The so-called arab Spring has ushered in many surprising changes, not the least of which is an apparent sea change in American foreign policy. The Muslim Brotherhood — hitherto regarded as the principal ideological incubator of Islamic extremism and shunned accordingly — has been rehabilitated by the present American administration. Long before the Brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsi was elected Egyptian president in June, the administration was openly courting the organization. The first sign of the change came in the form of what seemed initially to be a bizarre gaffe. Speaking at congressional hearings in February 2011, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper incongruously described the Brotherhood as “largely secular.” But the gaffe soon proved to have been a harbinger of policy. Within a year, the American ambassador to Egypt, Anne Patterson, and the Senate Foreign Relations Committee chair, John Kerry, were meeting with Brotherhood officials in Cairo. The contacts, in both Cairo and Washington, have gone on ever since.
In this context, it is hardly surprising that many observers — and especially those wary of the administration “reset” with the Brotherhood — would regard a recent book by former Wall Street Journal reporter Ian Johnson as, in effect, the book of the hour. Bearing the sensational title A Mosque in Munich: Nazis, the cia, and the Rise of the Muslim Brotherhood in the West (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2010), Johnson’s volume contains an even more sensational thesis: namely, that the U.S. had already gotten involved with the Muslim Brotherhood in the 1950s and that the Brotherhood’s leading representative in Europe at the time, Said Ramadan, was even a cia asset! On Johnson’s account, the cia helped Ramadan to seize control of the “mosque in Munich” of the book’s title. The claim is all the more sensational inasmuch as the mosque — or rather the Islamic association that sponsored its construction — would in the aftermath of 9/11 come to be linked to al Qaeda. It is not difficult to understand, then, why Johnson’s book has been hailed as a “cautionary tale.”
And this it would be, were it not for the fact that the tale Johnson tells is not supported by the evidence. The whole basis of Johnson’s narrative of American “collusion” — as he put it in the Fall 2011 Middle East Quarterly — with Ramadan and the Brotherhood is circumstantial evidence and conjecture. Unnervingly, once introduced into the narrative, the conjecture is then elevated to the status of established fact. This procedure allows Johnson, for instance, to refer repeatedly to an American “plan” to install Ramadan as the head of the Munich mosque project, even though he has offered no proof that such a plan ever existed.
Dangerous liaisons or casual contacts?
More problematically still, most of the circumstantial evidence points precisely to American disdain for Ramadan, not the “mutual attraction” that Johnson essentially conjures out of thin air. Take, for instance, Ramadan’s now famous September 1953 visit to the White House. A photograph documenting the visit is reproduced in a February 3, 2011, post by Johnson on the blog of the New York Review of Books. The picture shows a group of more than twenty Muslim dignitaries crowded around President Dwight D. Eisenhower in the Oval Office — among them, the then merely 27-year-old Muslim Brother Said Ramadan. The occasion for the photo-op was an international “Colloquium on Islamic Culture,” which was co-sponsored by Princeton University and the Library of Congress. The U.S. Information Agency and the State Department’s International Information Agency were also involved.
The apparently scholarly conference thus enjoyed U.S. government sponsorship. Johnson makes much of this fact, quoting darkly from a State Department memo that admits to ulterior motives. A passage from the same memo that is quoted by another source (to which we will come momentarily) specifies the ulterior motives in question: namely, “to create good will and to contribute to greater mutual understanding between the Muslim peoples and the United States.”1 In other words, for the U.S. government the colloquium represented an exercise in what would today be called “public diplomacy.” Johnson does not mention the good will/mutual understanding passage.
The cia was also present at the colloquium, taking the opportunity to form assessments of the Muslim notables gathered in Princeton and Washington. There is no reason to assume that the agency’s analysts knew much about the young Muslim Brotherhood official Said Ramadan. Indeed, one cannot assume either that they had particularly clear ideas about the Muslim Brotherhood as such. To do otherwise is to engage in an anachronism. This was not America after 9/11. Titled “Facts about the Muslim Brotherhood,” Ramadan’s own contribution to the colloquium was obviously designed to address this relative information gap. Ramadan also gave an interview on the subject to the journal Middle East Report.
