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Germany's grand First World War jihad experiment

Updated: Aug 10, 2023

Germany maintains a warm relationship with Islam and Muslims since the early 18th century and this might explain why Angela Merkel doesn't worry about Islamization of the country.

A little-known POW camp just outside Berlin was dedicated to turning Allied Muslim soldiers into jihad warriors. If history is dictated by the concerns of the historian’s day, then it’s surprising more of us haven’t heard the story of the Halbmondlager, or “Half Moon Camp”, a small First World War prisoner-of-war camp in Zossen, near Berlin.

It was like no other POW camp in history. Reserved primarily for Muslim prisoners, detainees lived in relative luxury and were given everything they needed to practice their faith. Spiritual texts were provided, Ramadan observed, a mosque erected – the first on German soil – and there were sermons by visiting spiritual leaders and academics.

But Half Moon Camp was not some torchbearer for the more enlightened treatment of POWs ushered in later by the Geneva Convention. It was, instead, the symbolic center of a spectacularly unsuccessful pet project of Kaiser Wilhelm II: to turn Muslim soldiers fighting for Britain and France into jihadists loyal to Germany.

Written about in German history books but elsewhere a long-forgotten story of the Great War, the camp’s extraordinary role is finally being highlighted as part of the renewed scrutiny of the conflict in this centenary year.

The unlikely prophet of the jihad was German aristocrat, adventurer and diplomat Max von Oppenheim. The 54-year-old had returned to the „Heimat“ (Homeland), after 20 years of travel and study in the Orient and, before Britain had even declared war on Germany, had convinced the Kaiser that Islam was Germany’s secret weapon.

Oppenheim believed that a well-orchestrated propaganda campaign would stir up a mass Muslim uprising against Britain and France from within colonial territories such as India, Indo-China and north and west Africa.

A lot of Germans thought he was a crank, who had idiosyncratic views about the irrational extremist way that Muslims would behave. The Kaiser, though, took him at his word.

Wilhelm vowed to "inflame the whole Mohammedan world" against the British and on August 2, 1914 a secret treaty between Germany and the Ottoman Empire marked the beginning of a bizarre political marriage between Kaiser Wilhelm II and Sultan Mehmet V.

That same day Oppenheim moved into his bureau in Berlin, the headquarters of his jihad propaganda machine.

The POWs, who had fought for the Allied powers in the early battles of the First World War, were prime targets, confined as they were to a controlled environment a short distance from Oppenheim’s HQ. The Germans believed they would be fairly malleable to a message that turned them against the Entente and played on their Islam.

Muslim prisoners of war were used as pawns in the project right from the start. In early November, when the Sultan – by arrangement with Germany – announced Britain, France and Russia the enemies of Islam from a mosque in Constantinople.

The German ambassador in the city followed with a flamboyant announcement on the embassy balcony, flanked by 14 of Germany’s earliest Muslim prisoners, from Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia.

Afterwards, they are said to have carried Karl Emil Schabinger von Schowingen, an ally of Oppenheim’s, in a chaise longue through the streets, encouraging demonstrators to loot and burn any shops owned by the French and English.

Their duty was to deliver scripted lines in Arabic and Turkish promising the crowds that they would take the German jihad to North Africa. So the story goes, the affair was crowned with a symbolic flourish when Schabinger's entourage entered the lobby of his hotel and his police escort sent a single bullet into an English grandfather clock.

The spectacle set the tone for the propaganda effort, as Oppenheim’s POW camp depended on similar levels of carefully orchestrated hot air. Only 4,000-5,000 prisoners were detained in the camp (though Muslim soldiers were also housed in the neighboring camp of Weinberg, where the propaganda effort was extended), but as the tokenism of the Half Moon Camp’s name suggests, the place was self-consciously styled as a theater for the wider world.

Postcards were printed showing prisoners taking part in sport and religious services, and engaged in the slaughter of animals for halal meat.

The biggest showpiece of all was the Ottoman-style wooden mosque, with ornate arched doorways, a broad dome and a single minaret.

It was built to prove that Germany was the true friend of Islam.

It was not built out of religious ideas, it was built on the expectation that it would serve the propaganda purposes that Germany had.

Oppenheim’s office spread the rumor that Kaiser Wilhelm himself had paid for its costly construction out of his own pocket.

They [the prisoners] had visiting speakers so they must have had classes or lectures, The mosque was certainly there as a place of worship, but Friday sermons are an opportunity to politicize, so they would have used the pulpit to continue their message.

In that sense building a mosque was about more than giving people freedom of worship. It was about creating a place where the message could be reinforced by a religious authority. The extraordinary care that went into the creation of Half Moon’s unique environment was largely owing to the efforts of one highly driven individual reporting to Oppenheim’s bureau.

Shaykh Sâlih al-Sharîf, a Tunisian nationalist, had come to Berlin from the Ottoman intelligence service.

Distinguishing himself early with a written document for Oppenheim called "Jihad is an Obligation“, which was used by the German press to illustrate that the holy war was not “made in Germany”, Sâlih cut a striking figure in the office, always going around in distinctive traditional burnous (hooded cloak) and turban.

A strong supporter of Maghreb independence, Sâlih took his job as propagandist rather beyond the call of duty by making treacherous visits to the trenches in person. Witnesses report seeing his turbaned head appearing above the parapet of a German trench appealing in classical Arabic, across no-man’s-land, to the Muslims in the French lines.

His confidence bolstered, Sâlih even wrote a personal letter to the Kaiser recommending that Germany’s prestige in the Arab world would be greatly increased were he to liberate his own colonial territories in germanyeast and west Africa – advise that was politely refused.

According to German historical accounts Sâlih dedicated a lot of his energies to the POW camp, where he was able to realize the role of spiritual leader. He gave talks and sermons, instigated the camp’s propaganda newspaper, Al-Djihad, first produced in March 1915 in Arabic, and wrote articles for it. He also made sure his congregation’s physical welfare was taken care of.

Former Half Moon Camp POW Ahmed bin Hussein, a farmer from Marrakesh, gave an enthusiastic account of camp life in First World War interrogation records recently published in Turkey.

“They even made a favor of us, and gave us a kitchen. Pork was not to be given to us. They gave us good meat, pilaf, chickpeas etc. They gave three blankets, underwear, and a new pair of shoes, etc. To each of us. They took us to the baths once in every three days and cut our hair.”

He goes on to describe how recruiters visited the camp, and how he was among a dozen men who volunteered to fight for the Ottoman side that day. “Others were afraid,” he says.

The Germans hoped that by affording the Half Moon detainees luxuries, they would win their trust enough so that the men would switch allegiances, and sign up to fight the Sultan’s holy war in the colonies. A cunning plan, but one that seems to have backfired. Bin Hussein’s interrogation, it’s worth noting, took place after he’d been taken prisoner for a second time – by the same side. Allegedly he was involved in a revolt against his new Ottoman commanders, possibly showing the ineffectiveness of the recruitment scheme.

American records suggest morale among these troops was quite low – after having been relatively well treated by the Germans, they were sent off to hot, dry, very difficult fighting conditions.

The numbers of volunteers from the propaganda camps Half Moon and Weinberg were not insignificant. As many as 3,000 recruits from the camps arrived in Baghdad to serve on the Mesopotamian and Persian fronts.

Apparently they didn’t really know what they were fighting for. It wasn’t as though they were motivated by jihad. They were probably promised good treatment and glory and the project turned into a complete failure. (048)

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