The policies of Nazi Germany and Showa Japan towards Muslim-majority warzones differed greatly. This became increasingly evident throughout the period 1931-45, and notably as World War Two became tougher for the Axis Powers from 1942-45. Here, Guan Kiong Teh considers how Nazi Germany used a ‘confidence-and-supply’ approach in Palestine, and Iraq and Japan a ‘coalition’ approach in Malaya and Singapore.

Adolf Hitler meeting with influential war-time Palestinian Amin al-Husseini. Source: Bundesarchiv, Bild 146-1987-004-09A / Heinrich Hoffmann / CC-BY-SA 3.0. Available  here

Adolf Hitler meeting with influential war-time Palestinian Amin al-Husseini. Source: Bundesarchiv, Bild 146-1987-004-09A / Heinrich Hoffmann / CC-BY-SA 3.0. Available here

This article defines policy as ‘a course or principle of action adopted or proposed by an organization or individual’[1], and ‘warzone’ as ‘a region where occurred physical conflict’. Whereas the Japanese were interested in a ‘coalition’ with Muslims, trying to incorporate Malay, Indian, Muslim identities as subjugate to a Japanese seishin (‘national spirit’), the Germans preferred a ‘confidence-and-supply’ arrangement, working to lobby and influence Muslims to solicit cooperation in specific aspects, but almost entirely disinterested in other aspects of Islamic life. This policy comparison could take one of several focuses: Islamic importance to each regime’s military strategy or the role of Japanese and German policy in postwar Muslim conflict, to give examples. However, both regimes had, by the eve of campaigns in Muslim-majority regions during the Second World War (1939-45), come to recognise Islam’s capital as a global religion. Both identified that Muslim-majority regions were rich in physical resources. As the dominant religion and identity in many Allied colonies, Protectorates and Mandates, Islamic political interests could be shaped to solicit cooperation to hasten the decline in Allied international influence. Both regimes shared interest in expansionist policy, even if the role of Muslims within these interests differed.

From these commonalities in outlook, four warzones stand out as clear candidates to assess Muslim policy: Malaya & Singapore during the 1941-5 Pacific War for the Japanese, and Palestine & Iraq for the Germans. All four had common experiences as British colonies or mandates. All four were plural societies, accommodating at least one significant minority: the Jews in the Middle East; the Chinese in Southeast Asia. This essay shall first compare the reasons for different interpretations of this resource, assessing how and why German and Japanese regimes altered their approaches to Muslims in these regions during the Second World War. The Japanese and Germans produced two very different strains of philosophies, plans and policies, often only united by Muslim response and interpretation of these policies. Nonetheless, the identification of Muslims as a resource was a common theme, and shall be this essay’s focus.


Japan and Germany: Different Approaches

Differences in contributions to Japanese and German ‘racial’ and ‘ethnic’ intellectual theory throughout the 1930s produced two vastly different approaches towards defining relationships with Islam. The scholarly contribution to Japanese Muslim policy during the 1930s was more complex than that in Germany. This, along with far greater resource scarcity than experienced by the Germans, later translated into a set of policies that demonstrated interest in the indoctrination and long-term domination of society so that Malays and Indian Muslims would view their Muslim identity as subordinate, to their identity as part of the Japanese Minzoku (ethnic nation). By the 1930s, the biological concept of ‘race’ and its mathematical formulae as a means of justifying Japanese superiority and expansionism was outdated amongst Japanese scholars. Takata Yasuma, in particular, rejected ‘the Germanic emphasis on "blood and soil’ as it was insufficiently sensitive to the importance of culture and too dependent on nature for its definitions of the nation’[2]. Most contemporary scholars agreed that the Yamato people were composed of waves of migrants from Southeast Asia, China and Siberia. The study of ethnology was dominated by two competing strains: the theories of Takata Yasuma, and the Society of Ethnology, established in 1934. Doak’s analysis of the Minzoku (ethnic nation) concept claims that the competition in the field of ethnology ‘fanning the flames of wartime aggression’ more so than would a doctrine that believed in racial purity[3]. Takata envisioned a Minzoku that permitted other religions and ethnicities, but ultimately loyal to Japan in language, and, more importantly, political allegiance.


