famine in world war II -- 10/3/23

Today's selection -- from Savage Continent: Europe in the Aftermath of World War II by Keith Lowe. Famine in world War II:

“One of the few things that united Europe during the war was the ubiquitous presence of hunger. International trade in foodstuffs had faltered almost as soon as war broke out, and ceased altogether when the various military blockades began to take hold around the continent. The first foods to disappear were imported fruits. In Britain, the public attempted to take this with good humour. Signs began to appear in greengrocers' windows, claiming 'Yes, we have no bananas' and in 1943 the feature film Millions Like Us began with an ironic on-screen definition of an orange, supposedly for those who could not remember what one looked like. On the continent one of the shortages that made itself most immediately felt was of coffee, which became so scarce that the population was forced to drink a variety of substitutes made from chicory, dandelion roots or acorns. 

“Other, more serious shortages soon followed. Sugar was one of the first things to become scarce, as well as perishable goods like milk, cream, eggs and fresh meat. In response to such shortages, rationing was introduced in Britain, across most of continental Europe, and even in the United States. Neither were the neutral countries immune to shortages: in Spain, for example, even staple foods such as potatoes and olive oil were tightly rationed, and the huge drop in imported goods forced the people of Switzerland to make do with 28 per cent fewer calories in 1944 than they had before the war. Over the course of the next five years eggs were almost universally powdered in order to preserve them, butter was replaced with margarine, milk was reserved for young children, and traditional meats such as lamb, pork or beef became so scarce that people began rearing rabbits in their back gardens and allotments as a substitute. The struggle to stave off famine was every bit as important as the military struggle, and was taken just as seriously. 

“The first country to topple over the brink was Greece. In the winter of 1941-2, just six months after being invaded by Axis troops, more than 100,000 people starved to death. The coming of war had thrown the country into administrative anarchy and, coupled with restrictions on people's movement, this had caused a collapse of the food distribution systems. Farmers began to hoard their foodstuffs, inflation spiralled out of control and unemployment soared. There was also a near complete breakdown of law and order. Many historians have blamed the occupying German troops for sparking the famine by requisitioning food stores, but in truth these food stores were often looted by local people, partisans or individual soldiers.


“Regardless of what caused the famine, the results were catastrophic. In Athens and Thessaloniki the mortality rate increased threefold. In some of the islands, such as Mykonos, the death rate was as much as nine times its usual level. Of the 410,000 Greek deaths that occurred during the whole of the war, probably 250,000 were due to starvation and related problems. The situation became so parlous that in the autumn of 1942 the British took the unprecedented step of raising their blockade to allow ships carrying food through to the country. By agreement between the Germans and the British, relief flowed into Greece throughout the rest of the war, and continued to do so for almost all of the chaotic period that followed liberation at the end of 1944. 

Child's ration book, used in Britain during the Second World War

“If the effect of war on Greek food distribution was fairly instantaneous, in western Europe the full force of the shortages took much longer to materialize. Holland, for example, did not feel the worst effects of famine until the winter of 1944-5. Unlike in Greece it was not administrative chaos that caused Holland's 'Hunger Winter', but the Nazis' long-term policy of depriving the country of what it needed to survive. Almost from the moment the Germans arrived in May 1940 they had begun to requisition everything: metals, clothing, textiles, bicycles, food and livestock. Entire factories were dismantled and shipped into Germany. Holland had always relied on importing food and fodder for its livestock, but these imports ceased in 1940, leaving the country to struggle on with what little was left after the German requisitions. Potatoes and bread were severely rationed throughout the war, and the people were forced to supplement their diet with sugar beets and even tulip bulbs.

“By May 1944 the situation was desperate. Reports coming from inside Holland warned of impending disaster unless the country were liberated soon. Once again, the British raised their blockade to allow aid through, but only to a very limited degree. Churchill was worried that regular food aid would simply end up in German hands, and the British Chiefs of Staff feared that the German navy would use the aid ships as guides through the mined waters of the Dutch coast. So the people of Holland were forced to wait for the liberation and starve.  

“By the time the Allies finally entered western Holland in May 1945 between 100,000 and 150,000 Dutch people were suffering from hunger oedema ('dropsy'). The country was spared a catastrophe on the scale of the Greek famine only because the war ended, and huge quantities of relief were finally allowed in. But for thousands it was already too late. Journalists entering Amsterdam described the city as 'a vast concentration camp' displaying 'horrors comparable to those of Belsen and Buchenwald'. Over 5,000 people had died of starvation or related illnesses in that city alone. The famine death toll for the country as a whole was between 16,000 and 20,000.

“The Nazis did not starve Holland out of pure malice. Compared with other nationalities, the Nazis actually felt well disposed towards the Dutch, whom they regarded as essentially 'Germanic' people who needed to be led 'back to the Germanic community'. The problem was that Germany had her own food problems to worry about. Even before the war the German leadership had believed national food production to be in crisis. By the beginning of 1942 grain stocks were all but exhausted, the national swine herd had been reduced by 25 per cent for lack of feed, and rations of both bread and meat had been cut. Even the bumper German harvest in 1943 did not stave off crisis, and while rations were raised temporarily, they soon resumed their decline. 

“To give some idea of the problem Germany faced, one must consider the calorific needs of the population. The average adult requires about 2,500 calories per day to keep themselves healthy, and more if they are doing heavy work. Crucially, this amount cannot be made up of carbohydrates alone if they are to avoid hunger-related illnesses like oedema - it must also contain vitamins supplied by fresh vegetables, proteins and fat. At the beginning of the war German civilians were consuming a healthy average of 2,570 calories per day. This fell to 2,445 the following year, to 2,078 calories in 1943, and to 1,412 calories by the end of the war. 'Hunger knocks on every door,' wrote one German housewife in February 1945. 'New ration cards are to last for five weeks instead of four, and no one knows if they will be issued at all. We count out potatoes every day, five small ones each, and bread is becoming more scarce. We are growing thinner and thinner, colder and colder and more and more ravenous.’

“In order to prevent their own people from starving, the Nazis plundered their occupied territories. As early as 1941 they reduced the official ration for 'normal consumers' in Norway and Czechoslovakia to around 1,600 calories per day, and in Belgium and France to only 1,300 calories per day. 15 The local populations in these countries only prevented themselves from being slowly starved to death by resorting to the black market. The situation in Holland was not substantially different from that in Belgium or France: the main difference was that Holland was not liberated until nine months later. The famine occurred because by that time even the black market had been exhausted, and the Wehrmacht's scorched earth policy had destroyed more than 20 per cent of the nation's farmland through flooding. By the end of the war, the official daily food ration in occupied Holland had dropped to just 400 calories—that is, half the amount received by the inmates of the Belsen concentration camp. In Rotterdam, the food ran out altogether."

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Keith Lowe


Savage Continent: Europe in the Aftermath of World War II




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