A MOSQUE IN MUNICH: NAZIS, THE CIA, AND THE RISE OF THE MUSLIM BROTHERHOOD IN THE WEST
Chapter 2: THE TURKOLOGIST
IN THE NINETEENTH and early twentieth centuries, German thinkers helped define the modern world. The country had only united in 1871 and never had much of a colonial empire. But its intellectuals made up for that, their minds ranging from one end of the globe to the other. Theories and ideas conquered countries, rewriting local histories and putting a German imprimatur on parts of the globe where few Germans had traveled. For example, in the nineteenth century, Alexander von Humboldt led expeditions to Latin America, describing that region scientifically for the first time and laying the foundation for the disciplines of physical geography and meteorology.
German scholars were especially fascinated by the Orient -- the huge swath of the world that stretched from Turkey to Japan. Today few use the word Orient because it lumps together places and peoples with little in common other than being located east of Europe. But back then, the word fired the imagination. When a German geographer coined the term Silk Road to describe the ancient trade route through Central Asia, German explorers launched expeditions to prove its existence. Archaeologists joined in, plundering Buddhist pilgrimage sites to stock Berlin's Museum of Mankind. Eventually, political ambitions followed. In the early twentieth century' Kaiser Wilhelm II tried to extend German influence into the region, dressing up like a sultan for a widely publicized visit to Constantinople and Damascus. During World War I, a German diplomat convinced the Ottoman caliph -- nominally the supreme religious leader of the Muslim world -- to declare holy war against the Allied powers. Some historians consider this the first modern use of jihad.
Underpinning it all was German scholarship, then a model for the rest of the world. The country's great minds probed many aspects of the East; Ignaz Goldziher wrote one of the first histories of Islamic traditions, and Theodor Noldeke penned a history of the Koran that posited theses about its secular origins, which today are still considered cutting-edge (and taboo in many parts of the Muslim world). In the 1930s, a new scholar was poised to enter this pantheon: Gerhard von Mende.
Von Mende was physically unremarkable, even slightly odd-looking. At five foot eight, he was of average height for the time, but in photos he appears gaunt, at just 140 pounds. His hair was light blond and his eyes blue -- desirable traits during an era that highly valued "Aryan purity." Yet his teeth were crooked and his face round and puffy. Most striking was a minor genetic defect. His right eye wasn't able to track and his left eye sometimes overcompensated, so he seemed to look in two directions at once. Like a sphinx, he appeared to be fixed on his subject yet staring off into the distance.
Von Mende was born on Christmas Day, 1904, into the influential German minority in Riga, Latvia, descendants of the German knights and merchants who had settled along the Baltic coast in the Middle Ages, controlling trade and intellectual life there until the twentieth century. Like many ethnic minorities, he had the old-fashioned graces of someone cut off from the home country. He was fastidiously polite, listened carefully to what people said, and dressed conservatively -- in three-piece suits that seemed more English than German. Military brush cuts or rakish Fuhrer-style parts were not to his liking. He kept his hair short but combed straight back from his hairline, a habit that remained as constant as his manners. People inevitably described him as gut geflegt -- well kempt.
"He was a tall man, thin and stood upright." recalls Ehrenfried Schutte, a former colleague in the Ostministerium. "He was a real gentleman, quietly spoken but very effective."
Von Mende was incredibly driven, a diligent worker, but part of his success came from energetic socializing. He was always willing to go out and, in good Baltic style, knock back a few vodkas with his colleagues. He was an intense networker, equally at ease in the highest intellectual circles and with the staff driver. His early life experiences had made him comfortable with people from all walks of life, and a series of traumas had toughened him, making him determined to succeed.
When von Mende was fourteen, just after Germany's collapse in World War I, Russian Bolsheviks shot his father, a local businessman. Along with many other Baltic Germans, his family fled to Germany. But the old country turned out to be hardly better than Latvia; the kaiser's empire had disintegrated into chaos and hyperinflation, and von Mende's family fell many social rungs. His mother supported them by working as a secretary and a private tutor to children of the nobility, while von Mende attended trade schools, thanks to the aid of Baltic-German solidarity groups that helped ethnic Germans fleeing that region.
As a young man he toiled as a sailor, a coal miner, and an assembly-line worker. He later worked for four years as an apprentice in a Hanseatic trading firm. In 1927, with enough money in his pocket to afford an education, he quit his job and entered Berlin University. He was already twenty-three, four years older than most first-year students. But that would not prevent his startling rise to the top of German academia.