Resource Scarcity in Japan

Contemporary sources demonstrate many practical, pressing concerns in ensuring that the conversion of Muslim opinion occurred rapidly. Writing in 1938, the sociologist Jesse Steiner notes currents of panic amongst the Japanese at the scarcity of resources; horror at the effects of the 1929 Great Depression in destabilising the nation after the Meiji economic boom proved unsustainable[4]. These fears were further compounded by long-standing concerns of overpopulation, which was in turn compounded by widespread opposition to the government’s offer of emigration to Manchuria. By 1938, Japan was unable to feed herself. There was, between 1930-38, a 12-fold increase in whale consumption and reliance on international waters around Japan’s physical boundaries[5]. In Southeast Asia, this was the story. The 1000-strong Japanese fishermen community in Singapore enjoyed plentiful supply of tropical fish. Malaya had plentiful seafood and arable land. Given the lack of evidence of prewar Japanese community ‘befriending’ ordinary Malays, we can assume that resource scarcity took precedence over theory for most Japanese. The mining community in Kuantan and Terengganu (with disproportionately small Chinese communities) showed little evidence of Muslim employment. The most prolific Japanese, ironically, were those who operated businesses in Kuala Lumpur and Selangor - areas with high Chinese concentrations[6]. While the greater academic input contributed towards greater interest in befriending Muslim communities and co-opting their political agendas than amongst the Nazis, there is neither much evidence of transparency nor trust, or even of en-masse interest in socialising with the Muslims in Southeast Asia.


Nazi Germany: Geopolitical Priorities

There were far less spontaneous calls amongst the Germans to work with the Muslims during the 1930s[7]. To some extent, this was simply down to a different approach: while the Institut fur Geopolitik (Geopolitics Institute) fulfilled a similar role to the Society of Ethnology in international research, its research interests were naturally more concerned with geopolitical strategy. Motadel’s quotations suggests that - far more than any academic discussed by Doak or Esenbel - some German academics understood that the stakes of trying to dominate Islam were very high. In 1936, Heinrich Eck discussed Moscow’s abject failure to ‘control’ Muslims. Two years later, Schmitz’s All Islam! Weltmacht von Morgen, asserted that Islam, despite Stalin’s best efforts, remained the ‘life fundament’ of opposition in Russia[8]. Amidst the propagandistic overtones (particularly that of Islamic ‘strong opposition’), the implications of these texts collectively are clear: Islam and Nazism were ideologies that wanted to see similar types of change, and thus, could collaborate over certain matters. Yet its domination was a risky and unnecessary experiment. The contributions of figures such as Oppenheim and Rosenberg during the 1930s were more clearly related to government policy in the 1940s than were those of Takata, Okawa, and others. Yet, as portrayed by Nicosia in Nazi Germany and the Arab World, they were rarely theoretical; more ‘troubleshooting’. Within this ‘troubleshooting’, there was slightly more evidence of planning the ‘confidence-and-supply’ relationship. Rosenberg’s brand of ‘troubleshooting’ is a good example. As director of the Ausschenpolitisches Amt der NSDAP, Rosenberg demonstrated ingenuity in balancing engagement with the Middle East with the more prominent aim of an Aryan sanctuary in Europe. He agreed with Hitler that any claims staked upon former colonies had to be made on grounds of materials. Indeed, the dramatic increase in military spending in the late 1930s strained Germany’s budget and highlighted its shortage of raw materials. Yet the extent of shortages that Germany faced was a far cry from the desperation described in Japan. In addition to an aggressive autarky programme that was demonstrating competency in feeding the nation by 1939, Germany also had the option of annexation for resources, which Japan naturally did not.

The most prominent resource in Palestine to catch Nazi attention was opposition to the Jewish National Home. Having identified this, Rosenberg set out to manipulate it. A June 1936 article in the Volkischer Beobachter details Rosenberg’s caution that the British supported Jewish emigration to Palestine. For at least two years after the publication of this article, however, Rosenberg continued to promote directing Jewish immigration ‘first and foremost to Palestine’[9]. Nicosia’s point that the annexation of Austria and its 200,000 Jews simply meant 200,000 more potential migrants to Palestine is further proof of Rosenberg’s brilliance of ‘troubleshooting’. These actions were characteristic of Germany’s ‘confidence-and-supply’ view of Muslims. Rosenberg understood that there were factions of Arabic society prone to anti-Jewish sentiment, and understood the importance of maintaining a courteous relationship with leaders, as evidenced in German Foreign Office records of arms sales to Palestine in 1936-37. This was to be expected considering general Nazi trade interests in the region in the mid-1930s, and should not be interpreted as interest in political cooperation[10].


