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.
Rubin and Schwanitz also bring up the Arab rejection of the 1947 U.N. Partition Plan, which they see as another missed Palestinian opportunity masterminded by the extremist al-Husaini, but here they are on even shakier ground. The moment the U.N. resolution passed, there were massive street demonstrations in the Arab world protesting the outrage. Arab governments went to war because the resolution had ignited the passions of the people. The U.N. partition plan was no bargain for the Palestinians. Nearly half of the Palestinians would have become a minority under Jewish rule; the Zionists would have gotten over half the land, including the best regions for agriculture, though they were far less than half of the population. Of course, the Arab countries might have rejected any partition plan; but this one especially could not be defended in the face of the intense uproar in the streets. Al-Husaini had little to do with the Arabs’ decision to go to war.
Yet it is also a fact that sympathy with the Nazis runs deep in the Arab world. Even now, the mufti’s closeness to Hitler increases rather than diminishes his reputation. No Arab country ever expelled a Nazi war criminal; on the contrary, Arab regimes sheltered thousands of ex-Nazis, many of whom were guilty of war crimes. Nazi sympathizers—Nasser and his men, Assad’s Baathists—ruled Egypt and Syria for decades after WWII. Nasser’s ex-Nazi adviser Johann von Leers introduced him to the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, which Nasser made a canonical text for the Middle East. Even Anwar Sadat, who later became a heroic maker of peace with Israel, began his career as a Nazi collaborator, and when rumors surfaced in 1953 that Hitler was still alive, Sadat wrote a fervent public letter declaring, “I congratulate you with all my heart, because though you appear to have been defeated, you were the real victor. … That you have become immortal in Germany is reason enough for pride.”
Rubin and Schwanitz set the stage for the Nazi-Islamist connection with an account of Max von Oppenheim, the subject last year of a fascinating exchange between Walter Laqueur and Lionel Gossman in Tablet. Oppenheim spearheaded the German effort to spur an Islam-wide jihad during WWI, and he continued to work for Germany in WWII as well. (Rubin and Schwanitz claim that Oppenheim had Jewish parents who converted to Catholicism when he was a child; in fact, his mother was Catholic, and his father was a Jew who had converted to Catholicism before Oppenheim was born. Such errors aside, the story of Germany’s effort to spark a Muslim uprising against British rule during WWI, as well as the alliance between Germany and the genocidal Turkish government, is grippingly told here.)
Despite the overblown claims for the mufti’s central role, Rubin and Schwanitz do an illuminating job showing the extent of the partnership between Germans and Islamists; this is by far the best part of their book. Germany had a long history of encouraging Jihadism even before Hitler’s rise to power. But Max von Oppenheim is not any more responsible for 21st-century suicide bombers than the mufti or Hitler is. The German connection does not explain Islamic radicalism; it remains part of the background.
Yes, the mufti remains a source of inspiration to those who dream of annihilating Israel and establishing a purely Muslim Middle East cleansed of Jews and Christians. But that doesn’t mean he changed history.
Rubin and Schwanitz present their book as a necessary look back at the past that helps us understand the present, but the present needs a more careful analysis, one that pays serious attention to today’s bewildering, strife-ridden Middle East. Yes, the mufti remains a source of inspiration to those who dream of annihilating Israel and establishing a purely Muslim Middle East cleansed of Jews and Christians. But that doesn’t mean he changed history. There is never a lack for prophets of violence in the Arab world, or Islamists who look to the Nazis as models of proper neighborly relations with Jews and with others.
The Nazi-Islamist connection doesn’t explain the staying power of Middle East extremism. What we need to grasp instead is why, despite the hopes aroused by the Arab Spring, the alternatives to extremism in the Middle East remain so weak. Muslim extremism has behind it a long tradition, bolstered by Oppenheim and al-Husaini, among others. But that’s not what makes the pursuit of heroic martyrdom pay off, or what renders the frightened majority in the Arab world so incapable of taming the terrorists—secular and religious—among them.
Iran’s quest for the bomb has made the question of whether the Muslim rejection of Israel is at bottom eliminationist properly seem urgent to many Jews and to others who believe that genocide in the Middle East would be a bad thing. The answer can’t be found in great men, nor was the eclipse of moderation in the Muslim Middle East caused by personalities like al-Husaini, Nasser, Arafat, Khomeini, and Assad père and fils. The bad guys are only the expression of something more basic: a region splintered ethnically and spiritually, marked by fervent religious yearning, burning with rage against both Western meddling and its own rulers, and in desperate need of a common enemy—a role in which the Jews have always served rather nicely.
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David Mikics is the author, most recently, of Bellow’s People: How Saul Bellow Made Life Into Art. He lives in Brooklyn and Houston, where he is John and Rebecca Moores Professor of English at the University of Houston.