“Strength does not come from physical capacity. It comes from an indomitable will.” – Mahatma Gandhi
There are few world leaders in history who differ as starkly as Mohandas Gandhi and Adolf Hitler. The one is revered in his nation and throughout the world as the Mahatma, an apostle of nonviolence and non-discrimination. The Führer in contrast is officially and widely loathed both in his home country and across the West as a criminally insane warmonger pursuing of racial domination. Gandhism, in many ways, legitimately appears as the antithesis to Hitlerism.
For the liberal-internationalist leadership of the West, Gandhi has become something of a secular saint. And yet, because actual history is always more interesting than official mythology, one is struck both by some of the surprising similarities between Gandhi and Hitler, and by Gandhi’s rather nuanced views of the German dictator. Both were influenced by the philosophy of Arthur Schopenhauer. Perhaps significantly, both were convinced and proselytizing vegetarians. Both had come to national consciousness by living as a minority in a conflict-ridden multiethnic state, namely South Africa and Austria-Hungary, respectively. Both were possessed by the conviction of being on a sacred mission to convert their countrymen to their philosophy in service of national liberation. Both were nationalists so inflamed with passion for their fatherland that they were willing, on numerous occasions, to risk death — including the threat of suicide, the one by the fast, the other by the bullet — in the pursuit of salvation. Perhaps most surprising is the fact that both Hitler and Gandhi were enormously proud of the Aryan heritage and indeed built their political ideologies around this racial and spiritual ancestry.
In fact, the historical Gandhi — much like the historical Churchill, but for opposite reasons — is if anything a rather awkward figure for the global antinationalist consensus. Gandhi has been praised as a precursor to Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela, and Barack Hussein Obama. But let us consider the Mahatma’s starkly incongruous record:
- Even after the Second World War, Gandhi publicly expressed pride in the fact that “Indians come of Aryan stock.”
- Gandhi believed Western media had exaggerated Hitler’s faults and he refused to morally exclude him from humanity.
- Gandhi believed Hitler could be appealed to using nonviolence and wrote two incredibly sensitive letters to the Führer, describing himself as Hitler’s “sincere friend.”
- Gandhi consistently urged nonviolent resistance not only to the British Empire but also to the Third Reich. He explicitly condemned Indian collaboration in the Allied war of annihilation against National Socialism, praised the French government of Philippe Pétain for signing an armistice with Germany in 1940, and called on the English to abandon the war and adopt nonviolent resistance to the Axis (in effect, military surrender). Gandhi then objectively undermined the Allied military effort against the Third Reich.
- Gandhi claimed an Axis victory would produce no worse results than an Allied one and (correctly) believed that Hitler’s war aims were limited, with no ambitions against Great Britain or her Empire.
- Gandhi systematically morally equated, on numerous occasions, Hitler, Churchill, Roosevelt, Stalin, and their respective ideologies (Nazism, imperialism, communism . . .) as manifestations of the same essential violence, which in each form fed on each other in a dialectical escalation. (For instance, Gandhi claimed British imperialism had caused the rise of Hitlerism.) Hitler’s ideology, according to Gandhi, was at most a more systematic and honest philosophy of violence than that hypocritically practiced by the Western democracies.
- When told of the holocaust, Gandhi said “the Jews should have offered themselves to the butcher’s knife. They should have thrown themselves into the sea from cliffs.” (According to his Jewish biographer, Louis Fischer.)
Is this really the man President Obama has praised as a precursor? For generations inculcated in the belief that Hitler and “Nazism” represent the supreme, unique, and inexplicable evil, Gandhi’s life and thought are simply blasphemous. This was evident even during the Second World War, during which Gandhi and many of his party-comrades were jailed for their politics by the British (we do not call British jails “concentration camps,” but the purpose and principle are identical). More shocking perhaps is that 70 years later in the “free world,” Americans and Europeans can lose their livelihood or be jailed for expressing views similar to Gandhi’s.
Gandhi considered a Hitler a tyrant, a vow-breaker, an aggressor, and a persecutor of the Jews. He neither a Hitler apologist nor a political anti-Semite. And yet, he refused war against him or to consider him a unique evil in any way. Gandhi is in the liberal-internationalist mainstream in his systematic advocacy of civil rights regardless of “color and creed” and of “international tribunals” (the latter striking me as rather naïve), although I believe his motivations were quite distinct.