The Japanese in Malaysia

Early Japanese attempts to establish ‘coalition-style’ policies often did not demonstrate much evidence in planning, other than a desire to dominate. This is evidenced in their relationship with Ibrahim Yacob: a series of rewards as a direct consequence of damages to his objectives. The Japanese quickly demonstrated interest in working closely with Ibrahim Yacob, going to great lengths to ensure that they presented an illusion of supporting his interests when they detected suspicion and disillusionment. In April 1941, Ibrahim purchased (with Japanese funding) the Warta Malaya newspaper, using it to promulgate anti-British propaganda[11]. The newspaper was distinguished: by the end of the 1930s, it had the highest circulation amongst all Malay-language periodicals. The Japanese were also indulgent. Sensing Ibrahim’s disillusionment at the disbandment of the Kesatuan Melayu Muda (Young Malays Union), Ogawa and Watanabe hosted Ibrahim, appointing him as an advisor by the first week of August 1942. That this appointment occurred just two months after the Japanese outlawed the KMM suggests indulgence. The following October, Japan transferred Perlis, Kedah, Terengganu and Kelantan to Thai administration. Again, sensing Ibrahim’s disillusionment, Ibrahim was tasked with establishing the Giyu-gun and Giyu-tai. It is likely that the decision to instruct Ibrahim to disband the KMM was reached very quickly: Cheah notes that it occurred shortly after the KMM rapidly gained popularity, growing their membership to approx. 10,000 urban and rural Malays[12]. The Japanese could not risk Malay nationalism dominate their young efforts to enforce Japanese seishin. To be sure, the net effects of Ibrahim’s efforts are debatable: Warta Malaya was a well-read paper, but merely an urban, well-read paper[13]. Nonetheless, these efforts were symbolic of Japanese efforts to reach out to influential Muslims in Malaya.


Nazi Confidence-and-Supply

Few events discussed in this essay were more humiliating than al-Gaylani’s requests for assistance to resist the British, following his coup. Hitler responded by providing two Luftwaffe squadrons. Kehoe and Greenhalgh are right to note that Hellmuth’s appointment, and the two Luftwaffe squadrons undermine arguments of German enthusiasm or naivety about strengths needed to resist the British[14]. In addition to his incompetence, Hellmuth’s highest attainment was merely a three-star badge as Lieutenant-General. In addition to incompetence, Hellmuth was also distracted to seek out figures like al-Gaylani in Syria and Lebanon - not indicative of a dedicated, focused deployment[15]. This essay, however, questions the judgement that insufficient resources ‘doomed the German mission to inevitable failure’. Shortages were a vital factor. The urgency of preparations for Operation Barbarossa can be felt through these figures: between late February and late May 1941, over 2.3 million German troops were amassed. However, there is scant evidence of genuine concern for Gaylani’s demands. Scholarship that attribute Gaylani’s defeat to the ruthless efficiency of the British campaign only reinforces this essay’s argument: Gaylani had mooted specific requests since December 1940, asking for captured British weapons for ease of use against the British[16]. If the Nazi administration had truly been enthusiastic about weakening British influence in the region, if, more damningly, the administration could accommodate al-Husseini and al-Gaylani in luxury[17], their failure to make any progress on Gaylani’s coup strongly suggests a lack of interest in achieving aims that did not conform to Nazi interests.

Hitler’s lacklustre response to Gaylani’s coup forms one part of the litmus test that validates the nature of the confidence-and-supply relationship. The other is in Axis involvement in the Baghdadi Farhud of June 1-2, 1941. This time, the Nazis wanted Iraqis to supply violence against Baghdad’s Jewish community. The increasing focus of recent scholarship upon lesser Iraqi and Palestinian nationalist figures and ordinary Iraqis reveals a rapid evolution of discourse in the two months between Gaylani’s coup and the Farhud. While the Nazis were unwilling to make a meaningful contribution to Gaylani’s coup, they injected his short-lived regime with a cocktail of concentrated doses of nationalistic and anti-Semitic propaganda. This, with the rapidity of the British invasion and Grobba, Husseini and Gaylani’s desertion caused doubts over German credibility. There was some evidence of anti-Semitic sentiment before the war: Iraqi volunteers participated in the 1936-39 Arab Revolts. What was new was the inclination towards spontaneous violence in Baghdad. As the British arrived in Iraq in early May, the Nazis began broadcasting propaganda programmes stressing the strengths of the ‘Arab race’ throughout history, and the merits of contemporary Arab nationalism. The motive in doing so - to ‘strengthen their self-assurance’ - is somewhat extraneous given concurrent propaganda efforts on the same subject matter by Arabs.

