Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Was Churchill a Hitler? The Bengal Famine, the Raj and a Parlor Game -- Part 1

“I’ve nothing to offer but blood and toil, tears and sweat”, with those words Winston Churchill addressed the British parliament for the first time as Prime Minister. He continued “We’ve before us many, many long months of struggle and suffering” and called on the British people to “wage war against a monstrous tyranny never surpassed on the dark and lamentable catalogue of human crime”. He ended, defiantly that the aim is “Victory, victory at all costs- Victory, in spite of all the terror, for without victory there is no survival”.

On 13th May 1940 when Churchill addressed his nation and the world all that stood between Adolf Hitler and complete annihilation of modern civilization was Churchill and the British Empire. Poland had fallen the year earlier and triggered the war. US, thanks to the isolationists, was on the sidelines and promised help to Britain only on a cash basis. Stalin, for his own interests and because he felt abandoned by the Western powers, had concluded a treaty with Hitler. On 10th May 1940 Hitler’s war machine invaded France, Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg. In 46 days, by 25th June Western Europe, save England, lay prostrate at the feet of the Nazi Warlord.

In 2017 it is difficult, unless one immerses oneself in a bunch of books, to even understand a glimmer of how perilous the world was in that year. Soviet Union was plundering Eastern Europe. Japan had established a puppet regime in Nanking and flexing its muscles. France and the low countries were smashed by steel of the German war machine. By the end of the year Italy, which had joined Germany, was plundering Africa and Churchill, in a controversial order, had ordered Britain to destroy French navy lest it fall into Hitler’s hands. ‘Victory, at all costs’ was no empty boast. But what of his claim that ‘without victory there is no survival’? To answer that we’ve to understand the brutality of the Nazi regime. The invasion of Soviet Union and the siege of Leningrad, aside from the holocaust, show what a singularly evil empire Hitler presided upon. Descendants of former British colonies often nonchalantly toss moral equivalences that the Colonial regime and Nazi regime were essentially same and figures of economic decline and millions dead are often cited to justify the smug game of equivalence.

The Nazi Regime:

The Holocaust, while extensively documented and spoken about, for all its singular grotesqueness still is only a part of a larger systematic evil, the kind that the world had not witnessed until then. Historian Richard Evans in the concluding volume of his trilogy, ‘The Third Reich at War’, gives a vivid portrayal of the nature of the Nazi war machine. Selections from Evans’s extensively sourced quotes give a detailed grim picture of what the Nazi warlord planned for USSR.

“It’s inconceivable that a higher people should painfully exist on a soil too narrow for it, whilst amorphous masses, which contribute nothing to civilization, occupy infinite tracts of a soil that is one of the richest in the world”.  
“The German colonist ought to live on handsome, spacious farms. The german services will be lodged in marvelous buildings, the governors in palaces..Around the city, to a depth of thirty to forty kilometres, we shall have a belt of handsome villages connected by the best roads. What exists beyond that will be another world, in which we mean to let the Russians live as they like. It is merely necessary that we should rule them. In the event of a revolution, we shall only have to drop a few bombs on their cities, and their affair will be liquidated”
“In a hundred years our language (German) will be the language of Europe”
“ ‘We’re not going to play at children’s nurses; we’re absolutely without obligations as far as these people are concerned’. 
"They would not be provided with medical or educational facilities; not only would they be denied inoculation and other preventive measures, but they should be persuaded that vaccinations were positively dangerous to their health” Herman Goring declared in 1941, 'This year 20-30 million people in Russia will starve’."
A ‘hunger plan’ was developed whereby “practically the entire food production of the conquered areas was to be used to feed the invading German armies and maintain nourishment standards at home”. 

Evans, concludes that Hitler’s plans for USSR emulated what was already practiced in Poland but on a grander scale: “ethnic deportation and resettlement, population transfer, Gemanization, cultural genocide and the reduction of the Slavic population by expropriation, starvation and disease”

Hitler’s plans were for the “annihilation of the Bolshevik commissars and the Communist intelligentsia…The conflict will be very different from the conflict in the West”

Hitler, to be fair, drew his inspiration from British colonialism for he reasoned that if the British can subjugate and keep as a vassal state a land mass like that of India why could he not do the same to USSR or Europe. Hitler’s attitude toward eliminating intelligentsia was not too far removed from how Lenin and Pol Pot dealt with intellectuals and the intelligentsia. The terror of Hitler was in that he was the war lord of the greatest war machine that ever was assembled and he threatened the entire globe unlike Churchill or Lenin or Pol Pot.

