Gandhi’s Letters to Hitler and a ‘Naïve’ Attempt At Satyagraha.
Opinions & Histories

Gandhi’s Letters to Hitler and a ‘Naïve’ Attempt At Satyagraha.

There is no denying the fact that Mahatma Gandhi and Adolf Hitler were two of the major yet vastly contrasting personalities of the 20th century. Both of them were poles apart by virtue of their thinking, philosophies, ideologies, and actions yet both equally contributed to shaping the course of history in their own unique ways.

If we look back at Gandhi’s life, it becomes very evident that Gandhi had a profound admiration for the Europeans since he strongly believed that similar to the people living in European colonies around the world, the people of Europe were also the victims of the avaricious and exploitative colonial structure that Europe had developed in the name of modern civilization.

Gandhi felt that in the aftermath of the First World War, the whole of Europe had almost completely surrendered to the belief that violence could only be contested by a superior destructive force. Therefore, he believed that it was his duty to enlighten those engaged in authoritarian rule on the vast possibilities of non-violence. To him, non-violence was not the weapon of the weak but of those spiritually superior.

Following the Delhi Pact of March 1931, when Gandhi was busy with analysing the course of politics between India and England, he travelled to London to join a roundtable. On his way back to India, Gandhi stopped by in Rome where he met with the Italian dictator Benito Mussolini.

Gandhi’s meeting with Mussolini would have possibly erased from the pages of history had Gandhi not written a simple note in his diary.  “At 6 o’clock, Mussolini.” This cryptic note in Gandhi’s diary from 12th December 1931, is the only record that Gandhi had met Benito Mussolini in Rome.

Sure enough, Gandhi met the authoritarian ruler who had created the Fascist Party in 1919 and had been the country’s prime minister since 1922 with the intention to guide him towards a non-violent path of leadership. However, as it seems, conversations with Gandhi had little impact on Mussolini, as he led Italy to invade Ethiopia in 1935.

Meanwhile, the Nazi aggression of Germany and the ruthless dictatorship of Adolf Hitler and his inhuman treatment of the Jews had tormented Gandhi. In November 1938, Gandhi published an article about the two questions that were to dominantly preoccupy the Jewish world, Nazi Germany and the conflict in Palestine. In his article, Gandhi not only suggested but rather demanded the European Jews to adopt his strategy of Satyagraha (Non- Violence) against the Nazi rule and Hitler’s outrageous racist violence. This unexpected demand from Gandhi raised a wide range of critical responses among the Jewish intellectual community.

In his 2014 paper, Melting Hitler‘s “Heart of Stone”: Gandhi‘s Attitude to the Holocaust, Shimon Lev mentioned how in response to Gandhi’s idea of Satyagraha against Nazi Germany, Jewish intellectuals Martin Buber and Judea Leon Magnes wrote to Gandhi arguing that Gandhi had failed to see the fundamental differences between Nazi Germany and the situation Gandhi had faced in South Africa. Though they did not doubt the very idea of Satyagraha, they opined that doing so in Germany would result in mass killing rather than earning positive result.

Buber was himself a victim of Nazi brutality and was compelled to flee the country. He argued that what happened in South Africa or was happening in India under British rule was in no way comparable to Hitler’s Germany. Buber believed no Jews leadership of Gandhi’s stature could ever emerge against Nazi rule. In his response to Gandhi’s demand, Buber said, “Jews are being persecuted, robbed, maltreated, tortured and murdered. And you, Mahatma Gandhi, say that their position in the country where they suffer all this is an exact parallel to the position of Indians in South Africa at the time you inaugurated your famous “Force of Truth” or “Strength of the Soul” (Satyagraha) campaign…Now do you know or do you not know, Mahatma, what a concentration camp is like and what goes on there? Do you know of the torments in the concentration camp, of its methods of slow and quick slaughter?”