Restlessness and paranoia grew as the British approached: in the week before the attack, Ida Staudt’s memoirs describes a break-in performed by a mob hunting for British materials over claims that a Union Jack had been spotted, only satisfied when they found a book with a depiction of Churchill[18]. Reeva Simon further notes the paranoia on the streets regarding British spies: a woman was treated as suspect by merit of her reflective gold button, allegedly used to signal the British. Indeed, the emotionally-charged nature of Staudt’s memoirs subject her record of fact to questions over objectivity[19]. However, her portrayal of increasing paranoia agrees with Simon’s characterisation[20]. Moderation is important: Grobba did not convert the average Baghdadi into a Nazi. However, extant evidence suggests that the rapid turn of events in the two months left an indelible imprint in the minds of many. Many reacted in what they perceived as the only way possible: to take it out on foreigners they saw. Ironically, the Nazis’ haphazard accumulation of propaganda succeeded in achieving Jewish persecution at the cost of severe damage of Muslim perceptions.


Japan from 1942-45

The aforementioned differences between German and Japanese policies to Muslims only became more prominent in the 1942-45 period. The ‘coalition’ versus ‘confidence-and-supply’ approaches towards Muslims grew increasingly disparate as pressures from global strategy mounted. The ‘coalition’ assessment of Japanese policy is reinforced in its deteriorating treatment of ‘ordinary’ Muslims and lesser aristocrats in Malaya and Singapore. Japanese administrative and religious interferences sought to solicit an increasing willingness to adopt the Japanese seishin. Overall, policies were designed to enforce, even more stringently than before, loyalty to Japan. Kratoska illustrates that the Malays demonstrated a consensus of dissatisfaction with the ‘benign neglect’ of British rule on the eve of the invasion. The civil service, in particular, was infamous for excessive bureaucracy. Strangely, despite Kratowska’s assessment that ‘many elements of the pre-war administration survived the occupation nearly unchanged’, he cites much evidence that suggests otherwise. The Japanese appointed lesser aristocratic Malays to replace the British as District Officers (D.O) in 1942[21]. This policy initially seemed to support improving Muslim political agency. Yet other policies from 1943-45 demonstrate the DO’s vulnerability. The Southern Army’s headquarters were relocated to Singapore in April 1943, improving the efficiency of the Military Administration. Between 1943 and 45, D.O’s noted increasing Japanese involvement in daily tasks, including de facto surveillance through accompanying field visits. This allowed more efficient administration of the D.O’s. The position of the Gun Shidokanho, created near the end of the Occupation is symbolic of this ‘coalition’ arrangement: the formalisation of a Japanese ‘super District Officer’ above the Muslim District Officer; Japanese identity over Muslim identity. That the official policy declaration for the Gun Shidokanho position defined its purpose as ‘guiding the District Officer in order to adjust and (make) adequate the executions of the latter’s duties’ suggests Japanese expectation that these minor aristocrats would cooperate with the ‘need’ for surveillance[22]. Village chiefs were forced to recruit forced labour. Indeed, the ordinary Muslim had reason to fear, and be suspicious of the Japanese. In general, the Japanese saw no need to indulge ordinary Muslims, whose influence in disseminating anti-British thought was far less.


Nazi Germany and the Middle East from 1942-45

The Japanese and Germans entered and engaged with Islamic consciousness with such different aims and planning styles. It is relatively easy to assess the effectiveness of either according to their own aims, but comparing the effectiveness of both can be problematic, without diverging into speculation (what if al-Gaylani defeated the British on his own merit?). The most telling indicator is in an evaluation of Japanese and German policy towards Muslim interaction with non-Muslims. The intensification of anti-Semitic rhetoric throughout the Second World War, but particularly following the May 1943 defeat in North Africa experienced mere pockets of effectiveness, despite its exception as an exemplar of the ‘confidence-and-supply’ relationship; as one of the few aspects of life in the Middle East which the Nazis hoped to significantly influence through the use of such figures as al-Husseini and Yunus Bahri. Motadel traces the growing virulence of this rhetoric. Propaganda directed towards the Middle East in the summer of 1942 attempted to justify anti-Semitism, prescribing annihilation because ‘The Jews are planning to violate your women, to kill your children and to destroy you.’[23]. By 1944, the need for such justification had dissipated: on March 1, al-Husseini broadcast the far more emotive and direct: ‘Kill the Jews wherever you find them; this pleases Allah, history, and religion. This saves your honour. Allah is with you.’[24]. Despite extensive Nazi efforts in this respect for nearly five years, there was scant evidence of spontaneous uprising against Jewish populations in the Middle East and North Africa, bar the aforementioned Farhud. This is a particularly damning verdict, considering the concurrent anti-Semitic policies of the Vichy government. Motadel, to his credit, recognises that his research illustrates but ‘snapshots’[25]. Nonetheless, his argument is made even more convincing, given the fallacies of the opposition: Herf asserts that propaganda could reasonably be judged to have encountered ‘positive reception’ based on a Voice of America’s report on discussing Judaism with the Palestinian population (it is unclear what these observations are based on)[26]. Herf strongly implies that the messages were quite popular in Palestine and Iraq by his need to make frequent, obvious assertions (such as ‘The purpose of (propaganda) was to inflame and incite, not inform’ and ‘Not only did these assertions… wildly exaggerate the powers of the Jews’)[27].


