History Today highlights the often futile and the failed attempts by Hitler’s Nazi state to turn Muslims into allies during World War II.
The Nazis believed that Islamic forces would prove crucial wartime allies. But, as David Motadel shows, the Muslim world was unwilling to be swayed by the Third Reich’s advances.
Tunis, December 19th, 1942. It was the day of Eid al-Adha, the Islamic feast of sacrifice. The retreat of Rommel’s army had turned the city into a massive military camp. In the late afternoon, a German motorcade of four large cars drove at a slow, solemn pace along Tunis’ main road, the Avenue de Paris, leaving the capital in the direction of the coastal town of Hamman Lif. The convoy contained Colonel General Hans-Jürgen von Arnim, commander of the Wehrmacht in Tunisia, Rudolf Rahn, Hitler’s consul in Tunis and the Reich’s highest civil representative in North Africa, and some other high-ranking Germans. They were to visit the Bey of Tunis, Muhammad VII al-Munsif, who had remained the nominal ruler of Tunisia, to offer him their good wishes for the sacred holiday and to show their respect for Islam. In front of the Winter Palace of Hamman Lif, hundreds of cheering people saluted the convoy; the Tunisian guard extended them an honorary welcome. In the conversations with the monarch, the Germans promised that the next Eid al-Adha, or Eid al-Kabir as it is known in Tunisia, would take place in a time of peace and that the Wehrmacht was doing everything it could to keep the war away from the Muslim population. More important than the consultations, though, was the Germans’ public show of respect for Islam. Back in his Tunis headquarters, Rahn enthusiastically cabled Berlin, urging it to make full propagandistic use of the ‘solemn reception’ at the ‘Eid al-Kabir celebration’. In the following days, Nazi propaganda spread the news across North Africa, portraying the Third Reich as the protector of Islam.
At the height of the Second World War, in 1941-42, as Hitler’s troops marched into Muslim-populated territories in North Africa, the Balkans, Crimea and the Caucasus and approached the Middle East and Central Asia, officials in Berlin began to see Islam as politically significant. In the following years, they made significant attempts to promote an alliance with the ‘Muslim world’ against their alleged common enemies: the British Empire, the Soviet Union, America and Jews.
Yet the reason for the Third Reich’s engagement with Islam was not only that Muslim-populated regions had become part of the warzones but also, more importantly, because at the same time, Germany’s military situation had deteriorated. In the Soviet Union, Hitler’s Blitzkrieg strategy had failed. As the Wehrmacht came under pressure, Berlin began to seek broader war coalitions, thereby demonstrating remarkable pragmatism. The courtship of Muslims was to pacify the occupied Muslim-populated territories and to mobilise the faithful to fight on the side of Hitler’s armies.