Islam and Nazi Germany’s War

Islam and Nazi Germany’s War (David Motadel, 2014) is a study of how Nazi Germany used the Islamic religion to expand its influence and wage war. “Scholars have paid less attention to this phenomenon that one might imagine”, writes the author, and though I always knew of the Nazi-Islam bonding during World War II, I didn’t know nearly enough of the sordid details.

Historians usually concentrate on population groups defined by ethnicity or nationality during wars and conflicts, while religious population groups get far less attention. And in the case of World War II, some scholars either play down or deny any significance at all to the role of Islam in the war. Motadel’s book is a healthy corrective to that, and it taught me some things I was clueless about.

I had no idea, for example, that Germany’s accommodating policies with the Islamic world go way back to the late 1800s, when Imperial Germany ruled over Muslim populations in various colonies (Togo, Cameroon, German East Africa, etc). Indigenous animist religions were dismissed by the Germans as savage, but the Islamic religion was seen as enlightened. German authorities recognized sharia courts in these colonies, Islamic holidays, and allowed madrasas (Islamic schools) to stay open. Only a small minority of officials mistrusted the militant spirit of Islam and the danger of holy war. In this Germany was different from Britain, France, Holland, and Russia, who for the most part perceived pan-Islamism as a threat. In Berlin Islam was seen as an opportunity.

The Two World Wars

The opportunity was first exploited in World War I. Motadel describes how German officers were knee-deep involved with the Ottoman caliph, when he called on Muslims around the world to wage holy war against the Entente powers. The jihad, however, wasn’t a religious war in the usual Islamic sense — not “believers” vs. “infidels”, but rather a selective jihad aimed only at the Entente powers (the British, French, Montenegrins, Serbs, and Russians) — and because of that, it failed to galvanize enough Muslims to support it. What’s interesting is the degree to which the Germans pushed for the jihad (Wilhelm II exhorting his officers to “awaken the fanaticism of Islam”), and as a matter of policy to incite religious violence in the Muslim areas of the Entente colonies.

Motadel says the campaign ultimately lacked credibility in the eyes of Muslims, who knew they were being manipulated by a colonial power, and because the Young Turks (who led the Ottomans since their revolt in 1908) were too blatantly secular to take seriously:

“It was all too clear that Muslims were being employed for the strategic purposes of the Central Powers, not for a truly religious cause. The Young Turks had no religious credentials. The power of the caliphate was limited.”

Between the two world wars, Germany kept Islam in its agenda, determined to learn from the mistake of World War I. It was widely agreed that the Muslim mobilization had failed because “the Ottoman leadership had long renounced Islam”, and plenty of German literature was cranked out on the subject. Motadel cites Thomas Reichardt’s Islam at the Gates) (1939), published a few months before the beginning of World War II, which argued that, “When Islam looks at the West, it sees in democracy, in parliamentarianism, capitalism, individualism, unrestrained mechanization, and the blind belief in progress all things which it opposes.” Germany, like Japan and Italy, saw the West in similar terms.

What was unanimous in the German literature was (a) a disdain for the lack of authenticity (religiosity) of the Young Turks in World War I which killed the jihad in its crib, and (b) a belief that Muslim religious sensibilities needed respecting, as Italy and Japan did. Islam was an opportunity that couldn’t be ignored and had to be done right by this time around.

Amin al-Husayni

He became the mufti of Jerusalem in 1921, and with other Muslims worked ceaselessly for years to prepare a base for Islamism in Europe and throughout the Muslim world. He was basically the pioneer of modern Arab and Islamist politics, but tends to be misunderstood and undervalued in his role. He advocated genocide of the Jews long before the Nazi government did, and furthermore killed Hitler’s initial plan to let the Jews leave Germany and emigrate to Palestine. Al-Husayni warned Hitler that if he really wanted Muslim allies, then he had to close Europe’s exits to Jews. The mufti thus contributed directly to the Holocaust, cornering Hitler into his “final solution”. It’s quite wrong to see al-Husayni and his fellow Islamists as merely being influenced by the Nazis, as some critics do. They weren’t trying to please Hitler; they genuinely believed in the Islamic doctrine promoting hatred of Jews, and they bonded with the Nazis on the basis of common interests.

The mufti eventually settled in Berlin in 1941 at Hitler’s invitation. He wanted German support to wipe out the Jews in the Middle-East, and in return he would “wage terror” (as he put it) against the British and French. Unlike the Ottomans during the first world war, al-Husayni framed the jihad imperative in its classic religious sense, heaping curses on the Jews and exhorting all Muslims everywhere to fear Allah above all, for anyone who does not “is not a Muslim anymore”. But the jihad, and the German-Muslim alliance, ultimately failed in this war too, though for different reasons.

The Question of Ideology: Nazism and Islam

Motadel handles this whole issue well. The promotion of Islam was a strategic move for Germany (as it had been in the past), but it was only the Reich’s willingness to deal with it ideologically that made that move possible. “After all,” says Motadel, “The Third Reich was an ideological state and Second World War an ideological war. Ideology mattered.” And ideology was easier to deal with than ethnicity.


The Nazi regime was pragmatic on the issue of race — making allowances for Turks, Arabs, and Iranians — but this required a bit of backpedaling on the Fuhrer’s views of Aryan supremacy. Dr. Walter Gross (who ran the Office of Racial Policy) wrote (in 1944) that “National Socialist race theory in fact recognizes Arabs as members of a high-grade race, which looks back on a glorious and heroic history.” Others like him insisted that the Reich was “anti-Jewish/Judaic” (which it was) but not “anti-Semitic” (though it was obviously this too), catering to the common understanding that Arabs were “Semites”.

