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Germany and Indian Revolution, 1914-18 Author(s): Thomas G. Fraser Reviewed work(s): Source: Journal of Contem

Germany and Indian Revolution, 1914-18 Author(s): Thomas G. Fraser Reviewed work(s):

Source: Journal of Contemporary History, Vol. 12, No. 2 (Apr., 1977), pp. 255-272 Published by: Sage Publications, Ltd.

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of Contemporary


12 (1977),


Germany and Indian Revolution,


Thomas G. Fraser

One of the twentieth century's most characteristic contributions to international relations in war and 'peace' has been the use of dissident groups within states or empires to weaken real or potential enemies.

It is no new phenomenon; for nearly sixty years the Bourbon monarchy supported risings by Scottish and Irish Jacobites hoping that they would weaken or divert British power. Nonetheless, as recent analysis of Soviet support for Pathan and Baluchi separatists in Pakistan has

again emphasised, foreign-backed subversion is a seemingly inescapable

feature of late twentieth

atically developed during the first world war. In the Middle East Britain profitably allied herself with Arab nationalist discontent with Ottoman rule and later, together with the United States, encouraged the dissident

minorities of Austria-Hungary. Some years ago, however, the American Chinese historian, Robert North, while studying the career of the Indian communist, M.N. Roy, in China in the 1920s, concluded that

the real pioneer of revolutionary subversion had been Imperial Germany. His view would find sympathy in the school of historians

which sees aggressive expansionism as the characteristic feature of


Fischer, in Germany's Aims In the First World War, reviewed at some length German attempts to foster revolution in different parts of the

British, French and Russian empires. The best known examples of this aspect of German enterprise have been their curiously lukewarm relationship with Irish nationalism in the person of Roger Casement and their more successful intrigues in Russia, but in many ways the most instructive study is that of their attempts to assist revolutionary nationalists in India. This is partly because of the

German foreign

century life.1 The technique was first system-




period up to





Journal of Contemporary History

significance of India which was, as they knew well, not only Britain's

most important possession but the only section

could immediately

the war effort. Moreover, the Indian experience is important because several of the key personnel involved survived to become active in Soviet plans for disruption, in the colonial world in the 1920s. But it is the richness of the documentation which makes the story of Germany's

Indian involvement not only interesting but as complete as it is possible to make the history of events which were inherently secret. In compari- son with, for example, their files on Ireland, the records of the Auswartiges Amt on Indian revolution are extensive and revealing. These microfilms are complemented on the British side by some thirty volumes of Foreign Office documents devoted to the subject, and by embassy and consular records which not only emphasise British concern but contain invaluable material on revolutionary nationalism not other- wise available to South Asian historians. Finally, the India Office Library possesses the transcript of the trial of Indian revolutionaries and their German associates held in San Francisco in 1918. Though

basically a 'show trial' staged for propaganda reasons, its records have much to tell about German activities in the United States. It is from this material that the following account of attempted German sub-

version in India has been written




Hopefully, it will also not only assist in understanding the small groups

of Indian revolutionary exiles who saw in German co-operation an un-

of the empire which

contribute a trained and coherent military force to

Its purpose is to illustrate the

British officialdom


as they







German and

terms with

an unfamiliar aspect

imagined opportunity

certain links between these events and subversion as it later developed.

the war the Germans knew that Britain's

in India might by skilful manipulation be

made into

Bernhardi had pointed


surprising to find the Kaiser expressing similar sentiments on the fateful

night of 30-31 July 1914 when he learned that Russian mobilization was irrevocable.3 It was only when he has become convinced of Britain's resolve to fight the war a outrance that Bethmann Hollweg

officially sanctioned on 4 September a campaign of unrest in India and Egypt.4 Before this, however, the Auswartiges Amt's eastern expert,

Max von Oppenheim, had begun to approach Indian exiles living in Germany to form a committee. A former official of the Cairo con-

of furthering their country's freedom but indicate

From the


days of

apparently strong position

a liability.





early as 1912 the


the polemicist General von of using pan-Islamic and


is not


German advantage.2

Fraser: Germany and Indian Revolution,



sulate-general, Oppenheim's prominence dated from 1898 when his

advocacy of an alliance between

ment was regarded as the inspiration behind the

versial Damascus speech. On 2 August 1914 he was recalled from Hittite archaeology to head the newly-formed 'Intelligence Bureau for the East'.s His was the initial impetus behind the Indian revolutionaries but it was not an area of the east in which he had any particular

expertise. His real interest was pan-Islamism and after his departure for Constantinople early in 1915 he ceased to be important in the formu- lation of Indian plans. From December 1914 these were controlled by

a young official of the Auswdrtiges Amt, Otto Giinther von

Wesendonck, whose interesting, if unenviable, task was the organization

of revolutionary outbreaks in India and along the borders of the

Russian empire.

