(The following is a post by Jonathan Loar, South Asian Reference Librarian, Asian Division)
On June 28, 1914, the assassination of the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie soon led to an unprecedented global conflict involving numerous nations and empires. Most people are probably familiar with World War I as the alliance of France, Russia, and the United Kingdom (later joined by other countries, including the United States in 1917) against the Central Powers of Austria-Hungary, Bulgaria, Germany, and the Ottoman Empire. But did you know that World War I also embroiled people far from its main theaters in Europe, Africa, and the Middle East?
At the outbreak of war, the British Empire’s crown jewel was India, which, in the early 20th-century, comprised much of the modern-day countries of India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh. Many in British India believed that their country would receive a measure of self-rule in exchange for supporting the crown against the Central Powers. Independence, of course, did not come until three decades after the armistice of 1918, despite the wartime sacrifices of more than one million individuals from South Asia who served on the frontlines and in non-combatant roles. In all, approximately 74,000 South Asian soldiers were killed and a similar number were wounded during World War I.
Some Indian soldiers spent time as prisoners of war (POWs), too. In particular, Germany maintained a unique POW camp called Halbmondlager (Halfmoon Camp) in Wünsdorf near Berlin. Halbmondlager was designed specifically for a few thousand Muslim prisoners captured from among British, French, and Russian armies. In this camp, POWs had notable freedoms, such as reading religious texts, hearing lectures given by visiting Muslim scholars, and observing Ramadan and other religious holidays. Muslim POWs could pray in the camp’s newly built wooden mosque, the first mosque in Germany. By early 1915, Halbmondlager had a separate sub-camp called Inderlager for several hundred Muslim, as well as Hindu and Sikh, prisoners from British India.
Halbmondlager and its prisoners were part of an experimental strategy. When the war started, the German Foreign Office established the Nachrichtenstelle für den Orient, or NfO (Information Center for the Orient), a propaganda department under the direction of diplomat and historian Max von Oppenheim (1860-1946). Oppenheim thought that these Muslim POWs could be convinced to switch sides and fight for the Central Powers. To this end, the NfO produced a camp newspaper called El Dschihad, or The Jihad. While the title of the newspaper resonates with the Ottoman Sultan’s failed bid to unite all Muslims worldwide against the Allies during the war, it was essentially a pro-German propaganda vehicle designed to stoke nationalist sentiments in POWs from colonized homelands. It was produced in six languages for Halbmondlager’s diverse prison population: Arabic, Georgian, Russian, Turko-Tatarian, Hindi, and Urdu. Notably, the latter two editions were issued under the title “Hindostan,” because the South Asian prisoners in Halbmondlager included Muslims and non-Muslims. The NfO proposed that changing the title to a common name for the Indian subcontinent would more effectively unite Indian POWs against the British.
At the Library of Congress, the Asian Division’s South Asian rare book collection has a nearly complete run of the Hindi and Urdu editions, from issue one (March 5, 1915) to issue 84 (August 21, 1918). The Library of Congress also has a number of issues of the Russian edition. Each issue was first handwritten and duplicated with metal lithography, and then distributed to prisoners in Halbmondlager.
Both editions of Hindostan have largely the same content, aside from differences in vocabulary. Scholars have noted that the Urdu edition contains more propaganda related to pan-Islamist ideology, calling for worldwide Muslim solidarity under the leadership of the Ottoman Sultan. For the prisoners of Halbmondlager, Hindostan was a vital source of news, albeit from the German prospective. For example, issue seven from May 20, 1915 reports the sinking of RMS Lusitania, the British ocean liner that was torpedoed by a German U-boat about two weeks earlier on May 7. Nearly 1,200 passengers, including 120 Americans, were killed. The article in Hindostan conveys the German justification for the attack:
“The British say that the sinking of the Lusitania was unlawful. They say that it was a normal ship. However, the German government has given evidence that several pieces of artillery and lots of munitions were on the ship, as it transported material from place to place. At the time of its sinking, there were 5,400 boxes of munitions on it.”
The camp newspaper routinely boasts of German victories on the battlefield. Some articles come with illustrations of new technologies, such as howitzers and airships, to show Germany’s military might.
Hindostan was also designed to generate anti-British sentiment. For both Hindi and Urdu editions, the cover of issue five from April 27, 1915 is uncharacteristically typeset and paired with a reproduced image of a painting that shows Indian men tied to cannons at the orders of British officers. The headline reminds the readers of “British tyranny” (aṅgrezoṃ kā zulm) and suggests that now is the time for “revenge” (badlā). The text underneath the image aims to grab the reader’s attention:
“Brothers of Hindustan! This image shows a disturbing scene from the Mutiny of 1857. In that war for independence, our Hindustani champions fought with great valor. But the British executed the Indians soldiers that they imprisoned with extreme cruelty, blowing them away from the mouths of cannons.”
The incident referenced in this article, namely the Mutiny of 1857, was a major uprising of Indian soldiers against the British in India. During this time, the British executed a number of rebels by cannon as they regained control of their colony.
This image in Hindostan comes from a painting by Russian artist Vasily Vereshchagin (1842-1904), who travelled to British India in the 1870s and 1880s. His painting featuring an execution by cannon in British India was completed shortly thereafter. Some have suggested that Vereshchagin’s painting probably depicts not the Mutiny of 1857 but rather the execution of a group of Namdhari Sikhs, also known as Kukas, following an attack on the town of Malerkotla in the northern region of Punjab in 1872. Nonetheless, it is significant to the painting’s history and interpretation that Hindostan uses its reproduction to instill anti-British sentiment in Indian POWs during World War I.
Ultimately, approximately 2,000 Muslim POWs, with only several dozen South Asian prisoners (mostly Pashtuns), travelled back into battle and fought for the Central Powers. As the war dragged on and recruitment numbers lagged, POW camps became research sites for German anthropologists engaged in linguistic and scientific studies. Some of their research at Halbmondlager informed racial theories, which would form a significant part of National Socialist ideology in the two decades before World War II.
The South Asian rare book collection’s holdings of Hindostan are accessible to researchers in the Asian Reading Room by prior appointment. To make an appointment or to ask a question about the South Asian collection, please contact reference staff through the Asian Division’s Ask-a-Librarian online inquiry form.
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A bit of history I didn’t know