The Colonial Regime:

The British colonial regime was by no means a liberal democratic representative government and surely one could argue that features of what Hitler spoke of inflicting on USSR could be seen as features of the colonial regime. If that was all there was to it then it would be a open and shut case but the history of British rule in India was a very mixed bag. 
India asked Lord Mountbatten, the last viceroy, to be its first governor general and after becoming a republic it continues to be a member of the British commonwealth. Almost all of modern India’s institutions, notably in education, judiciary, administrative and legislature, are all essentially creations of the Raj era. It is a fact that irks the cockles of the current nationalist sentiment that idolizes a distant memory as being unsullied and great, of course with little or no empirical proof.

Only the most superficial student of history would argue, like Subhash Bose thought, that the Colonial and Nazi regimes were interchangeable commodities. Where Hitler wanted to eradicate the Russians with false propaganda about vaccines the British established India’s modern health care system. 

The subject of Macaulay’s “Minute on Indian Education” is notorious for his uncharitable remark on the quality of India’s literary heritage but if a student of history looks beyond the churlishness one could see that for the first time India had a ruler who was seriously concerned about mass literacy and education for all. The debt that Indians owe to Sir William Jones and Monier Williams is inestimable. 

Lord Ripon, for example, was so popular amongst Indians that in the Madras state he was celebrated as “Ripon, our father”, in Tamil it rhymes, “ரிப்பன் எங்கள் அப்பன்”. It was thanks to Warren Hastings’s efforts that the Hindu scripture ‘Bhagavad Gita’ was translated into English and practically resurrected to life again. A Indian historian notes that “a history of Oriental studies is incomplete without a mention of Hastings….in his letters to his wife he used o quote from the Gita”. It is this Warren Hastings who was eviscerated by Edmund Burke in shining prose in his impeachment trial as being a man who “sullied the honor of India”. 

Historian S.Gopal’s in “British Policy in India:1858-1905” portrayal of the viceroyalty of Curzon shows the mixed bag that the Colonial regime was. Gopal records how Curzon was motivated to provide the best administration and focused on development and at the same time with his plan to partition Bengal practically gave birth to India’s Freedom movement. Curzon, Gopal says, invested heavily in railways, including bringing a British expert and extending the reach of railways, to provide famine relief. 

Curzon, thanks to a private donation, established a research institute for agriculture in Pusa. “Proposals were also made for the development of colleges and research institutes of agriculture in the provinces”. A far cry from the Nazi regime which was devising “hunger plan” to kill tens of millions of Soviets.

Two signal works on Indian philosophy, one by Dr S.Radhakrishnan and another by Deshpande, were undertaken under the aegis of Cambridge university. For all their faults the works in history by the likes of V.A. Smith were yeoman contributions. Sure, they all carried the faults of their time and handicaps of peeling back millennia of history that was layered but it is on their shoulders that any modern Indian academician can build upon. It is sheer idiocy and knavery to nonchalantly equate the Colonial Regime and Nazi Regime.

Without a doubt it’d be equally idiotic to argue that the Colonial regime administered India out of a milk of kindness. Exploitation and plundering of India happened like that of any previous invader, or, as for that matter, India’s own princes, most of whom were far from saints. British soldiers had ‘shooting passes’ which allowed them to shoot in populated areas. When Curzon tried to curb the grants of these passes a member of his council responded “that it would detract from ‘the respect for the white skin on which our hold on India so largely depends’”

Winston Churchill and India

It is time now to approach the central figure of the controversy, Winston Churchill and his attitude towards India as a colonial imperialist. 

Churchill was stationed in India as a young army officer between 1896-97. An indolent and unremarkable student Churchill underwent a Pygmalion transformation in those years as he devoured books by Gibbon, Macaulay, Plato and nearly 20 volumes of British parliamentary history. While Churchill discovered himself he showed little inclination to discover his host country that was considered the brightest gem in the British crown. Churchill was the perfect embodiment of Kipling’s verse which celebrated imperialism as “white man’s burden” to civilize the Orient. Indian’s would do well to remember that some of their most celebrated kings had no lesser paternalistic attitude towards lands conquered by them. The only difference between Raja Raja Chola and Churchill was their skin color. 