Buber further attacked Gandhi’s idea of Satyagraha by sharing his traumatic experience of living in Nazi Germany. Buber said, “Do you think perhaps that a Jew in Germany could pronounce in public one single sentence of a speech such as yours without being knocked down?… In the five years I myself spent under the present regime, I observed many instances of genuine Satyagraha among the Jews, instances showing a strength of spirit wherein there was no question of bartering their rights or of being bowed down, and where neither force nor cunning was used to escape the consequences of their behaviour.”

Similar to Buber, Judea Magnes who himself was a pacifist criticised Gandhi. Magnes emphasised that even though Gandhi was a very practical as a leader and his Satyagraha campaign was very strategically planned, he failed to understand that the situation in Germany was completely different from South Africa or even India. Magnes’ point was that even if Jews launch the Satyagraha movement it is likely to receive no public attention. He wrote, “The streets are the same. Business goes on, as usual, the casual visitor sees nothing…life is snuffed out like a candle, and no one sees it or knows that the light is out.”

However, Gandhi did not reply to either of the letters. Israeli scholar Gideon Shimoni argued that it is against Gandhi’s character not to respond. Therefore, it was assumed of that neither of the letters ever reached Gandhi.

In less than one year of Gandhi’s controversial article suggesting Satyagraha, the Second World War broke out in 1939. Gandhi was deeply troubled as the devastating war threatened all humanity. He saw the possibility of the complete destruction of the countries involved in the war. Even though Gandhi hailed from a country whose people had been exploited and tortured by every possible way in the hands of Europe, he could not think of gaining freedom at the cost of the ruin of England, France or Germany and complete massacre of their people.

In 1939, less than two months before the Second World War broke out, Gandhi decided to make an appeal to avoid the war by writing directly to Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler. Gandhi went on to write two letters to Hitler, one in 1939 and the other in 1940. Though critics see these letters from Gandhi as a rather naïve attempt, Shimon Lev, in his 2014 paper argues that Gandhi was far from being naïve.  Lev writes, “Gandhi was far from being naïve, and his actions emanated from his profound belief in non-violence and the principles of Satyagraha, according to which one must do everything possible to be considerate of one’s enemy and understand him in situations of conflict.” (Lev 50)

In both the letters that Mahatma Gandhi wrote to Hitler, he requested to end the Second World War. While Gandhi wrote the first letter at the request of his friends, his second letter was written out of frustration at the expansionist behaviour of Hitler. However, neither of the letters he wrote to Hitler was permitted to be sent by the British government.

Gandhi knew very well that the only thing Hitler was fond of was applying brute force. Yet, as a follower of the path of truth and non-violent opposition, Gandhi felt it is his duty to request both Hitler and Mussolini to reject the path they had chosen and end the war. Gandhi believed, since both of them were human beings, they too had the natural capacity to differentiate between truth and falsehood.

In the first letter, Gandhi maintained a polite tone and said, “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…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.”

However, Gandhi’s words had no impact on Hitler and nearly a month after Gandhi’s letter, Hitler’s military invaded Poland on 1st September 1939. Thus began the Second World War.

In his second letter to Adolf Hitler, written in December 1940, Gandhi took a more strict stance and criticised Hitler for starting the Second World War. “We have no doubt about your bravery or devotion to your fatherland, nor do we believe that you are the monster described by your opponents,” Gandhi told Hitler in the second letter.

Here is what Gandhi saidin his two letters to Adolf Hitler,

First Letter to Adolf Hitler, 1939




July 23, 1939


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 that 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? Anyway I anticipate your forgiveness, if I have erred in writing to you.

