The Tribune - Spectrum

Sunday, September 30, 2001

Could the apostle of peace have curbed Hitler’s hate?
K.R.N. Swamy

MAHATMA Gandhi’s weapon of non-violence worked with the British.. But would it have worked with a tyrant regime like that of Adolf Hitler? There is no need to guess. It is there in black and white for scholars and laymen to see, because the confidential papers of the period have been released by India, Britain and Germany. This period saw the Mahatma (1869-1948) pained by the gruesome World War II unleashed by Hitler (1889-1945).

Mahatma had advised Hitler to pursue non-violence
Mahatma had advised Hitler to pursue non-violence

As Hitler let loose his storm troopers on Europe, there arose a hope among peace lovers that a towering figure like Mahatma Gandhi could do something to stop the swathe of destruction. The fact that the Mahatma was the only world leader who was advocating non-violence, led to great expectations being pinned on his intervention. The Mahatma had watched Hitler’s rise to power and his subsequent extermination of the Jews. Talking to a group of teachers in 1939, Gandhiji told them: "You know what Hitler is doing in Germany. His creed is violence of which he makes no secret". In another context, he addressed an open letter on October 6, 1938, to erstwhile Czechoslovakia, titled ‘If I were a Czech’. In this letter, the Mahatma made clear his views on the Munich Pact, known ironically as the ‘Peace in our time’ Pact, by means of which France and Britain handed over erstwhile Czechoslovakia to Germany.


Mahatma Gandhi said, "If I have called the agreement with Herr Hitler "Peace without Honour", it was not any reflection on British and French statesmen... Democracy dreads to spill blood. The philosophy for which the two dictators Hitler and Mussolini stand, call it cowardice to shrink from carnage." He advised the Czechs to refuse to obey Hitler and perish unarmed in the attempt. In doing so, he declared, though they would lose their bodies, they would be saving their souls. The Mahatma had anticipated his well-wishers’ retort, "Hitler knows no pity. Your spiritual efforts will avail nothing before him’. The saint’s answer was, ‘You may be right. History has no record of a nation having adapted non-violent resistance.

"Hitherto, he (Hitler) and his kind have built upon their invariable experience that men yield to force. Unarmed men, women and children offering non-violent resistance without any bitterness in them will be a novel experience for them. Who can dare say that it is not in their nature to respond to the higher and finer forces? They have the same soul, that I have!"

Further, the Mahatma expected his sympathisers to twit him saying. "What you say is all right for you. But how do you expect the Czech people to respond to the novel call? They are trained to fight. In personal bravery, they are second to none in the world. For you to ask them to throw away their arms and be trained for non-violent resistance seems to be a vain attempt." Mahatma Gandhi’s reply to this poser was, ‘You may be right... But I have a call I must answer... this is how I should, I believe, act if I was Czech.’ As the skirmish development into a full-fledged invasion of Poland by Germany, the Mahatma wrote bitterly, ‘Germany is showing to the world how efficiently violence can be worked, when it is not hampered by any hypocrisy or weakness, masquerading as humanitarianism’.

The Mahatma found it becoming increasingly difficult to brush aside requests from his followers all over the world to do something. So he decided to write to the priest of violence and on July 23, 1939, penned the following letter to Hitler. ‘Dear Friend’, the letter began, ‘Friends have been urging me to write to you for the sake of humanity. But I have resisted their request, because of a feeling that any letter from me would be an impertinence. But something tells me that I must not calculate and 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 to one who has deliberately shunned the method of war with considerable success? Anyway I anticipate your forgiveness, if I have erred in writing to you.’

The letter was sent to the Government of India for being forwarded to Hitler. But the Viceroy of India refused to send it. With the result, only the nationalist newspapers in India and some British journals carried the Mahatma’s exhortation.

The letter evoked widespread comment. But this was mostly sceptical. While some admirers of the Mahatma applauded his stand, by and large world opinion felt that the Mahatma was impractical. It echoed the views of the American missionary, who, earlier in 1938, had berated the Mahatma. "You do not know Hitler and Mussolini", he had told the apostle of non-violence during a meeting and added, "They have no conscience and they have made themselves impervious to world opinion. Would it not be playing into the hands of this dictator, if, for instance, the Czechs following your advice confronted them with non-violence. Seeing, that dictatorships are immoral by definition, would the law of moral conversion hold good in their case?"

Apart from this, there was ample evidence of how Hitler would respond. Talking to Lord Halifax (who as Lord Irwin, the former Viceroy of India, had negotiated with the Mahatma), Hitler had berated the British statesman in 1937, for permitting the Mahatma and the Indian National Congress to parley with their ‘British Masters’. ‘Shoot Gandhi and if that does not suffice, go on shooting down all the other leaders, till they realise that you mean business and that would stop their agitation’, was Hitler’s considered advice.

Mahatma Gandhi’s anguish increased as World War II raged on and the detractors of non-violence increased in number. He was forced to say defensively, ‘How do we know for whose destruction Hitler was born?’ Again he penned a letter to Adolf Hitler on December 24, 1940, stating, ‘That I address you as a friend is no formality. I know no foes. My business 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 been living under influence of that doctrine of universal friendship (viz: non-violence) view your action.’

After imploring him to adopt non-violence, the Mahatma pleaded, ‘I therefore appeal to you in the name of humanity to stop the War’. In the last paragraph of the letter the Mahatma added, ‘This letter is addressed to Mussolini also, whom I met in Rome’. But with the war on, the Government of India decided not to allow this letter to appear in the Indian newspapers, classifying it as an anti-war effort. The letter was returned to the Mahatma with the censor’s regret. Gandhi could have easily had it published in the nationalist journals. But as he wrote to the Viceroy, ‘I do not want surreptitious publication’.

It is a measure of Mahatma Gandhi’s greatness that he applied the same yardstick to his colleagues in the Indian freedom struggle, when they became ministers of the Indian Government overnight in 1947. He did not spare them for forsaking non-violence. In an interview with the journalist Kingsley Martin, on January 28, 1948, one finds the Mahatma intensely disillusioned. He confessed that he now realised that the non-violence practiced by the Indian masses was simply a ‘non-violence’ of people who had no military strength. He had witnessed it in 1946 in the communal riots in Bengal. He was aware that the freedom struggle in India had not been a non-violence movement in the highest sense of the term.

It was the same in the case of Kashmir, where the new Government of India had to use military strength to repel Pakistani raiders. The members of the Indian Cabinet did not seek recourse in non-violence, a remedy the Mahatma had advised Hitler to pursue. Ruefully, the saint recalled what Maulana Azad, one of his foremost disciples (a Cabinet Minister of the Indian Government in 1948) had once said, "When we gain power, we shall not be able to hold it non-violently". Thus, bitter that his own disciples had forsaken him, three days later, on January 30, 1948, the apostle of non-violence himself felt prey to violence.

Reproduced with permission from Messrs Harper Collins (India) from the book "Mughals, Maharajas & the Mahatma" by K.R.N. Swamy.