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Netanyahu, Hitler, al-Mufti Al-Hussaini and the Holocaust

Through primary source material and testimonies from the Eichmann trials, Netanyahu presented a completely false historical account

It is remarkable to see Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu debase himself with revisionist history by suggesting grand theories on one of the most sensitive issues in the modern history of mankind.

On the evening of 21 September 2015, Netanyahu delivered a speech at the World Zionist Congress in the city of Jerusalem in which he said, in an unequivocal manner, that Hitler did not want to annihilate the Jews but only wanted to deport them from Germany. He added that it was the Palestinian leader, al-Mufti Haj Amin Al-Hussaini, who persuaded him of the Holocaust. Not only that. Netanyahu went as far as inventing a perfectly fabricated conversation between the Mufti and Hitler. According to the Israeli prime minister, the Mufti objected to the idea of deporting the Jews on the assumption that they would “come here” (to Palestine). Hitler said: “What shall I do with them, then?” The Mufti responded: “Burn them.”

This is not a mere propagandist slip of the tongue on the part of Netanyahu, for he previously made a similar egregious claim in a previous book. It may be possible to interpret a distorted version of history as a reflection among the Israeli leadership and a minority of Zionist academics that the destruction of the Palestinians should be given priority over recalling the Nazi criminal record. However, this does not mean that the world has swallowed Netanyahu's bait.

The majority of the pushback to the claims made by the prime minister came from Jewish historians, specialists in the history of Nazi Germany and the Holocaust. There is, in addition, the assertion by German Chancellor Angela Merkel, during her reception of the Israeli prime minister, that Germany is responsible for the Jewish disaster. Furthermore, the White House spokesperson did not hesitate to say that authoritative historians and academics of the field did not support Netanyahu’s allegations.

To a large extent, Mufti Al-Hussaini, who led the Palestinian national movement during one of its most critical phases, has been deliberately excluded from the Palestinian national narrative. His relation to Nazi Germany, which was only a small episode in his political career, should not be seen as if it summed up his entire history.

The suspicions about the Mufti's relationship with the Nazi plan to annihilate the Jews are rooted in the Nuremberg trials, when Dieter Wisliceny, an assistant to Adolf Eichmann - who played a main role in the Holocaust - claimed that the Mufti had met with Eichmann and briefed him about the details of the Nazi operation to annihilate the Jews. Yet, Eichmann, who fell into Israeli hands in 1960 and was executed in Israel in 1962, said in his trial that he never met the Mufti except accidentally and for one time only at an official reception.

Commenting on the matter, Hannah Arendt, the historian, sociologist and renowned philosopher, said that the accusation levelled against the Mufti about some sort of link with the Nazi operation to annihilate the Jews was baseless and seemed to have been based on mere rumours. But even this sort of debate had to do with whether the Mufti knew or did not know the details of the Nazi genocide policy and never ever reached the level of Netanyahu's hysterical theory. 

Since the beginning of the British Mandate, Haj Amin Al-Hussaini occupied the most senior religious position in Palestine in his capacity as the Mufti of Jerusalem and the president of the Supreme Islamic Council. Until the mid-1930s and the death of Kazim Al-Hussaini, chairman of the Palestinian Executive, the Mufti did not play any tangible political role and his relationship with the British Mandate Authorities was generally amicable.

During the Al-Buraq events of 1929, the Mufti stood by the Palestinian protest movement against the Jewish attempts to change the status quo at the Al-Buraq Wall (the Wailing Wall). In 1931, the Mufti convened the Jerusalem General Islamic Conference, which was considered the first step in the Arab and Islamic mobilisation for the Palestinian cause. 

During the first few months of the Palestinian revolt of 1936-1939, the Mufti witnessed the devastating effects of the British repressive policy against his people. It was then that his position started to change. The British accused him of incitement and tried to arrest him. However, he fled to Lebanon in October 1939, and upon sensing a change of heart on the part of the French vis-a-vis his presence in Lebanon, he left for Iraq, which had been going through a period of political instability as a result of the British pressure upon its government to participate in the war against Germany. 

