This letter was sent to:
1. The Elie Wiesel Foundation for Humanity, New York
2. The Elie Wiesel Center for Jewish Studies, Boston University
3. European Jewish Congress, Brussels
4. Jüdische Gemeinde zu Berlin (Jewish Community of Berlin)
I respectfully convey, to Jewish people, other victims of the Holocaust, and their loved ones, my sincere apology and profound remorse for the failure of my great-uncle, the Indian nationalist leader Subhas Chandra Bose, to acknowledge and condemn the persecution and extermination of Jews, other minority groups, disabled people and political opponents, by Nazi Germany.
There is no evidence to date that my great-uncle, who allied with the Axis powers in his fight for India’s freedom, said anything, publicly or privately, while he was based in Berlin from 1941 to early 1943, or later between 1943 and 1945 when he was in Southeast Asia, even after the horrors of concentration camps became publicly known in the spring of 1945. For this unconscionable failing on his part, I am ashamed. My great-uncle died in an aircrash in August 1945, so it is not possible to know what he might have said or done had he lived longer. I do not want to be unfair to him – it is easy to criticise with hindsight and there is a chance that he condemned the Holocaust verbally in private and those with whom he spoke have not reported it. However, given the lack of such evidence to date and his failure to say anything in public, I feel it necessary to express my sorrow and remorse for this indefensible failing on his part.
Who was my great-uncle?
My great-uncle, Subhas Chandra Bose, is a national hero in India as a leader of the struggle for India’s independence. He died long before I was born, but since my childhood I met many of those who had fought alongside him against British colonial rule. These men and women were individuals of principle and integrity, highly accomplished in their own right, whom I admired and respected. When such individuals choked up on recalling “Netaji” (respected leader), as he is called in India, and said that they were willing to die for him, it was a measure of the charisma of the man, who appeared to cast a mesmerising spell on all who encountered him.
It is a privilege to be related to such an illustrious historical figure. I am deeply grateful to him, to other members of my family such as my grandfather Sarat Chandra Bose and father Sisir Kumar Bose, and the countless other freedom fighters who suffered and sacrificed so much, so that we, the next generation, would be born free. Even his critics, including my maternal greatuncle the writer Nirad C Chaudhuri who openly admired the British empire, acknowledged that Subhas Chandra Bose had the courage of his convictions and was uncompromising in his lifelong fight to liberate India from British colonial rule.
So why am I apologising? That might take a bit of explaining, even to some of those to whom this apology is addressed, as well as members of my family and the people of the Indian subcontinent, the vast majority of whom revere my great-uncle. So though my apology is simple and unreserved, please bear with the lengthier account of why I believe it is needed.
Subhas Chandra Bose and Europe
As a young man my great-uncle studied in Cambridge and excelled in the Indian Civil Service examinations, but resigned from the service after his selection, choosing to fight British imperialism rather than serve it. In the 1930s he spent a good deal of time in Europe, centred in Vienna but travelling widely, after being exiled from India by the British. He met the love of his life, my great-aunt Emilie Schenkl, in Vienna in 1934. During the Second World War, he sought the assistance of the Axis powers to raise an Indian national army to fight for India’s freedom from British colonial rule. From April 1941 to February 1943 he was based in Berlin, after a daring escape from India where he had been imprisoned for the eleventh time. His daughter, my aunt Anita, was born in Vienna in 1942.
In other words, my great-uncle was no stranger to Europe and Europeans.
Alliance with Nazi Germany
Subhas Chandra Bose’s decision to ally with the Axis powers during the Second World War, in particular his decision to escape to Berlin in 1941 and seek assistance from Nazi Germany, has always been controversial. It left us, his family, permanently on the defensive, despite the adulation of much of the general public. The alliance with Japan and his move to Southeast Asia in 1943 – another daring journey halfway around the world in the middle of the war in German and Japanese submarines – did not cause similar discomfort or attract the kind of criticism that his voyage to Nazi Germany did. In Southeast Asia he raised the Indian National Army (INA), composed of Indian POWs from the British army and civilian volunteers, who fought on the Burma front and briefly entered Indian territory near Imphal in 1944.
