Muslims in the Wehrmacht


Hitler was generally skeptical about the recruitment of non-Germans, especially of volunteers from the Soviet Union. But while he was most uncomfortable when it came to the enlistment of Slavic Russians, Ukrainians, and Belarusians, he considered Muslims to be the only truly trustworthy soldiers and supported their recruitment unconditionally. When discussing non-Russian volunteers from the East at his military headquarters, Wolf’s Lair, on 12 December 1942, Hitler urged the military command to be extremely cautious in organizing Caucasian formations in the Wehrmacht, which he considered to be a general risk: “I really don’t know, I must say, the Georgians are people who are not Mohammedans.… For the time being, I consider the formation of battalions of these pure Caucasian peoples as very risky, while I don’t see any danger in forming pure Mohammedan units.… Despite all explanations, either from Rosenberg or from the military side, I don’t trust the Armenians either.… The only ones I consider to be reliable are the pure Mohammedans.” Hitler explicitly placed Muslims not only above the Armenians but also above the Georgians, who were Rosenberg’s protégés. “I consider only the Mohammedans to be safe,” Hitler declared. “All the others I consider unsafe.” The reasons for Hitler’s unconditional trust in the Muslims were diverse. Apart from his positive ideological views of Islam, his experiences during the First World War may have influenced him. Moreover, he may also have been impressed by the collaboration of the Muslims in the northern Caucasus and the Tatars in the Crimea.

Hitler’s opinion of Muslims from the East was shared by the Wehrmacht command. The recruitment of Muslims was regularly justified with reference not only to the army’s shortage of men and the propagandistic value of the units but also to religion—on the assumption that Islam would enhance strong soldierly qualities. All three of these motives—the lack of manpower, the alleged militant qualities of Muslims, and the propagandistic impact of their recruitment—were expressed in countless military orders and instructions issued by the Wehrmacht. “The deployment of the armed legions is not simply meant to save German blood,” the High Command of Army Group South stated in the summer of 1942, when instructing German soldiers on the Wehrmacht’s Muslim helpers, “but also as a political weapon to undermine and reduce the enemy’s power to resist.” Moreover, the recruitment was explained with reference to the “political-religious attitude of the Turkic peoples (Mohammedans)” and their “largely positive soldierly qualities,” which “obliged” the German command to “exploit” them to “the greatest possible extent.” A few weeks later, the head of the army general staff, Franz Halder, emphasized that the recruitment was not just for the “reinforcement of the combat strength of the German formations” and “for the propagandistic impact” on enemy troops and civilians. Halder also underlined the “political and religious attitude of the Turkic peoples as well as their good soldierly qualities.” On the same day, an instruction was sent to the German staff of the Muslim legions asserting that the “significance” of the Muslim battalions “lay not only in their military value, but also in their propagandistic effect on the enemy and on the population in the respective countries.” Similarly, Oskar von Niedermayer, who became responsible for the formation of the Wehrmacht’s Muslim Turkic legions, stressed in his deployment order that Muslim units would not only “strengthen the combat power of the German formations” but also serve a “propagandistic” purpose. Moreover, the “political-religious attitude” and the good “soldierly qualities” of the Muslim Turkic peoples, he made clear by repeating earlier instructions, “obliged” the army to “exploit” prisoners of war for the German cause. Niedermayer also shared Hitler’s perception of Muslims. “Experiences” had shown that Christian Armenians and Georgians had to be monitored more carefully than the “actual Mohammedan Turk people,” he wrote. This view became dominant among the German army command. Discussing the recruitment of volunteers from the Soviet Union with Hitler in the summer of 1943, Wilhelm Keitel, head of the High Command of the Wehrmacht, reaffirmed Hitler’s positive view of the Turkic volunteers, in whom he saw the “fiercest enemies of Bolshevism.” The positive attitude toward Muslim volunteers was reflected in the formations: Muslims eventually constituted the largest religious group of non-Russian Wehrmacht recruits from the Soviet Union.

