It would be difficult to identify two historical figures from the 20th century who were more diametrically opposed to one another than the gentle, saintly hero of Indian independence, Mohandas K. Gandhi, and Benito Mussolini, the brutal Fascist dictator of Italy.
Yet, the “Mahatma” and “Il Duce” formed a mutual admiration society during the 1920s and 1930s.
According to a book entitled “Subhash Chandra Bose in Nazi Germany,” author Romain Hayes wrote that in late 1931, Gandhi accepted an invitation to visit Mussolini in Rome while the Mahatma was touring Europe.
Reportedly, the two men -- the vain Italian Fascist and the modest, unassuming Indian ascetic -- got along extremely well and admired each other.
Hayes wrote that, among other things, Gandhi reviewed a black-shirted Fascist youth honor guard during his visit.
“Mussolini hailed Gandhi as a 'genius and a saint,' admiring ... [Gandhi's] ability to challenge the British Empire,” Hayes wrote.
Regarding his visit with Il Duce, Gandhi wrote in a letter to a friend: Mussolini is a riddle to me. Many of his reforms attract me. He seems to have done much for the peasant class. I admit an iron hand is there. But as violence is the basis of Western society, Mussolini's reforms deserve an impartial study.”
Obviously, Gandhi's enthusiasm for Mussolini was tempered by the dictator's questionable tactics.
Nonetheless, Gandhi's missive continued: “[Mussolini's] care of the poor, his opposition to super-urbanization, his efforts to bring about coordination between capital and labor, seem to me to demand special attention ... My own fundamental objection is that these reforms are compulsory. But it is the same in all democratic institutions. What strikes me is that behind Mussolini's implacability is a desire to serve his people. Even behind his emphatic speeches there is a nucleus of sincerity and of passionate love for his people. It seems to me that the majority of the Italian people love the iron government of Mussolini.
Gandhi also hailed Mussolini “one of the great statesmen of our time.”
As odd as it seems, the Mahatma's affection for Mussolini was echoed by many unlikely sources.
In the mid-1920s, Winston Churchill, who met Mussolini and was impressed by his sense of apparent order and efficiency in Fascist Italy, once gushed: “If I had been Italian, I am sure I would have been with you from the beginning.”
George Bernard Shaw, the famed Irish playwright and Socialist (and avowed enemy of Churchill) once declared: “Socialists should be delighted to find at last a Socialist [Mussolini] who speaks and thinks as responsible rulers do.”
While Gandhi's relationship with Mussolini may seem strange and indefensible on the surface, if one considers the global political climate between the two World Wars, perhaps such linkages are not so unusual.
Following the devastation of World War I, extremist ideologies appealed to millions of people around the world who faced economic recession, starvation, joblessness, privation and sectarian violence, among other seemingly insurmountable societal ills.
At that time, Fascism, Nazism and Communism were simply political “philosophies” which sought to find drastic solutions to overwhelming social problems.
Long before the horrors of the Nazi death camps and the mass exterminations perpetrated by Joseph Stalin and Chairman Mao Tse-Tung were exposed, many people of goodwill and with good intentions embraced these “extremist” ideologies.
From an Indian Nationalist perspective, Mussolini's Italy and Adolph Hitler's Nazi Germany were viewed not only as bulwarks against British imperialism, but they were widely admired for creating strong, economically robust nations out of the wreckage of WWI and its resultant devastation.
Tarak Nath Das, an Indian revolutionary, wrote glowingly of Fascist Italy in 1931: “Italy, under the leadership of Signor Mussolini, is roused to its very depths of national consciousness. It feels that it has a mission of introducing a higher type of civilization. It had the urge of becoming a great power again ... Italy must be great through her national power, achieved through the authority of an 'ethical State' supported by national co-operation and solidarity.”
Das added: “Every Italian citizen must think first of his duty towards his self-development, [his concern for the] welfare of the state and society ... and [he must] make his or her supreme effort to attain the ideal. Class harmony must take the place of the ideal of class-war. So-called democracy must give way to the rule of the aristocracy of intellect. ... Some superficial and prejudiced observers of new Italy have spoken of 'Fascist tyranny' and condemned the Fascist regime. To me it is clear that the Fascist government or a particular official might have made some mistakes on particular occasions; but Fascism stands for liberty with responsibility and it is opposed to all forms of license. It gives precedence to Duty and Strength, as one finds in the teachings of the Bhagavad Gita.
By the time Mussolini invaded Abyssinia (Ethiopia) in the mid-1930s, Gandhi (as well as Churchill, Shaw and other former admirers), completely disavowed Il Duce. Thereafter, Mussolini's prestige declined and completely evaporated in India.
However, Hitler and Nazism are an entirely different matter.
To this day, many right-wing Hindu Nationalists in India admire Der Fuhrer, and his infamous tract “Mein Kampf” remains widely popular, especially among the young.
Strange bedfellows indeed.