Sisir K. Majumdar
It was probably in Germany that Subhas Chandra Bose (1897-1945) was first known as ‘Netaji’, which literally means ‘leader of leaders’ (‘Führer’ is the equivalent German expression). The period of his stay in Germany was from April 1941 to February 1943. These ‘Berlin Years’ of Netaji are still a riddle for most of his objective and biased biographers. It is still a puzzle how a self-respecting and dynamic personality could put up for two long years with an inhuman fascist clique which desperately tried to submerge the whole of humanity in rivers of blood. But it is beyond any shadow of doubt that he was solely and unequivocally guided by one desire– the liberation of his mother India from the cruel clutches of British colonialism.
Germany and India: The prime idea which motivated Netaji was to explore all possible means for achieving the cherished goal of India’s independence. It seems that he had adopted the concept that the ‘enemy’s enemy is your friend’. He looked at Nazi Germany solely from that perspective. It followed the approach taken by Indian revolutionaries towards German during the First World War. However, the Germany of the Second World War was very different, even with respect to India. After the defeat of Germany in the First World war, the ambition of Germany was to bring about a global redistribution of colonies with the goal of establishing German supremacy on the world stage. Vis-à-vis India, a plan was hatched to form an ‘Afghan Army’ to invade India after the possible defeat of the Soviet Union in order to snatch ‘the jewel of the British Empire’. The idea of India’s independence was no where in German strategic consideration. Indeed, Germany had a long standing covetous eye towards India, and its sympathy and support for India’s struggle for independence was always superficial, and fluctuated with the changing situations on the war front, especially on the Russian front. Netaji was completely unaware of this behind the scene conspiracy. He did not seem to think about this seriously enough initially, and remained blindly optimistic about the German attitude for quite some time.
Low-key Reception: When Netaji arrived in Germany in April 1941, he was received by a low-ranking official of the Foreign Department. He was disappointed at this first encounter. Of course his hotel accommodation was fairly luxurious, with an easy telephonic link to high officials. But he had to wait for more than a year to meet the Führer personally. In the meantime, constant clashes of perceptions on the Indian situation between Netaji and his German hosts became routine. He was confused and bewildered from time to time.
Meeting with Foreign Ministry: Netaji met the higher officials of the Foreign Department on April 3, 1941, and expressed his desire to form an ‘Indian Government in Exile’ and expected its immediate diplomatic recognition from the Axis Powers. He was keen to form an Indian Army with the Indian prisoners of war from North Africa. As requested, he submitted a draft proposal on April 9, 1941. It contained the following (i) The Axis Powers would sign a treaty with the ‘Free Indian Government in Exile’ guaranteeing India’s independence from British rule once the war was won; (ii) The Indian Army would consist of 50,000 soldiers of Indian origin; (iii) After liberating India, Germany would hand over responsibility to the Government in Exile headed by Netaji himself.
However, Netaji probably failed to realize that the Germans might have their own plans regarding India. The German perception had to be different. Agreeing with Netaji’s plan virtually amounted to the declaration of India’s independence as one of the aims of the war. Netaji was no longer a leader of the Indian National Congress which was leading India’s independence movement on India’s soil. Forming an Indian government in exile would antagonize the leaders and the people of India. This would not have offered any political dividend to Germany. The Germans were reluctant to discuss any military plan with Netaji in advance of liberating India. He did not have access to Germany’s war plans, and he provided an opportunity to be used for German expansionist ambitions in India.
Netaji was considered merely a refugee leader who happened to be in exile in Berlin and not ‘the Leader of the great Indian Nation’. He was more an object of sympathy rather than of authority to dictate terms or to influence directions. He was at best treated as an honourable guest; and all guests have limitations in the host’s place; Netaji was no exception.
The Turning Point: The invasion of Russia was being planned. Netaji probably came to know about it; he sent a memorandum to the Germans pleading that the status quo be maintained with Russia in order to achieve total destruction of the British in the Near and Middle East. He was completely against the invasion of the Soviet Union. Netaji met the German Foreign Minister J. Von Ribbentrop, and is reported to have told him emphatically that Indian public opinion was against German fascism, and was sympathetic to the socialist Soviet Union. He insisted with Ribbentrop on a German declaration for India’s independence. Ribbentrop asked lots of intriguing questions about the internal situation in India, and only made a verbal commitment to consider Netaji’s proposal, and promised to arrange another meeting. This did not take place for another seven months. He could not arrange to see Hitler, and did not get what he wanted from Ribbentrop, but he did not lose hope.
Netaji prepared and sent a draft declaration of India’s independence to the German authorities on May 13, 1941, and wanted it published. The declaration envisioned that the people of India would themselves decide on the future constitution of India after she was liberated, and Germany would accept this absolute right. Germany would take full responsibility to liberate India, and after liberation, would recognize that government of independent India. On May 24, he was informed that the time was not right for the publication of such a document. Netaji was told that instead, he could set up the ‘Free India Centre’ in Berlin. Ten million Reichmarks were allotted as a ‘loan’ for the centre, and a monthly allowance of 12,000 Reichmarks was sanctioned for his personal expenses. In spite of this generous hospitality, he was feeling stifled. His movements were under constant surveillance, his telephone was tapped, his letters were opened and censored. He seemed to be locked in an iron cage, an unbearable condition for ‘the Springing Tiger’.
Holiday in Rome: Netaji went on a visit to Rome in May 1941, and stayed there for six weeks with his newly married wife Emilie Schenkl. He also met the then Italian Foreign Minister Galeazzo Ciano, and discussed with him the draft declaration. Ciano took Netaji to the Duce Benito Mussolini on May 5, 1941. Italy at the time was only a puppet of Germany, and too weak to take any independent decision on anything.
