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Sunday, September 4, 2011


Blaming Britain (and in the subtext "capitalism") for the Irish Potato Famine and claiming it was a "holocaust" as bad as anything the Nazis did is old hat for extreme Irish nationalists. They almost always fail to note that there was a Potato Famine in the Scottish Highlands at the same time which led to hundreds of thousands moving to lowland cities or emigrating. They also fail to notice that many Britons contributed to famine relief funds, a fact pointed out by Andrew Roberts. Queen Victoria was not aloof from these trials as can be seen by her personal letters and the personal interest she showed in alleviating the suffering of famine victims contributing large sums for charity and famine relief. The famine was very real. As as a descendant of Irish and Scottish Gaels a strong memory of the Great Hunger (An T-Acras Mor) was part of our heritage. We often debated the causes and the policies of the governments at that time but the main conclusion was that it was absolutely fatal for any society to be based so heavily on a monoculture such as became the case in rural Ireland and in the Scottish Highlands.

Thomas Keneally is of course a novelist looking for sensational stories and I think one last chance to knock Britain the Commonwealth which he despises. But Keneally goes beyond any of the "Famine was deliberate school" to link Britain to other great famines such as the Bengal Famine of 1943-1944 and the Ethiopian famines of the 1970's and 1980's.

But Andrew Roberts is right these were not the greatest food shortages in modern history.

There is no doubt that Stalin's collectivization induced famines were among worse and largest and most unnecessary famines in all history. The Kulaks were efficient and productive farmers; they were killed for reasons of ideology and revenge and Stalin's paranoia more than anything else.

Greater in scope and numbers of victims has to be Mao's Chinese famines in the 1960's. In the Great Leap Forward the hills were denuded of trees to smelt iron and entire populations of birds were eradicated on orders of the Communist Party. This led to huge infestations of insects which devastated crops.

We all know of the hunger and famine in Nazi occupied Europe, particularly Russia but even Hitler's "Great Hunger" was brief compared to Stalin's and Mao's.

And in the case of the great totalitarian dictators famine was used as weapon and it was government policy to confiscate food and to deny food aid to victims. It was never British policy in 1943-1944 to confiscate food from civilians or to deny them any food aid in Bengal. As Andrew Roberts points out the Allies were in a desperate life and death struggle with Axis forces in Burma. Yes, they could have chosen not to supply Allied Troops and allowed the Japanese Militarists to conquer Bengal. But can anyone believe -can anyone actually believe!!!- that the Japanese policy towards starving civilians would have been benevolent? Their record in China, on the Death Railway, Allied POW's and in their occupied countries makes such a notion impossible for any fair and rational observer to even consider that anything Britain and her allies did could compare to the vastness of Axis war crimes.

It was never British policy to confiscate food from civilians and denying them food aid in Ireland during the famine years 1845-1851. And it is a great stretch to include Ethiopia in this mix because Britain was no longer a major player in that region of Africa nor a dominant world power.

Keneally's greatest calumny of all is not against Britain or her Commonwealth but against Prime Minister Winston Churchill. To this man and to his leadership we in the West owe our very freedom. It was he, not Stalin, who defied Hitler and made it possible for the Allies to hold on until the full strength of the United States could be brought to bear. To even consider placing Churchill on the same level of murderous terror and ruthlessness as Hitler, Stalin or Mao is contemptible and of course places into doubt Mr. Keneally's objectivity and accuracy as an author.

To write such lies and calumnies is to be on the level of a far-left or far-right propagandist with no respect for the facts and no attempt at finding the truth.

"Starved for evidence" is right. Thomas Keneally may be right that we must investigate famines and unavoidable human tragedies and learn from them. No rational person could be joyous at the suffering and starvation of millions. But there is a vast difference between catastrophes that are a direct and deliberate policy of a government and policy and catastrophes that are acts of God that no one could have predicted and that no one really wanted.

By the way, my wife and I have belonged to Children International for over 25 years and are sponsoring and have sponsored children in the Bengal region of India. We are not indifferent to the suffering of others in our own land and in distant lands. We know it is not enough to share the crumbs from the feast. We make a real sacrifice to make sure our monthly contributions are paid and we also make voluntary donations for Easter, Christmas, our sponsored child's birthday and also special needs requests. We know our sponsored children by name and correspond with them. We can never forget the hungry, the thirsty and the orphans of empire. But we do not dwell on thoughts of blame, hatred and revenge. Instead we live a life of service and dedicate a portion of our modest income to charity.

We can question to what extent governments are responsible for famine relief, farm policy and foreign aid. But to me the historical lesson is clear: the greatest man-made famines in the world have been induced by Totalitarian governments of the Far Right and the Far Left not by corporations like Nestle, American presidents or British Prime Ministers. The real question we should ask ourselves is why certain economic systems are unable to feed their own people and how authoritarian governments actively use food coupons and famine as a weapon of revenge. That is a famine story I would like to hear more about.