Hitler in Bangla Literature: Vox Pop and the Case of Sailesh Dey’s Ami Subhash Bolchi (1968)
By Somshankar Ray
It was a sunny early winter day in Kolkata. I was sitting in the Professors’ Common Room at Presidency University. Coffee had arrived. I had just opened a Bengali book on Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose. The canteen staff, who had come with the coffee, peered over my shoulder and caught a glimpse of a black and white picture of Netaji. He immediately exclaimed, ‘Oh! I simply adore him. He was the real fighter against the British conquerors! I really cannot tolerate the other compromise-loving nationalist leaders’. This gushing praise once again reminded me of the mesmerizing effect that Netaji Bose continues to have on the common man of India. But serious academicians, while acknowledging the noble patriotism of Bose, are often critical of his association with the Fascist leaders, especially Adolf Hitler. Hitler was reputedly one of the most negative characters of human history. So Bose’s alliance with him embarrasses many of his admirers. But was Hitler viewed in such negative light by his contemporary Bengali armed nationalists? Here we must remember that Bose’s efforts were the culmination of the patriotic endeavours of the Bengali armed nationalists, active since the days of Kshudiram Bose and Prafulla Chaki. The selfless, heroic Bengali patriots included Rashbehari Bose, Jatindranath Mukherjee (Bagha Jatin), Surya Sen, and the immortal trio of Binoy-Badal-Dinesh. They were superbly supported by their female counterparts, Shanti Ghosh, Suniti Chaudhuri, Pritilata Waddedar, Ujjala Majumdar, and Bina Das. They were certainly not narrow and provincial in their outlook. During the First World War, Bagha Jatin and Rashbehari Bose planned a second Sepoy Mutiny that would embrace an area stretching from Afghanistan to Singapore. They had also secured a supply of arms from Germany. When this enterprise tragically failed owing to the activities of a traitor, Rashbehari took shelter in Japan and carried on his nationalist activities from there. Later he founded the Indian National Army and the Indian Liberation League with the help of the Indians in South-East Asia, who were predominantly non-Bengalis. Netaji later led this INA and thus became a part of the heritage of the international ventures launched by the Bengali armed nationalists. So, it would be really interesting to note the impression Hitler made on the contemporary Bengali armed nationalists.
In this respect a study of Sailesh Dey, Ami Subhas Bolchhi (I am Subhas Speaking ), is most illuminating. This thousand page tome I held in my hand in the Professors’ Common Room. Dey was a Bengali nationalist who led an adventurous life, and was an acquaintance of the famous revolutionary, Benoy Bose. He was deeply interested in the history of the Bengali armed nationalism. He wrote a number of books on the topic. The most ambitious and well-known of his works is Ami Subhas Bolchhi. Veteran nationalist, Amalendu Ghosh, while writing the preface to this work, rated Ami Subhas Bolchhi as the most well-documented detailed history of Indian armed nationalism. Ghosh held that Dey described the inspiring but largely un-highlighted tale of all the armed nationalists in a moving fashion, while telling the story of Subhas Chandra Bose. Kshudiram, Prafulla Chaki, Surya Sen, Rashbehari Bose, Bhagat Singh, Dundee Khan all come to life in the pages of this book. The most noted aspect of this work is that it focused on the patriotic episodes untold in the mainstream history books, such as the revolt of the Indian soldiers led by Dundee Khan in Singapore during the First World War or the insurrection of the fourth Madras Coastal guards in course of the second World War in which nine young soldiers lost their lives. In the last part of his work, Dey clearly stated that the accounts of many events of the Indian Freedom Struggle were deliberately suppressed by the Govt. of India. It was the duty of the patriotic citizens like him to make the reading public hear the voice of the neglected armed nationalists. So, it was natural that Sailesh Dey had the courage to paint a portrait of Adolf Hitler, different from the one we are normally familiar with.