Churchill’s imperialism is best understood by his remarks on Jallianwallah Bagh massacre in the House of Commons. 

Edwin Montagu, then Secretary of state for India, and a Jew, sought to address the issue in the parliament and was cowed down by anti-semitic taunts. Churchill then rose and dismantled Dyer’s claims of having fired at a rebellious crowd. Refuting Dyer’s notion of having to install fear “Churchill knifed Dyer: ‘Frightfulness is not a remedy known to the British pharmacopoeia”. Then Churchill contrasted the British empire with Russian Bolshevik empire. Bolsheviks, he said, maintained their empire with “bloody and devastating terrorism which they practice”. He asserted that the British empire “never stood on the basis of physical force alone, and it would be fatal to the British empire” if they tried to do so.

Almost pleading for a contextual appreciation of Churchill’s racial attitudes his biographer William Manchester points out that racial intolerance, even until the 1940s, was “not only acceptable in polite society; it was fashionable, even assumed”. Manchester cites Churchill referring to a black man as ‘kafir’ and ‘mulatto’. Churchill’s attitudes towards were not only frozen but reinforced by a book like Katherine Mayo’s “Mother India”, a book that Gandhi called a “drain inspector’s report”. When told by a doctor that measles affected blacks Churchill retorted “Well, there are plenty left. They’ve got a high rate of production”.

The world in 1942:

What was the world like in 1942 when famine began ravaging across Bengal? 

On 22nd June 1941 Hitler’s war machine launched Operation Barbarossa and raced towards Moscow thus stunning the world, the Soviets and above all Stalin. Hitler, in chilling words, had written in Mein Kampf his precise opinions on Soviet Russia, the Bolshevik regime — “common blood stained criminals; that they are the scum of humanity” — and of Communism - a Jewish conspiracy. 

Max Hastings called the invading German army, “the largest invading force assembled in the whole of human history to this point”. The Nazi war machine proceeded inexorably to within 50 miles of Moscow. Evacuation of Stalin and his government was seriously considered. When the war was over Soviet Russia, more than any country, had bled by the tens of millions prompting Churchill to “pay a particular tribute” to their heroism in his VE-Day speech announcing the surrender of Germany. But, in 1941 that date was not even hopefully visible.

On December 7th 1941, “a date which “will live in infamy”, Japan, attacked the US at Pearl Harbor and crippled its naval power. The US, we should note, had an armed preparedness that ranked below that of Netherlands. With the US entering the war and the Soviets hanging onto their Fatherland by their teeth the War between Germany and Western Europe, particularly England, had become a World War.

As 1942 dawned it is impossible to state today the bleakness that enveloped the allies and how Germany stood at the verge of triumph. It was a state of affairs that continued well into 1944 even after D-day when the world largest amphibious invading force landed in the beaches of Normandy while the Red Army punishingly marched toward Berlin scorching every city in its path.

Until June 1941 England and Churchill faced the brutal onslaught of Germany all alone. Charles Lindbergh, legendary hero of the transatlantic flight, became a champion of isolationism in America as the spokesman of “America First committee”. Lindbergh campaigned actively against the FDR-Churchill Lend-lease pact. Lindberg reasoned that the US might aid the defeat of Hitler and thus open Europe to “rape, loot and barbarism of Soviet Russia’s forces, causing possibly the fatal wounding of Western civilization”. He openly was in awe of the Luftwaffe. 

Historian Richard Evans underscores how vital Soviet support was to the survival of the Nazi regime until Hitler decided to invade it. As late as 10th January 1941 “the Soviet union signed a new trade agreement which doubled the quantity of grain exports from Ukraine to the Third Reich”. “The Soviet union was supplying nearly three-quarters of Germany’s requirement of phosphates, over two-thirds of its imported asbestos….more crucially, more than a third of its imported oil”

Reflect on the fact that the Nazi war machine, having subjugated continental western Europe, supplied by Soviet Russia, was raining hell on London. A war machine that sliced its way to Moscow at lightning speed bore down on England. For nearly two years all that stood between Hitler and world domination was the British empire and its indomitable leader.


Note: References and citations of material used will be provided in the concluding part. 

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