Others, following Gross, insisted that German race theory wasn’t directed at other peoples aside from the Jews, while insisting that the racial mixing between Germans and Turks/Arabs/Iranians (especially as more Muslims were deployed in the Reich) had to be avoided for the benefit of both peoples. Muslims were “racially valuable”, and yet their bloodstream was different from the Germans and had to be kept separate. Hitler went so far as to call the mufti al-Husayni an Aryan (on the basis of his blond hair and blue eyes), and had the physician Pierre Schrumpf confirm his judgment: Schrumpf gave the mufti a six-hour medical examination, and officially proclaimed al-Husayni to be a Circassian, and thus a Caucasian.

Hitler and his propagandists, in other words, fumbled over issues of race, trying to uphold white supremacy in “Muslim-friendly” ways.


There was no awkward fumbling when it came to ideology. Religion has nothing to do with race, after all (though many people today don’t get this), and Hitler and his Reichsführer (Himmler) revered the doctrines of Islam. Himmler believed that Muhammad was one of the greatest men in history and had in his collection many books on Islam and the Prophet. He esteemed Islam as a masculine soldierly religion:

“Mohammed knew that most people are terribly cowardly and stupid. That is why he promised every warrior who fights courageously and falls in battle two beautiful women. This kind of language a soldier understands. When he believes that he will be welcomed in this manner in the afterlife, he will be willing to give his life; he will be enthusiastic about going into battle and not fear death. You may call this primitive and laugh about it, but it is based on deeper wisdom.”

Himmler got on well with mufti al-Husayni, who after the war was impressed by Himmler’s “intelligence and breadth of knowledge”. And Himmler’s views of Islam were shared by others, like his right-hand Gottlob Berger.

As for Hitler, he repeatedly devalued Christianity while extolling Islam. Christianity was soft, artificial, and weak; Islam was a strong and a practical faith, and much more suited to the Germanic spirit. In the table talks he expressed regret over the victory of Charles Martel in 732 CE, saying that if Martel hadn’t been victorious, then the Germans would have been converted to Islam, which would have allowed the Germanic races to conquer the world. Motadel cites Albert Speer, who remembers Hitler saying thus:

“Had the Arabs won this battle [against Charles Martel in 732] the world would be Mohammedan today. For theirs is a religion that believes in spreading the faith by the sword and subjugating all nations to that faith. The Germanic peoples would have become heirs to that religion. Such a creed was perfectly suited to the Germanic temperament. Hitler said that the conquering Arabs, because of their racial inferiority, would in the long run have been unable to contend with the harsher climate and conditions of the country. Ultimately not Arabs but Islamized Germans could have stood at the head of the Mohammedan Empire.”

Thus again, the importance of distinguishing beliefs/doctrines from cultures/peoples. Hitler believed Islam was a superior religion, but that its Arab adherents were an inferior race. That second part was a problem for the Reich, no matter how diligently their propaganda machines tried papering over it.

The Failure of a Reich-Muslim Alliance

For all the Reich leaders’ ideological passion, it evidently rang hollow on its hearers. Whether Muslims were under German rule, behind the front lines, or deployed in German military units, “it was all too obvious that the Germans wanted to instrumentalize Muslims for their interests and war necessities rather than for a truly religious cause.” The Reich’s hypocrisies — its mixed messages on race and ethnicity, if not religion and ideology — and ultimately its attempts to bond with Muslims over a religious cause lacked credibility.

The other reason offered by Motadel for the failure of a WWII German-Muslim alliance is that Germany respected Italy and its imperial interests too much. Italy may have patronized Islam like Japan did, but Muslims resented Italians for their colonial oppressive measures even more than they hated the British and the French. Ultimately Muslims saw Germans as complicit in Italian oppression.


Islam and Nazi Germany’s War taught me some things I was oblivious to, and the research behind it is impeccable. I’m not surprised it won the Wiener Library Ernst Fraenkel prize. I was drawn to reading it over the recent unpleasant revelation of M.A.R. Barker. Barker was a convert to Islam who designed the brilliant RPG Empire of the Petal Rose, and then later became a pro-Nazi and Holocaust denier. Empire of the Petal Rose was the first role-playing game (released in 1974) not based on a European/white setting, and the fantasy world (Tekumel) has Asian-type cultures. It may be hard to wrap our heads around someone like Barker turning militant-white-supremacist, but then ideology and ethnicity are different things. Love for doctrines doesn’t necessarily imply love for whatever peoples happen to embrace those doctrines. And Barker was an American convert to Islam, not a native of Asia or the Middle-East.


Update: See more here, for the parallels between Wilhelm and Hitler in the two world wars.

2 thoughts on “Islam and Nazi Germany’s War

  1. That’s quite a fascinating connection. It’s one I didn’t realize but it’s a connection I probably should’ve made sooner. If you look at the modern Alt Right (the handful of people who still believe in that drivel anyway), you’ll notice that they fundamentally want the same things as Islam does: racial segregation, a hypertraditionalist family structure where men lord over women, and a totalitarian, autocratic government, among other things.

    Hearing about the historical underpinnings of this relationship is very neat.

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