order, power, and the importance of history – hitler in india

here’s a topic i‘ve discussed in passing for the past five years and now i suppose it is time to write on it. this article just came out, covering, roughly, hitler, gandhi, and bal thackarey in indian political discussion. i am not entirely certain of article’s claims on the extent to which admiration of hitler and dissatisfaction with gandhi are part of the same conversation. or, how much of either can be attributed to thackerey. but i have certainly witnessed both the admiration and the dissatisfaction bits. i defer to maximum city on thackerey. i leave the consideration of gandhi and the birth-rupture of the indian nation-state for others.

when i first moved to chennai, i was fairly surprised to see copies of mein kampf available for sale on the streets. this sight, in turn, heightened my surprise when speaking with even well-educated indians who had never heard of judiasm (by the way, trying to use ‘you know how buddha was a hindu…’ doesn’t quite work to explain the old testament and jesus).

this ‘what are jews?’ point is disturbing for two at least two reasons.

first, india is home to several important and old jewish communities, including in kerala and in bombay (the latter were not missed by the perpetrators of the 26 November attacks in bombay). in one of my favorite books, (indian) author amitav ghosh feels a connection with an indian slave of a jewish businessman in in an antique land, placing jews in this historical context of ancient trading between india and the mediterranean. judiasm is a part of indian history and people not knowing it points to a deeper problem in awareness about ‘others’ and even ‘self.’

second, further, this point suggests large omissions in the global history taught in schools and popularly known. actually, not just global history, but indian history as well, since subhas chandra bose reached out to, and was rebuffed by, hitler to help with independence from the british. for all of hitler’s mis/use of aryan mythology, he didn’t actually seem to think all that highly of the people of the subcontinent. one might think that sort of insult would stick.

(third, the experimentation under the nazis is a key driver of research ethics today, which is yet another avenue to learn about some of the horrors in the holocaust.)

overlooking a relatively small religious group isn’t the only aberration i’ve found – also, not having heard of poland or proclaiming that south indians are the darkest-skinned people on earth or proclaiming complete ignorance (and lack of curiousity) about the beliefs of one’s muslim next-door neighbors. again, among people with master’s degrees.

to be honest, i was surprised that the students mentioned by dilip d’souza knew hitler had committed mass, systematic murder. in my experience talking with (some! only some!)  folks in india, many admire hitler and stalin (even naming children after them) in a way completely devoid of context. as far as i can tell, they see power, authority, oratory, and the ability to impose order without knowing anything of the whole ‘invading poland’ and ‘final solution’ bits. which is precisely what makes it all alarming.

it seems to be part of a craving for order and power that makes people name children after stalin, admire hitler, and proclaim that things would be better if india were more like singapore. a problem with this is that these longings seem divorced from history and context as evidenced, in part, by never having heard of ‘jews.’ it’s kind of hard to imagine what sort of instruction could teach about hitler without mentioning jews, gypsies, homosexuals, and so on. (yes, i know that sexuality and homosexuality in india are whole other cans of worms.)

of course, trying to cross the street in india – and seeing the messiness and corruption of democracy everywhere – everyone has an occasional longing for someone to impose order. the impulse for a philosopher-king, or a benevolent dictator, or someone to nicely just make decisions and get things done have been popular in the past and even now. but, as churchill said, democracy is still the best thing going given the options. sen has certainly commented on the non-need of strong-arm values to bring about development in asia and elsewhere.

democracy relies on having informed citizens – a civil civil society (e.g. here and one of my favorite diatribes, toward the end, here). has done since rome. will always do. this suggests we all have a resposibility in being informed and helping to inform.

in india, in the US, in a lot of places, we need to do better with our history, current affairs, and civics lessons. incomplete histories are dangerous things. it is not just those who don’t learn their history that are condemned to repeat it but also those who half-learn their history.

history is full of imperfect people that can teach us both how we should do things and how not to do things. we should know about both sides of past leaders. in the US ,we may largely equate hitler with evil and the fight against him as the last war we so clearly had a moral obligation to fight. anne frank is more or less required reading and we’ve seen cabaret or life is beautiful (the latter i had to watch before heading off to undergrad). this can make it all the more alarming when we hear people praise hitler or the nazi movement more generally.

some of the horrors of nazi germany may not seem so singular to those in colonies more recently gaining their independence. with good reason, and as we all should, people in india and elswhere learn and feel that the brits and americans have been plenty destructive in their own ways. this is certainly true. but hitler is a long way past imperfect and destructive. anyone looking to praise his oratory and authority needs to be fully cognizant of that.

(small addendum, 19 july 2013: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/07/05/hitler-fried-chicken_n_3550351.html)

(19 feb 2014: from @urmy_shukla: http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/home/opinion/edit-page/LEADER-ARTICLEBRHitler-as-Hero-Society-Without-a-Moral-Compass/articleshow/32382342.cms. as she notes, strangely written but gets at the odd trend, which was yet again a topic of conversation following someone pulling out a swastik-ed bandana this weekend at ragasthan.)

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2 thoughts on “order, power, and the importance of history – hitler in india

  1. from an anonymous (indian) friend who wrote me directly —

    “For a young democracy with relatively poor standards of education, the choice of heroes might often look quite bizarre, and at times, completely inconsistent with little internal logic since we pick and choose virtues to admire in our historical figures.

    On the ground, I truly believe that the admiration for Hitler is a perfect example of a loose opinion (that Thackarey used it exposes his shallow intellect) that is of little consequence to current reality. When a government showed dictator-like tendencies in the past, they were promptly booted out and that should give us hope that in reality, none of us want to live in a dictatorship.

    What Hitler did was indefensible and way past imperfect; but how do you explain that to former colonies and cold war victims who are expected to operate in a world which basically pretends that colonialism was just a bad dream.

    In some ways, the loose opinion regarding Hitler might be driven by the colonial excesses – he stood up to the allied forces; and a enemy’s enemy becomes a friend, doesn’t it? Why do we think this way? because our history books on Hitler focus on his war with the west, with little mention of his genocide.”

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  2. I think, you’ve hit the right chord. There is a tendency among Indians to worship larger than life characters. I believe, it stems because the traditional Indian(someone born and raised in an hindu undivided family, now over 40) is a passive man. He want’s change, but does not necessarily have the courage to do anything about, and is resigned to the responsibilities he chose upon himself. But, there is secret desire to champion someone who has energy and is seen to be riding upon a cause backed by the masses. Actually, even if it is revolutionary he won’t be the one doing anything about. Rather let someone else do the dirty work.
    Most indians worship a god “Krishna” and live their lives upon his words and philosophy from “Bhagavad Gita”. The fact, Krishna is morally ambiguous is overlooked just as Indians tend to overlook had the one their revered national leaders publicly supported Adolph Hitler and asked for his help. The question when presented is often countered by, bose only did it to fight of the british. This pattern of thinking is consistent, Vaishnav’s believe Krishna did the right thing when he encouraged Bhima to hit Duryodhana below the belt, by encouraging Arjuna to strike on Karna when he is not on the Chariot. Those two acts were serious breaches of code of war. But Krishna overlooks them, he doesn’t stop there he encourages his pupils. There are no right’s no wrong’s in war. Once you start war, all morality is lost. I believe, that logic is also linked with Godhra 2002. That’s how most gujarati’s NEED to rationalize in their minds, “If WE would have not done anything THEY would have.”

    I do not understand any other reason, as to why the state of Gujarat has voted back Narendra Modi back into power 2 consecutive times and the impending elections seem to be a formality.

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