Useless Eaters

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Review of Lizzie Collingham, The Taste of War: World War II and the Battle for Food (The Penguin Press, 2012), xxii + 634 pgs..

I was intrigued by this statement inside the book’s dust jacket: “Focusing on both the winners and losers in the battle for food, The Taste of War brings to light the striking fact that war-related hunger and famine were not only caused by Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan, but were also the result of Allied mismanagement and neglect, particularly in India, Africa, and China.”

Hunger and famine as a result of Allied polices? World War II is always presented as an epic struggle of good (Allies) vs. evil (Axis). After all, it is known as the good war. How, then, could the Allies let something like that happen? It turns out that during World War II over 20 million people died from starvation or malnutrition and its associated diseases. This rivals the number of military deaths. I guess the good war wasn’t so good after all.

If I had to describe this book in five words I would simply say: informative, captivating, chilling, original, overdue. As my previous review, this will not be a review in the traditional sense. You can read a traditional New York Times review of the book here.

Sometimes intentional, sometimes consequential—food was a weapon in World War II. The author aims to show how “food, and in particular the lack of it, was central to the experience of World War II.” This she succeeds in doing, and doing rather well. Food played a role in driving both Germany and Japan to war. American’s dominance “was not only a result of the United States’ immense industrial production but also its abundance of food.” A central preoccupation for the governments of all the countries fighting was “securing a food supply.” Every sector of a country’s war economy “relied on the food sector.” Total war places “an immense strain on the food system.” “Food was the fundamental basis for every wartime economy.”

The chilling accounts in The Taste of War about Axis food polices come as no surprise:

The deliberate extermination by starvation of targeted groups became a defining feature of the National Socialist food system.

[Herbert Backe] argued that the Wehrmacht could be fed by diverting Ukrainian grain from Soviet cities. This would solve the problem of feeding a vast army while conveniently eliminating the Soviet urban population, who would starve to death.

Altogether the regime’s agrarian vision for the east generated plans to murder up to 100 million people.

During the Second World War the National Socialists would argue that the need to secure a minimum food ration of 2,300 calories per day for ordinary Germans justified the extermination of 30 million urban Soviets, over 1 million Soviet prisoners of war, and at least as many Polish Jews.

The majority of the 100,000 Jews who died in the Warsaw ghetto succumbed to starvation.

A proportion of the 200,000 mentally ill victims of Germany’s euthanasia programme and 2.35 million Soviet prisoners of war were all given so little food that they were slowly but systematically starved to death.

Although the National Socialists were at their most ruthless in exporting hunger to the Soviet Union and Poland, the plunder of foodstuffs from other occupied countries resulted in a famine which killed 500,000 in Greece, increased death and infant mortality rates and spread malnutrition, particularly among children, in Czechoslovakia, Poland, France, Belgium and Holland. During the Hunger Winter of 1944-45, 22,000 Dutch succumbed to starvation when the Germans cut off supplies to those parts of Holland which the Allies had failed to liberate.

The relentless extraction of food from China in order to feed the Japanese homeland caused chronic hunger and malnutrition among the Chinese population.

Despite the fact that so much has been written about the siege of Leningrad, it is less well known that the Germans regarded the death by starvation of its inhabitants as only one element in a far larger plan to eliminate as many Soviet consumers—or, rather, “useless eaters”—as possible.

What is surprising, however, is the starvation that resulted from Allied policies.

India, which, as part of the British Empire, supplied “a large proportion of the soldiers who fought against the Japanese.” Yet, in Bengal, the “Allied powers made their own substantial contribution to wartime hunger, malnutrition and starvation” when 3 million Indians “died of a preventable man-made famine.” Collingham writes:

Despite India’s strategic importance, the Indian government made lamentably little effort to maintain economic stability within the colony, particularly in comparison to the work of the Middle East Supply Centre, which exercised far less power. Indeed, in 1942-43 the Indian government presided over the development of a nationwide food shortage, which in Bengal developed into full-scale famine. At least 1.5 million Bengalis died during 1943-44, when food scarcity was at its height. Altogether about 3 million may have died as a result of the famine as epidemics of smallpox, cholera and a particularly nasty strain of malaria which killed those weakened by malnutrition. This was a death toll greater than that for Indians in combat in both the First and Second World Wars, and it overshadows the death toll of 60,000 British civilians killed by aerial bombing. If the Middle East Supply Centre was a British success story, the failure of the colonial government in India to protect the sub-continent’s inhabitants from the inflationary consequences of war was, in the words of Leo Amery, Secretary of State for India, “the worst blow we have had to our name as an Empire in our lifetime.”

Meanwhile, in Greece, which was “dependent on the annual import of 450,000 tones of American grain for one-third of its food,” Greeks were starving because “the British blockade of occupied Europe cut Greece off from all imports.” When Churchill declared the blockade in August of 1940, he was “adamant that there was to be no question of food aid.” It might “relieve the Germans of the need to feed the people, and help their war effort.” Former American president Herbert Hoover was infuriated, and described Churchill as “a militarist of the extreme school who held that incidental starvation of women and children was justified.” Churchill eventually caved under pressure and lifted the blockade, but not until after “20,000 people had already died of starvation.”

