A new book tells the largely untold story of Hitler’s contempt for India

Vaibhav Purandare's Hitler and India is a quest to discover and reveal the mysteries of an untold story

By Mariella Radaelli

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This file photo is used for illustrative purposes
This file photo is used for illustrative purposes

Published: Fri 28 Jul 2023, 2:59 PM

Many books have been written about Hitler and Nazi ideology, but none explored the racism and racial bullying of the Nazi leaders towards Indians. No essayist has ever researched this topic, except Vaibhav Purandare. His book, Hitler And India −The Untold Story of His Hatred for the Country and Its People, published by Harper Collins, turns into a quest to discover and reveal the mysteries of an untold story. “Hitler thought, spoke, read, discussed and spewed poison and his bogus fact-free wisdom about India right through his career, from the time he was a struggling political agitator in 1919-1920 to his years in the bunker in Berlin during the war,” Purandare tells Khaleej Times. “No one would have imagined that India had much role to play in Hitler’s thinking. That’s why people would naturally assume that India, at best, would be at the very periphery of his consciousness. I have revealed in my book that is not the case at all!”

Vaibhav Purandare, author
Vaibhav Purandare, author

As an intrepid journalist and historian, Purandare pieces together a past that went missing, buried in archives. During a 10-year research, he re-examined Hitler’s speeches and autobiography, Mein Kampf, and found rich sources in newspapers, periodicals, and journals of the time. The press played a vital role in recording the truth, and now Purandare has unearthed a forgotten history obscured by the passage of time. “Interestingly, Indian papers of the time wrote a lot about how Hitler perceived India and recorded atrocities against Indians in Nazi Germany,” he explains. “So did many of the British newspapers. The Nazi press itself was so revealing — the Nazi Party’s mouthpiece Volkischer Beobachter wrote the nastiest possible stuff about the Indian people, which I have quoted in my book.”

There is both sadness and irony in this gripping book, which also details previously unpublished stories about Indian intellectuals who were victims of Nazi racism and whose biographies are limited by public perception.

Book cover
Book cover

The tone is complex. It can sometimes be playful, even though the subject matter is dramatic. Hilarious is the description of Hitler’s obsession with The Lives of a Bengal Lancer, a Hollywood movie with Gary Cooper, or the bizarre Aryan invasion theory by Houston Stewart Chamberlain, a British-born naturalised German political philosopher whose advocacy of the racial superiority of the so-called Aryan element in European culture shaped Hitler’s view of India.

Many times, we laugh to keep ourselves from crying. Purandare has the ability to tell a tragic, hurtful story with wit to produce a cathartic sense of relief. Edited excerpts from an interview with the author:

The story idea for your book came in 2011 after reading Hitler’s Mein Kampf. A particular passage in the text “had piqued my curiosity,” you wrote. But what drew you to Hitler’s political manifesto?

In my growing-up years and even later in my youth, I saw Hitler’s autobiography prominently displayed in almost all Indian bookstores. Discussion on World War II and the Nazis was also often particularly intense in the 1980s and ’90s, and it has continued to rivet public attention to this day. Plus, Hitler was portrayed as this great villain. What was the man all about? What did he have to say about his own political ideas? A combination of all these factors made me extremely curious, and I thought, as a serious student of history, I must go through his political manifesto if I were to try and understand perhaps the most influential — in a negative sense —figure of the twentieth century.

In Mein Kampf, Hitler defined Indians as “gabbling pomposities”. Another English version translated them as “chattering busybodies” and other editions used the phrase “charlatans who gave themselves big airs”. Did these offensive terms awaken your desire for information about Hitler’s racism towards Indians?

I was totally taken aback, almost thrown, when I read how he described and defined Indians. Why? Because we in India had been brought up to believe that Hitler was a supporter of India’s independence movement and that the swastika of the Nazis was a version of Hinduism’s own holy symbol. When I came across his abrasive, offensive and even contemptuous comments about Indians, I wondered: is there more to this? Have I seen everything? And I began to look deeper.

Did you want to find those missing puzzle pieces that reveal the whole picture?

When I started researching, I had not made up my mind to write an entire book. I was curious about the whole thing, and the more I looked into Nazi history and the life of Hitler, the more I found. All of it was astonishing —Hitler’s repeated anti-India tirades, his holding up of the British Raj as an example to emulate, his firm and unrelenting opposition to India’s freedom movement, his regime’s assaults on, and arrests of, several Indians, and treatment of the great Indian nationalist leader, Subhas Chandra Bose. I had seen a picture of Bose shaking hands with Hitler, but only when I looked at the details did I realise that Bose had been treated pretty shabbily by Hitler and his entire Nazi regime. When all the material came together, I realised that here, clearly, was material enough for a book.

You dedicate more than one chapter to the Indian nationalist leader Subhas Chandra Bose. Mahatma Gandhi called him the “patriot of patriots” despite opposing his methods. You said Bose had an “extremely complex and often difficult relationship with the Nazis in his single-minded pursuit of the goal of Indian Independence”. Yet, his Machiavellian flirting with criminals and mass murderers, such as Hitler and Mussolini, make him a controversial figure in the West.

I wouldn’t call his approach Machiavellian. Bose was obsessed with the idea of India’s freedom. In any case, he was aware of Hitler’s anti-India policies and even protested vigorously against these in the 1930s! When the war came, he saw an opportunity in Britain’s difficulties and looked at Hitler and Nazi Germany as ‘the enemy’s enemy’. He wasn’t seeking anything for himself. But the Nazis were not interested and merely paid lip service and he got nothing out of Hitler.

