Comments: Antecedents?

The idea that the entire Muslim population of the North Caucasus were Nazi collaborators and therefore deserved mass deportation and murder is pretty libellous. Sebastian Smith (in his book "Allah's Mountains: Politics and War in the Russian Caucasus") writes:

"The Germans, whose main target was Azerbaijan's oil industry, briefly occupied the region before being driven out. No one disputes that the Nazis could, or at least planned, to form local, anti-Soviet units, just as they did in other fringes of the USSR. Given the brutal history of the North Caucasus, it is hardly surprising the Germans would find collaborators. The average Chechen or Balkar was hardly likely to be loyal to a government that had outlawed his culture, taken his lands and sent the NKVD secret police to repress his leaders. Many ordinary people were no doubt secretly pleased to see the Germans, or anyone else, attack the Soviets.

"Neither is it disputed that some in the North Caucasus, quite independently of the Germans, took advantage of the upheaval to attack the Soviet authorities in the same way their forefathers had attacked the Russians for generations. For example, a major insurrection was launched in the mountains of Chechnya in 1940. It was suppressed, as usual, with considerable violence, including aerial bombing. But this was long before fascist soldiers came anywhere near the Caucasus and -it must be stressed- German soldiers never set foot in Chechnya. [Also, in 1940, the USSR, far from being at war with Nazi Germany, was its ally- JC]

"Beyond [a] ragtag collection of incidents, little different from the rebellious pattern of the past, there was nothing to indict the highlanders. The timing [of the 1943-4 deportations] alone - troops had already left the region when the deportations took place - contradicts the claim that this was to prevent unloyal populations from aiding the enemy.

[Smith then lists the large number of North Caucasians who won Hero of the Soviet Union medals fighting the Nazis during WWII]

"Right up until the deportations, Soviet propaganda lauded the North Caucasians' contribution to the war effort, saying the Chechens, Ingush, Karachai and Balkars were model Soviet citizens [...]"

The real reason for the deportations has never been fully established, but the most likely explanation is that Stalin wanted to deal with potentially mutinous populations before attacking and carving a chunk out of northern Turkey (fortunately for the Turks, they joined the Allies before he could strike). In any case, if we are talking about collaboration with the Nazis by Soviet citizens, then in the light of the Moltov-Ribbentrop Pact, Stalin should have been the first in the queue to be deported to Central Asia...

Posted by J.Cassian at September 19, 2004 05:00 AM

Also, Netwar quotes figures for North Caucasian collaboration with Hitler from "Soviet Opposition to Stalin". The only book I can find of that name mentioned on the Net is by George Fischer. It is now out of print and was published way back in 1952 (i.e. when Stalin was still alive). It would be interesting to know the provenance of those figures. Something tells me they would no longer stand up.

Posted by J.Cassian at September 19, 2004 05:16 AM

Well, most of the data for the piece comes from the essay “Russian Volunteers in the German Wehrmacht in WWII” by by Lt. Gen Wladyslaw Anders and Antonio Munoz. I have downloaded a PDF version to keep it and you can have it at: Volunteers.pdf.

The reference to the book ‘Soviet Opposition to Stalin’ is theirs and I really felt their description of the German army during WW2 was quite accurate, but then I run several google search to cross-check and found several sources coinciding. I read many sources, but the most comprehensive were about the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, on whom there were many docs, roughly saying the same things.

When it comes to the Handchar division, I find now some diverging texts. The most comprehensive seems to be one from the same site that has the “Russian Vounteers”n doc is at

Here are some excerps:

“The province Croatia) was an ethnic and religious mix, with a portion of the population being Catholic Croatian, a portion being Orthodox Serbian, and a portion being Croatians of the Muslim faith. It was these Muslim inhabitants of Bosnia that Himmler and the SS would target in their recruitment of a Croatian SS Division (although a portion of the future division's men would be Catholic Croatian as well). [Ustashi? (my comment)]

The reasons for the recruitment in particular of Croatian Muslims by the SS were many-fold. For one, Himmler was fascinated by the Islamic faith, and thought Muslims to be fearless soldiers. Himmler also subscribed to the propaganda theory that Croatians (and therefore the Croatian Muslims) were not, in fact, Slavic people, but actually of Aryan (Gothic) descent, and thereby acceptable to the racially "pure" SS. The fact that this ludicrous theory would not hold up to any kind of serious scrutiny was conveniently ignored. Finally, the Germans were hoping to rally the World's 350 million Muslims to their side, in a struggle against the British Empire. The creation of a Muslim, albeit European Muslim Division, was considered a stepping stone to this greater end.

Adolf Hitler approved of Himmler's idea on February 13th 1943. Prior to the formation of the division, however, approval also had to be granted by the Croatian government, as their citizens were to be recruited, and on Croatian territory. The Croatian Poglavnik, Ante Pavelic, and his ministers had many problems with the idea, but eventually agreed to the division's creation on March 5th 1943. The divisional strength reached the required 26,000 men by mid 1943, though not all men were volunteers (some being begged, bribed and outright kidnapped into service). Also, 2,800 of the men were Catholic Croatians and not Muslim.

