Mahatma Gandhi's letters to Hitler

Dr. Koenraad ELST

Mahatma Gandhi's admirers are not in the habit of confronting embarrassing facts about their favourite saint. His critics, by contrast, gleefully keep on reminding us of a few facts concerning the Mahatma which seem to undermine his aura of wisdom and ethical superiority. One of the decisive proofs of Gandhi's silly lack of realism, cited by both his Leftist and his Hindutva detractors, is his attempted correspondence with Adolf Hitler, undertaken with a view to persuading Germany's dictator of the value of non-violence. I will now take upon myself the ungrateful task of arguing that in this attempt, Gandhi was (1) entirely Gandhian, and (2) essentially right.

Gandhi's first letter to Hitler

Both of Gandhi's letters to Hitler are addressed to "my frie­nd". In the case of anyone else than the Mahatma, this friendliness would be somewhat strange given the advice which Hitler had tendered to the British government concerning the suppression of India's freedom movement. During a meeting with Lord Halifax in 1938, Hitler had pledged his support to the preservation of the British empire and offered his formula for dealing with the Indian National Congress: kill Gandhi, if that isn't enough then kill the other leaders too, if that isn't enough then two hundred more activists, and so on until the Indian people will give up the hope of independence. Gandhi may of course have been unaware of Hitler's advice, but it would also be charac­teristically Gandhian to remain friendly towards his own would-be killer.

Some people will be shocked that Gandhi called the ultimate monster a "friend". But the correct view of sinners, view which I imbibed as the "Christian" view but which I believe has universal validity, is that they are all but instances of the general human trait of sinfulness. Hitler's fanaticism, cruelty, coldness of heart and other reprehensible traits may have differed in intensity but not in essence with those very same traits in other human beings. As human beings gifted with reason and conscience, sinners are also not beyond redemption: your fiercest persecutor today may repent and seek your friendship tomorrow. If Gandhi could approach heartless fanatics like Mohammed Ali Jinnah in a spirit of friendship, there is no reason why he should have withheld his offer of friendship from Hitler.

In his first letter dd. 23 July 1939 (Complete Works, vol.70, p.20-21), and which the Government did not permit to go, Gandhi does mention his hesitation in addres­sing Hitler. But the reason is modesty rather than abhorrence: "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." But the sense of impending war, after the German oc­cupation of Czech-inhabited Bohemia-Moravia (in violation of the 1938 Munich agreement and of the principle of the "self-determination of nations" which had justified the annexation of German-inhabited Austria and Sudetenland) and rising hostility with Poland, prompted him to set aside his scruples: "Something tells me that I must not calculate and that I must make my appeal for whatever it may be worth." Even so, the end of his letter is again beset with scruples and modesty: "Anyway I anticipate your forgiveness, if I have erred in writing to you. I remain, Your sincere friend, Sd. M. MK Gandhi".

The remainder and substance of this short letter reads: "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?"

This approach is held in utter contempt by post-War generations. Thus, the Flemish Leftist novelist and literature professor Kristien Hemmerechts has commented ("Milosevic, Saddam, Gandhi en Hitler", De Morgen, 16-4-1999): "In other words, Gandhi was a naïve fool who tried in vain to sell his non-violence as a panacea to the Führer."

This presupposes that Gandhi was giving carte blanche to Hitler for doing that which we know Hitler to have done, viz. the deportation of Jews and others, the mass killings, the ruthless oppression of the subject populations, the self-destructive military policies imposed on the Germans in the final stage of the war. But in reality, Gandhi's approach, if successful, would precisely have prevented that terrible outcome. Most of Hitler's atrocities were made possible by the war circumstances. In peacetime, the German public would not have tolerated the amount of repression which disfigured their society in 1941-45. Indeed, even in the early (and for German civilians, low-intensity) part of the war, protests from the public forced Hitler to stop the programme of euthanasia on the handicapped.

Moreover, it was the paranoia of the Nazi leadership about Jews as a "fifth column", retained from their (subjective and admittedly distorted) World War 1 experience of Leftist agitators in the German cities stabbing the frontline soldiers in the back, which made them decide to remove the Jews from society in Germany and the occupied countries. This is clear from official Nazi statements such as Heinrich Himmler's Posen speech of October 1943. In a non-war scenario, at least an organized transfer of the Jews to a safe territory outside Europe could have been negotiated and implemented. Under a peace agreement, especially one backed up by sufficient armed force on the part of the other treaty powers, Hitler could have been kept in check. By escalating rather than containing the war, the Allied as much as the Axis governments foreclosed the more humane options. (More on this in Elst: The Saffron Swastika, Voice of India, Delhi 2001, p.506-517, and in Elst: Gandhi and Godse, Voice of India, Delhi 2001, p.48-56)

When you start a war, you don't know beforehand just what terrible things will happen, but you do know in general that they will be terrible. That is the basic rationale of pacifism, and Gandhi was entirely correct to keep it in mind when most political leaders were getting caught up in war fever. Containing Hitler for a few more decades would have been a trying and testing exercise for Germany's neighbours, but Gandhi never claimed that non-violence was the way of the weak and the lazy. At any rate, would this effort in long-term vigilance not have been preferable to a war with fifty million dead, many more lives ruined, many countries overrun by Communism and fated to further massacres, and the unleashing of nuclear weapons on the world?

