Food Fights

Food Fights

The use of food as a weapon during World War II.


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 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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The mass murder of “useless eaters” began as early as September 1939, as the invading Germans crammed Poland’s Jews into unsanitary and overcrowded ghettos, where they were forced to live on what were literally starvation rations. In the Warsaw ghetto one observer saw only “nightmare figures, ghosts of former human beings” suffering from “emaciation and sickliness.” Desperate inhabitants fought over scraps, losing all human dignity. Thousands died every week; altogether as many as 100,000 starved to death, according to Collingham, though many of the dead had in fact succumbed to diseases such as typhus that were a consequence more of lack of public hygiene than lack of food. Worse was to come. Germany’s invasion of the Soviet Union was followed by massive victories and the capture of millions of prisoners of war, who were herded into makeshift enclosures in the open and left to starve to death. Cases of cannibalism were reported here too. Collingham says that 2.35 million died, but this is an underestimate: the generally agreed-on figure is as high as 3.3 million.

The invasion and war in general had an enormous impact on the Soviet Union. Collingham estimates that a third of all people worldwide who died during the war lived in the Soviet Union. Fully 15 percent of the Soviet population did not survive the war—eighty-five people for every Briton or American dead. Around 9 million Red Army combatants were killed, a reflection, among other things, of Stalin’s callous disregard for life as he forced his generals time and again to throw their troops into the fray. In Moscow in 1942, after the German assault had been turned back, it was said that “the sight of men and women falling dead of starvation on [the] streets became too commonplace to attract crowds.” The disruption of communications caused by the German invasion meant that troop rations, meager at the best of times, could be interrupted for days on end. Red Army soldiers became expert foragers, digging up crops, stealing peasants’ honey and potatoes, requisitioning animals and killing them to eat. Some would make a stew of boiled nettles or pine needles to ward off scurvy.

Not only peasants but also town-dwellers suffered. The entire economy was geared ruthlessly to war production. Civilian production virtually collapsed. This happened not least because everything, including food production and distribution, was entirely state-run. Nevertheless, the regime squeezed the agricultural sector into supplying not only the armed forces but also munitions and armaments workers and their families with food, above all with bread, handed out in factories rather than in distribution centers to ensure it went to sustain the war production effort directly by feeding the workers first. People marginal to war production—the elderly, the sick, the disabled, the very young—were denied the basics of existence and died. Overall perhaps as many as 3 million Soviet citizens perished from starvation during the war, though this figure is difficult to square with Collingham’s claim that the total number of civilian dead in the Soviet Union was as high as 20 million.

The United States, worried about the Soviets’ ability to survive under such conditions, shipped huge quantities of food under the lend-lease agreement. An American officer who accompanied one shipment was shocked by the sight of groups of “starved wretches” who gathered on the quayside where shipments were being unloaded to scoop up and eat on the spot “raw meat, scraps or steaming chicken guts thrown out with the [American] ships’ galley garbage.” But however bad life may have been under the Soviet regime, it was far worse under German occupation. Death awaited Red Army soldiers who surrendered, so they fought on. Hunger did not destroy morale. The Soviet Union was “fighting on empty” but it continued to fight, ultimately all the way to victory. The German submarine fleet’s attempt to stop American supplies from reaching the northern seaports of the Soviet Union scored some successes, but ultimately it succumbed to the Allied convoy system, the superiority, in the end, of Allied intelligence and decrypting ability, and the inadequacies of the U-boat fleet. And the situation slowly improved: by 1943 the Soviet Union was receiving more lend-lease food than Britain.

• • •

Yet it was not just the Germans who used food as a weapon and tried to deny it to their enemies. The drive for self-sufficiency bolstered by the capture of food-producing areas abroad was part of Japanese military thinking as well. Manchuria, already occupied in the 1930s, was seen as ripe for settlement by Japanese farmers, coercing the existing Chinese and Korean peasants into selling their land cheaply. But the settlement plan was not a success, and Japan’s heavy reliance on imported food meant that when the war in the East began at the end of 1941, supplies were quickly cut off by the Allies, just as conscription and a drastic fall in the deep-sea fishing catch caused a fall in domestic Japanese agricultural output.

Japanese forces abroad depended almost entirely on food supplies from the occupied areas. But just as the harshness of German occupation policy in Europe alienated food producers and caused a fall in production, so too the Japanese massacres of Chinese farmers, particularly in the rice-growing areas of Malaya, combined with the conscription of farm labor for road and railway building and the imposition of a huge indemnity on the Chinese population in southern Burma, left the remaining peasants unwilling to work and determined to hide their produce from the conquerors.

