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At the same time as denuding India of goods, the British exchequer was accumulating debts to India that reversed the historic relation, and laid bare the true dependence of the metropolitan power on its colonial hinterland. Churchill’s anger against those he called ‘Baboos’ and ‘money lenders’ got worse as the war went on. Late in 1942 Churchill demanded that the Indians be presented with a counter-claim for the cost of defending India against the growing debt. The two questions of Indian loyalty and the Indian claim on future income were bound together in his mind: ‘Are we to incur hundreds of millions of debt for defending India only to be kicked out by the Indians afterwards?’ 15
Though Churchill was drawing up the bill, the British had no intention of defending India.
That was what Field Marshall and later Viceroy Archibald Wavell told Roosevelt’s envoy Louis Johnson. 16 From the Japanese advance they had learned that their colonial subjects had no loyalty to the Crown, and apart from the Chinese, would take the opportunity of an invasion to rid themselves of the British Empire. When General Claude Auchinleck asked for tanks for the Indian Army the Prime Minister asked ‘but General, how do you know that they wouldn’t turn and fire the wrong way’.17 With the progress of the Japanese Army towards the borders of Bengal – alongside the battalions of the Indian National Army led by Subhas Chandra Bose – the British were panic-stricken at the fear that Bengali saboteurs and provocateurs – the ‘Fifth Column in India’ – could ‘gravely impair the efficiency of Indian defence’.18 And so it was, at that crucial moment in the war, that the British forces attacked, not the Japanese, but their own colonial subjects, the people of Bengal.
The policy they adopted was ‘Rice Denial’. This was the same scorched earth policy that Churchill had demanded of Dorman-Smith in Burma and of Wavell in Singapore, except that this time they would follow it through. The authorities planned first to impose the policy across Bengal, but then re-thought and restricted it to a strip twenty-five miles in from the coast – which meant that the brunt was borne largely by Hindus, and much less so by Muslims.
The essence of the policy was that rice stores in the countryside would be seized or destroyed. The pretext was that they were being denied to the invading Japanese forces, but in fact it was the disloyal Bengali civilians who were being punished. If resources could not burned or blown up ‘dumping in the sea will suffice’. As well as destroying rice, troops and police were sent to destroy the boats that, in that low-lying delta were the only transport.
Wavell was not sure, but Amery cabled him on 27 March 1942 ‘it is essential that destruction should be ruthless and should achieve without fail total denial of such resources as would assist enemy operation’. Wavell, who had been humiliated by Churchill for letting the Japanese take Singapore was not going to fail a second time. More than 40,000 boats, two thirds of the total registered, were wrecked. Nearly ten thousand bicycles were taken from the Bengali town of Midnapore.
British historians talk about the Bengal Famine today as if it was a natural thing, and as if it was wholly unrelated either to the war or to the British campaign against Congress. It ‘began with a cyclone and the loss of imports from Japanese-occupied Burma, not with an order from Churchill to starve Bengalis’.19 There was a cyclone, and there was a loss of imports from Burma, but the cause of the famine was an order from Churchill to starve the Bengalis, the order was called the Rice Denial policy.