The chances for peace in 1939

At that point in time, Hitler's "worthy object" to which Gandhi refers, the topic of heated diplomatic exchanges and indeed the professed casus belli of the impending German invasion of Poland, was the rights of the German minority in Poland along with the issue of the "corridor". This was a planned overgro­und railway-cum-motorway which should either link German Pomerania with German East Prussia through Polish West Prussia (including the city of Danzig); or, in case a referen­dum in West Prussia favoured the region's return to Germany from which it had been taken in 1919, link land-locked Poland with a harbour set aside for the Poles on the Baltic coast through West Prussia. In 1945, all the regions concerned were ethnically cleansed of Germans and allotted to Poland, and Germany no longer claims any of them, but in 1939 many observers felt that the German demands were reasonable or at any rate not worth opposing by military means ("Who would want to die for Danzig?").

It was common knowledge that Poland was oppressing its German and Jewish minorities, so a case could be made that the advancement of the German minority (it goes without saying that Hitler cared less for the Polish Jews) was a just cause. It was also the type of cause which could be furthered through non-violent protests and mobilizing non-violent international support. It wouldn't formally humiliate Poland by making it give up territory or sovereignty, so perhaps the Polish government could be peacefully persuaded to change its ways regarding the minorities. On this point, Gandhi was undeniably right as well as true to himself by high­lighting the non-violent option in striving for a worthy political object.

The question of the corridor was less manageable, as it did involve territory and hence unmistakable face-losing concessions by one of the parties. The apprehension which troubled the Poles and their well-wishers was that the demand of a corridor was merely the reasonable-sounding opening move of a total conquest of Poland. It is difficult to estimate Nazi Germany's exact plans for conquest, which was then already and has since remained the object of mythoma­nic war propaganda. Among the uninformed public, it is still widely believed that the Nazis aimed at "conquering the world", no less; but this is nonsense. Hitler was ready to respect the British empire, and his alleged plan for an invasion of America was shown to be a British forgery planted in order to gain American support. In repeated peace offers to France and Britain in autumn 1939 and throughout 1940, Hitler proposed to withdraw from all historically non-German territories (which would still leave him in control of Austria, Sudetenland, West Prussia and some smaller border regions of Poland and, from May-June 1940 on, also Luxemburg, the Belgian East Cantons and French Elzas-Lotharingen) and maintain a territorial status-quo thenceforth.

It is possible that he meant it when he agreed to limit his territorial ambitions to historically German regions, at least where the competition consisted of allied or somehow respected nations such as the Italians or the French. However, in the case of the despised Slavic countries Poland and Ukraine, the fear of German conquest was more thoroughly justified.

In early 1918, the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk with the fledgling Soviet Union gave Germany control of Poland and western Ukraine. As a soldier, Hitler had applauded this gain of "living space", which was to be settled with German farmers after moving the Slavs to Siberia. It was also this brief gain which made the subsequent defeat in World War 1 and the implied loss of territory so unbearable for Hitler and many Germans of his generation. There is no doubt that the Nazi leaders had an eye on these fertile territories for a future expansion of Germany. It was less certain that they wanted to conduct this annexation at once: would they abide by an agreement on a mere corridor if one were concluded, respecting Poland's sovereignty over the rest of its territory?

The safest course was not to take chances and contain Hitler's expan­sionism by military deterrence. As Poland itself could not provide this, it sought and received the assurance of help from Britain and France. This implied that a brief local war triggered by German aggression against Poland would turn into a protracted international war on the model of the Serb-Austrian crisis of 1914 triggering the Great War now known as World War 1. It was at this point that Gandhi asked Hitler to desist from any plans of invading Poland. There can be no doubt that this was a correct demand for a pacifist to make. Was it perhaps a foolish demand, in the sense that no words should have been wasted on Hitler? We will consider this question later on, but note for now that in July 1939 everything was still possible, at least if we believe in human freedom.


Gandhi's second letter to Hitler

On 24 December 1940, on the eve of Christmas, which to Christians is a day of peace when the weapons are silenced, Gandhi wrote a lengthy second letter to Hitler. The world situation at that time was as follows: Germany and Italy controlled most of Europe and seemed set to decide the war in their favour, the German-Soviet pact concluded in August 1939 was still in force, and under Winston Churchill, a lonely Great Britain was continuing the war it had declared on Germany immediately after Germany's invasion of Poland in September 1939.

