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Hitler's Hot In India

Dec 23, 2012
Originally published on December 24, 2012 1:42 pm

All over India, an unusual name has been popping up on signs in restaurants and businesses: Hitler.

Yes, Hitler. As in Adolph. Just last year there was even a Punjabi movie called Hero Hitler in Love.

To understand why a name generally associated with mass murder is turning up on storefronts around the country, reporter David Shaftel investigated and wrote about it in a recent issue of Bloomberg Businessweek.

He tells weekends on All Things Considered host Guy Raz that he first started to notice the Hitler fascination when he'd pass booksellers around Mumbai.

"Mein Kampf and some various other biographies of Hitler ... are displayed rather prominently," Shaftel says. "Because these guys know what sells."

It's easy enough to spot swastikas anywhere in India – they're a Hindu symbol. The Nazis reversed the image when they made it their sign. "Every now and then, you see one that's the Nazi symbol — that's clearly the Nazi symbol," Shaftel says. "It's something you notice."

"But I'm not sure people know that, and I think that's where some of the affinity — or at least the curiosity in Hitler comes from," Shaftel says. Hitler not only appropriated the swastika — the term Aryan comes from the subcontinent.

More curious for westerners might be the lack of outrage associated with the name. While the better educated classes know some European history, they're a pretty small percentage of India's vast population. "There's no sense in the community that people might be upset by this — and most of the outrage comes from foreign countries," Shaftel says.

As for the movie, Hitler is the nickname of the main character — who has a horrible temper. "Anyone who's a bit bossy, a bit of a jerk, is nicknamed Hitler," Shaftel explains. "And this makes its way into popular culture. There's a soap opera that runs in India called Hitler Didi, which translates as "Big Sister Hitler" – and again, she's a bit cantankerous."

Yet there's no anti-Semitism intended in using the name. Indians just think Hitler was a strong guy — and kind of a curmudgeon. Also, Shaftel points out, when Hitler's campaign in World War II weakened Britain, it also expedited Indian independence.

Meanwhile, word does sometimes spread of Hitler's true nature. Since controversy hit the Hitler clothing store in Ahmadabad, they've started displaying a Gandhi t-shirt in the window.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

GUY RAZ, HOST:

Let's turn to India, where all over the country, an unusual name has been popping up on signs and restaurants and businesses.

DAVID SHAFTEL: The Hitler clothing store. And there was a Hitler's Cross cafe, Hitler's Den pool hall.

RAZ: Yes, Hitler - as in Adolph. And just last year, there was even a Punjabi movie called...

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "HERO HITLER IN LOVE")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Singing) Hitler in love, oh, baby.

RAZ: "Hero Hitler in Love."

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "HERO HITLER IN LOVE")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Singing) Hitler in love, oh, baby. Hitler in love.

RAZ: Now, to understand why a name generally associated with mass murder is turning up on storefronts around the country, reporter David Shaftel decided to investigate, and he wrote about it in a recent issue of Bloomberg Businessweek. He says he first started to notice the Hitler fascination when he passed booksellers around Mumbai.

SHAFTEL: "Mein Kampf" and some various other biographies of Hitler - but mainly "Mein Kampf" - are displayed rather prominently, because these guys know what sells. So when I arrived, "Eat, Pray, Love" was out there.

RAZ: A little bit different than "Mein Kampf."

(LAUGHTER)

SHAFTEL: You could say that, yeah. And sometimes, you know, the swastika is a - it's a Hindu symbol. It's everywhere. But, you know, every now and then, you'll see one that's a Nazis symbol that's clearly the Nazi symbol. It's something you notice.

RAZ: Yeah. I remember the first time I went to Delhi. You see swastikas all over the place. But, of course, the Nazi swastika was sort of turned 90 degrees or something like that. So it's different.

SHAFTEL: It is different. But I'm not sure people know that. And I think that's where some of the affinity - or at least the curiosity in Hitler comes from is that, you know, he appropriated this Hindu sign, he appropriated this term Aryan which came from the subcontinent.

So a lot of Indians assume that there was an affinity between Hitler and India. More important than a few businesses that pop up or the affinity for him is there's no outrage or there's no sense in the community that people might be upset by this.

And most of the outrage comes from foreign countries - Israel, the U.S. India's Jewish community is quite small. It's 5,300 people, most of them in Bombay - or Mumbai, I should say.

RAZ: So there's a movie called "Hero Hitler in Love." Like, why would somebody call somebody else Hitler in India? What is this supposed to mean?

SHAFTEL: You know, in this case, in "Hero Hitler in Love," this is a love story that has nothing to do with Hitler. But this fellow is nicknamed Hitler because he's got a horrible temper. He tends to fly off the handle.

So anyone who's a bit bossy, a bit of a jerk is nicknamed Hitler, and this makes its way into popular culture. There's a soap opera that runs in India called "Hitler Didi," which translates as "Big Sister Hitler."

RAZ: OK.

SHAFTEL: And again, she's a bit cantankerous.

RAZ: So Hitler is like a - kind of like a loveable grouch?

SHAFTEL: You could say that, yeah.

RAZ: Is it because people in India don't know whole lot about the Nazis or Hitler or what they did?

SHAFTEL: I think that's the case. Generally speaking, there's not a ton of European - and certainly, Jewish - history taught in Indian schools. Now, middle class and upper class Indians, of course, they know these things. But that - the middle class and the upper class are quite small percentage of the population.

RAZ: But your article suggests that this has - actually has nothing to do with anti-Semitism, and it seems pretty clear that it doesn't. It's not the sort of the Hitler affinity isn't about anything other than just thinking that this guy was sort of a curmudgeon and a strong leader.

SHAFTEL: Right. And also that he, you know, were it not for the Axis powers weakening Britain during World War II, that India would've gotten its independence so quickly or so easily. Not to suggest that it was easy, but it came abruptly in the end. And a lot of that had to with Britain's position being weakened in the war. So a lot of people in India see that as a sort of a positive outcome.

RAZ: By the way, what do they sell at the Hitler clothing store? Do they sell, I don't know, jackboots and brown shirts?

(LAUGHTER)

SHAFTEL: No. Oddly enough, they - after the controversy sort of flared up, they're prominently displaying a Gandhi T-shirt in the window.

RAZ: That's reporter David Shaftel. He wrote about the popular use of the name Hitler in India for Bloomberg Businessweek. David, thanks.

SHAFTEL: Sure. Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RAZ: And you're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.