The bid to gain assistance from Nazi Germany was particularly odd as Bose belonged to the Leftist wing of the Indian National Congress and moreover was known to be a particularly inclusive leader. Arguably his greatest achievement was to unite all Indians regardless of religion, caste, region or gender, in the Indian National Army. Under his leadership everyone in the INA lived, ate and fought together. He insisted on forming a women’s regiment in the INA, over Japanese objections.
There is a single photo of my great-uncle with Hitler, which tends to pop up every time his wartime alliance with the Axis powers is mentioned. They are shaking hands at their one and only meeting (which by all accounts did not go particularly well). In my family, this unwelcome reminder of what was surely a ghastly error of judgment was countered by how he famously remonstrated with Hitler during that meeting against racist comments about Indians in Mein Kampf, demanding amendments in future editions. To give credit where credit is due, to protest against Hitler’s racism to Hitler’s face, in Nazi Germany, while seeking his help for the cause of India’s freedom, took more guts than those criticising from afar. But why go there in the first place? And what about what Hitler was doing to others – Jewish people, other minorities and political opponents? In our family and among his admirers and many historians, the decision to ally with the Axis powers has always been described as a pragmatic exercise of “my enemy’s enemy is my friend”. Bose pretty much said so at the time, describing the Second World War as a conflict between two sets of imperialist forces, which India should take advantage of, in order to win freedom.
However, perhaps there is a different potential explanation of why Bose chose to go to Berlin when he escaped from British detention in January 1941. In an article I wrote in 2005, I argued that most likely what clinched my great-uncle’s decision, both to escape from India and to go to Europe at that time, was that if he did not do so, he risked losing the love of his life, Emilie. (Note 1) His private correspondence with Emilie shows that he was planning to travel to Vienna to meet up with her again in 1939, after resigning from the Presidency of the Indian National Congress, to which he had won an unprecedented second consecutive term after defeating Gandhi’s favoured candidate. His resignation in the face of Gandhi’s implacable non-cooperation was a major crisis in his political career. However, in contrast with his public statements, his letters to Emilie show that he was delighted to be free to go to Vienna to be with her again, after a long period apart following his first election as Congress President in 1938. Not only were his plans to reunite with Emilie completely derailed by Hitler’s invasion of Poland in September 1939, all communication with Emilie was snapped.
I faced quite a bit of criticism when I wrote that article from those who were incensed by the suggestion that Subhas Chandra Bose might have escaped to Europe for the sake of a real woman, rather than Mother India. However, very likely he persuaded himself that by going to Europe at that juncture he could resume his private life as well as serve the cause of India’s freedom. It was the perceived congruence of private and public interests that would have clinched the decision. By looking solely at his public life, historians have struggled to explain why a highly intelligent, well-educated, Leftist political leader from India who was familiar with Europe, chose to make a perilous journey to go to Nazi Germany in the middle of the Second World War when he knew about Hitler’s racist view of Indians. I find it difficult to believe that he would have gone to Europe at that point if Emilie did not exist. I also believe that his last dangerous journey, in August 1945, from Southeast Asia towards the Soviet Union, another baffling choice of destination when other better options appeared to exist, was also probably chosen because it was the only one that offered the possibility of reuniting with Emilie and their daughter, whom he had left behind in Vienna. But that is another story. He did not make it to the end of that journey.