I remain,

Your sincere friend,

M. K. Gandhi.

Second Letter to Adolf Hitler, 1940


December 24, 1940


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. I hope you will have the time and desire to know how a good portion of humanity who have been living under the influence of that doctrine of universal friendship view your action. We have no doubt about your bravery or devotion to your fatherland, nor do we believe that you are the monster described by your opponents. But your own writings and pronouncements and those of your friends and admirers leave no room for doubt that many of your acts are monstrous and unbecoming of human dignity, especially in the estimation of men like me who believe in universal friendliness. Such are your humiliation of Czechoslovakia, the rape of Poland and the swallowing of Denmark. I am aware that your view of life regards such spoliations as virtuous acts. But we have been taught from childhood to regard them as acts degrading humanity. Hence we cannot possibly wish success to your arms. But ours is a unique position. We resist British Imperialism no less than Nazism. If there is a difference, it is in degree. One-fifth of the human race has been brought under the British heel by means that will not bear scrutiny. Our resistance to it does not mean harm to the British people. We seek to convert them, not to defeat them on the battle-field. Ours is an unarmed revolt against the British rule. But whether we convert them or not, we are determined to make their rule impossible by non-violent non-co-operation. It is a method in its nature indefensible. It is based on the knowledge that no spoliator can compass his end without a certain degree of co-operation, willing or compulsory, of the victim. Our rulers may have our land and bodies but not our souls. They can have the former only by complete destruction of every Indian-man, woman and child. That all may not rise to that degree of heroism and that a fair amount of frightfulness can bend the back of revolt is true but the argument would be beside the point. For, if a fair number of men and women be found in India who would be prepared without any ill will against the spoliators to lay down their lives rather than bend the knee to them, they would have shown the way to freedom from the tyranny of violence. I ask you to believe me when I say that you will find an unexpected number of such men and women in India. They have been having that training for the past 20 years. We have been trying for the past half a century to throw off the British rule. The movement of independence has been never so strong as now. The most powerful political organization, I mean the Indian National Congress, is trying to achieve this end. We have attained a very fair measure of success through nonviolent effort. We were groping for the right means to combat the most organized violence in the world which the British power represents. You have challenged it. It remains to be seen which is the better organized, the German or the British. 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 in the world. In nonviolent technique, as I have said, there is no such thing as defeat. It is all ‘do or die’ without killing or hurting. It can be used practically without money and obviously without the aid of science of destruction which you have brought to such 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. You will lose nothing by referring all the matters of dispute between you and Great Britain to an international tribunal of your joint choice. If you attain success in the war, it will not prove that you were in the right. It will only prove that your power of destruction was greater. Whereas an award by an impartial tribunal will show as far as it is humanly possible which party was in the right. You know that not long ago I made an appeal to every Briton to accept my method of non-violent resistance. I did it because the British know me as a friend though a rebel. I am a stranger to you and your people. I have not the courage to make you the appeal I made to every Briton. Not that it would not apply to you with the same force as to the British. But my present proposal is much simple because much more practical and familiar. During this season when the hearts of the peoples of Europe yearn for peace, we have suspended even our own peaceful struggle. Is it too much to ask you to make an effort for peace during a time which may mean nothing to you personally but which must mean much to the millions of Europeans whose dumb cry for peace I hear, for my ears are attuned to hearing the dumb millions? I had intended to address a joint appeal to you and Signor Mussolini, whom I had the privilege of meeting when I was in Rome during my visit to England as a delegate to the Round Table Conference. I hope that he will take this as addressed to him also with the necessary changes.

I am,

Your sincere friend,

M. K. Gandhi.

In spite of this stance in favour of non violence, Gandhi’s support of the Indian armed forces supplementing the Allied Forces during the World War is well known. It is also a foregone  conclusion that Gandhi’s support of the British military might against the Nazis possibly paved the way for a definite split in the leadership of the Indian National Congress during the president-ship ofSubhash Chandra Bose.

One might conjecture as to how Gandhi might have approached this delicate world political impasse more delicately, and with better political acumen than rather sticking to hisideal of non violence. As Buber has been mentioned as saying earlier, Gandhi’s self conscious non violence perhaps had indeed clouded his political judgment. That also might be one of the reasons why the Congress wavered in the face of the Muslim League’s call for a paak-i-stan, a land of the pure Muslim which eventually had to be carved out of the Indian Nation’s heart and flesh.

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