Saturday, January 15, 2011

The Taste of War: World War Two and the Battle for Food, by Lizzie Collingham,

Lizzie Collingham, a former research fellow at Jesus College, Cambridge, estimates that 20m people died from starvation and malnutrition during the war, slightly more than the 19.5m military deaths. Collingham estimates that an 60 per cent, or 1m of the total Japanese military deaths of 1.47m, were caused by starvation or the diseases associated with malnutrition. In a total war, controlling access to food is power so, as Collingham says: “Food was the fundamental basis for every wartime economy”. The Germans well remembered the first world war experience, when the Royal Navy’s blockade broke morale, and were determined to ensure that, in Hitler’s phrase: “If anyone has to go hungry, it shall not be the Germans but other peoples." Food production and consumption had always been the primary consideration behind Hitler’s plans for seizing Lebensraum (Living Space) in the east.

Herbert Backe was an agronomist who in early 1941 devised the “Hunger Plan” that concentrated on using the Soviet Union to solve the problem of Germany’s food shortages by “diverting food from the towns of the Soviet Union, which was estimated would result in the death by starvation of 30m Soviets” Backe’s plan would solve two of the Fuhrer’s problems simultaneously: it would annihilate the right number of Russians while feeding the right number of Germans. Hitler appointed Backe as his acting minister of food and agriculture in May 1942.

Backe argued that German agriculture alone could never produce the 3,000 calories per man per day needed by an active Wehrmacht, which at its peak numbered 9.5m men, a staggering one-seventh of the German population. Germany had already been forced to cut its bread ration by 600g in July 1940 and a further 400g the following June, and by early 1943 the Wehrmacht was consuming 62 per cent of all the meat in the Reich and 40 per cent of its grain. To close “the meat and fat gap” for the civilian population, Backe told Hitler and Goering that “the war can only be continued if the entire Wehrmacht is fed from Russia”. The campaign to exterminate “useless eaters”, as the Nazis termed them, such as the Polish Jews, can in part be traced to these calculations, and Backe’s obsession with gaining what he called, in a Nazi euphemism, the Reich’s “nutritional freedom”.

Starvation was also used as a military tactic in the far east; the callous requisitioning policies employed by the Japanese were responsible for killing 2m Vietnamese in the district of Tonkin alone in 1943-44, and between 2m and 3m in Hunan, China. Countless Chinese prisoners of war were deliberately starved to death by their Japanese captors who, by their surrender in 1945, could only find 56 alive to release.

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