The Albanian Muslim Battalion in the Handzar Nazi SS Division: Kosovo Albanian Muslims in the Nazi SS

Waffen SS troops in the Albanian Battalion of the Handzar Division, wearing SS-issued Albanian skullcaps, Bosnia, 1944.

SS Reichsfuehrer Heinrich Himmler formed a Kosovo Albanian Muslim Nazi SS Division during World War II, the Skanderbeg SS Division, 21st Waffen Mountain Division of the SS Skanderbeg (1st Albanian), in 1944. He planned to form a second Kosovo Albanian Muslim SS Division but was not able to because the war ended before he could do so. The history of the Skanderbeg division has been documented and analyzed. What has rarely been analyzed, however, is the role of the Kosovo Albanian Muslim members in the Bosnian Muslim Nazi SS Division Handzar or Handschar. This is an untold story of World War II.

Kosovo Albanian Muslims had their own battalion in the Handzar Division, I Battalion of Regiment 28, I/28. The Albanian recruits were from Kosovo and the Sandzak or Rashka region of Serbia, initially in Battalion I/2, later I/28. The battalion had an imam and was modeled on the Austro-Hungarian Albanian Muslim Legion of 1916-1918. SS-Unterscharfuehrer Rudi Sommerer was an NCO in the Albanian Battalion which had at least 300 Albanian Muslim members. Sommerer was from Company 6, I Battalion, Waffen-Gebirgs-Jaeger-Regiment 28, of the 13th Waffen SS Handzar Division. SS-Sturmmann Nazir Hodic was an Albanian Muslim squad commander with I Battalion. Another Albanian Muslim member of Handzar was Ajdin Mahmutovic, who was 17 years old when he was recruited for the SS.

Rudi Sommerer, left, and Albanian Muslim Nazir Hodic as members of the Albanian Battalion in the Handzar SS Division, both wearing the SS Albanerfez or skullcap.

Albanian Muslims were recruited for the Bosnian Muslim Handzar Division because not enough Bosnian Muslim recruits were conscripted. By July, 1943, there were 15,000 members in the division. In order to increase the size of the division, SS-Standartenfuehrer Herbert von Obwurzer, who oversaw the initial formation of the division, began recruiting Albanian Muslims from Kosovo and the Sandzak or Rashka region of Serbia. In 1943, Kosovo was part of a Nazi and fascist Greater Albania, “independent” from Serbia. In the fall of 1943 the SS sought to recruit Albanian Muslims from this Greater Albanian state. The SS recruiting campaign in Albania was opposed, however, by Austrian-born Plenipotentiary in Albania Hermann Neubacher, a special emissary of the Foreign Office whose specialty was economic affairs. Because the Albanian Muslims would serve in a foreign country, Croatia, Neubacher maintained that the SS recruiting “jeopardized Albanian sovereignty.”

Neubacher explained his refusal and the status of Serbs in Kosovo and Metohija:

“When I took over my Albania mission, there were applicants in Kosovo for the Muslim Waffen SS Division, Handschar, that was set up in Bosnia. With [Obergruppenfuehrer und General der Polizei und Waffen-SS Ernst] Kaltenbrunner’s support, I managed to get Himmler to stop recruitment for the division because it did not accord with our policy of neutrality. But the Reichsführer SS, who had heard much of the famous elite regiments of Bosnia and Hercegovina in the Austro-Hungarian monarchy, finally achieved his aim. He got authorization from Hitler in 1944 to set up a Waffen SS Mountain Division called Skanderbeg for the local partisan war within the country’s borders. It suffered very heavy casualties in a badly led advance into partisan territory at an early stage of training. I was not at all happy with the setting up of this division, but the Albanian Government did not mind because it hoped that it would serve as the core for a well-trained national army and police force. The division had its headquarters in Prizren. I prevented its deployment in the area of Kosovska Mitrovica that remained with Serbia because I was afraid it would commit excesses against the Serb population. …

“After the fall of Yugoslavia in July 1941, the Kosovo and Metohia region … joined the Italian Kingdom of Albania set up in 1939. The Albanians lost no time in driving as many Serbs out of the country as they could. Those who were expelled were often forced by local potentates to pay a fee in gold to be permitted to leave the country. They were simply following the example set by the German Reich with its emigration tax. … I recommended urgently that the Albanian Government put an end to the expulsion of the Serbs.”

Neubacher also sent a telegram to the Auswartiges Amt or the Foreign Office on January 31, 1944. The German Foreign Office for Southeastern Europe similarly was opposed to the recruiting of Albanian citizens outside of Albania. Gottlob Berger, the head of the SS Main Office, assured them in a February 5, 1944 letter, “Einsatz der Albanen der muselmanischen Division” (“The use of the Albanians of the Muslim Division”), to Legationsrat SS-Stubaf. Reichel that the Albanian troops would be used temporarily in Croatia and that “when the division returned to Croatia, additional volunteers would be recruited, and the Albanians would be returned to their homeland, where they would form the cadre for an Albanian division.” The division Berger planned was the Skanderbeg SS Division made up primarily of Kosovo Albanian Muslims. The Albanian recruits were put into an Albanian Battalion of the Handzar Division, initially Battalion I, I/2, later redesignated as Battalion I of Regiment 28, I/28.