At the time, Berlin was the world center of Russian studies. The historian Otto Hoetzsch turned the University of Berlin into a mag- net for gifted academics, including the young American diplomat George F. Kennan -- the future author of the theory of containment. Bolsheviks traveled regularly to the city, mixing with emigres and immigrants and adding an edge of controversy to the world of academics. Von Mende concentrated on contemporary Russian studies and economics. In just six years he obtained his doctorate, summa cum laude. Already fluent in Russian, Swedish, and Latvian, he dazzled with his almost intuitive ability to pick up new languages. During his studies he mastered Turkish, including the different Turkic dialects spoken in the Soviet Union, as well as Arabic, French, and English. A few years later, when he met his future wife, a Norwegian, he learned her language too, tricking passengers on the ferry to Oslo into thinking he was a native.
Marrying Karo Espeseth was something of a risk for the upwardly mobile von Mende. She was well educated and could be charming, but she wasn't a safe choice. She had an independent, emotional streak and thought of herself as an artist. Espeseth had come to Germany in the late 1920S on a cultural pilgrimage, where she had been inspired by the postwar outburst of creativity in art and thought. Bauhaus architecture, expressionist painting, and new interpretations of history seemed to offer a way out of the dead-end path of nationalism. After she returned to Oslo, psychoanalysis, another invention of the German-speaking world, inspired her to write an avant-garde novel about the damage caused by war. Sores That Still Bleed concerns a German World War I veteran who pours out his soul to a young Norwegian exchange student. He beats her and, at her insistence, has sex with her. The book caused a scandal in Norway, where Espeseth was accused of sullying the young nation's honor.
Stung, she fled back to Germany. She landed a job accompanying a group of French students and academics as they toured the Rhineland. Their German guide was von Mende, who was making money on the side while writing his dissertation. The couple fell in love, and Espeseth followed von Mende back to Berlin and eventually Breslau, where he continued his studies. After a some what stormy courtship -- her moodiness sometimes drove him away -- they eventually married, with Espeseth serving first as his conscience and later his unconditional supporter, scribe, and adviser.
While Espeseth's writing career languished, von Mende's flourished. He got his Ph.D. in 1933, writing a book that explained the Soviet Union's intricate ethnic makeup. Three years later, he published his most influential work: The National Struggle of the Turkic Peoples of Russia: A Contribution to the Nationalities' Question in Soviet Russia.
The book's thesis was explosive: that the Soviet Union's non- Russian minorities formed a bloc of disgruntled, unassimilated citizens. It was the first non-Russian language book to describe the growing political consciousness of these peoples. Von Mende saw the main conflict as between the "Turks" (modern-day Uzbeks, Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, and Tatars) and the Bolshevik state. But he warned that without outside help the Turkic peoples would not achieve independence: "Because of the strict political unity of the Soviet Union, the concentration of its power, and the economic links of all its parts, a change in the position of the Turkic ethnic groups can only be expected when the Soviet Union is confronted with a severe shock. Then it will become clear if the Soviet policy of separation has achieved its goal -- the splintering of the Turkic peoples into several unviable tiny nations."
His conclusion was prophetic -- both for the coming war and the decades after. As he surmised, these groups would gain independence only after a "severe shock" -- the Soviet Union's collapse -- and not by their own efforts. Also farsighted was von Mende's questioning of these potential states' viability -- think of the region's current dysfunctional dictatorships, which are kept afloat by oil and gas revenues.
Had he continued as a scholar in this field, this achievement could have helped von Mende become one of the world's authorities on Soviet and Central Asian politics. But instead, he followed another path. By the time the Nazis took power in 1933, von Mende had begun to dabble in politics. That same year, he had joined the SA, Hitler's storm troopers. Espeseth wrote in her memoirs that he did this because he wanted political backing in Germany in case the Soviets attacked him for studying a sensitive topic. They had already turned down his request for a visa on the grounds that he was a spy, not a real academic.
On the other hand, perhaps he acted out of opportunism. Despite his courtly manners, von Mende had suffered hardship and seen his family destroyed by the Soviets. The Nazis were eager to build a new German empire in lands occupied by the Soviets. Von Mende was one of the world's few experts on the Soviets' Achilles' heel. He may have seen the Nazi movement as a potentially powerful patron and wanted to join.
At that time, joining the Nazis wasn't all that easy; by 1933 the party had put a stop on new members -- an effort to keep out people who just wanted to climb onto the bandwagon. People interested in joining the movement often chose the SA (the Sturmabteilung, or Storm Division). Although it was famous for its storm troopers -- working-class bully boys who led pogroms and attacks on enemies -- many others signed up too. As the Nazis rose to power, membership in the SA mushroomed, from 60,000 in 1930 to 200,000 in 1933.
