How One-Sided “Historic Perspective” Conceals Economic Causes of Famine


Up to three million Bengali people died, according to Ms. Madhusree Mukerjee, the author of “Churchill's Secret War: “The British Empire and the Ravaging of India During World War II”; Basic books, 2010 ISBN 978-0-465-00201-6 in a man-made famine. Burma was captured by Japan in 1943. British-governed India was struck by famine after losing rice trade from Burma, supposedly because Churchill dismissed the Indians as “the beastliest population in the world next to the Germans”. Such coverage of the Famine in Bengal by historians is a rather good illustration  of the blaming game, when true facts are presented, but only some of the facts, not all, and then – out of context.


Text Box:  
Rationing in wartime Britain.  The Government ensured that 
there was at least 2-3 months’ food supply in Britain.  Not all food was rationed.

Read more:

Winston Churchill, for all my admiration for the man for his astute intelligence as a statesman, was an arrogant, prejudiced, cold-hearted, manipulative aristocrat, who – at least privately – allowed himself letting off steam by making curmudgeonly remarks that if made public, could have cost him his job. As we can see from Ms. Collingham’s book, however, Ms. Madhusree Mukerjee analysis is rather one-sided in that it ignores Britain’s own food problem with a real chance for food riots, potentially leading to collapse of the democratic government, even to a military defeat, as well India’s normal harvests at the time, which should not have caused any famine. Ms. Mukerjee quotes in her book previously unused papers that disprove Churchill’s claim that no ships could be spared from the war effort to deliver food to India; documents that show him stubbornly brushing aside increasingly desperate requests for food from British officials in India. What she does not note is the fact that the famine came at a time when shipping resources were indeed strained to the limit due to heavy losses to German submarines, and that India’s rice output in 1943 was no less than before. 


Below are a few excerpts from an interview conducted by AFP (Agence France-Presse, an international press agency [08 September, 2010 - 05H48 ]) with Madhusree Mukerjee, a physicist turned writer.   It elucidates her position. Her book displays some evidence that British Prime-minister Winston Churchill was responsible to some degree for the India’s famine, which could have been averted. Claiming that they had brought the famine upon themselves by “breeding like rabbits”, he refused to help.


The “man-made” famine has long been one of the darkest chapters of the British rule, said Ms. Madhusree Mukerjee, Analysis of World War II cabinet meetings, ministry records and personal archives show that grain ships from Australia were passing India on their way to the Mediterranean region, where huge stockpiles were being built.


“It wasn't a question of Churchill being inept: sending relief to Bengal was raised repeatedly and he and his close associates thwarted every effort,” Mukerjee told AFP  in a telephone interview. “The United States and Australia offered to send help but couldn't because the war cabinet was not willing to release ships. And when the US offered to send grain on its own ships, that offer was not followed up by the British.”


“He said awful things about Indians. He told his secretary he wished they could be bombed,” Mukerjee said. “He was furious with Indians because he could see America would not let British rule in India continue.” Churchill derided Indian independence leader Mahatma Gandhi as a lawyer posing as a “half-naked” holy man, and replied to British officials in India who pleaded for food supplies by asking why Gandhi had not yet died.


“I hate Indians. They are a beastly people with a beastly religion,” he told Leo Amery, the secretary of state for India. Another time he accused Indians of effectively causing the famine by “breeding like rabbits.” Amery once lost his temper after one rant by the prime minister, telling Churchill that he could not “see much difference between his outlook and Hitler's.” Amery wrote in his diary: “I am by no means sure whether on this subject of India he is really quite sane.”


Ms. Mukerjee believes Churchill's views on India, where he served as a young army officer, came from his Victorian upbringing. Like his father, he saw India as the fundamental jewel in the crown of the British empire. “Winston's racist hatred was due to his loving the empire in the way a jealous husband loves his trophy wife: he would rather destroy it than let it go,” said Mukerjee. Mukerjee's book has been hailed as a ground-breaking achievement which unearths new information despite the hundreds of volumes already written on Churchill's life.


Eminent British historian Max Hastings has described her book as “significant − and to British readers − distressing.”


“People suspected that something like this happened but no one really went through the evidence properly to find out what the ships were doing at the time, proving that grain could have been taken to India,” Mukerjee said. “I didn't set out to target Churchill. I set out to understand the famine and I slowly discovered his part in it.”


“The famine, you could argue, was partly a deliberate act. India was forced to export grain in the early years of war and in 1943 Text Box:  
Bari (in Italy) was an important British military port. Bombing of Bari on Dec 2, 1943 by Luftwaffe is known as the “second Pearl Harbor.” 

