About four years before World War II broke out, pairing Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini, Britain had relied on an Indian to gain an insight into the thought process of the two dictators. Sir Siremal Bapna, prime minister in Indore’s Holkar princely state from 1926 to 1939, had secretly met Italian fascist leader Mussolini and Hitler, the chief of Nazi Germany, in 1935, reveals his diary.
While the meeting with Mussolini in Capri was the brainchild of British prime minister Ramsay MacDonald and foreign secretary Samuel Hoare, Winston Churchill — one of the first leaders to spot the danger of Nazi Germany — engineered Bapna’s meeting with Hitler in Berlin.
Bapna’s diary, however, does not disclose the nature of his talks with the dictators. His great-grandson Upendra Singh, who is based in the US and is writing a historical novel on his family’s legacy, said in an email, “Because of the sensitivity of this mission, these meetings were kept low-key, almost secret at the time.”
Singh said the British prime minister wanted Bapna to meet Mussolini and gauge his intentions on invading Ethiopia (which he eventually did). On Churchill being keen on Bapna meeting Hitler, Singh said he came to know of this from Churchill’s daughter Sarah and Earl Nicholas Eden, son of Anthony Eden (Bapna’s friend and Britain’s prime minister in the 1950s), when he met them in London in 1984.
A day after Bapna reached London following his meeting with the dictators, Churchill visited him. Little did Bapna know that his visitor would one day lead Britain as prime minister to victory against Hitler’s Germany.
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