More than 65 years after the fall of the Third Reich, Nazi Germany remains an obsession with millions of people around the world.
Adolf Hitler remains one of the most prominent historical figure from the 20th century, evoking both disgust and fascination. While other totalitarian regimes -- including Fascist Italy and imperial Japan -- have faded in the public's fascination, 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 took the most prominent symbol of ancient India -- the swastika -- as his own.
The link between Nazi Germany and ancient India, however, goes deeper than the swastika symbol. The Nazis venerated the notion of a “pure, noble Aryan race,” who are believed to have invaded India thousands of years ago and established a society based on a rigid social structure, or castes.
While scholars in India and Europe have rejected the notion of an “Aryan race, the myths and legends of ancient Vedic-Hindu India have imparted a tremendous influence on Germany.
Perhaps the most fervent Nazi adherent to Indian Hindu traditions was Heinrich Himmler, one of the most brutal members of the senior command.
Himmler, responsible for the deaths of millions of Jews as architect of the Holocaust, was a highly complex and fascinating man. He was also obsessed with India and Hinduism.
International Business Times spoke with an expert on German history to explore Himmler and Hinduism.
Mathias Tietke is a German author, editor and yoga enthusiast. His books include “Yoga in the Third Reich. Concepts, Contrasts, Consequences.”
IB TIMES: Heinrich Himmler was reportedly fascinated by Hinduism and ancient Indian culture and had read the Bhagavad Gita, among other classic Indian texts. How and when was he introduced to Indian culture? Was it prior to his joining the Nazi party, or afterward?
TIETKE: As early as 1925, when Himmler was only 24 years old and had joined the SS, and just two years after Adolf Hitler's beer hall putsch, Himmler wrote: Kshatriyakaste, that is how we need to be. This is the salvation.
[“Kshatriyakaste” referred to the military and ruling elite of the Vedic-Hindu social system of ancient India.]
Himmler was deeply influenced by the Indologist, yoga scholar and SS Capt. Jakob Wilhelm Hauer of the University of Tübingen in Germany and the Italian philosopher Baron Julius Evola.
Himmler had a keen interest in the Rigveda and the Bhagavad Gita. According to his personal massage therapist, Felix Kersten, Himmler carried a copy of the Bhagavad Gita in his pocket from 1941 until his death four years later. The book was a translation by the German theosophist, Dr. Franz Hartmann.
IB TIMES: Germany's fascination with India and its culture started in the 19th century, no? That is, long before the advent of the Nazis?
TIETKE: Yes, that's true. The fascination with and admiration of Indian culture can be found as early as the 19th century in the writings of pro-Aryan and anti-Semitic German philosophers and theosophists -- always in relation to Indian classical texts.
In 1844, the German philosopher Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph Schelling highlighted in his lectures the same passage from the fourth chapter of the Bhagavad Gita, which 100 years later would fascinate Himmler – so much so that he dictated this passage to his massage therapist. This passage emphasizes that a person's identity does not have to be defined by one's actions -- that is, even if they commit evil acts, they can still remain untainted and unaffected by ones’ own actions.
Moreover, in 1851, the German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer raved about the enthusiastic spirit of the Vedas and the Upanishads, citing that his spirit is washed clean of all his early inoculated Jewish superstitions.
IB TIMES: Is it true Himmler could read and speak Sanskrit fluently? Where and how did he learn such a difficult foreign language?
TIETKE: Himmler read translations of Indian texts from well-known German and Austrian Indologists. However, there is no evidence that he had mastered or read the original Sanskrit editions.
IB TIMES: As Reichsführer of the SS, Chief of the German Police, Minister of the Interior and head of Gestapo and the Einsatzgruppen killing squads, Himmler was responsible for the murders of millions of people. How did he reconcile such brutality with the tenets of Hinduism, which is a generally peaceful philosophy?
TIETKE: Himmler had clear preferences with some of the scriptures of Hinduism. One was his interest in the Rig Veda, which in some places is imbued with much violence.
The other was the Bhagavad Gita, which he greatly admired and appreciated. Himmler particularly referred to Krishna's instructions on satisfying one's duty on the battlefield and not to identify with such actions.
In a poem written by Himmler, which I discovered in the Federal Archive in Koblenz, he tells stories about the holy life [that] unfolds itself on deadly born.