On this occasion, Gandhi took the trouble of justifying his addressing Hitler as "my friend" and closing his letter with "your sincere friend", in a brief statement of what exactly he stood for: "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." This very un-Hitlerian reason to befriend Hitler, what Gandhi goes on to call the "doctrine of universal friendship", contrasts with the Hitler-like hatred of one's enemy which is commonly thought to be the only correct attitude to Hitler.

Gandhi certainly earns the ire of post-war public opinion by stating: "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." To be sure, this was written in a period of fairly limited warfare, well before the total war with the Soviet Union and the USA, and well before the mass killing and deportation of Jews. But the prevailing attitude today is one of judging Hitler and his contemporaries' dealings with him as if they all had the knowledge that we have acquired in and since 1945. By that standard, anyone doubting the British government's hostile depiction of Hitler, including Gandhi, was practically an accomplice to Hitler's crimes.

However, while not giving up on the chance of converting Hitler to more peaceful ways, Gandhi was not that mild in judging the crimes Hitler had already committed. In particular, he criticized the already well-publicized Nazi conviction that the strong have a right to subdue the weak: "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 human 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."

So, Gandhi felt forced to join the ranks of Hitler's opponents: "Hence we cannot possibly wish success to your arms." Yet this did not make him join the British war effort nor even some non-violent department of the British Empire's cause: "But ours is a unique position. We resist British imperialism no less than Nazism." To Gandhi, British imperialism is closely akin to Nazi imperialism: "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."

In outlining his position vis-à-vis British imperialism, Gandhi at once explained his attitude vis-à-vis Nazism: "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." This was exactly what Gandhi was now trying out on Hitler: to convert him rather than defeat him, thus sparing him defeat if only he had listened.

Follows an explanation of the Gandhian method of making "their rule impossible by non-violent non-co-operation", based on "the knowledge that no spoliator can compass his end without a certain degree of co-operation, willing or unwilling, of the victim". In a slogan: "The rulers may have our land and bodies but not our souls." To this, Hitler probably made a mental comment that prisoners, such as the many people whom he himself was locking away, were quite entitled to their souls, as long as they left their land as living space and their bodies as slave labour to the rulers.

Unlike many of his countrymen, Gandhi rejected the idea of achieving freedom from British rule with German help: "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." Instead, Gandhi explained to Hitler, the non-violent method could defeat "a combination of all the most violent forces in the world".

In Gandhi's view, a violent winner is bound to be defeated by superior force in the end (a prediction proven true in Hitler's case), and even the memory of his victory will be tainted by its violent nature: "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." Here Gandhi probably projected his own disapproval of violent methods onto the masses of mankind, who are less inhibited by scruples about glorifying violent winners. Look at the lionization of Chengiz Khan in Mongolia, of Timur and Babar in Uzbekistan, of Alexander in Greece and Macedonia, even though their empires didn't last forever; and rest assured that the Germans would likewise have been proud of Hitler if he had been victorious.

Gandhi had to address Hitler

Gandhi would not have been Gandhi if he hadn't attempted to prevent World War 2. This was, to our knowledge, the single most lethal war in world history, with a death toll estimated as up to 50 million, not mentioning the even larger number of refugees, widows and orphans, people deported, people maimed, lives broken by the various horrors of war. It would be a strange pacifist who condoned this torrent of violence.

Nowadays it is common to lambast those who opposed the war. American campaigners against involvement in the war, such as aviator Charles Lindbergh, are routinely smeared as Nazis for no other reason than that they opposed war against the Nazis (or more precisely, war against the Germans, for only a minority of the seven million Germans killed during the war were Nazis). Leftist readers may get my point if they recall how those who opposed anticommunist projects such as the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba were automatically denounced as being Communists themselves. Do they think this amalgamation of opposition to war and collusion (or actual identity) with the enemy is justified?

Gandhi's utterances regarding Nazism leave no doubt about his firm hostility to this militaristic and freedom-hating doctrine. Yet, he opposed war against Nazism. This was entirely logical, for he rejected the militaristic element in both Nazism and the crusade against it. He did support the fight against Nazism but envisioned it as a non-violent struggle aimed at convincing rather than destroying.

It is not certain that this would have worked, but then Gandhism is not synonymous with effectiveness. Gandhi's methods were successful in dissuading the British from holding on to India, not in dissuading the Muslim League from partitioning India. From that angle, it simply remains an open question, an untried experiment, whether the Gandhian approach could have succeeded in preventing World War 2. By contrast, there simply cannot be two opinions on whether that approach of non-violent dissuasion would have been Gandhian. The Mahatma would not have been the Mahatma if he had preferred any other method. Our judgment of his letters to Hitler must be the same as our judgment of Gandhism itself: either both represented a lofty ethical alternative to the more common methods of power politics, or both were erroneous and ridiculous.

(January 2004)


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