The cia’s assessment of Ramadan was harshly negative. “Ramadan was invited at the urging of the Egyptian embassy,” a cia report cited by Johnson notes. “He was the most difficult element at the colloquium as he was concerned with political pressure rather than with cultural problems.” The allusion to the role of the Egyptian embassy is interesting in itself. It indicates that Ramadan’s presence was not a product of American scheming, but a function rather of the contemporary vagaries of Egyptian politics. Gamal Abdel Nasser and his “Free Officers” had carried out a successful coup against King Farouk barely one year earlier, and the country’s new leadership was still attempting to establish a modus vivendi with the Brotherhood.
The conclusion of the author of the cia report leaves no room for ambiguity: “I felt that Ramadan was a political reactionary, a Phalangist or Fascist type.” This hardly sounds like the beginning of a beautiful relationship. Nonetheless, Johnson relativizes the importance of the cia assessment, suggesting that it merely shows that America’s alleged “ally” was “not going to be an easy one.” The more straightforward interpretation is that the cia analysts simply did not regard Ramadan as an ally at all.
In an even greater feat of legerdemain, in his post for the New York Review of Books Johnson goes so far as to cite the cia assessment as evidence of the Eisenhower administration’s Machiavellianism. “Eisenhower officials knew what they were doing,” he writes,
Central Intelligence Agency analyses of Said Ramadan were quite blunt, calling him a “Phalangist” and a “fascist” . . . But the White House went ahead and invited him anyway.
But, as Johnson’s own book makes clear, the cia analysts only came to these conclusions at the colloquium, not before.
In fact, virtually all of the few and fleeting contacts between Ramadan and American officials that Johnson cites suggest aversion, not attraction. But in Johnson’s account, all the manifest disaccord is trumped by a supposed American interest in recruiting Ramadan’s services in the fight against communism. This motive is, however, simply imputed by Johnson to American authorities. It is nowhere documented. Thus, Johnson notes that in 1956 Ramadan “met with American officials in Rabat, pressing home his demand that Jews be expelled from Palestine.” “These views made it impossible for Ramadan and the United States to cement a formal alliance,” Johnson dryly concedes, before quickly adding, “But the mutual attraction to fighting communism was obvious.” This grammatically slippery affirmation is, however, also a pure non sequitur.
Moreover, Johnson himself mentions clearly conflicting evidence. Thus, German foreign office archives contain a report that Ramadan sought financial backing for the mosque project from a Soviet Muslim functionary. Instead of admitting the difficulties that the report poses for his thesis, however, Johnson again merely puts it down to the “difficulties” of Ramadan’s personality. German foreign office records cited elsewhere2 suggest that Ramadan had much more contact with the Soviet mufti than Johnson acknowledges.
A seemingly more promising overture from Ramadan occurred in March 1960, when he wrote to the editor of a magazine titled the Arabic Review, “saying how much he enjoyed the magazine and offering to distribute it throughout the Arab-speaking world.” The Arabic Review was published by a Munich-based, anti-Communist organization that was covertly funded by the cia. Johnson describes the organization as a “cia front” and describes Ramadan’s letter as evidence of his “ideological sympathy with the American position.” Whether the letter is really that and not just evidence of a polite effort at networking is not clear. As we discover only in the back matter of Johnson’s book, the editor of the magazine was Ali Kantemir: another key player in the Munich mosque project and someone with whom Ramadan would have been in contact in any case.
But even assuming Ramadan’s letter is evidence of his eagerness to cooperate with the cia, its existence in fact poses an obvious problem for Johnson’s thesis — or rather it poses a problem especially on this assumption. For by 1960 Ramadan is supposed, on Johnson’s account, already to have been “working closely” with the cia. More specifically, Johnson insists that he was working with the cia-sponsored American Committee for Liberation from Bolshevism, or “amcomlib” for short. The “front organization” that published the Arabic Review was none other than amcomlib. (In the above-cited passage, Johnson refers to the Institute for the Study of the ussr. But the institute was an amcomlib project and elsewhere Johnson describes the magazine as simply “Amcomlib’s Arabic Review.”)
If Ramadan was already “working closely” with amcomlib and amcomlib was “backing” Ramadan, as Johnson repeatedly asserts, why would he have had to flag his interest in a letter to one of the committee’s publications? Adding to the opacity of the episode, although employed by amcomlib, Kantemir in fact had close ties to German intelligence and was part of the German-sponsored group that launched the mosque project. Indeed, as will be seen below, he would soon figure as Ramadan’s rival in the struggle to control the project.