In China, “it was the Nationalist government’s decision to prioritize the food needs of the army and the bureaucracy over those of the peasantry which made rural famine inevitable, with 2-3 million deaths in the province of Henan alone.”

In addition to its subject matter, The Taste of Food reminds us of a number of things about war and World War II. Not in any particular order, here are some things worthy of note.

Pages 1, 11, 469; War has the greatest effect on civilians. Collingham writes:

While the Vietnam war is firmly embedded in the western collective memory, most westerners have never heard of the famine in the Vietnamese region of Tonkin in 1943-44 which probably killed more peasants than all the years of war which followed.

There are no accurate figures for the number of Soviet civilians who died of starvation but is seems safe to estimate that somewhere between 2 and 3 million died of hunger and malnutrition.

Malnutrition and tuberculosis had reached epidemic proportions among children in Czechoslovakia, Greece and Italy.

When American journalist Theodore White visited China in March of 1943, “he saw corpses by the sides of the roads.” He calculated that “about 5 million people were dead or dying.” Collingham writes: “Some peasants sold or murdered their children. Mr Jingguan lost his father to starvation in 1942. By 1944 his family were so desperate that they sold his sister, then aged fifteen, to an older man, but she too died.”

Pages 10, 298; The governments of this world have a callous disregard for human life. Writes Collingham:

The Soviet government, however, in common with other nondemocratic governments, exhibited a strong tendency to treat soldiers and civilians as expendable units in the service of the government. They were expected to fight valiantly and labour tirelessly despite inadequate food supplies.

By failing to provision their troops the Japanese high command not only displayed a criminal contempt for the value of their soldiers’ lives, they handed the Allies an excruciatingly effective weapon to use against their soliders.

Page 460; American soldiers were not fighting for our freedoms. Writes Collingham: “The majority of US serviceman had only the haziest notion as to why the United States was fighting the Second World War. In the end many fixed on the idea that they were fighting to preserve the American lifestyle.”

Page 25; The blockade of Germany in World War I contributed to the rise of Hitler. Writes Collingham: “The winter of 1918-1919 was the hungriest and most miserable for the German population. . . . Hitler (and many others who would later take up positions of power under the National Socialists) developed an acute awareness of the dangers of civilian hunger. . . . Indeed, Hitler developed an obsession with the need to secure the German food supply, especially at a time of war.”

Pages 76, 78, 80; War breeds crony capitalism. Writes Collingham:

The United States Department of Agriculture warned that unless some way of selling food to Britain was found, America would be burdened by warehouses bursting at the seams with yet more unwanted food. America’s problem was not that the war cut off its access to imports but that it had lost a large chunk of its export market. . . .  Farmers were provided with the incentive of guaranteed farm prices, fixed at 110 percent parity with industrial goods for the duration of the war.

She also comments: “To many American farmers, the Second World War felt like a ‘good’ war.” Unless, of course, their sons were blown to bits in Europe or died of starvation in some Japanese prison camp.

In California, “Japanese-Americans owned 1 per cent of Californian land but produced 10 per cent of the state’s agricultural produce. During the wave of hysterical hatred which followed the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor Californian fruit and vegetable farmers saw their opportunity to rid themselves of the unwanted competition.” Said the chairman of the Board of Supervisors in the Santa Barbara district: “If we begin now to shut out the Japanese, after the war we have the chance of accomplishing something.” When Japanese-Americans were interned in camps in 1942: “Many sold their farms at bargain prices and left their fruit and vegetables to rot in the fields.”

Page 269; War breeds central planning. Collingham notes that “all combatant nations introduced rationing during the war.” In the United States, “Mordecai Ezekiel, economic adviser to the Department of Agriculture, commented dryly that ‘we will have conquered unemployment by the same means that the Fascist countries conquered it, by organizing our people and our resources in to a military economy.’”

Page 357; It is a dangerous thing for any government to have a food or nutrition policy. Writes Collingham: “Throughout the 1930s the National Socialists redefined their policy of denying Germans meat, butter, white bread and coffee as a drive to achieve racial fitness.” She also mentions the wording of a propaganda reminder to the Hitler Youth: “Nutrition is not a private matter!” Thus, “when the war began in September 1939 the National Socialists had already accomplished the difficult task of switching the German population’s diet to a wartime footing.”

Page 486; The Marshall Plan did not save Europe. Collingham writes of Ludwig Erhard, economic adviser to the US administration in occupied Germany, that his “economic policies are now generally recognized as having played a more important role in initiating German economic recovery than the American aid programme known as the Marshall Plan. . . . The Marshall Plan was as much a political and ideological tool as an economic one. A proportion of the money loaned to each European country had to be set aside to pay for a concerted propaganda exercise which sought to demonstrate the benefits of the American way of life to western Europeans.

