Unwanted Indians in Nazi Germany

Ole Birk Laursen (Lund University) on files from the archive of the Berlin Foreign Office that reveal the arrests of Indian exiles in early 1930s Germany

At a time when fascism is on the rise across India, there is an urgent need to reflect upon past histories of Indian anti-fascism and, simultaneously, the repression of Indian anti-colonialists in exile. 1 Doing so also provokes a reconsideration of the politics and value of representing the past, of which struggles for freedom are valued today, and a reassessment of the final years of Weimar Berlin as a fertile space for Indian anti-colonialism.

Savage” assaults and “medieval” methods

In early December 1931, Adolf Hitler declared that British rule in India was in the interest of both Britain and Germany. Incensed by this statement and objecting to the general treatment of Indians in Germany lately, the veteran Indian nationalist Chempakaraman Pillai wrote to Hitler on 10 December 1931 and asked how he could deny the freedom of other countries such as India while claiming freedom for Germany. 2 Two weeks later, Hitler’s private secretary replied that Hitler believed that, if the British left India, Bolshevism would soon spread. Indeed, British rule in India was in the interest of the entire civilised world. Pillai’s complaints fell on deaf ears. 3.

By early 1933, Hitler’s resentment for the Indians in Germany became even more evident. On the eve of the Reichstag Fire in late February 1933, SA troops entered the Indian journalist A.C.N. Nambiar’s home at Kaiserplatz 17 and arrested him on the pretext of being a member of the German Communist Party (KPD). That same night, the SA arrested Jaya Surya Naidu, a medical student at the Charité, and brought him to the police station alongside Nambiar.

Nambiar later recalled how: ‘About seven in the evening, I was reading the afternoon papers, six Stormtroopers entered my flat. With loaded revolvers raised to my face and the threat of being shot immediately in the event of any resistance, they asked me to follow to a car that waited outside’. Nambiar was not presented with a search warrant, an arrest warrant, or a list of belongings removed, but the Stormtroopers took his typewriter and bundles of papers from his apartment. At the SA headquarters, Nambiar was ‘savagely assaulted by two Stormtroopers with leather whips’, questioned without any rights by a local SA leader, had his passport taken away, and was threatened to be killed. Early the next morning, he was brought to the police station by Alexanderplatz, where he was interrogated again and threatened with the gallows before being led, first, to a common cell and then, later, to a solitary cell. 4

Nambiar’s Story of His Arrest in Berlin”, in: The Bombay Chronicle, 8th May 1933, p. 7.

Although Naidu associated with various anarchists and communists in Berlin, he largely refrained from serious political activities. 5 Nevertheless, Naidu was also beaten by a dozen Stormtroopers and brought to the Alexanderplatz police station for questioning. As Naidu recalled: ‘I opened the door of my flat in response to a ring and was confronted by a dozen uniformed Nazi storm troopers, who levelled revolvers at me and demanded admission. I asked them what they wanted, but without more ado they told me to shut up, struck me on the head with the butts of their revolvers, and began ransacking my room’.

Taking him to the police station, Naidu recounted, ‘they pushed me down five flights of stairs, whipping and beating me at the time with belts and straps until my back and neck were bleeding and bruised’. 6 Through the intervention of Eva Geissler, Nambiar’s girlfriend and secretary at the Indian Information Bureau, Naidu was transferred to Spandau Prison and released after five days, his arrest had been a ‘misunderstanding’. Naidu returned to India in the summer of 1934. 7

For Nambiar, however, the case was much more serious. Geissler alerted the British authorities to the arrests, where Nambiar’s case was raised in the British Parliament, and throughout the next three weeks the British and the German authorities negotiated his release. In the end, the SA branded Nambiar a ‘communist’, which he was not, but had to release him on 26 March 1933 without any charges brought against him on condition that he left Germany. Nambiar’s expulsion was eventually retracted, but by then he had left for Prague. 8

The Band of Colonialism and Fascism

Although somewhat embarrassed by the wrongful arrests of Nambiar and Naidu, the Nazis still persecuted Indians in Germany. On 23 April 1933, upon his return to Germany from Italy, Saumyendranath Tagore was arrested in Munich, ostensibly for plotting to assassinate Hitler. Tagore was an outspoken critic of the Nazi regime and had ties to communists, but the accusations against him were false. During his imprisonment, Tagore witnessed the brutality of the Nazi regime against political prisoners: ‘The treatment of prisoners that I witnessed in those four and a half days was medieval in its brutality. Some 23 of us, belonging to the “Left” parties, mostly Communists, were locked up in a dark ventilated room’. 9

