The Jewish Holocaust of World War II is a story of human tragedy, with real victims, real villains, and real heroes. Important questions often relate to how individuals are to be categorized. In recent years, much attention has been given to Pope Pius XII and other leaders of the Catholic Church. Rabbi David Dalin, however, recently wrote that while Pope Pius XII “was saving thousands of Jews…the grand Mufti was using German radio to call for European Jewry’s death and destruction.” The mufti (an expert who is empowered to give rulings on Islamic law) of whom Dalin writes is Haj Amin al-Husseini, who was the central figure in Palestinian nationalism from the 1920s to the 1940s.
According to some accounts, Husseini not only sup-ported the Nazi movement, but he was a principal architect of the “Final Solution” and the godfather of modern jihad terrorism. On the other hand, Husseini is still venerated as a hero by many Palestinians, and some authors have argued that the case against him is grossly overstated.
Getting to the truth is not easy. Many of Husseini’s original papers were lost during periods of unrest in the Mideast. Moreover, some of the earliest books about him are suspect. German propaganda during the war painted him in a favorable light. Other books, written at the end of World War II, argued that he should stand trial at Nuremberg (he didn’t). Some of the mufti’s supporters have overlooked certain actions, while critics have sometimes overstated their case. What, then, do we know?
Unrest in Palestine
Muhammed Amin al-Husseini was born in 1893 to a powerful and influential family. The future Arab leader studied religious law at al-Azhar University in Cairo and attended the Istanbul School of Administration. In 1913 he went to Mecca on a pilgrimage, earning the honorary title of “Haj.” He joined the Ottoman Turkish army during World War I but returned to Jerusalem in 1917 and switched sides to join with the victorious British.
Palestine had been under control of the Turks prior to World War I, but it became a British mandate at the end of the war. In November 1917, the Balfour Declaration set forth Britain’s determination to establish a Jewish homeland in Palestine. (A similar plan was endorsed by the League of Nations in 1922.) Husseini, along with the rest of the Arab population, opposed the move.
In March 1920, during Passover, Arabs acting on rumors of Jewish aggression set upon worshipers praying at the Western Wall. Five Jews were killed, two were raped, and 211 were injured; four Arabs were killed and 21 injured. Husseini was convicted by a British court for having instigated the riot, but he escaped and found refuge in Syria.
Taking advantage of a British-granted amnesty, Husseini returned to Palestine in April 1921. Three weeks later, riots in Jaffa were followed by large-scale attacks on Jews there and elsewhere. The final toll for the Jews this time included 47 killed and 140 injured. Arab casualties—caused mainly by British authorities who tried to restore order—were 48 killed and 73 injured. Husseini was again implicated in the violence.
The mufti of Jerusalem (Husseini’s half-brother, Kamel) died in February 1921. In January of the following year, British High Commissioner Sir Herbert Samuel appointed Husseini as his replacement, inventing the new title of grand mufti. This seems to have been done in the hope that giving Husseini more responsibilities would encourage him to moderate his violent tendencies. (The British long harbored the belief that Husseini would support the colonial system.) The new mufti was simultaneously named president of a newly created Supreme Muslim Council and so became both the religious and political leader of the Palestinian Arabs.
The appointment of Husseini was a seminal event in Palestinian history. Prior to his ascendancy, several Arab factions supported cooperative development with the Jews. Husseini, however, was devoted to an independent, all-Arab Palestine. Indeed, this was the primary driving force behind his public actions for the rest of his life. The British were his opponents because he wanted independence. The Jews were his enemy because they were infringing on his land. He rallied Palestinian Arabs against both groups.
Husseini controlled the Muslim religious endowments, and he had the right to appoint and dismiss judges and other officers of the Muslim religious court. He effectively used the patronage power that accompanied his positions to impose a rigid form of Islam in Palestine.
