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Between Erasure and Remembrance: Shreds from the Kriegsalltag of South Asian Faujis (Sipahis)

Updated: Jan 8, 2019

By Dr Vandana Joshi

Editorial Note: On 22-23 June 2017, the Second World War Research Group held its annual conference on the theme of ‘When East meets West: The Second World War in Global Perspective.’ We have been posting short articles written by some of the conference’s presenters.

This brief article deals with memory and archiving, erasure and remembrance, propaganda and memorialisation. It also brings to attention the existence of alternate archives within Europe which are typically overlooked when writing the history of British-Indian soldiers in the Second World War. The critical holdings for research on this topic are those of the International Tracing Service Archive which comprises approximately 30 million documents on the incarceration of foreigners and minorities in concentration camps, ghettos, Gestapo cells and forced labour camps. The most vital clue to the presence of Asian soldiers was the Allied Order of 6 December 1945, which instructed all local and district authorities in Germany to conduct exhaustive searches for all documents and information that concerned military and civilian persons belonging to the United Kingdom since 1939. They were required to submit their findings immediately to the command of their respective occupation forces. This order generated enormous evidence for the history of institutional remembrance.

Indian Prisoners of War in Libya, c. 1941 (Source: Bundesarchiv)

The evidence, thus generated, dealt with the ascertaining, counting, registration, and at times exhumation of graves. It contained lists of civilians and prisoners of war - dead or alive - from a host of Stalags and Arbeitskommandos and graveyards. An overwhelming majority among the dead comprised South Asian Faujis who left the shores of their land to fight in foreign lands of which they had little knowledge. A fraction of them served the Wehrmacht as a part of the Free India Legion, and it is mostly their presence which has been noted in German historical accounts thus far. The death records of these anonymous Faujis demonstrate that they were contemptuously dumped in the dark corners of towns such as Ansbach, Fuessen, Neustadt, Bischoefgruen, Berchtesgaden, Garmisch, Regensburg, Lauterhofen, Westertimke, Santhofen, Herborn, Darmstadt, Bremervoerde. A tiny minority secured a place in the local cemeteries. In large parts, their mortal remains lay in ditches in an alien land that denied them any right to rituals of mourning and death that soldiers conventionally deserve. There are also sketchy records from mental hospitals, sanatoriums, sick bays, and hospitals which some of these prisoners visited before dying. A significant number of Faujis worked in Stalags and Arbeitskommandos as slave labour until their liberation in mid-1945.

The evidence that has been unearthed so far speaks volumes for the silence, gloom, neglect, condescension, depression, and persecution that enveloped the everyday life of the South Asian Fauji in the Second World War. There was an inherent element of compulsion in the nature of this knowledge generation for posterity ‘from above’ to report the dead, alive or missing soldiers, which per se denied the historian any possibility of finding their subjective experiences. There are no testimonies, no letters, no effects, no last wishes, let alone diaries and other ego documents in these holdings. There are no stories of human contact, compassion and empathy from ‘the other universe’, inhabited by ordinary Germans not very far from these sites of mourning and oblivion. Moreover, yet they have left behind enough tangible traces of their workaday from several sites of work and death. This evidence has been juxtaposed with International Red Cross, and SD reports to fill some gaps. However, research continues for the spoken words and recorded deeds by these prisoners during or after the war.

Dr Vandana Joshi teaches modern history at Sri Venkateswara College, University of Delhi. Having obtained her doctorate from Technical University Berlin, she went on to win a Fraenkel Prize in Contemporary History for her doctoral dissertation, which was published as Gender and Power in the Third Reich: Female Denouncers and the Gestapo 1933-45 in 2003. Her present research deals with issues of race, gender, sexuality, war and empires in the context of the Second World War.

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