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Did Zionism Cause the Holocaust? A New Biography Says Yes.

The authors of a new history of the Grand Mufti Amin Al-Husaini’s ties to Nazis fail to carry their logic to its flawed conclusion

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The Grand Mufti Amin Al-Husaini with the Waffen SS in 1943. (Deutsches Bundesarchiv via Wikimedia Commons)
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Back in graduate school we used to snort derisively at the Great Man Theory of History, and not just because of that unfashionably sexist “Man.” Only a simpleton, we thought, would neglect world-historical forces like the rising middle class or the struggling proletariat in favor of the force of personality. But just try imagining modern history without Mao, Lenin, or Hitler. The really great and really terrible ones really did change the world.

Now, in Nazis, Islamists, and the Making of the Modern Middle East, Barry Rubin and Wolfgang G. Schwanitz advance a dark-horse candidate for the Great Man theory: Amin al-Husaini, the Grand Mufti of Palestine, close pal of Hitler and champion of Islamist radicalism, and the unchallenged leader of the Palestinians until he anointed Yasser Arafat as his successor in 1968. If the Germans hadn’t sent Lenin to St. Petersburg in that sealed railway car, no Bolshevik Revolution; if Hindenburg hadn’t named Hitler Chancellor, no Nazi regime. If the British hadn’t made al-Husaini Grand Mufti in 1921 in reward for his espionage work for them, no Final Solution… .

Yes, you heard right. Rubin and Schwanitz make the astonishing claim that al-Husaini is nothing less than the architect of the Final Solution. Rather than being a garden-variety pro-Nazi, they say, the mufti had so great an influence on the fuehrer that he might as well have authored Nazi Germany’s most demonic project, the mass murder of European Jewry.

The claim that al-Husaini was the hidden hand behind Adolf Hitler is implausible, even silly. Rubin and Schwanitz are historians with a political agenda: They want to show that eliminationist anti-Semitism animates the Islamic Middle East, and so they paint al-Husaini as so devilishly anti-Semitic that he can contend with Hitler himself.

Yet Rubin and Schwanitz’s claim also has serious, troubling implications. Where did al-Husaini’s passionate hatred of Jews come from? Indisputably, from the Jewish colonization of Palestine. So, if you follow Rubin and Schwanitz’s logic—as they themselves fail to do—Zionism is responsible for the Holocaust. No Zionist colonization of Palestine would mean no Arab anti-Semitism, which means no al-Husaini, which means no Final Solution. The authors use a historical life to advance their political reading of the Arab-Israeli conflict—without thinking through the risks of loading their political agenda onto historical analysis.

***

That al-Husaini was a radical anti-Semite is not the real news in Nazis, Islamists, and the Making of the Modern Middle East. We knew that already. Though al-Husaini was put in power by Britain, he eagerly embraced Nazism and rivaled Hitler in his fanatical anti-Semitism—and frequently proclaimed that the Middle East needed to rid itself of its Jews. Al-Husaini spent the war years in Berlin enjoying the high life: The Nazis put him up in luxurious fashion, with the equivalent of a $12 million a year salary. Hitler, who admired the mufti for his manly ardor and his “Aryan” blue eyes, promised him that extermination would occur in Palestine as soon as Rommel’s tanks broke through the British lines in Egypt and rolled into Zionist territory.

Al-Husaini met often with Eichmann and Himmler during his tours of occupied Poland, and he helped Eichmann escape to Argentina after the war. His most important wartime mission was recruiting for the SS in Bosnia. He almost certainly visited the gas chambers in Auschwitz, a sight that seems likely to have gladdened his heart. But for the most part, he remained a man of vile words rather than vile deeds.

Where Rubin and Schwanitz depart from the known historical record is in their dubious causal assertion that Hitler’s commitment to al-Husaini to keep Jews out of Palestine was in turn a major motivation for the fuehrer’s decision, sometime in 1941, to exterminate European Jewry. It’s true, as Rubin and Schwanitz make clear, that the mufti advocated genocide against the Jews even before Hitler did. Like Hitler, he thought of Jews as subhuman and evil parasites. But the notion that al-Husaini played a key role in Hitler’s settling on the Final Solution is based on one piece of thin hearsay evidence: comments that the controversial Hungarian Jewish leader Rudolf Kastner attributed to Eichmann’s subordinate Dieter Wisliceny. (Rubin and Schwanitz oddly credit the comments to Eichmann himself.)

