The Taste of War: World War Two and the Battle for Food
By Lizzie Collingham, 656 pp. The Penguin Press, 2012. $35.
‘We’re supposed to die of starvation, to make place for the Germans.” This was how the people of Kiev felt after Nazi occupiers began to choke off food supplies from their city in the summer of 1942. Ukrainian potatoes and chickens were sent instead to the conquerors: Joseph Goebbels announced with punning satisfaction that Germans were “digesting” the occupied territories. In Warsaw’s Jewish ghetto, minced cattle rectums became a delicacy.
The basic human need for food extended World War II’s horrors far beyond the bloody front lines. Lizzie Collingham documents in awful detail how hunger tormented hundreds of millions of people around the globe as Axis leaders and, to a lesser extent, the Allies prioritized food allocations to soldiers, war workers, and home populations—and in the process left subject peoples to starve.
Food policy shaped the course of the war to an astonishing extent. In May 1942, Hitler explained to young military officers, “It is a battle for food, a battle for the basis of life, for the raw materials the earth offers, the natural resources that lie under the soil and the fruits that it offers to the one who cultivates it.” The führer’s determination to acquire Lebensraum (room to live) not only precipitated the European conflict but also prompted the German attack on the Soviet Union. The diabolical Nazi Hunger Plan envisaged using famine to kill off Slavs, thereby releasing food and land for Germans: Collingham notes that by February 1942, 60 percent of the 3.35 million Soviet prisoners in German hands had starved to death. The Holocaust, too, originated partly in food policy: the desire to get rid of “useless eaters” helped motivate the decision to exterminate Polish Jews. Similarly, Japan invaded Manchuria and evicted Chinese and Koreans because it sought land for Japanese farmers.
Sadly, the Allies also starved civilians. Famine broke out in India when Winston Churchill favored British civilians over imperial subjects in the allocation of grain and shipping. The Allied blockade of Europe combined with appropriations by Axis occupiers to create famine in Greece. Chinese Nationalists looted so much food from local peasants that their countrymen turned against them—and, fatefully, to the communists.
This exhaustive study is a trifle too long. Nonetheless, The Taste of War serves up a devastating new perspective on the role of famine in World War II.
Originally published in the June 2012 issue of World War II. To subscribe, click here.