Fortunately, there is another book available that tells the story of the same Munich mosque and is largely based on the same archival materials as those consulted by Johnson. Unfortunately, it is only available in German. Even the title of the volume, by German journalist Stefan Meining, is remarkably similar to that of Johnson’s book: “A Mosque in Germany: Nazis, Intelligence Services, and the Rise of Political Islam in the West.” This should not, however, lead one to doubt the originality of Meining’s contribution. It was Meining’s 2006 German television documentary “Between the Crescent and the Swastika” that first called attention to the significance of the Munich mosque project.
Johnson and Meining clearly compared notes during the writing of their books, and each receives warm thanks from the other in their respective acknowledgements. But the style of the two books could hardly be more different. Meining is careful to affirm only what the archival evidence warrants and no more. His claims are methodically documented in the book’s nearly nine hundred endnotes. By contrast, the problems engendered by Johnson’s tendency to play fast and loose with evidence are compounded by the lack of any note numbers in the text proper. This leaves the reader having to guess when a given claim might be supported by sources cited in the back matter. The effort is sometimes rewarded and sometimes not; and when it is, the actual sources frequently turn out to be interviews of dubious probative value.
Meining also touches upon the sketchy evidence of contacts between Ramadan and American officials. His conclusions regarding them are, however, decidedly less sensational than Johnson’s. As to whether Ramadan was somehow working with American authorities, Meining writes, “Up to now, no documents have been released or discovered in the American archives that answer this question.” Indeed, given that none of the available American evidence suggests that he was, a possible collaboration might as well have been a nonissue — were it not for the worries of a German intelligence operative by the name of Gerhard von Mende.
A dubious “star witness”
Von mende’s papers are in fact the ultimate source for Johnson’s conjectures. Indeed, Johnson’s whole narrative of alleged “collusion” between Ramadan and the cia is, in effect, told from von Mende’s perspective. This is remarkable for a number of reasons, not the least of which being that von Mende was a former high-ranking official of the Third Reich with a long record of commitment and service to the Nazi cause. The virtual entirety of his intelligence network consisted of former Nazis or Nazi collaborators. The members of the von Mende network are the Nazis mentioned in the title of Johnson’s book. It might come as a surprise to those who have not actually read the book that they figure as the “good guys” in the story Johnson tells.
Johnson even dedicates his book to the Nazi collaborators. The latter were Muslim natives of Central Asia and the Caucasus who were recruited by the Germans to fight against the Soviet Union and who found exile in West Germany after the War. In an unfortunate historical howler, Johnson claims that the Nazis were attracted to the Caucasus region, since “it was the mythic home of the Caucasian people, important in Nazi lore.” In fact, unlike “Aryans,” “Caucasians” played no particular role in Nazi lore and the attitude of the Nazis to them was, if anything, contemptuous.
This is reflected, for instance, in Nazi ideologue Alfred Rosenberg’s notorious racist tract The Myth of the 20th Century. “Caucasians” are mentioned only once in The Myth and in a clearly pejorative context. Alluding to a situation of “race chaos” in Russia, Rosenberg sarcastically observes that “it is no accident that Tatar-Kalmyks like Lenin, Jews like Trotsky, and Caucasians like Stalin alternately come to power here.”
In July 1941, one month after the invasion of the Soviet Union, Hitler appointed Rosenberg as Reich minister for the Occupied Eastern Territories. One of the key officials working under Rosenberg’s command was a certain Gerhard von Mende. As recounted by Meining, von Mende was in charge of the “foreign peoples” desk in the ministry. The designation referred to the non-Russian minorities whom the Nazis hoped to win to their cause. This was not a matter of sentimental attachment to “Caucasians” or any of the other “peoples” in question, but rather of military need. In keeping with the racial or ethnic-national (völkisch) fundament of the Nazi worldview, the foreign Wehrmacht recruits were organized along ethnic lines. For von Mende and his colleagues in the Eastern Ministry, Islam played only a subordinate role.
Before the war, von Mende had made an academic career as a specialist in the Soviet Union’s “national minorities.” Passages from his pre-War monograph The Peoples of the Soviet Union leave no doubt about the virulence of his anti-Semitism. Both Meining and Johnson cite such passages, but Johnson dismisses them — and many other compromising details of von Mende’s biography — as merely an expression of political expediency. Meining notes that propaganda material prepared “under von Mende’s direction” for the foreign Wehrmacht recruits was likewise rife with anti-Semitic incitement. “Now it is over for the Jews in Europe,” one such article exulted, “Germany is fighting a hard war against the Jews and will triumph. But Russia is still in the hands of the Hebrews.”