Japanese ‘Indirect’ Discrimination

Almost the exact opposite is true for the Japanese. Cheah is right to insist that there is little evidence ‘to show that the Japanese deliberately promoted racial animosity’ in Japanese policy, at least until the very final two months of Occupation. However, the motivations and objectives of many Japanese economic and social policies facilitated justification of anti-Chinese sentiment, even violence. The sheer violence of Sook Ching in February 1942 created a great impression among many ordinary Malays. Although Chinese schools, for instance, were allowed to re-open in October 1942, the Japanese forbid the use of Mandarin as the language of instruction[28].

To meet the war’s increasing demand upon resources, the Japanese rescinded Malay Land Reservation Enactments, transferring hitherto protected land in rural Johor and Negri Sembilan to Chinese farmers. Whereas land was also allocated to Malay farmers, suggesting that the need to maintain Malayan food supplies did take precedence over racial policy, only land in the smaller more urban state of Syonan-To (Singapore) was granted[29]. The resultant ethnic conflict that lasted from May 10th to September 1st, 1945 in Batu Pahat and surrounding regions in the Northwest of Johor, had a far wider-ranging and deeper impact than did the Baghdadi Farhud of 1941, and comparisons are inappropriate. Much as some Baghdadis justified their persecution of the Jews by claiming that the latter committed espionage for the British, some Malays justified their massacres by claiming that their Chinese victims were communists[30]. The only main difference: the Japanese role, unlike that of Grobba and Gaylani, was implicit.

A small criticism of Cheah: he cites an anecdote from Chin Peng of a July incident wherein the Japanese ‘went to a mosque… and slaughtered a pig’[31], thereby inciting more conflict. There are issues with Chin’s objectivity as a liaison officer between the Malayan People’s Anti-Japanese Army and the British military. Cheah, to his credit, also notes that the logistical considerations of the war - preparations for significant, widely-reported concurrent battles with the British in the North of Malaya that would absorb much Japanese attention[32] - would overwhelmingly suggest that this anecdote is likely untrue, and, if true, was unlikely to have significant impact. Certainly, the region of Batu Pahat, Endau and Muar constitutes but a small region in Malaya, and was also the only notable spontaneous act of anti-Chinese resistance. However, its severe destabilisation upon the Chinese community - 14,000 displaced refugees who had to flee town centres by early September - leads to the unfortunate suggestion that Japanese ‘indirect’ discrimination was more impactful than was the German bombardment of propaganda[33]. This is not a conclusion of greater efficiency from the Japanese. Nonetheless, the suggestive evidence is notable.



The policies of Showa Japan and Nazi Germany towards Muslims differed significantly throughout the global wars of 1931-45, particularly if one specifically considers their treatment of Muslims in the British colonies of Malaya and Singapore, and British mandates of Palestine and Iraq. Indeed, although the development of currents of ethnic and racial theories differed greatly, practical and strategic considerations during both campaigns could have engineered more congruence between the two. Instead, the pressures of failures in strategy during the 1942-45 years made these differences even more pronounced. Overall, neither Japan nor Germany truly convinced Muslims that their values were compatible with Islamic religious and political identities. A final consideration: the detail in policies discussed in this essay do not facilitate awareness that Japan and Germany’s approaches towards Muslim engagement were, from an Islamic perspective, different parts of the narrative of their engagement with the non-Islamic world during the first half of the twentieth century. It would, as such, be useful to conduct a further study into the differences of the roles of Japan and Germany into postwar Islamic revolutionaries and nationalism, in Malaya and Singapore and Palestine and Iraq, but also in the total extent of Nazi Germany and Showa Japan’s spheres of influence.


What do you think about the author’s arguments? Let us know below.