A stain that cannot be removed or reduced
Apart from “enemy’s enemy is my friend”, I grew up hearing a number of other defensive reactions every time the uncomfortable fact of my great-uncle’s time in Nazi Germany reared its ugly head. One of the important defences was to emphasize his relationship with Adam von Trott zu Solz, the German diplomat who was executed for his part in the failed 20 July 1944 plot to assassinate Hitler. Von Trott ran the Special Bureau for India at the German Foreign Office and was genuinely sympathetic to the cause of India’s struggle for freedom. An example of the subtle attempt to have Subhas Chandra Bose gain by association from the justifiably heroic status of von Trott as an anti-Nazi martyr is found in Sugata Bose’s biography of Subhas Chandra Bose, His Majesty’s Opponent. (Note 2) After carefully taking the time to set out von Trott’s credentials as an anti-Nazi hero, and referencing his deputy Alexander Werth’s time in prison under the Nazis as well, Sugata writes,
“These diplomats shielded the Indians, many of whom had left-leaning political beliefs, from what might have been rougher encounters with the Nazi party hierarchy. Werth believed that without Trott and his devoted team of workers at the Foreign Office, Bose would ‘probably not have remained in Berlin.’” (Note 3)
But where else would the self-exiled Bose have gone and how would he have gone anywhere without German support? After he decided it would be better for him to fight for India’s freedom in Asia, where Japan had made significant gains, it took many months to early 1943 before the German government made arrangements for Bose to travel by submarine to Southeast Asia.
However the overall aim of these passages in Sugata’s book is familiar to me as I grew up with it in my family: it is to create the impression that Bose was dealing in the main with anti-Nazi Germans while in Berlin during the war and to attempt to reduce the discomfort of the alliance with Hitler by using the association with von Trott. In Sugata’s book von Trott is referred to as Bose’s “friend”: “His friends in the German Foreign Office, including Adam von Trott, supported his efforts…” (Note 4.)
Unfortunately, in reality, Adam von Trott was not Subhas Chandra Bose’s “friend”. As the American historian and Bose’s biographer Leonard Gordon pointed out,
“One of the tragedies of Bose’s sojourn in Europe was that he and Trott never became close, and never really trusted each other. Trott wrote to his wife on August 8, 1941, ‘He (Bose) is highly gifted, but in spite of that on a human plane we remain very distant. We have to begin afresh each time.’ And a week later, he wrote that, ‘For a worthwhile relationship his fundamental attitudes are too negative…’” (Note 5)
“To the best of my knowledge, Bose did not know the true mission and work of Trott, though his deputy, A. C. N. Nambiar, did grow close to Trott and probably knew… Trott did his best to help Bose with his work of liberating India,… However, feeling that Bose did not understand the Nazi tyranny and how it was destroying what was best in the German tradition, Trott withheld his deeper sympathy and intimate friendship from Bose. Had Trott taken a chance, he might have found Bose to be close to him in outlook since they were both idealistic nationalists, interested in Hegelian philosophy, leaned to socialism, and had small, but important parts of their education in Britain. There was, though, a failure by each to come closer to the other.” (Note 6)
Gordon reported that Trott’s wife, Clarita von Trott, told him, ‘We loved Nambiar’, “but she reiterated the lack of closeness to Bose.” (Note 7) Gordon has suggested that an additional factor which probably served as an obstruction to a deeper friendship between Bose and von Trott was Bose’s wife, Emilie Schenkl. According to Gordon, most of the German Foreign Office including von Trott disliked her intensely. In turn, Emilie Schenkl did not like von Trott, whom she considered an aristocratic snob. (Note 8)
Another argument in defence of my great-uncle which I heard since childhood was, of course, that some of his best friends were Jewish. Most notable were Kitty and Alex Kurti, a Jewish couple from Czechoslovakia who became friends with Bose after hearing him speak in Berlin in the early 1930s. Gordon has written that Bose was friendly with a number of others in Vienna in the 1930s, including Mrs Helen Ashkenazy, the president of several women’s clubs in Vienna, who often arranged his speaking engagements. Mrs Ashkenazy was Jewish and had to leave Austria. Kitty Kurti later wrote a book, Subhas Chandra Bose as I Knew Him. I met Mrs Kurti when she visited Calcutta and spoke at Netaji Bhawan at the invitation of my father Dr Sisir Kumar Bose. Later when I was a student in the United States I visited the Kurtis at their home in Connecticut. I do not doubt that the Kurtis had the warmest recollections of my greatuncle. But did he truly realise the danger they were in?
Around 1934, when Mrs Kurti asked Bose how he could deal with the Nazis, he replied, “It is dreadful and it must be done. It is our only way out….I am doing what I have to do, what must be done. Have you an idea…. of the despair, the misery, the humiliation of India? Can you imagine her suffering and indignation? British imperialism there can be just as intolerable as your Nazism here, I assure you.” (Note 9) Gordon has remarked that as this was written in 1934, the world did not know yet the full horror of what the Nazis would embark on. Fair enough, but what about later?
