On Nov. 28 of that year, Hitler took the time to meet with a Palestinian politician: Haj Amin al-Husseini, the “Mufti of Jerusalem.” For a generation raised on “Saving Private Ryan” more familiar with D-Day than Nazi Germany’s machinations in the Middle East, Husseini’s name was not familiar — perhaps until now, thanks to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who in a speech to the World Zionist Congress on Tuesday said the all-but-forgotten leader inspired the Fuhrer to exterminate 6 million Jews.
“Hitler didn’t want to exterminate the Jews at the time, he wanted to expel the Jews,” Netanyahu said. “And Haj Amin al-Husseini went to Hitler and said, ‘If you expel them, they’ll all come here.’ ‘So what should I do with them?’ he asked. He said, ‘Burn them.’” Husseini had “a central role in fomenting the Final Solution,” Netanyahu added.
As The Washington Post’s William Booth pointed out, Netanyahu’s “remarks were intended to underline his contention that the root cause of Palestinian violence is not Israel’s 48-year-old military occupation of the West Bank, the building of Jewish settlements on lands that the Palestinians hope to make part of their future state, or the partial trade and travel blockade of the Gaza Strip, but old and intractable hatred of Jews.”
Many around the world immediately decried Netanyahu’s remarks. Even German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s office had to point out that it was Nazis, not Palestinians, who “led to the break with civilization that was the Holocaust.”
“Perhaps we should exhume the corpses of the 33,771 Jews murdered in Babi Yar [in Ukraine] in September 1941, two months before the Mufti and Hitler met, and bring them up to speed on the fact that the Nazis had no intention of destroying them,” Zehava Galon of Israel’s left-wing Meretz party wrote on her Facebook page.
So, if Husseini wasn’t inspiring Hitler to build concentration camps during their meeting, what was he doing? According to one record of the meeting, trying to get Hitler to publicly support him — and failing.
As The Post’s Booth reported, Husseini was a religious and political leader of the Arab population in British-controlled Palestine between the world wars. He fomented deadly riots against the Zionists coming to Palestine; opposed mass migration of Jews; and allied with Hitler and the Nazis during World War II, in part because of his opposition to British colonial rule. A pan-Arabist, Husseini spent the war in Berlin, broadcasting Arabic language propaganda and incitement against Jews and the allies.
A record of the Mufti’s meeting with Hitler appears in “Documents on German Foreign Policy 1918-1945, Series D, Vol XIII” — a trove of captured German foreign policy documents published after the war. (The original can be seen here — an account of the meeting begins on Page 873. The Times of Israel has posted a version that’s a bit easier to read.) As the account, written in the third person, makes clear, Husseini started out by stressing that he was on the Nazis’ side.
“The Arab countries were firmly convinced that Germany would win the war and that the Arab cause would then prosper,” Husseini said, as the document paraphrased. “The Arabs were Germany’s natural friends because they had the same enemies as had Germany, namely the English, the Jews and the Communists.”
But if Hitler wanted Arabs to rise up, Husseini said he would need visible support.
“A public declaration in this sense would be very useful for its propagandistic effect on the Arab peoples at this moment,” Husseini said. “It would rouse the Arabs from their momentary lethargy and give them new courage. It would also ease the Mufti’s work of secretly organizing the Arabs against the moment when they could strike. At the same time, he could give the assurance that the Arabs would in strict discipline patiently wait for the right moment and only strike upon an order from Berlin.”
Hitler’s response? He supported the Arabs, and was for “uncompromising war against the Jews.” But he had a problem: a world war with “two citadels of Jewish power: Great Britain and Soviet Russia.” Sure, eventually Germany would get around to crushing Zionist dreams in the Middle East — when that effort wouldn’t drain resources from the battlefields of Europe. The Fuhrer, after all, “had to think and speak coolly and deliberately.”
Husseini would have to wait.
“For the good of their common cause, it would be better if the Arab proclamation were put off for a few more months than if Germany were to create difficulties for herself without being able thereby to help the Arabs,” Hitler said.
Husseini, undeterred, pressed the Fuhrer again: “He asked, however, whether it would not be possible, secretly at least, to enter into an agreement with Germany of the kind he had just outlined for the Fuhrer.” Hitler’s underwhelming response: “The Fuhrer replied that he had just now given the Grand Mufti precisely that confidential declaration.”
Historians, of course, disagree on the significance of Husseini’s relationship with Hitler and the significance of this meeting.
“There is no doubt in my mind whatsoever that the Mufti had an important role in the Holocaust,” Boris Havel of Croatia’s ministry of foreign affairs, the author of a recent journal article about Husseini, wrote The Washington Post in an e-mail. “By the end of 1930s Germany still allowed its Jews to emigrate. No Jews were allowed to emigrate after Mufti established himself in Berlin. The Mufti has been calling on killing Jews since early 1920s, i.e. even before Nazi regime came to power in Germany.” (In an e-mail, Havel his views “do not reflect the official policy or position of the Institution by which he is employed.”)
One book, “Icon of Evil: Hitler’s Mufti and the Rise of Radical Islam” (2008) — citing Hitler’s alleged comment to Husseini “the Jews are yours” — argued that the Mufti’s sit-down with the Fuhrer was pivotal.
“At the conclusion of their ninety-five-minute meeting, the mufti could reflect with great satisfaction on what he had achieved,” David G. Dalin and John F. Rothmann wrote. “Only three weeks after his arrival in Berlin on November 7, the mufti’s dream of a more formal alliance between radical Islam and Hitler’s Germany had become a reality.”
But other historians disagreed.
“Hitler’s alleged and highly unlikely pledge to Husseini (‘The Jews are yours’) is based on a passage in the mufti’s own memoirs,” historian Tom Segev explained in a New York Times review of the book. “But there is an official German record of his meeting with Hitler that contains no such statement. In fact the mufti did not achieve his major goal: Hitler refused to sign a public statement of support for him.”
The U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum — while highlighting Husseini’s rabid anti-Semitism, wartime propaganda work and recruitment efforts for the SS among Bosnian Muslims — also said in an article on its Web site that he never got what he wanted from the Nazis.
Husseini “sought public recognition from the Axis powers of his status as leader of a proposed Arab nation,” the museum’s Web site explained. “He also sought public approval from the Axis powers for an independent Arab state or federation to ‘remove” or ‘eliminate’ the proposed Jewish homeland in Palestine. He made this declaration a condition for the awaited general uprising in the Arab world. The Germans, and Hitler in particular, repeatedly denied [his] request for legitimization.”
In the end, the mufti who met Hitler — a man who shared his vision, but would refuse to tell the world — ended up marginalized. Exiled after the war, he died in Lebanon in 1974.
Husseini “tried in vain to retain leadership of the Palestinian movement,” an obituary read. “But by then, younger Palestinians were turning away from him and eventually formed the Palestine Liberation Organization.”
Another historian found the debate — if there is one — about Husseini’s connection to Hitler “puzzling.”
“The authorship of the Holocaust is not really up for debate,” Stefan Ihrig, a German historian at the Van Leer Institute in Jerusalem, said in a telephone interview, “and there is nothing in the research of the last 20 to 30 years to suggest that it would be.”
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