Barber, Andrew, Kuala Lumpur at War, 1939-45, Kuala Lumpur, Karamoja Press, 2012

Cheah, Boon Kheng, Red Star over Malaya: Resistance and Social Conflict During and After the Japanese Occupation, 1941-46, 2nd ed., Singapore, Singapore University Press, 1983

Cheah, Boon Kheng, ‘The Japanese Occupation of Malaya, 1941-45: Ibrahim Yacob and the Struggle for Indonesian Raya’, Indonesia, No. 28 (Oct., 1979), pp. 84-120

Doak, Kevin M., ’Building National Identity through Ethnicity: Ethnology in Wartime Japan and After’ in The Journal of Japanese Studies, Vol. 27, No. 1 (Winter, 2001), pp. 1-39

Esenbel, Selcuk, ‘Japan's Global Claim to Asia and the World of Islam: Transnational Nationalism and World Power, 1900-1945’ in The American Historical Review, Vol. 109, No. 4 (October 2004), pp. 1140-1170

Goda, Norman J. W., Tales from Spandau: Nazi Criminals and the Cold War, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2006

Herf, Jeffrey, ‘Nazi Germany’s Propaganda Aimed at Arabs and Muslims During World War II and the Holocaust: Old Themes, New Archival Findings’, in Central European History, Vol. 42, No. 4, (December 2009), pp. 709-736

Kehoe, Thomas J., and Greenhalgh, Elizabeth M., ‘Living Propaganda and Self-Serving Recruitment: The Nazi Rationale for the German-Arab Training Unit, May 1941 to May 1943’ in War in History (2017), Vol. 24, No. 4, pp. 520-543

Kratoska, Paul H., The Japanese Occupation of Malaya, London, Hurst & Co., 1998

Mallmann, Klaus-Michael, and Cuppers, Martin, Nazi Palestine, The Plans for the Extermination of the Jews in Palestine, trans. Krista Smith, New York, Enigma Books, 2010

Morse, Chuck, The Nazi Connection to Islamic Terrorism: Adolf Hitler and Haj Amin al-Husseini, Lincoln, iUniverse, Inc., 2003

Motadel, David, Islam and Nazi Germany’s War, Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 2014

Nicosia, Francis, Nazi Germany and the Arab World, New York, Cambridge University Press, 2015

‘Policy - Definition’, Oxford Living Dictionaries,, (accessed 24 Dec 2017)

Spector-Simon, Reeva, Iraq between the Two World Wars: The Militarist Origins of Tyranny, Updated ed., New York, 2004

Staudt, Ida, ‘A Nazi-Inspired Revolt, 1941’ in Living in Romantic Baghdad: An American Memoir of Teaching and Travel in Iraq, 1924-1947, Syracuse, Syracuse University Press, 2012

Steiner, Jesse, ‘Japanese Population Policies’, American Journal of Sociology, Vol. 43, No. 5 (Mar., 1938), pp. 717-733

Tajuddin, Azlan, Malaysia in the World Economy (1824-2011): Capitalism , Ethnic Divisions and ‘managed Democracy’, London, Lexington Books, 2012

Tsutsui, William M., ‘Landscapes in the Dark Valley: Toward an Environmental History of Wartime Japan’, Environmental History, Vol. 8, No. 2 (Apr., 2003), pp. 294-311



[1] ‘Policy - Definition’, Oxford Living Dictionaries,, (accessed 24 Dec 2017)

[2] Kevin M. Doak, ’Building National Identity through Ethnicity: Ethnology in Wartime Japan and After’ in The Journal of Japanese Studies, Vol. 27, No. 1 (Winter, 2001), pp. 14-15

[3] Ibid, p. 2

[4] Jesse Steiner, ‘Japanese Population Policies’, American Journal of Sociology, Vol. 43, No. 5 (Mar., 1938), pp. 718-720

[5] William M. Tsutsui, ‘Landscapes in the Dark Valley: Toward an Environmental History of Wartime Japan’, Environmental History, Vol. 8, No. 2 (Apr., 2003), p. 298

[6] Ayabe Kuichiro ran a ‘(dentistry)... that doubled as a barber’s shop’. The multiplicity of services probably made Kuichiro a well-known figure in the local area. See Andrew Barber, Kuala Lumpur at War, 1939-45, Kuala Lumpur, Karamoja Press, 2012, pp. 22-24 for similar anecdotes.

[7] David Motadel, Islam and Nazi Germany’s War, Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 2014, pp. 27-31

[8] Ibid, p. 30

[9] Francis Nicosia, Nazi Germany and the Arab World, New York, Cambridge University Press, 2015, p. 99

[10] Ibid, pp. 87-88

[11] Cheah Boon Kheng, ‘The Japanese Occupation of Malaya, 1941-45: Ibrahim Yacob and the Struggle for Indonesian Raya’, Indonesia, No. 28 (Oct., 1979), p. 94

[12] Ibid, p. 103

[13] Azlan Tajuddin, Malaysia in the World Economy (1824-2011): Capitalism , Ethnic Divisions and ‘managed Democracy’, London, Lexington Books, 2012, p. 94

[14] Thomas J. Kehoe, and Elizabeth M. Greenhalgh, ‘Living Propaganda and Self-Serving Recruitment: The Nazi Rationale for the German-Arab Training Unit, May 1941 to May 1943’ in War in History (2017), Vol. 24, No. 4, pp. 526

