SS Reichsfuehrer Heinrich Himmler, second from left, inspects the reconnaissance battalion of the Bosnian Muslim Handzar SS Division with Karl-Gustav Sauberzweig, the commander of the division, and adjutant Gotz Berens von Rautenfeld in Neuhammer, Germany on November 21, 1943.
SS Reichsfuehrer Heinrich Himmler was instrumental in the formation of the Bosnian Muslim Nazi SS Division “Handzar” or “Handschar” during World War II. In 1944, a second Bosnian Muslim SS Division was formed, “Kama”. Himmler, “the architect of genocide”, and “the architect of the Holocaust”, was determined to create an all-Muslim Nazi SS division. Although nominally a “Croatian” or “Croat” formation, Himmler always wanted and envisioned a Muslim division made up of Bosnian Muslims, or “Bosniaks”. The division was even referred to as an “Ustasha” division. But, in fact, Himmler always intended the Handzar Division to be a Bosnian Muslim SS Division under German and Bosnian Muslim military and political control.
In a letter to SS Gruppenfuehrer Artur Phleps, Himmler wrote:
“I am sticking to my intention of forming SS Bosniak Division of Moslems, who for the most part are not fighting on our side today, but are standing aside or even fighting against us. As Bosniaks, they would surely be loyal soldiers on our side.
I have notified the Foreign Office personally.
[signed] H. Himmler”
Himmler told Phleps that he had “received report on your talk with Emmissary [Siegfried] Kasche and Foreign Minister [Mladen] Lorkovic. General [Edmund] Glaise-Hostenau was with me yesterday. The suggestions that Emissary Kasche made there do not correspond with my intentions.” What were Himmler’s intentions? Himmler was determined to form an all-Muslim Bosnian Muslim SS division. Lorkovic had proposed that Croatian “Ustasha” troops be used for the SS division. Himmler was clear and adamant in his objectives. He did not want Croatian Roman Catholic or “Ustasha” troops for his new SS division. In his letter to Phleps, Himmler stated that he would accept Croatian troops only for the police:
“I am very happy to accept 6000 Ustascha volunteers for the formation of police battalions and for training as regular policemen. Returned to Croatia after one year.”
Himmler sought to form an all-Muslim Nazi SS division because he saw Islam as a religion that was suitable for soldiers. The fanaticism and self-sacrifice of Islam could be utilized by the Waffen SS, much like the U.S. would use the mujahedeen in Afghanistan in the 1980s. Himmler stated to Joseph Goebbels:
“I have nothing against Islam because it educates the men in this division for me and promises them heaven if they fight and are killed in action. A very practical and attractive religion for soldiers.”
Himmler had welcomed Muslim troops into the SS in the Soviet Union, the Middle East, and the Caucasus. He had also put Palestinian Arab Haj Amin el Husseini, the Mufti of Jerusalem, in charge of recruiting Muslims for the SS. But foremost, Himmler was influenced by the service of Bosnian Muslims in the Austro-Hungarian Army during World War I. The Bosnian Muslims had fought loyally and fanatically for the German side in World War I. Himmler wanted to revive the German cooperation and solidarity with Bosnian Muslims.
A still from German newsreel footage showing Bosnian Muslim troops in the Handzar SS Division on parade in Neuhammer, Germany, 1943.
Himmler sent a telegram on March 3, 1943 to General Edmund von Glaise-Horstenau, the German Commanding General in Croatia, explaining his intentions:
“Telegram of 2/25/1943 received with thanks. Your personal observations are very valuable to me. I am making immediate contact with the Reich Foreign Minister for the purpose of carrying out my intention of an SS division purely of Moslem Bosniaks. I hope thereby to make an ethnic group that today is standing aside because of the conditions in the Croatian state and has a great tradition and loyalty to the Reich militarily valuable to us. The use of the title ‘Ustascha’ for this division is definitely not possible. I am looking forward very much to a conference with Foreign Minister Lorkovic. I’ll advise you later as soon as I have discussed these matters with the Reich Foreign Minister on his return.
[signed] H. Himmler”
Himmler authorized “that the sum of up to 2,000,000 Reichsmarks be made available” for the formation of the division. Himmler expected “the complete establishment of the division with a strength of about 26,000 men by 8/1/1943.”
Himmler encountered sabotage of the division, however, by the Ante Pavelic Ustasha regime in Croatia. Pavelic saw the formation of a German Nazi SS Division on the territory of the NDH, which included Bosnia-Hercegovina, as an infringement on the sovereignty of Croatia. Pavelic wanted the division to consist of Croatian Roman Catholic troops as well along with Croatian national insignia.
In a July, 1943 letter to SS Brigadefuehrer and Generalmajor of Police Konstantin Kammerhofer, who was the Deputy of the Reichsfuehrer SS in Croatia, Himmler described the sabotage and obstructionism he encountered from the Croatian government in the formation of the division:
“I am absolutely dissatisfied with the support of the establishment of the Croatian SS Volunteer Division ordered by the Fuehrer.”
Himmler objected to reports of “wild recruiting” with conscripts being seized and “hauled out of bed and placed in barracks of the Croatian Army.” Instead, Himmler wanted the recruits to report to the Waffen SS. He also suspected that many of the recruitment “offices belong to concealed Communistic or Chetniki bands.”
Himmler had also received reports that the Croat regime had sent recruits for the division to the Jasenovac and Nova Gradiska concentration camps:
“I also charge you to examine the inmates of the Croatian concentration camps in Novogradisca and Jasenovac. I have received definite and very clear reports that in these areas as well, young men were not only taken to Croatian barracks, but simply because of the fact that they reported to us, were taken to the concentration camps. It is obvious that these actions could have been carried out only by enemies of the Croatian state. Here too, you are to use all your powers to intervene. I want a complete report from you that the inmates of the two concentration camps have been checked by our organization. Likewise I want a report that the guilty enemies of the Croatian state have been held responsible in the strictest way. It is best to take them to the concentration camps. In many cases the death penalty will be appropriate.”
Himmler also complained that he had not received a list of volunteers as he had requested:
“I have not yet received the list of the volunteers as ordered by the ministry of the armed forces on 5/15/1943. I cannot help but suspect that this order of the Croatian state and thus of the Poglavnik has been sabotaged by enemies of the Croatian state.”
Himmler also requested: “I expect that in the troop units of the Croatian Army, which consist predominantly of Moslems, we can set up recruitment evenings for the members of the replacement center, to be followed by immediate turning over and marching away of the volunteers who have reported. I must make this demand because my trust in the loyal carrying out of the terms agreed on has disappeared very strongly.” In other words, Himmler was going to take Bosnian Muslims in the Croatian NDH Army and transfer them to the Waffen SS.
Finally, Himmler wanted Kammerhofer to implement his instructions in the NDH: “I commission you to inform the German Ambassador, the German General in Agram, as well as the appropriate Croatian national agencies of these orders of mine.”
The 13th Waffen Gebirgs Division der SS Handzar was formed in 1943 and saw combat in eastern Bosnia in 1944. Himmler had to compromise with the Pavelic NDH regime to allow token Croatian Roman Catholic troops in the division. The division was also referred to as a “Croatian” formation although Himmler referred to it as a “Bosniak” or Bosnian Muslim formation. The troops also had to wear an arm shield with the checkerboard insignia of the NDH regime. Nevertheless, the Handzar Division was, in essence, a Bosnian Muslim Nazi SS Division as Heinrich Himmler originally intended.