“Dear Friend”: Gandhi’s Letters to Hitler
The most famous examples of Gandhi’s humanization of Hitler are two open letters he wrote to the German chancellor expressing his sincere friendship. These letters showcase an almost unbelievable degree of tact, diplomacy, empathy, and modesty with regard to Hitler, some would say outright obsequiousness. On July 23, 1939, Gandhi wrote Hitler to directly appeal for world peace:
Friends have been urging me to write to you for the sake of humanity. But I have resisted their request, because of the feeling that any letter from me would be an impertinence. Something tells me that I must not calculate and that I must make my appeal for whatever it may be worth.
It is quite clear that you are today the one person in the world who can prevent a war which may reduce humanity to the savage state. Must you pay that price for an object however worthy it may appear to you to be? Will you listen to the appeal of one who has deliberately shunned the method of war not without considerable success? Anyway I anticipate your forgiveness, if I have erred in writing to you.
Your sincere friend,
The letter was published in Indian newspapers and widely shared. The admissions of “impertinence” and of possibly “err[ing]” are particularly touching.
Gandhi wrote a second letter to Hitler on December 24, 1940, after Germany’s conquest of France and consequent hegemony in the Continent (my emphasis):
That I address you as a friend is no formality. I own no foes. My business in life has been for the past 33 years to enlist the friendship of the whole of humanity by befriending mankind, irrespective of race, colour or creed.
I hope you will have the time and desire to know how a good portion of humanity who have view living under the influence of that doctrine of universal friendship view your action. We have no doubt about your bravery or devotion to your fatherland, nor do we believe that you are the monster described by your opponents. But your own writings and pronouncements and those of your friends and admirers leave no room for doubt that many of your acts are monstrous and unbecoming of human dignity, especially in the estimation of men like me who believe in universal friendliness. Such are your humiliation of Czechoslovakia, the rape of Poland and the swallowing of Denmark. I am aware that your view of life regards such spoliations as virtuous acts. But we have been taught from childhood to regard them as acts degrading humanity. Hence we cannot possibly wish success to your arms.
But ours is a unique position. We resist British Imperialism no less than Nazism. If there is a difference, it is in degree. One-fifth of the human race has been brought under the British heel by means that will not bear scrutiny. Our resistance to it does not mean harm to the British people. We seek to convert them, not to defeat them on the battle-field. Ours is an unarmed revolt against the British rule. But whether we convert them or not, we are determined to make their rule impossible by non-violent non-co-operation. It is a method in its nature indefensible. It is based on the knowledge that no spoliator can compass his end without a certain degree of co-operation, willing or compulsory, of the victim. Our rulers may have our land and bodies but not our souls. They can have the former only by complete destruction of every Indian—man, woman and child. That all may not rise to that degree of heroism and that a fair amount of frightfulness can bend the back of revolt is true but the argument would be beside the point. For, if a fair number of men and women be found in India who would be prepared without any ill will against the spoliators to lay down their lives rather than bend the knee to them, they would have shown the way to freedom from the tyranny of violence. I ask you to believe me when I say that you will find an unexpected number of such men and women in India. They have been having that training for the past 20 years.
We have been trying for the past half a century to throw off the British rule. The movement of independence has been never so strong as now. The most powerful political organization, I mean the Indian National Congress, is trying to achieve this end. We have attained a very fair measure of success through non-violent effort. We were groping for the right means to combat the most organized violence in the world which the British power represents. You have challenged it. It remains to be seen which is the better organized, the German or the British. We know what the British heel means for us and the non-European races of the world. But we would never wish to end the British rule with German aid. We have found in non-violence a force which, if organized, can without doubt match itself against a combination of all the most violent forces in the world. In non-violent technique, as I have said, there is no such thing as defeat. It is all ‘do or die’ without killing or hurting. It can be used practically without money and obviously without the aid of science of destruction which you have brought to such perfection. It is a marvel to me that you do not see that it is nobody’s monopoly. If not the British, some other power will certainly improve upon your method and beat you with your own weapon. You are leaving no legacy to your people of which they would feel proud. They cannot take pride in a recital of cruel deed, however skilfully planned. I, therefore, appeal to you in the name of humanity to stop the war. You will lose nothing by referring all the matters of dispute between you and Great Britain to an international tribunal of your joint choice. If you attain success in the war, it will not prove that you were in the right. It will only prove that your power of destruction was greater. Whereas an award by an impartial tribunal will show as far as it is humanly possible which party was in the right.