The Albanian Muslims were issued gray skullcaps made by the SS Main Office. The cap is known as a plis in the Gheg dialect or as a qeleshe. The traditional Albanian caps made from woolen felt are white but the SS created gray caps to match the darker uniforms. The Albanian Muslim recruits received military training at the Strans training camp near the Neuhammer training camp in lower Silesia where the Bosnian Muslims received their training. Albanian Muslim recruit Ajdin Mahmutovic of company 2 of Regiment 28 recalled: “I found the physical training to be quite easy.” SS-Ostuf. Carl Rachor wrote in a September 14, 1943 letter that “the enlisted men, particularly the Albanians, shall become outstanding soldiers.”

Heinrich Himmler visited the division on two occasions: Novermber 21, 1943, and January 11-12, 1944. Himmler inspected the units of Handzar on his second visit. The Albanian Battalion, I/28, conducted a special field exercise or maneuver for Himmler that demonstrated “the attack of a reinforced battalion from the assembly area.” The Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin el Husseini, also visited the division twice during the training period in Neuhammer. The Mufti was accompanied by Muslim officials from Albania and Bosnia during these highly publicized visits. Husseini had himself been an artillery officer in the Ottoman Turkish Army during World War I which had fought on the German side. Husseini arrived in Europe in 1941 through Albania after passing through Iran, Afghanistan, and Turkey. The Mufti retained contacts with Muslim religious and political leaders in Albania. When Husseini came to Sarajevo in 1943 to promote the Handzar Division, Muslim leaders from Albania came to meet him.

SS-Uscha. Rudolf Sommerer, an NCO of the Albanian Battalion in the Bosnian Muslim Handzar SS Division.

The Albanian Battalion participated in the offensives of the Handzar division in northeast Bosnia in the spring of 1944. The units of the Handzar division arrived in the Srem-Slavonia area of Croatia in 93 freight trains from Neuhammer, Germany in lower Silesia in February, 1944. Neuhammer had been a German Army training base since the late 19th century. It functioned as a prison camp in World War I and II. After the war, it became a part of Poland, under the name Swietoszow in the administrative district of Gmina Osiecznica. It was a training base during World War II as well. It was where the Handzar Division underwent training. The equipment base for the division was set up at Zemun. The headquarters for the division was in Vinkovci. The Albanian Battalion, I/28. was headquartered in Zupanje. The division was subordinated to the Second Panzer Army of Army Group F. Second Panzer Army was commanded by Lothar Rendulic while Army Group F was commanded by Field Marshal Maximilian Freiherr von Weichs. There was parallel authority betwen the Waffen SS and the Wehrmacht. Himmler required permission before the army could issue orders to the division. Himmler wanted the division to operate in the sector between the Sava, Spreca, Drina, and Bosna rivers. This was an important agricultural region. To the north were Volksdeutsche or ethnic German areas. The Handzar Division was sent largely into Bosnian Serb Orthodox regions of Croatia and northeastern Bosnia.

Walter Schaumuller, right, the commander of company 5 in Regiment 28, the Albanian Battalion, wearing the Albanian skullcap, with Erich Braun, during Operation Easter Egg, south of Mitrovici, Bosnia, April 12, 1944.

Before offensive operations began, on March 7, the Muslim holiday of Mevlud was celebrated by the members of the Handzar division. Mevlud, or “mawlid(u) (n-)nabiyyi(i)” in Qur’anic Arabic, meaning literally “the birth of the Prophet” in Arabic, “mawlid an-nabi”, is the Islamic religious observance of the birth of the Prophet Mohammed, celebrated in Rabi’ al-awwal, the third month of the Islamic calendar. The Bosnian Muslim and Albanian Muslim observance is based on the Turkish Sunni Muslim custom. Charity and food is distributed, and stories about the life of Mohammed are told and poetry is recited. Mosques and homes are decorated and there are street processions. Karl-Gustav Sauberzweig, the commander of the division, ordered that the imams and commanders in the units organize large-scale celebrations of the Mevlud holiday. Lectures were held along with religious ceremonies and special rations were given to the men. Each regiment of the Handzar division had an imam. The imam for Regiment 28 was Bosnian Muslim Husejin Dzozo, later replaced by Ahmed Skaka.

From December 1, 1943 to June 6, 1944, Regiment 28 was commanded by SS Ostubaf. Hellmuth Raithel, who would later command the second Bosnian Muslim SS Division “Kama”. SS-Hstuf. Walter Bormann commanded the Albanian Battalion, Battalion I of the 28th Regiment from August 1, 1943 to April 13, 1944. SS-Ostuf. Heinz Driesner replaced him on April 13, 1944 and remained the commander until June 10, 1944 when he was killed in action.

The first offensive operation for the division was Unternehmen Save or Operation Sava. Before the operation could occur, however, the Bosut region had to be cleared of Communist Partisan guerrillas. The Bosut was heavily wooded forest which was ideal for guerrilla activity.