You say, “Unlike Hitler, Mussolini worked consciously to cultivate foreign leaders, and Bose developed a feeling that Mussolini spoke to him more in terms of equality than the Germans, demonstrated no racial contempt, and treated him like an important Indian figure.” On the contrary, you stress that Hitler was not responsive and uninterested in the Indian cause. Did Bose gain really nothing from that unpleasant meeting?

The only thing he got was a submarine to get to East Asia. The meeting with Hitler left him totally disappointed, and Bose said it had been a waste. He realised it was difficult to have a conversation with Hitler.

Why is there a common Western notion that Hitler supported Netaji?

Because the Nazis allowed Bose to be in Germany for a while and helped him, albeit often with open reluctance, to set up the Indian Legion while holding tremendous contempt for him and his people. They did what they did because they were seeking leverage in the war. And even then, they were unhelpful in their approach because they mostly saw Bose as a problem and not an easy aide. Bose had too much self-respect, so they found him not kowtowing to them the way they had expected him to.

Why did nobody know about Hitler’s views on India, including the Indians themselves?

The photograph of Subhas Chandra Bose shaking hands with Hitler has been the dominant image in the Indian consciousness over the past several decades. Interestingly, during Hitler’s lifetime, there was a great deal of awareness about his anti-India attitude and approach. But with the passage of time, a sort of collective amnesia set in, and all the bad things were forgotten. A sort of easy theory gained ground instead: Hitler fought the British, who were ruling India, so he couldn’t have been anti-Indian. Bose’s seeking of support from ‘the enemy’s enemy’ played into this same strand of consciousness, without us Indians bothering to investigate what he went through in his interactions with the Nazis.

Bose brought up the issue of the anti-India passages in Mein Kampf. He asked Hitler to rectify those passages, but his request remained unheard. Had the University of Calcutta made the same request in vain years earlier?

True. Such a request had been made in 1934, and Hitler had quickly turned it down. He had no intention of removing the anti-India passages.

The famous Bengali poet and Nobel Prize winner Rabindranath Tagore visited Germany in 1921 when his popularity ascended to a new peak. The person mainly responsible for this was Duke Keyserling, who organised “Tagore Week” in The School of Wisdom, which he had founded in 1920. But on that occasion, the German press contemptuously called Tagore a Jew. He was not of Jewish descent but beloved in the Jewish world, as Shimon Lev from The Hebrew University of Jerusalem states in his essay Clear Are the Paths of India: The Representation of Tagore in Jewish Literature. Do you think that was the reason for his denigration by Nazi Germany?

Being Indian was bad enough for Hitler and the Nazis. Being liked by the Jews clearly would be worse.

Do you think Hitler had some schizophrenic opinion on India’s struggle for freedom from the British Raj? Was he ever ambivalent?

I don’t think he was ambivalent. He was clear that the Indians didn’t deserve freedom as they were ‘racially inferior’ in his own words, and he said so openly and aggressively, in private discussions and in public, even at a Nazi rally in 1936, as my book points out. Of course, there were times when he professed sympathy for Indians, but that was when he was cornered and felt the need to be temporarily diplomatic and finally when rank opportunism and political compulsion forced him to seek help from whichever quarter he could get it as he received setback after setback in the conflict from the second half of the year 1941. In his autobiography, he has expressed his strong disapproval of the Indian liberation movement because he says it’s a movement of an inferior race against a superior one. He also states that he is confident the Indians will never succeed in gaining freedom and as part of his political manifesto lays down the principle that Germans must in no way extend support to, or get associated, with the Indian push for freedom.

Did Hitler envy the British because of the Raj?

Yes! He held it up as his ideal and made a statement that what India was to the British, Russia would be to Germany! And he wanted Germany to closely follow the British Raj model — crush the natives, destroy their self-respect, use them for labour, and loot the land and its resources. But yes, he didn’t want to make what he said were ‘mistakes’ the British had made in India. For example, he felt that the British had made a mistake in educating Indians! The subject people must only be trampled underfoot, he believed. And in his view, Indians didn’t deserve any decent treatment at all.

Does the success of Mein Kampf in India also relate to the Aryan mythology?

Oh yes. The word Aryan has played an important role, just like the swastika, in Indians’ feeling that Hitler couldn’t have been anti-India. The word comes from the Sanskrit word ‘Arya.’ But the Aryans that Hitler was referring to were not Indians, unlike what many Indians think! They were Nordic people who came in from the West and settled in India, and in fact, the Nazi theory is that they lost their Aryanness because they got mixed with the Indians living in India!

Does Mein Kampf remain a contentious book?

Absolutely. But that doesn’t mean it should be banned! It should not be! I am opposed to any censorship on books. Instead, critical editions should be brought out with detailed notes on what Hitler asserts and what the truth is. We need them on every page because he lies throughout and demonstrates deep prejudice and hatred. Not just his political manifesto and theorising, but even his account of his personal story is highly unreliable, according to his best biographers. We need a fact-checked Mein Kampf, not a ban.

There is a subtle irony, a farcical comic tone, and a verbal wit in some passages of your book. The awareness of absurdity and grotesque characters brings laughter as well as anguish. Do we choose laughter that allows detachment from such despicable behaviour to cure suffering?

That’s a superb observation you have made. Perhaps it was my way of absorbing the ridiculousness, the sheer absurdity of the fact that we had forgotten and turned a blind eye towards such an important chapter of our history. And looking at that chapter is even more important today to understand what exactly happened.

What kind of challenges did you face while researching?

I had to look closely at the use of the German language in the 1930s, which was challenging but enlightening as well. It made me even more determined to seek the truth. Fortunately, I could consult and seek advice from experts in the German language.


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