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Churchill's Secret War: The British Empire and the Forgotten Indian Famine of World War II [Hardcover]

Madhusree Mukerjee
3.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (13 customer reviews)

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Book Description

26 Aug 2010
A dogged enemy of Hitler, resolute ally of the Americans, and inspiring leader through World War II, Winston Churchill is venerated as one of the truly great statesmen of the last century. But while he has been widely extolled for numerous successes, parts of Churchill s record have gone woefully unexamined. As journalist Madhusree Mukerjee reveals, at the same time that Churchill brilliantly opposed the barbarism of the Nazis, he governed India with total contempt for native lives. A series of his decisions between 1940 and 1944 directly and inevitably resulted in the deaths of some three million Indians. The streets of Indian cities were lined with corpses, yet instead of sending emergency food shipments Churchill used the wheat and ships at his disposal to build stockpiles for feeding postwar Britain and Europe. Combining close research with a vivid narrative and riveting accounts of personality and policy clashes within and without the British War Cabinet, Churchill s Secret War places this oft-overlooked tragedy into the larger context of the Second World War, India s fight for freedom and Churchill s enduring legacy. Winston Churchill may have found victory in Europe, but as this groundbreaking historical investigation reveals, his mismanagement facilitated by dubious advice from scientist and eugenicist Lord Cherwell devastated India, and ultimately set the stage for the massive bloodletting that accompanied independence.

Product details

  • Hardcover: 368 pages
  • Publisher: Basic Books (26 Aug 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0465002013
  • ISBN-13: 978-0465002016
  • Product Dimensions: 15.6 x 3 x 23.5 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 3.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (13 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 550,115 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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"(A) significant and - to British readers - distressing... It is a ghastly story, and the book's eye-witness accounts of the consequences for the people of Bengal make harrowing reading. Most recent western histories of the war in the east mention the famine as earlier chronicles did not. But Mukerjee's book offers the fullest account I have read...I myself have argued that Churchill's disdain for the interests of black and brown peoples besmirched his awesome wartime record. If the Bengal famine arose from circumstances beyond British control, failure to relieve the starving millions - or even to be seen to care much about them - was in substantial degree our fault."
--Max Hastings, The Sunday Times

"shocking, important study of Britain's treatment of India in the second world war."
--The Sunday Times

About the Author

Madhusree Mukerjee won a Guggenheim fellowship to write her previous book, The Land of Naked People. She previously served on the board of editors of Scientific American and now lives in Frankfurt.

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A terrifying story 19 July 2011
I can only endorse the other reviewers that this in an important book that reveals terrible events in Bengal in 1943-44 and at the same time shows up some of the worst side of Churchill, Lord Cherwell and many in the War Cabinet. Churchill's attitude towards Indians was unforgivable and makes me ashamed to be British, so it is some relief to read that he apparently relented shortly before he died. The book makes depressing reading but this story must be told and heard widely. While urging everyone to read it, I have to confess that I did not find the book well-written. It is a mixture of personal anecdotes, which are tragic, and factual records that often appears disjointed. Although a lot of research went into the book, and the references are comprehensive, what this topic needs is the skills of a professional historian.
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21 of 25 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Monumental Piece of Work. 15 Dec 2010
This is a work of monumental proportions that sheds new light on Indian and British history. Not only has Madhushree trawled through British archives and personal accounts from Chruchill's own right hand men, but she has also conducted original research by interviewing the survivors of the 1943 Bengal Famine.

Being a science writer, Madhushree analyses and lays out the facts in a meticulous and academic style. But do not be fooled into thinking that this is a dry academic read; her book draws the reader into the personal accounts and tragedies of the famine victims as well as the mixed joy of eventual freedom and partition. My advice is - do not read this book in bed - it will give you sleepless nights due to the personal harrowing accounts.

In Britain our education system still to some extent gives us a rose-tinted view of colonialism -spreading civilisation, removing savage practices, building railways etc. Madhushree shatters this image in the very first chapter but detailing how within 20 years of the battle of Plassey in 1757, the British East India Company brought poverty and terrible famine to this once richest and most prosperous corner of the planet - causing the deaths of millions of Bengalis. Again, with Churchill, our historical teaching tends to portray him only as a national hero, whilst dismissing as irrelevant his racism - e.g. his description of Hindus as "A beastly people with a beastly religion". Madhushree, through her meticulous research lays down a compelling case for how this racism was responsible for the deaths of so many in Bengal 1943.
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7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Excellent Scholarly Narrative 23 Dec 2010
Ms Mukherjee has produced a truely remarkable chapter in the Indo-British era in the 20th century,from written documents.

Any one interested in this relationship should study this book, and learn from these facts.

