Early in July 1938, Dr Oswald Urchs, a manager of the Havero Trading Company in Bombay, gave a lecture on “Austro-German Reunion” at the Bandra Gymkhana. Havero Trading was a Dutch chemical dyes firm that was a subsidiary of the German conglomerate IG Farben.
The powerful German cartel, established in 1925, would soon become a prominent supporter of German dictator Adolf Hitler and the National Socialists. Later, it supported the regime’s war effort and produced chemical weapons, including a cyanide-based pesticide used in the gas chambers. Described as the “Nazi’s industrial jackal”, IG Farben’s “corporatist” association with the Nazis brings into focus the symbiotic links between big business and fascist, xenophobic ideological power.
A report of the Bandra Gymkhana event noted that an “intelligent Catholic youth” asked Urchs why Germany was persecuting Catholics. “The very fact that I am myself a Catholic and not persecuted is enough to convince you that in Germany Catholics are not persecuted at all,” he replied.
In reality, the Nazis had unleashed a systematic campaign against the Catholic church (and other Christian churches) with incarceration of priests, suppression of welfare organisations, trade unions, youth clubs and schools, amongst other persecution. Urchs’ disingenuous deflection served to conceal a sinister web of outreach and propaganda.
After all, the Czech-born Urchs was much more than a prominent tradesman. He was the head of the Landesgruppe, the regional leader of the Nazi party for India, Ceylon, Burma and the Federated Malaya States. A trained medical doctor and malarial researcher, Urchs came to India in 1927, operating initially out of Calcutta.
Over time, he became a prominent leader of the German expatriate community and cultivated wide links. Residing in the Royal Bombay Yacht Club in Colaba, Oswald (Otto) Urchs, the Nazi propagandist and organiser, was the “Little Führer of Bombay”.
These facts came to light in a series of articles in the Bombay Sentinel, the first of which appeared a week after Urch’s visit to Bandra Gymkhana. On July 6, 1938, “Clear Up Nazi Cob-webs in India” written by “A British Indian” prefaced its sensational copy with the recent outing of Nazi spy rings in the United States, Britain and western Europe.
It stated that Dr Urchs, a Czech citizen who adopted German nationality, was “Landesgruppen-Fuehrer”, the head of the Indian overseas branch of “Auslands-Organization”, located in a “palatial office in the Churchgate Reclamation, Bombay, opposite the Oval”.
The Nazi Party operated through German commercial entities, exerting pressure on firms to dismiss their Jewish staff, and publish advertisements only in newspapers willing to publish their propaganda. Further, the Nazi propagandists had sponsored an Indo-German group at the Aligarh Muslim University, not to mention forged links with prominent Hindu groups propagating their theory of Aryan racial purity.
One official of a German firm allegedly railed against a local newspaperman, demanding they stop carrying anti-German articles and publish “some truth” instead. Additionally, he complained: “Why are you always publishing the photos of those Bolshevists Nehru and Bose, they are enemies of the Aryan race, which you Indians are?” [sic]. The writer asked the authorities to investigate Urchs and “send him back”.
A July 15, 1938, follow-up article titled “Ambitious Nazi Scheme For German House in Bombay” contended that Dr Urchs appears to have “full freedom to reside in this [Royal Bombay Yacht] Club and conduct his political propaganda”. The Nazis in Bombay were keen to mingle with important people and the German Consul General “hurried to Warden Road to meet Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru”. The Germans also had plans for a prominent new building to house their Consulate and the office of Urchs. India should be freed “from such men” the writer concluded.
The pressure on the authorities continued with a column by one RPA, who described the affair as a “Matter For Govt. Inquiry”. Urging authorities to act expeditiously, RPA congratulated the Bombay Sentinel and “A British Indian” for “a scathing indictment of the underhand spying and propagandist activities of the Nazis in India”. The pseudonymous articles, armed with information from unknown sources and alarmist in tone, seemed tactical, in an attempt to solicit immediate action against Urchs.
As historian Eugene D’Souza has written, Nazi propaganda in India during the mid 1930s targeted communism (and socialism) and sought to further the regime’s ideology, often under the guise of scientific and technical articles. Agents across the country operated as “technical advisers, photographers, tourists, explorers, salesman, bandplayers and even as ‘refugees’”.
