The brutal actions of Germany’s SS in a Czech mining village one day in 1942 have rightly entered the history books as an exemplar of collective punishment, enacted largely to invoke mass terror among the population of an occupied country.
In deliberate planned revenge for the earlier assassination of a senior German official, ten truck loads of personnel from the elite Nazi unit descended on Lidice and calmly executed every male over 16. The exact number given as killed varies between sources, but one standard text on the Third Reich puts the final tally at 199.
Some 184 village women were sent to Ravensbruck concentration camp, where 52 of them died. Those children deemed capable of being Germanised were sent away for adoption; 80 kids weren’t so lucky and perished in the gas chambers of Chelmno. Lidice itself was raised to the ground.
The massacre at Amritsar ordered by a British officer in 1919 – described by David Cameron on a visit to that Indian city earlier this week as ‘a deeply shameful event’ – must surely be considered an atrocity of similar design and intent, and certifiably more costly in terms of human life.
Yet not all sections of the political right see things quite in this light. Hence a remarkable article by Thatcherite historian Andrew Roberts in – where else? – the Daily Mail, which effectively portrays the event as a sadly misunderstood humanitarian masterstroke.
Roberts is happy to accept that Brigadier Reginald Dyer ordered his troops to open fire on a peaceful gathering, but doesn’t buy into the ‘wildly exaggerated’ Indian claim that 1,000 people did not emerge with their lives.
Yet even if the slaughter was limited to the 379, as suggested by the subsequent British-led official inquiry – and even he concedes that sum is several dozen too low – Amritsar nevertheless topped the bloodshed seen in Lidice.
Central to Roberts’ bid for Dyer’s exoneration is that a single day’s display of marvellous imperial resolve averted a full scale revolt in the Punjab, and thus ‘saved thousands of lives’. This is a curious piece of moral calculus, which skirts round the issue of Britain’s lack of entitlement to plunder India in the first place.
The millions of deaths that would have been averted without colonisation – for instance, the minimum of 1.5m who perished in the Bengal famine of 1943, to pluck just one example at random – are airbrushed out of the equation.
What’s more, Roberts insists, one must take into account that the locals in Amritsar were getting horribly uppity. Three days before the incident, mobs had rampaged through the streets, putting banks – and bankers – to the torch, and beating up elderly British spinsters, he stresses.
What he somehow doesn’t mention is that the unrest had been triggered by clashes with troops following the announcement that nationalist leader Gandhi had been arrested, which had left 20-30 Indians dead. That’s hardly an unimportant detail here.
But what is perhaps crucial is what Dyer understood himself to be doing, and it’s worth quoting the man himself to make the point:
I fired and continued to fire until the crowd dispersed, and I considered that that this is the least amount of firing that would produce the necessary moral and widespread effect it was my duty to produce … It was no longer a question of merely dispersing the crowd, but one of producing a sufficient moral effect, from the military point of view, not only on those who were present, but more specially throughout the Punjab.
In other words, the Amritsar Massacre was a deliberate endeavour to instil fear in the name of ‘sufficient moral effect’. Substitute ‘Protectorate of Bohemia’ for Punjab, and I suspect that the officer in charge at Lidice could have boasted much the same thing. Any attempt to relativise either crime is equally disgraceful.