Synopses & Reviews
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 his achievements, 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 a fierce resolve to crush its freedom movement and a profound contempt for native lives. A series of Churchill’s decisions between 1940 and 1944 directly and inevitably led to the deaths of some three million Indians. The streets of eastern 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 meticulous 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 World War II, 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 set the stage for the massive bloodletting that accompanied independence.
"Misremembered as a placid imperial bastion during WWII, India was in fact racked by famine and insurrection, according to this searching history. Mukerjee (The Land of Naked People) surveys a country seething with violence, as Congress Party militants agitating for independence turned to rioting and assassination campaigns after bloody police crackdowns, and an army of Indian guerrillas fought alongside the Japanese against the British. The author's centerpiece is a chronicle of the 1943 Bengali famine, in which at least 1.5 million died while British authorities continued exporting Indian grain. She blames the disaster on British policy, which, she argues, sought to extract as much war production and food as possible from India while printing money to pay for it; the resulting inflation priced food beyond the reach of the poor. Mukerjee sets her well-researched chronicle amid heartbreaking scenes of starvation, bloodshed, and pungent portraits of Winston Churchill and his advisers as studies in racial disdain and deluded imperial nostalgia. This gripping account of a historical tragedy is a useful corrective to fashionable theories of benign imperial rule, arguing that a brutal rapaciousness was the very soul of the Raj. Maps. (Aug. 10)" Publishers Weekly (Copyright PWyxz LLC)
Ramachandra Guha, author of India after Gandhi
“Winston Churchill’s dislike of India and Indians has been known to scholars. But now, in Churchill’s Secret War, we have, for the first time, definitive evidence of how a great man’s prejudices contributed to one of the most deadly famines in modern history. In her book, Madhusree Mukerjee writes evocatively of how hunger and rebellion in rural Bengal was a product of cynicism and callousness in imperial London. Deeply researched and skillfully constructed, this is a major contribution to Indian history and to the history of the Second World War.”
Mike Davis, Professor of Creative Writing at University of California–Riverside
“An epic indictment of British policies that cold-bloodedly caused the death of millions of ordinary Indians during the Second World War. With impeccable research, Mukerjee debunks the conventional hagiography of Churchill, showing ‘the last imperialist’s’ monstrous indifference to the peoples of the sub- continent.”
John Horgan, Director, Center for Science Writings, Stevens Institute of Technology
“Churchill's Secret War is a major work of historical scholarship, which reveals that one of the 20th century's greatest heroes was also one of its greatest villains. Mukerjee's elegant, precise prose and meticulous research make her tale of colonial brutality all the more gripping and horrific.”
“An important though uncomfortable lesson for readers who think they know the heroes and villains of World War II.”
““[W]ell-researched…This gripping account of historical tragedy is a useful corrective to fashionable theories of benign imperial rule, arguing that a brutal rapaciousness was the very soul of the Raj.”
In 1943 Winston Churchill and the British Empire needed two million Indian troops, all of India's industrial output, and hundreds of thousands of tons of Indian grain to support the Allied war effort. Such massive contributions, paid for by inflationary policies--printing paper money--were all but certain to trigger famine in India. Because Churchill believed that the fate of the British Empire hung in the balance, he proceeded, sacrificing millions of Indian lives in order to preserve what he held most dear. The result: the Bengal Famine of 1943-44 in which millions of villagers starved to death.
Relying on extensive archival research and first-hand interviews, Mukerjee weaves a riveting narrative of Churchill's decisions to ratchet up the demands on India as the war unfolded and toignore the corpses piling up in the Bengali countryside. The hypocrisy, racism, and extreme economic conditions of two centuries of British colonial rule finally built to a head, leading Indians to win their independence in 1947, accompanied by a brutal partition into India and Pakistan.
Few Americans know that World War II was won on the backs of these starving peasants; Mukerjee shows us a side of World War II that we have been blind to. We know what Hitler did to the Jews, what the Japanese did to the Chinese, what Stalin did to his own people. This story has largely been neglected, until now.
In the tradition of "The Rape of Nanking" and "A Problem From Hell," this account will change the way we think of Churchill and World War II
A bracing narrative of wartime India and the tremendous famine that resulted when Churchill sacrificed the lives of four million Bengalis to win World War II
Relying on extensive archival research and firsthand interviews, Mukerjee weaves a riveting narrative of the Bengal Famine of 1943-44 in which millions of villagers starved to death, and Churchill's decisions to ratchet up the demands on India as the war unfolded.
About the Author
Madhusree Mukerjee won a Guggenheim fellowship to write her previous book, The Land of Naked People. She has served on the board of editors of Scientific American. She lives near Frankfurt, Germany.