As Meining also notes, in January 1942, just nine days after the infamous Wannsee Conference, von Mende took part in a follow-up meeting in Berlin that had been called to establish the operational definition of “Jewishness” to be applied in the occupied territories of the Soviet Union. Over two million Soviet Jews would be massacred by the invading German forces and their foreign helpers in accordance with this definition.
In a rare misstep, Meining attempts somewhat to lessen von Mende’s war guilt by suggesting that he at least acted to save the members of an obscure Crimean Jewish community known as the Karaites or “mountain Jews.” But there is no reason to suppose anything other than that von Mende truly believed that, according to the Nazis’ preferred “racial” criteria, the so-called mountain Jews were not in fact Jews.
After the war, von Mende would gather around him in Germany many of the leading Central Asian collaborators from his days in the Eastern Ministry. Under his guidance, the “old soldiers,” as Johnson romantically dubs them, would form the original core of the Munich mosque project. They were not necessarily any less tainted by their involvement in the German war effort than their mentor. One of them, Nurredin Namangani, had been the imam of an “Eastern Muslim” ss-regiment that took part in the brutal suppression of the summer 1944 Warsaw uprising against the German occupation. Thirteen years later, on von Mende’s suggestion, Namangani was officially named the “Head Imam” of the Muslim refugees in West Germany.
The point of reviewing some of the details of von Mende’s career in the Third Reich is not merely to call into question the moral standing of Johnson’s “star witness.” Von Mende’s past is also of intrinsic significance. For if anti-Semitism was, of course, a salient feature of Nazi ideology from the start, anti-Americanism came to play an increasingly important role as Nazi Germany’s European and global ambitions brought it into conflict with the established world powers. After the war, in those parts of Germany that had been conquered by American troops and placed under occupation, the old Nazis’ traditional hostility toward America was, needless to say, now combined with a heavy dose of resentment.
This was, for instance, clearly the case for von Mende and the German government officials with whom he launched the project of creating an association of Muslim refugees under Namangani’s leadership. The German government sponsor of the project was the minister for Expellees and Refugees, Theodor Oberländer. Oberländer had been a longtime Nazi Party member and an officer in the Wehrmacht. As an official of the so-called Association of Germans Abroad, he had been a vigorous exponent of pan-Germanic ethnic chauvinism.3 (Contrary to the impression created by Johnson, he was by no means the only nor even the most prominent former Nazi in the West German government of the time.) As Meining notes, Oberländer made little secret of his hostility toward the victorious Allied powers and his revanchist political agenda.
A German government memorandum cited by Meining — but not mentioned by Johnson — makes clear that the very founding of the Muslim association was driven by hostility and mistrust toward the American presence in Germany. The memorandum summarizes the results of an April 1957 meeting at Oberländer’s ministry in Bonn. Both von Mende and his protégé Namangani took part. Oberländer was represented by Gerhard Wolfrum, a former officer in the ss.
Another Muslim Wehrmacht veteran by the name of Ibrahim Gacaoglu had already founded an Islamic “religious community” in Munich four years earlier. On Meining’s account, Gacaoglu was completely apolitical. He had, however, had contacts with amcomlib. For von Mende and his associates in the German government, there was the rub. The point of sponsoring a new Islamic association under Namangani’s leadership was to sideline Gacaoglu and his real or imagined American backers. The April 1957 memorandum states: “Herr Namangani has been given the mission of gathering the stateless Muslim foreigners and non-German refugees into a religious community, in order then, in the first place, to eliminate the undesirable American influence, which can become harmful to the Federal Republic . . . .”
It was this new Muslim association or “Spiritual Administration” that would give rise to the Munich mosque project. Given the context, it is not surprising that when an outsider, in the person of Said Ramadan, soon emerged to challenge the leadership of his “old soldiers,” von Mende might suspect American meddling. Ramadan’s local constituency consisted of young Arabs who had come to study in Germany. Meining cites evidence suggesting that the Arab students may in fact have been members of a Muslim Brotherhood cell.
