How Germany used Islam during World War I

In May 2015, the Wunsdorf refugee camp suffered an arson attack

A refugee camp in a small German town stands on the spot of a mosque built to entice Muslims to fight for the kaiser

It’s late afternoon in Wunsdorf, a small town 50km south of Berlin. Winter has left the landscape dry and hazy, so the lights are already on in the local refugee camp.

A team of guards, all of them German, has been watching over the facility since it opened last February. It’s a sprawling campus, complete with its own kindergarten, infirmary and school.

Families sleep in the main building – a former government administrative office. Young, single men sleep in containers outside – two or three in each room.

According to Wolfgang Brandt, spokesman for the regional home affairs office, it currently houses 630 people from several countries, including Syria, Iraq and Iran. The occupancy rate, however, is well below the camp’s capacity of 959 people.

One of the residents, Mohammed Al-Khayeri*, is currently working out at the camp’s gym located inside the main building. Since arriving in Germany last September, the 23-year-old Iraqi has tried to spend as much time exercising as he can.

“I’m a little fat. I want to lose my belly,” Al-Khayeri says as he cracks a smile that belies his otherwise sombre demeanour.

Dressed in a black T-shirt, grey sweat pants and white Puma trainers, he recounts how he had to leave his family behind in 2014, as he fled the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS).

Exodus of refugees

Travelling via Turkey and along the Balkan route, he spent a total of $3,200 getting to Finland. But when his asylum application was rejected after a year and 10 months of waiting there, he was forced to take refuge in Germany.

Al-Khayeri had known very little about Germany before he came, only that Chancellor Angela Merkel was welcoming refugees at a time when other countries were not. That was enough.

Germany hosts nearly a million refugees, most of them came last year as part of the exodus of refugees to Europe fleeing war in Syria and Iraq.

He and his 100 or so travelling companions – all single men – sometimes had to sleep in the forest or contend with thieves. “Maybe I’ll die today, or tomorrow,” he says he often thought to himself in his darkest moments. He struggles to contain his emotions as he recounts his journey.

Al-Khayeri’s family is still in Iraq.

Al-Khayeri makes sure to pray five times a day in the camp’s prayer room. There is no mosque here though – an observation which would be unremarkable in any other location. Here that fact is noteworthy because this is the exact site on which Germany’s first mosque was built back in 1915 as part of a plan to encourage young Muslim men to fight for Germany during World War I.

It all goes back to a time when war was starting to smoulder across Europe. The German aristocrat, adventurer and diplomat Max von Oppenheim presented Kaiser Wilhelm II with a grand plan.

To boost Germany’s chances of winning the war, he reasoned that the country should re-engage Muslim soldiers captured from Russian, British and French forces by convincing them to wage a religious war against the allies – the British, French, and Russian alliance.

In 1914, Oppenheim wrote: “In the battle against England … Islam will become one of our most important weapons.”

The German-Ottoman alliance

The plan, a convenient corollary of the German-Ottoman alliance, was formally launched by Turkish Sultan Mehmed V shortly after the start of the war. From a mosque in Constantinople, the Sultan declared Britain, France and Russia the enemies of Islam, calling upon the Muslim subjects of those countries and their colonies to resist their oppressors.

According to the fatwa that was subsequently issued, any Muslim that engaged in war against the Ottomans would have to pay the highest penalty.

In the same year, two prisoner of war camps were built in Wunsdorf and Zossen – 7km away. Wunsdorf’s Halbmondlager (Half Moon Camp) – so called because of the high concentration of Muslims – held about 5,000 prisoners at its peak, while Zossen had more than 12,000.

The prisoners, captured from auxiliary Allied troops from India and African colonies, as well as from the Crimea, Kazan and Caucasus, received special treatment in Wunsdorf.

The camp had a relatively small number of occupants per square metre, friendly prison staff and the free exercise of religion. Complete with a cupola, minaret and prayer room, the wooden mosque’s inauguration coincided with the beginning of Ramadan in 1915.

Islam was seen as a tool to achieve Germany’s political and military objectives. “It was actually the Germans who were observing whether all the rituals that belong to [the] Islamic faith were [being] carried out or not,” says Reinhard Bernbeck, a professor of Near Eastern Archaeology at the Free University of Berlin.

It was the Germans who strongly encouraged the Muslims to pray five times a day, for example, Bernbeck adds.

Friday sermons were used to politicise the prisoners, and a propaganda newspaper called “al-Jihad” was circulated within the camps. The mosque, stylised to remind the prisoners of different Islamic civilisations, included calligraphic inscriptions urging them to join the religious war.

Germany’s relationship with Islam

Despite the calculated efforts, only a small proportion of the Muslim prisoners of war ended up fighting for the German side. At least 1,100 people from Tatarstan – now part of Russia – 1,084 Arabs and 49 Indians defected.

But some of those soldiers requested to be sent back to the PoW camp because the preferential treatment they had enjoyed there was so much better than life at the front.

Ultimately the project was considered a failure.

Only 15 years after its inauguration, the mosque was demolished.