You know that not long ago I made an appeal to every Briton to accept my method of non-violent resistance. I did it because the British know me as a friend though a rebel. I am a stranger to you and your people. I have not the courage to make you the appeal I made to every Briton [Gandhi had sent a “Letter to Every Briton” urging nonviolent resistance to Hitler, see below]. Not that it would not apply to you with the same force as to the British. But my present proposal is much simple because much more practical and familiar.
During this season when the hearts of the peoples of Europe yearn for peace, we have suspended even our own peaceful struggle. Is it too much to ask you to make an effort for peace during a time which may mean nothing to you personally but which must mean much to the millions of Europeans whose dumb cry for peace I hear, for my ears are attended to hearing the dumb millions? I had intended to address a joint appeal to you and Signor Mussolini, whom I had the privilege of meeting when I was in Rome during my visit to England as a delegate to the Round Table Conference. I hope that he will take this as addressed to him also with the necessary changes.
Your sincere friend
M. K. Gandhi
We again note the modesty (“I have not the courage to make you the appeal I made to every Briton”!), the rejection of Western propaganda against Hitler, the empathic recognition of Hitler’s sincerity in his doctrine of violence, and the able exposition of nonviolent doctrine. Gandhi bitterly regretted that the second letter’s publication was suppressed by the British, censorship being widespread in the wartime “democracy.”
Gandhi’s friendship with Hitler was decidedly unrequited. Hitler believed Indians’ destiny was to be subjects of the British Empire and notoriously considered this a model for Germany’s attempted dominion over his fellow European Slavs in the East. Hitler was contemptuous both of Gandhi’s methods and of Westerners impressed by them: “The admiration of Gandhi is in my eyes a racial perversity. [. . .] The so-called ‘fight for freedom of the Indian people holds as little interest for me as the battles of the German people fifteen years ago was interest to the Indians.”
During a meeting with British Foreign Minister Lord Halifax in 1937, Hitler is reported to have exclaimed: “Shoot Gandhi! And if that does not suffice to reduce them to submission, shoot a dozen leading members of Congress; and if that does not suffice, shoot 200 and so on until order is established.” I have been unable to find any significant mention of Gandhi in Hitler’s writings, speeches, or private Table Talk, although admittedly, Hitler’s collected works have not yet been published in a searchable hundred-volume set as have Gandhi’s.
I more generally find scarcely any mention of Gandhi in the various sources on the German side of the war. Gandhi was evidently present in the Germans’ consciousness however, as evidenced in the following Party Chancellery report of April 1943 worrying that the spread of Hitler jokes was a sign of declining public morale:
There are unanimous reports from many Gau headquarters that, in particular recently, the number of political jokes which involve the Führer have increased sharply. The following are examples of the large number of such jokes which are on file here:
What’s the difference between the sun and Hitler? The sun rises in the East, Hitler goes down in the East.
What’s the difference between India and Germany? In India one person starves for everybody [Gandhi], in Germany everyone starves for one person.
Nonviolence: A Radical Technique of Deescalation
Following his belief in Hitler’s redeemable humanity, Gandhi consistently urged nonviolence as the only mode of resistance to aggression and persecution. He advised this as much to the Ethiopians, the Chinese, the Czechs, the French, the British, as well as the Jews. Gandhi believed that to answer violence with violence could only lead to an endless escalation. Nonviolence was a radical technique which allowed for a rare deescalation of violence in the world and appeasement of human relations.
