Often one comes across a statement made by a Pakistani or an Indian politician, praising the former German Nazi leader, Adolf Hitler. Hitler’s regime (1933-1945) was responsible for the systematic state-sanctioned murder of millions of people considered to be of the ‘inferior race.’ So it is odd to hear praise for him coming from folk who too would have been sent to the gas chambers in Auschwitz along with men, women and children of the so-called ‘non-Aryan races.’
The phenomenon of some South Asians romanticising Hitler could be the result of the region’s recent shift to the populist right, along with various other regions of the world. But there are many other possibilities.
The idealisation of Hitler among some sections in India and Pakistan could also be due to the residual impact of a clever propaganda campaign that the Nazis unleashed upon certain segments of India’s Hindu and Muslim polities in the 1930s. This fact has been largely forgotten by mainstream history. However, even a brief recap of this can aid in better understanding the ironic spectacle of a ‘brown’ Muslim or a Hindu fawning over a mass murderer, who would have thrown them in one of his many death camps at the drop of a hat.
In his essay for the May/June 2000 issue of the academic journal, Social Scientist, Eugene J. D’Souza writes that Nazi German propaganda made its way into India when mainstream Hindu and Muslim leadership in the region had become disoriented after the gradual collapse of two major anti-British movements in the 1920s: the Khilafat Movement and the ‘Non-cooperation Movement’.
D’Souza writes this is when German business interests in the region were first activated by Nazi Germany to contact the more radical elements within the Hindu and Muslim political, social and media outlets. The campaign in this regard began from Bengal, where ‘communal’ and ‘revolutionary’ anti-British sentiment was the strongest. To Nazi Germany, the British were enemies, even before the start of the Second World War.
The curious case of ‘brown’ folks fawning over Hitler and his policies
Nazi agents (largely recruited from German businesses in India) preyed on the fears of Bengal’s landed and business elites, telling them that their lands and businesses were under threat due to the ‘socialist’ bent of the Indian National Congress (INC). Hitler’s notorious biography, Mein Kampf was then translated into various languages of India — including Hindi, Urdu and Bengali. These translations were distributed free of cost, especially among the editors and staff of various Hindi and Urdu newspapers.
D’Souza writes that Nazi agents then began to infiltrate various Muslim and Hindu social and cultural organisations. The September 8, 1939 issue of the English daily The Times of India quoted Jewish and socialist refugees from Germany in India as saying that Indian employees working in German companies were being used to spy on the refugees.
Apart from utilising the ‘services’ of India-based German businesses, Nazi Germany also sent agents to India disguised as technicians, tourists, salesmen, musicians and photographers. According to D’Souza, German businesses would frequently give advertisements to Indian newspapers that were willing to facilitate Nazi propaganda.
Even though the main intention of Nazi Germany was to ferment unrest in India against the British colonialists, its plans in this context never looked to unite the anti-British Hindu and Muslim segments. Maybe the Germans had noted the volatility of such a move. Hindus and Muslims had collaborated with each other against the British during the Khilafat and Non-cooperation movements; but both the movements had eventually mutated into becoming communal, giving the British the space to crush them.
Instead, and as noted in the files kept by the British colonial government’s Home Department (file No. 8301, 1939), Nazi agents in India applied a two-pronged strategy in which they approached radical Hindu and Muslim leaderships with entirely separate sets of rhetoric and propaganda.
For example, when the agents managed to get a foothold in newspapers funded and run by the Hindu nationalist organisation the Hindu Mahasabha, they constantly informed the Mahasabha that Hitler considered the Hindus of India as the real custodians of the Indian nation, while the Muslims and other non-Hindu communities in the region were ‘aliens’ just like the Jews were in Germany.
It is thus not surprising to note similar sentiments in the works of the period’s celebrated Hindu nationalists such as V.D. Savarkar and M.S. Golwalker. Both weren’t very secretive about their admiration of Nazi Germany either. However, during their interactions with radical Muslim groups, the Nazi agents completely flipped their message. The agents glorified the ‘martial tendencies’ of the Muslims and claimed to be major supporters of the religious and territorial interests of the Muslims, especially in the Middle East.
According to the Home Department’s files, Nazi Germany funded various established and small newspapers as long they continued to publish pro-Germany articles and propaganda. Hindi newspapers in this circle would carry anti-Muslim, anti-Jew and anti-British articles; whereas the Muslim-owned Urdu papers, that received advertisements and funds from German companies, would produce anti-Hindu, anti-Jew and anti-British material.
According to the Home Department’s files dated October 18, 1939, the German wife of a Muslim professor at the famous Aligarh University received funds from her home country to publish a daily called Spirit of the Times through which she tried to prove that ‘Nazi ideals approximate to the tenants of Islam.’
In his detailed study of India’s pre-Partition Muslim and Hindu middle-class milieu, German historian Marcus Daechsel, in his book The Politics of Self-Expression, writes that middle-class political culture in interwar India was haunted by fascistic resonances. Activists from various political camps believed in Social-Darwinism, worshipped violence and war and focused their political action on public spectacles and paramilitary organisations. Marcus identifies various Muslim and Hindu personalities and organisations which did this. And, as D’Souza demonstrates, almost each one of them was shaped, influenced and, at times, funded by Nazi propaganda in India between 1933 and 1940.
D’Souza laments that the origin of Nazi propaganda still echoes in India, especially in the politics and rhetoric of Hindu nationalists. In Pakistan, these rudiments largely emerge during discourses involving talk of Israel and the idea of nationalism held by certain radical right-wing elements. The fascinating thing is, in both cases, the language is almost the same as it was in the 1930s. The narrative, its tone and language are quite similar.
According to Marcus, despite their enthusiasm for Nazi Germany and Hitler, most radical Hindu and Muslim ideologues never fully comprehended the Nazi ideology. That’s why they largely sound contradictory. And since the narrative, imagery and language in this context has not changed much since the 1930s, the same is the case today when a Hindu or Muslim politician glorifies Hitler. The results are always ironic.
Published in Dawn, EOS, January 5th, 2020