Germany and the pan-Islamic move-

Kaiser's rather contro-





be attempted

until they had gathered


a group of Indians willing to participate in such potentially

dangerous work. The men they recruited fall readily into two groups. Living in Berlin and other university centres at that time was an Indian student community, many of whom had come not only to sympathize with the German way of life but had been moved by the intense

patriotism of their fellow students on the outbreak of war.6 These young men formed the original Indian committee in Berlin, the leaders being M. Prabhakar, a former Heidelberg student then teaching in Dusseldorf, and Abderrahman and A. Siddiqi, students at Freiburg and Gottingen universities.7 Though their enthusiasm was valuable, they

were political novices and Oppenheim knew that he had to contact more experienced revolutionaries for planning to begin.

The recent history of revolutionary nationalism in India ensured that there were two possible allies, the revolutionaries of Bengal and the Ghadr party, a largely Sikh movement with considerable support among the emigrant communities of North America and East Asia. The former were the 'classic' Indian revolutionaries, intelligent and dedicated young men from the elite bhadralok community of urban Bengal who had become identified with violence during Lord Curzon's viceroyalty. In 1914 a number of groups, or dais, were active in the

province, while others had been forced abroad by

These exiles were to determine the character of German

plans, intention being to use the opportunity to provide the maximum assistance to their remaining compatriots in Bengal. The Ghadr party, whose origins lay in the vicious discrimination suf-

fered by Punjabi immigrants at the hands of the American and Canadian





Journal of Contemporary History

governments, was very different in character.9 Though its initial leaders

were revolutionary exiles, Har Dayal and Barkatullah, its strength lay in the devoted allegiance of these Sikh peasant emigrants and the potential support these men could arouse in the villages and regiments of the Punjab. Had the Ghadrites received German money and arms, they might have seriously embarrassed the British with the Sikh peasantry whose loyalty was a major factor in the Indian war effort. As it proved, however, the outbreak of war roused their enthusiasm to such an extent that hundreds left North America for the Punjab where they mounted a

revolutionarycampaign and, together with supporters in Sikh regiments,


an abortive rising in February 1915. By the time the German

consul in San Francisco had contacted the party's remaining leader,

Ram Chandra, these men were beyond possible assistance. Nonetheless, many Ghadrites remained in the Sikh communities of Thailand, the

still offer the Germans

Philippines and the China ports, who could

the prospect of fruitful collaboration. Inevitably, Germany's Indian plans were fashioned by the possibilities offered by these two groups. Oppenheim was fortunate

that two Bengali activists, Virendranath Chattopadhyaya and Bhupendranath Dutta, were living in Germany. Chattopadhyaya, whose sister, the poetess Sarojini Naidu, was the most celebrated Indian

woman of her generation, had become a revolutionary while studying at the Middle Temple in London. His charm and ability quickly established him as the leader of Oppenheim's committee. Even so, it undoubtedly suffered from the lack of more prestigious names. This

was partly Oppenheim's fault, since he refused to approach Shyamaji

Krishnavarma, the doyen


unknown, such an attitude was short sighted. The most notable German

failure was with the leading Punjabi politician, Lajpat Rai, who had gone to America on the outbreak of war after taking part in a Congress mission to London. Though he was a bitter opponent of British rule, he considered that it .would be demeaning for India to gain her freedom through a cynical alliance with another imperial power.11 The committee's only recruits of any stature were the Ghadr leaders, Har Dayal and Barkatullah, who arrived in Berlin in January 1915. Har

