Gandhi Writes Letters to Hitler: “We Have Found in Non-Violence a Force Which Can Match the Most Violent Forces in the World” (1939/40)

Gandhi Hitler

It must come up in every sin­gle argu­ment, from sophis­ti­cat­ed to sopho­moric, about the prac­ti­ca­bil­i­ty of non-vio­lent paci­fism. “Look what Gand­hi and Mar­tin Luther King, Jr. were able to achieve!” “Yes, but what about Hitler? What do you do about the Nazis?” The rebut­tal implies future Nazi-like enti­ties loom­ing on the hori­zon, and though this reduc­tio ad Hitlerum gen­er­al­ly has the effect of nul­li­fy­ing any con­tin­ued ratio­nal dis­cus­sion, it’s dif­fi­cult to imag­ine a sat­is­fy­ing paci­fist answer to the prob­lem of naked, implaca­ble hatred and aggres­sion on such a scale as that of the Third Reich. Even Gand­hi’s own pro­pos­al sounds like a joke: in 1940, Adolph Hitler aban­dons his plans to claim Leben­sraum for the Ger­man peo­ple and to dis­place, enslave, or erad­i­cate Ger­many’s neigh­bors and unde­sir­able cit­i­zens. He adopts a pos­ture of non-vio­lence and “uni­ver­sal friend­ship,” and Ger­man forces with­draw from Czecho­slo­va­kia, Poland, Den­mark, France, agree­ing to resolve dif­fer­ences through inter­na­tion­al con­fer­ence and com­mit­tee.

Hitler may have been a veg­e­tar­i­an, but that’s like­ly where any sym­pa­thy between him and Gand­hi began and end­ed.  And yet, the above is pre­cise­ly what Mahat­ma Gand­hi asked of the Fuhrer, in a let­ter dat­ed Decem­ber 24, 1940. Engaged ful­ly in the strug­gle for Indi­an inde­pen­dence, Gand­hi found him­self torn by the entry of Britain into the war against Ger­many. On the one hand, Gand­hi ini­tial­ly pledged “non­vi­o­lent moral sup­port” for the war, sens­ing an enemy–Germany–even more threat­en­ing to world peace and sta­bil­i­ty. (That stance would change in short order as the Indi­an Nation­al Con­gress revolt­ed and resigned en masse rather than par­tic­i­pate in the war). On the oth­er hand, Gand­hi did not see the British Empire as cat­e­gor­i­cal­ly dif­fer­ent from the Nazis. As he put it in his let­ter to Hitler, whom he address­es as “Friend” (this is “no for­mal­i­ty,” he writes, “I own no foes”): “If there is a dif­fer­ence, it is in degree. One-fifth of the human race has been brought under the British heel by means that will not bear scruti­ny.”

Gand­hi acknowl­edges the absur­di­ty of his request: “I am aware,” he writes, “that your view of life regards such spo­li­a­tions as vir­tu­ous acts.” And yet, he mar­shals a for­mi­da­ble argu­ment for non­vi­o­lence as a force of pow­er, not weak­ness, show­ing how it had weak­ened British rule: “The move­ment of inde­pen­dence has been nev­er so strong as now,” he writes, through “the right means to com­bat the most orga­nized vio­lence in the world which the British pow­er rep­re­sents”:

It remains to be seen which is the bet­ter orga­nized, the Ger­man or the British. We know what the British heel means for us and the non-Euro­pean races of the world. But we would nev­er wish to end the British rule with Ger­man aid. We have found in non-vio­lence a force which, if orga­nized, can with­out doubt match itself against a com­bi­na­tion of all the most vio­lent forces in the world. In non-vio­lent tech­nique, as I have said, there is no such thing as defeat. It is all ‘do or die’ with­out killing or hurt­ing. It can be used prac­ti­cal­ly with­out mon­ey and obvi­ous­ly with­out the aid of sci­ence of destruc­tion which you have brought to such per­fec­tion. It is a mar­vel to me that you do not see that it is nobody’s monop­oly. If not the British, some oth­er pow­er will cer­tain­ly improve upon your method and beat you with your own weapon. You are leav­ing no lega­cy to your peo­ple of which they would feel proud. They can­not take pride in a recital of cru­el deed, how­ev­er skill­ful­ly planned. I, there­fore, appeal to you in the name of human­i­ty to stop the war.