[15] Ibid, p. 526

[16] Nicosia, Nazi Germany and the Arab World, p. 163

[17] Chuck Morse, The Nazi Connection to Islamic Terrorism: Adolf Hitler and Haj Amin al-Husseini, Lincoln, iUniverse, Inc., 2003, pp. 53-56

[18] Ida Staudt, ‘A Nazi-Inspired Revolt, 1941’ in Living in Romantic Baghdad: An American Memoir of Teaching and Travel in Iraq, 1924-1947, Syracuse, Syracuse University Press, 2012, p. 223

[19] Ibid, pp. 218-221

[20] Reeva Spector-Simon, Iraq between the Two World Wars: The Militarist Origins of Tyranny, Updated ed., New York, 2004, p. 131

[21] Kratoska, The Japanese Occupation of Malaya, p. 64

[22] Ibid, p. 65

[23] Motadel, Islam and Nazi Germany’s War, p. 96

[24] Ibid, p. 97

[25] Ibid, p. 114

[26] Jeffrey Herf, ‘Nazi Germany’s Propaganda Aimed at Arabs and Muslims During World War II and the Holocaust: Old Themes, New Archival Findings’, in Central European History, Vol. 42, No. 4, (December 2009), p. 728

[27] Ibid, p. 731

[28] Cheah, Red Star over Malaya: Resistance and Social Conflict During and After the Japanese Occupation, 1941-46, 2nd ed., Singapore, Singapore University Press, 1983, p. 38

[29] Ibid, p. 39

[30] Ibid, p. 219

[31] Ibid, p. 217

[32] Ibid, p. 235

[33] Ibid, p. 230

Switzerland had a curious position during World War Two. It was officially a neutral country, but that neutrality was not always strictly maintained. Here, Laura Kerr considers how neutral Switzerland really was and how helpful it may have been to Nazi Germany…

Fascist leaders Benito Mussolini and Adolf Hitler together in Munich in 1940. The pair discussed an invasion of Switzerland during World War Two.

Fascist leaders Benito Mussolini and Adolf Hitler together in Munich in 1940. The pair discussed an invasion of Switzerland during World War Two.

Switzerland. Three things come to mind: watches, chocolate and neutrality. And for good reason. Firstly, Switzerland is home to both Rolex and Omega which can boast the titles of ‘first watch on the moon’, ‘James Bond’s official watch since 1995’, and the watch of choice for both the American and British armies during World War One. However despite its truly fascinating watch history, that is not the aspect of Switzerland that I am focusing on today.

Switzerland is the longest standing neutral nation in the world and has not taken part in a war since 1505. Its official stance of non-involvement had been decided during The Congress of Vienna in 1815, in which major European leaders met to discuss the nature of Europe after the defeat of Napoleon.

Up until World War Two, Switzerland upheld her stance of neutrality rather admirably. But despite not engaging in combat during the war, Switzerland’s so called ‘neutrality’ has been heavily scrutinized in recent years, with particular emphasis on border controls, banking and trade with Nazi Germany.


Hitler’s decision not to invade

The first question that needs to be answered to fully understand Switzerland’s position during WWII, is why Hitler did not invade the country while trying to establish the Third Reich. Hitler described Switzerland as a “pimple on the face of Europe” and both its geographical location and culture would seem like a clear target for the Nazis.

A good way to summaries Hitler’s reasoning not to invade Switzerland is simply ‘risk versus reward’. At the prospect of a German invasion, the Swiss improved and invested heavily in their ‘National Redoubt’ (The Swiss National Defense Plan). Along with the tough terrain and modern machinery, this didn’t make the Swiss a particularly easy target.  Not only was the risk high, the reward wasn’t tremendously great for Hitler either. Switzerland and Germany already had a beneficial trading partnership which helped Germany’s war effort. Additionally, the neutral but infamous Swiss banks made Switzerland useful to the Nazis.

There’s little doubt that once the Allies had been defeated, Hitler would have mobilized an attack on Switzerland (a planned invasion was named known Operation Tannenbaum). But as it was, his attention and resources were preoccupied on bigger enemies so any attacks on Switzerland had to wait.

Nevertheless, by 1940 Switzerland was completely surrounded by Axis powers and the Nazis occupied France, making it increasingly difficult to stay clear of the Second World War. It is the ways in which Switzerland allowed and in some ways, assisted, Nazi Germany which makes her “neutrality” so questionable.


