Although less known than his distant cousin, Palestine Liberation Organization founder Yasser Arafat, Jerusalem grand mufti Haj Amin al-Husseini (1897-1974) played a prominent role in pre-1948 Palestine. As one of the ‘founding fathers’ of Palestinian nationalism, Al-Husseini remains a respected figure in Palestinian society.
The grand mufti – praised by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas as a “hero” and a “pioneer” – gained most of his notoriety, however, as a Nazi collaborator. During World War II, the cleric served as an Arab ally and propagandist for the Third Reich in Berlin, continuing the campaign of antisemitic incitement he started in Palestine.
Amin al-Husseini: Fanning the Flames of Anti-Jewish Sentiment
Born into a wealthy and influential Jerusalemite family during the Ottoman rule over Palestine, Mohammed Amin al-Husseini was destined to become a significant figure in Palestinian history. Male members of his family had held key religious positions in Jerusalem since the eighteenth century. The family also had great political influence: more than a third of Jerusalem’s mayors between 1877 and 1914 were members of the al-Husseini clan.
Amin’s father, mufti Mohammed Tahir al-Husseini, was one of the early vocal opponents of Zionism. His efforts in 1897 convinced the local representative of Constantinople to put a stop to land sales to Jews for several years. That same year, he proposed that new Jewish immigrants should be “terrorized prior to the expulsion of all foreign Jews established in Palestine since 1891.”
Following in his father’s footsteps, around the age of 20, Amin al-Husseini became involved in Arab resistance to Zionism. After the British took control of Palestine following the end of World War I, he organized rallies against the Balfour Declaration. One of his speeches, on April 4, 1920, fanned the flames of anti-Jewish sentiment, resulting in violent riots. When the dust settled after four days, five Jews and four Arabs were dead. Another 211 Jews and 33 Arabs were left wounded.
Fearing arrest for his share in instigating the riots, al-Husseini fled to Syria. Indeed, a British military court sentenced him to ten years in prison. However, the British pardoned him, making way for his return to Jerusalem. Just months later, following his brother’s death, British High Commissioner Sir Herbert Samuel crowned Amin al-Husseini as mufti of Jerusalem. When the Supreme Muslim Council was established a year later, he became president, earning the title of grand mufti.
The British believed that appointing the young al-Husseini as grand mufti, the highest religious office, was a way to maintain peace in Jerusalem. In a memorandum dated April 11, 1921, Sir Herbert Samuel reported on a conversation with the proposed grand mufti:
“He gave assurance that the influence of his family and himself would be devoted to maintaining tranquility in Jerusalem and he felt sure that no disturbances need be feared this year. He said that the riots of last year were spontaneous and unpremeditated.”
History books show that the grand mufti failed to deliver on his promises. During his 15-year tenure, al-Husseini regularly incited violent campaigns against Jewish civilians and British officials, most notably the 1929 riots (which included the Hebron massacre) and the 1936-39 Arab rebellion.
The latter insurgency led the British police to issue an arrest warrant for the grand mufti in July 1937. After taking refuge in the Dome of the Rock for three months, al-Husseini fled Palestine again, this time to Lebanon. Stripped of his titles by the British, but ever-popular amongst Arabs, the exiled rebel leader continued to encourage anti-Jewish and anti-British violence from Beirut.
The Mufti and Adolf Hitler
Amin al-Husseini gained most of his notoriety, however, after leaving Mandatory Palestine. The story of the relatively unknown Palestinian leader caught the attention of the international media in 2015, when Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu claimed in a speech that al-Husseini inspired Hitler to plan the Holocaust.
Although Holocaust scholars have refuted Netanyahu’s version of history, and Germany issued a sharp rebuke of Netanyahu’s remarks, experts agree that the mufti already received support from high-ranking Third Reich officials while still in Jerusalem. His contacts with Nazi Germany dated back to 1933. Barely two months after Hitler seized power, Amin al-Husseini met with the German consul in the Holy City. In the meeting, he spoke approvingly of the Nazi’s anti-Jewish policies and conveyed his concerns about the increase of Jewish immigration from Germany to Palestine. The German consul summarized the meeting as follows:
“The Mufti made detailed statements to me today to the effect that Muslims inside and outside of Palestine salute the new regime in Germany, and hope for the spread of Fascist anti-democratic leadership to other countries.”
