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Hitler's Muslim Legions

Wednesday 14 July 2010, 19:13

Steve Bowbrick Steve Bowbrick Head of Interactive, Radio 3

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Editor's note: Sometimes the decision to commission a programme about events from recent history is a complicated one. Samir Shah lays out the many factors that contributed to one such decision - SB.

Fascination with the Second World War and Nazism is one of the abiding characteristics of post war Britain. By 2010, you'd think that almost every conceivable topic and angle has been covered. But not so. Programmes on television and radio continue to be made and books by distinguished historians about the period continue to come off the printing presses. Recently one such caught my eye. It was by Jonathan Trigg and entitled 'Hitler's Jihadis.' I knew nothing of this story and wondered how it came about, how many were involved, how this could be reconciled with Hitler's Aryan fantasies. Questions came tumbling out and I turned that into a proposal for a radio documentary.

Later this month Radio 4 will broadcast a programme called Hitler's Muslim Legions. A clue as to the care and attention taken in producing this programme was the discussion surrounding the title. Was it right to juxtapose Hitler and Muslims like this? Is the word legions appropriate - especially the use of the plural?

The story reveals that over 70,000 Muslims fought for Hitler, many in the Waffen SS. There are photographs of Himmler visiting these Muslim soldiers and an extraordinary photograph of Hitler in conversation with the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem (although not a figure of lasting significance, he was central to the recruitment of Bosnian Muslims). The title is undoubtedly accurate.

However the debate illustrates some of the care taken in making what is nevertheless a challenging documentary. As story it fits comfortably within a tradition on Radio 4 of exploring little known aspects of the war: Document, for example, reported how thousands of Sikhs renounced allegiances with Britain and instead fought for Hitler; Secret Warriors looked at the involvement of British Jews in the 1947 War of Independence and militant activity against British forces; France's Forgotten Concentration Camps investigated French collaboration with the Germans; Crossing Continents (Reopening Lithuania's old wounds) reported on allegations that Holocaust survivors had committed war crimes. So the basic idea for the programme was not exceptional.

What of the story itself? Well, with over 70,000 people involved, it was clearly a significant enough number for it to be of import. However, of course, many more Muslims fought for the Allies - and this is made clear in the programme. But there are other fascinating aspects of the story: how did they reconcile their vision of a master race made of Aryans with using Muslims to fight for them? And what motivated the Muslims to join up? The answers reveal much about the contradictions and absurdities of Nazism. The motivations of the Muslims themselves ("starve or join") are telling about the realities of war.

Inevitably a little-known story such as this restricts the cast list of contributors. In fact we found a number of serious historians who did know something of the story. What was surprising - well, perhaps not altogether surprising - was the paucity of Muslim scholarship. We did try a range of Muslim academics and organisations and all but one felt they did not know enough about the subject to contribute . But the programme did pull off a coup - an eyewitness account: a German, now in his 80s, lived and worked with Muslim soldiers when he was 19.

Indeed, thanks to the journalistic diligence of the producer Jenny Chryss and the measured commentary of seasoned reporter, Julian O'Halloran, Hitler's Muslim Legions throws an illuminating light on a remarkable chapter in the continuing story of the Second World War.

Samir Shah is Executive Producer of Hitler's Muslim Legions

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    Comment number 1.

    I was surprised that your research did not mention the Free Arab Legion composed of Arab volunteers in North Africa and special purpose units ('zbv') 287 and 288. The 'zbv' units were intended to assist the Iraq insurgency in 1941 but this was quelled by the British before they got there.
    Zbv 288 went onto fight in the Afrikakorps as part of 90th Light 'Afrika' Division. Zbv 287 went on anti-partisan duties in Greece.
    The Free Arab Legion itself was caught up in the general Axis surrender in North Africa.
    Alongside Hindus and Sikhs were Muslims in the Free Indian Legion, some of whom apparently were sucessfully parachuted into India on sabotage missions.
    Of course, there were many more Muslims who fought in the regular Italian armies as full citizens. Mussolini declared himself as a defender of Islam. These Muslim soldiers were from Eritrea, Somalia and Libya and fought under effective German command in North Africa. There were also defectors to the unsucessful Japanese-sponsored Indian National Army.
    Properly, the programme informs the listener that many tens of thousands more Muslims (mainly from North Africa, Middle East and the Indian subcontinent) fought sucessfully with their lives to throw off the Nazi yoke on Europe and free the victims of Nazism.
    It is to be noted that the countries that contributed far, far more Christian and politically committed volunteers to the Nazi armies - France, Holland, Spain, Denmark, Italy- are today the most vociferous European Islamophobes...That is the more pertinent link that this programme failed to make.

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    Comment number 2.

    I cannot quiet see how 'Muslim legions' can be retrospectively assigned as 'Hitler's' since it implies the subordination of religious obligation to that of a person. If there had been an alternative submission then I would have thought the soldier(s) could not be authentically described as a 'Muslim', and where religious obligation would have been prime the possessive 'Hitler's' Muslim legions could only be used in the very loosest sense. Also, it would need to follow that for the infliction of death to have been compatible with religious injunction the act of killing would need to have been a holy sacrament where any battlefield would have been the medium of the offering up of that piety;an impromptu altar you might say. And in which case the records should be expected to show that the legions of Muslims would have distinguished themselves with extraordinary success.



 

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