NEW DELHI, India — You wouldn't expect a woman named Savitri Devi to be interred next to George Lincoln Rockwell, founder of the American Nazi Party. But Devi was no ordinary Hindu.
“Where Savitri Devi really hit the money was after World War II, when neo-Nazism morphed into a globalized form,” said British historian Nicholas Goodricke-Clarke. “It was talking about the white races against the colored people of the world, so therefore her globalized view of Aryans uber alles, transcending the limits of German nationalism, gave the post-War neo-Nazi movement an enormous fillip.”
Born Maximine Portaz in Lyon, in 1905, the French-Greek writer took the name Savitri Devi around the same time she devoted her life to Nazism and joined India's Hindu nationalist movement. Pop-philosopher, pseudo-academic, spiritualist and fascist, she penned “A Warning to the Hindus” to stir anxiety over the supposed threat posed by Christianity and Islam. She worked tirelessly to reconcile Hitler's cherished theory of the Aryan master race with the Hindu religion, and even argued that the Fuhrer was a living incarnation of Vishnu – one of Hinduism's principal deities. And, at least in part, it worked.
In a curious twist of fate — and ideologies — the weird love affair between a mostly brown nation and the world's most diabolical racist has turned out to be mutual. This week, for instance, Rakesh Ranjan Kumar, the director of a soon-to-be-released Bollywood biopic on Hitler, promised to reveal the Fuhrer's “love for India” (with singing and dancing?).
By all accounts, the film, which is titled “My Friend Hitler” and stars Bollywood stalwart Anupam Kher, is not hagiography, and Kumar, who said that an international release is planned for the film, is obviously courting controversy.
But it's inescapable that he's also aiming to tap the subcontinent's continuing infatuation with Hitler for box office returns. The dictator's autobiography, Mein Kampf, is a perennial best-seller here, where it is read by management students searching for business tips and budding Hindu nationalists seeking the inspiration behind Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh ideologue M.S. Golwalkar, whom historian Ram Guha aptly calls “the guru of hate.” And a few years back, nobody batted an eye when a restaurant called “Hitler's Cross” opened in cosmopolitan Mumbai, which has its own proponents of ethnic nationalism in the Shiv Sena and its offshoots.
"As a leader, [Hitler] was successful,” Kumar said at a press conference for the upcoming film, according to local news reports. “Why did he lose as a human being, what were the problems, what were the issues, what were his intentions, this is what we want to show."
So how did brown people come to love Hitler, and white supremacists come to love a brown country?
Devi found a ready audience for her deification of Hitler in wartime Calcutta, Goodricke-Clarke, author of a biography titled “Hitler's Priestess,” said in a phone interview. The local population, perhaps ironically, saw the Axis Powers as their future liberators. As Devi was preaching Hitler as Vishnu, Bengali freedom fighter Subhash Chandra Bose was arranging a meet with the Fuhrer in Berlin and forming his rebellious Indian National Army to fight with the Japanese against India's British colonizers. And Devi herself helped reconcile Hinduism's all-embracing ideology with the Hindu Mission's message of ethnic nationalism. A neo-paganist, she saw in Hindu India the living antecedent for the destroyed Egyptian and Greco-Roman cultures she admired and idealized, according to Goodricke-Clarke. “She related to this idea that the Indo-European people were the ones who came closest to perfection, and she saw Hindu India as the last place in the world that still celebrated the ancient pagan pantheon,” the historian said.
Later in life, though she settled in India, Devi fell out with the leaders of Hindu nationalism, Belgian scholar Koenraad Elst, a staunch defender of India's right, maintains in a recent article. He argues that the Hindu nationalist movement broke from Nazism early and definitively, when its founder VD Savarkar pledged support for the Allies and later for the formation of Israel. Moreover, he claims in a recent book, “The racial theory of caste is now a marginalized doctrine, championed only by people with a political agenda. It is espoused by white racists in the West and by ethnic separatists in India, strongly patronized and tutored by Christian missionaries.”
For neo-Nazis, Devi may have been the first person to claim that the Holocaust never happened. Her half a dozen-odd books, not including a memoir of her favorite cats, provided new pseudohistorical support for the theory of a mythical master race of fair-skinned Indo-Europeans. But, more importantly for neo-Nazi ideologues like Matt Koehl, Bill White, and James Mason — not to mention Charles Manson — Devi's writing helped to establish a kind of religious framework for Nazism. In 1982, shortly before her death, neo-Nazi publisher Ernst Zundel issued what must have seemed a tantalizing advertisement for a series of taped interviews with Devi and a new edition of her most influential work, “The Lightning and the Sun.”
“The Hitler cult revealed,” the notice read. “Discovered alive in India, Hitler's guru!”