In the second part of his work, Dey described the sordid condition of the post First World War Germany. The entire German economy had collapsed under the unbearable burden of wartime losses and massive reparation payment imposed by the Versailles Treaty. The common German citizens became bankrupt and their basic civilized existence was threatened. This misery of the Germans was increased hundred fold by Jewish speculators and money lenders, who deliberately pushed up the prices of essential goods and commodities by unlawful means. In this context I remember reading an article in an old Bengali magazine written by a Bengali globe-trotter, who was present in Germany during the 1936 Berlin Olympics. The Bengali traveller had accepted the hospitality of a German Professor and over the evening coffee the German host complained to the Bengali guest that the Jews were monopolizing all the services and businesses. In fact, the Jews occupied a number of public offices totally disproportionate to their meagre population. This anti-Jewish feeling was shared by many German citizens. Interestingly, Dey approved of Hitler’s initial anti-Jewish measures as the Jewish traders had ruthlessly exploited the common Germans in the miserable post-Versailles days. He gushingly praised the regenerative role of Hitler in German life during the 1930s, the Depression Decade. For him, Hitler restored the moral courage of the German youth just when they had their backs to the wall. He shut down all the casinos and night clubs and employed the young people in government funded projects that would benefit the public. To bring back the national pride of the Germans, he made military training compulsory.
Naturally, Dey’s assessment of Hitler’s role in the second World War is quite lenient. He blamed not Hitler, but the unfair Treaty of Versailles, for the precipitation of that conflict. He advanced logical arguments in favour of Hitler. For Dey, Hitler’s claim to Sudetanland and Danzig was not unjustified. Sudetanland was a German-majority area, while Danzig was a free city where 97% of the people were German. So, Hitler’s claim to them was natural. Also, if he had to administer Danzig from Germany, the Polish Corridor was indeed necessary. In the defeat of France at the hands of Germany in 1940, Dey saw poetic justice being done. After the victory in the First World War, France had deliberately humiliated Germany by forcing the German representatives to sign the Peace Treaty sitting in a railway carriage in the forest of Campaigne. Beside the railway lines, a stone memorial was planted commemorating the victory of the ‘free’ French people over the arrogant Germans. Dey vividly described the dramatic scene where Hitler made Marshall Petain, the victor of 1918, sign the Pact of Surrender sitting in that very railway carriage in the forest of Campaigne, with the German military band playing, ‘Deutsch land Wiber Allace’ ( Long Live Victorious Germany) triumphantly outside. Dey remarked, ‘Thus turns the wheel of Fortune. Thus Hitler fulfilled his pledge to the German people’. In contrast, Dey depicted the British premier, Neville Chamberlain, and his French counterpart, Daladier, in a derisively comic fashion. He blamed them for failing to address the German demands and paving the way for the Second World War.
Most interesting is Dey’s assessment of Vidkun Quisling of Norway and Marshall Petain of France. Both of them are normally rated as arch traitors, who betrayed their motherlands and acted as Nazi collaborators. But Dey reminded the readers that Quisling took charge of the country when the King and the Ministers fled like cowards leaving the people to their fate. When he was awarded the death penalty, he bravely remarked, ‘If I am a traitor, may Norway be fortunate enough to have traitors like me throughout the ages.’ Similarly, when France was down on its knees before the blitzkrieg and the government office bearers fled to England, Marshall Petain made peace with the Germans and founded the Vichy Govt. Unlike most of his counterparts, Petain refused to desert his motherland. Possibly Quisling and Petain collaborated with the Nazis to save their nations from total subjugation. Indirect rule under the collaborators was certainly more palatable than direct Nazi tyranny.