On June 22, 1941, Germany invaded Soviet Russia, and the whole political table was turned around. On August 15, 1941, he wrote a long letter to Ribbentrop and pointed out in the strongest possible words that the German invasion of the Soviet Union would be viewed by Indians as the beginning of as invasion of the East, and therefore Germany would be regarded as the enemy of India. he again insisted on the publication of the draft declaration, and his request was again turned down. There was another meeting with Ribbentrop on November 29, 1941. Netaji requested him to arrange a meeting with Hitler, but Ribbentrop made no commitment. He also pointed out the offensive comment made by Hitler in his book ‘Mein Kampf’, and demanded its immediate correction. Part of this particular comment reads as follows: ‘… Quite aside from the fact that I as a man of Germanic blood, would in spite of everything, rather see India under English rule than any other.’  Netaji was unable to persuade Hitler to amend this offensive comment.
Japan Enters the War: The Japanese declaration of war against Great Britain and the US on December 7, 1941, coupled with the advance of the Japanese army towards the Indian frontier radically altered the war situation. The German Foreign Minister prepared a draft declaration on India without any consultation with Netaji. Japan also prepared one. There was an understandable difference in attitude towards India in Germany and Japan, and Netaji tried to cash in on this rift by again insisting on the publication of his own draft declaration. Ribbentrop, however, was interested in using him for Nazi propaganda, and for the invasion of Soviet Union. Netaji, as clever as he was, surely realized that he was in the wrong company in Berlin to achieve the right objective, and also that the world and future history would portray him as an ally of the hated fascist clique. He decided to leave for the Far East. Many historians assign his decision to the failure of Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union in 1942. In fact, he wanted to be nearer home when Japan decided to invade India so that he could be physically available to offer leadership to the people and the prisoners of war of Indian origin in South East Asia. He came to know from the Italian Foreign Minister Ciano on May 4, 1942, that the publication of his draft declaration on India had again been postponed. He was very disappointed. But he had to swallow this indifference silently and with subdued anger.
Encounter with Hitler: It happened on May 29, 1942 at the Reich Chancellery. Though a few other ministers like Ribbentrop were present, Hitler was the sole actor at the show. He seemed to have been reasonably briefed in advance by his military intelligence on the internal situation in India. After an exchange of initial formalities, Hitler gave a long lecture on the world situation of the day. He spoke extensively on the Soviet threat to India once she was freed from the British, and euphorically boasted that for Germany, it is only possible to reach India over ‘the dead body of Russia’. It was more a ‘talking shop’ staged with racial hatred and national chauvinism, banal boasting and empty threats. Netaji firmly drew attention to the comments in ‘Mein Kampf’, and advised Hitler to make a public declaration on his stand and intentions about India. He noted that otherwise enemies would use his comments in the book for anti-German propaganda. But Hitler was not interested in continuing on this topic. He stated that it would take 1-2 years for Germany to spread its influence over India, and for India herself it would take 100-200 years to put her house in order and for reconstruction to achieve Indian unity. Instead of amending his stand on India, he proudly reiterated his well known ugly racist chauvinism against India. In his talk with Netaji, Hitler gave sufficient indications about his expansionist intentions towards India. It was not clear whether Netaji understood it and took it seriously. Possibly, at that juncture of history, there was no other alternative for him but to depend on the devil. Hitler did reassure Netaji that if and when German forces reached the Indian frontier, he would be invited to set foot on Indian soil in the company of German liberators to trigger ‘the revolution’. It was an empty promise and a cruel joke.
It was not a meeting of two national leaders, rather it was a frosty encounter between Hitler the demon-genius and Netaji, a nationalist giant. Netaji spoke very little to his colleagues in Berlin about his unpleasant meeting with Hitler, except that it was not possible to continue a logical dialogue with him. After this episode, Netaji seemed to awaken from his illusion about Hitler.
Within certain limitations he was allowed to pursue his organizational work, and he was able to mobilize Indians living in Germany at the time under the banner of the Free India Centre (total members: 35) with an avowed allegiance to Netaji personally and not to India. It was an granted diplomatic status with fabulous financial grants. One important activity of his in Germany was the formation of the first unit of what he thought would be the future Indian army recruited from the Indian prisoners of war from North Africa. In forming this he had the idea that: it would not be a part of the German military; it would be self sufficient; it would only fight against the British army on Indian soil and not on any other front or country; and, it could not be engaged at the German-Soviet front. But recruitment was very slow. Only 3,500, less than one third of the total Indian prisoners of war from North Africa, were recruited. They took an oath of allegiance to both Netaji and Hitler. This paved the way for using this Indian legion in other war fronts. Contrary to his wishes, after Netaji left Germany this legion was dispatched to Holland and France to perform various military duties.
The Final Departure: Even after deciding to leave Germany for the Far East, Netaji wasted one whole year in Berlin only to meet Hitler. He was held up by the Germans because they wanted to use him in the event of a German victory over Russia. He was allowed to leave only after the German surrender in Stalingrad, and Hitler’s secret plan for India fell apart. The long journey to the Far East was very dangerous. He boarded a German submarine (U Boat) on February 8, 1943 from Kiel with another Indian colleague, Abid Hassan, leaving behind his wife and only child, daughter Anita, and many well wishers in Germany.
 Mein Kampf: The National Socialist Movement by A. Hitler, translated by Ralph Manheim; Hutchinson, London, 1974, reprinted 1990; p.601.
Courtesy: ‘South Asia Forum Quarterly’, Vol. 10, No. 1, 1997, Chery Chase, Maryland, pp. 10-14.