Hitler in India

The fashion potential of the Nazis has been undeniable from the outset. Hugo Boss knew it, Goebbels and Leni Riefenstahl recognized it, and glamorous Englishmen from David Bowie to the current princelings have shown their appreciation. Americans have been resistant (except in prison wards and Idaho), but recently in India, in Ahmedabad of all places, a shiny new store named after Adolf opened its doors, the ‘i’ in the ‘Hitler’ dotted cleverly with a small swastika. (It cannot be pretended that this is the innocent Hindu swastika, although that cover can of course be utilized if necessary.) Hitler does not sell storm-trooper uniforms, jackboots or even armbands. It sells run-of-the-mill menswear to well-heeled men in the ‘best governed state in India.’ (A brown shirt or two can probably be found on the racks.) Nevertheless, Ahmedabad’s tiny Jewish community has protested, reporters have shown up with cameras, the Israeli embassy in Delhi has made some very mild unhappy noises, and the proprietor has issued a decidedly unapologetic defense.

What the gentleman said boils down to this: only a few Jews are complaining, ‘the Hindu majority’ doesn’t seem to have a problem (so what’s your beef?), and besides, Hitler wasn’t all that bad. He was being a bit brazen, no doubt, but not all that unusual in the middle-class Indian context, where a casual fondness for the FΓΌhrer has long been evident. ‘I have read his autobiography and agree with a lot of what he wrote,’ declared another businessman-admirer recently. Mein Kampf is sold openly in sidewalk bookstalls all over India, and it’s certainly possible – although unlikely – that the man, carried away by his fascination with interwar German angst, actually read the whole thing in its tedious entirety.  A German friend who teaches Indian history is regularly confronted, during visits to India, by people who declare their admiration of Hitler and congratulate him on his good fortune at being the great man’s compatriot. My friend is married to a woman with an Indian parent, has blond children with Indian names, and lives in kick-out-the-black-sheep Switzerland, so he has enough on his plate without being asked to raise his arm in Aryan solidarity. He is more polite than I would be in his shoes. Taking umbrage and responding with ‘Sala, fuck you,’ would be unbecoming of a research scholar in a foreign country, and like most other Germans, he makes an earnest attempt to explain that Hitler was a bad guy.

But is that explanation really necessary? The answer, in the Indian case, is yes and no. That Hitler killed a lot of people is known to Indians who know his name. But the details, the context and the history are typically a blank. Moreover, it is known (as Justice Radhabinod Pal noted in his dissent at the Tokyo war crimes trials) that history and its judgments are the discourses of victors. And since the victors in this case are also the colonial powers from whose grasp modern India emerged, the history that declares Hitler to be a bad guy is automatically suspect, something to defy along with tut-tutting foreign reporters. What become more vital are Hitler’s credentials as an enemy of Britain, which in the absence of credible history are easily construed as a kind of anti-colonialism. Indian nationalism, like many other anti-colonial nationalist movements (including, ironically, the Zionist) flirted more or less openly with Germany and Japan during the war, and that rationale – with its mixture of delusion and canny opportunism – remains alive.

Beyond that, however, the substance of Indian Hitlerphilia becomes unreliable and thin. The ideological foundations are either missing or very different. There is no recognizable anti-Semitism in India; most Indians couldn’t care less about Jews one way or the other. They neither hate them nor feel guilty about them. They usually don’t know any personally either, since there are about five thousand Jews in all of India, give or take a ‘lost tribe’ in Mizoram. Indians think about Jews as often as they do about Kung ‘bushmen’ in the Kalahari. There is nothing strange in this: how many Americans, or Germans for that matter, spend time thinking about the Kung or the Herero, or even about Europe’s own Roma and Sinti? There is nothing automatic or natural about the status of history’s victims: it must be achieved politically. The notion that anti-Semitism is a ‘universal’ problem that everybody should prioritize merely reflects a larger hegemony. Anti-Semitism is Europe’s misfortune: a problem within a specific arrangement of culture, religion and race.

It can be argued that everybody should know about the Holocaust, or that one should not have to be a Jew or a Gypsy to recoil from mass murderers, but mass murder is so ubiquitous in the history of the modern world that there is no space in a ‘world history’ textbook to include every episode, and to reject all the murderers on principle would be to call into question the organization of the world itself. Even Gandhi, who was ready to ask such questions, and who counted Jews among his most intimate partners, knew practically nothing about the Holocaust, which led him to make idiotic remarks about the Jewish predicament in wartime Europe. In the brief moment between the end of the war and his death, with political disaster and mass killing creeping over India, Gandhi could hardly be expected to pay much attention to a European catastrophe, yet he could not ignore it either. In such circumstances, parochialism, ignorance and stupidity become normative responses to ‘world history.’ It is more embarrassing for people in the ‘Third World’ than it is for Europeans and Americans, because whereas the latter are not expected to know anything about Third World catastrophes and hence have no obligation to respond, the former cannot remain untouched by Western history and must improvise responses, especially if they are to count as modern and worldly.

