Gandhi and the Holocaust

(Making Sense of a Bit of Nonsense)

In 1906, the British authorities in South Africa embarked upon the suppression of the so-called Zulu Rebellion. The name given to the conflict by the colonial regime may conjure up images of savages swarming around the circled wagons of civilization. The reality of the counterinsurgency was much shabbier: modern military units pursued, shot and flogged scattered and practically unarmed Africans who posed no credible threat to an empire at the height of its power, and whose major offense was their objection to a new tax calculated to force them into Natal’s labor market. Several thousand Zulus were killed; hardly any whites died. (It was, in that sense, the sort of war that Americans came to see as a reasonable expectation after Operation Desert Storm.)

It’s well known that M.K. Gandhi participated in the 1906 affair. The Zulu Rebellion was the second of Gandhi’s South African wars. He reactivated the medical unit he had created during the Boer War six years previously, recruiting South Africa’s Indian community to fight for the empire that had done so much for them. Gandhi, in fact, tried to persuade the government to give Indians a wider role in smashing the Zulu Rebellion, but the white regime saw this as both unnecessary and undesirable, and Gandhi and his men had to be content with ambulance work. Gandhi’s objective may very well have been to promote the rights of Indians in South Africa, not only by making a display of their loyalty to the Empire, but also by bringing them into the field of colonial war, i.e., the political circle of the laager, where citizenship and arms-bearing were joined at the hip. But as Erik Erikson observed many years ago, there was more to it than expediency and ideology. Gandhi’s relationship with the Empire and its administrators had the quality of the rebellion of a son: he tended to swerve violently between fierce opposition and an almost groveling loyalty, rejecting the ‘father’ in the first mode, and desperately seeking his approval in the second.

That swerving habit gave Gandhi’s responses to violence one of its most basic qualities, which is inconsistency. Having signed up for the anti-Zulu ‘war,’ Gandhi quickly discovered that it was not a war at all, but a series of manhunts (as he later described it). He and his men spent much of their time taking care of badly injured Africans that white doctors and nurses were reluctant to treat. Out of this experience came the outraged, almost abusive prose of Hind Swaraj, Gandhi’s best-known piece of polemic, in which he laid out his case against violence and Western civilization. But five years later, he was back in uniform, so to speak, recruiting Indian soldiers to fight for Britain in the First World War.

Even Hind Swaraj is not the inflexible polemic it is sometimes assumed to be. Gandhi makes it clear, for instance, that the appropriate moral response to violent injustice depends on a variety of factors, including the identity of the adversary, the balance of physical capabilities, and the circumstances of the provocation. (There must, Gandhi wrote in his analogy of the armed burglar, be one response for your father, and another for a stranger.) But at other points in the same tract, and certainly in other tracts, he appears to insist that the tactics and premises of satyagraha are independent of context. There were thus two levels of inconsistency, or, seen another way, flexibility: one within the ideology, another without. Raghavan Iyer called this the maintenance of a distinction between ‘ahimsa as policy’ and ‘ahimsa as creed.’ Thus, even the very late ‘inconsistencies’ in Gandhi’s career – his apparent acceptance of ‘any means necessary’ in the Quit India uprising of 1942-43, or his endorsement of military force in national defense in 1947 – need not be seen as lapses or surprising acts of desperation. Satyagraha made allowances for desperation.

It is in the context of this flexibility, then, that we might look at Gandhi’s most notorious application, or misapplication, of the concept of satyagraha: the Holocaust. When the Nazi persecution of the European Jews began, Gandhi began to receive requests for his reaction, or even a prescription. The queries sometimes came from old Jewish friends and collaborators; there had been many in Gandhi’s South African years. Sometimes they came, in rhetorical form, from gleeful adversaries who believed that Gandhi had finally met his ideological match in Hitler. And sometimes they came from people like George Orwell, who found Gandhi’s moral certainties oppressive but nevertheless wanted him to have an answer. Gandhi disappointed them all, taking a remarkably hardline stance: yes, the German-Jewish predicament was horrendous, but those targeted by the Nazis must nevertheless offer satyagraha. In a line that has become justifiably infamous, he suggested that the Jews should hurl themselves from cliffs rather than ‘submit’ to their tormentors. The suggestion need not be taken literally, but the meaning is unmistakable: Gandhi was saying that non-violent resistance against the Nazis was morally necessary and even ‘viable,’ and that Jews who allowed themselves to be rounded up and herded to their deaths had not only contributed to their own destruction, but failed in their moral responsibilities. Responsibilities to whom, one might ask. Well, to themselves, Gandhi seemed to be saying, but also to those whose lives they might have saved, to other Germans, and arguably to humanity itself.

