Scoop Heil?

06.12.15 9:20 AM ET

Hitler, the Ben & Jerry's of India

No, that Indian dessert named after the Führer isn’t an homage to his genocidal ways. Many Indians see the Nazi leader as a fool—and the reasons why are historically complex.

Why are vendors in India selling “Hitler Ice Cream”?

Is it evidence of the worldwide spike in anti-Semitism? A canny exploitation of the Führer’s love of desserts? Desperate marketing?

None of the above, according to reports from India. The offensive ice cream is the result of a uniquely Indian ambivalence about the Nazi leader, who is often regarded by Indians as more fool than villain.

First, yes, there is a Hitler brand ice cream; you can see it in the photos. The world is hearing about it now, but it was apparently a limited-run product that was sold in 2014 and is no longer on the shelves (or carts). The Internet being what it is, a few social media shares caused a small viral sensation more recently, leading to the worldwide outcry.

But that’s the last familiar aspect of this story.

Turns out, in India, to be a “Hitler” is to harbor not genocidal views or maniacal aspirations to world power—but a bad temper. Specifically, the term refers to someone exceedingly strict and prone to outbursts of anger.

The producer of the ice cream, Neeraj Kumar of the largely rural state of Uttar Pradesh, had an uncle who was just such a man. “One of my uncles is a short-tempered and strict man, so we nicknamed him Hitler,” Kumar told the Hindustan Times. “While naming this particular batch of cones, I thought, ‘Why can’t we have a little fun at the expense of my uncle and name the cones after him!’ That was how the name originated.”

Indeed, as the Hindustan Times also reported, Hitler has been a popular mascot for Indian cafés, pool halls, and even as swastika-patterned set of bed linens called, I kid you not, “The Nazi Collection.” (The irony of the last item, of course, is that Hitler essentially stole the swastika symbol from Indian art.) According to the Times, Hitler’s image has been used in Indian advertising even by international brands—including Hewlett-Packard.

I wonder if Carly Fiorina knows about that.

So how did “Hitler” become defined as a cute pejorative name, rather than the embodiment of evil incarnate?

On the one hand, this shocking (to us) use of Hitler’s image is more innocent than it might appear. The Holocaust is not taught in Indian public schools. (“I was not aware of any such bad thing,” Kumar said.) The Times itself had to define what the Holocaust was in its report.

That leaves Hitler as a kind of strict, authoritarian ruler who might even be appealing to Indians used to chaotic governments and even more chaotic city streets. Indeed, having spent time in India myself, one does begin to yearn for trains that run on time and streets that are regularly cleaned.

On the other hand, Mein Kampf is reportedly a best-seller in India, put out by more than a dozen publishers in six languages. How can Indians claim to be ignorant of Hitler’s evil side after reading a memoir filled with vicious anti-Semitism from start to finish?

Moreover, when the Hitler ice cream scandal broke, a Congress Party legislator quickly tweeted: “Height of tastelessness; Indian ice-cream named after Hitler. Would the Germans name a sausage after Godse?” Godse was the Hindu nationalist who assassinated Gandhi. That suggests that Indian elites, at least, are aware of who Hitler was and what he stood for.

And when the Anti-Defamation League conducted a highly flawed survey of anti-Semitic attitudes around the world, it found that 19 percent of Indians hold such beliefs. One-quarter of Hindu respondents reported that they were, in fact, aware of the Holocaust—and of that group, almost half said the number of Jewish victims was greatly exaggerated, with 11 percent saying the whole thing was a myth.

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So to the extent the survey can be relied upon (and that extent is limited; I am a rabbi yet still qualified as an “anti-Semite” according to its vague questions and poor methodology), the ice cream doesn’t look so innocent anymore.

Then there are the complex historical relationships among India, Israel, the United Kingdom, and Nazi Germany. In World War II, India was still struggling to emerge from under Britain’s thumb. The Nazis were Britain’s enemy. So some Indian revolutionaries, though not the mainstream, appealed to Hitler for help against their common foe.

After the war, and Indian and Israeli independence, India aligned itself with the Soviet Union, thus opposing the United States and, by extension, Israel. As is still often the case, nationalism mixed with anti-colonialism mixed with anti-Zionism mixed with anti-Semitism. It was only in 1991 that India established diplomatic relations with Israel, and that was over the objection of the far left, which still harbored anti-Israel, anti-U.S., and anti-colonialist sentiments.

Those sentiments are still widespread today, both among the far left—in India, Europe, and the Americas—and among Hindu nationalists, who see themselves as resisting the colonial enterprises of the West. It’s no surprise that it was a Congress MP tweeting his outrage, perhaps implicitly daring his BNP colleagues to do likewise.

In other words, India’s relationship to Hitler is far more complicated than the black-and-white, hero-and-villain narrative we’re familiar with today. To some, he is an ambiguous figure: tyrannical, but maybe not in a bad way. To others, he was the enemy of the enemy, perhaps even an anti-colonial hero. To others still, he’s a punchline. Relatively few know the extent of his evil.

Was Neeraj Kumar aware of these intersecting histories when he named his ice cream after Uncle Hitler? Unlikely. But India’s official ambivalence no doubt contributed to the exclusion of the Holocaust from the Indian educational system, and the silence of that system contributed to Kumar’s ignorance.

In redefining Nazism from tragedy to farce, Indian popular culture has also redefined George Santayana’s famous dictum about those who forget the past. Some may be condemned to repeat it, but others turn it into ice cream.