Initially, the Central Asian war veterans appear to have had no particular objections to Ramadan. It undoubtedly helped that, as a prominent and well-connected Muslim internationalist, he clearly had money to throw around. As Meining recounts, upon being named an honorary member of the committee charged with developing the mosque project, Ramadan promptly made a 1,000 Deutschmark donation to the project on behalf of the Jerusalem-based Muslim World Congress. (Johnson says that he made the contribution before being elected to the position.) This occurred in December 1958. A little over one year later, in March 1960, Namangani, Ramadan, and a handful of partners founded a so-called Mosque Construction Commission. Said Ramadan was named the chairmen of the new organization.
For von Mende, it was enough that Ramadan had had contacts with amcomlib to set off warning bells. The fact that an amcomlib official suggested he speak to Ramadan only exacerbated his misgivings. “There it was again, von Mende’s old aversion to the Americans,” Meining writes in commenting on the earliest expressions of von Mende’s suspicions. The bulk of the record of von Mende’s ruminations on the subject of Ramadan is contained in his correspondence with the then newly formed West German foreign intelligence service, the bnd. If von Mende was not himself a bnd agent, it is clear that his intelligence network was, as Meining says, “closely integrated” with the bnd.
But, on Meining’s account, the von Mende-bnd correspondence contains at most “vague” and “contradictory” hints about Ramadan’s relations with American officials — nothing like the smoking gun proof of “collusion” that Johnson claims he has found. Indeed, despite his bnd contacts stirring the pot, not even von Mende himself was convinced that Ramadan was cooperating with American authorities. Thus, after being told, seemingly unequivocally, by the bnd that Ramadan had enjoyed American backing, von Mende responded skeptically, noting that it was “not clear” for “which American agency” Ramadan could be working.
Johnson spins the remark as confirmation that some such collaboration did exist: notably, per the narrative he tells, via amcomlib. But Meining reveals that in the very same letter von Mende insisted that amcomlib’s attitude toward Ramadan had been one of “complete rejection” (absolut abweisend). Von Mende was in a position to know. As detailed by Meining, he had several loyal informants working as amcomlib employees.
Germany and the Muslim Brotherhood
Meining’s book, moreover, at least cautiously broaches an obvious question that is simply ignored by Johnson: To what extent were German authorities — and, in particular, the bnd — cooperating with the Muslim Brotherhood? Might it not have been the Germans themselves who facilitated Ramadan’s takeover of the Munich mosque project? Given that we are, after all, talking about events that occurred on German soil and given that the project was, as Meining shows, closely managed by German authorities throughout, this is prima facie a far more plausible scenario than American responsibility.
By strangely opposing “good” Nazis to allegedly American-sponsored Islamists, however, the very narrative structure of Johnson’s account makes the more plausible scenario seem implausible. But the Nazis in fact had a history of close cooperation with Islamists.
This was not necessarily the case for von Mende. Von Mende and his comrades in the Eastern Ministry were true to National Socialism’s ethnic-national roots. In their eyes, the Muslim soldiers from Central Asia were, above all, ethnic “freedom fighters.” As both Meining and Johnson make clear, von Mende’s “old soldiers” were not even particularly religious as a rule. This would put them at a disadvantage to the pious Muslim Brother, Said Ramadan, in the struggle over the mosque project.
But not all Nazis were such ideological purists. As Meining recounts, by 1943, ss chief Heinrich Himmler had come around to the idea of organizing special Muslim ss divisions and was actively opposing the approach taken to the Central Asian recruits by von Mende. In his efforts to use Islam as such to win Muslims to the Nazi cause, Himmler received crucial support from the Mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin al-Husseini. By far the most famous or infamous Islamist collaborator of the Nazis, al-Husseini had already taken refuge in Berlin in 1941.
In his The Mufti of Jerusalem and the National Socialists, German historian Klaus Gensicke describes how Himmler and the Mufti agreed on a program of “ideological education” for the Muslim ss recruits. The program fused National Socialism and Islam, “while emphasizing the common enemies (Jewry, Anglo-Americanism, Communism, Freemasonry, Catholicism).”4 As Gensicke’s research makes clear, although he may have been unhappy about the Mufti’s influence, even von Mende conferred with him.