Unternehmen Wegweiser or Operation Signpost began with an assault by the diviion along with Wehrmacht and police units against a Communist Partisan brigade and elements of a second brigade in the Bosut. The Handzar division consisted of approximately 20,000 men while the Partisans had up to 2,500 men in the region led by Sava Stefanovic. The Partisan guerrillas were greatly outnumbered and outgunned. Handzar possessed heavy artillery, containing an artillery regiment.

The Albanian Battalion was part of Regiment 28, which attacked on March 10, dividing into four spearheads, taking Strasinci, Soljani, Vrbanja, and Domuskela. By March 12, the operation was finished and the crossing of the Sava into Bosnia could begin. Before the division crossed into Bosnia, Sauberzweig read a message appealing to the Albanian Muslims that one of the goals was “the liberation of Muslim Albania” creating a Greater Albania:

“As we cross this river we commemorate the great historic task that the leader of the new Europe, Adolf Hitler, has set for us—to liberate the long-suffering Bosnian homeland and through this to form the bridge for the liberation of Muslim Albania. To our Fuehrer, Adolf Hitler, who seeks the dawn of a just and free Europe—Sieg Heil!”

The Albanian Battalion crossed the Sava at Brcko. NCO Rudolf Sommerer of company 6 in Battalion I in Regiment 28 recalled: “Our company crossed the Sava at dawn. We were the first unit in our sector to cross, and made enemy contact immediately.” Regiment 28 took Pukis and Celic and Koraj.

The Handzar division set up headquarters in Brcko where the division was “heralded by the Muslim population”. To celebrate the success of the offensive, a Mevlud ceremony was held at the Brcko mosque on March 20 attended by prominent Bosnian Muslim leaders.

The next offensive for Handzar was Operation Easter Egg or Unternehmen Osterei which began on April 12. Regiment 27 captured Janja, Donja Trnova, and the Ugljevik mines. Regiment 28 captured Mackovac and Priboj. The Albanian Battalion, I/28, “suffered considerable casualties in the fighting” in battles to take the strategic Majevica heights. SS-Sturmmann Nazir Hodic, an Albanian Muslim in the division, was involved in the assault on Majevica. SS-Uscha. Rudi Sommerer described the assault:

“My Albanian squad leader, Nazir Hodic, took five of his men and stormed a Partisan position in the hills. They overran the knoll, killing several of the enemy without incurring any friendly losses.”

The division continued advancing, taking Bukvik, Srebrenik, and Gradacac. The Albanian Battalion, I/28, however, was detached and transported by train to Pristina in Kosovo. There it would be the core of a new Nazi SS Division which Heinrich Himmler had ordered formed on April 17. The Kosovo Albanian Muslim Nazi SS Division would be called the 21. Waffen-Gebirgs Division der SS “Skanderbeg” (albanische Nr. 1).

SS-Brigadefuehrer Karl-Gustav Sauberzweig, the commander of the Handzar SS Division, wearing the SS Albanerfez or skullcap of the Albanian Battalion, I/28, Bosnia, 1944.

Madeleine Albright, Richard Holbrooke, Bill Clinton, and Hillary Clinton were not the first to sponsor a Greater Muslim Bosnia and a Greater Muslim Kosovo. Heinrich Himmler exploited this policy before them. To be sure, there was a “mutuality of interest” in doing so. Support for a Greater Bosnia and a Greater Albania advanced U.S. geopolitical, military, and economic interests that were beneficial to both parties. Similarly, the Bosnian Muslims provided manpower, the warm bodies, for Himmler’s Waffen SS. What was the tradeoff? The Bosnian Muslims would achieve “autonomy”, their own statelet, sponsored by Heinrich Himmler. Of course, it was done at the expense of the Bosnian Serbs. Northeastern Bosnia was a majority Serbian region of Bosnia. This was where the Handzar Division chiefly engaged in combat, to take control of Serbian cities, towns, and villages. This was the objective of the Handzar division. The goal was to take over a Serbian majority region of Bosnia. Of course, the concepts of “majority” and “minority” had absolutely no meaning or relevance whatsoever in Islam or Nazism. The only question or issue was power and control. The tradeoff was similar with regard to the creation of a Greater Albania. If Albanian Muslims supported the Third Reich and provided Himmler with manpower for the Waffen SS, he, in turn, would support the creation of a Greater Albania, which would include Kosovo and Metohija and western Macedonia.

Based on the 1931 Yugoslav census, Bosnian Orthodox Serbs were the largest ethnic group in Bosnia with a plurality population of 40.92%, while Bosnian Sunni Muslims were 36.64% and Bosnian Eoman Catholic Croats were 22.44%. After the genocide committed against the Bosnian Orthodox Serbs by Croat Roman Catholics and Bosnian Sunni Muslims, the Bosnian Orthodox Serb population would be decimated and they would lose their plurality. While all three groups suffered losses in a three-way civil war, the Bosnian Serb population was the only one targeted for genocide.

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