Upon calls from Iraq's leaders, the Mufti became involved in politics in Iraq. Although he was closer to the Arabist trend that opposed the British, he advised the Iraqi government to accept British demands and avoid a confrontation. In the spring of 1941, and following the second British invasion of Iraq, the Mufti left Baghdad for Tehran. However, Iran was also about to fall under the control of the allies, making the Mufti flee for Italy. In fact, communications between the Mufti and the Iraqi nationalist leaders with Nazi Germany started in Iraq. Al-Hussaini was neither a Nazi nor a Fascist. Still, at an early stage of the Second World War, he was trying to obtain assurances from the Axis countries that they would respect the independence and territorial integrity of the Arab states. 

However, his demands clashed with Italy's Mediterranean ambitions in Egypt and North Africa, and with the Nazi policy of avoiding the British interests in their overseas empire. Following brief talks with Italian officials, the Mufti arrived in Berlin where he met with Hitler on 28 November 1941. 

The details of the meeting were described as cordial. The Mufti focused primarily on seeking to obtain a declaration from the Axis powers that they would support the Arab struggle for independence and unity. However, Hitler rejected the idea for he believed it would bolster the position of the French De Gaullists in their confrontation with the pro-Germany Vichy government.

The principal point in all of this is that the Holocaust was the outcome of a gradual German policy and that the gas chambers were its last episodes. This policy began with a series of legal and cultural measures in the immediate aftermath of the ascendance of the Nazis to power in 1933. The objective was to diminish the role of German Jews in public life, to restrict their presence and to force them to emigrate. These steps reached one of their peaks on what became known as the Kristallnacht in 1938, leading to the murder of scores of Jews and the destruction of their commercial and economic properties and the burning of hundreds of synagogues. In the following year, Hitler made his infamous speech in which he promised to put an end to what he called “The Jewish Question” in Europe. 

With the start of the war, mass-murder operations became more frequent. The Jews of Germany, Austria, Bohemia and Moravia, then Poland, were deported to mass detention camps, especially after General Reinhard Heinrich submitted his famous report. The Nazi’s primary objective was to force the Jews into hard labour under intolerable circumstances. The Nazi policy of forced labour was carried out under the motto of “annihilation through work”. They grouped deported Jews in areas close to major train stations in a prelude to what Eichmann described in his trial as "getting rid of them". 

As soon as the German invasion of Russia began in the summer of 1941, the mass killing of Jews began in earnest. During the summer months, about 80 percent of the Jews of Lithuania - who numbered around 250,000 - were annihilated, together with thousands of Jews in Romania. In Babi Yar, close to Kiev, 33,000 Jews were killed on 20 and 29 of September 1941. In fact, experimenting with the use of gas in mass killing started effectively in 1939, first with the use of containers and then the use of transport vehicles.

In other words, the policy of annihilation was implemented long before the Mufti's meeting with Hitler. What the Mufti saw in Germany - undoubtedly in a moment of grave miscalculation - was a Western country that was not more racist than other Western colonial powers and an emerging super power that could assist the Palestinians. The Zionist Federation of Germany itself did not hesitate to sign the Haavara Agreement with the Nazis in 1933 in order to facilitate the emigration of 60,000 German Jews to Palestine. 

Eichmann did point out during his trial that he visited Palestine once in the company of his own superior Hagen in 1937 upon an invitation from Feival Polkes, representative of the Haganah, the main Zionist organisation, who sought to establish cooperative relations with Nazi Germany in the Middle East. Recently, the Israeli historian Tom Segev wrote of the Zionist Stern organisation's attempts to secure Nazi support against the British authorities in Palestine in the end of 1940 and again in 1941. 

The Mufti, it seems, was not the only one who miscalculated.

- Basheer Nafi is a senior research fellow at Al Jazeera Centre for Studies.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Photo: A picture the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin Effendi el-Husseini, in 1929 (Creative Commons)