It’s late afternoon in Wunsdorf, a small town 50km south of Berlin. Winter has left the landscape dry and hazy, so the lights are already on in the local refugee camp.
A team of guards, all of them German, has been watching over the facility since it opened last February. It’s a sprawling campus, complete with its own kindergarten, infirmary and school.
Families sleep in the main building – a former government administrative office. Young, single men sleep in containers outside – two or three in each room.
According to Wolfgang Brandt, spokesman for the regional home affairs office, it currently houses 630 people from several countries, including Syria, Iraq and Iran. The occupancy rate, however, is well below the camp’s capacity of 959 people
One of the residents, Mohammed Al-Khayeri*, is currently working out at the camp’s gym located inside the main building. Since arriving in Germany last September, the 23-year-old Iraqi has tried to spend as much time exercising as he can.
“I’m a little fat. I want to lose my belly,” Al-Khayeri says as he cracks a smile that belies his otherwise sombre demeanour.
Dressed in a black T-shirt, grey sweat pants and white Puma trainers, he recounts how he had to leave his family behind in 2014, as he fled the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS).
Exodus of refugees
Travelling via Turkey and along the Balkan route, he spent a total of $3,200 getting to Finland. But when his asylum application was rejected after a year and 10 months of waiting there, he was forced to take refuge in Germany
Al-Khayeri had known very little about Germany before he came, only that Chancellor Angela Merkel was welcoming refugees at a time when other countries were not. That was enough.
Germany hosts nearly a million refugees, most of them came last year as part of the exodus of refugees to Europe fleeing war in Syria and Iraq.
He and his 100 or so travelling companions – all single men – sometimes had to sleep in the forest or contend with thieves. “Maybe I’ll die today, or tomorrow,” he says he often thought to himself in his darkest moments. He struggles to contain his emotions as he recounts his journey.
Al-Khayeri’s family is still in Iraq.
Al-Khayeri makes sure to pray five times a day in the camp’s prayer room. There is no mosque here though – an observation which would be unremarkable in any other location. Here that fact is noteworthy because this is the exact site on which Germany’s first mosque was built back in 1915 as part of a plan to encourage young Muslim men to fight for Germany during World War I.
It all goes back to a time when war was starting to smoulder across Europe. The German aristocrat, adventurer and diplomat Max von Oppenheim presented Kaiser Wilhelm II with a grand plan.
To boost Germany’s chances of winning the war, he reasoned that the country should re-engage Muslim soldiers captured from Russian, British and French forces by convincing them to wage a religious war against the allies – the British, French, and Russian alliance.
In 1914, Oppenheim wrote: “In the battle against England … Islam will become one of our most important weapons.”
The German-Ottoman alliance
The plan, a convenient corollary of the German-Ottoman alliance, was formally launched by Turkish Sultan Mehmed V shortly after the start of the war. From a mosque in Constantinople, the Sultan declared Britain, France and Russia the enemies of Islam, calling upon the Muslim subjects of those countries and their colonies to resist their oppressors.
According to the fatwa that was subsequently issued, any Muslim that engaged in war against the Ottomans would have to pay the highest penalty.
In the same year, two prisoner of war camps were built in Wunsdorf and Zossen – 7km away. Wunsdorf’s Halbmondlager (Half Moon Camp) – so called because of the high concentration of Muslims – held about 5,000 prisoners at its peak, while Zossen had more than 12,000.
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The prisoners, captured from auxiliary Allied troops from India and African colonies, as well as from the Crimea, Kazan and Caucasus, received special treatment in Wunsdorf.
The camp had a relatively small number of occupants per square metre, friendly prison staff and the free exercise of religion. Complete with a cupola, minaret and prayer room, the wooden mosque’s inauguration coincided with the beginning of Ramadan in 1915.
Islam was seen as a tool to achieve Germany’s political and military objectives. “It was actually the Germans who were observing whether all the rituals that belong to [the] Islamic faith were [being] carried out or not,” says Reinhard Bernbeck, a professor of Near Eastern Archaeology at the Free University of Berlin.
It was the Germans who strongly encouraged the Muslims to pray five times a day, for example, Bernbeck adds.
Friday sermons were used to politicise the prisoners, and a propaganda newspaper called “al-Jihad” was circulated within the camps. The mosque, stylised to remind the prisoners of different Islamic civilisations, included calligraphic inscriptions urging them to join the religious war.
Germany’s relationship with Islam
Despite the calculated efforts, only a small proportion of the Muslim prisoners of war ended up fighting for the German side. At least 1,100 people from Tatarstan – now part of Russia – 1,084 Arabs and 49 Indians defected.
But some of those soldiers requested to be sent back to the PoW camp because the preferential treatment they had enjoyed there was so much better than life at the front.
Ultimately the project was considered a failure.
Only 15 years after its inauguration, the mosque was demolished