Dayal only came after much persuasion and never gave more than half- hearted co-operation.12 It was from these men, all of whom had been refugees for at least seven years, that Oppenheim and Wesendonck had to acquire their knowledge of current Indian politics. Unfortunately, their reports are










p o l i t i c a l l y






Fraser: Germany and Indian Revolution, 1914-18


a matter for speculation as records of them no longer exist. Alternative

available to the Germans were pitifully inade-

quate. Imperial consulates had been established in Calcutta, Bombay and Madras in 1872, but their concern was with commerce and the needs of eminent Germans, like the Crown Prince in 1910-11, who were attracted to India by shikar. These consular officials were not used in connection with the Indian revolution. Germany's other link

sources of information

with India was scholarly, and here she had a justifiably renowned reputation. In the early nineteenth century Franz Bopp and the



pioneered the new subject of indology, which later in the century

found its most distinguished exponent in Friedrich Max Muller.13







Their work made Indian philosophy widely appreciated among scholars

and artists --- Schopenhauer, in particular, confessed his reverence for the



the Upanishads -

but none of


was relevant to the

mundane matter of fomenting revolution.14 The only sustained analysis of the Indian situation known to have been studied by Oppenheim and Wesendonck is a report written by the

former Austro-Hungarian consul-general in Calcutta, Count Thurn, on his return to Vienna. The Austrian had evidently interested himself in Indian politics but had not always been critical of the information he

had gained. In estimating the power of the revolutionaries he was hope-



Calcutta of placards proclaiming the readiness of twenty thousand young men to rise against the British and the evidence in conspiracy trials that there were some ten thousand revolutionaries with access to arms. His conclusion was that these men were simply awaiting

to say how much

reliance the Germans placed on Thurn's report, but they read it, and

it was on such sanguine information that they based their plans. With-

out such optimism nothing would have been attempted.

outside help to act decisively.15

were organized in some two He recalled the appearance in









It is impossible

an Indian committee

problem facing Oppenheim and Wesendonck, their second was the more fundamental one of Germany's remoteness from India. Geography and the attraction of Germany's alliance with Muslim Turkey seemed to

recommend that they approach the sub-continent




but it was not that of the Indian committee

in Berlin was the first

If the



through Persia and

Afghanistan, concentrating

their efforts

on the Islamic sentiments

India. This would

have been Oppenheim's



background them wholly antipathetic to such an appeal.1 6 Expeditions were sent to


Journal of Contemporary History

Kabul and Baghdad in 1915 and 1916 but they were little more than

token gestures. The presence in Berlin of men like Chattopadhyaya and Har Dayal ensured that the main German plans concerning India operated through the established revolutionary networks in the United States, East Asia and Bengal. The advantages of using the United States as a revolutionary base were considerable. Its anti-colonialist traditions ensured that many

public figures, including the Secretary of State, William Jennings Bryan, and influential Irish-Americans, sympathized with Indian nationalism.1 7 The Germans could hope that their support for the

Indians might help counter allied propaganda which portrayed them as the oppressor of defenceless nations. On the other hand, they went to a great deal of trouble to disguise acts which they knew were in breach

of American neutrality legislation. Even after the war, the ambassador, Count Bernstorff, denied any knowledge of the 'so-called Indian

conspiracy', although various attempts to

8 His

two subordinates most concerned with these schemes were the military attache, Franz von Papen, and the consul in San Francisco, Franz Bopp, whose task was to concert measures with the Ghadr leader, Ram Chandra. In East Asia the Germans, though faced with the preponderant power of Britain and Japan, managed to retain some assets even after the loss of their stronghold of Tsingtao. From their foothold in the Shanghai International Settlement they could hope to exploit China's

instability to secure sympathy and arms from men sympathetic to Asian nationalism. Moreover, the Ghadr party was strongly supported by the country's Sikhs. Because of these assumed advantages the

consul-general in Shanghai, Knipping, was given control of the various Indian revolutionary schemes.19 His authority extended to the Netherlands East Indies and Thailand, both of which enjoyed the ad- vantages of neutrality and may crudely be termed the German 'forward bases'. The former had a vigorous Austro-German community of over six hundred adult males led by the brothers Emil and Theodor Helfferich.20 The Helfferichs, whose brother Karl Helfferich was Secretary for Finance in the German government, were ardent patriots



revolutionaries in India through the old-established trading routes

between Sumatra and Calcutta. Unlike the East Indies, Thailand had no sizeable German community from which recruits could come, but

knowledge send arms to India from the United States.

