Photo: Bangiya Jarman Vidya Samsad at Home on January 10, 1938
The Bengali Society of German Culture (Bangiya Jarman Vidya Samsad) was established by the Germanophile and polymath intellectual Benoy Kumar Sarkar (1887–1949) in Calcutta in 1933. The aim of this Society, as stated in its programmes, was “to carry on and promote among our countrymen studies and investigations relating to German institutions, sciences and arts.” The main activity of this society was to organize public lectures on various subjects related to Germany. Its activities ended with the onset of WWII.
In its aims and objectives, the Bengali Society was similar to the “German Society” of the Aligarh Muslim University (AMU), which was established in 1932 by the German orientalist scholar Otto Spies, who joined the Arabic Department of the AMU in the same year, and Sattar Kheiri, the German lector at the University. All the members of the German Society belonged to different faculties of the AMU (Roy forthcoming 2023). Unlike the German Society of the AMU, however, the Bengali Society was not formally affiliated to any University though its founder Benoy Kumar Sarkar was a professor of Economics at the University of Calcutta. The members of this Society were also not limited to academia.
In the following section, I will briefly trace Sarkar’s role as an intermediary between an expanding Nazi network that evolved in India and the indigenous educated elite in Calcutta. The core of this Nazi network comprised a unit of the Nazi party that existed in India from 1932. Most members of this unit were the German employees of the German commercial firms operating in India. After 1933, the German Consulates in India also joined the Nazi network, as the traditional diplomats were increasingly replaced with Nazi party members. There were also a number of Indian and German individuals in India who belonged to the Nazi network without officially joining the Nazi party. Benoy Sarkar was one such individual (Roy forthcoming 2023).
This discussion is necessary to situate the Bengali Society of German Culture in its proper political context. Following this, I will enumerate on the archival sources relating to the Society that I have found in Germany. Finally, I will provide a short account of the activities of the Bengali Society, which, to my knowledge, operated only in Calcutta.
An important component of the Nazi network was the India Institute of the Deutsche Akademie (DA), a supposedly non-political organisation established in Munich in 1925. The declared aim of the DA was to disseminate German language and culture in foreign lands. However, it increasingly conducted cultural politics in the form of propaganda and espionage for the Nazi regime in different countries including India, South-East Europe, Great Britain, America, South Africa, China, Japan, and Thailand, as the journals of the DA stated. Benoy Kumar Sarkar’s collaboration with the Nazi network, particularly with the DA, formed the backdrop to the foundation of the Society.
Main Archives of the Bavarian State (Bayerisches Hauptstaatsarchiv or BayHsta) Munich
The journals of the DA, which are available at the Bayerisches Hauptstaatsarchiv (BayHsta), occasionally reported on the activities of the Society.
Federal Archives (Bundesarchiv or BArch) Berlin
A number of bulletins containing details like the list of members and advisors, programmes organised by the Society as well as reports on them are housed in the Federal Archives (Bundesarchiv or BArch) inBerlin under the signature R57/10712.
Political Archive of the German Foreign Ministry (Politisches Archiv des Auswärtigen Amts or PA AA) Berlin
This archive has materials relating to a programme from 1938 as well as an announcement of the Society’s plans in the section Politische Beziehungen Indiens zu Deutschland, Pol VII, signature R10477.
This list of archives does not claim to be exhaustive. For the purpose of presenting a coherent and comprehensive narrative, I have used relevant information from colonial surveillance records held by the National Archives of India, New Delhi (NAI), and West Bengal State Archives, Kolkata (WBSA).
Benoy Kumar Sarkar belonged to an elite group of nationalist intellectuals of Bengal who were particularly receptive towards certain ideas associated with German philosophy and German nationalism. These ideas were filtered to them through cultural exchanges with Britain (Sartori 2010: 79). Sarkar and others of his ilk saw Germany as a victim of the British Empire, which nevertheless succeeded in rejuvenating under Hitler’s leadership. To Sarkar, Germany became a projection of what India should have aspired to be.