After the War, al-Husseini would abscond to Egypt, where he joined forces with the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, Hassan al-Banna. Al-Banna even named al-Husseini as his personal representative to Palestine, where the Brotherhood was at the time opening local branches. The measure was largely symbolic, since the Mufti was banned by the British from actually returning to the region. As Abd al-Fattah Muhammad El-Awaisi has shown in his The Muslim Brothers and the Palestine Question, the task of developing the Brotherhood’s Palestinian operations on the ground was undertaken rather by a youthful follower of al-Banna: a certain Said Ramadan. Al-Banna instructed Ramadan to consult with al-Husseini, “in order that no disagreement would arise.”
Starting in 1949 and for several years thereafter, al-Husseini would preside over the World Islamic Congress in Karachi, Pakistan. One of the leading lights among the relatively small circle of delegates to the congress was none other than Said Ramadan. (Ramadan’s involvement in the World Islamic Congress is detailed in Reinhard Schulze’s Islamischer Internationalismus im 20. Jahrhundert. The organization is not to be confused with the Muslim World Congress that was later founded in Jerusalem.)
Why did Said Ramadan turn up seemingly out of the blue in Germany in the mid-1950s? Having been stripped of his Egyptian citizenship, he was by this time living in exile in Geneva. The ostensible reason for his coming to Germany was a dissertation project on “Islamic law.” He would submit the thesis to the University of Cologne in 1958. But Ramadan spoke no German and he appears never to have established residency in Germany. The thesis was written in English. During its composition, Ramadan would communicate with his thesis director by mail from various far-flung locations in the Middle East and Europe. Along the line, he managed also to pick up a diplomatic credential as cultural attaché to the Jordanian embassy in Bonn.
If not von Mende, who made no secret of his hostility, did other German officials sponsor Ramadan’s leadership over the mosque project? A curious detail that Johnson mentions, but treats as yet another anomaly, suggests that the answer is yes.
By early 1961, the war veterans had grown tired of Ramadan and were plotting to dislodge him from the chairmanship of the Mosque Construction Commission. The plan was to replace him with Ali Kantemir. At a meeting of the commission in November, the veterans’ efforts appeared to have borne fruit when Ramadan was compelled to tender his resignation and then face off against Kantemir in an election. Kantemir won by two votes. Ramadan was reportedly irate, but appeared to have no recourse — until, that is, a “sharp-eyed German bureaucrat,” as Johnson puts it, brought to his attention that the chairman had to be elected by a two-thirds majority, not a simple one.
German officialdom had saved Ramadan. The very fact that German officials were monitoring the proceedings of the commission — and could indeed affect them in the way described — provides an index of just how thoroughly the mosque project was subjected to German control. It would be interesting to know more about the origins of the odd two-thirds rule. Given that membership of the commission was by design evenly split between Central Asian veterans and Arab students, it essentially meant the former would never be able to oust Ramadan from the chairmanship. The arrangement is all the more curious, given that Ramadan appears to have been appointed to the position without any vote.
In early 1962, recognizing their defeat, the war veterans resigned from the commission en masse. Under Ramadan’s guidance, the organization would thereafter be transformed from a mere building commission into a full-fledged Islamic association in its own right. Reflecting this change, in 1963 it was renamed the “Islamic Community in Southern Germany.” In the 1980s, it would become the Islamic Community in Germany tout court, by which time it enjoyed tax-exempt status as a “charitable organization.” As Meining shows, despite the name, it would remain an exclusive organization with highly restricted membership.
Might German holdovers from Himmler’s and al-Husseini’s Nazi-Islamist alliance have aided Ramadan’s transformation of the commission into a vector of political Islam? Meining suggests that there were none around to do so. “On the German side, no notable representative of this pan-Islamist strategy survived the War and returned to politics,” he writes. Meining alludes to the fact that the Allies had declared the ss as such to be a criminal organization, as if this would have constituted a hindrance. But his observation is overly sanguine. His own account of the Munich mosque project is liberally populated with former ss officers who made political careers in West Germany after the War.
Moreover, since the publication of Meining’s book, new information has emerged that clearly disproves the claim. In September of last year, it was revealed that no less an ss criminal than Walther Rauff was employed as a bnd agent from 1958 to 1962 — as it so happens, the very period in which the main action of the Munich mosque drama was being played out. Rauff is known, above all, for having supervised the development and deployment of the so-called “mobile gas chambers”: converted vans in which hundreds of thousands of Jews were murdered by the Nazi regime in the early stages of the Holocaust.
