Herbert Fischer – An Entangled German Indian Biography


Table of Con­tents: Ear­ly Years | With Gan­dhi | In the GDR | Back in the DR | Sources | Biblio­gra­phy

This is a trans­la­ted ver­si­on of the 2019 MIDA Archi­val Refle­xi­con ent­ry “Her­bert Fischer – Eine deutsch-indi­sche Ver­flech­tungs­bio­gra­fie”. The text was trans­la­ted by Rekha Rajan.

Her­bert Fischer began as an employee of the Tra­de Repre­sen­ta­ti­on of the Ger­man Demo­cra­tic Repu­blic (GDR) in New Delhi, later ser­ving as its direc­tor and con­sul-gene­ral. After the offi­cial reco­gni­ti­on of the coun­try in Octo­ber 1972, he was the first ambassa­dor of the GDR in India.

Her­bert Fischer’s life is clo­se­ly inter­wo­ven with the emer­gence of inde­pen­dent India as well as with the deve­lo­p­ment of the GDR. Fischer had alrea­dy spent a deca­de in India befo­re the Second World War, had lived with Gan­dhi and as a Ger­man, he had been inter­ned during the war by the Bri­tish colo­ni­al rulers in India. After the war ended, he retur­ned to his home in Sax­o­ny in Ger­ma­ny, which was now part of the Soviet-occu­p­ied zone and was soon to beco­me a part of the GDR. Via cir­cui­tous rou­tes, he arri­ved at and beca­me part of the Minis­try for Exter­nal Affairs and soon advan­ced to beco­me the India-expert of the ear­ly GDR.

Early Years

Born in 1914 in Herrn­hut, Sax­o­ny, Her­bert Fischer deci­ded to lea­ve Ger­ma­ny as a young man in 1933, when the Natio­nal Socia­lists came to power. At the time he was living near the Bal­tic Sea with a group of fol­lo­wers of the Lebens­re­form move­ment. The­re he met, among others, Klaus Mann, the son of Tho­mas Mann, who had just retur­ned from a trip to the Soviet Uni­on and was dis­il­lu­sio­ned with his impres­si­ons of life there.

Fischer had alrea­dy heard about Mohandas Gan­dhi, the “Mahat­ma”, and his non-vio­lent resis­tance to Bri­tish colo­ni­al rule. The 19-year old Fischer was enthu­sed by this and deci­ded to tra­vel to India. After an adven­tur­ous jour­ney through Fran­ce, Spain, the Bal­kans, and Tur­key, some of it on a bicy­cle, he reached the port of Bom­bay in 1936. In Bom­bay he boar­ded a train for Wardha, the rural place in Cen­tral India, whe­re Gan­dhi had set up his ashram – the base for his coun­try­wi­de work, whe­re the Indian Natio­nal Con­gress also held its meetings.

With Gandhi

In Wardha, Fischer saw Gan­dhi every day, spo­ke to him per­so­nal­ly and was fasci­na­ted: “I had never expe­ri­en­ced such venera­ti­on for a living per­son. I couldn’t help thin­king of simi­lar sto­ries in the New Tes­ta­ment.” And:

Gan­dhi was always empha­ti­cal­ly and con­scious­ly modest, had an open ear for all ques­ti­ons, even if they only con­cer­ned trif­ling mat­ters, was a caring father to all and did not dis­play any desi­re for power. That was what made him popu­lar, that was what made him effec­ti­ve. I could obser­ve and expe­ri­ence this mys­elf every day. This is what made him Bapu, father. He was also Bapu for me. I felt he was a father. To an Ame­ri­can mis­sio­na­ry who visi­ted him he appeared to be a com­bi­na­ti­on of Jesus Christ and his own father. Even today, I belie­ve that I could talk to him more deeply than to my own father.

This is what Fischer wro­te in his memoi­rs Unter­wegs zu GANDHI in 2002, 65 years later (p.77f.).

What Gan­dhi and Fischer had in com­mon was their paci­fism. In 1937, Fisher’s jacket was sto­len along with his Ger­man pass­port. When the Ger­man Con­su­la­te Gene­ral in Bom­bay infor­med him that his pass­port would only be repla­ced if he retur­ned to Ger­ma­ny to ser­ve his time in the mili­ta­ry, Fischer refu­sed and thus accep­ted his denaturalization.

