“Muslims fought on all sides during the Second World War. Tens of thousands of Muslims were recruited into the German armies. Yet the British, French, and Soviets were more successful in mobilizing their Muslim populations: hundreds of thousands fought in their armies against Hitler’s Germany. From French North Africa alone, almost a quarter of a million Muslims enlisted in Charles de Gaulle’s forces, eventually liberating Europe. There has been little commemoration of those veterans for a long time,” David Motadel told IQNA in an interview
David Motadel is Associate Professor of International History at the London School of Economics and Political Science. He works on the history of modern Europe and Europe’s entanglements with the wider world.
He is the author of a book on the history of Muslims under German rule in the Second World War (Harvard University Press, 2014), ranging from North Africa and the Balkans to the Caucasus and the Crimea, and the editor of a volume on Islam in the European empires (Oxford University Press, 2014) and of a book on global history of the middle class (Princeton University Press, 2019).
Among his current projects is a comparative study of the European empires in the era of the Second World War, 1935-1948. It traces the involvement of the world’s colonized peoples in the conflict, examining the ways in which the war reconfigured Europe’s relations with the world.
His articles have been published in a number of journals, including Past and Present, the American Historical Review, the Historical Journal, the Journal of Contemporary History and the Journal of Global History. His work has been translated into ten languages.
Following is the full text of the interview:
IQNA: What was the role of Muslims and Muslim countries in World War II and their struggle against Nazism and fascism?
Motadel: Muslims fought on all sides during the Second World War. Tens of thousands of Muslims were recruited into the German armies. Yet the British, French, and Soviets were more successful in mobilizing their Muslim populations: hundreds of thousands fought in their armies against Hitler’s Germany. From French North Africa alone, almost a quarter of a million Muslims enlisted in Charles de Gaulle’s forces, eventually liberating Europe. There has been little commemoration of those veterans for a long time. Yet over the last decade, in many countries, this has changed.
IQNA: You studied Nazi Germany’s engagement in the Islamic world during the Second World War. How did Berlin approach Muslims?
Motadel: In 1941-42, when Hitler's troops marched into Muslim-populated territories in North Africa, the Balkans, the Crimea, and the Caucasus, and approached the Middle East and Central Asia, officials in Berlin began to see the ‘Islamic world’ as politically significant. In the following years, Nazi Germany made considerable efforts to build an alliance with the ‘Muslim world’ against their alleged common enemies: The British Empire, the Soviet Union, and Jews.
The reason for the Third Reich’s courtship of Muslims was not only that Muslim-populated regions had become part of the warzones, but also, more importantly, that at the same time Germany’s military situation had deteriorated. In the Soviet Union, Hitler's Blitzkrieg strategy had failed. As the Wehrmacht came under pressure, strategists in Berlin began to seek broader war coalitions, thereby demonstrating remarkable pragmatism. The courtship of Muslims was to pacify the occupied Muslim-populated territories, and to mobilize Muslims to fight on the side of Hitler's armies.
As early as 1941, the Wehrmacht began to train the troops to behave correctly towards Muslim populations. German military authorities also made extensive efforts to co-opt Islamic religious dignitaries in the Eastern territories, the Balkans, and North Africa. Moreover, in the warzones, the Germans engaged in religious propaganda to promote Nazi Germany as a patron of Islam. German propagandists politicized sacred texts as well as religious imperatives in order to foment religious violence.
IQNA: Can you cite examples of Muslim actions in World War II?
Motadel: The actions of Muslims in the Second World War cannot be generalized. They depended on the specific local political and social circumstances. Let me give you some brief examples:
In the North African warzone Mussolini had run an oppressive colonial regime in Libya and many Muslims in the region had reservations about the Axis powers, to put it mildly. The most powerful religious force in Cyrenaica, the Islamic Sanusi order, was the spearhead of the anti-colonial resistance against Italian rule and fought alongside Montgomery’s army against the Axis. In any case, Berlin’s propaganda promises to liberate the Muslims stood in sharp contrast to the violence and destruction that the war had brought to North Africa.
Another example: On the Eastern front, the Soviet Union, the situation was very different. The Muslims of the Crimea and the North Caucasus had confronted the central state ever since the tsarist annexation in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and the Bolshevist take-over had worsened the situation. Under Stalin, the Muslim areas suffered unprecedented political and religious persecution. After the invasion of the Caucasus and the Crimea, many welcomed the Germans with goodwill and hope. Yet, here too, relations between the German authorities and the local population soon cooled.
IQNA: One of the issues that have grown in recent years with the rise of populist movements in Europe is the palpable pressure and discrimination against religious and racial minorities such as Muslims. What is the root of these pressures?
Motadel: While there is little institutional, state discrimination against Muslims across most of Europe today, many – as other minorities – struggle with everyday racism, now further fueled by the rise of right-wing movements.
Ethnic and religious minorities have been discriminated throughout history, not just in Europe. Just consider the histories of Europe’s Huguenots, Jews, Sinti and Roma; these are histories of exclusion and violence.
Historians have written uncountable books to understand the roots and nature of such discrimination. There is no easy answer. Clearly, in times of economic tensions, which lead to social instability, resentments often turned into hatred against minorities, easy scapegoats. The economic crash of 2008, for example, is important to understand the rise of the nationalist right in Europe. Yet material causes are not sufficient to explain the phenomenon. Racist ideas and prejudices are crucial. Here the only solution can be education. Schools are vital in the fight against racism, xenophobia, and bigotry.
IQNA: How do you think Muslims can have a better social status in today's Europe?
Motadel: The majority of Muslims in today’s Europe are well-integrated and successful. While the first generations of Muslim who came to Europe as part of the post-colonial and labor migration of the 1950s and 1960s worked in low-paid factory jobs, their children’s and grandchildren’s generations are now rising in companies, universities, civil services, judiciaries, and parliaments. The majority of Europe’s Iranians – who are not connected to the post-colonial and labor migrant community – are part of the bourgeois middle classes. In general, Iranians are a highly successful minority, not just in Europe but also in the US, Canada, Australia, and elsewhere in the world.
IQNA: How do you assess the future of European Muslims in light of the growth of populist parties in Europe?
Motadel: I am very concerned about the growth of right-wing nationalist movements in Europe. Yet I am still convinced that the majority of Europe’s population is tolerant and will continue to resist these groups. We can already see a slight decline in their support in many parts of Europe. But maybe I’m too optimistic.
Interview by Mohammad Hassan Goodarzi