the records reveal his intimate

of the

knew that Holland's uneasy relationship with Germany ensured

could work unhindered. They could also establish contact


Fraser: Germany and Indian Revolution, 1914-18


there were diplomats and resident Sikh Ghadrites. It offered the

tempting possibility of mounting raids into the Indian empire across




considerable imagination, but when set against the problems of distance

and British power in that part of Asia, they seem pitifully tenuous. It should have been obvious from the beginning that exceptionally resourceful and courageous agents would be needed to overcome these difficulties. The following account of the actual plans the

Germans attempted

a more fundamental lack of realistic



ill-guarded Burmese




In establishing

Berlin and

jungles, the

Germans had shown





the general incapacity of

their personnel


thinking to frustrate their hopes.

Franz von Papen confessed in his memoirs that the Germans were sufficiently aware of these limitations to realize that they could not overthrow British rule in India. Instead, they hoped that by creating

a number of local disturbances they

Britain to retain

in India troops which would otherwise be sent to the front.21 If this


but it

stinted their aid to the revolutionaries. At a

conference held in the Reichsmarineamt in October 1914, it was decided that assistance would be pointless unless it were given on a substantial scale. As the result of this discussion, Bernstorff and Papen were ordered to purchase between ten and twenty thousand rifles with ammunition on the American arms market and organize their transport to India.22 Papen, who was by no means the rather ludicrous

did not mean that they

would compel


then German motives were cynical and opportunistic,

bungler of allied propaganda, accomplished the first part of his task with notable efficiency, drawing on the unrivalled contacts of Krupp's American representative, Hans Tauscher. By the first week in December the two men had assembled 8,080 Springfield rifles of Spanish- American war vintage, 2,400 Springfield carbines, 410 Hotchkiss



250 Mauser pistols with ammunition.2 3 This formidable and expensive

of the seriousness with which the Germans

armoury is ample proof

regarded their prospects in India. Transporting these arms to their destination proved a more formidable task than their collection. Papen entrusted this part of the operation to a prominent German-American shipping agent in California,

Frederick Jebsen, who was to ensure their delivery to the revolutionaries

in India in a ship commanded

captain who had been stranded in the United States on the outbreak of

repeating rifles, all of matching calibre and with 4,000,000

cartridge belts,

500 Colt revolvers with


cartridges and


Hermann Othmer, a German sea


Journal of Contemporary History

war. Inconceivable though it might seem, Papen and his associates

were vague as to the vessel's ultimate destination, Othmer's orders being to sail to Java whence, if no one met him, he was to continue to Bangkok where it was hoped he would be met by a German pilot. Failing this, he was to sail to Karachi where he was assured the arms would be unloaded in fishing boats.24 The reason for this imprecision was misleading information given by the Ghadr leader, Ram Chandra, who told the Germans that there were hundreds of thousands of

receive the cargo

of arms. He admitted to Lajpat Rai that he had lied and was terrified

revolutionaries in the

Punjab and Karachi waiting to

that there would be no one to meet the arms ship when it arrived.25 Ram Chandra was spared this humiliation because of Jebsen's

incompetence. Sensing the danger of discovery by American or British

intelligence agents, Jebsen devised a complex

real destination of the arms. His basic idea was to consign the weapons to a fictitious participant in the Mexican civil war, but once his vessel had cleared American waters it would sail for Java. He ruined this straightforward concept by the apparently clever refinement of using as

his agent a shipping broker, Marcos Martinez, who knew nothing of his real purpose. Martinez was simply engaged to arrange for the trans- portation of the arms to Topolobampo in Mexico, which he did by chartering a small schooner, the Annie Larsen, which, unfortunately for Jebsen, was incapable of crossing the Pacific.26 Martinez' innocent

action immeasurably complicated the German task. Not only did it

force them to begin negotiations for a larger vessel but the delay


before the State

March 1915 the Annie Larsen, with the arms on board, left San Diego

Department became too knowledgeable.2 7 On 8

this incurred compelled

plan to camouflage the


them to

the arms out of the United States

under Othmer's command to await the arrival of a second ship at the uninhabited island of Socorro, off the Mexican coast.2 8



of such a

ship proved difficult

and expensive,


ultimately Jebsen secured an elderly oil tanker, the Maverick. His intention was that she should receive the arms from the Annie Larsen at Socorro and proceed under Othmer's direction to Java but, as extensive repairs proved necessary, she did not reach the island until 29 April.29 On arrival, Jebsen's second blunder emerged. Twelve days previously the Annie Larsen had been forced to sail for Acapulco as Socorro had proved waterless. Adverse winds foiled the irate