In the Eastern territories, the Wehrmacht had already begun recruiting Muslim volunteers before the Eastern Troops were set up. Facing a worsening war situation, in late 1941 army commanders on the front line began, on their own initiative, wherever necessary, to look for local collaborators and combed the prisoner of war camps for auxiliary volunteers, the so-called Hilfswillige (Hiwis for short). Plenty of Soviet deserters, prisoners of war, and volunteers from the local population signed on as sentries, ammunition carriers, translators, drivers, cooks, and servants, and some were already fighting alongside frontline troops before the winter of 1941. Among the earliest of these auxiliary combat troops were the first Muslim formations of the Third Reich. In October 1941, the Wehrmacht created a Caucasian unit under the command of Theodor Oberländer, the so-called Sonderverband Bergmann, and a Turkic unit commanded by the eccentric adventurer Andreas Mayer-Mader, who had traveled throughout Central Asia and served as a military advisor to Chiang Kai-shek. A month later, the army leadership ordered the creation of one Turkestani and one Caucasian unit, each of one hundred men, within the 444th Protection Division. Like Mayer-Mader’s unit, they were fighting partisans in southern Ukraine. Oberländer’s soldiers, once trained in Silesia and Upper Bavaria, advanced alongside the Wehrmacht into the Caucasus. Berlin was satisfied with the military performance of the Muslims, and the Muslim troops maintained this early prominence when the Wehrmacht began recruiting non-Russian volunteers more systematically into its Eastern Legions.

The order for the establishment of the Eastern Legions was issued on Hitler’s approval by the High Command of the Wehrmacht on 22 December 1941. The first two legions, the Turkestani Legion (Turkestanische Legion) and the Caucasian-Mohammedan Legion (Kaukasisch-Mohammedanische Legion), both founded on 13 January 1942, consisted almost entirely of Muslims. The Armenian Legion (Armenische Legion) and the Georgian Legion (Georgische Legion) followed in February, the North Caucasian Legion (Nordkaukasische Legion) in August, and the Volga Tatar Legion (Volga-Tatarische Legion) in September. In the end, four of the six legions founded in the East were Islamic or dominated by a large Muslim majority: the Turkestani Legion, the Caucasian-Mohammedan Legion (later renamed Azerbaijani Legion), the North Caucasian Legion, and the Volga Tatar Legion. The two non-Muslim legions, which Hitler mistrusted, were the Armenian Legion and the Georgian Legion. The commanders and the chief staff (Rahmen-und Stammpersonal) of the formations were German. Two operational headquarters (Organisationsstäbe) were created, which were responsible for the military and ideological training of the legions’ field battalions. The first was the so-called Aufstellungsstab der Ostlegionen (later renamed the Kommando der Ostlegionen), which was based in the General Government at the military training area in Rembertów and, from summer 1942 on, in Radom. It was chiefly organized by Ralph von Heygendorff, who held the command between 1942 and early 1944. The Kommando der Ostlegionen, however, was responsible only for the recruits from the area of the Army Group North and Middle. Volunteers from the area of Army Group South were trained separately in the Ukraine and later in Silesia—their operational headquarters was the 162nd Turkestani Infantry Division (162. Turkestanische Infanterie-Division), which was under the command of Oskar von Niedermayer until his replacement by Ralph von Heygendorff in 1944. By 1943, no fewer than seventy-nine infantry battalions had been created by the operational headquarters and sent to the front. Fifty-four of these were Muslim or dominated by Muslims. Further battalions were still being trained. Eventually, according to some estimates, around 35,000 to 40,000 Muslim Volga Tatars (Volga Tatar Legion), 110,000 to 180,000 Muslim Turkestanis (Turkestani Legion), and 110,000 Muslim and Christian recruits from the Caucasus (North Caucasian, Azerbaijani, Armenian, and Georgian Legions) fought in the German Wehrmacht. Among the recruits from the Caucasus were at least 28,000 Muslims from the North Caucasus and 25,000 to 38,000 Muslims from Azerbaijan. Armed with antitank guns, grenade launchers, machine guns, and automatic weapons, they fought in the various areas of the eastern war zone. Three Muslim battalions were employed in Stalingrad, and many fought in the Caucasus mountains. In the end, Muslim field battalions of the Eastern Legions were spread over the entire European continent. They were employed in the Balkans to put down Tito’s partisans and fought on the French and Italian invasion fronts. A total of six battalions took part in the defense of Berlin in 1945. In the last phase of the war, the 162nd Turkestani Infantry Division, which had been turned from a training unit into a field division comprised of some of its last trained battalions, was employed against partisans in Slovenia and in fights against US troops in northern Italy. By the end of the war, tens of thousands of Muslim recruits of the Eastern Legions had fallen in battle. In addition to the combat formations, many thousands of Muslims were recruited into labor, building, and supply units, and, from 1943 on, even physically unfit Muslim prisoners of war were recruited into four labor battalions and one labor reserve battalion.

