Adolf Hitler was one of the most prominent historical figures from the 20th century, evoking both disgust and fascination. While other totalitarian regimes from that period -- including Fascist Italy and Imperial Japan -- have largely faded from the public's consciousness, Nazi Germany still exerts a powerful hold on many for a variety of reasons.
Among the most interesting and perplexing aspects of the Nazi regime was its connection to India and Hinduism. Indeed, Hitler embraced one of the most prominent symbols of ancient India -- the swastika -- as his own.
The link between Nazi Germany and ancient India, however, goes deeper than just the swastika.
The Nazis venerated the notion of a pure, noble Aryan race, who are 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 rejected and debunked the notion of an Aryan race, the myths and legends of ancient Vedic-Hindu India have had a tremendous influence on many nations, none more so than Germany.
Perhaps the most fervent Nazi adherent to Indian Hinduism was Heinrich Himmler, one of the most brutal members of the senior command.
Himmler, directly responsible for the deaths of millions of Jews and others as the architect of the Holocaust, was a complex and fascinating man. He was also obsessed with India and Hinduism.
International Business Times spoke with two experts on German culture to explore Himmler and Hinduism.
Victor and Victoria Trimondi are German cultural philosophers and writers. They have published books on religious and political topics, including Hitler-Buddha-Krishna-An Unholy Alliance from the Third Reich to the Present Day (2002), a research about the efforts by National-Socialists and Fascists to construct a racist Indo-Aryan warrior ideology with strong roots in Eastern religions and philosophies.
IB TIMES: Heinrich Himmler was reportedly fascinated by Hinduism and ancient Indian culture, and he read the Bhagavad Gita, among other classic texts. How and when was he introduced to Indian culture? Was it prior to his joining the Nazi party or afterwards?
MR. & MRS. TRIMONDI: Himmler kept a diary where he not only listed the books he read but also provided extensive comments on these manuscripts. His entries regarding India and Indians were always very positive.
Himmler's Indian reading list started in 1919 [before the Nazi Party was formed] with a German translation of a novel called Mr. Isaacs: A Tale of Modern India by Marion Crawfords. Six years later, in 1925, Himmler also praised Hermann Hesse's Siddhartha as a magnificent book.
Himmler was also drawn to The Pilgrim Kamanita by the Danish author Karl Gjellerup, which was a contemporary best-seller. In his diary, Himmler commented: A precious narration. The content is the teaching of salvation.
Gjellerup's book quoted several verses from the Vedas, including: The one who kills believes that he is killing. The one who has been killed believes that he dies. Both of them are wrong, for one doesn't die and the other doesn't kill.
Later, Himmler delivered some of these same philosophies in his speeches to his SS officers.
In the 1920s and the early 1930s, Himmler read some popular books about Hinduism and Buddhism. Yet, his actual interest in classic Hindu texts came later, when he founded the SS-Ahnenerbe, the brain trust of the Black Order, a group of highly qualified academics and occultists that attempted to forge the ideology of a racist warrior religion.
In 1937, Himmler chose Professor Walter Wüst to serve as the president of the SS-Ahnenerbe. Two years later, Wüst became the curator of this notorious organization. Incidentally, in addition to being one of the leading Sanskrit scholars of his time, Wüst served as the president of the Maximilian University in Munich. In the academic world, Orientalists from this particular university were considered the top experts in their field.
Wüst was keenly interested in extracting ideas from the Vedas and Buddhism of the so-called Aryan tradition in order to give National Socialism a religious dimension. One slogan of his was: Also above India hovers the sun-sign of the Swastika.
To Wüst, Hitler appeared as the manifestation of a Chakravartin - Indo-Aryan world emperor.
Wüst tried to support this particular speculation by verses from classical Indian scriptures. Moreover, in one of his emotion-driven speeches, he compared Hitler with the historical Buddha.
IB TIMES: Germany's fascination with ancient India and its culture began in the 19th century, no? That is, long before the advent of the Nazis. Is it correct?
MR. & MRS. TRIMONDI: Indeed, Germany had been a true center for Sanskrit studies in the nineteenth century. To be exact, there were scholars and writers in this field who either put the emphasis on the peaceful aspects of Indian culture (e.g. Johann Gottfried Herder and Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph Schelling) or pointed out the nihilistic side of Buddhism or Shankara philosophy (like Arthur Schopenhauer).
However, with the radicalization of German nationalism, writers began to put more emphasis on the martial aspects of Hindu culture. One of the first who tried to blend the warrior ideology of ancient India with Aryan racism was Houston Stewart Chamberlain, an English-born author who lived in Germany and who was later held in a high esteem by the Nazis.
IB TIMES: Is it true that Himmler could read and speak Sanskrit fluently? Where and how did he learn such a difficult foreign language?
