28 April 2013

Mahatma Gandhi’s ‘Dear Friend’ Letter to Adolf Hitler

The letter above has its permanent home in the Mani Bhavan (Ghandi Museum) in Mumbai.  It seems an unlikely set of pen-pals as could ever be imagined but you can rest assured that Gandhi never received a response.  The letter pleads with Hitler to reconsider his policies which would lead to war and is deferential, to say the least, in tone. 

What I particularly like about this letter is the almost child-like uncomplicatedness with which it is written.  Hitler is, in effect, being told that to stop is quite simply as easy as that.  Gandhi skilfully skirts the issue as to what may be the underlying causes of Hitler’s possible future actions but points out what their consequences will be in no uncertain terms.  One can only imagine the fury this engendered if it ever reached Herr Hitler’s desk.

Some historical contextualization is needed here.  The letter was written on 27 August 1939.  Hitler had already annexed Austria in the previous year.  The Sudetenland area of Czechoslovakia had been conceded and the rest of that unfortunate country had soon after been invaded and split in to two parts (one a Protectorate the other a client state of Germany) in March of 1939.  It may have been after this that Gandhi had been urged by his friends to write to Hitler in an attempt to arrest a descent in to all-out war.

However, his letter probably never arrived on time.  On 1 September 1939 Germany and its client state of Slovakia invaded Poland.  France and Britain had shortly before pledged their commitment to the independence of Poland and so it was that the Second World War, which was to claim the lives of 75 million people, truly started. 

You could consider Gandhi’s attempt at conciliatory intervention naïve to say the least. Yet it must be remembered that the true extent of the Nazi evil had yet to be uncovered or committed (everyone knew Hitler’s attitudes to Jewry and other minorities and ethnicities but had not yet the awful imagination to consider its true implications).

It could also be a surprise to see Gandhi addressing Hitler as friend. It was common practice among Indians at the time to address people they did not know in this way.  As an appeal to Hitler’s better nature (Gandhi here was certainly the eternal optimist) it was paramount that he did not catalogue any of the Fuhrer’s previous political mistakes or abuses of human rights – that would have ensured no audience for the letter at all.

Just a few days after this letter was written Poland was invaded and what Ghandi was trying to persuade Hitler to avoid came to pass.

Image Credit Flickr User sugarmelon.com