Outside the Eastern Legions, some Muslim auxiliary troops were fighting as an integrated part of regular German Wehrmacht units. The largest of these was created on the Crimean Peninsula, where, in early 1942, Manstein’s 11th Army had begun to directly enlist Muslims. After the German invasion, some Crimean Tatars had volunteered for military service. In a letter to Hitler, a leading member of the old Muslim elite had expressed “great gratitude for the liberation of us Crimean Tatars (Mohammedans),” who had suffered under the “sanguinary Jewish-Communist rule,” and offered their military support: “For the speedy annihilation of the partisan groups in the Crimea, we sincerely ask you to allow us, as experts of the routes and paths of the Crimean forests … to establish under German command standing armed formations.” The following month, the 11th Army began enlisting. It was the “suggestion of leading Tatar and Mohammedan figures,” Keitel noted in early 1942, which had prompted the Wehrmacht to ask Hitler for permission to start recruiting among the Crimean Muslims. Throughout the war, Crimean Tatars operated in purely Islamic units within the 11th Army. In the end, up to 20,000 of them were fighting in German units on the peninsula. The army command was struck by the discipline and combat power of the Tatar units. “Their value in partisan counterinsurgency cannot be estimated highly enough,” assured an army report in March 1942. They kept the inland routes from the coast free of partisans and secured the sensitive mountain roads. Soon they also gained a grim reputation for being especially cruel during antipartisan operations. In the Yaila Mountains, Muslim units burned down partisan bases and killed unknown numbers of civilians. Impressed with their efficiency, the German command transferred the Tatar battalions to Romania when the Crimea was evacuated in spring 1944.