Gandhi’s relative and even shocking political incorrectness makes sense when placed in context. The incompatibility of Gandhi’s viewpoints with the imperatives of Western political correctness reflect the fact that he, probably unlike Mandela and certainly unlike King, was a significantly independent leader. Yes, Gandhi’s nonviolent race-blind egalitarianism no doubt appealed to Western sentimentalism, the usual tactic. But he also fundamentally represented a certain Indian patriotism and religiosity, which by its sheer mass and piety, afforded him a power base independent of the West. Gandhi’s political independence and iconoclasm reflects, besides his own independence of character, the relative cultural and psychological independence of India of his day.
In this article, I will present a systematic overview of Gandhi’s views of Hitler throughout his life, drawing mainly from his Collected Works as published by the Government of India. You will forgive me if this article is long and Gandhi’s quotations somewhat repetitive, for I want this to be a comprehensive reference source on the topic. Gandhi being widely recognized as an awesome moral authority across the world today, knowledge of his heterodox views on Hitler and the Second World War cannot fail to bring some people to a more nuanced and balanced assessment of that catastrophic and epoch-making time.
Gandhi’s Aryan Identity
Hitler’s Aryanism is well-known although rarely contextualized, generally being presented as no more than pseudoscientific quackery. Hitler, like many Westerners at the time, was fascinated by recent discoveries showing that invaders, called Aryans, had conquered Europe and India during their primordial history, accounting for the amazing relatedness of the Indo-European languages in both continents (including Greek, Romance, Celtic, Germanic, Slavic, Sanskrit, Hindi, Persian, and other languages). These conquerors were said to be tall and blond Nords, a debatable claim, but they were certainly sun-worshiping warriors animated by life-affirming Pagan virtues.
National Socialism, in taking on the ancient Aryan symbol of the Swastika (common in ancient Germanic artifacts and contemporary Hinduism and Buddhism), self-consciously proclaimed itself to be an attempt to revive this conquering, virile, primordial, even barbaric Pagan spirit. Hitler saw this as a return to healthier old Germanic ways, considering that the German people had been weakened and divided by the spread of Christianity, liberalism, and Marxism. Jews were furthermore criticized for having had a leading role in the promotion of each of these ideologies. The term “Aryan” was furthermore preferred to “Nordic” in that it excluded Jews but did not imply controversial racial divisions within Germany.
Less often remarked is that Gandhi also considered himself an Aryan and was deeply proud of this racial and spiritual heritage. Admittedly, Gandhi’s first documented identification as an Aryan was pragmatic and even selfish. Living in South Africa, he addressed a petition in 1894 to the Natal Assembly, arguing that Indians should enjoy suffrage and not be considered racially inferior like the black African natives. Gandhi justified this on grounds of Indians and Europeans’ shared Aryan blood: “both the Anglo-Saxon and the Indian races belong to the same stock [. . .] both the races have sprung from the same Aryan stock, or rather the Indo-European as many call it” (1/149, numbering refers to volume and page number in Gandhi’s Collected Works). This was Gandhi’s attempt to win rights for Indians in what was, in the British Empire as elsewhere, still a white man’s world.
This tactic did not work, yet Gandhi continued to identify himself as an Aryan, using the term in a religious sense as well as a racial one. He considered “Aryanism” synonymous with Hinduism. A March 1905 newspaper summarized a lecture Gandhi gave at a Masonic temple as follows:
[T]he lecturer described what was meant by the title “Hindu,” referring it to the branch of the Aryan people that had migrated to the trans-Indus districts of India, and had colonised that vast country. As a matter of fact, Aryanism would have been a better descriptive word than Hinduism, is explanation [sic] of the faith accepted by so many millions of his countrymen. (4/201)
Gandhi had previously praised a Hindu school in South Africa writing: “I only wish that such institutions will crop up all over India and be the means of preserving the Aryan religion in its purity.” (1/426). And if Gandhi’s Aryan identity was religious as well as racial, this meant, as with Hitler, that his Aryanism had an enormous influence on his politics. For as the Mahatma famously said: “those who say that religion has nothing to do with politics do not know what religion means.”
Having said this, we must emphasize that Gandhi’s Aryanism – whose “purity” was solely spiritual – cannot be compared to Hitler’s, insofar as Gandhi rejected all discrimination against non-Aryans (whether Jews, India’s native Dravidians, or indeed lower-caste Hindus and Dalits).
That said, it is striking that Gandhi retained this Aryan identity up to the end of his life. Indeed, it is precisely after the Second World War and the publicizing of the real and imagined persecution of European Jewry, that Gandhi again began talking of his Aryan identity. In an April 1947 talk to working women, Gandhi ascribed special spiritual powers to Aryans: “If women resolve to bring glory to the nation, within a few months they can totally change the face of the country because the spiritual background of an Aryan woman is totally different from that of the women of other countries” (94/320). Gandhi furthermore retained the belief that Aryan descent was significant to national identity. As he said in a January 1948 speech: “Today the Iranian Ambassador came to see me. He is a guest of the Government. He said, ‘Iran and India have always been friends. Both Iranians and Indians come of Aryan stock.’ He is right” (98/207).