Border control

After the Nazis gained power in Germany, many racial minorities attempted to flee to avoid persecution. Switzerland, a neighboring but impartial nation seemed a clear destination choice. As well as an agreement of neutrality, Switzerland had also pledged to be an asylum for any discriminated groups in Europe. They had taken in Huguenots that had fled from France in the 16th century and was an asylum for many liberals, socialists and anarchists from all over Europe in the 19th century. However, this wasn’t exactly upheld during WWII.

In fear of angering Hitler and prompting an invasion, Swiss border regulations were tightened. They did establish internment camps which housed 200,000 refugees, of which 20,000 were Jewish. Importantly though, the Swiss government taxed the Swiss Jewish community for any Jewish refugees they allowed to enter the country.

In 1942 alone, over 30,000 Jews were denied entrance into Switzerland, leaving them under the control of the Nazis. In an infamous speech, a Swiss government official stated “our little life boat is full.” Although the prospect of leaving Jewish civilians to certain death under the Nazis is unthinkable, there are arguments in Switzerland’s defense. Switzerland was a small country (with a population of roughly 4 million) which was completely surrounded by Nazi troops and nations under Hitler’s control. In comparison, the USA (arguably the safest nation for fleeing Jews) repeatedly rejected Jewish refugees and only accommodated approximately 250,000 people between the years from 1939 to 1945; tiny compared to its size. Historians today estimate that the USA could have easily accommodated over 6 million refugees.

But that is not the only controversy when it comes to Swiss border control. It was the Chief of the Swiss Federal Police, Dr Heinrich Rothmund, who proposed the idea of marking Jewish passports with a red ‘J’, and which became an important method of discrimination adopted by the Nazis. The Swiss government wanted to know and control the amount of Jews entering Switzerland but it led to a measure that made fleeing from the Nazis even harder for Jews.

Interestingly, on the March 8, 1995, the Swiss government made an official apology for their involvement with the Nazi Party, in particular their role in developing the ‘J’ stamp.



To this day, Swiss banks are known for their secretive but successful policies that created one of the strongest economies in the world. They were massively important during WWII, especially to high-ranking Nazis, and became another way in which Swiss neutrality was questioned.

But why were they so important?

Until 1936, the Swiss Franc was the only remaining freely convertible currency in the world. Therefore both the Allies and Axis Powers sold large amounts of gold to the Swiss National Bank and relied heavily on its economic stability. The German national currency was no longer a means of payment in international markets which meant the Nazis relied on Swiss banks in order to buy war machinery and commodities from other countries.

But if the banks accepted gold from both sides, then surely they are still technically neutral? Although that may be the case, it is the type of gold and the secretive way in which it was handled which has caused massive controversy in recent years. For over 581,000 Francs worth of ‘melmer’ gold taken from Holocaust victims was sold and kept by Swiss banks. Following the defeat of the Nazis, Swiss banks struggled with what to do with the gold, whose rightful owners had been killed in the awful genocide.



Prior to WWII, Switzerland had relied heavily on trade with Germany to build a strong and economically powerful nation. It was an industrialized country with virtually no raw materials, experiencing the same economic depression that was felt throughout both Europe and America. When World War Two commenced, Switzerland worried that any non-cooperation would lead to a cease in vital trade and even more significantly, an invasion. As it was completely surrounded by Nazi controlled countries, the Swiss had two choices: cooperate with Nazi trade policies or fight against them.

Between the years of 1939 and 1945, roughly 10,276,000 tons of coal was transported from Germany to Switzerland and provided 41% of Switzerland’s energy requirement. This demonstrates how the Swiss were keen to stay on good terms with Germany to continue their vital trade.

One thing Switzerland provided to the Nazis in return for important materials was access to the railway that ran through Switzerland and connected Italy and Germany. In the event of an invasion, the Swiss army planned to destroy vital tunnels and bridges, immobilizing the railway for years and making transportation between Italy and Germany nearly impossible. To uphold their neutral stand, Switzerland’s governments laid down restrictions on what could be transported over their railway. The Swiss would only allow sealed boxes to pass through without checking their contents, in exchange for raw materials and trade. Officially, the Swiss banned any transportation of people (troops) or war goods over their railway, but the extent to which this was upheld is very questionable.  


So, despite its attempts, Switzerland struggled to remain truly neutral during the Second World War. In fairness, World War Two was a ‘Total War’ which made it hard to remain impartial for almost every nation. It is the type of involvement, however, that is interesting and less well known to people studying history.

The extent to which a country remains neutral during times of armed conflict goes beyond their lack of involvement in armed combat. A country can only be considered neutral if they demonstrate no bias in business, social and economic activity.

Was Switzerland neutral? Arguably not.

But the extent to which they ‘helped’ the Nazis is a much more complex matter.


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