Gan­dhi assi­gned Fischer the task to set up agri­cul­tu­ral coope­ra­ti­ves in near­by Itar­si and to help in the run­ning of a hos­pi­tal. Jawa­harl­al Neh­ru, who was later the first prime minis­ter of inde­pen­dent India, often visi­ted Fischer at this rail­way junc­tion. Fischer beca­me a mem­ber of a local Qua­ker com­mu­ni­ty and met his future wife Lucil­le Sibouy the­re, a Jamai­can-born nur­se with Indian roots.

When the Second World War bro­ke out in 1939, Her­bert Fischer was inter­ned by the Bri­tish colo­ni­al rulers as a citi­zen of an enemy sta­te. His wife fol­lo­wed him with their first son Karl in ear­ly 1940. Along with other Ger­mans, they were kept in dif­fe­rent camps, in some of which Fischer was some­ti­mes allo­wed to visit Gandhi.

In the GDR

After the war ended, Her­bert Fischer and his fami­ly retur­ned home, which was now in the Soviet-occu­p­ied zone, later on the GDR. Fischer had not recei­ved a regu­lar edu­ca­ti­on after com­ple­ting school, and had trou­ble estab­li­shing hims­elf in post-war Ger­ma­ny. In the GDR, he first found a job as a tea­cher and later in school admi­nis­tra­ti­on. Through lec­tures about his time with Gan­dhi, which he gave in his spa­re time, he came to the atten­ti­on of the new­ly foun­ded Minis­try of Exter­nal Affairs (MfAA) of the GDR, which was desper­ate­ly loo­king for sui­ta­ble staff without a natio­nal-socia­list past. In Sep­tem­ber 1956, Fischer began to work in the minis­try and soon hea­ded the India divi­si­on. In Janu­a­ry 1958, he was trans­fer­red to India as depu­ty direc­tor of the GDR’s Tra­de Representation.

The diplo­mats of the Federal Repu­blic of Ger­ma­ny (FRG) loo­ked at this new, sup­po­sed “secret wea­pon” from East Ber­lin with sus­pi­ci­on. Thus, in Octo­ber 1959, a report on “Soviet-zone pro­pa­gan­da in India on the occa­si­on of the 10-year jubi­lee of the so-cal­led GDR” sent to the head­quar­ters in Bonn, stated:

Thanks to the skil­ful and char­ming man­ner dis­play­ed by Mr. Fischer, who speaks per­fect Hin­di and who gree­ted every jour­na­list who ent­e­red with a hand­shake, the­re was a friend­ly atmo­s­phe­re during the event.

The West Ger­mans were afraid of Mr. Fischer’s exper­ti­se of the coun­try and he could, in fact, part­ly draw on his old pre-war con­ta­cts. This was, howe­ver, not always recei­ved well in East Ber­lin. When Mr. Fischer and his wife visi­ted their old acquain­tance Raj­ku­ma­ri Amrit Kaur, the first health minis­ter of inde­pen­dent India, they hap­pen­ed to meet an Ame­ri­can jour­na­list the­re who, among others, quick­ly began asking unplea­sant ques­ti­ons about the events of 17 June 1953, which he had wit­nessed in Ber­lin. When Fischer repor­ted on this, the MfAA in Ber­lin reac­ted sharply: 

I would like to remind you that befo­re your depar­tu­re, col­league Schwab had express­ly indi­ca­ted that old acquain­tan­ces should not be rene­wed, or only after pri­or examination.

It was not only the West Ger­man Hall­stein-Doc­tri­ne but also his own supe­ri­ors who put curbs on Her­bert Fischer’s diplo­ma­tic work.

In Sep­tem­ber 1962 Fischer retur­ned to East Ber­lin with his fami­ly to first attend the Par­ty Aca­de­my of the GDR and to then head the India divi­si­on in the head­quar­ters of the MfAA. In August 1965 he was again trans­fer­red to India, this time as the head of the Tra­de Repre­sen­ta­ti­on in New Delhi.

In the mean­ti­me, he had not lost his aura. In Novem­ber 1965, a West Ger­man diplo­mat wro­te in a report to the head­quar­ters of the AA in Bonn: “Given Fischer’s spe­cial know­ledge of the coun­try and his poli­ti­cal expe­ri­ence, it will not be easy to find someo­ne on our side with a simi­lar know­ledge of the coun­try.” In par­ti­cu­lar, Fischer’s good rela­ti­ons with the Indian prime minis­ter, Indi­ra Gan­dhi, were later empha­si­zed again and again. The­se con­nec­tions had ari­sen from the fact that both had been in Gandhi’s ashram at the same time.