German Clubs in Indian cities were fronts for Nazi Party functionaries. Their method was to exploit anti-colonial sentiment, not to mention Hindu racial puritanism and anti-Semitism. Some Indian publications, including Salar-e-Hind and Spirit of the Times, carried Nazi propaganda.
As D’Souza notes, there was Trikal, published by SL Karandikar of Poona and Lokandhi Morcha (Iron Front) published by Madhav Kashinath Damle of Girgaum who was in touch with the known Nazi propagandist GL Leszczynski of the German Indian Institute. There was also the Karnataka Bandhu published from Gadag in Dharward district and the notorious Princely India, to which 26-year-old East Indian Charley Baptista, a “tool in Nazi propaganda”, contributed articles.
In Bombay Sentinel’s May 2, 1939, issue, the Honorary Secretary of the Anti-Nazi League of India claimed in “Nazi Outrage in City” that Princely India was carrying out “propaganda and political warfare”. Behind this controversial “gutter-washing weekly” was one P Gopal Pillai, a man from the Travancore State with dubious antecedents well known to the authorities.
As intelligence records of the Home Department show, Pillai’s publication (founded in 1923) “pursued a policy of hostile comment on the internal administration of Indian States with a view to levying blackmail on their Rulers and High Officials…” Pillai was imprisoned twice in 1927 on defamation charges.
In 1936, Pillai, who then used the name PJ Zachariah, restarted his paper in Bombay that had shut down due to lack of funds. Berlin-based Habibur Rehman, known to be working with the German Propaganda Ministry and linked to Nazi propagandist GL Leszczynski, also contributed articles to the paper. The reports also reveal allegations that Pillai, characterised as a rank opportunist, received substantial funds in May 1939 from another German operating in India – a Dr Schacht.
On April 12, 1939, The Bombay Chronicle reported on Dr Haljmar Schacht’s visit to India posing as a tourist, saying that this was pursuant to chief Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbel’s secret instructions to Nazi agents operating in foreign countries. At the German Club in Bombay, Urchs introduced the visiting Schacht as a key contributor to the “building up of Nazi Germany and its economics and finance”. Pillai was “boosting Dr Schacht, one of the sinister Nazi chiefs”, the Bombay Sentinel said.
Further, the visiting Nazi’s nephew, also a Dr Schacht, was operating freely in Bombay and “injecting in them [residents] the venom of hatred against the British and the Indian National Congress”. In more sensational details, the article claimed that a young Jewish boy had been kidnapped by Nazi thugs and detained, abused and threatened.
A German gang had organised a Motor Patrol and drove around Bombay with Nazi flags to spot Indian boys “looking at German cars” and distributing anti-Nazi posters. The leader of the gang was allegedly a Gestapo agent spying on fellow Germans and tracking anti-Nazi activities in India.
Effectively, the article claimed, the Nazis were operating a secret police in Bombay, in addition to propaganda, meetings, parades and drills. British Intelligence noted that the claims about Urchs were “founded on fact”. Confidential communications reveal that Urchs was financing the anti-communist Bombay Press Service, run by Rajagopala Krishnamachari.
The Bombay Sentinel articles forced the government to take cognisance. “For the first time in the history of the Indian Legislative Assembly the question of German Nazi propaganda in India was discussed on two occasions in Central Legislative Assembly”, The Bombay Chronicle reported on September 21, 1938.
Archival documents reveal that the Home Department in consultation with the Intelligence Bureau had hoped that the Assembly members would refrain from posing these questions since they felt any manner of clarification could potentially alert those under scrutiny. Consequently, the government chose to respond in a limited way, saying they were aware of Dr Urchs and his activities.
Who was the author of these sensational articles in the Bombay Sentinel? A letter dated September 10, 1938, addressed to the Home Secretary requested an urgent interview to place before him “all facts”.
The letter writer TK Menon, at the time in Simla, revealed himself to be the author and an expert on the issue, “having studied this problem for years”. Menon was the honorary secretary of the Anti-Nazi League of India, operating out of Minto House in Byculla, which was formed by “respectable young Indians who have grown tired of the Nazi scheming”.
Historian Benjamin Zachariah has previously written that British Indian authorities did not see Nazi activities as a serious threat until after the Munich Pact of 1938. The pact, signed between Nazi Germany, Italy and France and the United Kingdom allowed Germany to annexe a German-majority part of Czechoslovakia.