The opening of the shop called Hitler reminded me of an incident on the cricket field a few years ago, when Indian fans in Baroda and then Bombay made monkey gestures at the black Australian player Andrew Symonds. It was disgraceful, and was justifiably condemned by Indians as well as Australians. I think, however, that there is room for debate on the specific condemnation, which was a charge of racism. As a form of spectator behavior, monkey gestures directed at black players are straight out of the copybook of European football, where racism is an ongoing problem, and which is now accessible on television to newly moneyed sports fans even in a provincial city like Baroda. Given that African students are routinely abused and insulted on Indian college campuses, and that Indian immigrants in America have appalling views on kallus, it would certainly appear that racism of the European sort has established its Indian pedigree. This is, however, misleading. Kallu-phobic NRIs take their cues from the white-American mainstream; their sense of a ‘bad school’ or a ‘bad neighborhood’ is only half-baked when they first arrive at JFK or LAX. Anti-black racism, like anti-Semitism, requires discursive meat: it needs, in other words, a deep consensus about what race is, what blackness is, what a Jew is like, and so on. Those discourses are so threadbare and shallow in India that it becomes rather doubtful whether a monkey gesture in Baroda means what it would in Barcelona or Liverpool. (This is not to say that the effect on the target is less hurtful.)

What then does it mean? What might an Indian who has picked up a copy of Mein Kampf mean when he says that he agrees with Hitler, assuming he is being sincere and not merely provocative? He means, presumably, that he empathizes with what he perceives to be a desire for order and a stifled nationalism: the Romantic notion of a community defined not only by its humiliation by outsiders but also by its failure to be a community united in purpose, yearning for unity, purity, revenge and fulfillment. What is peculiar about the Nazis is not the fact of mass murder, but the extent to which they imbued murder with the magic of industrial-bureaucratic efficiency. That magic is largely alien to India: it is desired in a general way by the middle class, but resisted in its particulars by nearly everybody, including the middle class. Indian admiration for Hitler is, in that sense, an ‘innocent’ empathy, or the misidentification of one set of frustrations with another. Likewise, the behavior of the monkeys in Baroda and Bombay was a kind of innocent pleasure: that of being a crowd in the winter sunshine, having a bit of fun at the expense of a total outsider who was just passing through anyway. The members of the crowd knew that they were being hurtful, but had only the vaguest idea of the historical context and political significance of the pain, and hence, of the scale of the offence.

As an insider of sorts in America, I do not – cannot – use the word ‘innocence’ innocently. I recall Hugh Richmond saying years ago, in a class on Shakespeare, that innocence is the highly destructive conviction that your own ignorance, honesty and good intentions (or at least the absence of malice) will have good consequences. (Richmond is an Englishman, and several students were outraged by his cynicism. Graham Greene had their ilk in mind when he wrote The Quiet American.) Modern Indian society is hardly innocent of racism, but the races at the heart of this racism have been local: Dalits, Adivasis, northeasterners, Muslims, and so on. When it comes to them, there can be no claim to innocence. When it comes to the victims of Western racism, however, Indian malice can be as innocent as American benevolence, although less deadly. It is, to some extent, a matter of aping a Western norm of desire and display that is represented by Hitler and football hooligans. More than that, however, it is the utilization of Western symbols – Hitler, football hooligans – to assert a modernity that is substantially autonomous of the West. When European and American news readers are startled by a boutique named Hitler, or a politician’s son named Stalin Karunanidhi, or a restaurant in Japan with a concentration camp theme and swastikas on the dinner plates, much of the shock comes from the recognition of this autonomy.

It would be a mistake to assume that because the autonomous use of Hitler in Asia is counter-hegemonic and innocent, it is harmless. This is not merely or even largely because it offends the local Jews. It is because when a businessman in Gujarat cites the feelings (or rather, indifference) of the Hindu majority, he is not talking about the impertinence of Jews. He is talking about Muslims, who have a long and deep discursive history as the ‘misfortune’ of the Indian nation. When another Indian ‘agrees’ with Mein Kampf, he is not expressing an opinion on Anglo-French perfidy or trying belatedly to join the NSDAP, but indicating his sympathy for a vision of Indian nationhood that privileges perceptions of victimhood, sabotage and resurgence, and devalues the rights of individuals, dissidents and internal minorities. Who needs France when you have Pakistan? Pakistan is not just a country, but also an Indian state of mind: the historical misfortune that is as much within as without the nation. This nationhood, with its fantastic/innocent visions of Hitler and Stalin, is of course fundamentally hybrid in its parentage; it could hardly be otherwise. But it is more dangerous to Indians than it is to foreigners.

September 2, 2012

Note: Since I wrote this piece, the owner of the shop in Ahmedabad has decided to change the name of his business. May I suggest 'Arthur Harris' as the new name? The initials would remain the same and nobody would complain, although business might suffer from public apathy. Alternately, he could call it 'Modi.' Catchy, ethnic, popular.