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The Wannsee Legacy: Lessons for Genocide Prevention

Hitler and Haj Amin al-Husseini

Let me please start with Fanny Englard, an active survivor of the Holocaust and a friend of mine. She grew up in Germany/Cologne and lives now south of Tel Aviv. Fanny wrote in a letter:

“As a twenty-year-old, on 8 May 1945 I was liberated from hell and tried to find my family, but without success. Eventually I had to accept that my father had lost his life in the Warsaw Ghetto, while my mother and ten-year-old brother had been poisoned in the gas chambers at Belzec along with my grandmother, aunts and cousins. Two brothers, aged 15 and 13, had been shot in Belarussia not far from Minsk and buried in shallow graves in 1942, but in 1943 the corpses had been dug up and burned – their ashes scattered to the four winds. In May 1947 I came to Israel and married in order to create a new family as a replacement for the murdered one that had fallen victim to Jew-hatred.”

I know the photos and the faces of Fanny’s murdered siblings and parents and I want to contrast her personal letter with the bare numbers and the monstrous language of the Wannsee-protocol which talks about “the complete clearing up of the problem” and continues: “this final solution of the European Jewish question concerns about 11 million Jews, distributed among the various countries.”[1]

However, the Final Solution was not limited to Europe.

In 1941, the 700.000 Jews of the Middle East attracted Hitler’s attention as well.[2] As Hitler envisaged it, after the assault on the Soviet Union, the Wehrmacht would also occupy the Caucasus and so open the way to the Middle East. Then Iran, Iraq and Egypt would be conquered and the British Empire destroyed from the south. Pro-German movements would prepare for the German invasions of that countries. Part of this scenario was the killing of the Jews.

At the end of November 1941 – in the run-up to the Wannsee-Conference – Hitler received Hajj Amin el-Husseini, the Grand Mufti and leader of the Palestinians. On this occasion Hitler stated that, after the defeat of the Soviet Union, “the hour of liberation” would arrive for the Arab world. “The German goal would then be the annihilation of the Jews … living in the Arab region.”[3] These were’t mere words.

By summer 1942 the Nazis had drawn up concrete plans to murder the Jews of the Yishuv. They expected their genocidal endeavor to be substantially assisted by Arab collaborators.

Therefore, the SS Einsatzkommando for Palestine, which was set up in Athens by the summer of 1942 in order to direct this genocide was staffed by only 17 Germans – waiting there for Rommel to clear the way to Palestine. And indeed, as Rommel’s Afrikakorps pushed eastwards during the summer of 1942, the Germans registered growing pro-nazi sentiment all across the Middle East.

“There is no reason to claim that the anti-Semitic potential of Lithuanian, Latvian or Ukrainian nationalists should have been stronger than that of Arabs expecting the German Wehrmacht”, emphasize the German historians Mallmann and Cüppers.[4]

Persia was a more difficult place. You may recall that the name Iran means “Country of Aryans”. Thus, a long-lasting controversy among German racist ideologues sprang up over whether Persian Jews were “racially” Persian and should therefore be categorised as “non-Semites” or even “Aryans”.

Adolf Eichmann brought this debate to an abrupt end on December 8, 1942. It is clear from Eichmann’s letter that he intended to show no mercy to the native Iranian Jews, who numbered around 60,000. “In the light of the above remarks”, he concludes his letter to the Foreign Office, “no grounds exist for recognising the equal status of the Jews with Iranians as recognised in Iran in the countries within Germany’s sphere of control.”[5]

His euphemistically formulated advice could lead to only one conclusion: as soon as Iran came under German control, the Jews of Iran too would be deported to death camps and murdered.

Let me summarize my first remark. The Wannsee protocol dealt with the „European Jewish question“. Adolf Hitler, however, wanted to kill the Jews of the Middle East as well. Pro-German Muslims were designated to do the dirty work. But there was a problem which brings me to my second point.

It was understood that German-style antisemitism would have little resonance in the Middle East.

“The level of education of the broad masses is not advanced enough for the understanding of the race theory”, complained a leading German Nazis in Egypt in 1933. “An understanding of the Jewish threat has not yet been awakened here.”[6] Later, the German embassy in Tehran submitted the same complaint to Berlin. “The broad masses lack a feeling for the race idea”, explained a member of the embassy in January 1942. Thus, he recommended to lay “all the emphasis on the religious motif in our propaganda in the Islamic world. This is the only way to win over the Orientals.”[7]

About the Author: Küntzel is an external research associate at the Vidal Sassoon International Centre for the Study of Antisemitism (SICSA) at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and a member of the Board of Directors of the German chapter of Scholars for Peace in the Middle East (SPME). Matthias holds a tenured part-time position as a teacher of political science at a technical college in Hamburg, Germany.


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