The camp stood beside the Moscheestrasse (Mosque Street), which exists as a relic in the town, which has a current population of 2,485. The town keeps no record of the number of immigrants. It is the only street with that name in the entire nation. As if to serve as commentary on Germany’s relationship with Islam, the street is very short – about 100m long – and it leads to a cul de sac.

The Wunsdorf’s PoW camp was also used to pursue scientific ends. Linguists, ethnographers and biological anthropologists were invited to capitalise on the “good fortune” of having had the world brought to them.

The researchers thought of “cultures in terms of standardised units, where basically everybody was an object that stood for a lot of people”, says Bernbeck.

Researchers measured everything; from the circumference of prisoners’ skulls to their body mass. They were made to dance and sing and generally put their culture on display. A Lautarchiv, or sound archive, was set up in 1915 by Wilhelm Doegen to catalogue words and sounds as well. Using a phonograph invented by Thomas Edison in 1877, prisoners were called upon to record idioms, fairy tales or even the story of the Prodigal Son into the device.

As Bernbeck puts it: “This was part of the trajectory of German academic culture that went straight into the Nazi period.”

Muslim immigrants

By 1917, most of the prisoners were sent to labour camps in Romania. Since then the Muslim community in the region has remained small, although it has never entirely disappeared.

Out of Germany’s population of 82 million, nearly five million are Muslims, according to the most recent census data released in 2015.

Germany hosts nearly a million refugees, most of them came last year as part of the exodus of refugees to Europe

World of Doner – a Turkish-run shop – is one of the only shops open on Zossen’s main square on a Saturday afternoon.

Berdan Cacan, 17, is there most weekends to help out in the family business. His brother first came to Germany from Turkey, and many of his relatives have settled here too, including brothers, uncles and cousins.

He hopes to continue living in the area after doing an apprenticeship at an insurance company. And although he says he has not experienced much discrimination, he recalls one incident that caused him concern. “Two or three guys came in here demanding my father go back to his country,” he says.

Cacan says the men did not get violent, adding that “the event was an outlier”. He regrets that there is still no mosque in the area. “If there were one, we would go,” he says.

Across the street, a woman in a bright blue headscarf pushes a baby stroller as her small son skips along beside her. The child, recognising Cacan, runs across the otherwise vacant square towards him and they chat in German.

Wunsdorf has played a strategic role in many of Germany’s key historic moments. Between 1939 and 1945, the Wehrmacht High Command was located nearby and from the end of World War II until 1994, Wunsdorf served as the headquarters of the High Command of the Group of Soviet Forces in Germany. With 35,000 Soviet troops stationed there, along with their families, the area came to be known as “Little Moscow” by local residents.

Refugee camps attacked

Today, the area is in the news again because of the refugee camp lying on exactly the same patch of land where the mosque stood decades before. Like a number of other refugee centres across Germany, the Wunsdorf camp suffered an arson attack.

On May 16, 2015, shortly before its planned opening, two young locals with alleged links to the far-right set fire to two waste containers. According to the Frankfurt Allgemeine newspaper, the suspects drove into a heap of sand while fleeing from the police. Fireworks and 20 banners with xenophobic slogans were found in the car.

Opinions about the camp among other residents are mixed. “Do you think it’s fair that they get money from the government whereas we have to work?” says one Wunsdorf local, a native German, who declined to be named.

His car is parked outside a kebab shop called Neco’s Grillhaus, down the road from the camp. The shop is run by a Turkish man named Ali Ilker, who commutes between Berlin and Wunsdorf each day to take care of the business his uncle set up in 1996.

Ilker says he knows everyone in the town by name, “From the youngest of children to the oldest residents,” he adds proudly, lifting his hand from his knee to above his head.

“Sure, some people were against the refugee camp before it opened. This place has a long history with foreigners, you know? But since the refugees arrived at the camp, there have been no problems,” Ilker says.

His burly German customer, however, disagrees. He recalls a scenario in which refugees were caught shoplifting, a situation which, to his dismay, did not lead to the police being called. “You can be sure the police would have been called if it had been a German,” he says.

A group of similarly disgruntled residents have come together to start a facebook group called Wunsdorf Wehrt Sich (Wunsdorf fights back). It has 2,039 followers and features posts that, among other things, have celebrated Donald Trump’s election as US president.

Al-Khayeri, the Iraqi refugee, recalls an afternoon last October when he and some friends took a walk around town. They came across a former bunker with a sign in front of it. It contained a warning written in several languages, including Arabic, telling people not to walk in the area. Undetonated bombs still lay in the ground. “That made me think of Iraq,” he says.

A Syrian refugee who now works for the Red Cross explained to him that the bunker is from World War II. The Syrian also told Al-Khayeri about the Muslim prisoners kept here during the war that preceded it.

When asked about how it makes him feel to live in a place with that kind of history, Al-Khayeri just shrugs his shoulders. Right now he just wants to focus on getting his papers and moving on with his life. He smiles politely and goes back to the gym.

* Name changed to protect his identity. 


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