Sarkar’s attempts to coalesce elements of German intellectual traditions and Nazi politics with his vision of India’s past, present and future are best known through his (in)famous book The Hitler State: A Political, Economic and Social Remaking of the German people, published in 1934. The book remains particularly memorable for the oft-quoted phrase that Hitler combined “the moral idealism of a Vivekananda multiplied by the iron strenuousness of a Bismarck” (Sarkar 1934:8).
This quote represents Sarkar’s attempt to link the “rejuvenation” of Germany with Hindu revivalism embodied by the ascetic Ramkrishna (1836–1886) and his western educated disciple, Vivekananda (1863–1902). Sarkar also tried to establish that the “Ramkrishna Vivekananda complex” was carrying on the intellectual legacy of Johann Gottlieb Fichte’s ideal of “the mind’s domination over the world” (Sartori 2010:80). The Bengali Society was a further manifestation of Sarkar’s attempts to interpret aspects of (Nazi) Germany and connect them to his views of India’s “glorious” (Hindu) past and to the possibility of its future resuscitation.
The Bengali Society of German Culture was, however, not just an expression of Sarkar´s personal quest. Sarkar who was fluent in German, had visited Germany several times and formed friendships with influential German intellectuals, like the geo-politician Karl Haushofer (1869–1946). The latter was a conservative nationalist who enjoyed some respect among leading Nazi politicians. Haushofer was also one of the founders of the DA’s India Institute, established in 1928 in Munich. The India Institute provided stipends to Indian students and professionals to study and work in Germany (Roy 2021). The aim was to influence them enough to conduct propaganda for Germany in India, or at least to remain sympathetic to the country. Through Haushofer´s mediation, the India Institute invited Sarkar to be a guest professor at the Technical Academy, Munich, in 1930–31 (Thierfelder 1937:9).
After the Nazis assumed power in 1933, the DA (and the India Institute) embarked on the venture to conform to the new regime’s expectations. Sarkar took upon himself the task of promoting the DA and the “New Germany” in India in different ways (Roy 2021). The establishment of the Bengali Society of German Culture in Calcutta was a part of such efforts.
The DA displayed significant interest in the Bengali Society. In October 1933, Mitteilungen, the journal of the DA, announced the establishment of the Society in Calcutta, adding that its main objective was to organize lectures on Germany and “German intellectual life”. The journal further announced that Indian students who had completed their dissertations in Germany are among the Society’s advisors (Mitteilungen, October 1933: 392). However, a list of members and advisors of the Society found at the Federal Archives in Berlin shows that the Bengali Society included not only scholars and professionals who had studied in Germany, but also other members of the educated elite of Calcutta (BArch Berlin: R57/10712).
Not long after the foundation of the Bengali Society, the DA made Sarkar an honorary member of the India Institute, for “his great achievements in cultural work” (Mitteilungen December 1933: 533). This “rewarding” of Sarkar points to an exchange of political, intellectual, and cultural resources between Sarkar and the DA, which progressively became the mouthpiece of the Nazi state in India.
Early years (1933–1936)
Benoy Kumar Sarkar was the director of the Bengali Society of German Culture and Narendra Nath Law, an entrepreneur and the editor of the magazine The Indian Historical Quarterly, was its President (BArch Berlin: R57/10712).
Bengali intellectuals with nationalist leanings, who looked towards Germany as a model of progress were preferred as members and invited guests. One of the vice presidents of the Society was Biren Das Gupta, the director of a multi-national company called Indo-Swiss Trading Co. Das Gupta was known to the British surveillance as a radical anti-colonialist who went to Berlin during WWI and became involved in spreading anti-British propaganda under the aegis of the German government (WBSA: IB File 355–41). Notably, most meetings of the members of the Society were held at the office of the Indo-Swiss Trading Co. The venue of the public lectures, which were held primarily in the evenings, was a community hall called the Buddhist Hall in College Square, central Calcutta (BArch Berlin: R57/10712).