Othmer's attempts to return to the island and at the end of June he was


where the arms were impounded by the authorities.30 The Maverick,













Fraser: Germany and Indian Revolution,



tiring of her barren vigil at Socorro, eventually sailed to Java where her arrival without the weapons proved a bitter blow to plans the Helfferich brothers were arranging with revolutionaries in Bengal. As these events developed over nearly seven months, Papen was slow


apparent he was preparing another. At the end of April 1915, a second

arms shipment, consisting of 7,300 Springfield rifles, 1,920 pistols and

ten gatling guns with nearly 3,000,000

Tauscher.3 On this occasion, Papen intended the plan to be a much simpler affair -- the arms would be shipped to Soerabaya in the East Indies on the Holland-America steamship Djember which was to leave New York on 15 June.32 His plan avoided the tortured manoeuvres which had bedevilled Jebsen on the west coast but it ignored the obvious fact that a large cargo of arms consigned to a sensitive area of the world was bound to attract the attention of British intelligence. The

consul-general in New York, Sir Courtenay Bennett, controlled a network of agents who investigated all goods and passengers about to leave the port. These men traced the projected cargo to Tauscher, whom they knew to be a German agent, and Bennett passed this information to the Holland-America Line.33 When the trucks arrived

at the quayside with the arms of the Djember, Tauscher's men were


second scheme was altogether more discreet than his first; indeed he

refrained from mentioning as final.

These two affairs were scarcely examples of a dynamic Weltpolitik; basically, they reflect the inability of an ad hoc organization to sustain

such sophisticated plans. With the exception of Papen's skill in assembling the arms, German actions were naive and inept. Jebsen



Papen's inability to anticipate

These flaws

despatch the Maverick with only the haziest instructions as to her final

destination, based on an uncritical acceptance of Ram Chandra'smenda-

.cious reports. When all this has been said, however, the basic German cal-

realize the

failure of

his plan, and even before this had become

cartridges was assembled by



were refusing to


the contract.34


it in his memoirs, but its collapse was just

his plan in a way which was perhaps unnecessary and his


arid Socorro as a rendezvous was an error as basic as

in execution



were compounded



British intelligence.


willingness to



assistance of a large scale arms shipment was correct. It was on the under- standing that this was being organized inthe United States that they initia-

outbreak in India would need the

that a major revolutionary

ted two ambitious plans based on Thailand and the Netherlands East Indies.

In the




the Germans managed to contact Jatin


Journal of Contemporary History

Mukherjee, the acknowledged leader of a large number of Bengali revolutionaries. Mukherjee, realizing the value of such an alliance,

had already formed an organization capable of responding to a German offer of assistance.35 The latter, convinced that the province was in a state of widespread unrest, believed that Bengal offered the best poss-

ibility for revolutionary action.36 In March 1915 their emissary, Jitendranath Lahiri, reached Mukherjee with an offer of co-operation and instructions that the Helfferichs would organize money and arms from Batavia.37 The following month his chief lieutenant,

Narendranath Bhattacharya, travelled to the East Indies where the Helfferichs told him of the Maverick's impending arrival with arms on board. Despite the fact that these had originally been intended for Ghadr use, he convinced the Helfferichs that they should be diverted to

Bengal. They arranged a location in the Sunderbans where the Maverick would be unloaded by Mukherjee's men and for money to be sent to a bogus firm in Calcutta run by one of his party. Between June and


Helfferichs.3 8 Had the Maverick's intended

cargo reached the volatile youth of

Bengal, it could have given the British government a severe shock. Not only, however, was she empty on arrival at Java but things soon went badly wrong for the revolutionaries in India. On 28 June 1915

Beckett, the British consul-general in Batavia, received an anonymous letter claiming knowledge of the Maverick, whose mysterious voyage had already aroused the suspicion of naval intelligence. The writer, a well connected Baltic-German using the alias 'Oren', offered to sell Beckett the details of the Helfferichs' Indian plans.39 This unexpected defection from the German side gave the British their first insights into the Maverick affair, but 'Oren's' accurate knowlege of the links be-


Working on

organization in Calcutta and killed Mukherjee in the jungle near Balasore on 9 September.40 Despite his courage and resourcefulness,

Jatin Mukherjee fell victim to one of the commonest revolutionary dangers, treachery from within.

