The Taste of War: World War Two and the Battle for Food, by Lizzie Collingham, Allen Lane, RRP£30, 656 pages
There have been plenty of histories of the second world war that have sought to explain its outcome by concentrating on the part played by weaponry, economics, ideology, grand strategy and so on, but this is the first to view the struggle entirely through the prism of food. It argues that the side that somehow managed to continue consuming acceptable amounts of protein, carbohydrates, but above all fats, won. This fascinating calorie-centric history of the greatest conflict in world history is scholarly and well-written but, above all, wholly convincing. In a curious inversion of neo-Darwinist Nazi philosophy, the second world war was a case of the survival of the fattest.
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. 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.”
In the course of her research, Collingham has uncovered a new Nazi monster whose name will not be as familiar as those of Goebbels, Himmler and Goering, but who was just as evil. 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”. Food production and consumption had always been the primary consideration behind Hitler’s plans for seizing Lebensraum (Living Space) in the east, and 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”. In fact, the Allies, by careful management of resources, managed to keep fats in their soldiers’ and civilians’ diets, whereas the Axis often failed to; Collingham estimates that an astonishing 60 per cent, or 1m of the total Japanese military deaths of 1.47m, were caused by starvation or the diseases associated with malnutrition. By contrast, no Allied armies starved to death.
Meanwhile, Britain introduced butter, sugar and bacon rationing in January 1940. That March it was extended to meat, a ration that was set at 14oz a week the following year. The US introduced meat rationing at 28oz per week in March 1943, extending it to canned goods, fats and cheese the following month, but meat rationing was lifted by May 1944 and thenceforth the sheer abundance of American food can be seen as an index of its coming global hegemony. The US ended all food rationing the very day after Japan surrendered, whereas Britain was actually forced to introduce it for bread and potatoes in July 1946, and all food rationing did not end until July 1954.
Although Britain made heroic efforts to increase food production, by November 1942 the Ministry of Food began to panic when in that month alone 860,000 tonnes of merchant shipping was lost to submarines, aircraft and mines. Without imports of flour, meat, sugar and fats, it warned the cabinet and US food officials, Britain could only hold out for four to six months. By March 1943 the ministry was forced to halve that figure. It is fair to say that food riots were high on the list of threats that Churchill feared could lose Britain the war, which explains his postwar statement that the U-boat threat during the battle of the Atlantic had been the only thing that had ever kept him awake at night.
It is in that light, and of course the military threat that Japan posed to India, that one should judge Churchill’s reluctance to divert military and other resources to alleviate the devastating Bengal famine of 1943, which claimed up to 3m lives. Collingham rightly spreads the blame far more widely than some modern revisionist historians, who try to explain the famine in terms of the prime minister’s supposed hatred of Indians. “In June 1943, when the famine was at its height,” Collingham tells us, “Sir Chhotu Ram, the revenue minister of Punjab, instructed his farmers not to sell their grain to the government under a certain price,” and “the provincial government of Bengal was in Indian hands at the time, and while British district officers might have been incompetent in responding to the developing crisis, the old structures of welfare and charity among the Indian wealthy had also broken down.”
Starvation was 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.
The story is horrific but, after this book, no historian will be able to write a comprehensive history of the second world war without putting the multifarious issues of food production and consumption centre stage. It also provides a salutary antidote to anyone who genuinely thinks we are presently living in an “age of austerity”.
Andrew Roberts is author of ‘The Storm of War: A New History of the Second World War’ (Penguin)