MR. & MRS. TRIMONDI: We do not have any evidence that he mastered Sanskrit. However, Himmler did not need to read this ancient tongue since he always had Wüst by his side.
By constantly interacting with Himmler, Wüst was directly involved in his philosophical and ideological projects, and he could provide an answer to any linguistic questions coming from the Reichsführer SS.
IB TIMES: As Reichsführer of the SS, Chief of the German Police, Minister of the Interior and head of the Gestapo and the Einsatzgruppen killing squads, Himmler was responsible for the murder of millions of innocent people. How did he reconcile such brutality with the tenets of Hinduism, which is generally peaceful?
MR. & MRS. TRIMONDI: The image of Hinduism as a totally peaceful religion is a widespread fallacy. In fact, one can find plenty of martial aspects in Hindu culture, which had been emphasized by various individuals even before the Nazi period, during Hitler's reign, and even today by the extreme right wing in Europe and elsewhere.
For example, in his introduction to a popular edition of the Bhagavad Gita, Leopold Schroeder, a student of ancient India, wrote that this poem describes the powerful ethics of Kshatriya (Warrior) religion at a time when the warriors and kings of India provided a spiritual leadership instead of the priestly caste.
It is very likely that Himmler used this particular edition of the Bhagavad Gita. It was the Kshatriya, the ancient Hindu warrior caste, and its ethical ideals that fascinated the Nazis so much among other elements of Indian history and culture.
IB TIMES: Aside from millions of Jews, Himmler was also responsible for the mass murder of up to half-million Roma (gypsies). Was he not aware that the Roma are also of Indian descent?
MR. & MRS. TRIMONDI: He must have known it. At the same time, we should remember that Western racist intellectuals usually divided Indian society into two castes: light-skinned Aryan conquerors (priests, warriors and merchants) and dark-skinned indigenous Dravidians or Chandalens -- the latter expression goes back to a Sanskrit word Chandala - or, 'The Untouchables.' Himmler surely viewed the Roma as a part of this outcast group.
IB TIMES: Bhagavad Gita partially focuses on the adventures of Arjuna, the world's greatest warrior. Did Himmler fantasize that he was a 20th-century Arjuna fighting for the glory of the Aryans? Did Himmler view Hitler as his god Krishna - like a reincarnation of god Krishna?
MR. & MRS. TRIMONDI: When speaking about the Aryan culture proper and the old German or Nordic gods, Himmler clearly viewed them as parts of the same spiritual ideology.
In this sense, Himmler was indeed fighting for the glory of the Aryans. Thus, Himmler was convinced that the thunderbolts mentioned in both Indian and European mythologies were references to the super-weapons of Aryan Gods, who possessed incredible knowledge of electricity.
However, we do not know whether Himmler identified himself with Arjuna or not. At the same time, considering the fact that he did indeed compare Hitler to Krishna, it is quite possible that he cast himself as the character of Arjuna.
On one occasion, Himmler recited to other people the following passage from the Gita, in which Krishna says to Arjuna: Every time when man forgets the sense of justice and truth, and when injustice reigns in the world I become born anew, that is the law.
Having read these words, Himmler added: This passage is directly related to our Führer. He did arise during the time when the Germans were in the deepest distress and when they did not see any way out. He belongs to these great figures of light (Lichtgestalt). One of the greatest figures of light reincarnated himself in our Führer.
Based on this statement, one can assume that perhaps Himmler viewed Hitler as a manifestation of Krishna and himself as Arjuna.
IB TIMES: Did Himmler envision the SS as a modern version of the ancient Kshatriya Hindu warrior caste?
MR. & MRS. TRIMONDI: This was really a sensation what we discovered in the archives: In 1925, shortly before he became a member of Hitler's SS, Himmler read about the Freemasons and anti-masons in Their Fight for World Domination by an Austrian writer named Franz Haiser.
Strange as it may sound, the greater part of the book deals not with Freemasons but with the Indian caste system. Haiser praised this caste system as the most reasonable and the most sophisticated social model. He also glorified the Kshatriya (the Warrior) caste as the natural leaders in society. Haiser also compared the decline of the caste system in India to the decadence of Western culture. As a way to prevent this decline, the author proposed the creation of a well-organized, international and racially pure elite order of warriors that he called the All Aryan Union (all-arischer Bund). In addition, he advocated for an all-Aryan world revolution and for the emancipation of the Kshatriya from above.
Haiser derided the so-called lower races as crows, rats, sparrows, louses and fleas and also endorsed the reintroduction of slavery. He envisioned a society in which the Kshatriyas would not be permitted to mingle with other races. In addition, he drew attention to the Hindu cosmology of global eras: the Yugas, the Holy Trinity of Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva, and the Indian law code of Manu, which he interpreted as a guidebook on how to keep the Aryan race pure.
