By the late 1930s, Gandhi’s method of peaceful non-cooperation had already won significant concessions from the British Raj, including the founding of a national administration and local and national legislative assemblies, albeit still under British oversight.
Gandhi, himself, was internationally famous for his various acts of non-violent, civil disobedience, including his 241-mile Salt March, which, while protesting Britain’s monopoly on salt and its high tariff, also galvanized the Indian people against British rule altogether.
With his reputation for effective, nonviolent change well established, many implored Gandhi to write to Adolph Hitler, whose increasingly aggressive regime in Germany had them worried that a second world war was imminent.
For example, by February 1935, Hitler had ordered the establishment of a German air force, the Luftwaffe, and by March 1936, Hitler had sent troops into the Rhineland – both in violation of the Treaty of Versailles. Also in 1936, Hitler had established pacts with Italy and Japan, and in March 1938, Germany invaded Austria.
At this time (1938), Hitler was named Man of the Year by Time magazine. They stated, “Lesser men of the year seemed small indeed beside the Führer.” That said, their reasoning for picking him was not to honor his actions up to that point, but to widely publicize his exploits. They noted, among other knocks against him, “Germany’s 700,000 Jews have been tortured physically, robbed of homes and properties, denied a chance to earn a living, chased off the streets. Now they are being held for ‘ransom,’ a gangster trick through the ages.” They ended their article on their decision to name Hitler the Man of the Year on the ominous note, “To those who watched the closing events of the year it seemed more than probable that the Man of 1938 may make 1939 a year to be remembered.”
Indeed, although Britain and France thought they had “appeased” Hitler’s ambition, and ensured “peace in our time,” with the Munich Pact (that handed only a portion of Czechoslovakia over to Germany) in September 1938, by March 1939, Hitler had breached that agreement by soon occupying the entire country. At this point, finally realizing that Hitler couldn’t be trusted, Britain pledged to defend Poland if Germany invaded the latter.
Seeing the writing on the wall, Gandhi sent a short, typewritten letter to Hitler on July 23, 1939, telling the dictator:
Friends have been urging me to write to you for the sake of humanity. But I have resisted their request, because of the feeling that any letter from me would be an impertinence. Something tells me that I must not calculate and that 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 the price for an object however worthy it may appear to you to be? Will you listen to the appeal of one who has deliberately shunned the method of war not without considerable success? Any way I anticipate your forgiveness, if I have erred in writing to you.
Your sincere friend
However, this letter never reached the German Chancellor, as it was, apparently, intercepted by the British government.
Shortly thereafter, Germany signed a non-aggression pact with the Soviet Union on August 23, 1939 (which kept the USSR out of the war until 1941), and Britain signed the formal Anglo-Polish Common Defence Pact two days later. Germany then invaded Poland with its Blitzkrieg (“lightning war”) on September 1, 1939, and on September 3, 1939, World War II formally began when Britain and France declared war on Germany.
Despite facing two powerful enemies, Germany encountered little real resistance during those early months of the war. It tore through the European continent, and by May 1940, Belgium, Denmark, France, Luxembourg, Netherlands and Norway were all occupied by Nazi forces. The Battle of Britain, which saw the British homeland pummeled by a months-long bombing campaign, began in July 1940. Over the coming months, nearly 30,000 bombs were dropped on London, during which more than 15,000 people were injured or killed.
Once again, on December 24, 1940, Gandhi sent a letter to Hitler, this one significantly longer. Again addressing him as “Dear Friend,” Gandhi explained that: “That I address you as a friend is no formality. I own no foes. My business in 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.” But, taking a harder line this time, Gandhi chastised the Chancellor:
Your own writings and pronouncements . . . leave no room for doubt that many of your acts are monstrous and unbecoming of human dignity. . . . Such are your humiliation of Czechoslovakia, the rape of Poland and the swallowing of Denmark.
He also challenged Hitler, noting that although Nazi Germany had lifted the “science of destruction” to a level of “perfection”:
It is a marvel to me that you do not see that it is nobody’s monopoly. If not the British, some other power will certainly improve upon your method and beat you with your own weapon. You are leaving no legacy to your people of which they would feel proud. They cannot take pride in a recital of cruel deed, however skilfully planned. I, therefore, appeal to you in the name of humanity to stop the war.
Accepted that both men shared a common disdain of Britain, Gandhi continued:
We know what the British heel means for us and the non-European races of the world. But we would never wish to end the British rule with German aid. We have found in non-violence a force, which, if organized, can without doubt match itself against a combination of all the most violent forces of the world.
He ended with a final appeal:
During this season when the hearts of the peoples of Europe yearn for peace . . . is it too much to ask you to make and effort for peace?
If this letter ever reached Hitler, it apparently was too much to ask.
Although Gandhi was a prodigious writer and was known to use a typewriter, it created a cognitive dissonance in the great leader. Renowned for his disdain for technology, which he thought was de-humanizing, Gandhi summarized his love-hate relationship with the device: “I too detest the typewriter. I have a horror of it, but I survive it as I survive many things, which do no lasting harm. If someone dispossessed me of the typewriter, I should not shed a single tear, but, as it is there, I make use of it and even believe that some time is being saved for more useful work.”
This article was originally published on Today I Found Out. You might also enjoy subscribing to their new Daily Knowledge YouTube channel.
Featured image: Wikimedia Commons
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