Haj Amin al-Husseini, the Nazis and the Holocaust

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tags: Holocaust, Nazis, Amin al Husseini



Jeffrey Herf is Distinguished University Professor, Department of History, University of Maryland, College Park. His publications on modern German history include Nazi Propaganda for the Arab World (Yale University Press, 2009). His work, Undeclared Wars with Israel: East Germany and the West German Radical Left, 1967-1989 is forthcoming with Cambridge University Press in spring 2016.

In the fall of 2015, when the Palestinian Authority claimed that the State of Israel posed threats to the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem, public attention in Israel turned again to Haj Amin al-Husseini, the former Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, a collaborator with Nazi Germany and the leader of Palestinian nationalism before and immediately after World War II. Some historians and, briefly, Israel’s Prime Minister also attributed to Husseini a significant decision-making role in the Holocaust in Europe. The following essay draws on scholarship on Holocaust decision-making in order to demonstrate that Husseini did not have an impact on Hitler’s decisions to murder the Jews of Europe. Rather his historical importance may be found in the texts of his speeches and essays of the 1930s and 1940s. They offer abundant evidence of his impact on Nazi Germany’s Arabic language propaganda aimed at North Africa and the Middle East during World War II and the Holocaust. Before, during and after his presence in Berlin from 1941 to 1945, Husseini played a central role in shaping the political tradition of Islamism by offering an interpretation of the religion of Islam as intrinsically anti-Semitic and anti-Zionist and in connecting that version to the anti-Semitic conspiracy theories of modern European history.

Haj Amin al-Husseini (1897-1974) collaborated extensively with Nazi Germany but had no impact on Nazi decision making concerning the Final Solution of the Jewish Question in Europe. He did have a profound impact on Nazi Germany’s Arabic language propaganda to the Arab societies during the Holocaust. He left a legacy of anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism that remains an enduring element of Palestinian and Arab politics. If we are to understand his importance for the history of politics and ideas in the Middle East, we must draw a clear distinction. On the one hand, the Mufti was an important regional leader and Nazi propagandist. In this capacity he engaged in lethal incitement against the Jews, and this is now recognized under international law as a crime because it is an essential step in the process leading to genocide. On the other, the Mufti did not participate in the decision-making process which led to the Holocaust. It is the purpose of this article to demonstrate this proposition by making use of verifiable historical evidence.

Most recently, the issue of the Mufti’s historical responsibility became a subject of public controversy when, on October 20, 2015, Benjamin Netanyahu, the Prime Minister of Israel, stated in an address at the 37th Zionist Congress in Jerusalem that Haj Amin al-Husseini convinced Hitler to change his anti-Jewish policy from one of forced emigration to one of extermination. Mistakenly, he claimed that Husseini “was one of the leading architects of the Final Solution,” but later he retracted this statement.1 It is important to note that authoritative historians of the decision-making sequence leading to the Holocaust found no such role for Husseini. The implication of their work is that, had he never arrived in Hitler’s Berlin in 1941, the Holocaust would still have taken place. 

Husseini was a leading figure of the Palestinian national movement from the time of his appointment as the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem in 1921 to his leadership of the Palestinians during the first Arab-Israeli war of 1948.2 After the defeat of 1948, his political star declined but his rejection of any compromise settlement with Israel had a continuing ideological impact on Palestinian politics. He claimed that Zionism was a threat to Arabs and the religion of Islam and that Zionists and later, Israelis would destroy or eliminate the Al Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem. During World War II and the Holocaust, having been chased out of the Middle East by the British, he found refuge in Hitler’s Berlin. His rejection of Zionism was inseparable from his enthusiasm for National Socialism. However, Husseini did not influence Hitler’s decisions to launch the Final Solution of the Jewish Question in Europe.

Yet if some exaggerate Husseini’s importance for developments in Europe, it would be equally misguided to minimize the depth of his collaboration and its deep roots in his political and religious convictions. In Hitler and the Nazis he recognized ideological soul mates who shared his profound hatred of the Jews, Judaism and Zionism. He expressed his enthusiasm to German diplomats in Jerusalem as early as March 1933.3 In his confidential conversations with German diplomats and then in a major public speech in Syria in 1937, Husseini made clear that his opposition to Zionism was rooted in his interpretation of the religion of Islam. Husseini’s importance in the history of politics and ideas lay in his ability weave together an interpretation of the religion of Islam with the secular language of Arab nationalism and anti-colonialism. In his reading of the Koran and the commentaries on it, Islam emerges as a religion that is inherently anti-Semitic and is hostile both to the religion of Judaism and to the people who follow it. He was one of the founding fathers of the ideological tradition known as radical Islam or Islamism. That tradition, which continues in our own time, has Sunni and Shia variations. Its original base was in the Sunni Muslim Brotherhood that inspired subsequent organizations such as Al Qaeda, Hamas, Hezbollah, and ISIS but there also is a Shia variation in the Islamic Republic of Iran. Despite their differences, they both share a conviction that, among other things, the message of Islam is inherently anti-Jewish and anti-democratic and that it provides justification for terrorism against Jews, “non-believers” and “infidels” such as Christians, as well as Muslims who take a different view of the Islam. It is “Islamist” because its key texts rest on selected readings of the Koran, the commentaries on it and the Hadith. It is, of course, only one interpretation of Islam but however plausible or distorted its interpretations of the texts of Islam, it could not exist without those texts.4 ...




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