The new division was assigned the number "13", and originally named the "13 SS Frei.Gebirgs Division (kroatien). The full name "13 Waffen-Gebirgs-Division der SS 'Handschar' (kroatische Nr. 1)" was not given until May, 1944. A "Handschar" (or Handzar in Croatian) is curved Turkish sword - the Scimitar. This sword has historically been the symbol of Bosnia. The Division was to have 2 Infantry Regiments (Waffen-Gebirgs-Jager Regiments der SS 27 & 28 - kroatisches Nrs. 1 & 2), an Artillery Regiment (SS-Gebirgs-Artillerie Regiment 13), a Reconnaisance Company, a Panzerjager Company, a Flak Company, a Pioneer Battalion, and other support units; and was designated an SS "mountain" division. The first commander (from March 9, 1943 till August 1, 1943) was SS Standartenfuhrer Herbert von Obwurzer. Oberfuhrer (later Brigadefuhrer) Karl-Gustav Sauberzweig took over till June 1st 1944, when Desiderius Hampel (Oberfuhrer, later Brigadefuhrer) replaced him. Hampel commanded the remnants of the division until its surrender on May 8th 1945.

The uniform worn by the division was regular SS issue, with a divisional collar patch showing an arm, holding a Scimitar, over a Swastika.

Headgear was the Muslim Fez, in field grey (normal service) or red ("walking out"), with the SS eagle and death's head emblazoned.

The division departed for training in occupied France, where the full complement arrived by September 1943. It was at Villefranche, during this period of training, that the division became the only SS Division to mutiny. Much has been made of this, however, while it is true that some German officers were killed during the mutiny, the fact is that only very few soldiers participated in the uprising. Fault can be squarely placed on 3 Communists, infiltrated into the ranks of the division, and a handfull of malcontents. Not only did a great majority of the troops not participate in the rebellion, but most either had no idea it was happening, or actively helped to quash it. 14 soldiers were executed as mutineers.

Some successes were achieved, and overall the "Handschar" showed itself as a competent anti-guerilla unit.

With the penetration of the Red Army up to the Croatian borders in late 1944, the Division was trasfered to southern Hungary, and became involved in front-line fighting. Desertions plagued the Division from this point on, as many of the Muslims decided to return to Bosnia to protect their homes and families. The men who remained continued to fight valiantly against overwhelming odds, and were slowly pushed westward out of Hungary into Austria. The remnants of the division surrendered to British troops on May 8th 1945.

In conclusion, one must say that the "Handschar" Division was certainly not a top-of-the line, elite SS unit. However, when engaged in the areas and battles its men were promised to fight in (that is, in Bosnia, against Communist forces) the division fought well. Certainly, the majority of claims in much of the WW2 literature that the "Handschar" was "bad, prone to attrocities" etc, as claims by authors who have not studied the subject fully, but rather parrot one another without proper research. Men of the "Handschar" won 5 Knight's Crosses, 5 Crosses in Gold, and 1 Cross in Silver.

Posted by Juan A. Hervada at September 19, 2004 05:36 PM


The idea that the entire Muslim population of the North Caucasus were Nazi collaborators and therefore deserved mass deportation and murder is pretty libellous.

I really don’t mean that “the entire Muslim population were Nazi collaborators”, much less that they “deserved deportation and murder”.

In fact, my personal feeling is that many Muslims felt some sympathy for the nazi regime for two reasons:
a) It was rabidly anti-Jewish
b) Iy was perceived as the main enemy of the three imperial powers who colonized former Ottoman territories: (Soviet) Russia, Britain and France.

The reasons why the Grand Mufti chose to collaborate with them seem to have been very exactly those.

Of course, Muslims were far from alone in having those feelings at the time. A very sizable share of the French population supported the Vichy collaborator regime. Scores of volunteers from throughout Western Europe volunteered to fight with the nazis…

But the fact that a portion of the Flemish supported them doesn’t allow us to call the Flemish (or the Croats or Ukrainians, etc.) nazi sympathizers or collaborators.

Posted by Juan A. Hervada at September 19, 2004 05:57 PM

Well, I can't speak to the Muslims of the Caucasus, but in Bosnia, it was the Ustase -- ethnic Croats -- who rounded and killed the Jews (approx. 12,000 of some 14,000 Bosnian Jews were murdered by the Ustase during the war).

I suspect that the anti-Semitism of the Nazis was particularly appealing to the Catholic Croats, who were far more involved in Nazi barbarity than any Muslim European population.

Incidentally, one point Bernard Lewis and others have made is that anti-semitism of the European pattern was something unknown to Muslims for most of their history. The Jews did not represent an eschatological threat to the Ummah -- they were, on the contrary, a subject minority among many subject minorities. Again, tracing the transmission of European anti-Semitism to various Muslim states would be the subject of another lengthy post in its own right...

Posted by Bill at September 20, 2004 12:33 AM

P.S. -- I was just mentioning Catholicism in the above post to make a point. I don't think you can generalize about Catholics or Catholicism by noting that some Croatians joined the Ustase and slaughtered Jews. I would say that if one is going to look into history, there's a hell of a lot more to turn your stomach about the history of Catholic-Jewish relations than there is in Islam.

Posted by Bill at September 20, 2004 12:36 AM


Posted by Ed sulivan at October 15, 2004 01:47 AM