Another member of the Bengali Society was Dr. Suhrit Mitra, who had completed his PhD in Leipzig in 1926 on experimental psychology (Hartnack 2022:193). He delivered at least two public lectures, one of which was on current research in the field of experimental psychology in Germany. It was delivered on 21st November 1933, at the Buddhist Hall. The other lecture on “Gestalt Theory in German Psychology” was held on 26th September 1936, at the Laboratory of Experimental Psychology of the University of Calcutta. The audience included Girindrasekhar Bose, the pioneer of psychoanalysis in India, and Bidhan Chandra Roy, the renowned physician and nationalist politician (BArch Berlin: R57/10712). This is an indication of the prestige that the Bengali Society enjoyed among the academic as well as political elite of Calcutta.
The second lecture was also attended by Horst Pohle, the German lector sent by the DA to Calcutta in 1934. Pohle was asked to be present at all the programmes of the Bengali Society by Franz Thierfelder, the General Secretary of the DA, in a letter written in 1935. Thierfelder claimed that the presence of the German lector was essential to signify the DA’s encouragement to the Society (NAI: Home Political. EW 1941. NA-F-10–103). Pohle, a member of the Nazi party, was known to the colonial surveillance as a Nazi propagandist and agent (Roy 2021).
In a progressive gesture, the Society included a few women as well. Maitrayee Basu Chatterjee, a practicing physician who had received a scholarship from the DA to study medicine at Munich was listed as an advisor. The list of members also included “Mrs. Sushama Sengupta, M.A.” who was the principal of a girls’ school in Calcutta (BArch Berlin: R57/10712).
The Society sometimes invited “mainstream” politicians to deliver lectures. One such guest was Humayun Kabir, a writer and a member of the Indian National Congress. He spoke on the politically innocuous subject of “Kant and modern thought” on 13th September 1935.
Nevertheless, the Society’s main agenda seems to have been to provide platforms to persons connected in diverse ways to the Nazi political establishment. For example, on 16th September 1933 Herbert Richter, the German Vice Consul of Calcutta, spoke on “New Germany” (BArch Berlin: R57/10712). The contents of the lecture were presumably similar to another speech titled “Elements of New Germany” that Richter delivered around the same time at the Vishwa Bharati University (Bhattacharya 1990: IX). This speech was replete with National Socialist propaganda like the “necessity of preserving the purity of Aryan blood,” a measure which, claimed Richter, “must be comprehensible to my Indian friends” (Framke 2021: 115).
On 27th March 1934, the Society organized a lecture by Heinz Nitzschke, the predecessor of the aforementioned Horst Pohle. Nitzschke’s lecture was on “Three German Sociologists: Ferdinand Tönnies, Hans Freyer and Leopold von Wiese” (BArch Berlin: R57/10712). Among the sociologists in question, Freyer and von Wiese tried to conform to Nazi politics in different ways (Klingemann 1996). According to a colonial surveillance report, Nitzschke, a member of the Nazi party, regularly delivered lectures on Nazi Germany and met Indian nationalists at Calcutta’s Young Men’s Christian Association where he taught German as well (NAI: EAD File No. 665‑X\38. P11, C3).
The Society invited one of its members, Bata Krishna Ghosh, an erstwhile stipend holder of the DA who taught German at the University of Calcutta, to lecture on “Recent German researches in Linguistics” on 20th April 1934 (BArch Berlin: R57/10712). Ghosh happened to be the head of the student section of the Society, which Sarkar managed to start at this University (WBSA. IB File No. 355–41.Sl.183). A surveillance report from 1939 suspected Ghosh of being sympathetic towards the Axis (NAI: Home Pol. EW-1939, NA-F-93kw). The same report also mentioned Dr. R. Ahmed, Principal of the Calcutta Dental College and Hospital and a Vice President of the Bengali Society, as well as Prof. Baneswar Dutta from the College of Engineering, Jadavpur (now Jadavpur University), an honorary member of the Society, as being “pro-Axis”. Both are listed as office holders in a pamphlet of the Bengali Society (BArch Berlin: R57/10217).
The lectures were often accorded symbolic importance by the German political establishment. For instance, a public lecture organised by the Society on 15th December 1934 on “Engineering and industrial Germany”, was delivered by Jatindra Nath Basu, an erstwhile stipend holder of the DA as well as an adviser of the Society. He was also a professor at the College of Engineering, Jadavpur. The lecture was attended by the German Consul and Vice Consul of Calcutta, as well as by Horst Pohle (BArch Berlin: R57/10712). This lecture was later published in German as a booklet and sent to Sarkar from Berlin in 1939 (WBSA IB File No. 355–41 SL 183).