As Christopher Browning has argued, Hitler’s opting for genocide can much more plausibly be traced to his exultation over what looked like a blitzschnell conquest of Russia in midsummer 1941. The fuehrer dropped his earlier vague notion of getting rid of millions of Jews by shipping them “beyond the Urals”; in the joy of what he thought was victory, he set about to make his new Eastern empire Judenfrei in the most direct and terrible way imaginable.

Al-Husaini may not have given Hitler the idea for the Holocaust, but his actions and words were vile enough. In his memoirs he boasted that he had prevented thousands of Jewish children from emigrating to Palestine in 1942 and 1943 and expressed satisfaction that they instead headed to Poland and death. The Muslim Brotherhood founder Hassan al-Banna lauded al-Husaini after the war: “What a hero, what a miracle of a man. … Germany and Hitler are gone, but Amin al-Husaini will continue the struggle.”

Yet Rubin and Schwanitz make al-Husaini responsible not only for the manifest evil of his own words and deeds, but also for the Holocaust—and for the subsequent birth of Israel and the entirety of the subsequent Arab-Israeli conflict. According to Rubin and Schwanitz, Israel only became a reality through the mufti’s rejection of the 1939 White Paper and, later, his staunch opposition to the U.N. partition of Palestine in 1947. If not for the mufti’s powerful naysaying, they argue, Britain’s White Paper would have been accepted by the Arabs, who would soon have ruled Palestine. This was the clear promise of the White Paper, which would have ended Jewish emigration to Palestine after five years. After 10 years, with Arabs still in the majority, the White Paper promised an binational state.

So, without the grand mufti, no Israel. But al-Husaini, Rubin and Schwanitz say, is also responsible for the lack of peace between Israel and most of the Arab world. According to Rubin and Schwanitz, there’s a single man behind the radicalism of Middle East politics since the 1930s, right down to the present day: The mufti made rejectionism look glorious, paving the way for countless Arab demagogues who trumpeted the notion that standing up to Israel and the West is heroic, while compromise is treason. Scorning the practical, clinging to noble but failed memories of revolt: These became dominant ideas in Middle East politics thanks to al-Husaini.

There are a few obvious problems with Rubin and Schwanitz’s fingering of al-Husaini as the lynchpin of Middle Eastern radicalism. Al-Husaini was never a revered leader or teacher, much less a head of state like Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser. Rubin and Schwanitz don’t even try to make the case that al-Husaini can compare as a source of anti-Western doctrine to Sayyid Qutb, the intellectual spokesman for the Muslim Brotherhood. If al-Husaini’s hard-line stance really was and still is so appealing to the Arab world, this must be due to a force more powerful than the mufti himself. (The Arab street to this day cherishes the idea that any concessions at all to Israel or the West are acts of treachery.) Al-Husseini’s radicalism is significant only because it found an answer, an echo, in Arab culture.

Had the mufti embraced the White Paper, history would have turned out just the same. The Jews would never have accepted it, since it would have meant being ruled by an Arab majority. Soon enough, the Palestinians proved more amenable to Britain’s sweetheart deal. Though the mufti rejected the White Paper in 1939 in loyalty to the Arab High Committee slogan, “The Englishmen to the sea and the Jews to the graves,” the other Palestinian leaders, Amin’s brother Jamal al-Husaini and Musa al-Alami, reportedly accepted the White Paper in Baghdad the following year (a fact oddly ignored by Rubin and Schwanitz). And Britain appeased the Arabs even more by slowing Jewish emigration to Palestine to a trickle during the war, below the level allowed in the White Paper.

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Did Zionism Cause the Holocaust? A New Biography Says Yes.

The authors of a new history of the Grand Mufti Amin Al-Husaini’s ties to Nazis fail to carry their logic to its flawed conclusion