As an alter­na­tive to war, Gand­hi pro­pos­es an “inter­na­tion­al tri­bunal of your joint choice” to deter­mine “which par­ty was in the right.” His let­ter, Gand­hi writes, should be tak­en as “a joint appeal to you and Sign­or Mus­soli­ni…. I hope that he will take this as addressed to him also with the nec­es­sary changes.”

Gand­hi also ref­er­ences an appeal he made “to every Briton to accept my method of non-vio­lent resis­tance.” That appeal took the form of an open let­ter he pub­lished that July, “To Every Briton,” in which he wrote:

You will invite Herr Hitler and Sign­or Mus­soli­ni to take what they want of the coun­tries you call your pos­ses­sions. Let them take pos­ses­sion of your beau­ti­ful island, with your many beau­ti­ful build­ings. You will give all these, but nei­ther your souls, nor your minds. If these gen­tle­men choose to occu­py your homes, you will vacate them. If they do not give you free pas­sage out, you will allow your­self, man, woman and child, to be slaugh­tered, but you will refuse to owe alle­giance to them.

When Gand­hi vis­it­ed Eng­land that year, he found the viceroy of colo­nial India “dumb­struck” by these requests, writes Stan­ley Wolpert in his biog­ra­phy of the Indi­an leader, “unable to utter a word in response, refus­ing even to call for his car to take the now more deeply despon­dent Gand­hi home.”

Gand­hi’s 1940 let­ter to Hitler was actu­al­ly his sec­ond addressed to the Nazi leader. The first, a very short mis­sive writ­ten in 1939, one month before the ill-fat­ed Sovi­et Non-Aggres­sion Pact, strikes a con­cil­ia­to­ry tone. Gand­hi writes that he resist­ed requests from friends to pen the let­ter “because of the feel­ing that any let­ter from me would be an imper­ti­nence,” and though he calls on Hitler to “pre­vent a war which may reduce human­i­ty to a sav­age state,” he ends with, “I antic­i­pate your for­give­ness, If I have erred in writ­ing to you.” But again, in this very brief let­ter, Gand­hi appeals to the “con­sid­er­able suc­cess” of his non­vi­o­lent meth­ods. “There is no evi­dence,” The Chris­t­ian Sci­ence Mon­i­tor remarks, “to sug­gest Hitler ever respond­ed to either of Gand­hi’s let­ters.”

As the war unavoid­ably raged, Gand­hi redou­bled his efforts at Indi­an inde­pen­dence, launch­ing the  “Quit India” move­ment in 1942, which—writes Open Uni­ver­si­ty—“more than any­thing, unit­ed the Indi­an peo­ple against British rule” and has­tened its even­tu­al end in 1947. Non-vio­lence suc­ceed­ed, improb­a­bly, against the British Empire, though cer­tain oth­er for­mer colonies won inde­pen­dence through more tra­di­tion­al­ly war­like meth­ods. And yet, though Gand­hi believed non-vio­lent resis­tance could avert the hor­rors of World War II, those of us with­out his lev­el of total com­mit­ment to the prin­ci­ple may find it dif­fi­cult to imag­ine how it might have suc­ceed­ed against the Nazis, or how it could have appealed to their total­iz­ing ide­ol­o­gy of dom­i­na­tion.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Tol­stoy and Gand­hi Exchange Let­ters: Two Thinkers’ Quest for Gen­tle­ness, Humil­i­ty & Love (1909)

Hear Gandhi’s Famous Speech on the Exis­tence of God (1931)

Watch Gand­hi Talk in His First Filmed Inter­view (1947)

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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  • Hanoch says:

    “Reduc­tio ad Hitlerum”? Sure­ly Hitler not is the only his­tor­i­cal chal­lenge to paci­fism. One could tick off a laun­dry list of mon­sters who have the blood of thou­sands (even mil­lions) on their hands.