We were told since we were children that Bose urged the Kurtis to flee Europe and go to the United States. The implication was always that he did this because they were Jewish. When Bose learned Mrs Kurti was expecting a baby, he said, “Conditions are forbidding, the spirit terrible. Why do you stay here? You should leave this country, the sooner the better…. Just don’t keep postponing. The very earth is trembling under our feet…” (Note 10) But Gordon writes, “Years later, Mrs Kurti told me that she had never mentioned to Bose that she and her husband were Jewish, but that perhaps he guessed.” (Note 11)
So, despite being held up in my family for years as the Jewish friends whom my great-uncle had urged to flee and go to the United States, it turns out that Bose and the Kurtis had never spoken of the fact that they were Jewish! Kitty Kurti wrote of Bose’s warning to them to leave Berlin: “All this was said with great reticence, in the extraordinary way that was his. But beneath it all, I felt his concern and I was grateful for it. I was also glad to note his deep contempt for the Nazis, a feeling which he did not attempt to hide from me.” (Note 12) Once again, this is suggestive speculation on what Bose may have been thinking, but not substantive evidence. And if Bose had really guessed that the Kurtis were Jewish, and if that had indeed been the reason for his concern for them and the encouragement to flee Europe, it is surely all the more extraordinary that there is no evidence of him saying anything at all as the full horror of what the Nazis did to Jewish people emerged in the spring of 1945.
Yet another line of defence is that Bose was not alone in either failing to grasp the true nature of Nazism in the early years or taking a “realpolitik” approach during the Second World War. For example, Sugata Bose points out how when Roosevelt met Stalin, the mass murderer on the Allied side, he said “I am glad to see you” when he wasn’t glad at all. And how Gandhi had written to Hitler in 1939, addressing him as “Dear Friend” and saying how it was clear that Hitler was the only person in the world who could prevent a war that would “reduce humanity to its savage state”. Sugata also writes that Bose had described Hitler as “baddha pagal” (raving mad) to his compatriots. (Note 13) The problem is that while ‘realpolitik’ might explain why Bose sought help for India’s freedom from Hitler and the Axis powers, just as the Allies were happy to have Stalin on their side, it does not explain why he did not express shock and condemnation, even in private communications, or in conversations with his colleagues such as the senior officers of the Indian National Army, even when the horrors of the concentration camps in Europe became public with the defeat of Germany in the spring of 1945.
As far as I am aware, the only writer who asked this difficult question about Bose in the context of his alliance with Nazi Germany – while remaining sympathetic to Bose and his cause of India’s freedom from British colonialism – is Romain Hayes in his book Subhas Chandra Bose in Nazi Germany. (14) Hayes wrote:
“The most disturbing issue, all too often ignored, is that in the many articles, minutes, memorandums, telegrams, letters, plans and broadcasts Bose left behind in Germany, he did not express the slightest concern or sympathy for the millions who died in the concentration camps. Not one of his Berlin wartime associates or colleagues ever quotes him expressing any indignation. Not even when the horrors of Auschwitz and its satellite camps were exposed to the world upon being liberated by Soviet troops in early 1945, revealing publicly for the first time the genocidal nature of the Nazi regime, did Bose react….. before the war he had already prophetically written to a friend: ‘I have a feeling that both at present and in the near future the condition of the Jews of Central Europe will not be good at all.’…. The question that inevitably arises is what was his attitude to the greatest act of large scale industrial mass murder in history, one that was committed in his presence?” (Note 15)
