Prime Minister Imran Khan’s saying that making U-turns was a mark of leadership, was a tacit admission that that is what he has been doing, while his stating that Hitler and Napoleon executed U-turns when they retreated from Russia shows him choosing an interesting example.

That he is aware there is a problem is positive. He could have easily gotten down to defending his government, and not doing so showed that he is at least aware that there is a problem. It is a truism that the first step towards solving a problem is an admission that a problem does exist. A corollary is that a lot of problems in government are not solved because those responsible do not admit that one exists. The most glaring example is that of the missing persons: getting the government to admit that there are any persons missing has been the biggest problem.

However, there are certain difficulties with the examples he has chosen. It should be remembered that Hitler is not a very good example to quote because his reputation is so poor. It should be further remembered that Napoleon was almost as much a villain as Hitler for most of the 19th century for most of Europe. Both are execrated in Russia.

It should also be remembered that the invasions by both were the real U-turns, not the withdrawals. Napoleon invaded Russia after signing the Treaty of Tilsit in 1807 with Russia, and Hitler after the Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation in 1939. Both went ahead with their invasions, but for reasons of state, not because Russia had not fulfilled its treaty obligations. Napoleon wanted to force Russia into his Continental System, and stop trading with England. Hitler wanted Lebensraum in western Russia (by occupying it and repopulating it with Aryan Germans), not to mention the oil of the Caucasus.

Neither invasion succeeded. Napoleon tried with 680,000; Hitler with four million; the former even captured Moscow, but neither could force Russia to admit it had lost. The Russian strategy of withdrawing and waiting for the winter snows worked. Napoleon’s Grand Army, then the largest single military force ever employed, disintegrated in the 1813 Retreat from Moscow, and only 27,000 troops returned. Napoleon’s prestige was destroyed, and he was overthrown in 1814 and exiled to Elba. Though he returned in 1815, it was only to be defeated once again at Waterloo, and sent again into exile.

Hitler found his Russian adventure equally costly. After he invaded in 1941, he inflicted great losses, but took neither Leningrad in the North nor Stalingrad in the South. Where Napoleon had suffered great losses at Borodino, Hitler lost the major tank battles of Kursk and Kharkov, with the result that the Red Army offensive then proceeded inexorably until it stopped at Berlin, where it met the Allied Forces advancing from the West.

It is no reassurance to Pakistanis that their Prime Ministers mentioned with obvious approval Napoleon’s and Hitler’s U-turns, because the decisions to retreat were not really decisions, as bowings to the inevitable logic of military defeat. Napoleon found it impossible to go on occupying Moscow; Hitler watched in rage while Field Marshal Friedrich Paulus surrendered his 6th Army at Stalingrad. Only then, when defeat was painfully clear, did Hitler permit remaining German forces to withdraw. Both provide rather disturbing precedents when it is kept in mind that Imran’s PTI is said to enjoy military support.

Napoleon was the quintessential military ruler. He had joined the French army before the Revolution, as a regular officer. He used the confusion of the Revolution, as well as his initial military victories, to take over. Hitler, on the other hand, was more like Imran, in that he was elected to power. However, he had dominated the military, even removing the pre-war Army chief, General Werner von Fritsch in disgrace. Hitler’s Fascism has made him proverbial, so that US President Donald Trump has been compared to him. It is worth noting that Imran has been compared to Trump by a minority.

It should not be assumed that Imran takes either as an example. It is important to remember that he has not invoked either of the two strongmen before. This is though Hitler has a certain popularity in this part of the world, a hangover from the Independence Movement era, which coincided with World War II. It should be remembered that British India was prepared by the government for war with Japan, which came as close as Burma as it rampaged through the Far East after Pearl Harbour. While the Indian National Army of Subhash Candra Bose was allied with Japan, Japan was allied with Germany. Hitler was seen by many in this part of the world as (rightly) beating up on the common enemy, the British. His racial policies, instead of putting brown men off, won favour, for it targeted Jews. In fact, it was that anti-Jewish bias which won him support from the Grand Mufti of Palestine, who was facing the movement for a Jewish state in his home. That support from the Grand Mufti increased sentiments in this part of the world in favour of Hitler.

Among Muslims, the predisposing factor was the Nazis’ anti-Semitism. It also made him popular among Hindus that he eulogised Aryans, which higher Indian castes said they were, and adopted the swastika as his party’s symbol: the swastika had originally been a Hindu religious symbol, until Hitler adopted it for his party as a symbol of the ‘Aryan race’. Afghanistan also was soft on Hitler, as was Iran. This caused consternation among the Allies, because these two independent Muslim countries were supposed to be friendly towards them.

That might be old hat now, but with both Pakistan and India, it means that hatred of Hitler is not a given. It is vaguely disturbing to have a Prime Minister who quotes one of his decisions as an example of political practice. The discomfort should increase because the decisions arose because of military defeats. And these were no ordinary defeats, but led to the collapse of the regimes.

An omission is of Alexander the Great. It has been said that “Every Pathan thinks he is a second Alexander the Great.” However, Alexander did not invade Russia, and it is to be hoped that Imran Khan will not either. Indeed, it is to be hoped that he will not invade anywhere. It is unlikely the British (under Pitt the Younger, some others, and Lord Liverpool) would have beaten Napoleon or (under Chamberlain and Churchill) Hitler if there has been any U-turns. As a matter of fact, Alexander did not make any, unless one is to count the decision to abandon the conquest of India.

Another problem that Imran showed is that he is not a deep student of history. He might be excused that, but for the fact that he is supposed to have studied political science at Oxford, a subject which involves the study of history. However, be that as it may, if at all he had to justify U-turns, neither Napoleon’s nor Hitler’s decision to withdraw from Russia, or even to invade, are edifying examples. His confirmatory tweet did not mention anyone, but insisted that U-turns were carried out by true leaders. A true student of politics would be able to give an example. A good one, not like the ones he came up with.


The writer is a veteran journalist and founding member as well as executive

editor of The Nation.