    If Gand­hi did not “see the British Empire as cat­e­gor­i­cal­ly dif­fer­ent from the Nazis” and he felt that “[i]f there is a dif­fer­ence, it is in degree”, he appears quite the fool. I sup­pose one could argue that being pricked with a nee­dle and impaled by a sword is not cat­e­gor­i­cal­ly dif­fer­ent, just one of degree. Some­times the dif­fer­ence of degree is the dif­fer­ence between good and evil, life and death.

    Untold mil­lions of peo­ple through­out his­to­ry, who raised no hand against their tor­men­tors, were butchered all the same. What sage advice would Gand­hi have giv­en them?

  • Paul Tatara says:

    Hitler squeezed his into a small­er time frame.

  • Greg Torres says:

    Are you call­ing the sub­ju­ga­tion of India and oth­er British colonies being pricked by a nee­dle?

  • Rabullione says:

    “Blood for blood–and wrong for wrong–
    Do not thus when ye are strong.”
    — “The Mask of Anar­chy” by Per­cy Bysshe Shel­ley

    React­ing mon­strous­ly to mon­sters decreas­es human virtue… and dou­bles the already bloat­ed mon­ster pop­u­la­tion.

  • Hanoch says:

    “If some­one is com­ing to kill you, rise against him and kill him first.” Deuteron­o­my 22:26.

    You can have your Shel­ley (moral paragon that he was); I’ll stick by a high­er, and con­sid­er­ably wis­er, author­i­ty.

  • Sollipsist says:

    Did­n’t that same author­i­ty lat­er advise turn­ing the oth­er cheek?

  • Ramona says:

    Some seem quite unap­praised of the con­sid­er­able atroc­i­ties and instances of geno­cide square­ly rest­ing on British shoul­ders. Count­ing up mil­lions of dead and thou­sands tor­tured don’t make the west­ern text­books when the vic­tims are brown-skinned…Just as it’s reg­u­lar­ly passed over that Hitler’s inspi­ra­tion for his pol­i­cy of Leben­sraum was Amer­i­ca and her geno­ci­dal Indi­an Wars. So, indeed it is a mat­ter of degree, and a mat­ter of record that the prox­i­mate caus­es of the holo­caust were 1) the refusal of “civ­i­lized” nations to accept Jew­ish emi­gres who were free to leave Ger­many, and 2) the ratch­et­ing up of mil­i­tary pres­sure from advanc­ing Sovi­et and Amer­i­can armies.

  • Hanoch says:

    Ramona: Your appar­ent con­tempt for the Unit­ed States is your busi­ness. Your state­ment, how­ev­er, regard­ing the cause of the Holo­caust is rub­bish. The “prox­i­mate” cause was the pol­i­cy of the Nazi par­ty to oblit­er­ate the Jew­ish peo­ple.

  • Hanoch says:

    Thanks, Andy. Inter­est­ing arti­cle. I guess it answers (quite unsat­is­fac­to­ri­ly) the ques­tion I posed in my orig­i­nal post.

  • Ramona says:

    Hanoch: Con­tempt? Is that how you deflect the his­tor­i­cal fact of the Indi­an wars? And as far as the Nazis, of course their final pol­i­cy is as your describe, but you seem com­plete­ly igno­rant of the evo­lu­tion of that pol­i­cy from var­i­ous thwart­ed poli­cies of forced emi­gra­tion, first to allied coun­tries, then to Mada­gas­car, then Siberia, before they pro­ceed­ed with exter­mi­na­tion. You seem to be sat­is­fied with your Tom Brokaw ver­sion of his­to­ry, how­ev­er, so I’ll just let you stew in your unin­formed indig­na­tion.

  • Lena says:

    And yet Gand­hi and Hitler were as one when it came to Jews:


    Say­ing that satya­gra­ha equates to mass sui­cide (his rec­om­men­da­tion to the Jews of Europe)

    “In that same arti­cle in the mag­a­zine Har­i­jan, he also wrote about the Jews,


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