However, Dey never portrayed Netaji as a collaborator of Hitler. Despite all his praises for the great Dictator, he never wanted to view Hitler as the boss of Netaji Bose. Rather he cited numerous examples of Netaji’s independent spirit and his defiance of Hitler and the Japanese. Dey boldly defended Bose’s alliance with the Axis powers. According to him, in a subjugated country the sole target of every nationalist should be achieving independence. To achieve that, no means were unwelcome. Then it was impossible for the Indians to defeat the British without the help of the foreign powers. The experiences of 1920-21 and 1930-31 had shown that the purely non-violent agitations were not going to make the British yield. Before Netaji, noted nationalists and revolutionaries such as Count Cavour, Garibaldi, Sun Yat Sen and later Ho Chih Minh solicited foreign help to further their causes. However, they never compromised the security and sovereignty of their nations. Nor did Netaji. Dey, quoting original documents, showed how Netaji stoutly defended India’s autonomy while negotiating with the Germans and the Japanese. Germany was a sovereign country. But Bose succeeded in founding the Indian legion (The Azad Hind Fauj or the Indische Legion) on German soil. He made it clear that the legion must be used only against the British, not against any other country who had no rancour with India. Also, the status of the members of Indian legion must be equal to that of the German soldiers. Besides, Bose personally undertook to repay all the costs incurred by Germany in supporting the Indian mission. Interestingly, the German Govt. accepted Bose’s guarantee as they had full faith in his integrity. It is worth remembering that later, from the funds raised by the Indians in South East Asia, Netaji managed to pay the Germans back part of the money spent for the Indian venture. During his only meeting with Adolf Hitler, on 28th May, 1942, Bose had some disagreements with the German leader. Reacting sharply to one of the comments made by Hitler, Bose replied: ‘I have been in politics all my life and that I don’t need advice from any side.’ To make such a statement in face of the all powerful Fuhrer in 1942 certainly required some guts! Earlier, while in Germany in 1934, Bose openly protested against some anti-India remarks made by Hitler in his autobiography Mein Kampf and refused to accept a Civic Reception hosted by the Nazi Party.
After that in Japan, when the Japanese army and the INA were to march together towards India, Bose made it clear that the two must be placed on absolutely equal footing. The Indian territories liberated by them must be placed immediately under the Azad Hind government and the chief administrator was to be an Indian. It was no mean achievement for a citizen of a dependent country like Bose to make the extremely powerful and arrogant Japanese Govt. to agree to such proposals. Dey listed all the clauses of the agreement between Bose and the Japanese. He politely asked us whether it can be justifiably held that Bose compromised the sovereignty of India to the slightest degree while allying himself with the Axis.
This definitely proves that Dey was no blind worshipper of Hitler and the Axis leaders. He merely said that the popular impression of Hitler and his allies being evil incarnate and the Anglo-Americans as the knights in shining armour is distorted. Hitler’s deeds cannot be praised, but the British did not lag far behind while suppressing the independence loving people of Medinipur in the 1930s and in 1942. Indiscriminate shooting, flogging, arson, arrests, and outraging the modesty of women, none of these was beyond the scope of the British police and their Indian lackeys. When Medinipur was ravaged by a cyclone on 16th October, 1942, the British administration deliberately cut off all aid to make the people suffer. Fazlul Haque and Shyamaprasad Mukherjee resigned from the provincial ministry in protest. To their credit, the armed nationalists of Medinipur shot down three British magistrates successively in the 1930s. In the international sphere too, Dey found little to differentiate between the Allied and the Axis. The Germans and the Japanese committed atrocities, but the Americans also did not lag far behind when they dropped atomic bombs on the innocent citizens of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The Russians also violated all international decency by disregarding the non-aggression Pact and declaring war on atomic bomb affected Japan.
The well-known Bengali intellectual, Nirad C Chaudhuri (1897-1999), noted in the second part of his autobiography, Thy Hand, Great Anarch! (1987), the admiration the common Bengalis felt for Hitler and Tojo. A die-hard anglophile Chaudhuri frowned upon the Bengali glee over the initial victories of the Axis and ridiculed the Bengali perception of the glorious role of Subhas Bose and the INA in a chapter significantly titled, “India Enjoys the War 1939-41”. But even he could not avoid the conclusion that the Americans were indeed mean in dropping the atomic bombs and then hanging the Japanese leaders via some sham trials. It is no wonder that Radhabinod Paul, the only Indian jurist included in the panel judging the Japanese leaders in the Tokyo Trials, refused to brand Tojo and his associates as war criminals. He observed that the victors always reserve the right to condemn the vanquished, forgetting their own lapses.
The significance of Sailesh Dey’s work lies in the fact that it made the voice of the vanquished audible and documented the tale of the unsung.
Dr. Somshankar Ray is an Assistant Professor in the Department of History, Presidency University, Kolkata. He teaches courses on history and fiction and intends to debut as a novelist with a historical novel in a couple of years.
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