For the period after the war, the Reichsführer-SS Himmler was already planning a retreat. He recommended that there should be sour milk and brown bread as physical food for his men and the Bhagavad Gita as spiritual nourishment and as the subject for meditation.
IB TIMES: Aside from millions of Jews, Himmler was also responsible for the mass murder of up to half-million Roma (Gypsies). Did he not realize that the Roma are of Indian descent themselves?
TIETKE: Himmler even killed his own comrades or SS officers, if, in his view, it served the supposedly higher cause, i.e., the ideology of National Socialism.
Himmler was not really sympathetic so much to the complexities Indian culture, but rather to the ideal of the Kshatriya [warrior caste of India] and to the ideals of purity.
IB TIMES: The Bhagavad Gita is partially about the adventures of Arjuna, the world's greatest warrior. Did Himmler fantasize that he was a 20th-century version of Arjuna “fighting for the glory of the Aryans”?
TIETKE: Yes, I think so and there are such statements to confirm this. In fact, in an effort to explain his murderous violence, Himmler told his massage therapist Kersten that it would naturally be more pleasant to deal with the flower beds, instead of the sweepings pile and the garbage disposal of the state-- but without that garbage collection, the flower beds would not flourish.”
IB TIMES: Did Himmler view Hitler as his “god” Krishna – like a reincarnation of the deity?
TIETKE: Yes, there were statements by Himmler in which he described Hitler as incarnation of a great shining light, as a predestined karma of the Germanic world. Indeed, Himmler equated Hitler with Krishna.
In the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna declared that he will always be reborn when the peoples' sense of right and truth disappeared and injustice ruled the world. Himmler commented that this verse related directly to Hitler.
IB TIMES: Did Himmler envision the SS as a modern version of the ancient Kshatriya Hindu warrior caste?
TIETKE: Absolutely. Himmler conceived of the SS as a kind of “spiritual” order. He demanded loyalty, moral integrity, and also required that his men never acted from base motives.
However, he also required his men to have a pure conscience -- inwardly cold, sober and willing to kill for a higher purpose.
IB TIMES: Discuss Himmler’s fascination with yoga and what he sought to gain from the practice.
TIETKE: What Himmler had sought and found in yoga was legitimacy, relieving his conscience and overcoming his doubts.The concept of purity is found both in the writings of yoga as well as in the ideology of National Socialism --- that is, the idea that one has to detach oneself from such concepts as “good” and “bad.”
This was conveyed to me in 1997 in a weekend seminar in my training as a yoga teacher: Three days of the seminar were based around the Bhagavad Gita. In fact, according to the assertions of speaker, it was the “karma” [fate, deeds] of the Jews to be destroyed, and it was the “dharma” [nature, order] of the Wehrmacht and the SS, to wage war. I did not agree with these assertions.
IB TIMES: Did Himmler (and other top Nazis) use the Bhagavad Gita as a kind of a “blueprint” for the Holocaust and World War II?
TIETKE: The Bhagavad Gita was for Himmler and also for top Nazi ideologue Alfred Rosenberg an important source of inspiration and legitimacy. They could refer to an ancient and sacred text to which British-German philosopher Houston Stewart Chamberlain and German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche had already referred to.
In their comments they wrote of the “Aryan race” and the “Aryan belief” (Chamberlain) and about the superman (Übermensch), the [lower-caste] Sudras as the servant race and the degenerates of all caste and about the eject materials in perpetuity (Nietzsche).
IB TIMES: During World War II, there was a community of Indian nationalists living in Berlin. The most prominent of these was Subhash Chandra Bose, who met with many top Nazi officials, including Himmler, Joachim von Ribbentrop, Hermann Goering and Hitler himself. Is it true that Himmler was genuinely interested in helping Bose achieving independence for India (whereas most of the other German leaders only used Bose in a ploy to stoke anti-British sentiments in India)?
TIETKE: I did not find any signs of Himmler having a genuine interest in the independence struggles of India. However, Himmler agreed with Bose's requests to allow for participation in a police training course of selected Indian soldiers in Germany.Since Bose was fascinated by the Nazi police force, including the SS and the Gestapo, whilst in Berlin in July 1942, he asked Himmler personally to train Indians accordingly.
One year earlier, Nazi propaganda minister Josef Goebbels wrote in his diary: Bose is in the Indian question currently, the best horse in our barn.