Netanyahu, the Grand Mufti and the Holocaust: why it is important to get the historical facts right

By Rainer Schulze, University of Essex

In a speech to the World Zionist Congress in Jerusalem on October 20, the Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu accused Haj Amin al-Husseini, former Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, of “inspiring the Holocaust” and urging Hitler to exterminate the Jewish people.

Netanyahu then explained that he wanted “to show that the father of the Palestinian nation wanted to destroy Jews even without occupation.” These comments led to widespread condemnation and outrage. But who was al-Husseini, and what was his role and involvement in the Holocaust? Rainer Schulze sets the record straight.

Who was the Grand Mufti Haj Amin al-Husseini?

Born in the mid-1890s, and appointed Mufti of Jerusalem in 1921 (Grand Mufti in 1922), Haj Amin al-Husseini was one of the most prominent nationalist Arab figures in Palestine during the time of the British Mandate. He opposed both British rule in Palestine, and the Jewish-Zionist dream of a Jewish homeland in the region, aiming instead to establish a pan-Arab federation or state with himself as the spiritual leader.

His political activism led him to organise and support protests against Jewish immigration and Jewish settlements, which peaked in the 1936-39 Arab revolt in Palestine. In 1937, in order to evade arrest, he fled Palestine and took up residence first in the French Mandate of Lebanon and then in Iraq. In October 1941, he escaped to Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany.

Al-Husseini had welcomed the Nazi seizure of power in Germany in 1933 and the evolving anti-Jewish policy in the following years, requesting, however, that no Jews be sent to Palestine. He sought an alliance between the Arab-Muslim world and the Axis powers Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy, demanding that Germany and Italy recognised the independence of the Arab states and their right to reverse steps taken towards the creation of a Jewish homeland in Palestine.

What happened at the meeting with Adolf Hitler?

After escaping Iraq under Italian protection to Nazi occupied Europe in October 1941, al-Husseini met with German foreign minister Joachim von Ribbentrop in Berlin on November 20. One week later, on November 28, the meeting with Hitler took place which gave rise to Netanyahu’s comments.

However, the course of the conversation was quite different from what Netanyahu would have us believe, as the official German records show.

During the meeting, al-Husseini assured Hitler that: “The Arabs were Germany’s natural friends because they had the same enemies as had Germany, namely the English, the Jews and the Communists”, and that “they were prepared to cooperate with Germany with all their hearts”.

He said the Arabs “could be more useful to Germany as allies than might be apparent at first glance, both for geographical reasons and because of the suffering inflicted upon them by the English and the Jews.”

Hitler in return confirmed that “Germany stood for uncompromising war against the Jews”, including “active opposition to the Jewish national home in Palestine”. He set out to al-Husseini that:

Germany was resolved, step by step, to ask one European nation after the other to solve its Jewish problem, and at the proper time to direct a similar appeal to non-European nations as well.

Could their conversation have influenced Hitler’s plan for the Holocaust?

Even if one assumes that the official records would not state in writing how exactly the “Jewish problem” was to be “solved”, it is ludicrous to think that the Grand Mufti could have inspired Hitler during this meeting to move from a plan of mass expulsion to industrial annihilation.

While Nazi policy had officially encouraged Jewish emigration – albeit after depriving them of their property – this had never been a realistic option for the solution of the “Jewish question” after the outbreak of World War II. The last of these plans, the plan to deport the Jews of Europe to Madagascar, a French island colony off the southeast coast of Africa, became technically unfeasible when Germany lost the Battle of Britain in 1940.

The “Final Solution” evolved in stages and the mass murder of Jews had already begun in June 1941 with the invasion of the Soviet Union. Mobile killing squads, the so-called Einsatzgruppen, followed the regular troops and were specifically tasked to kill Jews, Roma (Gypsies) and Soviet political commissars. The most infamous massacre at Babi Yar (a ravine on the outskirts of Kiev, Ukraine), when some 34,000 Jews were killed in a single operation, took place on 29–30 September 1941.

The Holocaust memorial in Berlin.
Britta Pedersen/EPA

On July 31 1941, Herman Göring, under instructions from Hitler, had ordered Reinhard Heydrich, chief of the SS Reich security main office, to develop a plan “for carrying out the desired final solution of the Jewish question”. On December 8 1941, ten days after al-Husseini’s meeting with Hitler, Chełmno extermination camp, the first killing centre in the East which used gas for the annihilation, began its operation. Killing by gas was a method of extermination which had been successfully experimented with during the “Euthanasia” killings, the murder of disabled people in 1940-41, and the expertise acquired in this process was now applied on an industrial scale to the extermination of the Jews.

It is, therefore, absurd to suggest that al-Husseini inspired Hitler to switch his anti-Jewish policy from expulsion to extermination: the mass killings were already underway at the time of their meeting.

Why has Netanyahu arrived at this interpretation?

It is not the first time Netanyahu tried to suggest that the Arab leader was somehow behind the idea of the physical extermination of the European Jews. He did so before, in 2012. There have been some scholarly attempts exploring the role of al-Husseiny that Netanyahu might feel support his claim, among them most recently by Middle East scholars Barry Rubin and Wolfgang G. Schwanitz in their book Nazis, Islamists, and the Making of the Modern Middle East.

Benjamin Netanyahu speaking at the Zionist Congress on October 20.
Amir Cohen/Reuters

Netanyahu’s comments are not so much a trivialisation of the Holocaust or even a denial, but a deliberate and dangerous distortion of historical facts. Netanyahu no doubt feels that by accusing a prominent Palestinian leader during the Nazi period of being somehow behind the Holocaust, perhaps even being the inspiration for it, he can successfully discredit today’s Palestinian leadership and their concerns and worries.

By claiming that there exists a century-old tradition of anti-semitism among Palestinians culminating in active participation in the annihilation of the Jewish people, Netanyahu wants to establish a line of direct and straight-forward historical continuity from the Holocaust to today’s ongoing tensions. He implies that today’s Intifada has nothing to do with Israel’s occupation of the West Bank, the separation barrier, the question of Jewish settlements on Palestinian lands or the general socio-economic situation of the Palestinians, but that at its core is simply ingrained anti-semitism.

There’s no doubt: Grand Mufti Haj Amin al-Husseini was anti-semitic and anti-Israel. He collaborated with Nazi Germany as a broadcaster and propagandist, and he helped recruit Balkan Muslims to fight for the Nazis. There is little doubt that he knew about the Holocaust and did not object when he learned about it (probably following a meeting with Himmler in 1943): however, he was not the inspiration behind the Holocaust. This must never be confused.

As the German chancellor Angela Merkel emphasised again after Netanyahu’s comments: the Holocaust is and remains the sole responsibility of the Germans.

The history of the Holocaust is too sensitive a topic to be allowed to be exploited and abused in inflammatory speeches. Netanyahu’s comments are not supported by scholarly evidence. But now that the genie is out of the bottle, academics will find it much more difficult to get through with their evidenced arguments. Holocaust deniers and right-wing extremists could well hijack Netanyahu’s comments for their agenda as proof that they were right: the Holocaust was not Germany’s original doing, and they can now cite an Israeli prime minister as suggesting exactly that.

The damage that this poses to an evidence-based discussion of the Holocaust is as yet immeasurable – but it could well be a very high price to pay for what Netanyahu probably hoped would give him a short-term political advantage in the upcoming negotiations.

The Conversation

Rainer Schulze, Professor of Modern European History; General Editor “The Holocaust in History and Memory”, University of Essex

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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