Less successful were the Wehrmacht’s attempts to establish Arab formations—despite the massive German propaganda campaign in North Africa and the Middle East. In July 1941 the army set up the so-called Sonderstab Felmy. Led by First World War veteran Hellmuth Felmy, one of its main purposes was to recruit and train Arab volunteers for the Wehrmacht within its so-called German-Arab Training Detachment (Deutsch-Arabische Lehrabteilung, or DAL), which was established in late 1941. The unit was composed of “German troops and people from the Oriental countries, who are Mohammedans throughout,” and was intended to operate in the Arab world following a German victory in the Caucasus. The Muslim soldiers of the German-Arab Training Detachment were to form the basis of a future “Arab Legion,” already celebrated by its recruits as the “Arab Freedom Corps” (al-Mufraza al-Arabiyya al-Hurra). The project turned out to be more difficult than expected. The Sonderstab Felmy experienced serious problems in attracting Arabs. By the end of May 1942, only 130 Arabs had been recruited, with another 50 about to enlist. One obstacle to German recruitment efforts was Turkey’s decision to refuse passage to Germany to Arabs who had fought for al-Kilani in Iraq. Ultimately, most of the volunteers were recruited from prisoner of war camps. Some had been students in Germany. The unit was first stationed at Cape Sunion, on the southern end of the Attica peninsula, where they awaited deployment to the Middle East. There were many conflicts among the Arab recruits. In his memoirs, al-Husayni claimed that Felmy would now and then seek his advice to settle these disputes. “The general complained to us about the trouble caused by the Arab students … and the arguments that constantly broke out between them,” the mufti recalled, acknowledging that “unfortunately” this was “a clear truth and a painful reality.” He failed to mention, however, that Felmy was particularly concerned about the effects of the mufti’s own intrigues and struggles with al-Kilani on the soldiers. In August 1942, when German troops finally began their advance on the Caucasus and a breakthrough to the Middle East seemed imminent, the Sonderstab Felmy and its military formation were moved to Stalino (Donetsk) in the Ukraine. The Arab component had grown to 800 men, now comprising four companies. After the conquest of the Caucasus mountains it was intended that they move to support the northern invasion of the Middle East. This, of course, never happened. While the 5,200 German soldiers of the Sonderstab Felmy fought, with heavy losses, on the Caucasian front, the Muslims, organized in one company of Arabs from Palestine, Syria, and Iraq and three companies of Arabs from Tunisia, Algeria, and Morocco, were stationed in a camp a few hundred miles behind the front line.37 In November 1942 the High Command decided to move the four Muslim companies of the Sonderstab Felmy via Italy to North Africa, where they were to fight alongside Rommel’s army. Upon arrival in Tunis, they joined Arab volunteers who had been recruited in the Maghribian war zone. According to Rahn, by February 1943 no fewer than 2,400 Arabs stood under German command in North Africa. Among them were the soldiers of the Vichy unit Phalange Africaine. The recruits were to form three combat battalions: “Tunisia” (Tunesien), “Algeria” (Algerien), and “Morocco” (Marokko), though only “Algeria” became operationally ready. The Arabs of the Sondestab Felmy formed only a reserve unit and were never employed in combat. The Arab volunteers of the “Algeria” battalion proved unreliable. After a few disappointing attempts to employ them on the front and with a rise in desertions and defections, the army’s High Command decided to turn the Arab formations into labor units. Compared with other Muslim recruits, the Arab volunteers proved to be exceptionally disloyal—a complete failure.


This is the story of the 162nd (Turkistan) Infantry Division, a World War II German division composed of Central Asian Turkistanis. The book covers the political background (pan-Turkism) of the founders of this unit in German service, debunks some historical myths surrounding it (the ‘Nazi Mysteries’) and focuses on the most crucial events in the history of the division, the Gottschee battle (Slovenia) and the ‘great winter mopping up’ (northern Italy).
Pan-Turkish activists were prime movers in organizing Turkistani military units in German uniform. These men were completely unrelated to the occultist/esoteric beliefs, followed by some top Nazi leaders such as Heinrich Himmler or Alfred Rosenberg. The Pan-Turkish activists recruited the soldiers from Soviet POWs in Hitler’s hands. Not all of the former prisoners were volunteers, some were forced to join, while a huge number of Soviet soldiers enlisted in order to survive German captivity (where a large number of their comrades had died because of ill treatment or starvation.) Another huge problem was that Pan-Turkism is something different from Kemalism (Turkish-Anatolian secular and Jacobin nationalism), the former being the political movement aiming at the political union of all Turkic-speaking populations. This is why the German ambassador to Ankara reported that he thought that the Turkish Government might even be embarrassed by open Pan-Turk propaganda from Berlin. Despite this, four main Turkish or partially Turkish units in German uniform were formed. These units were part of the ‘Eastern Troops’, whose Soviet personnel (Baltics, Slavs, Caucasians, Turkmen etc) were integrated into the German forces.
It seems that the largest formation of the Eastern Troops in German service was the 162nd (Turkistan) Infantry Division. The most crucial event in the history of this formation was the ‘great winter mopping up’ (November 1944–January 1945). This operation (the clearing of Italian partisan independent republics which had been set up in the Northern Apennine mountains) was the greatest German anti-partisan action in Western Europe and one of the greatest anti-partisan operations of World War II. The author undertook a massive field investigation to determine what happened in the mountains. He reached the conclusion that the Turkistani soldiers were victims twice over: as Easterners they were regarded as inferior beings by their Nazi masters, as non-Communists, they were regarded as traitors by the Allies. All of this explains why the life and the fate of these Turkmen was absolutely tragic.
The author presents a detailed textual history accompanied by over 200 rare photographs, including a large number that are previously unpublished.

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