What is the first thing that comes into your mind when you think of Germany? What great personalities do you relate to the country? As a German visiting Pakistan I got confronted with so many positive comments about Adolf Hitler that I more and more felt the urge to clarify why this ‘romanticisation’ of Hitler is absolutely unacceptable or even offensive to a German.
First of all it might be crucial to recall some basic facts about World War II as well as about Germany’s and especially Hitler’s role during that time and about the Holocaust since some of the positive perceptions of Hitler certainly derive from ignorance of historical facts.
As commonly known, WW2 started on 1st September 1939 with the German invasion of Poland, led by German dictator Adolf Hitler. Hitler had become chancellor of Germany in 1933 after his Nazi party had become the largest elected party in the German Reichstag. Gaining power in the period after WW1 where Germany had to deal with severe restrictions imposed by mainly France and Britain and suffering from the Great Depression in 1929, Hitler got public support especially by what some might call “successfully dealing” with these challenges. However, his aggressive foreign policy of expanding territory for the German people eventually resulted in the Second World War. From around 1933 on, Hitler turned Germany into a single-party dictatorship based on the totalitarian ideology of National Socialism, based on a concept of enemy personified by Jewish people and resulting in the systematic mass murder of approximately six million Jews, known as Holocaust. The genocide took place in stages, starting from laws gradually excluding Jews from society, followed by slave labor in so-called “concentration camps” to the detention in ghettos before being transported to “extermination camps” where Jewish men, women and children were systematically killed in gas chambers. In this context it is important to remember that while there surely has been resistance among the German population against Hitler’s policies of mass murder, there has also been considerable support or at least silent acceptance of the genocide, be it because of conviction of Hitler’s ideology or because of fear of the consequences in case of non-compliance.
Today, political culture in Germany is still largely influenced by this historical guilt, being a nation responsible for one of the largest and most cruel genocides in history. The last generation witnessing and being involved in WW2 has by now nearly passed away, but the guilt for the mass murder keeps on being passed on. The German education system and school curriculum play a decisive role in this way of dealing with the past, ensuring a certain responsibility of remembering our “German guilt”. This is not to say that today there is no political right existing in Germany. There certainly is. For example, the NPD, a sort of follow-up party of Hitler’s former NSDAP and known for its xenophobic program, is not forbidden in Germany and gets some support among limited parts of the population. However, as I mentioned before, in the “mainstream” German society, especially support for Hitler as a personality, standing in the first place as initiator of the Holocaust, is usually absolutely unacceptable. It is part of our political culture to be extra-cautious when it comes to raising right-wing activities in society and it seems like we have a special responsibility to take care of that. And our European neighbors still bring it up. When during the financial crises in Europe, Germany under Merkel was especially strict in dealing with the national debts crises in Greece, protesters in Greece compared Merkel with Hitler. It is a thought-terminating cliché whenever German politicians are being strict on an issue, rather seldom related to actual xenophobic policies. Without going much into detail here, you can also see that in terms of Germany’s political relations with Israel and how it is always a difficult issue for a German politician to criticize Israeli policies.
With this background in mind, imagine – as a German – getting involved in a discussion with somebody telling you that Hitler, after all, was not that bad and that he at least was a great leader. Or imagine a situation in which somebody tells you frankly that he or she admires Hitler. This is exactly what I experienced on a lot of occasions in Pakistan and it certainly shocked me every time anew, especially since I mostly got in contact with rather educated people during my stay in Pakistan. I got extremely disturbed each time I saw a face literally lighting up when I said that I am from Germany and the first thing the other one replied was something like “Germany, the country Hitler ruled!” – Sometimes followed by another positive remark. Also in social media like facebook I came across several positive remarks and comments about Hitler among (young) Pakistanis. Furthermore, I found Hitler’s “My Struggle”, which is not freely available in Germany, everywhere in bookshops or even people’s homes in Pakistan.
So after all, what are the actual reasons for Hitler’s popularity in Pakistan? Not being able to assess the phenomenon as a whole, I will at least mention the most common reasons that I came across. First of all, ignorance of Hitler’s actions apart from his “leadership skills” and economic reforms certainly contribute to his romanticisation. ‘I doubt that most [Pakistanis] like Hitler, since most Pakistanis have no clue about Hitler.’ – That’s what I recently read in a blog and I am sure it applies to a certain extend. I also assume that education on WW2 and Hitler in Pakistani (public) schools is rather limited in this context.
