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Food Fights | The Nation

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Food Fights

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The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse—pestilence, war, famine and death—have always ridden together. Throughout history, war has brought death not only in battle but also from starvation and disease. In pre-industrial conflicts, marching armies trampled crops, seized food supplies, pressed young farmhands into military service and starved out cities under siege. Large groups of soldiers, traveling over great distances and living together cheek-by-jowl in makeshift and unhygienic conditions, spread epidemics, causing further suffering. In the Thirty Years’ War, from 1618 to 1648, up to a third of the population of Germany is estimated to have died from this deadly combination of causes. World War I was the first international conflict in which more troops were killed by enemy action than by disease. In the same conflict, more than half a million Germans died from malnutrition as a result of an Allied blockade of Germany’s overseas food supplies. Epidemics have rarely been a weapon of war, one reason being that they have a habit of spreading without regard to which side their victims are fighting for. But starving out the enemy always has.

The Taste of War

World War II and the Battle for Food.

By Lizzie Collingham.

Buy this book.

About the Author

Richard J. Evans
Richard J. Evans is Regius Professor of History and president of Wolfson College, University of Cambridge. His books...

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The combatant nations of World War I learned through logistical error and terrible suffering the importance of securing adequate food supplies in a prolonged armed conflict. Not least as a result of this experience, as Lizzie Collingham shows in her superb new study The Taste of War, these same nations went to considerable lengths to keep their armies and civilian populations alive and well fed during World War II. For Germany and in particular its leader, Adolf Hitler, the memory of mass malnutrition and starvation during the earlier conflict was an ever-present trauma. From early in his political life, Hitler wanted to conquer “living-space” for Germany in Eastern Europe and draw on the huge grain resources of Ukraine to feed the German armed forces. The Nazis had no intention of repeating the mistake of World War I, when rationing was introduced too late to save the situation. Indeed, although Collingham claims that rationing was introduced in Germany in August 1939, it had already been in place for two years before that. Already by the mid-1930s, military and arms industry conscription, the requisitioning of huge tracts of agricultural land for military purposes and the imposition of foreign exchange controls to curb food imports had led to a dramatic fall in food pro-

duction and a concomitant rise in food prices. In 1936 prices were frozen, and on January 1, 1937, rationing was introduced for butter, margarine and fat; consumption of coffee and citrus fruit was restricted early in 1939. The German economy was on a war footing long before the war began.

Hitler managed to keep people at home in Germany reasonably well fed until the later stages of the war. Collingham reckons that around 40 percent of the bread and meat eaten by the armed forces and civilians in the Reich was produced in the occupied territories or by laborers deported from these countries to work on German farms. Her claim that “in Germany the population only began to experience hunger after May 1945,” however, rests on too easy an acceptance of postwar memories, when many Germans blamed the Allied occupation for failing to feed the German population. Food supplies in Germany had already begun to break down in the fall of 1944, as the armed forces lost control over Eastern Europe with the westward advance of the Red Army, and road and rail communications within Germany were being severely disrupted by Allied bombing. The Nazi regime cut domestic bread rations from 12,450 grams in May 1944 to 9,700 in August, 8,900 in December, and 3,600 in April 1945. The meat ration was reduced from 1,900 grams to 550 over the same period. Nobody could live on what they were officially allowed to buy; a huge black market, run by escaped foreign workers, emerged, with gangs engaged in regular shootouts with the Gestapo. The incidence of diseases like tuberculosis, boosted by malnutrition and debilitation, rose sharply in 1944. And indeed, Collingham concedes that there were “worsening food shortages in Germany’s cities until, in the last months before the Allied victory, the supply system broke down.”

If food shortages were bad in Germany, they were catastrophic in Eastern Europe. Germany, as Collingham notes, “exported wartime hunger to the countries it occupied.” Beginning with a “hunger plan” hatched by the leading civil servant in the Food Ministry, Herbert Backe, and expanding in scope and ambition into the “General Plan for the East,” devised at the behest of SS chief Heinrich Himmler, Nazi food policy envisaged the deliberate starvation of between 30 and 45 million Slavs (Collingham’s claim of 100 million seems exaggerated), its effects to be accelerated by denying them access to medical care. When Germany invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941, cities like Kharkov, bombed and blasted by air attacks and house-to-house fighting, were left without basic facilities such as water, sewerage, gas and electricity. The infrastructure was destroyed. The occupying German forces banned civilians from entering or leaving the city. The retreating Soviet forces had already implemented a scorched-earth policy, denying the incoming Germans food by burning or ruining all the warehouses stockpiled with grain, corn, flour and vegetables. Half the population was evacuated; those who remained were condemned by the Soviets as traitors. “There are no stores,” wrote a contemporary living in the city, “no markets, no shops of any kind…. The town is void of eatables like a desert.” By the end of 1942 a third of the remaining 450,000 inhabitants were dead, almost all of them from starvation. In Leningrad (present-day St. Petersburg), besieged for more than two years by German forces under orders to starve the city out rather than take it by storm, with all the heavy military losses that would imply, at least a million people died of starvation, and there were widespread reports of people eating dead bodies in their desperation to stay alive.

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