Anyone who failed to follow the mufti’s guidelines was denounced in the mosque during Friday prayers, excluded from the rites of marriage and burial, or physically threatened. Hundreds of moderate Arabs were murdered for resisting his authority or advocating compromise with Jews and the West. German author Kurt Fischer-Weth reported (admiringly) in his 1943 biography of Husseini that Palestinian Arabs who resisted wearing traditional Islamic clothes were shot.
There were a few strikes protesting British rule in 1925 and 1926, and some minor unrest in 1928, but violence really boiled over in August 1929. Riots erupted when word came of expanded financing to support Jewish settlement in Palestine. Husseini and his followers spread the rumor of a Jewish plot to seize and desecrate the holy places. By the end of the rioting, 133 Jews were killed, more than 300 had been injured, and nearly 4,000 were forced to flee their homes.
The British government appointed Sir William Shaw to head an inquiry into the causes of the riots. The majority report largely acquitted the mufti of fault for the disruption, while a minority report suggested that he was very much involved. A later 1937 British re-investigation concluded that the minority report was well-founded.
In April 1936, riots again broke out when reports spread that Jews had attacked Arabs in Tel Aviv. The result was a three-year period of violence and civil strife known as the Arab Revolt. It was a time of aggression against British rule, Jews, and Arabs who opposed the mufti. Husseini recruited armed militias and raised funds from around the Muslim world (and at least some from the Axis powers) to support the revolt.
Unlike previous riots, this time the Jews were organized and able to fight back. Moreover, the British used military force against the revolt. In late 1937, Husseini was stripped of his office as president of the Supreme Muslim Council and sought for arrest. He escaped into exile in Lebanon.
Moderate Palestinian leaders, freed from the terror of Husseini’s rule, issued statements condemning his reign and abuse of power. The leader of the Arab National Defense Party accused Husseini of having diverted both funds and the revolt itself to his own personal ends—a charge that was repeated by others. Other Islamic leaders charged Husseini with killing more than 200 Arab political opponents and permitting numerous mosques to fall into disrepair. The Palestine Gazette even announced on October 8, 1937, a short-lived ban on writings by or about the mufti.
Many in Palestine, however, remained loyal to him, and several of the new critics ended up murdered (or having family members killed) in retaliation. The Arab Revolt ended in 1939 when the British agreed to put new limitations on Jewish immigration.
From Palestine to Berlin
From French-controlled Lebanon, the mufti continued to hold meetings and plan violence for the Palestinian struggle. In 1938, 297 Jews were killed and 427 were injured in Palestine by bands acting on his behalf. Many Arab opponents were also targeted.
Soon, however, Husseini found himself running short on money. Before the end of 1938 he moved to Iraq, which was then under British control. The Arab government funded the mufti, and additional support came from Germany and Italy. Meanwhile, Husseini involved himself in the political struggle for Iraqi freedom, spreading anti-British propaganda and fomenting unrest.
In April 1941, Husseini backed the military’s successful coup d’etat, which ousted the pro-British Arab leadership. Not all his efforts were successful, though. Later that year he supported an Iraqi military action to overthrow British rule. The revolt failed when Germany sent less military aid than the Iraqis had expected.
After the revolutionary government was ousted, the new Iraqi leadership appointed an investigatory committee. In its report, the committee identified the “Mufti of Jerusalem and his henchmen” as some of the primary factors leading to the violence. An attempt was made to arrest Husseini, but he again escaped, first to Iran, then to Italy (as a guest of Mussolini), then on to Berlin.
Husseini arrived in the Nazi capital on November 9, 1941. A German spokesman announced: “This great champion of Arab liberation and the most distinguished antagonist of England and of Jewry is expected to remain in Berlin for a long time.” The Nazis provided the mufti with a luxurious apartment and a generous monthly stipend.