In 1939, after fleeing once again, the mufti moved from Lebanon to Iraq. By the time World War II broke out, he unequivocally sided with the Nazis, hoping to secure their support for Arab nationalism and the expulsion of Jews from the Middle East. In Baghdad, he supported the April 1941 pro-German coup d’état. He also instigated a pogrom against the local Jewish community (the Farhud, called “Iraq’s Kristallnacht” by some), all while simultaneously spreading Nazi propaganda. In return, he received financial support from Berlin, as well as funding from fascist Italy.
The coup failed, and al-Husseini proceeded to travel to Nazi-occupied Europe. After a stopover in Italy, he reached Berlin in November 1941. Once in Germany, the Nazis provided the grand mufti with several residences and a monthly salary of 90,000 Reichsmark (at a time when most Germans reported a yearly income of less than 1,500 Reichsmark). “The enormous size of Husseini’s monthly salary indicates the importance the Nazi regime attached to him and his entourage,” scholars claim.
During his four-year stay in Berlin, the mufti worked closely with top Third Reich officials. Amongst others, he met with foreign minister Von Ribbentrop and Adolf Eichmann, who was responsible for deporting Jews to extermination camps. Al-Husseini also conducted several meetings with SS leader Heinrich Himmler, the principal architect of the Holocaust. In 1943, the SS Reichsführer wrote al-Husseini a letter in which he decried the “Jewish invaders” and sent his “warm wishes for your continued struggle.”
On November 28, 1941, just weeks after his arrival in the German capital, Adolf Hitler invited Haj Amin al-Husseini to his office. He explained to the Fuhrer that the Arabs were Germany’s “natural friends” because they had the same enemies as Germany: “the English, the Jews, and the Communists.”
The official record of the meeting states that Hitler assured the mufti that he would carry on “the battle to the total destruction of the Judeo-Communist empire in Europe.” Eventually, when the German army would reach the southern exit from Caucasia, the Fuhrer would “give the Arab world the assurance that its hour of liberation had arrived” and destroy “the Jewish element residing in the Arab sphere under the protection of British power.”
Moreover, the mufti continued his rabid antisemitic incitement through Radio Berlin broadcasts until the end of the war: “Arabs, rise as one man and fight for your sacred rights. Kill the Jews wherever you find them; this pleases Allah, history, and religion. This saves your honor. Allah is with you,” he was quoted saying on March 1, 1944.
‘A Hero Who Fought Zionism With the Help of Hitler’
After World War II ended, Amin al-Husseini fled to Egypt. In Cairo, he received a hero’s welcome. Muslim Brotherhood founder Hassan al-Banna hailed him as a “hero who challenged an empire and fought Zionism with the help of Hitler and Germany.” Al-Banna proclaimed that “Germany and Hitler are gone, but Amin Al-Husseini will continue the struggle.”
Al-Husseini was elected leader of the Arab Higher Committee and the Palestine People’s Party, and he rallied support against the partition of Mandatory Palestine into a Jewish and an Arab state. However, after Israel’s 1948 victory, the grand mufti’s political influence largely diminished. He died in 1974 in Beirut, without ever having been tried for his crimes. Though his propaganda broadcasts alone would have justified an indictment during the Nuremberg trials, he evaded justice.
“While Husseini’s influence on Nazi decision-making was limited, his importance to the Nazi regime was considerable,” experts on German history have concluded. As an influential Arab leader and Nazi propagandist, he was an accomplice in the systematic murder of Jews during WWII. Nevertheless, he remains a revered figure amongst Palestinians. The grand mufti is still represented positively in textbooks, and children are taught to look up to him as a hero.
“The evidence of his collaboration with the Nazis was either forgotten, ignored or excused as a form of justified anti-colonialism in an alliance of convenience, not shared ideological passion, against a common enemy,” as research by Prof. Jeffrey Herf, a leading scholar in the field, wrote in 2014.
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Featured Image: Heinrich Hoffmann Collection/Wikipedia
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