Many were skeptical whether nonviolence was an appropriate answer to fascism. Gandhi would reply that whereas violence was as old as the world, nonviolence had never been tried. In October 1938, Gandhi condemned the Munich agreement ceding Czechoslovakia’s ethnically-German Sudetenland to Germany as “peace without honor” (74/88). He nonetheless publicly advocated nonviolence, in effect appeasement, saying that if he were Czech he would “free these two nations [England and France] from the obligation to defend my country” and oppose Hitler solely with nonviolent noncooperation:
But, says a comforter, “Hitler knows no pity. Your spiritual effort will avail nothing before him.” My answer is, “You may be right. History has no record of a nation having adopted non-violent resistance. If Hitler is unaffected by my suffering, it does not matter. For I shall have lost nothing worth [preserving]. My honour is the only thing worth preserving. That is independent of Hitler’s pity.” (74/90)
In December 1938, Gandhi publicly advised the Jews to resist Hitler with nonviolent “soul power”:
I make bold to say [sic] that if the Jews can summon to their aid the soul power that comes only from nonviolence, Herr Hitler will bow before the courage which he has never yet experienced in any large measure in his dealings with men, and which, when it is exhibited, he will own is infinitely superior to that shown by his best storm troopers. (74/298)
Gandhi believed universal disarmament could be effective. As he told the New York Times in March 1939: “How I wish [British Prime Minister Neville] Chamberlain was conferring by proposing to [the Western democracies] that all should resort to simultaneous disarmament. I am as certain of it as I am sitting here, that this heroic act would open Herr Hitler’s eyes and disarm him” (75/204). The war having begun, Gandhi asked solemnly: “How do we know for whose destruction Hitler was born? But will Hitler’s violence ever count as non-violence?” (77/15).
Gandhi linked nonviolence to independent rural life, saying in November 1939: “You cannot build non-violence on a factory civilization, but it can be built on self-contained villages. Even if Hitler was so minded, he could not devastate seven hundred thousand nonviolent villages. He would himself become non-violent in the process” (77/43).
Gandhi was aware of the radicality of his approach and the possibility of ridiculing it. As he said in July 1940:
One thing Herr Hitler, as every critic, may say: I am a fool without any knowledge of the world or human nature. That would be a harmless certificate which need excite neither ill-will nor anger. It would be harmless because I have earned such certificates before now. This one would be the latest of the many editions, and I hope not the last, for my foolish experiments have not yet ended. (79/46-7)
For all that, Gandhi did not change his views on the power of nonviolence against fascism throughout the Third Reich’s meteoric rise and fall. As he said in August 1940:
What, however, concerns me is not so much [a friend’s] characterization of Nazism as his belief that non-violent action may have no effect on Hitler or the Germans whom he has turned into so many robots. Nonviolent action, if it is adequate, must influence Hitler and easily the duped Germans. No man can be turned into a permanent machine. Immediately the dead weight of authority is lifted from his head, he begins to function normally. (79/93)
The belief that only nonviolence could genuinely defeat National Socialism meant Gandhi could claim to both not collaborate in the British war effort against Germany and to being the only consequential anti-Nazi through nonviolent resistance to Hitlerism. As he wrote in a December 1940 letter: “I work for the same end as is declared by the British Government, only with the certain conviction that their method can never defeat Hitlerism and mine alone can, if any at all” (79/410).
Nonviolence, Gandhi preached, was the only way to reduce violence. As he wrote in the Times of India in February 1941: “Hitlers will come and go. Those who believe that when the Fuhrer dies or is defeated his spirit will die, err grievously. What matters is how we react to such a spirit, violently or non-violently. If we react violently, we feed that evil spirit. If we act non-violently, we sterilize it” (80/61).
In a January 1942 speech, Gandhi advised the Chinese to reject violent resistance, lest they become like the imperialist Japanese: “If China seeks to defend herself with arms, she will have to become like Japan. She will have to do everything that Hitler and Mussolini are doing. I would like to think that when the occasion arises India would defend herself through non-violence and thus be a messenger of peace to the whole world” (81/434).
After the war, Gandhi repeated this doctrine, saying at a prayer meeting in December 1945: “If six and a quarter crores of Bengalis [i.e. 62.5 million] could show the same discipline which the present gathering had shown that evening, not even a thousand Hitlers would be able to deprive them of their freedom” (89/136). A newspaper paraphrases Gandhi speaking in February 1947 on the need for nonviolent cooperation in agriculture and society:
Let it be remembered that co-operation should be based on strict non-violence. There was no such thing as success of violent co-operation. Hitler was a forcible example of the latter. He also talked vainly of co-operation which was forced upon the people and everyone knew where Germany had been led as a result. (93/401)
Hitler’s Limited War Aims
Gandhi’s preaching of nonviolence was based on a philosophical and religious outlook. In principle, he would adhere to nonviolence regardless of circumstances. That said, Gandhi also plainly did not believe, as a practical matter, that German victory in Europe was the worst possible outcome or that Hitler was bent on world-domination. As a result, he advised nonviolent resistance in all instances, including Indian neutrality in the war, French capitulation, and British nonviolence.