East Indies was no more

successful. This envisaged raising a volunteer force from the local German community to raid the Government of India's penal settle- ment in the Andaman islands. If this succeeded, these men would organize the large number of political prisoners into an expeditionary force and land on the Indian coast. On 4 May 1915 the Auswartiges Amt


Mukherjee's organization recieved Rs33,000





and Mukherjee proved even




more significant.

the revolutionary

his information,



German plan


on the

Fraser: Germany and Indian Revolution,



approved this grandiose plan, sending as its organizer Vincent Kraft, a

fighting The plan was Kraft's conception. In April he

had been brought to Berlin after writing to Wesendonck from hospital

indicating various possibilities for organizing Indian revolution from Java and Sumatra.42 It was as the result of his imaginative ideas, which the Indian committee found 'extremely useful and practical', that the Andamans raid was sanctioned.43

Unfortunately for those who believed in him, Kraft's object in con- ceiving this plan was not patriotism but the desire to concoct something which could subsequently be sold to the British. Such an interpretation of his motives might seem fanciful but for his record once he reached the east and a previous undetected attempt to interest the British in his services as a double agent. Some weeks before his letter to Wesendonck, he had been in Holland prior to being sent as a secret agent into Britain. His mission did not take place, but while in Amsterdam he had written

to the British vice-consul offering to act as an informer.44 Immediately on his arrival at Medan in the middle of July he contacted the British consul, whom he advised to enquire into the man who had offered

himself as an agent in Amsterdam.4

Having thus prepared his path, he

went to Singapore where he was first arrested and then engaged as a

double agent at the rate of ?2 per day until the end of the

Aware, however, that this income depended on the value of the information he was providing, Kraft had no option but to act as an

agent provocateur. In early August the British sent him to Shanghai where, with the unsuspecting Knipping, he drew up a detailed plan for the raid on the Andamans which he was able to reveal on his return to Singapore.47 His information enabled the British to counter Knipping's plans for secret arms shipments to the Andamans as part of the preparation for Kraft's raid. Once again, the German organization proved vulnerable to treason. On this occasion, British intelligence officers in Shanghai employed a discontented Austro-Hungarian whose information in October and November 1915 led to the exposure of

Knipping's two

In the East Indies Kraft succeeded in attracting many of the more ardent Germans into his expeditionary force. The exact number is

not known, but evidence independent of Kraft estimated over one hundred and it certainly included such flotsam of the war as von Muller, a former naval officer who was to command the raid, Dr Gehrmann, a colonial official from New Guinea who had avoided capture by the Australians and two men, Diehn and Jessen, who had

German planter a volunteer in

from the East Indies who had been wounded

France.4 1




attempts to furnish arms for the Andamans.4 8


Journal of ContemporaryHistory

made a daring escape from prison camp in Singapore when an Indian

regiment mutinied there in February 1915.49

patriots determined to make some contribution to their country's war effort but they could achieve nothing in the face of the prevailing treachery in the German organization. So bad had this become that

even Kraft's bogus plans were being betrayed to Beckett by 'Oren'.50 Kraft planned the raid to take place on 25 December 1915 and be destroyed by the British but by November the uniform failure of the Indian plans caused a loss of nerve in Berlin and Shanghai. Both Knipping and the Berlin committee recommended the abandonment of the operation, which was never revived.51 If Kraft's immediate hopes were thwarted, he remained resilient. In 1917 he emerged in

Mexico where his reports on German intrigues were highly regarded by British intelligence. The following spring he was brought to London, entered into an indenture for the receipt of ?15,000 fourteen days after a treaty of peace, and he was then sent to Japan to report on

German attempts to subvert the Anglo-Japanese all<