Several years before Indian independence as World War loomed, Mahatma Gandhi found he had little sway in international politics even as he built his movement at home. The philosophy of satyagraha did not sound noble to the British in 1939, for example, when the Indian leader wrote a letter exhorting them to let the Germans take their country, their homes, and even their lives rather than fight back. That same year, he wrote to Hitler, addressing him as “Dear Friend” and writing, “It is quite clear that you are today the one person in the world who can prevent a war which may reduce humanity to a savage state.”
Gandhi’s first 1939 letter to Hitler implies that the Führer was the only world leader who wanted such a war. The Indian leader fully understood the stakes. “My sympathies are all with the Jews,” he’d written in a 1938 article. “If there ever could be a justifiable war, in the name of and for humanity, war against Germany to prevent the wanton persecution of a whole race would be completely justified.” Still, he concluded, “I do not believe in any war.” He stuck to his principles even after Germany’s invasion of Poland in 1939.
“Not deterred by the outbreak of war,” Alexander LaCasse writes at the Christian Science Monitor, “Gandhi wrote to Hitler a second time.” Just above, you can see Sir Ben Kingsley read that letter, in character as Gandhi and perhaps sounding much like Gandhi did when reading his letters aloud. Gandhi “took correspondence very seriously,” Nick Owen writes, and he “wrote — and was written to by — almost anyone.” In this much longer letter from 1940, Gandhi extols the practical virtues of non-violence and attempts some moral reasoning:
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 a cruel deed, however skillfully planned. I, therefore, appeal to you in the name of humanity to stop the war.
“There is no evidence to suggest Hitler ever responded to,” or even read, “either of Gandhi’s letters,” writes LaCasse. And maybe little evidence that Gandhi expected a response. “I am aware that your view of life regards such spoliations as virtuous acts,” he writes. “But we have been taught from childhood to regard them as acts degrading humanity.” He continues to profess Hitler a friend, writing “I own no foes. My business in life has been for the past 33 years to enlist the friendship of the whole of humanity.”
Before his death in 1948, Gandhi called the Holocaust “the greatest crime of our time.” According to a biographer, he also added, “the Jews should have offered themselves to the butcher’s knife. They should have thrown themselves into the sea from cliffs. It would have aroused the world and the people of Germany.” Had he suggested this in a letter to Europe’s Jews, it is unlikely they would have been persuaded.