Mein Kampf on display in a bookstore in Kathmandu, Nepal. All photos by the author
In nearly every bookstore and curbside book vendor in Kathmandu or New Delhi, you can find copies of Hiter's manifesto, Mein Kampf. The books are arranged beside books about people generally regarded as great thinkers and leaders: Albert Einstein, Gandhi, Aung San Su Kyi, Abraham Lincoln, Nelson Mandela, Steve Jobs, and occasionally, Harry Potter.
Although Mein Kampf was never banned in Germany, it is now being reshelved in German bookstores because its 70-year copyright expired last month. Even now that it's being republished, there are 3,500 annotations tacked onto the new edition, "to denounce Hitler's propaganda and lies," according to the book's publisher.
In Asia, though, Mein Kampf is treated like an old classic. It's long been a popular read for businessmen in India, sold alongside titles like Rich Dad Poor Dad, Who Moved My Cheese?, and the various motivational books by Donald Trump. It's not the only book of nefarious content revered in the region—works about Stalin and the Mafia are shelved near the business reads, too—but Mein Kampf is consistently among the most popular. The manifesto is consistently a bestseller on Amazon's Indian website; one Indian publishing company alone, Jaico, sold over 100,000 copies between 2000 and 2010.
Why is this? Is it that people in this part of the world are simply curious of a man so reviled elsewhere in the world? Maybe, but there's also a fair amount of genuine admiration for the infamous dictator, who is regarded quite differently in South Asia than in the West.
"I personally really admire him," said Keshav Bhattarai, a student at Kathmandu's Tribhuvan University, where he is specializing in conflict, peace, and development studies. "His appeal was very good. Though he was cruel, if we look at history we'll find that he was one of the greatest leaders."
An unscientific survey I conducted of people on the streets in Kathmandu yielded similar results: People of all ages and educational backgrounds referred to Hitler as a "genius," an "enigmatic personality," and a "great leader." One man, in Kathmandu's Basantapur district, even told me "we [in Nepal] need a leader like Hitler."
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One reason Hitler's reputation might not be fully realized in this corner of the world is simply due to the geographical and emotional distance between South Asia and the atrocities of World War II. These were horrors in a distant land—most people in South Asia had no real connection with the Holocaust and other atrocities, giving it less cultural impact.
The region also had their own problems to worry about at the time. World War II corresponded with the partition of India and Pakistan, where estimates put the number of deaths related to this struggle between 500,000 and one million. And for decades, countries in this region have been stuck in developmental swamps. When Nepal hasn't been under the blanket of armed insurgencies, it's been in the grip of corrupt political leaders. People in Nepal seem to be looking for a leader that can carry them out of developmental paralysis, no matter the cost.
In other words, there's an instinct not to throw baby Hitler out with the bathwater. Evil? Sure, but he lifted Germany into one of the world's most powerful countries in just a decade. And it's easier to narrow the focus onto Hitler's leadership qualities when even school curriculums glaze over his role in World War II.
"In our high schools, we learn about Hitler, but they don't teach us about the Holocaust," said Pramod Jaiswal, a Nepali university student studying at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi. "Teachers only teach how he was a good leader for German development. I had a friend from Belgium and I told her Hitler was good for Germany and she started crying. I was really shocked."
The kind of Hitler that exists in South Asia is almost a caricature—the strict, scowling man with the funny mustache.
"In India, we use the term [Hitler] to refer to people that are strict," said Jaiswal. "It isn't a heavy word. Our principal is a Hitler, my father is a Hitler, [Narendra] Modi is a Hitler."
Hitler movies, a Hitler café, a Hitler fashion store, and even Hitler ice cream cones have cropped up around India in the wake of this folkloric image of the dictator, seemingly without any connotation of Hitler as an exterminator of Jews. Films, like Hero Hitler in Love, humanize a sweet, funny version of Hitler. It's not the same glorification as neo-Nazis in the West—it's a complete rebranding of the man.
"We like Hitler because he was a Hindu," said one bookstore owner in New Delhi. "He was a vegetarian and used the Swastika as a symbol for good luck. He was one of us."
While Hitler may not have self-identified as Hindu per se (in fact, Hitler viewed British control over India as an exemplary model of how what he considered to be "superior races" should dominate over the "inferior races," and called Indian freedom fighters "Asiatic jugglers"), the Swastika symbol does have deep roots in this region. Western travelers to Asian countries are often surprised to find the symbol adorning places like religious temples, taxis, hotels, and business calendars, as a mark of good luck and cosmic order.
While Hitler's popularity may simply be a case of poor education for some, others believe there's a deliberate decision to recontextualize the guy, for political reasons.
"During the rise of Nazism throughout WWII, India was still ruled under the British Empire," explained Shiv Visvanathan, a political scientist and professor at Jindal Global University in Sonepat, India. "To many independence fighters 70 to 80 years ago, fascism was a counter to British imperialism. In the Nationalist movement people like Subash Bose and others felt that the fascist movement had possibilities." (Subash Chandra Bose was an Indian Nationalist who formed alliances with Nazi fascists during World War II to assist in Indian independence.)
Visvanathan also believes the ultra-nationalism of the Nazis echoes the current forms of ultra-nationalism that have been on the rise in India under Prime Minister Narendra Modhi's Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
"In many ways, there has always been this dream of making India a superpower," said Visvanathan, speaking of the relationship between Mein Kampf's popularity and the rise of nationalism in India. Prime Minister Modi's government has been accused of creating a national identity exclusive to Hindus and rewriting history to marginalize Muslims and other religious groups in the country.
"Mein Kampf gets pretty helpful in these movements," Visvanathan explained. "Now, instead of the Jew, you have the Muslim."
Of course, opinions about Hitler in South Asia vary from individual to individual, and not everyone is his biggest fan. But the popularity of the Hitler "brand" in the region—political or otherwise—suggests the man with the funny mustache is there to stay.
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