More to the point, Rauff was also very much a key figure in Himmler’s Arab-Islamist strategy. As has been documented by German historians Klaus-Michael Mallmann and Martin Cüppers in their book Nazi Palestine, it was none other than Rauff who was selected to head the so-called “Commando Group Egypt”: an ss kill squad that was specially formed in order to implement the “Final Solution” in the Middle East. The defeat of Rommel’s forces at El Alamein prevented Rauff’s commando from ever fulfilling its brief.
After the War, Rauff fled to Syria and then to Latin America. He was living in Chile when employed by the bnd. But he is known to have made at least two trips to West Germany during this time.
But that is not all. The bnd agent who recommended Rauff to the agency, Wilhelm Beisner, was also a former member of the ss and he had, if anything, played an even more important role in the Arab-Islamist policy of the Third Reich. Beisner was one of Rauff’s lieutenants in the Commando Group Egypt. Whereas, however, Rauff had presumably been chosen for the job on the basis of his track record in killing Jews, Beisner, as Mallmann and Cüppers have shown, was assigned to the commando on account of his “proven expertise on the Middle East.” Prior to receiving the assignment, he had been the head of the “Special Section Arabia” in the Reich Main Security Office (a subdivision of the ss). Beisner’s deputy, Hans-Joachim Weise, served as the office’s liaison to Haj Amin al-Husseini and was responsible for the Mufti’s security.
We will almost surely never know just how many former ss officers were employed by the bnd nor — more importantly, for present purposes — just who they were. In what is becoming something of a tradition in Germany, last year the bnd itself set up a so-called Independent Commission to study its early history and links to the Third Reich. As was only recently revealed, however, in 2007 the agency destroyed some 250 personnel files relating to the period in question. The destruction of the files was only admitted by the agency after members of the historical commission discovered that records were missing. According to German press reports, among the files known to have been destroyed are those of persons who held “significant” positions in the Third Reich, including in the ss and the Gestapo.
Johnson repeatedly makes coy allusion to still classified cia files and confirmation of American “collusion” with Ramadan and the Brotherhood that may be lurking in them. He shows no such curiosity regarding bnd archives. Nonetheless, on Meining’s count, the authors had access to “many hundreds” of pertinent cia files. They appear to have consulted no bnd files whatsoever.
This is hardly surprising given Germany’s notoriously arbitrary and restrictive practice of declassification of government records. The cia files consulted by Meining and Johnson were made available following a request under the Freedom of Information Act. As historian Michael Wildt of Berlin’s Humboldt University has pointed out in criticizing the bnd’s handling of historical records, there is no German equivalent of the act. In 2008, the German Interior Ministry suspended the application of an administrative order that had aimed to liberalize the declassification of government records more than 30 years old. The move prompted the German Historians Association to accuse the government of “falling behind international standards” and failing to uphold practices “that should be self-evident in a democratic society.”
The scattered traces of bnd involvement that turn up in Johnson’s telling of the Munich mosque story all come from the correspondence contained in von Mende’s papers. Meining, however, has been more enterprising. While the bnd’s archives are closely guarded, the same is not, of course, the case for those of its since-dissolved East German rival, the Ministry for State Security or “Stasi.” The Stasi, moreover, appears to have been quite adept at obtaining classified West German materials.
In the Stasi archives, Meining has discovered evidence that by the early 1980s there indeed existed “an alliance between West German intelligence agencies and the Muslim Brotherhood.” Meining emphasizes that the evidence in the East German archives needs to be corroborated through consultation of the “corresponding West German records.” The latter, however, remain classified.
Although Meining mentions Afghanistan in this connection, the bulk of the specific information that he cites concerns rather Syria. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, the Syrian regime of Hafez al-Assad was facing a Muslim Brotherhood-inspired Islamist insurrection bearing striking similarities to the current insurrection against the rule of his son Bashir. Syrian authorities evidently suspected Syrian exiles in Germany of fomenting the unrest — and West German officials of helping them. A captured member of the Syrian branch of the Brotherhood even accused West Germany of financing the organization. The Syrians were particularly concerned about the activities of a certain Issam El-Attar: an Aachen-based political refugee whom Germany’s own domestic intelligence identified as “the leader of the Muslim Brotherhood in Syria.” El-Attar was a member of the tightly-knit Islamic Community founded by Said Ramadan.
