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Hitler’s Indians: The Indian Legion

The Indian Legion

As Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose features in the news once again let us remember his first army, the ill-fated Indian Legion a.k.a. Azad Hind Legion a.k.a. Legion Fries Indien. Raised in Germany, this force never had its moment in the sun – like the Indian National Army (INA) had in South East Asia. The Indian Legion would sink into meaningless existence right after creation. Leaderless and dejected after Netaji left Europe, the Indian Legion became tainted by association with a notorious military formation. Soon the Legion was cornered by Allied Forces and French Resistance Partisans (anti-Nazi guerillas): there are some chilling accounts of those events. The survivors who made it to India never got the welcome and the recognition the INA did.

 

This story takes off when Netaji arrived in Berlin on April 3, 1941. He outsmarted the British, crossed Afghanistan, and was spirited across Russia (then allied with Nazi Germany) to Germany.  Bose was consumed with the idea of throwing the British out of India – and Hitler seemed to be unstoppable. The Germans wanted to weaken their British foes and welcomed Bose, a leader of pan-India stature. The Nazi regime recognized a provisional “Free India Government” in exile under Bose. They also promised him an army to help liberate India. Even before Bose had arrived in Germany, a few Indian Prisoners-of-War (POW) had been turned against their former overlords. This would be the nucleus of the promised army, now christened the Indian Legion.

Bose and Himmler

Bose and Himmler

The Legion would ultimately act as a pathfinder force for the planned German campaign into India. This seemed feasible back then, General Rommel’s Afrika Korps was sweeping across North Africa towards West Asia. The Germans hoped that when the Indian invasion commences, a liberating army under Bose would trigger public unrest in India. Bose conducted massive recruitment drives in Indian POW camps in Europe. However, only about 5,000 volunteered, despite many months of effort. Mass ceremonies were held in which Indian POWs joined in oaths of allegiance to Hitler and Bose. The Indian Legion was formally attached to the Wehrmacht, Germany’s professional armed forces. The Legion had mixed units comprising of all religions, regions, castes and classes. The commanding officers were German though.

Germany’s Russian invasion in June ‘41 shocked Bose, a left-leaning leader, but he was powerless. Hitler’s armies smashed into Russia and it seemed that the German forces in Russia would roll down the Caucasus and rendezvous with Rommel’s armies in Persia. Next target, India! However, Netaji was thwarted when the tide turned by end of ‘42. Defeated in North Africa and at Stalingrad, Germany retreated. Netaji now became convinced that his Legion would be used only for propaganda purposes – or as 2nd class units. He also understood that staying in Germany was useless.  In February 1943, Bose boarded a submarine bound for Japan, which was making significant gains in the land war in Asia – the rest is history.

 

However, this left the Indian Legion in Germany leaderless and demoralized. The liberation army was now a mere collaborator – just another pawn of Hitler’s regime. The Legion was moved all across Western Europe for some time. After the Normandy landings the Legion was pried away from the Wehrmacht; it was attached to the Waffen-SS, the military wing of the Nazi Party. The Waffen-SS was manned by ardent Nazis and they conducted great atrocities during the war. This association alone would taint the Legion. As Hitler’s armies retreated the Indian Legion trudged along. During this time certain units of the Legion reportedly committed atrocities on civilians and the French Resistance. However, other units performed well in battle and in anti-partisan operations. When German surrender seemed imminent, the Legion attempted to flee to neutral Switzerland. However, Allied forces intercepted them. Some French units and partisans with a grudge closed in – there are accounts of groups of Indian soldiers being summarily executed. The remaining were handed over to the British Army, who mistreated the “oath-breakers”. The men were soon shipped back to India and some stood at the INA Trials on charges of treason.

 

Unlike the INA which was popularly perceived to have fought for freedom close to India’s borders, the Indian Legion suffered ignominy. Nevertheless, due to public uproar during the INA Trials the Indian Legion’s trials were not completed. Soon Independence came, and the soldiers of INA and the Indian Legion were released. However, they were not allowed to serve in the post-independence Indian Army, except in rare exceptions. The government fell silent on the saga of the Indian Legion while the INA story was celebrated (at least for a while): Indian troops fighting for Hitler was not something to advertise. Thus, the Indian Legion, Netaji’s firstborn army, was orphaned by war and politics. It remains largely forgotten outside historical research.

 

PS: This is my article in DNA, published on October 28, 2018. Here’s the link to the original article.