They then tapped inimical networks already under surveillance, maintaining “a curious arms-length collaboration with communist and socialist publications”. In particular, they tracked the Bombay Sentinel as well as The Bombay Chronicle, which “was also active in providing information on Nazi and fascist activity, notably with a series of articles by Khwaja Ahmed Abbas, communist and Progressive Writer”. Zachariah says that Menon was responsible for a “Wanted” poster of Hitler (made at The Times of India Press) offering a reward of Rs 50,000 for him dead or alive.
Zachariah writes that Menon “had done secret intelligence work for the Bombay CID but had been deemed unreliable” on account of his manoeuvres for “personal benefit”.
Indeed, as secret communications between intelligence officials reveal, the anti-Nazi Menon had questionable antecedents. Previously associated with the late Dr MA Ansari, BG Horniman, Jamnadas Dwarkadas and Maulana Shaukat Ali, he had been publishing pro-Fascist propaganda in the mid-1930s with the help of Italian funds. He then began to work at the French Consulate as well as the Czech car dealer firm Skoda, rendering his Italian employment untenable.
He also reportedly established an Indo-Czechoslovak Society in 1938. Menon even managed to meet freedom fighter Subhas Chandra Bose and Nehru over 1938 and 1939. His loyalties and motivations were often in doubt, with officials noting that he indulged in “double-crossing”. However, it appears that Menon was a source of intelligence and was possibly being run by senior officials of the Special Branch, Bombay Crime Investigation Department.
On December 22, 1938, Urchs met Subhas Chandra Bose. As Jan Kuhlmans says in his book, during the meeting Bose complained about Germany’s racism, the hostility of the German press towards India, abolition of democratic rights and German foreign policy, suggesting that there should be “better cultural and economic collaboration” between the two nations.
Urch’s role as the head of the Indian Nazis was also recorded in “Spreading Nazism Abroad” published in the Singapore Free Press And Mercantile Advertiser on September 8, 1937. Leaving no ambiguity about his role or agenda, the article stated that delegates of the fifth Congress of overseas Germans held in Stuttgart, received instructions at a secret meeting. “Every German An Ambassador”, the article stated.
After the outbreak of World War II in September 1939, Urchs was interned initially in Ahmednagar. From there he communicated with the Consulate of Switzerland regarding repatriation of German internees. Shifted to Deolali and Dehradun later (where he met Heinrich Harrer, an Austrian Nazi who was a member of the Schutzstaffel, or SS,), Urchs spent the entirety of the war years interned in India and returned to Germany in December 1946.
German historian Christina Lubinski shows that German firms generously compensated Indian employees who lost their jobs due to the war, thereby gaining their favour towards the Nazi regime. British Intelligence saw this as having “propaganda value”.
The authorities tracked the spouses of those interned. At the outset women were not detained. The establishment “suspected some of them of engaging in espionage and spreading propaganda”. Urch’s wife Therese, was arrested in early February 1940 along with six others and produced before a Magistrate’s Court, where the Police Prosecutor alleged that Frau Urchs had sent details of the “movement of troops and steamers” to her sons in Germany.
Bizarrely, when her defence lawyer was pleading bail, a police officer held the hand of RP Thanawala, the Police Prosecutor, drawing the ire of the court for “improper and unwarranted conduct”. This was none other than Boris Derojinsky, a controversial officer of Russian origin at the Foreign Branch of the Bombay Police Crime Investigation Department.
Given previous instances, this action of Derojinsky was highly suspicious in nature. Archival documents reveal, quite tellingly, that during this time TK Menon was offering services to German women “for the release of their husbands for some gratification”.
Despite his activities, Urchs emerged relatively unscathed, joining Bayer as a senior executive and continuing his research. In looking back to the dark phase of Nazi propaganda, the obvious is striking.
The methods of Urchs and his compatriots – pressure on the press, rewards for favourable coverage, intimidation of members of civil society, widespread, systematic and well-funded ideological propaganda, not to mention thuggery, deceit, and skulduggery – are all too familiar in contemporary times. Across the world.
Gautam Pemmaraju is a Mumbai-based writer and filmmaker with a special interest in Indian anti-colonial activists of the early 20th century.