Hitler's Muslim Legions
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