Photograph © U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum
Recent work by historians and apologists has revealed that an influential, international religious leader was also an ardent supporter of Adolf Hitler. His name was not Pope Pius XII but Hajj Amin al-Husseini. This Grand Mufti of Jerusalem recruited whole divisions of fanatics to fight and kill in the name of extremism.
Revered in some circles today as one of the fathers of modern radical Islam, al-Husseini has been the subject of a number of modern studies. Scholars such as David Dalin, John Rothmann, Chuck Morse, and others have courageously brought al-Husseini’s actions to light. “Hitler’s Mufti,” as many have called him, had a direct hand in some of the darkest moments of the Holocaust, the slaughter of tens of thousands of Christians, and the formation of some of the most hate-filled generations of modern history. Al-Husseini is a testament to the way that evil finds evil.
A Radical Shaped by War
Al-Husseini was born sometime in the late 1890s in Jerusalem when that city was in the hands of the dying Ottoman Empire. He belonged to an old family of nobles and was the son of the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, Tahir al-Husseini. Sent to Cairo for his education, he studied Islamic jurisprudence at Al-Azhar University and then at the Cairo school Dar al-Dawa wal-Ershad (The Institute for Propagation and Guidance) founded by a Syrian member of the Muslim Salafi sect (one of the most extreme in Islam). The school, a haven for radical thought, gave al-Husseini an early grounding in practical revolutionary planning. Al-Husseini went on to the College of Literature at Cairo University and then the Ottoman School for Administrators in Istanbul, which trained future leaders of the then far-flung Ottoman Empire.
After taking the mandatory pilgrimage to Mecca (the Hajj) in 1913, al-Husseini was drafted into the Ottoman Army. He was assigned to the College of Reserve Officers and subsequently named to an infantry regiment as a non-commissioned officer. With the onset of World War I in 1914, the Ottoman Empire entered into the bloody conflict as a member of the Central Powers with Germany and Austria. Al-Husseini found himself in an inefficient army that, compared to the highly mechanized forces of the West, was lacking in leadership and modern equipment. He soon heard of the genocide of the Armenian people—one of the most horrendous incidents in the terrible global conflict.
In 1916, al-Husseini departed the Ottoman Army on disability leave and spent the rest of the war in Jerusalem. Angered by the decision of the Allied victors to deny Arab participation in the discussions leading to the Treaty of Versailles, al-Husseini was even more infuriated by the sudden increase of Jewish immigrants into British-controlled Palestine. An ardent anti-Semite who hated Jews with a deep fervor, he first came to the attention of the British in 1920 when he organized riots against Jews. Charged with inciting violence that left five Jews dead and another 211 injured, he fled to Syria and was sentenced in absentia to 10 years’ imprisonment.
The Grand Mufti’s Ascent
In April 1921, however, British High Commissioner Sir Herbert Samuel, seeking to achieve some semblance of peace in the Holy Land, granted amnesty to Arab nationalists. Al-Husseini was allowed to return to Jerusalem, and the British officials—disregarding his long record of anti-Semitism—named him Grand Mufti of Jerusalem. This title was granted to a Sunni Muslim cleric, granting him oversight of the holy sites of Islam in Jerusalem, in particular the Al-Aqsa Mosque. For Sunni Muslims, the Grand Mufti is honored as the chief religious authority in Jerusalem. Notably, from the appointment of the first Grand Mufti of Jerusalem in the 1860s, the position was customarily filled by the governing power in charge of Jerusalem.
After the death of the first Grand Mufti, Mohammed Tahir al-Husseini, in 1908, the position stayed in the family when the Turks awarded the title to his son Kamil al-Husseini. Although the British assumed control of Jerusalem during World War I, Kamil al-Husseini remained in his post until his death in 1921, when the British decided that Kamil’s brother Hajj Amin would be an acceptable choice—despite his criminal past and known extremist ties. Al-Husseini remained as Grand Mufti under the British in spite of his activities and was removed only in 1948, when King Abdullah I of Jordan banned him from Jerusalem and named Hussam Al-din Jarallah as Grand Mufti.
