Yes, the Palestinian wartime Mufti had a lasting impact on Islamist ideology, whose legacy is still with us today. No, he did not influence Hitler’s decision to launch the Final solution of the Jewish Question in Europe. Important article by Jeffrey Herf for the JCPA sets the record straight in the wake of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s controversial remarks on the Mufti’s role.
The Mufti meets Hitler in November 1941: he was a collaborator, but not party to Nazi decision-making
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. 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. 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. 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.
II. The Islamist Message of the Mufti:
The first of Husseini’s canonical texts, “Islam and the Jews,” was delivered in Bludan, Syria at an Arab political conference held on September 8-9, 1937. It took place four years before he arrived in Nazi Berlin and the fact that it was not yet dependent on the Third Reich is important. The speech displays the Islamist message that he brought with him to Berlin and was the product of his very own beliefs. In 1938, a press controlled by the Nazis published a German language translation in Berlin. It became one of the founding texts of the Islamist tradition, one that defined the religion of Islam as a source of hatred of the Jews. By 1938, the Nazi political elite were able to read Husseini’s message. An Arabic edition was made available in the Middle East. As Israeli historian Zvi Elpeleg noted in his 1993 study of Husseini, following delivery of “Islam and the Jews,” the 400 delegates in Syria elected Husseini as honorary president of the pan-Arab organization gathered at the meeting.
As Husseini was in hiding in order to avoid capture by the British, the text was read in his absence. He wrote:
The battle between Jews and Islam began when Mohammed fled from Mecca to Medina…In those days the Jewish methods were exactly the same as they are today. Then as now, slander was their weapon. They said Mohammed was a swindler…They tried to undermine his honor…They began to pose senseless and unanswerable questions to Mohammed…and then they tried to annihilate the Muslims. Just as the Jews were able to betray Mohammed, so they will betray the Muslims today…the verses of the Koran and the Hadith assert that the Jews were Islam’s most bitter enemy and moreover try to destroy it.
While anti-Jewish passages are present in classic Islamic texts, Husseini’s distinctive contribution was to give them greater importance than had previously been the case and thereby to define Islam as a religion inherently hostile to the Jews. He engaged in what historians and literary scholars call the labor of selective tradition, that is, the selective interpretation of texts in light of contemporaneous concerns. That effort is not possible if the original texts lack relevant material. Husseini’s reading of the Koran drew legitimacy and authority from the ancient texts.
Between 1941 and 1945, Husseini became a major contributor to the Third Reich’s Arabic language propaganda aimed at North Africa and the Middle East. In the process, his speeches and essays of the 1930s and 1940s became canonical texts of the tradition of Islamism and were distributed in thousands of print editions and to hundreds of thousands of listeners through Arabic language radio broadcasts of the Nazi regime. In one of the successor trials in Nuremberg after World War II, Otto Dietrich, Nazi Germany’s Reich Press Chief was indicted and convicted for crimes against humanity due to his role in the Nazi regime’s anti-Semitic propaganda campaigns. Husseini’s key role in producing Arabic language anti-Semitic propaganda could have served as the basis of a similar indictment. In 1946-1947, the United States delivered 3,914 persons for trial to sixteen European countries, two-thirds to France and Poland. Husseini was not among them.