Argument: The wholesale celebration or rejection of states or persons is detrimental to the cause of Liberty.
The frail-bodied Mamta Bannerjee, speaking in India’s capital in heavily-accented Hindi, recently compared the Indian Prime Minister to Adolf Hitler.
In any other country, this might be considered a straightforward appeal to emotion, or commonplace hyperbole, neither surprising in a politician. Even in one of Miss Banerjee’s caliber, a woman of inspiring fortitude, who took on the might of the entrenched-for-decades Bengal establishment and won enough votes to take her to the highest public office in her province, governing the lives of an entire people.
The point that must be stressed is this: she meant the comparison to be unflattering to her political opponent, Narendra Modi. While a post-1945 comparison to Hitler is almost everywhere unfavorable, India is a special case, and one cannot be sure whether another seeks to praise or to abuse, when the other brings up Hitler.
Although a couple of million Indians fought against the Axis powers in the Second World War, there were a few hundred Indians led by Subas Chandr Bose, a vastly respected soldier-intellectual from Bengal, who collaborated with and took up arms for Hitler. They sided with Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan to fight for Liberty, and that noble cause protects still their reputation. This muddies the water, and no Indian politician would dare vilify Subas Chandr Bose, even though he disagreed with Mahatma Gandhi, even though he shook the Führer’s hand.
This might be part of the reason that Hitler is still admired in India, with people openly declaring, including on public Facebook posts, that they ‘love Hitler’, and translated copies of ‘Mein Kampf’ available for sale on public footpaths.
Another contributing factor might be the near-absence of the Extermination Camps in the Indian consciousness. Not more than a couple of decades ago, a bar called ‘Hitler’s cross’ made its debut in a posh Indian quartier — Hitler, the murderer of millions, had become ‘cool’.
Or even the fact that the Swastika is a beloved, omnipresent symbol across India, published by the Nazis as the Hakenkreuz.
Or perhaps because one of the fundamental points of Nazi ideology is the breeding of races, and the Indians have been at it for millennia, winning the admiration of Nietzsche.
Or perhaps because gruesome violence in the name of some sacred cause appears entirely palatable to Nazis and many Indians. Hitlerian Germany had ‘Gauleiter’ [Gau = administrative unit; Leiter = leader], who were undoubtedly part of the Dantesque machinery of horrors, and right-wing India has ‘Gaurakhshak’ [Gau = cow; Rakshak = defender], who are pleased to lynch a man if they suspect him of eating beef. The common word ‘Gau’ might make for a dark joke, for Mamta Banerjee’s next speech, or for anyone else who also has the courage to stand up and castigate the powerful.
Of course, it is not just India who had things in common with the darker years of the Weimar Republic.
The Soviets, back when they fought the Nazis, were no strangers to repression, secret policemen, political expediency, and labor camps — the horrible things one often associates with the 1000-year Reich.
The Americans, back when they fought the Nazis, had both de jure and de facto racial segregation, which happened to be one of the defining policies of the Nazi government.
The British and the French, back when they fought the Nazis, were engaged in wars of aggression and occupation. Both states possessed overseas colonies — one of the things that Hitler desired for Germany. It is only a schoolground bully who would think that John and Pierre might have an extra apple, but Hans must sit it out. The humanist, in this analogy, would also deny the Anglophile and Francophone nationalists their rapine.
In Washington’s Holocaust Museum, in the heart of the most powerful city in the world, one sees the flags of these four countries inside the entrance, displayed in the grand manner. The solemnity suggests that these represented the forces of righteousness, bravely pitted against their natural enemy. It is a shabby attempt to mask certain unpalatable truths, such as, but not limited to, those mentioned above. Flags have been known to be particularly effective with schoolboys, and local schools doubtless send pupils to gaze upon the purported glory of one-dimensional heroes.
The Nazis are indeed to be despised — but not because they spoke English with an amusing accent, or because they were enthusiastic about sauerkraut. The opprobrium must be a product of their assaults against human dignity and the freedoms of the individual.
If we agree to that criterion, then we may construct the principle that we shall judge men, organizations and states based on their publicly expressed ideas and their acts, and that we shall apply this principle rigorously, not sparing beloved cousins, trading partners, or adolescent ideas of patriotic obligation. ‘My country, right or wrong’ — does not belong to this century.
And so we must condemn not just certain ideologies and crimes of the Nazis, but also assaults by others on humanity.
For example, we must condemn the famine in Bengal, or the one in the Ukraine, the general denial of dissent, the targeting and execution without trial by policemen or drones [in certain philosophies, this is termed ‘murder’], the demonization of homosexuals, the harassment of ethnic minorities, the indiscriminate bombing of civilian populations, exploitative financial contracts, torture, et cetera. This might mean the ‘goodies’ are not very different from the ‘baddies’, and that some of our heroes might turn out to have the blood of little children on their hands.
If we refuse to apply the principle of responsibility universally, then we stand with one of Hermann Göring’s more persistent utterances, that the only war crime of any significance is to have lost the war.
The historical narrative of human conflict cannot be the post-factum celebration by the victorious party of all participants on its side, including of those who were forced to fight, and of the wholesale and absolute justification of its reasons for going to war, and of all acts carried out by it in wartime.
Nations insist on honoring their war-dead with much ostentation, which is laudable, but often do their utmost to obscure the memory of the lies, cupidity, hypocrisy, hate-mongering, and brutality that are usually indispensable to the prosecution of war, which deception is far from praiseworthy. The denial of debate and the systematic ostracism of the skeptical ones makes a mockery of the dead, even if trumpets are loudly blown.
Subhas Chandr Bose too was a victim of war. He was a Bengali and an intellectual, like Mamta Banerjee, and spent some time in Vienna. When I revisited that magnificent city some months ago, I had the notion that it would be a fine thing to shake the hand of his granddaughter. She might, after all, still frequent Viennese cafés and antique bookstores. He was a terrorist, guilty of sedition, and of aiding the enemy during wartime — all of which means he can be easily condemned, especially by those who belong to the ruling classes, and profit from the maintenance of the status quo. However, he also strove to advance the cause of sweet, sweet Liberty, and this is admirable.
Perhaps this is not all too different from the case of Fidel Castro. It was in a café in Bucharest that the name of the Cuban leader came up, two nights ago. Unknown to us, on the other side of the world, he had just passed away. I wistfully said that it might be a fine thing to shake his hand, yet ignorant of his demise. My companions, who had been to Cuba, expressed mild shock, mentioning a poor track record in human rights. I immediately expressed regret at being ignorant of his failures and excesses — all I knew was that he had fought against tyranny. Waking up the next morning, I realized that I was not alone in my admiration of the underdog who had dared to stand up against the mighty.
Perhaps both Castro and Bose are to be reviled — they would certainly have been regarded as the worst of criminals in their own jurisdictions. Yet, it cannot be denied that they risked their own lives for the freedoms and dignity of others.
The conundrum might have an easy solution. Perhaps we must deny ourselves the romantic desire to deify charismatic men, and apply the same principle of responsibility to all. Their excesses against human dignity to be rejected, their efforts for freedom to be emulated, and the same to apply to nation states.
We shall be left with fewer statues on public boulevards, and less ardent flag-waving — a small price to pay for a more just, freer world.