Related to that, another reason is that many Pakistanis simply foreground other “achievements” of Hitler, rather neglecting the genocide. Hitler is considered a great leader who led Germany out of its economic crises, who built up the German economic infrastructure and who created jobs. Pakistanis often tend to praise Hitler’s leadership skills, especially when it comes to the military he was leading, certainly tracing back to the Pakistani population’s wide-spread support for its own military. More importantly, Hitler and his battle against Britain in WW2 is said to have contributed to India’s and Pakistan’s independence from British colonial rule since Britain had no longer the resources to control British India while at high war with Germany.
Another central reason for support for Hitler among Pakistanis is the prevalence of anti-Semitism in the country, which one can encounter throughout the Islamic world. This mainly reflects the stance of Pakistani Muslims in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and the view that Hitler was fighting Jews, which are often generally considered enemies of Muslims around the world and specifically in the context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, as those who deprive Muslims of their land. Still, it should be noted that a clear stance in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in favor of the Palestinian people cannot automatically be equated with support for Hitler’s anti-Semitic ideology or support for the Holocaust.
A last aspect that can be mentioned in this discussion are the parallels that – as some people argue – can be found between Fascism and (radical) Islamism, sometimes referred to with the term “Islamofascism”, relating modern Islamist (or Jihadist) movements to the European fascist movements. While the term itself is highly controversial, it draws attention to some common characteristics. Fascism is usually characterized by an exclusive, totalitarian and repressive ideology glorifying the nation-state and considering state and society as one with no control of power. There is one center of power personified by a strong leader who mobilizes the population around his ideology. While Islamist or Jihadist movements are normally not focused on a nation-state, they may share with Fascism its willingness to deploy violence and its focus on militancy, even leading up to (global) war. They both rely on an ideology making a strict division between those eligible to the ideology and those who are not. To control society they despise art and literature, meanwhile offering welfare services, and they especially target the youth for recruitment. Another common feature, especially in the context of the Fascist Nazi Regime, certainly is the prevalent anti-Semitism. However, critics say that the term suggests a historically inaccurate and simplistic relation, especially since used by former US president George W. Bush, often not differentiating between various Islamist militant movements and a tendency to equate Islam in general with Fascism. One should note that traditional Islamic society is based on clan and tribal communities and local loyalties with fragmented power structures, traditionally consensus decision-making, which cannot even be related to the underlying principles of Western industrial state fascism. Furthermore, the term is often used by (American) right-wing (neo-) conservatives propagandizing against Islam, one example being conservative writer and activist David Horowitz who in 2007 launched a series of lectures and protests on college campuses under the title “Islamofascism Awareness Week”.
Without being able here to examine the whole historical background of any relation between Fascistic Ideology or more specifically, the Nazi Regime, and (radical) Islamist movements, I will at least give one example of a rather early Islamic movement that is said to be inspired by Fascism to some extent: the Khaksar movement founded by Allama Mashriqi. Khaksar was a movement based in Lahore, at that time British India, established in 1931 with the aim of liberating India from the rule of the British Empire. Underlying principles of Khaksar were named as justice, equality, peace, brotherhood and unity to mankind, regardless of race, caste or religion. However, among its 24 principles one can also find “Must obey orders of his/her appointed superior under all circumstances without hesitation.”, “Become the ruling power and keep the total supremacy of Islam in mind.” and “Parade in military style and adopt military discipline.”, revealing a rather militant ideology. Point 9 of its Fourteen Point Decree furthermore states: “Khaksar has as his objective authority over the entire world and attainment of collective and political supremacy of his nation through piety and virtuous deeds.” Other sources even claim that Mashriqi promoted global Jihad with his movement. Allama Mashriqi is also said to have met Hitler in 1926 and that they both inspired each other.
Discussing or mentioning a couple of possible reasons and explanations for support for Hitler in Pakistan, I will once again come back to the main point I was trying to make here, namely why it is so disturbing for a German to hear positive comments about Hitler. For most Germans, Hitler and his actions is not something that you can make up your mind about, that you can develop an opinion about, that you can look at from different perspectives and then argue that from a certain point of view, it has not been that bad or it has been justifiable. And I personally think that this is right because there is simply no excuse. Nothing justifies genocide or compensates for it, not the ‘bad’ or difficult situation Germany found itself in after WW1, nor the creation of jobs or any kind of economic performance, and certainly not great leadership skills. Still, taking Pakistan as an example, I eventually find it important to reveal, discuss and be aware of the underlying causes rooted in society and its historical experiences that actually explain, but in my opinion not entirely justify, why people think that way.
This article is of course to a large extend based on my personal subjective perceptions and is only referring to (my experiences in) Pakistan. I came across similar positive opinions about Hitler in Morocco though and heard from other Germans making similar experiences in several other countries.