Nonviolence: Gandhism as Antifascism
Perhaps the most central feature of Gandhi’s political philosophy is the doctrine of nonviolence, which was to be adhered to in almost all circumstances. Insofar as fascism proclaims a degree of violence as a moral good, namely in founding the state and enforcing aristocracy and social unity, Gandhism can be considered an antifascism.
Gandhi himself declared in an April 1938 speech: “Hitler’s and Mussolini’s schools accept as their fundamental principle violence. Ours is non-violence according to the [Indian National] Congress” (73/126). And in another speech to students that month:
You know what Hitler is doing in Germany. His creed is violence, of which he makes no secret. The other day we were told that the sword was their soul. The boys and girls there are taught the science of violence from the beginning. They are taught to hate the enemy even in their arithmetic, and you will find that the examples have been chosen with a view to inculcate the military spirit. If we endorse their creed, we must recognize the necessity of inculcating the spirit of violence from infancy. The same thing is happening in Italy. We must be honest even as they are honest. [. . .]
Herr Hitler is achieving his goal through the sword, I through soul. Cast off the cloak of foreign thoughts and ideals, identify yourselves with the villagers. The Western world is giving us destructive knowledge; we want to impart constructive education through non-violence. May God give you the strength to reach your cherished goal. (73/116)
Gandhi recognized however that Hitler’s unabashed embrace of violence as necessary was an ethically sincere viewpoint. He said in a July 1937 interview with a German officer: “Herr Hitler, I know, does not accept the position of human dignity being maintained without the use of force. Many of us feel that it is possible to achieve independence by non-violent means” (71/404). (Gandhi also asked the German why the Jews were persecuted, causing some embarrassment.)
Gandhi made clear his revulsion for anti-Semitism in a November 1938 article entitled “The Jews” in his newspaper Harijan (meaning “Child of Vishnu,” also a term Gandhi was promoting for the Dalits):
But the German persecution of the Jews seems to have no parallel in history. The tyrants of old never went so mad as Hitler seems to have gone. And he is doing it with religious zeal. For he is propounding a new religion of exclusive and militant nationalism in the name of which any inhumanity becomes an act of humanity to be rewarded here and hereafter. The crime of an obviously mad but intrepid youth is being visited upon his whole race with unbelievable ferocity. If there ever could be a justifiable war in the name of and for humanity, a war against Germany, to prevent the wanton persecution of a whole race, would be completely justified.
But I do not believe in any war. A discussion of the pros and cons of such a war is therefore outside my horizon or province. [. . .]
Germany is showing to the world how efficiently violence can be worked when it is not hampered by any hypocrisy or weakness masquerading as humanitarianism. It is also showing how hideous, terrible and terrifying it looks in its nakedness (74/240)
Redeemable Fascists: “I can have no hatred even for Adolf Hitler”
If Gandhism is an antifascism, it is of a very different type from that of the communists and the demoliberals. For whereas Gandhism opposes fascist violence with nonviolence, the communists and demoliberals oppose it with the most fanatical and limitless violence (the doctrine of “unconditional surrender,” firebombing, mass rape, ethnic cleansing, atomic bombs . . .).
Contrary to the antifascist fashion, Gandhi never believed that Hitler should be expelled from our common humanity or that he was irredeemable. Gandhi argued that Hitler could be appealed to for even he had a measure of ahimsa, meaning “not-to-injure” or “compassion.” As Gandhi wrote in a letter in October 1941: “Ahimsa was born along with man. Hitler too does not kill his own people. This is ahimsa though in a very limited measure” (81/148). In January 1942, he wrote: “Although I am pained at his deeds, I can have no hatred even for Adolf Hitler” (81/479).
Hitler being human and having a modicum of ahimsa, Gandhi believed nonviolence was just as effective against National Socialism as against British imperialism. Gandhi answered some skeptical Christian missionaries in December 1938: “Your argument presupposes that the dictators like Mussolini or Hitler are beyond redemption. But belief in non-violence is based on the assumption that human nature in its essence is one and therefore unfailingly responds to the advances of love” (74/311).