In October 1938, following the Munich agreement, Gandhi was evidently impressed with Hitler’s bloodless victory, writing in Hajiran:
One must feel happy that the danger of war has been averted for the time being. Is the price paid likely to be too great? Is it likely that honour has been sold? Is it a triumph of organized violence? Has Herr Hitler discovered a new technique of organizing violence which enables him to gain his end without shedding blood? I do not profess to known European politics. But it does appear to me that small nationalities cannot exist in Europe with their heads erect. They must be absorbed by their larger neighbours. They must become vassals. (74/98)
Gandhi largely blamed Hitler for the failure to reach a peaceful resolution to the Danzig crisis. He wrote on September 2, 1939: “How I wish Herr Hitler would respond to the appeal of the President of the United Sates and allow his claim to be investigated by arbitrators in whose choice he will have as effective a voice as the disputants” (76/273). On September 9, he said: “Yet it almost seems as if Herr Hitler knows no God but brute force and, as Mr. Chamberlain says, he will listen to nothing else” (76/312).
On September 11, 1939, Gandhi wrote in his weekly newspaper Harijan that Hitler’s grievances were probably justified but not his violent means:
Herr Hitler stands in no need of my sympathy. In assessing the present merits, the past misdeeds of England and the good deeds of Germany are irrelevant. Rightly or wrongly, and irrespective of what the other Powers have done before under similar circumstances, I have come to the conclusion that Herr Hitler is responsible for the war. I do not judge his claim. It is highly probable that his right to incorporate Danzig in Germany is beyond question, if the Danzig Germans desire to give up their independent status. It may be that his claim to appropriate the Polish Corridor is a just claim. My complaint is that he will not let the claim be examined by an independent tribunal. [. . .] If [Hitler] succeeds in his design, his success will be no proof of the justness of his claim. It will be proof that the Law of the Jungle is still a great force in human affairs. It will be one more proof that though we humans have changed the form we have not changed the manners of the beast. (76/321-2)
Gandhi expressed “sympathy” for England and France, and yet otherwise maintained a scrupulous neutrality. The Congress was not consulted on India’s participation in the war and thus refused to grant even moral support. Why should the Indians fight in a war for “democracy” and “sovereignty” in defense of Poland when the British denied these very same principles to India? Gandhi said in an October 1939 press release: “nor can the India of Congress conception be a partner with Britain in her war with Herr Hitler” (77/12). He cabled a newspaper later that month: “REMINDED BRITAIN OF NEGLECT TO DECLARE WHETHER HER WAR AGAINST HERR HITLER TO PRESERVE DEMOCRACY INCLUDED INDIA” (77/51). Gandhi remarked that his balanced position led to criticisms from both the pro-Hitler and anti-Hitler camps (the latter including many Jews). He cabled a newspaper in November 1939:
ARE [INDIANS] TO REMAIN SERFS, WHICH THEY ARE, THOUGH THEY ARE DRAGGED INTO THE WAR? NO WONDER HERR HITLER HAS CHALLENGED THE BRITISH GOVERNMENT TO PROVE HER SINCERITY BY RECOGNIZING INDIA AS A FREE NATION. (77/97)
Gandhi considered both Allied and Axis victories to be comparable evils, writing in April 1940:
This war is showing the futility of violence. Supposing Hitler becomes victorious over the Allies, he will never subjugate England and France. It will mean another war. Supposing the Allies are victorious, the world will fare no better. They will be more polite but not less ruthless, unless they learn the lesson of non-violence during the war and unless they shed the gains they have made through violence. (78/180)
Gandhi believed Western media had caricatured Hitler, as he expressed in a letter of May 15, 1940: “I do not want to see the Allies defeated. But I do not consider Hitler to be as bad as he is depicted. He is showing an ability that is amazing and he seems to be gaining his victories without much bloodshed” (78/219). Gandhi advised Britain to make peace with Germany in a May 26, 1940 letter to Viceroy and Governor-General of India Victor Hope:
[A]ssuming that things are as black as they appear to be for the Allied cause, is it not time to sue for peace for the sake of humanity? I do not believe Herr Hitler to be as bad as he is portrayed. He might even have been a friendly power as he may still be. (78/253)
He later repeated this publicly in a speech: “I told the Viceroy that the British, if they succeed, will not be better than Mussolini or Hitler” (78/394).