Though Tagore avoided severe beatings, he was ‘threatened repeatedly by groups of Stormtroopers to be shot’ and later recounted how ‘every day, batches of Hitlerites were coming to see the man who wanted to kill Hitler’. 10 After his release, Tagore escaped to Paris and issued a statement on the conditions in Germany: ‘The entire civilised world has condemned, and is still condemning unanimously, the excesses that are being perpetrated in Fascist Germany today. Ill-treatment of the Jews, Socialists, Pacifists, and Communist prisoners in the prisons, expelling from Germany’s cultural life world famous personalities like Thomas Mann, Kathe Kollwitz, Jacob Wassermann, and others, burning of thousands and thousands of books which are against German nationalism and militarism, all these and many other excesses are daily taking place in Hitler’s Germany today’. 11

Protest meeting against the arrest of Gandhi, 6 May 1930, Alexander von Humboldt-Haus, Fasanenstraße, Berlin. Standing is Saumyendranath Tagore and sitting to the far right is Jaya Surya Naidu. Bundesarchiv, Bild 102-09732. Wikimedia Commons.

Nambiar, Naidu, and Tagore were among the most prominent Indians to be arrested and expelled in 1933. However, by the end of the year, five more Indians had been arrested or expelled from Germany: M. A. Faruqui, an Indian-Muslim communist; Dinanath Gopal Tendulkar, an Indian communist student in Marburg; Brajesh Singh, a member of the Communist Party of India; Nalini Gupta, a communist and proprietor of the restaurant and boarding house ‘Hindustan House’; and Monindra Kumar Sen, a resident at ‘Hindustan House’. 12

The arrests and expulsions of Indian anti-colonialists – of Indian anti-fascists – from Nazi Germany in 1933 provide a cautionary tale of the dangers of fascism. At the same time, it reminds us that the past can be a source for political mobilisation in the present, that struggles against colonialism and fascism were allied in the past.

Ole Birk Laursen (Lund University) recieved the Leibniz-Fellowship “Value of the Past” in 2023 to visit the Leibniz-Zentrum Moderner Orient (ZMO) Berlin.

Header picture: The Alexanderplatz in Berlin. Street view of the police headquarters, the so called “Red Fortress”, ca. 1930. Foto: unknown fotografer, Sammlung Stadtmuseum Berlin SM 2016-9579,3. Wikimedia Commons.

Diesen Blogbeitrag zitieren
Leibniz Fellows (2024, 21. Mai). Unwanted Indians in Nazi Germany. Value of the Past. Abgerufen am 13. Juni 2024, von https://doi.org/10.58079/11p1x

  1. Arundhati Roy, Azadi: Fascism, Fiction, and Freedom in the Time of the Virus (Haymarket Books, 2020[]
  2. Chempakaraman Pillai to Adolf Hitler, 10 December 1931, RZ 207/77415, Politisches Archiv des Auswärtigen Amts, Berlin (PA AA).[]
  3. Private Secretary to Adolf Hitler to Chempakaraman Pillai, 24 December 1931, RZ 207/77415, PAAA.[]
  4. A. C. N. Nambiar, ‘Nambiar’s Story of His Arrest in Berlin’, Bombay Chronicle (8 May 1933): 7.[]
  5. Politische Beziehungen Indiens zu Deutschland, RZ 207/77416, PA AA.[]
  6. ‘Attack on British Subject’, Belfast Telegraph (25 March 1933): 5.[]
  7. Gautam Pemmaraju, ‘The Dark Foreigner with the Great Dog: Jayasurya Naidu in Germany, 1922–1934’, Nidan: International Journal for Indian Studies, 7:1 (July 2022): 115–31.[]
  8. Politische Beziehungen Indiens zu Deutschland, RZ 207/77416, PAAA.[]
  9. Saumyendranath Tagore, ‘Nazi Violence in Germany’, Hindustan Times (1 June 1933), RZ 207/77416, PA AA.[]
  10. Tagore, ‘Nazi Violence in Germany’.[]
  11. Saumyendranath Tagore, ‘Fascist Excesses in Germany’, Advance (22 May 1933), RZ 207/77416, PA AA.[]
  12. ‘Indians in Germany: Cases of Expulsion’, Advance (1 November 1933), held in RZ 207/77416, PA AA.[]

Autor: Leibniz Fellows

Der Leibniz-Forschungsverbund Wert der Vergangenheit vergibt jährlich Stipendien für herausragende internationale Forscher:innen und Early Career Researcher. // The Leibniz Research Association Value of the Past annually awards scholarships to outstanding international researchers and early career researchers.

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