that would be welcomed in wider parts of the Islamic world. Similar notes followed. In one of them, Olzscha argued that “hundreds of thousands of Turkic Muslims” would form the “strongest subversive minority of the Soviet Union” and should be “exploited” by the SS. In another, he described the new Eastern Muslim SS formation as a “platform for political fanaticization of the Eastern Turks in the fight against Bolshevist Russia.” Berger agreed. Not only the political-national motives but also the “Mohammedan worldview” of the Eastern Muslims were to be used “as an effective bulwark against Bolshevism,” he wrote to Himmler. In some further instructions Berger specified that Himmler’s order for the formation of the “Eastern Turkic Corps” aimed to concentrate all “Turkic Mohammedan anti-Bolshevist forces” for the purpose of “the inner fragmentation of the Soviet Union.” Berger’s plans for the Eastern Muslim Corps and the splintering of the Soviet Union, however, clashed with the realities of the war. In practice its units were not employed on Soviet territory. Nevertheless, officers at the SS Head Office were convinced by the plan. In a report to Berger, SS-Hauptsturmführer Ulrich, an official at the SS Head Office, urged the pursuit of the “desired ultimate goal,” which, he summarized, was the “revolutionalization of the anti-Bolshevik forces in Russia through Islam, as a detonator within the state.” “If this impact, through the 30 million Muslims in the Soviet Union, is to be effected, nevertheless, the deployment of the Eastern Turkic Corps cannot be relinquished.” The SS Head Office would follow these plans until the downfall of the Third Reich in 1945.

A vigorous promoter of Islamic mobilization in the last months of the war was the new commander of the Eastern Muslim formation, Harun al-Rashid, who, like Olzscha and Berger, described the corps as a “platform for the fanaticization” of the Muslims in the Soviet Union. He had “guaranteed” Olzscha a “loyal, combat-ready and soldierly valuable Mohammedan military force” (mohamedanische Waffenkraft). Underlining the importance of employing purely Muslim units, he also pleaded for stronger “Islamic-religious influence.” To guarantee this, he suggested, in June 1944, the deployment and training of the new corps in Bosnia and Herzegovina, where they could join the Muslim SS units already there. In the Balkans it would be possible, he stressed, to direct “our people” into the mosques and to bring them under the influence of the Bosnian ‘ulama. Al-Rashid went as far as to suggest that, in case the Germans never conquered the Soviet Union, the Eastern Muslims could settle among the “very pro-German Mohammedan population of the Balkans.”

The efforts by the SS to mobilize Muslims were increasingly opposed by the Wehrmacht and the East Ministry. The Wehrmacht feared the disintegration of its Muslim legions. Indeed, Harun al-Rashid internally suggested transferring “all Mohammedan formations” to the Waffen-SS. More forceful opposition to the SS policy of Islamic mobilization of the Eastern Muslims came from Mende and officers of the East Ministry. When the SS began organizing its first Eastern Muslim units in late 1943, Mende’s protégé, the Turkic exile Veli Kajum, concerned about losing influence, protested that “the SS pursued ‘pan-Islamic’ aims.” The SS swiftly confronted Kajum. In February 1944 Mende himself stepped in, writing a lengthy report about the new SS line for Berger, who had by then also seized control of the political department of the East Ministry. Mende acknowledged the central role Islam played in the deployment of Muslim units in the Balkans: “The Western Muslim SS-Division of the Bosniaks can be successful under the unifying idea of Islam because the Bosniaks, who speak Croatian, distinguish themselves from the linguistically undifferentiated Croatian and Serbian environment only through Islam and the particular habits deriving from it. For them Islam is therefore the embodiment of their difference and the bond to the greater Islamic world.” However, he vehemently protested against expanding this policy to the East: “The situation among the Mohammedans in the Soviet Union is very different.” The Wehrmacht had divided Muslims into the four legions according to their ethnicity. “The unification of the Mohammedans of the Soviet Union in the Eastern Muslim SS Division requires a change from the hitherto political-propagandistic treatment,” Mende cautioned. Basing policy toward the Eastern Muslims on “the unifying power of Islam” would inevitably lead to a pan-Turanian movement that could not be controlled. Somewhat inconsistently, he claimed that, in any case, Islam played no decisive role in the East. Only 5 percent of Eastern Muslims were still attached to Islam, and only an additional 20 percent would possibly be receptive to a religious campaign. It was the “national question,” Mende asserted, that played the “decisive role.” Moreover, he warned that “the strong emphasis on unifying Islam” would make the smaller non-Muslim peoples of the Eastern territories, Georgians and Armenians, feel “subordinated,” which would make them turn to Moscow. Still, even Mende acknowledged that the SS policy would have “positive effects on Turkey and probably on the entire Mohammedan world.” He suggested a compromise. The volunteer formations should remain structured along ethnic lines, but this policy could be “complemented by a strong emphasis on the general principles of Islam and through the support of the fraternal bond between the greater Turkic-speaking units.” The SS could not have cared less. A few months later, in the summer of 1944, Mende turned again to Berger to repeat his concerns—once more without success. Finally, on 13 September 1944, representatives of the SS Head Office, including Olzscha and Ulrich, met to consult with Mende. Mende once more complained about the pan-policies of the SS. The SS remained firm. Mende’s position conflicted not only with that of the SS Head Office but also with that of his colleague Johannes Benzing, who supported the SS line. The interwar academic debates about the impact of Islam in the Soviet Union had turned into a conflict over policy making.