Gandhi praised the “French statesmen” who after the Battle of France were willing to make peace with Germany. As he wrote in Harijan in a June 22, 1940 article entitled “How to Combat Hitlerism”:
Hitlerism will never be defeated by counter-Hitlerism. It can only breed superior Hitlerism raised to nth degree. What is going before our eyes is a demonstration of the futility of violence as also of Hitlerism. [. . .]
I think French statesmen have shown rare courage in bowing to the inevitable and refusing to be party to senseless mutual slaughter. [. . .]
What will Hitler do with his victory? Can he digest so much power? Personally he will go as empty-handed as his not very remote predecessor Alexander. For the Germans he will have left not the pleasure of owning a mighty empire but the burden of sustaining its crushing weight. For they will not be able to hold all the conquered nations in perpetual subjection. And I doubt if the Germans of future generations will entertain unadulterated pride in the deeds for which Hitlerism will be deemed responsible. They will honour Herr Hitler as a genius, as a brave man, a matchless organizer and much more. But I should hope that the Germans of the future will have learnt the art of discrimination even about their heroes. Anyway I think it will be allowed that all the blood that has been spilled by Hitler had added not a millionth part of an inch to the world’s moral stature. (78/343-5)
Gandhi then decidedly opposed Churchill’s policy of maintaining the war in the hope of further escalating a European conflict into a world war. In August 1940, Gandhi affirmed that Hitler had limited war aims and no ambitions against Great Britain: “Herr Hitler has never dreamt of possessing Britain” (79/116). In July 1940, Gandhi had sent an open “Letter to Every Briton” urging solely nonviolent resistance:
I want you to fight Nazism without arms, or, if I am to retain the military terminology, with non-violent arms. I would like you to lay down the arms you have as being useless for saving you or humanity. You will invite Herr Hitler and Signor Mussolini to take what they want of the countries you call your possessions. Let them take possession of your beautiful island, with your many beautiful buildings. You will give all these, but neither your souls, nor your minds. If these gentlemen choose to occupy your homes, you will vacate them. If they do not give you free passage out, you will allow yourself, man, woman and child, to be slaughtered, but you will refuse to owe allegiance to them. (78/387)
One can see why Gandhi’s advocacy of “non-violent non-cooperation” could so annoy hard men of violence like Churchill and Hitler. In October 1940, Gandhi wrote that “there is not much to choose between the British and the Nazis” at least so far as colored peoples were concerned, that India was a “slave country” with “no quarrel with those who do not believe in non-violence” (79/289-290).
Gandhi did not change his views with the dramatic escalation and conclusion of the war. In July 1947, Gandhi commented at a prayer meeting on the fashion for attacking appeasement: “Appeasement today has a bad connotation. When Germany and England were hostile to each other, Chamberlain, who was the Prime Minister at the time, had sought to appease Hitler. It is not my view but that of many Englishmen that, had Chamberlain not chosen the path of appeasement, history would have been different. But since I do not consider anyone my adversary why should I go out to appease anyone?” (94/26).
1. Timothy Ryback, Hitler’s Private Library: The Books That Shaped His Life (Random House, 2010), 68.
2. Patrick Buchanan, Churchill, Hitler, and “the Unnecessary War”: How Britain Lost Its Empire and the West the World (Crown/Archetype, 2008), 186.
3. It is not clear to me whether there is even a print edition of Hitler’s collected works for professional historians. The 35 volumes of Benito Mussolini’s Opera Omnia (Firenze: La Fenice, 1951-1963) are in contrast available online in non-searchable PDF format: http://www.historianet.it/biblioteca/opera-omnia-mussolini/
4. Quoted in Jeremy Noakes (ed.), Nazism 1919-1945, vol. 4 (Exeter: University of Exeter, 1998), 548. One wonders if this no doubt scrupulously maintained compilation of Hitler jokes survived the war and is still available in the Party archives.