Compounding the disaster, the Japanese tried to introduce regional self-sufficiency in an area where food supplies depended crucially on inter-regional trade. The American blockade established in 1943 administered the coup de grâce to the Asian rice trade, with American submarines sinking increasing quantities of Japanese shipping. Malnutrition became starvation; starvation became famine. In Manila the price of rice increased tenfold between 1941 and the middle of 1943; by the end of 1944 it was forty times more; by the middle of 1945 it had increased fourfold again. Chaos and mismanagement were more to blame for this situation than any deliberate policy of starvation on the part of the Japanese. But like the Germans, the Japanese prioritized their own survival over that of those they ruled.

Collingham explains that the Japanese high command began the war in the belief that the “Japanese army [could]…continue fighting without food, if they had strong morale.” But hunger often saps morale and undermines the fighting spirit, as the Japanese troops were to discover; and in the Asian theater of war, there was no threat of annihilation by the enemy to keep them going, as there was for the Red Army in Europe. As Collingham notes, “During the course of its war with China and America the Japanese military went from being one of the best-fed armed forces in the world to a state of miserable starvation.” Over the decades nutritional experts had devised an innovative and highly effective dietary regime involving non-Japanese food as well as the basic staple of rice (mixed with barley to provide vitamin B). But the disruptive effects of the war with China and then the American blockade forced a halving of the military food ration; and this was still twice as much as the food ration allowed to Japanese civilians.

As American submarines disrupted supply lines, Japanese soldiers on the Pacific islands were particularly badly affected, with 15,000 starving to death on Guadalcanal alone. The survivors who surrendered were emaciated, suffering from scurvy, “thin as thread,” as their commander noted. Ninety percent of the 158,000 Japanese troops in New Guinea died of starvation and tropical diseases, and there were widespread reports that they were killing and eating some of the prisoners they took. In the Philippines 400,000 out of nearly half a million Japanese troops starved to death. The American blockade proved a highly effective weapon. On the other side of the globe, the Germans harbored hopes that similar measures would be able to starve out the British. The story of the Battle of the Atlantic, when German submarines sought to cut off supply lines from North America to the United Kingdom, has been told many times, but usually from the naval angle; Collingham gives it a fresh look by focusing on what the ships carried rather than on how they got their cargo across the ocean. More than half the calories consumed by the British were contained in imported food, but administrative confusion, a prewar depression in the shipbuilding industry and the diversion of the fastest merchant ships to war uses such as carrying troops all created severe bottlenecks in the food supply within two years of the outbreak of the war, if not earlier.

By the winter of 1942–43, the U-boat menace had aggravated the situation. Around 860,000 tons of shipping were lost in November 1942 alone, amounting to 9 percent of food shipments to Britain. Further problems were caused by the diversion of resources to supply the Allied landings in North Africa. “The country never realized how nearly we were brought to disaster by the submarine peril,” noted the wartime Minister of Food Lord Woolton in his memoirs. Yet improvisation usually got food to the right places when supplies failed to arrive. The British did not starve.

It was a different story across the far-flung territories of Britain’s overseas empire. The Middle East Supply Centre successfully reorganized trade and agriculture in the region to ensure that people continued to be fed despite the arrival of large numbers of British troops. Similar efforts were not undertaken elsewhere, however. In the absence of rationing or price controls such as had been imposed in Britain, rising demand caused by the need to buy up supplies for British troops fueled inflation, which soon put many foodstuffs out of reach of the poor in parts of the empire. Food supplies were cut off by wartime activity—some African colonies, for example, had depended heavily on imported rice from Burma and other British territories in the Far East, now no longer available because of the Japanese invasion of those countries. A drought in East Africa made things worse and famine ensued, spreading beyond British territories to claim 300,000 lives in Rwanda alone. Isolated island territories such as Mauritius were particularly vulnerable, and their inhabitants began to suffer severe malnutrition.

• • •

Worst of all was the situation in Bengal. The complacent and inefficient colonial administration in India did nothing to curb inflation, speculation and hoarding, even when Burma fell to the Japanese, depriving the subcontinent of 15 percent of its rice supply. Provincial governments in India reacted by banning the export of food to other provinces, strangling the machinery of trade in food in what one food controller called an outbreak of “insane provincial protectionism.” The winter rice harvest of 1942 failed because of a fungal disease that spread rapidly in unusually warm and humid weather. No measures were taken to impose rationing or force hoarders to disgorge supplies, for fear of provoking political dissent in the economic elites who were benefiting financially from the situation.