The SS policy toward the Muslims of the Eastern territories had a larger dimension. In the final months of the war, Muslim mobilization in the East became part of a full-scale pan-Islamic campaign launched by the SS. “Mobilization of Islam” was, indeed, the title of a memorandum written by the ambitious Emil Hermann in late February 1944. It suggested nothing less than an operation aimed at ensuring “that the whole Islamic world is set in motion” (dass der gesamte Islam in Bewegung gerät). Hermann outlined a gigantic pan-Islamic mobilization project targeting all countries within reach of the SS:

It is proposed to effect a Führer order via the Reichsführer-SS, which summons all capable Muslims within reach in Europe to come to a specific staging point. It must include both Mohammedan civil workers as well as O.T.-laborers [workers of the Organization Todt], prisoners of war, etc. The assemblage of the Mohammedans in Spain, France, Italy, Greece, Romania, Bulgaria, Albania, and Croatia would have to be carried out in cooperation with the Foreign Office and the foreign governments.… This campaign of orchestration would have to be preceded by a promotion exercise by the grand mufti via broadcast, press and pamphlet propaganda. The 13th Bosnian Waffen Mountain Division as well as the Eastern Muslim and Albanian [divisions], which are currently being deployed, would serve as a substantial propaganda instrument.… With regard to the Crimean Tatars, it is proposed to assemble the mullahs (Odessa or the Crimea itself) and to let the grand mufti speak to them in person. The Mohammedans of the countries of Spain, France, Italy, and Greece can be considered for the Arab Legion. There are only a few Mohammedans in Romania, so a separate formation would be unrealistic. With the Mohammedans of the Bulgarian region, a legion of Pomak Muslims could be employed. Circa 450,000 Pomak Muslims live in Bulgaria, who are suppressed by the Bulgarian government. During the deployment of new Mohammedan formations it must be considered that the officer posts are given to Mohammedans or Germans.