Page 2; Autarky leads to war. To the economist Frédéric Bastiat (1801-1850) has been attributed the saying: “If goods don’t cross borders, armies will.” Writes Collingham:

Britain had responded to the problem of feeding its urban population by embracing free trade and it imported large quantities of food and animal fodder. But Germany and Japan felt disadvantaged by the international economy dominated by Britain and America. Right-wing elements within both countries pushed for an alternative, more radical solution to the problem of food and trade. Rather than accepting subordination to the United States, Hitler preferred to engage in a struggle for world supremacy and looked to an eastern empire as a source of food and other resources which would make Germany self-sufficient and independent of world trade.

Page 317; It was the Soviet Union that bore the brunt of the war. Writes Collingham: “For every Briton or American that died as a result of the war, eighty-five Soviet citizens lost their lives. The Soviet Union suffered by far the highest death toll of all the combatant nations. The Japanese, in comparison, lost seven people to every Briton or American, the Germans lost twenty. The total Soviet death toll is estimated to have been somewhere between 28 and 30 million.”

Page 7; Stalin, our ally in World War II, was a brutal dictator. Writes Collingham: “In the gulags of the Soviet Union the death rate increased dramatically during the war as the prisoners struggled to perform hard physical labour on a starvation diet.” She also notes that “1 million German prisoners” died in Soviet hands.

Pages 271, 279, 284, 286, 287, 289, 290, 292-297, 303, 307-309, 311, 313; Japan and its military were in deplorable condition. Writes Collingham:

In April 1941, even before the Japanese government declared war on the United States, rationing had to be introduced.

If there was not enough local food the soldiers were supposed to grow it themselves.

Japan’s war industries were unable to function without imports of steel, aluminium, iron ore and oil.

In 1943 the food supply in Japan reached a critical turning-point.

By mid-1943 even generally law-abiding citizens were resorting to the black market in order to buy food.

By the end of 1943 the declining ration was beginning to cause serious malnutrition among the Japanese population.

Before embarking for Malaya in 1941 soldiers were “instructed to use ingenuity, and if food were short they should supplement their diet with anything that came to hand, including wild grasses.” 275, The Japanese civilian population was “teetering on the edge of famine.”

Long before August 1945 it was clear to the Japanese leadership that the country was defeated.

Japanese industry had ground to a halt for lack of raw materials.

The metal for Japanese fighter planes was so inferior that Hashimoto heard that the engines cracked if they were flown at full throttle. This was rapidly becoming irrelevant as the country ran out of aviation fuel.

The urban population was steadily losing weight and around a quarter of townspeople were suffering from malnutrition. Tuberculosis, beriberi, digestive, skin and vitamin-deficiency diseases were rife. The birth-rate had fallen and infant mortality had risen.

After the war, Paul Nitze of the United States Strategic Bombing Survey (USSBS) team argued that Japan was already on its knees in August 1945 and that surrender would only have been a matter of time.

By July 1944 in Japan, “Those in middle school and above the third year level in elementary school are sent to munitions factories and made to work. . . .  By October of that year nearly 2 million students over the age of ten had been put to work in Japanese industry. By February 1945 the ranks of student workers had swelled to 3 million, two-thirds of all children of that age.”

On Guadalcanal, which became known as “Starvation Island,” “As each new Japanese unit arrived for a fresh attack it met the starving remnants of the previous force.” A Japanese commander “estimated that 15,000 Japanese soldiers had starved to death on Guadalcanal while only 5,000 had been lost in combat.”

In New Guinea, Japanese soldiers “were more interested in capturing food than in defeating the Australians.” Malnutrition “was identified as the main reason for defeat. Lack of food, the report concluded, had led to a loss of morale, even despair, and the breakdown of military discipline.” Japanese troops “became more preoccupied with finding their next meal than fighting to hold on to territory, and the Allies found that they fought hardest to maintain their occupancy of areas where they controlled native gardens.” By the summer of 1944, “the Japanese were reduced to eating sacsac, a tasteless, brown starch made from sago palms. . . . In the Sepak river area the man in combat were given dried grasses to eat.” A Japanese general issued an order in December 1944 stating that “While troops were permitted to eat the flesh of the Allied dead, they must not eat their own.” U.S. Army documents indicate “that the Japanese on New Guinea ate each other, members of the local population, Asian prisoners of war who had been brought to the islands as forced labourers and Allied soldiers.”

In the Philippines, where the Japanese retreat was extremely disorganized, a Japanese general estimated that “400,000 of the 498,000 Japanese deaths were caused by starvation. Altogether it would appear that 60 per cent, or more than 1 million, of the total 1.74 million Japanese military deaths between 1941 and 1945 were caused by starvation and diseases associated with malnutrition.”

Page 495; The negative effects of war can linger for years. Collingham mentions that “in Britain rationing finally came to an end in 1954.” She describes the situation in the “victorious Soviet Union”:

The peasants in the liberated western areas were still barely surviving on a famine diet of wild grasses and frozen potatoes, forged from the fields. . . . In the liberated areas of the Soviet Union, at least half of the peasantry and many of the townspeople were dwelling, like the soldiers had done at the front, in miserable damp holes in the ground, roofed over with whatever materials they could find.

In northern Russia “there were many villages to which no men ever returned.”

World War II was a good war—unless you were one of the 20 million people who died from malnutrition and its associated diseases or simply starved to death.

Cursed be the good war.

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