There is an almost forgotten aspect of World War II that still generates discomfort and controversy in both India and the rest of Europe.
Some historians still allege that Hitler embraced Indians only as a means to disrupt Britain, by creating dissent within the Empire. However, the true facts are that a great many Nazis admired and worshipped ancient Indian culture, particularly its strict caste structure and military traditions.
At the very core of Nazi ideology lay the concept of the “Aryan race” and many German Nazis (certainly not all) regarded Indians as “Aryans,” originators of a culture they idolised and sought to emulate.
In response, many Indian Hindu nationalists admired and supported Nazi Germany, not only as an expression of opposition to Britain, but also because they shared many of the same notions of maintaining racial purity and a strictly disciplined society.
The Nazis venerated the ideal of a “pure, noble Aryan race,” that is believed to have invaded India thousands of years ago from Central Asia and established a martial society based on a rigid social structure with strict caste distinctions.
While scholars in both India and Europe have debunked the notion of an “Aryan race,” the myths and legends of ancient Vedic-Hindu India have had a widespread influence, and nowhere more than among the Nazi elite in Germany.
Heinrich Himmler, Reichsführer of the SS, himself patterned the brutal militia on the Kshatriya (the Warrior) caste of ancient India, which he glorified.
This placed India and especially Indian soldiers in a unique and uncomfortable position during World War II.
By the middle of the 20th century, India’s military was dominated by Sikhs, the bearded, turbaned Punjabis who formed the core of the fighting forces.
Germany (and Hitler) provided what many Indian nationalists viewed as an alternative to British imperialism.
During the war, the Indian nationalist Subhash Chandra Bose (who was not a Sikh) spent years in Germany seeking the Nazis’ help in launching a war directly against British rule in India in order to gain independence for his country.
Bose seemed to have little or no compunction about allying himself with the Nazis.
In fact, Bose once delivered an emotional speech for British soldiers of Indian origin, who were captured by the Wehrmacht in North Africa and who were held in Germany as POWs.
He said to them: “Hitler is your friend. He is the friend of the Aryans, and you will return to India as the liberators of your motherland.”
Indeed, in 1941 the German Wermacht formed an Indian military unit commonly called Indische Legion (“Indian Legion”) that fought on the side of Hitler.
Initially, the Indian recruits were students studying at German universities; later, Indian POWS captured in North Africa and Italy joined in. (Interestingly, Indian soldiers refused to serve under Fascist Italian commanders, but they willingly served under the Germans.)
Thus, Indian soldiers who had once sworn allegiance to the King of England now switched their allegiance to the Fuehrer, with the following oath:
“Before God… I will obey the Head of State and (of) the German people, Adolf Hitler, German Commander of the Armed Forces during the fight for freedom from India, whose leader is Subhash Chandra Bose … I give my life for this oath.”
By 1944, the Indian Legion (which included many Sikhs) became part of the Waffen SS, a military wing of the SS in cooperation with the aforementioned Bose.
After the war, with the defeat of Germany, most of the surviving Indian soldiers who fought on behalf of Nazism returned to India and faced charges of treason, followed by prison sentences.
In India today, these soldiers are widely regarded as collaborators or dupes, however, Bose remains a nationalist hero almost on par with Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru.
Admin’s Note: One of the last German Units to fight the Soviet onslaught of Berlin in 1944 was the Sikh Legion of the German Army (erroneously called the Indian Legion). It is believed that the survivors of the legion, if any, were transported to the Gulags in Siberia.