I saw a report in the Independent last week that Israel's ultra-nationalist Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman has ordered Israeli embassies to use a photo of a meeting in 1941 between Adolf Hitler and the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, Mohammad Amin al-Husayni, to counter international criticism over a planned Jewish settlement in Arab east Jerusalem. The plan to build apartments for Jewish settlers on the site of the former Shepherd's Hotel, once owned by al-Husayni, has attracted criticism from the US State Department, who summoned the Israeli ambassador in Washington to demand that the project be halted. Agence France-Presse reported an anonymous Foreign Ministry official saying that the distribution of the photo was to “prove a well-known point that the mufti collaborated with Hitler."
All of which brought to mind three things: the Indian nationalist leader Subhas Chandra Bose, how history is always written by the victors – and that if you believe that your enemy’s enemy must be your friend, then inevitably you’ll be judged by the friends that you keep.
Let me explain. This evening, there is a meeting on Subhas Chandra Bose at the Indian High Commission’s Nehru Centre, with speakers including Ealing Southall MP Virendra Sharma. I was alerted to it by a Facebook announcement that describes Bose as a ‘Bengal Resistance Hero’, which is how he is popularly seen in India. But he also shares something in common with al-Husayni: accusations of collaboration with fascism and photographic evidence of a meeting with Hitler.
Now there are clear but obvious differences between Bose and al-Husayni. The latter was undoubtedly an anti-Semite who actively supported the Axis powers and has been implicated, particularly by Israel, in direct involvement in the Holocaust. Subhas Chandra Bose was a secular socialist, a rising star of the Indian liberation movement of the 1930s, who believed he could use Nazi Germany’s support to push forward independence from Britain whilst largely ignoring the fact that Germany had its own strategic and territorial ambitions for his country.
But there are also similarities. Both were nationalists born into privilege in 1897. Both cut their political teeth in opposition to British colonialism. Both escaped imprisonment in the early part of the Second World War and both eventually ended up in Germany. And both collaborated with the Axis powers. In 1942, according to Israeli historians, al-Husayni helped to organise the "Arabisches Freiheitkorps," an Arab Legion in the German Army that fought on the Russian front. Bose set up, with the help of the German Foreign Ministry, the "Free India Legion", which as a BBC Radio 4 Document programme broadcast in 2004 revealed, eventually served in Holland and France and were drafted into Himmler's Waffen SS. A former recruit described the oath sworn by members as follows: “"I swear by God this holy oath that I will obey the leader of the German race and state, Adolf Hitler, as the commander of the German armed forces in the fight for India, whose leader is Subhas Chandra Bose." Moreover, Bose had what can be described, at best, as an ambivalent attitude towards the treatment of prisoners by his Japanese allies and was powerless to prevent atrocities by Japanese troops in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, which were nominally under the control of his Azad Hind government-in-exile.
Yet Bose is remembered as a hero, honoured at an Indian government cultural centre in London, his collaboration forgotten, whilst al-Husayni’s name is used in propaganda as an embodiment of evil. Could this be because India were winners in the collapse of Britain’s empire, whilst the Palestinians most definitely were not, and that the history of both collaborators has been written, even manipulated, by the victors?
Al-Husayni undoubtedly provides Israel with a counter, evidently a useful one at that, to the protest made by Palestinians that they should not be forced to pay for the crimes of the Holocaust. He seems to offer evidence of Palestinian complicity in the murder of Europe’s Jews and, as Avigdor Lieberman’s actions show, this is a point that will be hammered home again and again. The historian Peter Novick has pointed out that in the Encyclopaedia of the Holocaust, the article on al-Husayni is “more than twice as long as the articles on Goebbels and Goering, longer than the articles on Himmler and Heydrich combined, longer than the article on Eichmann - of all the biographical articles, it is exceeded in length, but only slightly, by the entry for Hitler.”
And it continues to this day: the Jerusalem Post quotes a remarkably frank Israeli professor – one who claims to be from the centre-Left – who told them, “It is our right to say [to the world], 'Guys, look who are the friends of those who claim right to Jerusalem. This is called guilt by association'… But if you are talking about propaganda it has to be for the masses, and not only politically correct. I want the whole world to know that they cooperated with the Nazis to kill Jews, and we need to defend ourselves not only in Jerusalem but everywhere else."
Victor’s propaganda really does explain why al-Husayni’s shameful collaboration has been circulated worldwide whilst Bose’s own dishonourable associations are brushed aside. It’s may be a crude attempt to deny all Palestinian rights in Jerusalem by implying collective guilt for Nazi crimes, but it is effective precisely because al-Husayni was a senior cleric, a representative of Palestinian Arabs in the 1930s and 1940s, and photos are a powerful and emotionally charged weapon. Equally, whilst hindsight can be convenient for making judgements about people's actions, it's hard to accept that those who collaborated with the Nazis were ignorant about the true nature of the regime they made an alliance with. The fact is that, driven by their own priorities, they chose to ignore the truth.
Moreover if, as many nationalists decided, the ends justify the means and yet you end up powerless to control history’s narrative, then you can hardly complain if your reputation is judged by the friends that you keep. Another example - at the beginning of July another nationalist who worked with Nazi Germany, this time the IRA leader Seán Russell, made the news in Dublin because his statue was defaced with slogans saying “Hitler’s friend” and “nazi scum”. In common with Bose and al-Husayni, Russell is alleged to have discussed with the German Foreign Ministry the idea of raising an "Irish Brigade" from Irish prisoners of war captured fighting for the British.
Choosing allies wisely is important, but it’s a lesson that is not always learned. I’ve written before about the dubious choice of allies made by sections of the Left who were driven by their own priorities in the anti-war movement, about the failure to provide a critique of some of the actions of these allies, about the damage caused by the prominence of the “We Are All Hizbollah” banners on demonstrations and George Galloway’s glorification of the leader of Hizbollah, Sheikh Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah. These things matter because of the ammunition it provides, because individual actions can be used to denigrate entire movements.
And few ever get off as lightly as Subhas Chandra Bose.