Husseini’s most open acts of support for the Axis came in the form of radio and pamphlet propaganda in which he called on Muslims the world over to wage jihad on the Allies. Axis radio stations were put at his disposal, and his speeches were regularly broadcast into countries that had significant Muslim populations. As Maurice Pearlman explained in his book Mufti of Jerusalem:
Arabs…were called upon, in the name of the Koran and the honour of Islam, to sabotage the oil pipelines, blow up bridges and roads along British lines of communications, kill British troops, destroy their dumps and supplies, mislead them by false information, withhold their support. The exhortations usually included the suggestion that they could save their souls by massacring the Jewish infidels in their midst…. The Arab immigrants in the United States were urged to hinder the American war effort through political pressure groups and general anti-British, anti-Jewish, and anti-Roosevelt propaganda.
Pearlman quotes a broadcast from March 1, 1944, that gives the flavor of many: “Arabs, rise as one man and fight for your sacred rights. Kill the Jews wherever you find them. This pleases God, history and religion. This saves your honour. God is with you.”
The impact of the Mufti’s statements is hard to assess. They likely encouraged Muslims to join in the Axis cause when Arab divisions were assembled, but that effort was negligible when compared with the whole of the German military machine. What is certain is that the mufti used Hitler for his own purposes, and in the process aided the Nazi cause.
Husseini and the ‘Final Solution’
In The Mufti and the Fubrer, Joseph Schechtman wrote: “It is hardly accidental that the beginning of the systematic physical destruction of European Jewry by Hitler’s Third Reich roughly coincided with the Mufti’s arrival in the Axis camp.” Observations like this have caused many observers to conclude that Husseini was a major factor in the development of the “Final Solution.” But when the mufti was questioned about his participation in the Holocaust, he denied any involvement, adding that the “Nazis needed no persuasion or instigation either by me or anybody else to execute their program against the Jews.”
The primary written evidence on this issue came at the Nuremberg trials in the form of an affidavit that quoted Adolf Eichmann’s deputy, Dieter Wisliceny (who was subsequently executed as a war criminal), saying: “The Mufti was also one of the initiators of the systematic extermination of European Jewry by the Germans and had been the permanent collaborator and adviser of Eichmann and Himmler in the execution of this plan…. He was one of Eichmann’s best friends and had constantly incited him to accelerate the extermination measures.” The affidavit had a few errors, and Husseini denied ever having met Eichmann, but Wisliceny read it over at Nuremberg and verified its substance.
The affidavit also reported on instances when Eichmann was willing to send Jewish prisoners to Palestine, but Husseini intervened and the prisoners were killed. When pressed by an underling to explain why they could not just be deported, Eichmann reportedly said: “I am a personal friend of the Grand Mufti. We have promised him that no European Jew would enter Palestine any more. Do you understand now?”
Three letters from the mufti, written in 1944, verify his opposition to sending Jews to Palestine, Addressing the foreign offices of Bulgaria, Hungary, and Romania, Husseini wrote: “I beg Your excellency to permit me to draw your distinguished attention to the necessity of preventing these Jews from leaving your country for Palestine; and if there are any reasons which make their withdrawal necessary,” that they be sent to “other countries, as for example Poland, where they would find themselves under active surveillance.” As critics have noted, Jews in Poland at this time were all being executed.
Of course, this written evidence does not prove that the mufti was an architect of the Final Solution. There is, however, as Joseph Schechtman wrote, “abundant first-hand evidence of the part the Mufti played in making foolproof the ban on emigration” of Jews out of Germany. The court in Eichmann’s 1961 trial declared: “It has been proved to us that the Mufti, too aimed at the implementation of the ‘Final Solution,’ vis, the extermination of European Jewry, and there is no doubt that, had Hitler succeeded in conquering Palestine, the Jewish population of Palestine as well would have been subject to total extermination, with the support of the Mufti.”
The mufti helped the Nazis form an Arab Muslim Legion, an Arab Brigade, and in Croatia, Hitler drew on the Muslim population to recruit “Jihad Warriors” into the Waffen SS. The importance of these troops is a matter of dispute—some of them seem to have existed primarily on paper—but those who fought in Bosnia and Serbia are charged by some with having killed up to 90 percent of Bosnian Jews.
