The mosque, built in July 1915 and torn down in 1925 or 1926, was designed to serve as a place of prayer for around 4,000 Muslim prisoners of war captured on both the Eastern and western fronts during the First World War, Dr. Reinhard Bernbeck, who led the excavation, told The Local.
“But the mosque was not there for reasons of good treatment of the soldiers,” Bernbeck continued. “It was meant as a place to indoctrinate them into jihad so that they would return to the front to fight against their former colonial masters.”
Imams were sent specially from Germany's allies in the Ottoman Empire with the task of converting the prisoners to jihad, the professor said.
But the project appears to have been a failure.
“Many of the inmates were sent to fight with the Ottomans, but they were so poorly treated that they ended up deserting,” said Bernbeck.
An Orientalist vision
Pieces of metal found at the site: Photo: Freie Universität
Bernbeck said that though a small contingent of Muslim diplomats had lived in Germany before the First World War, this mosque was Germany's first.
The building was never built to last. It was made of wood, but nonetheless had a minaret measuring an impressive 23 metres high, as well as a central dome.
During the excavation the team found wires and iron bolts used to hold the dome up, as well as shards of glass from the mosque's windows.
Bernbeck points out the interesting nature of the architecture which incorporated styles from the Ottoman empire as well as north Africa and India.
“This could have been Orientalism – simply its builders' idea about how the Orient would have looked – or it could have been done intentionally. That is difficult to say,” said Bernbeck.
Life for the prisoners does not appear to have been particularly pleasant, despite the fact they were allowed to pray.
Bernbeck describes how studies were conducted on them which ran the gamut from linguistic tests, to musical studies, to racial examinations of their skull shape.
“They were treated as human curiosities,” said the professor.
But the poor treatment did not go as far as torture.
“They were relatively well treated because they were supposed to fight for Germany,” the professor explained.
After the war, some eastern Muslims even continued to live at the camp for a few years, possibly because they could not return to a Russia which had been thrown into turmoil by the communist revolution.
From jihad to jihad
In the 1930s, the site continued to have a connection to the military. First it was used by the Nazis as a tank base and then by the Soviets as a garrison.
Now, the area 40 kilometres south of Berlin is to be be used to house refugees and homes made out of shipping containers will be set up there.
“It is ironic because when the mosque stood, it was used to turn people into jihadists, and now the people who will live there are fleeing from jihad,” said Bernbeck.
And the professor points out one last curiosity of the spot. It could have been the site of a failed attempt in the early 1920s to expel Jews from Germany.
“There is evidence to show that Eastern Jews were rounded up and put in a camp in that area for deportation,” said the academic. “But after public outcry, the plan was dropped.”