Meining calls the question of possible collaboration between West German intelligence and the Brotherhood “explosive.” It is all the more so given the remarkable number of major Islamic terror attacks that have been linked to Germany. These include not only the 9/11 attacks, but also the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, the 2002 Djerba synagogue bombing, the 2002 Bali bombings, and the 2004 Madrid train bombings.5
In touching briefly upon the case of the Hamburg resident and reputed al Qaeda financier Mamoun Darkazanli, Johnson downplays Darkazanli’s terror ties, noting that he has never faced prosecution. He fails to mention that this is only because Germany has refused to extradite him. Darkazanli is the object of a 2005 Spanish indictment that identifies him as “the permanent interlocutor and assistant of Osama bin Laden in Germany.” Indeed, German prosecutors have themselves found that Darkazanli served as an agent for al Qaeda, but they have somehow concluded that this is not sufficient grounds for bringing charges against him.
Appearances to the contrary notwithstanding, Johnson, incidentally, suggests that the current American rapprochement with the Brotherhood began in fact already under the Bush administration. His evidence for this claim is as tenuous as his evidence for America’s alleged “collusion” with the Brotherhood 50 years ago. It includes two unpublished cia reports whose titles suggest nothing more than the sort of assessments cia analysts are, after all, paid to do. The most recent of the reports, for instance, is titled “Muslim Brotherhood Rhetoric in Europe: Deception, Division, or Confusion?”
The most well-known and obvious countervailing evidence is, of course, the Bush administration’s highly publicized refusal to grant a visa to the Brotherhood-linked Muslim intellectual Tariq Ramadan. Tariq is Said Ramadan’s son. As with so much else that does not fit his narrative, Johnson dismisses this refusal as an anomaly or, as he puts it, “largely a rearguard action.” Despite being roundly criticized for years by self-styled civil libertarians, the administration persisted in this supposed “rearguard action” until the very end. The Obama administration overturned the policy.
In order to provide English-speakers a more complete and balanced account of the Munich mosque project and its ramifications, an American publisher would do well to bring out an English edition of Meining’s volume. Another significant aspect of the story that is obscured by Johnson’s “American plot” narrative is the leading role played by a whole series of German Muslim converts in the history of the Islamic Community. The converts and their biographies receive detailed attention in Meining’s treatment.
They include, for instance, Fatima Grimm, who, beginning in 1971, served as the secretary of the Islamic Community’s board of directors. A prolific writer on Islamic issues, in her pamphlet on “The Education of Our Children,” Grimm encouraged Muslim mothers to overcome their maternal instincts and be prepared to sacrifice their children in the service of jihad. Fatima Grimm, née Helga Lili Wolff, is the daughter of none other than ss General Karl Wolff, who served for many years as Himmler’s chief of staff. Mallmann and Cüppers have shown that Wolff was involved in the decision to deploy Walther Rauff’s Middle East kill squad, the “Commando Group Egypt.” After the war, Wolff was found guilty by a German court of complicity in the murder of some 300,000 Jews. Despite the conviction, he served barely four years in prison. Meining notes that shortly before his death in 1984, he followed the example of his daughter and converted to Islam.
We will undoubtedly not know the full story of the Munich mosque project and the creation of a German base for Islamic extremism until all the relevant German government records are made available, including those of the bnd. But that is not likely to happen anytime soon, if indeed ever.
1. Quoted in Stefan Meining, Eine Moschee in Deutschland: Nazis, Geheimdienste und der Aufstieg des politischen Islam im Westen (C.H. Beck, 2011), 132. (Re-translated from German.)
2. Meining, Eine Moschee in Deutschland, 130.
3. The details of Oberländer’s career in the Third Reich are documented in W. von Goldendach and H.R. Minow, “Deutschtum Erwache!” Aus dem Innenleben des staatlichen Pangermanismus (Dietz Verlag, 1994).
4. Klaus Gensicke, Der Mufti von Jerusalem und die Nationalsozialisten (Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft,2007), 115. Gensicke’s book is now also available in English as The Mufti of Jerusalem and the Nazis (Vallentine Mitchell, 2011).
5 For relevant details, see John Rosenthal, “Kid-Gloves Antiterrorism,” Policy Review 156 (August-September 2009); and John Rosenthal, “Germany’s War on the War on Terror,” Weekly Standard (March 29, 2010).