The British are celebrated for their self-effacing humor, pub grub, vast green counties, coal-covered cities and the urban beauty of London. They are not known as a cruel people.
Harper’s magazine has an article last month examining German sanctions imposed by the United States. What I read at the start of the article felt like a slap in the face. Crueler than American sanctions, were the sanctions imposed by Great Britain and the pride the government under David Lloyd George took in their efficacy. Imposed at the outset of WWI, they weren’t lifted until five months after the war ended.
General Herbert Plumer, then commander of the British troop in an occupied Rhineland, told Lloyd George that “his men could no longer stand the sight of ‘hordes of skinny and bloated children pawing over the offal’ from the British camps.”
John Maynard Keynes observed at the time that “the blockade had become by that time a very perfect instrument. It had taken four years to create and was Whitehall’s finest achievement; it had evoked the qualities of the English at their subtlest. It’s authors had grown to love it for its own sake; it included some recent improvements which would be wasted if it came to an end; it was very complicated, and a vast organization had established a vested interest. The experts reported, therefore, that it was our own instrument for imposing our peace terms on Germany and that once suspended it could hardly be re-imposed.” (emphasis mine)
The author of the Harper’s article, Andrew Cockburn, further notes that it wasn’t until “five months after the armistice did the Allies allow Germany to import food – not out of concern for the ongoing death and suffering, but out of fear that the desperate Germans would follow the Russians into Bolshevism.” This blockade, which was imposed during peacetime had, by the time it was lifted, starved to death 250,000 men, women and children in Germany.
I believe that there is a remnant of that cruelty, and that it is found in the NHS and in the British tendency toward a near gleeful drubbing of imperfect people who have done something wrong (specifically, politicians). As we saw in the Harper’s article and the example of the NHS, cruelty and an unforgiving public are still very much a part of contemporary British society.
We know from whence these attitudes probably came, but why do they persist? Well, that’s anyone’s guess, and I shall leave the answer to the history scholars. What most shocked me, though, was that the British were and are capable of such cruelty. Has this fresh look at the state of affairs at the time given Britain something to answer for?
I think it has.