Eugenics, Hindu revivalism, Nazi politics (1936–1939)
Around 1936, the lectures organized by the Bengali Society of German Culture started to focus increasingly on subjects associated with National Socialism. These lectures sought to dispel the anti-Nazi views that were frequently articulated in the Indian Press. As the Mitteilungen stated in 1937, “unfriendly attitude towards Germany” persisted in certain Indian circles and Indian magazines often published “ill-disposed articles about today’s Germany” (Mitteilungen April 1937: 87). The journal added that it was fortunate that Benoy Kumar Sarkar continued his work of spreading the truth about contemporary Germany through his Bengali Society of German Culture. Mitteilungen then mentioned a number of lectures which ostensibly aimed to “spread the truth” in 1936. They were on “Winterhilfswerk or Winter Relief Measures in Germany” (Benoy Kumar Sarkar), “Aviation in the German Reich” (Biren Roy) and “Eugenic Research in Germany” (Prafulla Chandra Biswas). The summaries of the talks can be found in the Federal Archives in Berlin (BArch Berlin: R57/10712).
Among the speakers, the aviator Biren Roy was considered to be “anti-British” by the colonial surveillance, which also alleged that he received financial remuneration from the Nazi party in India for conducting pro-German propaganda (WBSA File 236–39. Part 1). Roy spoke glowingly of the advances made in Germany in the sphere of aviation.
Another speaker, the anthropologist Prafulla Chandra Biswas, a lecturer at the University of Calcutta, had studied at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute (KWI) in Berlin with a fellowship from the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation, which often co-operated with the DA (Roy 2021). His research guide was the director of the KWI, the “race hygienist” Eugen Fischer, who provided scholarly legitimacy to Nazi racial politics (Kröner 2005:403).
The synopsis of Biswas’ lecture from 23rd December 1936 reveals that he tried to associate the subject to a “Hindu past” by claiming that Manu’s laws had a eugenicist dimension. He then went on to endorse the law passed in Germany in July 1933 “for the prevention of hereditary defective progeny”. This notorious law led to the forced sterilization of thousands and later to systematic murders (Euthanasia) of many who were considered “unworthy” of living (Hedwig and Petter 2017).
Benoy Kumar Sarkar, in his introduction to the lecture by Biswas, also attempted to relate Hindu conventions to eugenics by claiming that the “traditional Hindu ideas of exogamy and endogamy are at bottom eugenic” (BArch Berlin: R57/10712). In his own lecture on Winterhilfswerk delivered on 14th May 1936, Sarkar expressed the necessity of India to emulate “the organized charity of the German people under state auspices, like the Winter Help Program of the Hitler regime” (Mitteilungen April 1937:87). He glossed over the fact that this programme was primarily a propagandistic venture conducted by the Nazi government for helping only the “racially and politically desirables” (Vorländer 1986: 341–380).
It is notable that the president of the programme featuring Sarkar’s lecture was the monk Swami Sharvadananda from the Ramkrishna Mission. The audience comprised monks from this order as well as members of the German consulate, including the Consul, Eduard von Selzam (BArch Berlin: R57/10712). This occasion was not just a manifestation of Sarkar’s agenda of heralding a cross-fertilization of Nazi tenets with his visions of Hinduism; the event which took place at the Buddhist Hall also provided a contact zone in which the purveyors of Hindu revivalism and Nazi politics could interact.
The Ramkrishna Mission was interested in cultivating German intellectuals, some of whom were also attracted to its messages of spiritualism. In March 1934, the Mission’s representatives wrote to the Foreign Ministry in Berlin asking for help in disseminating its English language journal Prabuddha Bharata (Awakened India) among German universities (PA-AA R122626). The journal already enjoyed some popularity among some German scholars associated with the DA, which regularly received it (Roy forthcoming 2023).