After familiarizing himself with all these ideas Himmler wrote excitedly in his diary: A wonderful book [...] I agree with most of it. One needs such books. They encourage those who instinctively feel what is right and what is wrong, but do not dare to think about it because of their false education. Kshatriya caste [is what] we have to be. This is the salvation.
Two years later, in 1927, as a twenty-seven year old man, Himmler already came to occupy the high position of the Stellvertretender Reichsführer SS.
Much of the agenda articulated in Haiser's book could be found later in the ideology and the structure of the Black Order.
Himmler was also familiar with the writings of the Italian philosopher Julius Evola, a fascist prophet of the Kshatriya ideology.
IB TIMES: Is it true that Himmler always kept a copy of the Bhagavad Gita in his pocket and read passages from it every night?
MR. & MRS. TRIMONDI: Yes, this is true. In fact, it has been well documented by Felix Kersten, his Finnish masseur, that Himmler liked to indulge in philosophical monologues in his presence. The Reichsführer SS called the Gita a high Aryan Canto. Kersten also reported that Himmler read the Vedas, especially the Rig-Veda, the speeches of the Buddha, and the Buddhist Visuddhi-magga. Himmler made frequent references to karma, especially when he was talking about providence.
He also believed in reincarnation: With one life life is not finished. What good and bad deeds a man has done has an effect on his next life as his karma.
IB TIMES: Discuss Himmler's fascination with Yoga and what he sought to gain from this practice.
MR. & MRS. TRIMONDI: The practice of Yoga was already well known during the Nazi regime -- but we do not know whether Himmler did Yoga exercises or not. We only know about his plan to introduce meditation practices and spiritual retreats for the elite members of the SS in a special center located at Wewelsburg, a medieval castle.
Himmler confided to Felix Kersten: I admire the wisdom of the founders of Indian religion, who required that their kings and dignitaries retreat every year to monasteries for meditation. We will later create similar institutions.
IB TIMES: Did Himmler (and other top Nazi leaders) use the Bhagavad Gita as a kind of an ideological blueprint for the Holocaust and World War II?
MR. & MRS. TRIMONDI: Several historians believe that Himmler's notorious Posener Speech in front of a hundred SS officers in 1943 was highly influenced by the spirit of the Bhagavad Gita.
In this particular speech, Himmler stressed that if the destiny of the nation called for it, every member of the SS had a duty to conduct drastic measures brutally and without pity and without regard to blood relationship and friendship.
This utterance brought to mind the instructions Krishna issued to Arjuna, demanding from the latter to attack his kin and kill them. In the same speech, after mentioning unworthy human beings who were going to be murdered (an indirect reference to the Jews), Himmler assured his listeners: These deeds do not inflict any damage on our inner selves, our souls, and our characters. In the same manner, Krishna assured Arjuna that the latter acts would not pollute his higher self by completing his murderous duty: Whatever I do, it cannot pollute me. [...] The one who merges with me, frees himself from everything, and he is not bound by his deeds
Thus, Himmler encouraged the members of the SS to conduct their murderous acts, unemotionally in a cool detached manner just as Krishna instructed the charioteer Arjuna.
On the whole, the Posener Speech was focused on the spiritual dimensions of war and the conduct of the warrior, which is the chief element of the Kshatriya philosophy of Hinduism. The German diplomat and undercover U.S. agent in Nazi-Germany Hans Bernd Gisevius concluded: There is no doubt that for Himmler the Bhagavad Gita is the book of the Great Absolution.
IB TIMES: During the war, there was a community of Indian nationalists living in Berlin. The most prominent among them was Subhash Chandra Bose, who met with many top Nazi officials, including Himmler, Ribbentrop, Goering and Hitler himself. Is it true that Himmler was generally interested in helping Bose to achieve independence for India, whereas most of the other German leaders only used Bose in a ploy to stoke anti-British sentiments in India?
MR. & MRS. TRIMONDI: Unlike other Nazi leaders, Himmler and the curator of the SS-Ahnenerbe Walther Wüst, provided some ideological support to Bose's political agenda. Wüst spoke about the need to work closely with Bose and contemplated holding a German-Indian congress of Indian scholars representing both countries. Yet, except for these utterances, neither Himmler nor Wüst did anything specific to support Indian nationalists.
Bose delivered an emotional speech for British soldiers of Indian origin, who were captured by the Wehrmacht in 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. The Indian Kshatriya legacy was not the only Oriental culture that attracted Himmler and his ideologists when they were working to construct their racist Indo-Aryan warrior religion.
In addition to Hinduism, the Reichsführer SS was also interested in the militant Samurai Zen philosophy of Japan as well as the occult scriptures of Tibetan Buddhism. Indeed, one of the goals of the famous SS expedition to Tibet headed by Ernst Schaefer in 1939 was to find in the Lamaist monasteries scrolls containing secret Aryan teachings.