The allied command was arrogantly sure that Luftwaffe had been put out of business, so the raid by 100 Luftwaffe bombers came quite unexpectedly. The air raid lasted 20 minutes – but it was the “most destructive enemy attack on [Allied] shipping other than Pearl Harbor.” Though only four ships received direct hits, the bombs set ablaze a pipeline connecting tankers to storage tanks. Oil gashed into the sea, caught fire and set ablaze one ship after another. Nineteen vessels were destroyed. At 10:10 p.m. – two hours and 20 minutes after the raid ended – the US Liberty ship SS John Harvey exploded. Her top-secret cargo included 2,000 bombs  with 60 to 70 pounds of deadly sulphur-mustard gas. Contaminated were 617 sailors, 83 of whom died in terrible agony.

Sailors swam to safety through a mess of oil-mustard-gas. In absence of visible injuries, many victims remained untreated. Nurses, oblivious to the chemical injury, left the victims in their own clothing and gave them a cup of tea, a good English remedy for any malady.  Although the victims reeked of garlic – the typical smell of mustard gas – the medical staff assumed that was because… they had been eating Italian food.

Winston Churchill immediately clamped a tight security blanket over the whole affair; all medical reports of chemical injuries were eradicated; it was not until years later that the public learned the truth.

The Bari raid was a tri-fold disaster: 1) it was truly a second Pearl Harbor, one of the most notable Luftwaffe exploits of the war. 2) It was the only poison gas incident of World War II, not only a major embarrassment as an act inconsistent with international law, but a tragedy made worse for the unsuspecting victims, including Italian civilians due to secrecy; 3) the lost oil, gasoline and other supplies and the loss of the port gravely endangered Allied operations and resulted in numerous additional military casualties.

For a more complete coverage, see World War II: German Raid on Bari, History Net

was exporting rice at Churchill's personal insistence. Britain ruthlessly exploited India during war and didn't let up even when famine started.” Mukerjee, a 49-year-old Bengali who now lives in Frankfurt with her German husband, believes the Bengal famine has also been white-washed from Indian history books. “I was never taught about it in school and my parents never mentioned it,” she said. “There's middle-class guilt as they were employed in professions that meant they received rations. But villagers were considered dispensable.”


“He [Churchill] is often criticized for bombing German cities but has never before been held directly responsible for the deaths of so many people as in the Bengal famine. It was the greatest stain on his career.” “I find it very hard to be open-minded about him now," she said. "After all, he would have thought that I am not worth the food I eat.”


It is in light of Britain’s dwindling food supply, and in view of the military threat that Japan posed to India, that we should view Churchill’s reluctance to use military resources to alleviate the Bengal famine of 1943, especially in view of the reports of adequate total grain production in India. Although Britain made major efforts to increase its own food production, by November 1942 the Ministry of Food was rather in a panic mode when in that month alone 860,000 tons of merchant shipping was lost to German submarines, aircraft and sea-mines. By March 1943 the ministry estimated that Britain had only 2-3 months supply of food.


Food riots were much on Mr. Churchill’s mind, which explains his postwar statement that the German U-boat threat during the battle of the Atlantic had been the only thing that had ever kept him awake at night.

Lizzie Collingham spreads the blame more evenly than do some modern revisionist writers, such as Madhusree Mukerjee, who explain the famine strictly in terms of the prime minister’s supposed bigotry and hatred of Indians. Mr. Churchill may have been bigoted at heart, but his alleged bigotry did not cause famine. Indian authorities did little to prevent famine or help the victims of famine. 

A young woman in my class once complained of our economics professor that his manner of teaching was geared towards males just because he occasionally used some minimal math, too little of it to my liking. She just wanted to allocate blame and punish the guilty, in the name of “social justice.” Similarly, Ms. Mukerjee seem to have chosen to ignore, or is unaware of the market forces: the proverbial “fear and greed,” exacerbated by the war resulted in hoarding of the grains, limiting market supply and driving up prices. In a free economy, when prices start spiraling up, there is no insentive for producers of food to sell the food now, when they anticipate higher prices in the future. Indian authorities failed to arrest this process: “In June 1943, when the famine was at its height,” Collingham wrote, “Sir Chhotu Ram, the revenue minister of Punjab, instructed his farmers not to sell their grain to the government under a certain price,” and “the provincial government of Bengal was in Indian hands at the time, and while British district officers might have been incompetent in responding to the developing crisis, the old structures of welfare and charity among the Indian wealthy had also broken down.”

The “purely historical” analysis absolutely fails to recognize market forces; it fails to avoid biases when attempting to distribute the blame. Quite a different picture emerges from a politico-economical analysis. An important factor in Bengali famine was that… there was more than sufficient supply and productions of rice and grains in Bengal to feed the population, according to Amartya Sen, an Indian (Bengali) economist, the 1998 Nobel Prize winner in Economics, distinguished fellow at Oxford and Cambridge Universities and later – Professor of Economics at Harvard University, but the greed and fear, two powerful emotions, prevailed.