The plan never materialized, although, in the last year of the war, the SS made considerable (and mostly unsuccessful) attempts to mobilize, or “activate” as Berger and other SS officers had put it, Muslims wherever possible—not just from the Soviet Union and the Baltic but also from Africa, South Asia, and the Middle East. In the autumn of 1943 Himmler asked Berger to assess the issue of including Indian Muslims in Handžar. Berger answered that his “in-depth investigation” had shown that their integration into the Bosnian unit was not possible, as Indian Muslims would feel first Indian, not Muslim. He also advised against the employment of an Indian Muslim Formation (Indischer Moslemverband) on the Eastern Front, as he feared desertion to India. The plan was never pursued. Shortly afterward, Berger came up with another idea. In December 1943, after having consulted the mufti, he suggested to Himmler that they recruit Muslims from eastern Africa who were imprisoned in France: “These Mohammedans would like to fight against the English and Americans in Italy.” Berger expressed his wish to discuss the issue with Otto Abetz, the German ambassador to Paris. This never happened, either. Ultimately, SS recruitment of Arabs was largely unsuccessful, as it had been in the Wehrmacht. In France, under the auspices of the SD, the Brigade Nord-Africaine, a contingent of around 180 Algerians, which operated under the infamous Parisian Gestapo officer Henri Lafont and the Algerian nationalist Muhammad al-Mahdi, known as “SS Muhammad,” was created in early 1944. The unit fought the French resistance in central France but, as the military situation in France deteriorated, disintegrated within months. The plan to establish an “Arab-Islamic army” (Arabisch-Islamische Armee) for the Waffen-SS, as suggested by al-Husayni in the summer of 1944, proved to be entirely unrealistic. The SS reported that only 300 Arabs were available for the establishment of such an army, although Berger was still convinced that more Arab volunteers might be recruited in the future. Once again, the idea never materialized. Even plans for a smaller Arab infantry regiment proved unfeasible.

As the SS tried more and more desperately to enlist every Muslim within reach, eventually even concentration camps were screened for potential recruits. In the spring of 1944 Himmler ordered Berger to contact Oswald Pohl, head of the SS Economic and Administrative Head Office (SS-Wirtschafts- und Verwaltungshauptamt) and in charge of the general organization of the concentration camps, to discuss the recruitment of Muslim prisoners for the Waffen-SS. Himmler’s personal administrative officer, Rudolf Brandt, even sent Berger a detailed list of Muslim concentration camp detainees, which had been compiled by Pohl’s bureaucrats. Titled “Account of the Inmates of the Islamic Faith” (Aufstellung über die Häftlinge islamitischen Glaubens), it listed all male and female Muslim prisoners in the camps Auschwitz (I–III), Buchenwald, Dachau, Flossenbürg, Groß-Rosen, Mauthausen, Natzweiler, Neuengamme, Ravensbrück, Sachsenhausen, Stutthof, and Bergen-Belsen. Altogether, 1,130 Muslim men and nineteen Muslim women were recorded. Most of them were from eastern and southeastern Europe and had presumably been interned as political prisoners. Still, the list was incomplete, as some groups, most notably Muslim prisoners from Arab countries, were not included. The SS Head Office reacted swiftly, prompting a bureaucratic process that lasted half a year and involved the SS Reich Security Head Office, the SS Economic and Administrative Head Office, and Himmler’s staff. Finally, on 16 November 1944, Olzscha reported to Berger that the SS Reich Security Head Office had, despite repeated requests, not yet determined whether some of the Muslims in the concentration camps were suitable for recruitment. Berger informed Himmler of these problems and suggested calling a halt to the process. A part of the Bosnian Muslims had, at the request of the Ustaša government, already been released in the meantime, and the remaining Muslims, who were interned “because of various offenses,” would surely not make good soldiers, the chief of the SS Head Office wrote. Himmler did not pursue the issue further.

Overall, a closer look at the non-German formations of both the Wehrmacht and the SS reveals that Muslims played a significant role within them. While the Wehrmacht was the first to begin recruiting Muslims and mobilized far more overall than Himmler, the SS became the strongest force in the military mobilization of Muslims near the end of the war. Both Wehrmacht and SS authorities considered the soldiers’ religious identity to be important when forming Muslim units. Leading German officials, most notably Hitler, Himmler, and Berger, repeatedly used religious rather than national or ethnic categories when speaking and writing about these formations. As in other cases of non-German mobilization by the Wehrmacht and SS, the recruitment of Muslims was launched primarily to balance the shortage of manpower. Yet, in the Muslims’ case, considerations of general war propaganda as well as notions of the Muslims’ trustworthiness and soldierly quality played an exceptional role. Consequently, the Wehrmacht and the SS recruited a vast number of Muslims and decided to provide them with special religious care and propaganda.

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