For the par­ty lea­ders­hip of the SED (Sozia­lis­ti­sche Ein­heits­par­tei Deutsch­lands), howe­ver, other things were more important, as can be seen from a report from the end of 1966:

The­re is a trend in the Repre­sen­ta­ti­on for many com­ra­des to cri­ti­cise the head of the Repre­sen­ta­ti­on, Com­ra­de Fischer. They all sta­te that he is an excep­tio­nal­ly good diplo­mat who does good work vis-à-vis the Indian side. The com­p­laint then is that Com­ra­de Fischer does not pay enough atten­ti­on to indi­vi­du­al comrades.

Back in the GDR

Soon after India offi­cial­ly reco­gnis­ed the GDR in Octo­ber 1972, a goal that had been achie­ved through Her­bert Fischer’s dedi­ca­ti­on and effort, the MfAA pul­led him out of his second home. In sum­mer 1974, he was appoin­ted head of the anti-racism com­mit­tee of the GDR, which had pure­ly repre­sen­ta­ti­ve func­tions. Dis­il­lu­sio­ned, he gave up this post to work as a men­tor to Indian stu­dents in the SED-par­ty aca­de­my until his retirement.

Later too, he remai­ned faith­ful to India and publis­hed books which he pre­sen­ted the­re. In March 1999, his wife Lucil­le died after a long ill­ness. In May 2003, the then prime minis­ter of India, Atal Biha­ri Vaj­payee, awar­ded Her­bert Fischer the “Pad­ma Bhus­han”, the third-hig­hest civi­li­an award in India. Her­bert Fischer died on 3 Febru­a­ry, 2006 in Berlin.

Sources

Rese­ar­ching a fasci­na­ting bio­gra­phy is a com­pa­ra­tively rewar­ding his­to­ri­cal task. To search for a spe­ci­fic name usual­ly turns out to be signi­fi­cant­ly easier than the search for abs­tract terms and con­texts, which can only be descri­bed when a logi­cal thread has been estab­lis­hed. The chal­len­ge is con­si­der­ab­ly les­ser when describ­ing the cour­se of a life, espe­cial­ly when the prot­ago­nist has himself/herself left some records of his/her life. And Her­bert Fischer was not only a Gan­dhi­an and an important GDR-diplo­mat, he was also a pro­li­fic writer.

Her­bert Fischer’s own publi­ca­ti­ons are the­re­fo­re the star­ting point for rese­arch on him, abo­ve all his memoi­rs from his youth and exi­le in India Unter­wegs zu GANDHI [Ber­lin, Lotos Ver­lag Roland Beer, 2002] as also his work as a diplo­mat DDR – Indi­en. Ein Diplo­mat berich­tet [Ber­lin (Ost): Staats­ver­lag der DDR, 1984]. Both books are an important foun­da­ti­on for wri­ting Fischer’s bio­gra­phy, and they can be sup­ple­men­ted and veri­fied by acces­sing pri­ma­ry sources. Thus, for examp­le, in the Poli­ti­cal Archi­ve of the Federal For­eign Office (Poli­ti­sches Archiv des Aus­wär­ti­gen Amtes / PA AA), in the hol­ding of the For­eign Office of the Ger­man Reich, the­re is a file with the signa­tu­re R 145638 and the tit­le “Inves­ti­ga­ti­on of Ger­mans in Enemy Ter­ri­to­ry – Indi­vi­du­al Cases – Bri­tish India – Let­ters FA-FL” (Nach­for­schun­gen nach Deut­schen in Fein­des­land – Ein­zel­fäl­le – Brit. Indi­en – Buchst. Fa – Fl) which con­tains a peti­ti­on from Her­bert Fischer’s father enqui­ring about his son’s whereabouts.

Unex­pec­ted insights about Fischer’s time in Indian exi­le are also avail­ab­le in the Neh­ru Memo­ri­al Muse­um and Library’s (NMML) “Oral Histo­ry Inter­view” with Fischer, in which the Indian his­to­ri­an Apar­na Basu tried to cap­tu­re the per­so­nal impres­si­ons of Mahat­ma Gandhi’s fel­low cam­pai­gner in 1969. Apart from this, the­re is also the book by Mar­jo­rie Sykes An Indian Tapes­try: Qua­ker Threads in the Histo­ry of India, Paki­stan and Ban­gla­desh from the Seven­te­enth Cen­tu­ry to Inde­pen­dence [York: Ses­si­ons Book Trust, 1997] on the role of Qua­ker com­mu­nities in colo­ni­al India which also con­sists of a few pages on Her­bert Fischer and his wife.

