Savitri Devi: The strange story of how a Hindu Hitler worshipper became an alt-right icon

Savitri DeviWikicommons

The white nationalist "alt-right" movement has drawn on many sources to re-brand fascism for a new, web-savvy generation, among them economic libertarians, "identitarians", web gurus and anti-feminists.

But the writings of a French-Greek thinker who believed Hitler was the reincarnation of the Hindu god Vishnu might be among the strangest.

Born Maximiani Julia Portas in France in 1905, Savitri Devi was academically brilliant, studying philosophy and chemistry at the University of Lyon and gaining two PhDs.

It was on a visit to Greece in 1928 that her views began to change, coalescing around an obsession with race and religion after she saw swastikas carved into ancient Greek buildings.

An ancient Hindu symbol hijacked by the rising National Socialist Party, Devi saw its use in Ancient Greece as proof of the Nazi theory that all civilisation had its roots in the Aryan "master race" and ultimately India.

She travelled to India on a quest to discover the source of Aryan culture, where she converted to Hinduism and married nationalist activist Asit Krishna Mukherji. In India she devoted herself to ridding the country of the British Raj and Christianity, which she regarded as an anti-Aryan faith.

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When war broke out in 1939, she spied on the British for the Axis powers, and was instrumental in forming ties between Subhas Chandra Bose, leader of the pro-Axis National Indian Army, and the Japanese imperial government.

Her support for fascism led to a rift with her mother, who fought for the French Resistance against Nazi occupiers.

After the war, she returned to Europe and continued to agitate for Nazism. She was jailed for eight months for distributing leaflets amid the ruins of the collapsed Third Reich calling on Germans to "hold fast to our glorious National Socialist faith, and resist!"

Upon her release, she divided her time between India and France, developing her increasingly outlandish views on what she regarded to be the hidden spiritual meaning of Nazism. In a series of books and pamphlets she proclaimed Adolf Hitler an avatar of the Hindu god Vishnu, sent to clear the path for Kali Yuga, the final avatar, who will trigger apocalypse and renew the cosmos.

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American white nationalist leader Richard Spencer of the National Policy Institute referred to white people as the 'children of the sun' in a speech invoking Savitri DeviReuters/Spencer Selvidge

A passionate animal rights activist and ecologist, she reportedly supported the death penalty for those who didn't respect animals.

She corresponded with fascists around the world, and associated with Britons Colin Jordan, leader of the World Union of National Socialists, and John Tyndall, leader of the National Front.

After retiring in 1970, she lived at the home of her friend Francoise Dior, the Nazi underground financier and niece of fashion designer Christian Dior, but was kicked out after reportedly not washing for the duration of her stay and chewing on garlic all day. She moved back to India, living alone with her pet cats and a cobra.

In later life she came to regard the United States as a receptive place for her views. She died in 1982 at the home of a friend in Essex, England, and is buried in Wisconsin in the US, her grave next to that of US neo-Nazi George Lincoln Rockwell.

After decades spent as a writer of at best fringe interest for fascists and scholars of fascism, Devi's work has in recent years enjoyed a strange resurgence.

Greg Johnson, a leading figure in the alt-right movement, has spent years promoting Devi's work through his Counter-Currents Publishing house, describing her as "one of the most extraordinary personalities of the 20th century."

His efforts seem to be paying off.

A bizarre series of memes inspired by Devi's work has emerged. Esoteric Kekism, (the word "kek" means "lol"), partly parodies Devi's work, in a bizarre amalgam of far-right imagery, Hindu iconography and alt-right web slang, reports Blake Smith in scroll.in.

At an event in Washington, DC, in November held following the election of Donald Trump, alt-right ideologue Richard Spencer exhorted followers to "Hail Trump" and proclaimed white people the "children of the sun." Some believe that the phrase is a reference to Devi's 1958 work the Lightning and the Sun, in which she describes people with "sun" qualities who transcend the process of historical decay.

Their mutual opposition to Islam has also led the European far right to find common cause with Hindu nationalism. Norwegian mass murderer Anders Breivik praised the "Hindutva" movement before launching his killing spree on July 22, 2011.

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