There had been no crop failures in India and no famine was expected. Its root causes, Sen argued, lay in uncontrollable rumors of shortages, and the panic that ensued, which resulted in rapid hoarding and steep price inflation.  This was much more severe than what happened with the price of crude oil in the first half of 2011, when the peoples of Middle East, particularly Egypt, Libya and Syria went on massive anti-government protests, giving rise to fears of oil shortages.



In Berlin, in the final, bitter days of fighting in April of 1945, there was a popular joke:  The fighting won't stop until Goring fits into Goebbels's trousers.” Here are both of the Aryan Super-humans: the “fatso” and the “puny puke,” at the right and left sides of “the Messiah”, The Fürher.


In Prof. Sen's interpretation, Bengali landowning peasants who grew rice, profited as the prices on rice went skywards. Quite simply, although Bengal had enough rice and other grains to feed itself, millions of people were suddenly too poor to buy it and starved to death.[1]  Such disaster would not have happened in a command economy – Nazi Germany or the USSR, where supplies would have been distributed equitably, more or less, by forced confiscations perhaps, no matter how unfair. Yet, had the British introduced command structures for distribution at that time  – they would have met national resistance and accusations of imperialist exploitation, no matter the results.


Post-War Hunger in Germany


In 1941 Germans hardly fathomed they would go hungry, as they did in May 1945 - although they would not face mass starvation as the Nazi regime had envisaged for millions of inhabitants of a conquered Eastern Europe. 


After their country was occupied by the victorious Allies, not only were the Germans no longer able to profit from the exploitation and misery of other Europeans; they now had to meet the costs of Allied occupation and to pay reparations at a time when not just German industry but also German agriculture were at rock bottom. What followed was a food crisis of major proportions. Eastern Europe was in ruins, its populations starving. England had trouble feeding its own population, let alone its zone of occupied Germany. The allied struggled to uphold the food rations in Germany even at a low 1,100 calories per person in the French and English occupation zones. But Germany slowly rose from ruins.   Death by starvation is slow and undramatic, and in the annals of war, in popular books and films, it is largely ignored.

Text Box:  Berlin, May 1945.  Soviet Army field kitchen distributing hot 
food to the German population of the city.

A frequent complaint from the Soviet military personnel in Germany was that the Soviet authorities provided Germans with far better rations and distribution network than their surviving family members had back in starving Russia.


“... In May 1945 the Russians had saved Berlin from starvation. Every person received 3/4 lb. of potatoes a day, but the other rations among five categories varied greatly: bread from 20 oz. to 10 oz., meat from 3 oz. to 2/3 oz., sugar from 1 oz. to 1/2 oz. Some food even had to be brought from Russia...”[2]  The caloric intake for German civilians in the Russian zone was set to an ambitious 1,240 calories, but supplies were coming in with sporadic interruptions even to the Soviet troops, as Eastern Europe and Germany lay in ruins.


The ‘Victorious’ USSR Starving its own People to Feed Germany


Before I am attacked as presumably taking sides and exaggerating the alleged generosity of the Soviets, the fact remains that between 1 and 1.5 million Russians starved in the last famine that hit the USSR between July 1946 and August 1947[3], even though the country’s food rationing system was already stretched beyond its limits in 1945. During the famine, the Soviet government supplied rations to the state employees and continued to export at least as much grain as before, mostly to Text Box:  

Red Army soldiers distributing rationed bread. Note the trophy SS Dagger used as a knife for bread-cutting.
East Germany and Poland, now the Eastern Block allies. [4]. Unlike the US, there was hardly a post-war baby boom in the USSR, partly because the mail population was decimated and for several generations of women the hopes of having a regular family were dashed, partly – because of famine.   To stimulate the country’s birth rate Stalin suspended the laws of child support, giving single mothers state payments instead and levying “childless” tax on all adults who had no children living with them.


<<               The battle for Berlin had brought to an end the bloodiest conflict in European history. 'There's no family in the Soviet Union, Poland or Germany where they didn't lose at least one close relative,' said Beevor in our final interview. 'In Britain, the suffering was real, but it simply cannot be compared to the scale of suffering in Central Europe.'  [5]         >>



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[1] Sen, A. “Poverty and Famines: An Essay on Entitlement and Deprivation,” 1981, Oxford University Press. ISBN# 0198284632, PP 70-78;


[2] Russia At War 1941-1945, by Alexander Werth, Carroll & Graft, NY 1984, 2000;  page 886.

[3]  Michael Ellman, The 1947 Soviet Famine and the Entitlement Approach to Famines; Cambridge Journal of Economics 24 (2000): 603-630.

[4] Hanson, P. 2003: The rise and fall of the Soviet economy: An economic history of the USSR from 1945. Pearson Education Limited: London.

[5] BBC. The Battle for Berlin in World War Two, By Tilman Remme; Last updated 2011-03-10