Yet Hayes is fair to Bose. In my opinion, he is kind to Bose as he searches for an explanation for Bose’s silence on this gigantic issue: “He was bothered with little more than India throughout his life. Had he been exposed to German atrocities, there is no doubt that he would have reacted with revulsion and that all of his former reservations regarding Nazi ideology and racism would have come to the fore. Bose was not exposed, however, to the darker side of the Nazi regime. He lived a protected existence in the luxury of his villa. Of course, nationalism is not, and never will be, an excuse for political apathy and blindness. But in 1945, having placed all his cards on the Axis, Bose would have made a fool of himself by suddenly condemning Germany. It would have put into question his reasons for having gone there in the first place.”16 But in the end, there is no escaping the inevitable: “Racism was fundamentally contrary to everything he stood for and this is what makes not only his presence but his silence in Germany – and afterwards – so problematic.” (Note 17)
I agree. But personally I cannot stop at asking the question and pointing out the problem. I feel it imperative to go further. He is my great-uncle. He was an exceptional and admirable man in many ways. It is entirely understandable that so many people across South Asia and beyond revere him as a freedom fighter. It is an honour to have such an illustrious historical figure in our family. But like all national heroes, he is not without his failings. Going to Germany in 1941 and seeking assistance from Nazi Germany was a grievous error in my opinion; it has bothered me for decades. However, I am aware that it is easy to criticise with hindsight. “Enemy’s enemy” is a well-known doctrine and the other side had Stalin. If I had been born in my parents’ generation, I would surely have tried to drive the British out of India any which way I could. I have sometimes wondered if there was a regime in my own lifetime with whom I would not ally even for the noblest of causes. Apartheid South Africa was the one that came to mind.
In any event, my apology is not for my great-uncle’s choice to ally with the Axis powers in his quest to free India, even though I believe that his decision to go to Nazi Germany and seek Hitler’s assistance was a terrible mistake. My apology is for his silence, even in private it would seem, about what happened to Jewish people, as well as vulnerable people such as the disabled, other minorities and political opponents, at the hands of the Nazis.
I know we are not responsible for what our relatives may or may not have done. But we need to acknowledge it and on this issue, I feel it is right to say how I feel about it. That is why, to the victims of Nazi Germany and their loved ones, I would like to say, my great-uncle’s silence was shameful, and for this inexcusable failing on his part, I am so sorry.
Journalist, academic and lawyer, Sarmila Bose is a senior staff member at a non-profit providing advice and representation to disadvantaged migrants and Britons.
- Sarmila Bose, ‘Love in the Time of War: Subhas Chandra Bose’s Journeys to Nazi Germany (1941) and towards the Soviet Union (1945)’, Economic and Political Weekly, vol. 40, no. 3 (2005), pp. 249-256.
- Sugata Bose, His Majesty’s Opponent: Subhas Chandra Bose and India’s Struggle against Empire, (The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, Cambridge and London, 2011). Full disclosure: Sugata Bose is my older brother and we grew up together in Calcutta. However, I do not agree with Sugata on a number of matters.
- Sugata Bose, His Majesty’s Opponent, p. 208.
- Sugata Bose, His Majesty’s Opponent, p. 215.
- Leonard Gordon, Brothers Against the Raj: A biography of Indian Nationalists Sarat and Subhas Chandra Bose, (Columbia University Press, New York, 1990), p. 446. Leonard Gordon’s double biography of Sarat and Subhas Chandra Bose remains the best, if somewhat encyclopaedic, study of the Bose brothers and the Indian nationalist movement.
- Gordon, Brothers Against the Raj, p. 446.
- Gordon, Brothers Against the Raj, p. 446.
- Gordon, Brothers Against the Raj, pp. 446-447. I also know this from conversations with my great-aunt Emilie.
- Gordon, Brothers Against the Raj, p. 282.
- Quoted in Gordon, Brothers Against the Raj, p. 283.
- Gordon, Brothers Against the Raj, p. 28.
- Quoted in Gordon, Brothers Against the Raj, p. 283.
- Sugata Bose, His Majesty’s Opponent, p. 221.
- Romain Hayes, Subhas Chandra Bose in Nazi Germany, (Hurst & Co., London, 2011).
- Hayes, Subhas Chandra Bose in Nazi Germany, pp. 165-166.
- Hayes, Subhas Chandra Bose in Nazi Germany, p. 166.
- Hayes, Subhas Chandra Bose in Nazi Germany, p. 167.
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