The truth was that Bengal was already at the point of collapse before the Rice Denial policy was put in place. As the British war effort sucked resources out of India, the country was close to starvation. While the Bengalis were being robbed of their rice, many different authorities were buying up what few stores were left in the country. The Civil Supplies Department was buying rice for the war effort, as were the Bengal Chamber of Commerce, the railways, the Government of India and the army. Prices doubled in days, and carried on rising. All the time government agents were buying up rice to store it in warehouses. In 1942 Bengal was made to export 185,000 tons of rice to Ceylon, the British Army in North Africa, and Britain itself, to make up the shortfall created by the loss of Burma. Ceylon was particularly important because after the loss of Malaya, it was the Empire’s only source of rubber. Linlithgow told Chief Minister Hug in January of 1943 that he ‘simply must produce some rice out of Bengal for Ceylon even if Bengal itself went hungry’. Over and again the War Cabinet had been warned of the impending famine – by Sir Jeremy Raisman in August 1942, by Lord Linlithgow from the beginning of 1943. Linlithgow was desperate by March, but Churchill was adamant that ‘they must learn to look after themselves as we have done’.20 Churchill was advised by Lord Cherwell, who, as we have seen, applied Malthusian logic to the question of Indian hunger: ‘In my view the Indians have got themselves into a mess very largely through their own fault’.21 The impending famine, though, had nothing to do with India’s population, which far from being a drain on resources was the source of the surplus that was paying for Britain’s war effort. It was Britain’s requisitioning – and its wanton destruction – of the Indians’ food and resources that caused the famine. That plunder was not incidental to the war, it was caused by the war; and the destruction was the policy that Britain pursued to crush those they feared would become India’s Fifth Column, the population of West Bengal. Already in 1942 Sir John Herbert was ordering the removal of ‘excess rice from the three districts within 24 hours’, while others reported thousands of tons of rice being destroyed.
Rice Denial was a policy closely tied up with the plan to crush resistance in India. In September 1942 police occupied Midnapore District to smash pro-Congress protestors. The District Magistrate ordered that relief should be withheld until the ‘disaffected villages’ give ‘an undertaking that they will take no further part in any subversive movement’. Police burned down huts and destroyed rice in those villages. When distribution centres were set up, villagers complained that police followed them home and smashed pots and trampled on the cooked food. The following January hundreds of soldiers and police occupied the village of Masuria, beating men and raping 46 women. ‘The war has to be won and the Congress rebellion kept under’, explained Sir John Herbert.22 Once the famine took hold around three and a half million Bengalis died. As the death toll mounted, the authorities went from denial, to bluster, to eventually demanding control over the relief effort.
According to the authorities the answer to the Bengal Famine was that the government needed to take control of the rice and distribute it. But Indians fiercely resisted the Britishbacked authorities’ attempts to requisition rice for famine relief. They set up their own Relief Committees like those run by Shyama Prasad Mukherjee, who called on cultivators not to sell to government agents, saying ‘the bureaucracy has taken away the food for the army and for exports’.23 Subhas Chandra Bose, with the support of the Burman leader Ba Maw, offered to give Bengal Burmese rice – that was only days away across the border – through the Red Cross.
Indeed Bose’s supporters in India were already active in Mukherjee’s Relief Committees distributing rice which the British were trying to grab for themselves.24 The British authorities dismissed Bose’s offer out of hand, preferring to see India starve than British rule exposed.
Chapter Twenty The Revolt Against the War As each of the belligerent powers pushed their people to work harder for victory, a growing revolt against the war effort began to build up. This was the hidden class war that was being fought beneath the official war between the Axis and Allied powers. These were the grounds on which all of the elites that were fighting each other were secretly united, in their hostility to their own peoples. In the factories, on the streets and amongst the troops, a revolt against the war was slowly emerging. Opposition to the war effort often started because of the onerous ‘sacrifices’ forced upon the ordinary people by elites. But because of the militarisation of society, any industrial dispute or protest was taken to be a direct attack on the ‘war effort’, the military and the government. Strikers had to take on troops in their factories, youth groups and gangs were met by troops on the street. Whether people meant to or not, they were often treated as if they were in revolt against the war itself, because they had spoken out against one aspect of it.
The most difficult place for any grass roots opposition to the war to take root was in Nazi Germany. The whole point of the regime was to crush popular, radical opposition. It was the country that had gone the furthest in ordering society on military lines. But even there, the working class could make itself felt.