Alt­hough Johan­nes H. Voigt’s Die Indi­en­po­li­tik der DDR – von den Anfän­gen bis zur Aner­ken­nung (1952–1972) [Kӧln/Weimar/Wien: Bӧhlau Ver­lag, 2008] con­tains some important infor­ma­ti­on about Her­bert Fischer’s role as a GDR diplo­mat in New Delhi, an ana­ly­sis of Fischer’s “second life” in India is not pos­si­ble without exten­si­ve rese­arch in Ger­man archi­ves. The­se inclu­de the PA AA in Ber­lin and the Federal Archi­ves (Bun­des­ar­chiv /BArch) with its loca­ti­ons in Ber­lin and Koblenz.

For the peri­od until 1979, the archi­val hol­dings of the MfAA in the PA AA are orga­nis­ed the­ma­ti­cal­ly accord­ing to the princip­le of per­ti­nence. Cor­re­spon­dence bet­ween the head­quar­ters of the MfAA in East Ber­lin and the GDR Repre­sen­ta­ti­on in New Delhi, which often con­tains refe­ren­ces to Her­bert Fischer, are found in the PA AA in the hol­ding “M1 – Zen­tral­ar­chiv”. In addi­ti­on, the assess­ments of the “oppo­sing side” are also infor­ma­ti­ve. The West Ger­man AA orga­nis­ed its archi­val docu­ments from the begin­ning accord­ing to the princip­le of pro­ven­an­ce. The files of the coun­try desk “IB 5 South and East Asia, Aus­tra­lia, New Zea­land and Ocea­nia” are in the inven­to­ry B 37 but have not yet been ful­ly cata­logued by the PA AA. Thus, archi­val docu­ments for the peri­od sin­ce 1973 are, at pre­sent, in a tem­pora­ry archi­ve. Moreo­ver, rele­vant files from the FRG embas­sy in New Delhi are in the hol­ding AV Neu­es Amt under the abbre­via­ti­on NEWD.

In the Federal Archi­ves (BArch) the SED-reports on Her­bert Fischer’s work for the Par­ty in New Delhi in the hol­ding DY 30 are reve­aling, and for Fischer’s role in the GDR after he was recal­led from his post as ambassa­dor to India the pri­va­te collec­tions of his friend and col­league Sieg­fried For­ber­ger in the inven­to­ry N 2536/13 are infor­ma­ti­ve. For­ber­ger not only publis­hed his own memoi­rs: Das DDR-Komi­tee für Men­schen­rech­te: Erin­ne­run­gen an den Sozia­lis­mus-Ver­such im 20. Jahr­hun­dert; Ein­sich­ten und Irr­tü­mer des Sieg­fried For­ber­ger, Sekre­tär des DDR-Komi­tees für Men­schen­rech­te von 1959 bis 1989 [Ber­lin: Selbst­ver­lag, 2000/2007], but he also remai­ned in con­ta­ct with Her­bert Fischer until Fischer’s death. Forberger’s collec­tions inclu­de several let­ters and post­cards that Fischer and he wro­te to each other even after the turn of the mill­en­ni­um, as well as Her­bert Fischer’s obitua­ry of 2006. This obitua­ry lists the names of his fami­ly mem­bers as well as the most important mile­stones of his bio­gra­phy. So far, the­re are no Her­bert Fischer collec­tions in the archive.

Bibliography

Fischer, Her­bert, Unter­wegs zu GANDHI. Ber­lin: Lotos Ver­lag Roland Beer, 2002.

——–, DDR – Indi­en. Ein Diplo­mat berich­tet. Ber­lin (Ost): Staats­ver­lag der DDR, 1984.

For­ber­ger, Sieg­fried, Das DDR-Komi­tee für Men­schen­rech­te: Erin­ne­run­gen an den Sozia­lis­mus-Ver­such im 20. Jahr­hun­dert; Ein­sich­ten und Irr­tü­mer des Sieg­fried For­ber­ger, Sekre­tär des DDR-Komi­tees für Men­schen­rech­te von 1959 bis 1989. Ber­lin: Selbst­ver­lag, 2000/2007.

Sykes, Mar­jo­rie, An Indian Tapes­try: Qua­ker Threads in the Histo­ry of India, Paki­stan & Ban­gla­desh from the Seven­te­enth Cen­tu­ry to Inde­pen­dence. York: Ses­si­ons Book Trust, 1997.

Voigt, Johan­nes H., Die Indi­en­po­li­tik der DDR – von den Anfän­gen bis zur Aner­ken­nung (1952–1972). Köln/Weimar/Wien: Böhlau Ver­lag, 2008.

Alex­an­der Bena­tar, Evan­ge­li­sche Zen­tral­stel­le für Welt­an­schau­ungs­fra­gen (EZW)