Once in power in Jerusalem, al-Husseini was appointed by the British to head the newly established Supreme Muslim Council, created to prepare the way for Arab self-governance in Palestine. Al-Husseini took the chance given to him by the appeasement-minded British to call for the deaths of Jews and set out on a campaign of terror against the Jews in Palestine. In subsequent years, al-Husseini was involved in plots to massacre Jews, among them 60 Jewish immigrants in Hebron and 45 more in Safad in 1929. In 1936, he helped lead a rebellion in Palestine against the British. The following year the British condemned al-Husseini (though permitting him to retain the title of Grand Mufti), and he fled to Syria once more. From there he continued to plot against the British control over Palestine.
Events outside the Middle East were presenting new opportunities for fanatics to find allies and possible patrons. The 1930s witnessed the rise of National Socialism in Italy under Benito Mussolini and in Germany under Adolf Hitler. Soon after the appointment of Hitler as German Chancellor in 1933, the German Consul-General in Palestine, Heinrich Wolff, expressed his belief that many Muslims in the Holy Land would be supportive of the new Nazi regime. This view was confirmed when Wolff met with al-Husseini and other radical local leaders. For al-Husseini, the anti-Jewish policies of the Nazis were appealing, and he hoped for German help in ousting the British from Palestine.
Al-Husseini deepened his outreach to the Nazis in 1937 when he met with two Nazi SS officers, including Adolf Eichmann, one of the architects of the Holocaust in Damascus, Syria. The SS representatives had been sent at the express order of Reinhard Heydrich, the deputy head of the SS under Heinrich Himmler and chief of SS Intelligence and the Nazi security services, including the Gestapo. Heydrich recognized immediately that al-Husseini was a potentially valuable asset for Nazi interests in the Middle East and worked to cultivate him.
Four years later, al-Husseini threw his support to a pro-Nazi revolt in Iraq against the British-backed prime minister, Nuri Said Pasha. Going to Baghdad, al-Husseini issued a fatwa for a jihad against the British. Barely a month later, British troops ended the coup and occupied the country, whereupon al-Husseini fled to Iran. Although given sanctuary in the embassies of Japan and Italy, al-Husseini was again forced to be on the move when Iran was itself occupied by the British and Soviet armies. Al-Husseini made his way out of Iran with Italian diplomats who provided him with an Italian passport. He shaved his beard and dyed his hair to avoid being recognized by British agents and Iranian police.
Al-Husseini reached Rome in October 1941 and began serious discussions with the Mussolini regime. The result was twofold. First, he secured a meeting with Mussolini himself and then completed a practical agreement with the Italians. In return for Axis recognition of an Arab state of a fascist nature that would encompass Iraq, Syria, Palestine, and the Transjordan, he agreed to support the war against Britain. The Italian foreign ministry also urged Mussolini to grant al-Husseini one million lire.
The Mufti Meets the Führer
Over the next few days, al-Husseini drafted a proposed statement of an Arab-Axis cooperative effort by which the Axis powers would recognize the right of the Arabs to deal with Jewish elements in Palestine and in the other Arab countries according to their own interests. The declaration was approved by Mussolini and sent to the German embassy in Rome. Pleased with the declaration, al-Husseini was invited to Berlin as an honored and useful guest of the Nazi regime. He arrived in Berlin on November 6 and met with Ernst von Weizsäcker, German secretary of state under Nazi Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop. Two weeks later, he met with von Ribbentrop himself, a prelude to his triumphant reception on November 28, 1941, with Adolf Hitler.
