Your correspondent’s recent excursus on The King’s Speech — or more particularly the reaction to it — was a reminder that some people don’t like their comforting myths challenged, a judgment the Oscars appears to have canonised. The King’s Speech was dedicated to furthering a myth of national unity arising from shared values, when what unity there was came from more complex causes. World War II was used as a myth to sell the Iraq war — just as it was used to sell every war and intervention, right back to Suez. Perhaps the use to which World War II was put in the past decade has taken some of the gloss off, and it needs to be repeatedly rebuffed.

Central to the film, and the myth, is Churchill, whose status among neocons and others approaches ancestor worship. That Churchill had been a rather enthusiastic imperialist in his early years — writing about shooting down Sudanese warriors as if it were a picnic, and pioneering the use of aerial bombing and poison gas as weapons of colonial control in Iraq — was always known, but could be separated by time. Though Winnie had held onto the idea of retaining India well into the ’30s — one reason he was in the political wilderness — this could be written off as eccentricity, etc, etc?

That’s unlikely to be the case if Madhusree Mukerjee’s new book Churchill’s Secret War takes hold. Indeed, it is unlikely that Winnie’s reputation will survive at all, or our idea of World War II with it.

Churchill’s Secret War deals with the 1943 Bengal famine, a horrific occurrence that took the lives of between 2 million-3 million Indians at the height of the war. India, as a colonial possession, had been enrolled in the war immediately, as soon as it was declared — with no real representation or consideration of their interests. Some had argued that the county should be given immediate Dominion status, both for propaganda and morale reasons and as a basic recognition of their shared sacrifice.

That was resolutely opposed by Churchill and his close coterie, and India was put under virtual military rule. As rice supplies from Japanese-occupied Burma ceased, Bengal experienced real shortages. These could have been dealt with, but Bengal’s own rice fields were subsequently diverted to jute production for war supplies.

The resulting famine affected civilian Bengalis, but not of course the British army. The starvation of millions side-by-side with adequately fed troops and well-fed officers was a scandal at the time — and unsurprisingly looms large in Indian and Bangladeshi memory of the war. Indeed it formed an important part of one classic work — Amyarta Sen’s study of the politics of famine, in which he applied Karl Popper’s “open society” theory, to argue that famines happen overwhelmingly through failure of information and feedback. Sen’s argument tended to give Churchill the benefit of the doubt, affirming the idea that he didn’t know the worst of it.

Mukerjee’s book demolishes most of that. Not only is it clear that he was well aware of the famine, it is also clear that he refused to do anything about it. Other war leaders (including John Curtin) wanted to send grain supplies from Australia and elsewhere to Bengal — Churchill refused and instead stockpiled the grain in Europe, where there was already an adequate supply. Though the army provided some local relief, the refusal to supply grain was part of a scorched earth policy to deny the Japanese a food supply if they advanced further.

But worse still is the clear indication that the famine was allowed to happen (while others such as those in Greece had been averted), because of a racist disdain for the Bengalis. Churchill’s nasty remark when told of the first Bengali dead — “why isn’t Ghandi among them?” — was already well-known, but less clear was his belief, egged on by his scientific adviser Lord Cherwell, that the Bengalis were a lazy fecund people who would be disciplined by the famine into good behaviour.

Much of Mukerjee’s work relies on newly available documents. It doesn’t invalidate Sen’s argument, but it does show that the famine, once begun, was essentially used in the same way that Hitler and Stalin used mass death — as a political tool, or the wanton way in which Mao exported grain following famine during the failed “great leap forward”. Weirdly, there is a link between the Holocaust and the Bengal famine — it was the same racist disdain among Churchill’s clique that caused them to block specific missions to bomb the rail tracks to the death camps, with Anthony Eden remarking that the Jews “didn’t deserve special treatment”.

Overall, however, the Bengal famine reminds us of something that’s been lost in the intervening decades — debate in the UK and the US in the ’30s as to whether it was moral to defend Britain if that also meant defending the empire. It was one major reason why the US stayed out of the European war until Pearl Harbour. The debate was lost to history, in the West at least.

Will Mukerjee’s book bring it back? Will it crack the Churchill cult? It has the best chance yet, but it’s unlikely. There’s been a book about the famine every 10 years or so, but nothing really takes. Whatever remains of Western self-conception of virtue is grounded in World War II, and personified in Churchill. With the last fragments of legitimacy around the Iraq war dissolved, there isn’t much more left. The Bengal famine is unlikely to make an appearance in the curriculum any time soon. Increasingly, World War II and the Holocaust are used to obscure, rather than illuminate, the history of imperialism that is their essential context.

Peter Fray

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