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Hitler The Trendy Tyrant

By Kim Barker

24 December, 2006
Chicago Tribune

KHARGHAR, India -- When an Adolf Hitler-themed restaurant opened its doors in a suburb of cosmopolitan Mumbai in August, many were horrified. The restaurant, Hitlers' Cross, changed its name a week later to Cross Cafe, but it is hardly the only example of how some Indians view Hitler and his legacy.

Hindu fundamentalist groups praise Hitler's leadership skills. A college poll a few years ago showed he was perceived as an ideal leader. Books and videos of him are top sellers. Most patrons prefer to call Cross Cafe by its previous name. Plates and cups still bear the Hitlers' Cross logo, with a Nazi swastika in place of the "O."

"We call it `Hitler' only," said Ashish Anant, 18, an aeronautics college student who likes to come to the cafe with friends. "We say, `Let's go to Hitler.' It's a trendy name. It's different."

It's not clear why Hitler is popular in some circles. Some experts say it's because of a belief that Indians were the original Aryan race. Others say it's because Hitler used the traditional Hindu good-luck symbol of the swastika, rotating it slightly. Those who believe strongly in the caste system of India also may like Hitler's eugenics and race beliefs.

Any praise for Hitler is not reflected in national policy. India has strong ties with Israel and views it as an ally in the war on terror. And Jewish and non-Jewish Indians were horrified by Hitlers' Cross. Daniel Zohar Zonshine, the Israel consul general in Mumbai, looked visibly upset when talking about the portrayal of Hitler in India, especially Hitlers' Cross. He said he thinks the owners wanted the free publicity that comes with such controversy.

Educating the public

The consulate has tried to educate Indians about Hitler, sending a Holocaust photograph exhibit and education materials last year to the western state of Gujarat, where government textbooks have praised Hitler. The Israeli Consulate will bring a Holocaust survivor and artist to Mumbai to talk to Indian audiences next month.

"It's not an Israeli issue," said Zonshine, adding that World War II was not ingrained in the DNA of India as it was in that of Europe or Israel. "It's not a Jewish issue. It's a humanitarian issue."

Joshua Reuben, 29, who belongs to India's small Jewish community, said he was offended by the restaurant but did not blame the owners.

"They probably haven't thought about hurting anybody's feelings," he said.

Interviews with many young Indians indicated that they had little idea of what Hitler actually did and that it did not really matter. They described Hitler as "cool" or "trendy." They did not know details of the Holocaust.

"I don't know much," admitted Puneet Sabhlok, 22, one of the co-founders of Hitlers' Cross, which serves only one marginally German item, German chocolate cake.

"He was a dictator," added co-founder Shakir Siddiqui, 27. "Gas chambers and all."

Hitler is glorified in other ways. A poll of 400 students from the country's most prestigious colleges by a leading Indian newspaper in 2002 found that Hitler was their third most requested ideal leader of India, behind independence leader Mahatma Gandhi and the country's then-Prime
Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee.

A pizza and cake chain in New Delhi, A Slice of Italy, sells a cake called "one for the Hitler," featuring Hitler's face. Last year the cake was sold with a swastika on the cap and was described as a children's cake over the phone. Last month there was no swastika.

"It's not common, but it's exciting, madam," a worker at the pizza chain told one woman who asked about the cake in November. "Order it."

`Hitler, the Supremo'

In Gujarat, textbooks have praised Hitler's leadership abilities, fascism and the Nazi movement. Until recently, state social studies textbooks have featured chapters on "Hitler, the Supremo" and "Internal Achievements of Nazism." The textbooks have been changed slightly this year but still barely mention the Holocaust.

This is the same state where Hindu-led riots led to the deaths of more than 1,000 Muslims in the spring of 2002. Several investigations blamed the state government, led by a Hindu-right political party, for permitting the riots.

Bal Thackeray, the founder of Shiv Sena, a Hindu fundamentalist party based in Mumbai, has openly praised Hitler and said he was willing to wipe out troublemaking Muslims. Shiv Sena's secretary, Anil Desai, said Thackeray liked Hitler's leadership abilities, not his attempts to exterminate the Jews.

Thackeray likes "the way Hitler pushed the things in his time," Desai said.

Hitler's autobiography, "Mein Kampf," flies off the shelves of many bookstores. The Bandra branch of Crossword, a major bookstore chain in the Mumbai area, sells 35 copies a week.

At the Rhythm House in downtown Mumbai, one of the city's oldest and most popular video stores, the documentary "Hitler a Career" is sold in the video section for children.

"Why are people buying it? Because they like him," store clerk Maqbool Sayed said. "If it was up to me, I would hide these. I wouldn't put them out at all."

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