In his generally excellent book on Gandhi, Faisal Devji argued that Gandhi’s position on the Holocaust belongs within a coherent and consistent ideology of moral action through satyagraha. Unlike European anti-fascists (and like many other Indian observers, such as Subhas Bose and Benoy Sarkar), Gandhi refused to see fascism as a special evil. He therefore refused to see in it a circumstance that warranted moral exceptions, Devji wrote, endorsing the perspective. Like Gandhi, Devji conceded that satyagraha would not have prevented the deaths of many Jews, and he too pointed out the obvious: neither submission nor violent opposition succeeded in preventing those deaths. Devji also argued that while the ultimate purpose of politics may not be separable from the preservation of life, Gandhi had committed himself to a ‘hard’ morality that was separate from, and superior to, the logic of political action. Thus, the preservation of life became a secondary consideration, detachable from an autonomous calculus of ‘doing the right thing.’ To miss the courage of Gandhi’s commitment to that autonomy, Devji wrote, is to sentimentalize Gandhi.

Devji is, I think, too generous to Gandhi on several counts. One has to do with the relationship between information and ideology. Gandhi was aware of a general fact of persecution. He knew that Jews in Europe were being terrorized, and even killed, by the Nazi regime: he had received letters from his Jewish friends, and there was of course the news media. But he did not know the particulars; neither, it must be said, did most of those who corresponded with him between 1933 and January of 1948. The episode, for Gandhi, remained a problem of German Jews and their Aryan neighbors: he had nothing to say about Poland and Galicia, or about the wider European implications of the Wannsee Conference. The details that constitute the most visceral content of the Holocaust-as-history, marking it out as something extraordinary – memoirs, photographs and films, archival data and trial transcripts – were only just beginning to filter through in the final two years of Gandhi’s life, when he was already preoccupied with the political and human calamity of the Indian Partition. In those circumstances, just as it is unfair to expect Gandhi to have formulated an informed opinion on the Holocaust, it is also a mistake to endow thinly-informed opinion with the dignity of ‘ideology,’ instead of seeing it as a bit of nonsense to which even Gandhi is entitled.

It is, after all, in the details that the devils of the Holocaust lie. Details differentiate it from counterinsurgency in South Africa and the carnage of the First World War. The assumption that ‘fascism is not extraordinary’ in the context of the modern state is contentious but defensible, since there is rarely a clear line where the merely oppressive ends and the fascist begins. But to assume that there is no distinction between garden-variety fascism and Nazi practice is much more problematic, and the widespread Indian tendency to see Nazi Germany as just another ‘hard state’ (that is admirable or objectionable depending on whether the observer is ‘right’ or ‘left’ in Indian politics) misses both the trees and the wood. Obviously, the Holocaust was not the original case of mass murder, and Gandhi knew from personal experience that it was not the first time that industrial products had been used against unarmed targets. But Gandhi, who relied heavily on personal experience in the formulation of his ideological positions, had neither direct nor indirect experience of the application of industrial methods to murder, in which the factory model was utilized to manufacture death itself. He could not grasp, therefore, what his informants failed to explain, but what those who engineered the shift from Einsatzgruppen to extermination camps did grasp: one cannot appeal to the conscience of 'neighbors,' or make any kind of moral gesture at all, when the neighborhood has been replaced by the assembly line.

It has become increasingly fashionable to see Gandhi as all-purpose critic of whatever is unappetizing about modernity. He fits the bill: he was an eccentric Asian, he had a certain resemblance to Yoda, his writing is shot through with an idiom of mid-Victorian Christianity that was stilted and dated in his own lifetime, and, of course, he was a critic of modernity. But there is something dangerously ahistorical in the scope that is often allotted to Gandhi. It covers everything and all periods from civil rights to environmentalism, antiwar politics to anti-corporate activism, British imperialism to the occupation of Palestine. Surely Gandhi had the answer! ‘Maoists’ in Madhya Pradesh might actually be ‘Gandhians with guns’! But Gandhi was a man from a particular time and particular places, dealing with a particular set of issues and enemies. Placing him in situations he did not inhabit even in a library turns him into a Forrest Gump of sorts, and it stretches Gandhian ideology well beyond its breaking point. Gandhi was there when colonial troops savaged the Zulus; it produced a powerful little book. But he was nowhere near the death camps or Josef Mengele’s work-station. Nothing that he had to say about the Nazis – or their victims – is especially useful in thinking through that particular form of state terror.

March 7, 2014