Arts News: WWI Museum and Memorial Digital Exhibit Explores German Propaganda Targeting Muslims

Muslim prisoners of war being drilled and disciplined in training for entering the German army, with a view of the mosque built as a gift to them from the German Emperor. (National WWI Museum and Memorial)

The Ottoman Empire was one of the mightiest and longest-lasting dynasties in history. This Islamic superpower ruled large areas of the Middle East, Eastern Europe and North Africa for more than 600 years.

In 1914, however, the Ottoman Empire entered World War I on the side of the Central Powers (including Germany and Austria-Hungary) and was defeated, leading to the dissolution of the Empire.

In a new digital exhibit, “Fighting with Faith: A World War I Camp of Propaganda,” the National WWI Museum explores the alliance between Germany and the Ottoman Empire during the war, when the latter sought protection from neighboring countries — especially Russia, but England and France, as well — who saw a threat in the potential spread of Islam among their colonies in Asia, North Africa and the Caucasus Mountain region.

In 1915, as part of a propaganda campaign, Germany built a prisoner of war camp for Muslims. (Some 2.5 million Muslims from the continent of Africa and countries including Britain, the U.S. and Russia fought for the Allied side.) Called Halbmondlager, or Half Moon Camp, in the town of Wunsdorf, it included the first mosque on German soil. It was a gift of the German Kaiser Wilhelm II, who traveled to the Ottoman Empire several times in the decades before WWI and declared that he was “protector” of the Muslim people.

The camp’s population was made up of soldiers of diverse militaries, nationalities, ethnicities and languages. What they had in common was their faith — Islam.

“Fighting with Faith” explores the role of the mosque in the German propaganda effort to enlist Muslim prisoners of war to encourage Muslims in various French and British colonies to rebel against their colonial powers. Put in more contemporary terms, it investigates how Germany fought for the hearts and minds of prisoners, or weaponized religion.

Germany dedicated a large amount of planning and resources to propaganda for Muslim prisoners of war, but the campaign failed by most measures. Some POWs joined the alliance and registered for the Ottoman army. But about 4,200, or 84 percent of the Muslim POWs, did not join, and Muslim revolutions never materialized.

Following the armistice of November 1918, the German government closed the Half Moon Camp. Most remaining prisoners returned to their homelands. A small number stayed behind, and in 1925 those living in Berlin, who visited the mosque on high holidays, built a mosque in Berlin-Wilmersdorf. Half Moon Camp was no longer used. It fell into disrepair, and in 1930, the building was demolished.

“Fighting with Faith,” which will run indefinitely on the World War I Museum’s website, is well, and effectively, designed. It includes a useful guide to the exhibit, “Exhibition Navigation,” followed by sections exploring different aspects of the story, which viewers can explore as they wish, including: an “Introduction,” “World War I and Jihad,” “The Mosque,” “Personal, National, and Global Consequences,” and an “Epilogue.” It offers an excellent glossary of terms and references in the exhibit and an “Image Gallery,” which is not to be missed. Most are from the National WW I Museum collection.

For her first venture as lead curator for a World War I Museum exhibit, Patricia (Trish) Cecil, specialist curator of Faith, Religion and World War I, reports that her goal was to address a topic still largely unknown, but that “reached across the globe.” The idea came to her from her research into World War I prisoner of war camps and prisoners of war, and her fascination with what motivated one group of men to fight.

“Fighting with Faith” is sponsored by the Lilly Endowment Inc. and is made possible in part by the National WWI Museum and Memorial donors. “Fighting with Faith” can be accessed at fightingwithfaith.theworldwar.org/welcome

Brian McTavish

Brian McTavish is a freelance writer specializing in the arts and pop culture. He was an arts and entertainment writer for more than 20 years at The Kansas City Star. He regularly shared his “Weekend To-Do List” at KCUR-FM (89.3)/kcur.org.

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