13th Waffen Mountain Division of the SS Handschar (1st Croatian)
The 13th Waffen Mountain Division of the SS Handschar (1st Croatian) was one of the thirty-eight divisions fielded as part of the Waffen-SS during World War II. It was the largest of the SS divisions, with 21,065 men at its peak, composed almost entirely of non-German Muslim and Catholic recruits drawn from Bosnia. Handschar (Bosnian/Croatian: Handžar) was the local word for the Turkish scimitar (Arabic: Khanjar خنجر), a historical symbol of Bosnia and Islam. An image of the Handschar adorned the division's flag and coat of arms.
The Handschar division was a mountain infantry formation, known by the Germans as "Gebirgsjäger". It was used to conduct operations against Yugoslav Partisans in the Balkan Mountains from February to September 1944.
After the fall of Sarajevo on 16 April 1941 to Germany, and at the Yugoslav provinces of Croatia, Bosnia, Herzegovina and parts of Serbia were recreated as a pro-German satellite state, Independent State of Croatia (Nezavisna Država Hrvatska or NDH). Croat-nacionalist, Ante Pavelić was appointed leader.
On July 6, 1941, Pavelic's Culture and Education Minister, Mile Budak, announced that the Ustase considered the Bosnian Moslem as an integral part of the NDH: "The Croatian State is Christian. It is also a Moslem State where our people are of the Mohammedan religion." Pavelić ordered the construction of a mosque: the Poglavniks Mosque (after his official title) in his efforts to secure the loyalty of the Bosnian Moslems.
Bosnian Muslim clerics issued three declarations (fatawa), all publicly denouncing Croat-NSDAP collaborationist measures against Jews and Serbs: that of Sarajevo in October 1941, of Mostar in 1941, and of Banja Luka on November 12, 1941.
Despite Pavelic's assurances of equality, it wasn't long before many Bosniaks became dissatisfied with Croatian rule. An Islamic leader reported that not one Muslim occupied an influential post in the (local) administration. Fierce fighting broke out between Ustase and Partisan groups. A number of Ustase units believed the Bosniaks to be communist sympathizers, and burned their villages and murdered civilians.
By the New Year of 1943, over 100,000 Muslims had been killed (9% of Bosniaks at the time) and 250,000 were refugees. "The Muslims" remarked one German General, "bear the special status of being persecuted by all others", from '"Himmler's Bosnian Division" by Georg Lepre, p15-16.
In the Bosniak Partisans, Himmler observed a fanatical, blind obedience, and fighters who would sacrifice in the name of religious or ideological belief. He thought that Muslim men would make perfect SS soldiers, as Islam "promises them Heaven if they fight and are killed in action.". Himmler was inspired by the success of Bosnian infantry regiments in WWI.
Georges Lepre wrote that "Himmler endeavoured to restore what he called 'an old Austrian' tradition by reviving the Bosnian regiments of former Austo-Hungarian army in the form of a Bosnian-muslim SS Division. Once raised, this division was to engage and destroy Tito's Partisan forces operating in North-eastern Bosnia, thus restoring local 'order'. To be sure, Himmler's primary concern in the region was not security of the local Muslim population, but welfare of ethnic German settlers to the north in Srem. 'Srem is the breadbasket of Croatia, and hopefully it and our beloved German settlements will be secured. I hope that the area south of Srem will be liberated by ... the Bosnian division ... so that we can at least restore partial order in this ridiculous (Croatian) state.'
Hitler formally approved the project on 10 February 1943 and SS-Obergruppenführer Arthur Phelps, a Romanian ethnic German commander, was charged with raising the division.
In Spring of 1943, the Mufti of Jerusalem, Mohammad Amin al-Husayni, (aka Amin al-Husseini), was recruited by the Germans to assist in the organization and recruitment of Bosniaks into several divisions of the Waffen SS and other units in Yugoslavia. He was successful in convincing the Bosniaks to go against the declarations of the Sarajevo, Mostar, and Banja Luka Clerics, who had since 1941, forbidden Bosnian Muslims to collaborate with (Ustaše).
Pavelic, the leader of the Croat Ustashe, objected to the recruitment of an exclusively Muslim division and was concerned about a Muslim bid for independence, considering Muslim areas a part of the National Socialist-created "Independent State of Croatia", which included Bosnia. As a compromise the division was called "Croatian" and included at least 10% Catholic Croats.
Al-Husayni insisted that "The most important task of this division must be to protect the homeland and families (of the Bosnian volunteers); the division must not be permitted to leave Bosnia", but this request was ignored by the Germans.
The incorporation of Bosnian Muslims into the Waffen SS required changes to be made to NSDAP ideology and propaganda, and also required special privileges, which included that they were not required to eat rations of pork or drink alcoholic beverages.
According to Chris Ailsby, "Himmler convinced himself that Balkan Muslims were neither Slavs nor Turks, but were really Aryans who had adopted Islam." (Source: "SS: Hell on the Western Front. The Waffen SS in Europe 1940-1945", 2003. p.70). He believed the Muslims of Bosnia to be the same, racially, as the Croatians, and saw the Croatians as descended of Gothic and Persian stock.
Recruitment for the division fell as the war progressed and when rumors spread that the division was going to fight the Soviets, the Muslims deserted in droves.
At the end of 1944, the separate Kama division was merged into the Handschar division.