This book needs to be publicized widely.

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7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent... 30 Nov 2010
A very well documented and detailed account of the thoughts and strategies that were in play by the Empire and the results which were forced upon India.
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3.0 out of 5 stars Some reservations 23 Sep 2014
Firstly, this is such an important subject that is well overdue for in-depth study, so I welcome this book for opening the doors to a greater understanding. The best parts are - research on primary sources within India; the interviews with those who experienced these events and the oral histories - the latter ones being so important to capture now before its too late. The book is well worth reading for these alone.
I do, however, have a caveat. It was apparent, from the introduction onwards, that this is a highly subjective account (the description of Bengal as a Garden of Eden with a prosperous populace and kind, understanding and benevolent Mughal leaders until the East India Company took over was the first clue).
Churchill was certainly and unashamedly an Imperialist and a bigot, as was Cherwell (perhaps even more so), and there's absolutely no doubt their views influenced the response to the catastrophe to a degree. But it wasn't the only reason. The author does mention, albeit briefly, some other aspects - such as the fact that there was more than enough grain and rice within India to deal with the famine, and issues relating to shipping availability and its dangers - but gives them very little emphasis. She appears much more interested in placing all the blame onto the British leadership, primarily, though not exclusively, in London (but she does recognise the efforts of the Viceroy). There is no real mention that India had been effectively self-governing in everything except foreign policy and defense for a decade. There is no real mention that the famine was, in part, caused by the stockpiling of crops in Bengal by locals, and the unwillingness to free these up (largely due to the prospect of selling at higher prices, but also, ironically, for fear of famine).
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13 of 16 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Fine study of the Bengal famine of 1943 27 Sep 2011
Robert Clive had called Bengal `the paradise of the earth'. In 1757 Clive's forces conquered India. By 1770, there was a famine in which 3 million people died.

This brilliant book examines the 1943 famine in Bengal which killed 3.3 million people. British rule over India started and ended with a famine in Bengal.

Churchill did not mention the 1943 famine in his six volumes on the Second World War. He loved the Empire, but hated the peoples it ruled. As he wrote, "I therefore adopted quite early in life a system of believing whatever I wanted to believe ..." Churchill's private secretary John Colville reported that Churchill said, "the Hindus were a foul race" and wished that the head of Bomber Command would `send some of his surplus bombers to destroy them'.

Mukerjee observes, "During his 1930s campaign against Indian self-government, Churchill went so far as to warn of famine engulfing the United Kingdom if, `guided by counsels of madness and cowardice disguised as false benevolence, you troop home from India.' He feared that a full third of the English population would perish if the empire was lost."

In 1942 British forces arrested 90,000 Indians and killed an estimated 10,000. On 10 September 1942 Churchill broadcast the lie that the Indian National Congress had been helped by `Japanese fifth-column work'. In fact, as Churchill well knew, MI6 had been unable to find any evidence linking the Congress with the Japanese.

Viceroy Linlithgow told Bengal's elected Chief Minister Fazlul Huq in January 1943 that he "simply must produce some more rice out of Bengal for Ceylon even if Bengal itself went short!
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
3.0 out of 5 stars Good interesting read if a little repetive
Very long read and full of repetition
Published 2 months ago by Peter Michael Smith
1.0 out of 5 stars Written with an agenda and no historical perspective or context.
This book seems to be a rather biased view of a horrible event namely the famine deaths in India during WW2. Read more
Published 16 months ago by Andre
5.0 out of 5 stars It opened my eyes
This book really opened my eyes, I had no idea how deep the hatred and racism was and the cost of that racism of millions of people who were totally dependent on the British Empire
Published 16 months ago by Asghar Bukhari
5.0 out of 5 stars "I didn't see much difference between Churchill's outlook and...
Guess who said that? Perhaps it was Subhas Chandra Bose leader of the Japanese alligned Indian National Army? Or Nehru or Gandhi during an intemperate moment? Read more
Published on 4 Aug 2012 by S Wood
5.0 out of 5 stars Anatomy of a war crime.
Madhusree Mukerjee has produced a well researched and well written account describing and analysing the causes and course of the famine that struck Bengal and other areas of India... Read more
Published on 12 Feb 2012 by Germinal
1.0 out of 5 stars Was this famine REALLY forgotten?
Having lived and worked for some years on the Sub-Continent and being somewhat of a student of WW II I approached this book with an open mind. Read more
Published on 21 Nov 2011 by mufuliraman
5.0 out of 5 stars Truth will out
Whoever proclaims that he will be judged kindly in history because he intends to write it must surely be a man that cannot be trusted. Read more
Published on 5 Dec 2010 by Hande Z
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