Rajesh Shah opened a men’s clothing store in the city of Ahmedabad in the Indian state of Gujarat and named it after his father’s nickname: Hitler. Shah says his father got this nickname because he was “very strict” and that he didn’t know of anyone named Adolf Hitler. Now he is being roundly attacked, and a top Israeli diplomat in Gujarat plans to ask Chief Minister Narendra Modi to force a name change.This isn’t a unique incident, as Yahoo News reports:
The row [over Shah’s store] evoked memories of a controversy six years ago when a Mumbai restaurant owner called his cafe “Hitler’s Cross” and put a swastika on the hoarding, claiming Hitler was a “catchy” name…Hitler attracts an unusual degree of respect in some parts of India, with his book “Mein Kampf” a popular title in bookshops and on street stalls.Gujarat schoolbooks issued by the Hindu nationalist state government were criticised a few years ago for praising Hitler as someone who gave “dignity and prestige” to the German government.
Thinking clearly about the Holocaust and Hitler is hard to do, and it’s not our favorite occupation. On travels throughout the world, WRM has seen copies of Mein Kampf and other Jew-hating swill in major bookstores. The Kuala Lumpur airport used to and may still have a special section for this kind of “literature,” so that anti-Semites don’t have to chase down their favorite reading material all over the store.At one level, it’s necessary to accept that not everybody, everywhere shares the standard U.S./Western set of ideas about Hitler and his movement. Part of this comes down to language. A lot of important historical works never get translated out of English and a handful of other languages. Urdu, Hindi, Malay, and Arab readers miss out on a lot that has happened and is happening in the world conversation that English (and French, German, and Japanese) readers take for granted. In India and a number of other countries, the existence of a significant English-literate audience actually reduces the availability of sophisticated historical and political writing because there’s less motive to translate a book into a local language when only the top ten percent of the book audience is English literate. For many people around the world, Hitler is a kind of pop culture figure, and there is not much understanding of or knowledge about the unique evil he and his movement represented.And of course different cultural groups around the world have different relationships to twentieth century history. In China, Imperial Japan is quite properly hated and loathed for its war atrocities, but in India the take is very different. There the Japanese looked to some Indian independence leaders as a perfectly acceptable ally in their struggle against Britain. Many Arabs and others in the Middle East saw opportunity in the struggle between the Axis and Allied powers. Before Americans get too snooty about this kind of approach, we should remember that we ourselves allied with the arch-murderer Stalin during the war. Alliances with the enemy of one’s enemy are not restricted to Third World nationalist movements.So what to do? Our advice to Israeli diplomats and others who deal with this kind of problem is to remember that the mission here is education. In the West, it took decades for the true magnitude of the Holocaust and of the evil of the Nazis really to permeate popular culture. During the war itself, Harry Truman said that, while we can’t let Hitler win, the U.S. should help the Russians if the Germans were winning and the Germans if the Russians were winning. That kind of statement was mildly scandalous when he said it; only in retrospect did educated opinion in the U.S. and Europe reach a point where that kind of statement might become a career-ending blunder.We can’t expect popular culture around the world to grasp the full horror of twentieth century European history unless people have an opportunity to learn and reflect. Rather than approaching unthinking Indian tailors in a spirit of a political commissar enforcing political correctness, we should see moments like this as offering opportunities to engage more people in a deeper discussion. There are very few things that ordinary people are well informed about all over the world; we can’t run around acting as if we had the right to punish people for violating a moral consensus they knew little or nothing about.The goal is not a world in which anybody who names a shop after Adolf Hitler gets a quick visit from the political correctness police. The goal is a world in which nobody wants to name a shop or anything else after him because everyone understands just how evil he was—and because the name would be a total turnoff for their customers who also find his name repugnant and off-putting.