Another event organized by the Society on 7th April 1937 at the usual venue, the Buddhist Hall, entailed five monks from the Ramkrishna Mission reading out the papers presented by five German philosophers at an international seminar held in March, on the occasion of the centenary of Ramakrishna’s birth (BA Berlin: R57/10712).
Benoy Kumar Sarkar also admired the Four-Year Plans initiated by Hermann Göring from January 1937. In a lecture titled “Economic aspects of the German Four Year Plan”, delivered on 31st July 1937, Sarkar waxed eloquent on “the ascending curves of German economy since the establishment of the Nazi regime in 1933” and the Four-Year Plan that followed (BArch Berlin: R57/10712).
A surveillance record from 1938 reported that in 1936 and 1937, the German Consulate in Calcutta was providing financial aid to “the local Indo-German institute run by Benoy Sarkar for training young Bengalis on pro-Nazi lines”, referring in all likelihood to the student section of the Bengali Society established by Sarkar and headed by Batakrishna Ghosh (NAI: EAD F.No. 665‑X\38. Part II, P.9). On 14th May 1939, the British-run Calcutta based newspaper The Statesman published a report titled “Nazi propaganda in India” in which it referred to the Bengali Society of German Culture and claimed that “among its list of office bearers are Indians trained in Germany who have definitely pro-Nazi leanings” (NAI: EAD F.No. 288‑X).
It is possible that Sarkar was wary of the colonial authorities. A programme of the Society from April 1939 shows the date of its establishment as 1932, probably to prove that it existed before the Nazis came to power (BArch Berlin: R57/10712).
The Federal Archives in Berlin have an undated list of “Course of studies and investigations” to be pursued by different members of the Society (BArch Berlin: R57/10712). The topics included “Travels in Germany” by Biren Das Gupta, “German influence on Indian thought” (Narendra Nath Law), “German achievements in medicine, surgery and hygiene” (Amulya Chandra Ukil), “Economic, Social and Constitutional developments of the German People” (Benoy Kumar Sarkar), “The Progress of Indology in Germany” (Nalinaksha Dutt), “Women’s activities in Germany” (Sushama Sengupta), and German journalism (Prafulla Kumar Chakrabarty) among others. This list demonstrates that members without any ties with Germany could also be induced to advocate “German achievements”, underscoring once more the appeal that Germany enjoyed among a section of the intellectual elite in Calcutta.
The Political Archive of the German Foreign Ministry has a booklet with a photograph and details of a programme organized by the Society. The photo, dated January 10, 1938, is titled “Bangiya Jarman Vidya Samsad at home” (PA AA: R10477). It depicts a meal in progress at an apparently expensive restaurant. The caption mentions the names of the assembled company, which include, apart from Benoy Kumar Sarkar, other Bengalis with German connections like Biren Roy and Satin Das Gupta. The latter, an honorary secretary of the Society, was the Managing Director of the Indo-Swiss Trading Co. Members of the German consulate in Calcutta including the Consul Count Erdmann Graf von Podewillis-Dürniz and the commercial agent Carl Rassmuss were also present.
Notable among the other guests were the philosopher C. G. Jung and the ethnologist Egon Freiherr von Eickstedt. The latter’s views on race enjoyed considerable influence among the Nazi ruling elite (Preuß 2017: 186–191). The photograph was most probably taken at a function organized by the Society to honour Eickstedt as well as other German delegates to the Indian Science Congress which was held in Calcutta in January 1938. The booklet contains a summary of the proceedings of this formal occasion which mostly consisted of speeches celebrating German science as well as Germany’s success in overcoming past obstacles.
It is not surprising that in a letter to the Foreign Ministry in Berlin in August 1938, the German Consulate in Calcutta named the Bengali Society of German Culture as the most important organization in India encouraging German-Indian cultural relationship. It praised the Society’s efforts to unite Indians who had studied in Germany and to promote and foster the study of German institutions, sciences, and arts (PA AA: RZ501/60667).
The last available bulletin of the Society is the resume of Benoy Kumar Sarkar’s lecture on “New tendencies in German Social Philosophy”, delivered on 20th March 1939 (BArch R57/10712).
