While Goebbels is much to blame for this image, Hitler was fully cognizant of the virtues of propaganda. PHOTO: FILE
Among many biographies of Hitler that are available I found John Toland’s very helpful. Despite his controversial position on Pearl Harbour elaborated elsewhere, as far as this book is concerned, he does a great job of giving history in granular detail without attaching any value to it. It helps the reader in making his own mind. The invariable outcome however is that you find Hitler to be every bit the villain that he was in addition to being deeply flawed and inexorably ordinary. However, what stands out in this story is the total control the Third Reich’s spin doctors like Hitler’s propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels had on media. Nothing uncensored reached the citizens.
And that is how the phenomenon of Hitler’s deification had begun. He quotes Dorothy Thompson’s article Harper’s Bazaar in these words: “This is not a revolution,” an American visitor at the Passion play in Oberammergau (which blamed the Jews for the death of Jesus) reportedly told her, “It’s a revival. They think Hitler is God.” Believe it or not, a German woman sat next to me at the Passion play, and when they hoisted Jesus on the cross, she said, “There he is. That is our Führer, our Hitler!” And when they paid out the thirty pieces of silver to Judas, she said, “That is Röhm, who betrayed the Leader.”
While Goebbels is much to blame for this image, Hitler was fully cognizant of the virtues of propaganda. He invited young and talented actress and filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl to document the 1934 Nazi Party Congress at Nuremberg for the silver screen. Despite her initial reluctance she did justice to the film, and Triumph des Willens (Triumph of the Will) was born. Given that it was made in 1935, it is a remarkable feat of propaganda and filmmaking.
At the start, I called Toland’s book helpful and there is a good reason for that. Our country has its fair share of crazy and last week a guest (a PhD no less) was telling me how he admired Hitler and hated Churchill (one of my favourite statesmen). It is owing to the books like Toland’s that I find arguments to quash unsubstantiated and misguided notions. Please note that by helpful I do not mean the propaganda tactics of Nazi Germany. It is a disgusting prospect and I have found my honest and candid comprehension of the truth a far more convincing instrument than any cheap propaganda tactics. When people know your heart is in the right place, they would make peace with your million mediocrities to get to your opinion.
Another useful book to understand the overall context is Max Wallace’s controversial work, TheAmerican Axis: Henry Ford, Charles Lindbergh and the Rise of the Third Reich. Controversial because it has many unsubstantiated claims. Useful because, a) it tells you how a few misguided rich men and cultural icons can breed snakes like the Nazis, b) because Ford’s version of Mein Kampf and The International Jew are available in the market. A few years back at an Islamabad bookstore, I found The International Jew, the compilation of Ford’s hate literature, well showcased at a place of prominence. I sought out the store’s owner and convinced him that such repugnant hate material did not deserve to be promoted in such a manner. The good man obliged, and I am grateful. But Wallace shows us the extent of Ford’s influence on Hitler. And when you read the chapter called ‘America First’, all pieces from the past like Lindbergh, and of today like Steve Bannon and Mercer family start falling in line.
Reading history is important. Reading such books too because Jews are not the only ones on the receiving end in the West these days. Muslims have also joined their ranks. Similarly, a silent campaign against the Asian expatriates is also taking off. Sadly, the unrestrained political ambition of Benjamin Netanyahu has ensured that he bolsters anti-Semitic voices around the world in exchange for his regime, immunity to the corruption investigations and targeting of Muslims in the West.
I bring up these matters for two reasons. First, the atmospherics. Second, the tactics employed in recent Indian elections which remind you of Nazi Germany. I think I have already qualified the first point in some detail. It is discernable that if a racist, anti-immigrant, intolerant and hateful impulse is emerging around the world, it is not all organic. While Bannon and Mercers are in the public eye, there must be several rich people whose broken worldview is silently making our world uninhabitable.
The second point became painfully obvious during the recent election process in India. If truth be told the day captured Indian Wing Commander Abhinandan was returned to his country, it was plain that Modi had already won the election. All they needed to do was show some restraint, carry on with the democratic charade, let media and institutions function with some measure of freedom and the game was in the bag already. All that was needed was some subtle reference to Abhinandan. Of course, Pakistani media would continue to lambast the Indian government. That was a given since your government had risked a nuclear war with their country even though it hardly was supposed to have a real impact. But no, subtlety is not a strong suit of the BJP under Modi and Amit Shah. In chants of Har Har Modi and NaMo NaMo, the campaign to deify Modi was to continue. Indian institutions including the Election Commission and the Supreme Court had to be rendered visibly impotent. Media had to be so thoroughly controlled that it became a laughing stock of the world. Every soft power, every optic had to be squandered just for an overkill. As if risking a nuclear war with a neighbouring country was not enough, a satellite had to be shot down to present a muscular image. Result? Thorough and international discrediting of the electoral process. The demons unleashed during this election season will haunt India for decades, like the 1980s haunted Pakistan.
Of course, there are those who will still want to work with India. It is a fat rich cat after all. But just the way the West worked with Pakistan despite its weak democratic institutions in 1980s and 2000s and yet pulled no punches when it came to democracy, Indian democratic stock will significantly go down. I have not seen another lot that would totally dismantle a country’s entire soft power infrastructure just to get back in power. Perhaps the emergence of Rahul Gandhi and Priyanka Gandhi as relatable voices of conscience and India’s conscientious social media opinion leaders will be the country’s saving grace one day. But as for now, like India they too stand defeated.