Three years later, von Mende quit the SA. Family lore has it that Espeseth made him quit before she would marry him. Indeed they married in 1936, after he had done so. In his resumes, von Mende writes that he left the SA because new teaching duties left no time for political activity. But the SA's star was soon to fall, and von Mende may simply have realized that he had chosen the wrong fascist club. Shortly after von Mende joined, Hitler got rid of the SA leader Ernst Rahm in a bloody coup -- the Night of the Long Knives. The SA quickly lost influence.
In any case, this experience left von Mende politically vulnerable. Soon after his second book was published he was offered a job as an adjunct professor at Berlin University. This appointment was immediately opposed by a colorful but dangerous man, Oskar Ritter von Niedermayer, a soldier and adventurer who had tried to foment jihad against the British in World War I. He now headed the university's Institute of Military Geography and Politics and was seen as loyal to the government.
Von Niedermayer bitterly objected to von Mende on two grounds. One was standard for academic battles in any era: that von Mende was a poor scholar. The other was dangerous in Nazi Germany: that von Mende had the wrong political outlook. Von Mende had a "group" of strange supporters and was unreliable, von Niedermayer wrote in 1937, in a letter opposing the appointment. "Out of this there should, according to my view, be an according judgment of his ideology." The "group" von Niedermayer referred to could have been the SA. More damaging was questioning his ideology. To get ahead at a university in Nazi Germany you had to follow the party line.
Whether as a result of this attack or simply out of opportunism, von Mende now completely embraced Nazi ideology. His letters show that he was constantly writing to anticommunist groups or Nazi party organizations engaged in anticommunist propaganda. He began to write book reviews for Nazi publications and advised an elite Nazi school, the Adolf-Hitler-Schule in Sonthofen, on hiring decisions. Important for his later work, he kept in regular contact with Georg Leibbrandt, the head of the Nazis' external affairs office.
Espeseth wrote in her autobiography that she didn't like the Nazis and asked von Mende if they could oppose them. Von Mende said no; he knew from his work studying the Soviet regime that the individual stood no chance against a totalitarian system. They would have to conform.
Not surprisingly, anti-Semitism began to play an increasing role in his works. In 1938, he was asked to edit a brochure published by the Anti-Komintern that described "the exceptional Jewification of the communist apparatus in the Soviet Union." He also dutifully replied to queries from the education ministry about a Jewish colleague, suggesting where the officials could look to find more documentation on him.
This political work was reflected in his third book, The Peoples of the Soviet Union. It contained no new ideas and seemed more of a cheat sheet for Nazi ideologues. The title page featured a series of slogans highlighting his main points: "The Great Non-Russian Peoples in the USSR Seek Their Own Statehood!" and "Since 1917 the National Consciousness of the Great Non-Russian Peoples in the USSR Has Awakened!"
The book was rife with anti-Semitism. In a series of crude character sketches depicting the Soviet Union's ethnic groups, the book included one chapter entitled "The Jews." In it, von Mende surveyed their wide-ranging geographic distribution. Then, in turgid, inflammatory prose, he wrote: "Bolshevism has given a push to the expansion of those Jewish circles, which reject all alliances except for a blood-defined cliquish confederacy. Through an unparalleled desire for and exercise of power, it destroys and damages in its sphere of influence any organic cohesion, especially any unity of peoples.
"It seems that the main danger of Judaism for other peoples lies in the fact that it is a unit not comparable to a nation, but in its unity it surpasses the unity of some nations ... The Jew cannot be put back in the circle of his people, because it doesn't exist, so he has all the possibilities of an opportunist: he is a Jew and at the same time demands recognition as a Russian, Englishman, or something else."
Unexplored in this torrent of prose was a point von Mende probably would not want to acknowledge: his reason for hating Jews was exactly his reason for embracing Soviet Muslims. He rejected Jews because of their extra-national links, yet he advocated the use of Soviet Muslims precisely because of their lack of allegiance to the Soviet state. But von Mende's book was not a work of analysis: it was meant to lay to rest any questions about his political reliability. It did so, but it also helped destroy his postwar academic career, setting the course of his life for the next twenty-five years.
When World War II began later in 1939, von Mende ratcheted up his political work. After France fell in 1940 and the Nazis prepared to invade the Soviet Union, he helped the Nazis by organizing emigres in Berlin to write reports on the Soviet Union. The reports went straight to von Mende's old contact in the Nazis' Foreign Office, Georg Leibbrandt.
In November 1941, von Mende obtained the coveted rank of full professor. But by then he was no longer an academic. Four months earlier, on June 22, Hitler had invaded the Soviet Union. That same day, von Mende had begun working for the Ostministerium, where he developed plans for harnessing Islam, a strategy that would last long after the Nazi defeat.