At their meeting, al-Husseini requested German assistance with the Arab independence movement and Nazi support in the extermination of any Jewish homeland. For his part, Hitler promised to aid that liberation movement, but went still further, promising that the aim of Nazi Germany would be the elimination of all Jews living under British protection once such territories had been conquered. This was described by al-Husseini in his own memoirs:
Our fundamental condition for cooperating with Germany was a free hand to eradicate every last Jew from Palestine and the Arab world. I asked Hitler for an explicit undertaking to allow us to solve the Jewish people in a manner befitting our national and racial aspirations and according to the scientific methods innovated by Germany in the handling of its Jews. The answer I got was: “The Jews are yours.” (Ami Isseroff and Peter FitzGerald-Morris, “The Iraq Coup Attempt of 1941, the Mufti, and the Farhud”)
The Axis’ Kept Man
For the Nazis, al-Husseini was an ideal propaganda tool, a powerful spokesman among radical Arabs, and an excellent instrument for their anti-Jewish campaign in Europe and in the Holy Land. Portrayed by the Nazis as the spiritual leader of all Islam, al-Husseini was given a grand formal welcome in Berlin. The official Nazi newspaper, Volkischer Beobachter, proudly published a photo of Hitler and al-Husseini, and Radio Berlin proclaimed on January 8, 1942 that the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem had consented to take part in the effort against the British, the Communists, and the Jews.
Satisfied with his newly concretized relations with the Nazis, al-Husseini chose to remain in the service of the Axis and settled in Berlin in a lavish mansion that had been confiscated from a Jewish family. The Nazis paid him a monthly stipend of 62,500 Reichsmarks (approximately 20,000 dollars), payments that continued until April 1945, when only the fall of Berlin to the Red Army ended Hitler’s financial support. From his post, al-Husseini headed the Nazi-Arab Cooperation Section and helped build a network of German spies across the Middle East through his followers. Scheming for a desired dark future of Nazi-Islamic leadership, the Mufti founded an Islamic Institute in Dresden to provide training for young radical Muslims who would serve as chaplains for his field units and also head out across the Middle East and the world to sow the seeds of jihadism and anti-Semitism.
The Mufti’s Final Solution
Scholars have long studied how actively engaged al-Husseini was in the implementation of the Holocaust. There is no question that he supported the aims of the Nazis in perpetrating genocide and believed perversely that all Arabs should join that cause. He declared on German radio on March 1, 1944: “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 honor. God is with you” (qtd. in Norman Stillman, “Jews of the Arab World between European Colonialism, Zionism, and Arab Nationalism” in Judaism and Islam: Boundaries, Communications, and Interaction: Essays in Honor of William M. Brinner).
According to the testimony of Adolf Eichmann’s chief deputy Dieter Wisliceny (who was hanged for war crimes) the Mufti played a role in encouraging the Final Solution and was a close friend and advisor to Eichmann in the Holocaust’s implementation across Europe. Wisliceny testified further that al-Husseini had a close association with Heinrich Himmler and visited the gas chambers at Auschwitz, where he exhorted the staff to be even more dedicated in its important work.
To assist the practical slaughter of Jews and Christians, al-Husseini built an army of Muslim volunteer units for the Waffen-SS (the combat units of the dread SS) to operate for the Nazi cause in the Balkans. While the appeal for volunteers from among Muslims always struggled to meet the demands for new recruits, al-Husseini was able to organize three divisions of Bosnian Muslims who were then trained as elements of the Waffen-SS. The largest radical Muslim unit was the 13th Waffen-SS Handzar (“Dagger”) division that boasted over 21,000 men. They were joined by the Bosnian 23rd Waffen-SS Kama Division and the Albanian Skanderbeg 21st Waffen-SS Division. The Muslim Waffen-SS forces fought across the Balkans against Communist partisans and then assisted in the genocide of Yugoslavian Jews and in the persecution and slaughter of Gypsies and Christian Serbs in 1944 and 1945. The brutality extended to Catholics as well, for the Muslim Waffen-SS cut a path of destruction across the Balkans that encompassed a large number of Catholic parishes, churches, and shrines and resulted in the deaths of thousands of Catholics. By the end of the war, al-Husseini’s fanatical soldiers had killed over 90 percent of the Jews in Bosnia.
Meanwhile, in Rome
While al-Husseini carried out his decimation of Jews in Eastern Europe, the situation facing Jews in Rome in late 1943 was also grave. Following the deposition of Mussolini by his own people, Hitler invaded the country and briefly re-installed Il Duce. Then followed the first mass arrests of Italian Jews and a planned deportation of all Italian Jews to the death camps. Pope Pius XII protested these arrests and used the Vatican’s newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano, to speak out further against the Nazi campaign against the Jews of Italy. Among his many acts during this dangerous period, the holy pontiff sheltered 3,000 Jews at his summer residence, Castel Gandolfo, and hid thousands more in some 180 convents, monasteries, parish buildings, rectories, churches, and even in Vatican City itself. Through his leadership, Pius ultimately helped to save or rescue 80 percent of the Jews of Rome. In June 1944, the pontiff sent a telegram to Admiral Miklos Horthy, the leader of Hungary, and implored him not to proceed with the planned deportation of the country’s 800,000 Jews.