The Nazis certainly used the Arab troops for propaganda purposes. The official German news agency reported on December 17, 1943:
The first pictures of the weekly newsreel present an unusual scene. They show the Grand Mufti’s visit to Muslim troops in the German Armed Forces. From the expression and features of these men, we can tell that they know how to wear field-grey uniforms. Enthusiasm and discipline are visible in every one of their movements.
These troops seem to have thought that they would fight in North Africa, but Hitler had something different in mind. A report in the London Daily Sketch on February 12, 1944, said that the Arab Legion was sent to the Russian front “and has been completely wiped out.”
After the War
With the collapse of Nazi Germany in 1945, Husseini moved to Egypt, where he was received as a national hero. Yugoslavia indicted him for war crimes, but the Allies were afraid of the reaction in the Arab world if he were to be tried. British documents also reflect some confusion about exactly how to charge him, since he was neither an enemy combatant nor a citizen of an enemy nation. As such, he avoided prosecution.
The mufti soon became the recognized leader of the Palestinian movement. He had an ideological impact on Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and Hezbollah; and he was implicated in planning the 1951 murder of King Abdullah of Jordan, who supported peace with Israel. Husseini also helped create the Palestinian Liberation Organization and played a large role in rejecting the UN Partition Plan, which would have created separate Arab and Jewish states in Mandatory Palestine.
Perhaps Husseini’s longest-lasting impact on Arab attitudes came in Egypt when he met Yasser Arafat. The younger man soon became a devoted protégé of the mufti. Arafat influenced Palestinian policy and tactics for decades. As Yossi Klein Halevi wrote in the National Catholic Reporter on the eve of Arafat’s death, Arafat “raised a generation of Palestinian children to see in suicide bombers religious and educational role models” and caused Holocaust denial to become “normative.” In 1985, Arafat said that the PLO was “continuing the path” that Husseini set, and in 2002, he called the mufti “our hero.”
A Tragic Partnership
Husseini and Hitler were both opportunists, and each served the other’s purpose. It seems that the mufti had little interest in Jews outside of Palestine, and if not for the plan to create a homeland for them, he might not have taken any significant action. Nevertheless, the alliance with the Nazis allowed him both to fight for independence from Britain and simultaneously stop more Jews from entering Palestine.
To be fair, Husseini played no role in the rise of the Nazis during the 1920s, no role in the formation of Hitler’s racial theory, and had no part in the Nazis power grab in Germany. In fact, the Germans rejected all Arab overtures until 1937. Whatever his role in fomenting racial hatred, the gas chambers would have operated even without him.
Husseini’s main contribution to Hitler’s Holocaust was in closing off the escape route most accessible to European Jews. He stood steadfastly against deportation or emigration to Palestine, which the Nazis might have permitted for at least some Jews. On the other hand, the mufti likely would not have objected to deportations to areas outside of the Arab world. Unfortunately, most of these avenues were not available, and Hitler wasn’t known for favoring relocation over extermination anyway.
Perhaps the most intriguing question in all of this is why Hitler agreed to work with Husseini in the first place. Hitler had written about the racial inferiority of Arabs in Mein Kampf, and he had a general contempt for all non-Aryans, including Arabs. Husseini, with his red hair and blue eyes, appears to have been an exception. Mark M. Boatner III suggests that Hitler may have believed that he had European blood. Moreover, the German dictator had a grudging respect for Islam—he once complained that Islam “would have been much more compatible to us than Christianity. Why did it have to be Christianity with its meekness and flabbiness?” The religion itself made little difference—only the possibility of exploiting it. And the mufti was more than willing to cooperate.
Husseini and Hitler were extreme nationalists with common enemies. Hatred of the British and the Jews brought them together, to the detriment of mankind.