Book Review: The Road to Britain’s Retreat

By Adam Tooze – June 24, 2016

The Wall Street Journal

Since the end of the Cold War, historians have finally been coming to grips with the scale of World War II. We now longer see it as a European war and a Pacific one but as a single Eurasian conflict. The savage fighting on the Eastern Front that claimed over 30 million lives is at the center of the narrative. The “rape of Nanking” now stands alongside the attack on Pearl Harbor in the narrative of the Asian war. More than ever, we are aware of the connections between theaters and fronts. As Jawaharlal Nehru, the Indian nationalist leader, put it in October 1940, “the coils of war increasingly strangle the world. . . . What happens in Europe is of great consequence to America, to India, to China. What happens in India and China is of equal importance to America and Europe. War is indivisible now.”

But despite Nehru’s confident assertion of indivisibility, blind spots remain, and the largest of these is undoubtedly the war in India. As Yasmin Khan’s “India at War” and Srinath Raghavan’s “India’s War” make clear, this is not by accident. Whereas the war occupies a central place in the national narratives of modern China and Russia, incorporating India into the history of World War II and World War II into the history of India is no small matter. For the country celebrated today as the world’s largest democracy, the significance of what the West likes to think of as the “last good war” is less than obvious.

Though two million Indian troops won great victories fighting alongside American, British, Australian, South African and Canadian troops at Keren in East Africa, El Alamein in Egypt and the inferno of Monte Cassino, their exploits had no place in post-independence India. These battles are remembered, if at all, only in the regimental traditions of the Indian army. If World War II is celebrated in India today as a moment of national heroism, it is far more likely to be the Indian National Army that is remembered, a force of 43,000 nationalists and deserters hand-reared by the Japanese in Burma to fight against the British. Its leader, Subhas Chandra Bose, escaped house arrest in the Raj and made his way to Berlin, where he enjoyed the hospitality of the Third Reich before being transferred back to Asia by U-boat.

But in truth, the men fighting in both the Indian army and the INA were a tiny minority of a population — then including both modern-day Pakistan and Bangladesh — that in 1939 numbered approximately 381 million. As far as the vast majority of Indians were concerned, their engagement on either side of the war was reluctant at best. At the moment of victory in 1945 the British authorities in Delhi laid on festivities, and the mess halls of the Indian army reverberated with one last hurrah, but few other Indians were in any mood to celebrate. Ms. Khan, a history professor at Oxford, gives the moment to an Indian lady who wrote to relatives in England: “You have won the war at last. Please let us know how you celebrated Victory day there. We couldn’t enjoy the victory celebrations fully here. It is all the same to us whether you win the war or not. We are in the same darkness we were in before…”

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