As Pius was risking his safety and that of the Church in Italy, al-Husseini continued to call for the extermination of all Jews. On November 2, 1943, as the Nazis tried to press forward with the roundup of Italian Jews, the Grand Mufti declared on German radio of the Jewish people, “They cannot mix with any other nation but live as parasites among the nations, suck out their blood, embezzle their property, corrupt their morals.”
The Untouchable Cleric
With the collapse of the Third Reich, al-Husseini fled from Germany to Switzerland and then to Paris. Incredibly, he was not a target of the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg. He was sentenced merely to house arrest in Paris on the basis of charges made by the Yugoslav Supreme Military Court, which sentenced him to three years of imprisonment and two years of deprivation of civil rights because of his involvement in the atrocities throughout the Balkans. As for Nuremberg, despite the testimony of Eichmann’s aide, there was scant interest in the mufti because of his assumed immense sway in the Middle East.
With little effort, al-Husseini escaped from his comfortable house arrest. From there he traveled to Cairo, where he considered himself safe thanks to the patronage of Egypt’s King Farouk. Even with the fall of Farouk and the rise of Gamal Abdel-Nasser as head of Egypt in 1952, al-Husseini remained safe. His influence was felt throughout the Arab world, most so in galvanizing opposition to Zionism and the birth of Israel. He supported the 1948 Arab-Israeli War, was involved in the assassination of King Abdullah I of Jordan in 1951, and served as president of the World Islamic Congress. His last public appearance came in 1962 when he delivered a speech to that conference. He used his final opportunity to speak to the world to call for the ethnic cleansing of the Jews. He died in Lebanon in 1974, a beloved and revered figure among radical Muslims all over the world.
Hajj Amin al-Husseini’s legacy was to inspire generations of terrorists, Islamic jihadists, and such dictators as Saddam Hussein of Iraq. The foremost exemplar of his influence was a young terrorist and distant relative who became one of his most ardent students: Yasser Arafat, the future leader of the Palestinian Liberation Organization. Rabbi David Dalin—one of Pope Pius XII’s greatest defenders—offers a fitting final word:
The “most dangerous” cleric in modern history, to use John Cornwell’s phrase, was not Pope Pius XII but Hajj Amin al-Husseini, whose anti-Jewish Islamic fundamentalism was as dangerous in World War II as it is today . . . The grand mufti was the Nazi collaborator par excellence. “Hitler’s mufti” is truth. “Hitler’s pope” is myth. (The Myth of Hitler’s Pope, 137)
In late 1942, Heinrich Himmler gave his permission for 10,000 Jewish children to be transferred from Poland to Theresienstadt with the eventual aim of allowing them to go to Palestine in exchange for German civilian prisoners, through the International Red Cross. The plan was abandoned, however, because of the protests of the Grand Mufti.
The following year, al-Husseini blocked the emigration of 4,000 Jewish children and 500 accompanying adults to Palestine that was proposed by the governments of Bulgaria, Romania, and Hungary. The children were sent instead to the gas chambers.
- Dalin, David and John Rothmann, Icon of Evil: Hitler’s Mufti and the Rise of Radical Islam (Random House, 2008)
- Elpeleg, Zvi, The Grand Mufti: Haj Amin Al-Hussaini, Founder of the Palestinian National Movement (Frank Cass, 1993)
- Morse, Chuck, The Nazi Connection to Islamic Terrorism: Adolf Hitler and Haj Amin al-Husseini (iUniverse, 2003)
- Perlman, Moshe, Mufti of Jerusalem (Pavilion Press, 2006)
- Dalin, David, The Myth of Hitler’s Pope (Regnery, 2005)