Historian Tim Mason made the point that even in the extreme conditions of repression in the Third Reich, the German working class carried on a number of strikes that were recorded by the Information Office of the Labour Front, and successive acts of sabotage and unofficial go-slows worried officials in the early years of the war.1 ‘Unpopular measures’ Hitler told Speer, ‘might lead to riots’ 2 In April 1942 Goebbels pored over reports that morale was not good, and that a speech of Hitler’s had aroused doubts: ‘The German people are asking, in surprise, why he had to be granted new plenary powers and what reasons might have caused him to castigate and criticize domestic conditions thus publicly’. Goebbels worried that the speech had ‘spread a feeling of insecurity’ and that ‘the people now want especially to know what the Fuehrer now intends to do to improve the conditions he criticized’.
There is also some scepticism about the military situation. Above all, since the Fuehrer spoke of a second winter campaign in the east, people believe that he, too, is not convinced that the war against the Soviet Union can be finished this summer.3 Goebbels consoled himself with the thought that Waechter had planned ‘a great antiSoviet Exhibition in the Berlin Lustgarten’ which ‘promised to be an event of the first magnitude and to show the justification for our war against the Soviet Union’. He had some qualms and added that ‘of course I am going to see that nothing is included that might in any way be an advertisement for Bolshevism’. In the event the exhibition was the target of an arson attack by Herbert Baum’s communist underground group.
Baum had organised a circle of oppositionists, and had been detained as they handed out anti-Nazi leaflets. For that he was made to work for the Berlin Elmo-Werke factory in a special part of the plant they put aside for Jewish forced labour. It was among them that Baum organised a larger group of around 100 who were behind the attack on the Lustgarten anti-Soviet exhibition. A few days after the attack, on 22 May 1942, Baum was arrested.
Baum killed himself before he could be tortured and twenty of his comrades were executed.
In Dusseldorf a Committee to Struggle against Fascism had support mainly from foreign labourers and others in Nuremburg set up a Committee of the Red Flag.4 In Cologne an extensive Popular Front Committee drew in hundreds of German and foreign workers headed by Engelbert Brinker, who was tortured and killed by the Gestapo in 1944. But his committee sowed the seeds of resistance, and the authorities struggled to keep down a rising tide of opposition in the early months of 1945.
Small groups of leftists carried on secret meetings in workplaces – like Oskar Hippe’s friends in the International Communist Party – writing leaflets and trying to sabotage the war effort.5 Leopold Trepper organised a Soviet Spy ring in Nazi Germany and occupied Europe that sent military secrets and reports of troop movements back to Moscow, before he was arrested in November of 1942 (he escaped and survived, only to be imprisoned by the Soviets, as Hippe was by the East Germans). Harro Schulze-Boysen and Arvid Harnach organised an underground group that infiltrated a number of government and military offices.
The group made contact with Trepper and put up posters across Berlin ‘Nazi Paradise = War, Famine, Lies, Gestapo? How Much Longer’. He was arrested and hanged in August 1942.6 In 1943 workers outside the capital were being ordered back to Berlin for ‘Catastrophe Work’, while restaurants were closed to give up their employees to the war effort on 2 February of that year.7 The atomisation of the German working class, both at the hands of the Nazis, and then later under the allied attacks, meant that the marked discontent felt by many individuals was not organised.
Many youth groups with an anti-authoritarian flavour came together in the war:
In Essen they were called the Farhtenstenze (Travelling Dudes), in Oberhausen and Dusseldorf the Kittelbach Pirates, in Cologne they were the Navajos. But all saw themselves as Edelweiss Pirates (named after an edelweiss flower badge many wore).8 The groups sang anti-Nazi songs and fought with the official Hitler Youth. Three thousand names of alleged Edelweiss Pirates were on the Gestapo files in Cologne.
In October 1944, with the allied forces close to the western borders of Germany, Edelweiss Pirates and other oppositionists rioted in Cologne, which had been largely evacuated. Gestapo and other officials were attacked. The Nazi leadership ordered a terrible clampdown with gunbattles in the street, that ended with the arrests of 200 and dozens hanged in the streets – including six teenagers of the Edelweiss Pirates, one of them Barthel Schink.9
Political Opposition to the War in the Allied Countries