This article has provided a brief sketch of the background and activities of the Bengali Society of German Culture. It is evident from this short discussion that the Society fulfilled Sarkar´s personal mission of inventing a past and imagining a future for India, combining elements of what he held to be the “Hindu spirit” and the German “advancements”, particularly under Hitler’s leadership. Though some of the lectures doubtlessly served to satisfy the curiosity of the educated Bengalis about German scientific and cultural developments, the Society was primarily meant to function as a mouthpiece for uncritical propagation of Germany, particularly of Nazi policies and worldviews, which were offered as paradigms to an audience looking for national self-assertion. In this regard, the Bengali Society of German Culture was an instrument of Nazi propaganda in the 1930s.
Bhattacharya, Swapan Kumar. 1990. Indian Sociology. The role of Benoy Kumar Sarkar. Burdwan: Burdwan University.
Framke, Maria. 2021. “Nationalsozialismus, antikolonialer Widerstand und Exilerfahrungen: Deutsch-indische und deutsch-deutsche Begegnungen in Britisch-Indien der 1930er und 1940er Jahre.” In: Jörg Zedler (ed.) The Bombay Talkies Limited. Akteure – deutsche Einflüsse – kulturhistoscher Kontext. Munich: utzverlag, pp. 103–135.
Hartnack, Christiane. 2022. “Indo-German/German-Indian Encounters in the Psychological Sciences.” In: Hans Harder and Dhruv Raina (eds.) Disciplines and Movements. Conversations between India and the German-speaking World. Hyderabad: Orient Blackswan, pp. 189–212.
Hedwig, Andreas, and Dirk Petter (eds.) 2017. Auslese der Starken – „Ausmerzung“ der Schwachen. Eugenik und NS-„Euthanasie“ im 20. Jahrhundert. Marburg: Hessisches Staatsarchiv.
Klingemann, Carsten. 1996. Soziologie im Dritten Reich. Baden-Baden: Nomos.
Kröner, Hans Peter. 2005. “Fischer, Eugen.” In: Werner E. Gerabek, Bernhard D. Haage, Gundolg Keil, and Wolfgang Wegner (eds.) Enzyklopädie Medizingeschichte. Berlin and New York: De Gruyter, pp. 403.
Preuß, Dirk. 2017. “Egon Freiherr von Eickstedt.” In: Michael Fahlbusch, Ingo Haar, and Alexander Pinwinkler (eds.) Handbuch der völkischen Wissenschaften. Berlin and Boston: De Gruyter Oldenbourg, pp. 186–191.
Roy, Baijayanti. 2021. “India Institute of the Deutsche Akademie.” MIDA Archival Reflexicon, 10 pp. DOI: 10.25360/01–2022–00029. Available at: https://www.projekt-mida.de/reflexicon/india-institute-of-the-deutsche-akademie-1928–45/
Roy, Baijayanti. Forthcoming (2023). “Hakenkreuz, Swastika and Crescent: The religious factor in Nazi cultural politics regarding India.” In: Gerdien Jonker and Isabella Schwaderer (eds.) Religious Entanglements between Germans and Indians, 1800–1945. Cham: Palgrave Macmillan.
Sarkar, Benoy K. 1934. The Hitler State: A Political, Economic and Social Remaking of the German People. Lahore: Civil and Military Gazette.
Sartori, Andrew. 2010. “Beyond Culture-Contact and Colonial Discourse: “Germanism” in Colonial Bengal.” In: Shruti Kapila (ed.) An intellectual History for India. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 68–84.
Thierfelder, Franz. 1937. India Institute of the Deutsche Akademie 1928–1937. Munich: India Institute.
Vorländer, Herwart. 1986. “NS-Volkswohlfahrt und Winterhilfswerk des deutschen Volkes.” Vierteljahrshefte für Zeitgeschichte 34, 3: pp. 341–380.
Baijayanti Roy, Goethe-Universität Frankfurt am Main
MIDA Archival Reflexicon
Editors: Anandita Bajpai, Heike Liebau
Layout: Monja Hofmann, Nico Putz
Host: ZMO, Kirchweg 33, 14129 Berlin
Contact: archival.reflexicon [at] zmo.de