Gandhi told some American teachers that the dictators should be pitied rather than loathed (perhaps underestimating the degree of popular support for Hitler and Mussolini):
If I am truly non-violent, I would pity the dictator and say to myself, “He does not know what a human being should be. One day he will know better when he is confronted by a people who do not stand in awe of him, who will neither submit nor cringe to him, nor bear any grudge against him for whatever he may do.” Germans are today doing what they are doing because all the other nations stand in awe of them. None of them can go to Hitler with clean hands. (74/361)
Indeed, Gandhi argued that if the fascist leaders were so self-confident in challenging the Western democracies, this was because the latter were hypocrites with guilty consciences:
I do not think that Hitler and Mussolini are after all so very indifferent to the appeal of world opinion. But today these dictators feel satisfaction in defying world opinion because none of the so-called Great Powers can come to them with clean hands, and they have a rankling sense of injustice done to their people by the Great Powers in the past. Only the other day an esteemed English friend owned to me that Nazi Germany was England’s sin and that it was the Treaty of Versailles that made Hitler. (74/312)
Gandhi believed the failure of the Christian resistance to the regime in Germany was not proof of the inadequacy of nonviolence in the face of Hitler. As he argued in January 1939:
I do not think that the sufferings of Pastor [Martin] Niemoeller and others have been in vain. They have preserved their self-respect intact. They have proved that their faith was equal to any suffering. That they have not proved sufficient for melting Herr Hitler’s heart merely shows that it is made of a harder material than stone. But the hardest metal yields to sufficient heat. Even so must the hardest heart melt before sufficiency of the heat of non-violence. And there is no limit to the capacity of non-violence to generate heat. (74/392)
Gandhi believed that not only were fascists susceptible to nonviolence, but he indeed had faith that the power of violence is always ultimately vain, while that of nonviolence resonates forever. As he said in May 1938: “Non-violence has greater power than Hitler’s or Mussolini’s force,” even though this was apparently a “weapon of the weak” (73/147). Commenting on the Italian conquest of Ethiopia, Gandhi had argued in January 1937:
What can be more visible than the Abyssinians done to death by Italians? There it was lesser violence pitted against much greater. But if the Abyssinians had retired from the field and allowed themselves to be slaughtered, their seeming inactivity would have been much more effective though not for the moment visible. Hitler and Mussolini on the one hand and Stalin on the other are able to show the immediate effectiveness of violence. But it will be as transitory as that of Jhenghis’s [Genghis Khan’s] slaughter. But the effects of Buddha’s non-violent action persist and are likely to grow with age. And the more it is practised, the more effective and inexhaustible it becomes, and ultimately the whole world stands agape and exclaims, “a miracle has happened.” (70/261)
Gandhi asserted nonviolence could enable social unity just as much as an authoritarian regime, saying in November 1938: “A Khudai Khidmatgar [“servant of God,” nonviolent resister to the British] will command the co-operation of all sections of the community, not the sort of obedience that a Mussolini or a Hitler can command through his unlimited power of coercion, but the willing and spontaneous obedience which is yielded to love alone.” (74/116).
Jews unsurprisingly were generally highly supportive of Gandhi’s struggle against “color prejudice” and white colonialism. But Gandhi’s Jewish friends were appalled and often enraged by his humanization of Hitler and his consistent application of nonviolence against the fascists. Gandhi wrote in February 1939:
I happen to have a Jewish friend living with me. He has an intellectual belief in non-violence. But he says he cannot pray for Hitler. He is so full of anger over the German atrocities that he cannot speak of them with restraint. I do not quarrel with him over his anger. He wants to be non-violent, but the sufferings of fellow Jews are too much for him to bear. What is true of him is true of thousands of Jews who have no thought even of “loving the enemy.” With them as with millions “revenge is sweet, to forgive is divine.” (75/39)
1. Mohandas Gandhi, Gandhi: Selected Writings (Mineola, New York: Dover, 2005), 54.
2. Mandela’s liberation reflected Western economic sanctions against South Africa, whereas the similarly racist State of Israel continued to receive ample economic subsidies. This reflected, more than anything else, the much higher degree of ethnocentrism among Jews than among the Germanic peoples. King, a philandering Christian minister, was successful in large part because of sympathetic Jewish and/or liberal television and legal-political elites.
3. India’s independence from the Western world’s postwar Judeocentric moral universe is reflected, as in the rest of Asia, by the more relaxed attitude towards Hitler. This has included oddities such as the sale of Hitler ice-cream clothes and Hitler clothing apparel. Personally, I am astonished that apparently no one has yet thought of selling a brand of 100 percent effective Hitler insecticide.
4. Mahatma Gandhi, The Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi (New Delhi: Publications Division Government of India, 1999), 98 volumes. http://www.gandhiserve.org/e/cwmg/cwmg.htm
5. I may write an article on Gandhi’s relations with Jews in the future, for now, suffice to say that these relations were often utterly stereotypical.