Amid the growing controversy over reports of French assistance to fugitive Iraqi war criminals, it is worth recalling a similar episode involving a prominent Palestinian Arab war criminal shortly after World War II.
Haj Amin el-Husseini, better known as the Mufti of Jerusalem, was the most senior Islamic religious authority of the Arabs in British-controlled Palestine, as well as their most prominent political leader. He had instigated mass violence against Jews in Palestine during the 1920s and 1930s, and then fled British justice to Baghdad, where he took part in the short-lived pro-Nazi coup in 1941. From there he traveled to Berlin, where he was welcomed by Hitler, with whom he had had ties since the Nazis’ rise to power in 1933.
The Mufti and his aides were put on the Nazis’ payroll and provided with offices and living quarters for the duration of the war. From Germany, he made fiery anti-Jewish radio broadcasts to the Arab world, helped develop an Arab Legion of the German Army, mobilized Soviet Muslims to fight alongside the Nazis, and organized Arab sabotage squads which were parachuted into the Mideast to attack Allied facilities (and which nearly succeeded in carrying out one of the Mufti’s pet schemes — dumping large quantities of German chemical poison into the Tel Aviv water system).
Husseini also repeatedly interfered with negotiations for the ransoming of Jewish refugees from Nazi territory. In one case, his objections persuaded the Nazis to reject a proposed exchange of 4,000 Jewish children for German POWs held by the British. Instead of being placed on a train to freedom, the children were sent to Auschwitz.
The Mufti also recruited Bosnian Muslims for an all-Muslim unit of the SS called the “Handschar” division, which committed so many atrocities that 38 of its officers were later tried as war criminals. In July 1945, Husseini himself was indicted for war crimes by the Yugoslavian government.
In the meantime, however, the Mufti had fled Berlin and crossed the border into Switzerland. The Swiss, mindful of Allied warnings against harboring war criminals, refused to grant Husseini asylum and instead handed him over to the French, who sent him to a comfortable villa in a suburb of Paris.
Although the Mufti was a citizen of a British-administered territory, the British, fearful of angering Arab opinion, refrained from asking France to extradite him. The French, equally concerned about their relations with the Arab world, announced that Husseini “was not under any confinement or house arrest of any kind” and was “free to come and go as he wishes.”
According to a series of investigative reports in the New York Post that spring by Pulitzer prize-winning correspondent Edgar Ansel Mowrer, the Mufti was receiving “privileged treatment” because, according to a French official, “Custom demands such treatment for the head of a great Arab community.” Husseini was served by a chauffeur, bodyguards, and a personal secretary, and was often seen strolling freely through the streets of Paris.
As the months wore on, the question of what to do with the Mufti became a political hot potato. During the spring of 1946, Mowrer authored a series of articles documenting the Mufti’s war crimes. The reports prompted protests by both members of Congress and U.S. Jewish organizations. In April, the American Jewish Conference (representing 63 Jewish groups) asked the French to surrender Husseini for prosecution by the Allies’ military tribunal at Nuremberg.
On May 28 of that year, as the international controversy over the Mufti’s war crimes was reaching its peak, Husseini boarded a TWA flight in Paris and flew to Cairo, where the Egyptian government granted him asylum. Ten days later, the French government announced that the Mufti had “escaped.” Critics found it hard to believe that Husseini could have left without the approval of the French authorities — who in any case had made the “escape” possible by refusing to imprison the Mufti throughout his yearlong stay in their country.
The French, who were suspected of helping the Mufti flee from justice in 1946, now are suspected of having helped Iraqi war criminals escape American forces last month. A Bush administration official has been quoted as saying of the recent French action: “It’s like Raoul Wallenberg in reverse,” referring to the U.S.-financed Swedish diplomat who helped Jews escape the Nazis: “Now you have the French helping the bad guys escape from us.”
— Rafael Medoff is director of the David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies, which focuses on issues relating to America’s response to the Holocaust.