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The Elephant and the Pope

Hanno the elephant

The Age of Discovery (15th – 17th century) had spread accounts of exotic people, places and animals of the East and the New World in Europe. Many European kings and nobles began to keep menageries, i.e. collection of exotic lifeforms, of such specimens. The elite kept such collections as a symbol of their power: it was no mean feat to acquire, transport and maintain such collections far away from natural habitats. Around 1511 C.E., King Manuel I of Portugal decided to befriend the pope, in the light of troubling developments in the spice trade. In those times, having the Holy Father of the Catholic Church on your side gave a definite edge given the frequent papal interventions and arbitration in politics. Orders were dispatched to Portuguese subjects currently establishing a foothold in India: they must procure exotic beasts and birds for the Holy Father – an elephant would be an excellent addition. After all, since Alexander’s time Europeans were mighty impressed with the Indian elephant.

 

In 1512, the Portuguese in Cochin bought an albino baby male elephant and trained it to perform tricks. The elephant was sent to Lisbon, accompanied by exotic birds and animals also. In 1513 the new Pope ascended. The 38 year-old Leo X, hailing from the great Medici family, was comparatively liberal, curious and easygoing (if somewhat extravagant and eccentric). Like most noblemen, Pope Leo X was fond of novelties and animals; he would appreciate Manuel’s menagerie. The Portuguese delegates and the menagerie marched to Rome on February 1514. The extravagant procession of the wildlife and wealth of India dazzled everyone; multitudes thronged to glimpse this great caravan. The elephant carried on its back a castle-shaped silver platform. The procession entered the Holy See and Hanno kneeled before the Pope and offered gifts with his trunk. The gesture was brilliant – Manuel had triumphed in the Orient and brought the East’s wealth and wonders as tribute for the pope. King Manuel thus gained the friendship of the immensely pleased Pope.

 

The Portuguese called the elephant Annone, perhaps based ‘Aana’, on the Malayalam term for elephant. This name changed to Hanno soon.  Leo X became instantly attached to Hanno and brought it along for all events. He built a new elephant stable right next to his palace and spared no expense in making Hanno’s life comfortable. In his reign, Leo X faced many troubles: poor health, poor finances, heretics, the French and the Turks. Worst of all was the rebellion brewing in the Church. Many theologists, priests, and lay followers were decrying the rising corruption in the Church. The decadent lifestyles, ugly politics, and rampant sale of “Indulgences” (Papal statements which absolved anyone of sins) created much anger. Amidst all these woes the pope carried on with his elephant. Many contemporary sources were not happy with this – they felt that the Pope spent too much time with Hanno while Christendom suffered. Hanno was however a hit with the commoners, and thousands traveled to Rome to view his antics.

 

In May 1516, Bonaventura, a fanatical preacher, and thousands of his followers entered Rome. Calling himself the Angelic Pope (a prophesized leader crowned by angels to lead Christendom during end-times) he excommunicated Pope Leo and called for the Church’s overthrow. Bonaventure cursed the regime: he announced that the pope, five cardinals and the pope’s elephant would die by September. The pope, a superstitious man, became very fearful. However, he mustered enough resolve to imprison Bonaventura and disperse the mob. However, the hitherto healthy elephant suddenly became very ill. The pope was aghast; he was convinced this was a portent of his own death as per Bonaventura’s curse. Leo X spared no cost for the treatment (which included purgatives heavily laced with gold) and spent all his time with the dying elephant. However, Hanno died, aged seven, on June 1516. The Pope and the commoners were grief stricken. Raphael, the great artist, was commissioned to create a life-sized monument. Other monuments were built for the elephant across Rome. The pope himself penned Hanno’s epitaph. Hanno’s remains, sans his tusks, lie somewhere in the Vatican.

This was not the first, nor the last time, that elephants (or other exotic beasts) were kept by European rulers. Perhaps this is not the saddest episode either. Yet, the episode of Pope Leo X and Hanno had a curious impact. Caustic reports and satires of the episode, including a hilarious “Last Will and Testament of Hanno the Elephant”, caused much uproar in Italy. The Pope’s obsession with Hanno was heavily criticized in the writings of Protestant reformers such as Martin Luther. Such critics used this episode as representative of the decay of the institution of the pope, helping the rebellion snowball. In a way, Hanno the elephant played a small part in the Protestant schism in 1517.

 

PS: This is my article in DNA, published on October 14, 2018. Here’s the link to the original article.

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