Churchill ordered a 60 percent cut in military and civilian shipping to the Indian Ocean, commenting that Indians should not take food supplies that could be used by the mother country. Thus Britain as well as Germany exported food shortages to its empire. Even if this was not, as with Germany, the product of a deliberate policy of starvation, the result was much the same: famine victims poured into Calcutta in the summer of 1943, a vast, slow, dispirited noiseless army of apathetic skeletons, as one observer described them. As many as 3 million people may have died from starvation and from diseases, such as cholera, associated with the movements of large numbers of people across the country.

The government imposed strict censorship to stop news of the famine from spreading, and it was only when Viscount Wavell was appointed viceroy of India in September 1943 that decisive action was taken. Worried about morale among the Indian troops charged with the recapture of Burma, Wavell overrode the disastrous policy of regional protectionism and introduced an effective system of rationing and distribution. Even so, Wavell had to overcome considerable resistance from Churchill and the government in London. Surprisingly, perhaps, the memory of the famine played almost no part in the Congress Party’s demand for Indian independence after the war; most of its leaders were in prison and did not witness the severity of the disaster. And the Indian elites who backed independence had been partly responsible for the famine themselves, as they had occupied prominent positions in provincial administrations during the war, above all in Bengal, where the famine was concentrated.

Meanwhile, other parts of the British Empire were mobilized to increase food production for the war effort. Australia doubled the amount of land devoted to vegetable farming and supplied vast quantities of dried and canned foodstuffs to the American forces in the Pacific. The United States itself had such enormous surpluses of food that it was able to provide a rich diet to the Pacific islands when it won them back from the Japanese. “We fed the Japanese,” one Tuvaluan islander put it; “the Americans fed us.” GIs, sailors and marines poured into the islands, spending liberally and fueling a rapid rise in prosperity. Yet as the conflict subsided, there was hunger everywhere, especially in the defeated nations. By the end of the war, indeed, food production in Europe had fallen to 36 percent of its prewar levels.

The desperate situation in the Soviet Union was made worse by the failure of the harvest in 1946. A year later perhaps 2 million Soviet citizens had died from starvation and associated diseases. In many places rationing remained in place well into the 1950s. The Americans viewed deprivation in Germany as a punishment for the crimes of Nazism, and stopped food relief from entering the country until they realized that a discontented and depressed population might become nostalgic about Hitler or could succumb to the lure of communism, as Stalin, even at the cost of his own population’s survival, sought to gain support in satellite states and the Soviet zone of occupied Germany by pouring in food. Only gradually, as the world economy recovered and then began to boom, did the situation improve.

Examining in detail the role played by food in the greatest of all political conflicts, the Second World War, was a brilliant idea on Collingham’s part. The Taste of War is breathtaking in its breadth and scope, global in coverage and yet anchored in detailed research. Despite the inevitable mistakes and inaccuracies of detail, which should be corrected in the paperback reprint, this is a book that anyone interested in the role played by control of food supplies in the war will want to read. Much of the material is fresh and compelling, and many of the individual vignettes, anecdotes and quotations are heartrendingly moving in their depiction of the immensity of the suffering many people had to endure.

Yet by looking everywhere for the impact of the “battle for food,” Collingham’s book has an inbuilt tendency to downplay other aspects of the conflict. Often this involves picking out one side in a controversial area simply because it supports the argument that food supplies were of crucial historical importance. For example, the sharp acceleration of Germany’s mass murder of Jews in the late spring and early summer of 1942 was justified by some German officials as necessary because of the critical position of food supplies to the German forces and civilian population at the time. Yet it is possible that the officials were simply providing what seemed to them to be a convenient military rationalization for an ideologically motivated policy. After all, there is evidence that senior SS officers had already decided in the autumn of 1941 that Europe’s Jews were to be taken to the east: the first large-scale gassing facilities began to be constructed in October and November of that year; the Wannsee Conference, held early in 1942 after several weeks’ postponement, already envisaged the ultimate extermination of the world’s Jews. All this was driven by the paranoid belief of the Nazi leadership that Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin were puppets of an international Jewish conspiracy against Germany that had to be stopped at any price.

It would be unfortunate if readers took away from this impressive book only the belief that the battle for food “shaped the events of World War II,” to quote the promotional copy, or that “access to food drove both Nazi Germany and imperial Japan to occupation.” Other, more significant factors were involved; the food supplies of Eastern Europe, for instance, were important to the Nazis principally as a way of securing Germany for the greater struggle with the United States that lay ahead. The Taste of War is a book, then, that has to be read in conjunction with other histories of the war; it views the conflict from one angle only, and the war needs to be seen in the round.

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