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Q: What was the deadliest weapon of World War II?
A: Starvation, which killed 20 million people


By Peter Lewis

UPDATED: 13:58 EST, 27 January 2011

Rationing in wartime Britain: But at least there was food to be had

One of the things doom watchers like to frighten us with is the coming world food crisis. We had an intense attack of it this week.

Sir John Eddington, our Chief Scientific Adviser, warned: ‘We have 20 years to deliver something like 40 per cent more food, 30 per cent more fresh water and 50 per cent more energy.’

The rising cost of food has been a main cause of the recent riots in Tunisia and Egypt. Empty bellies make people angry as well as hungry. Prophets predict that the next World War will be over ever-scarcer food. Well, here is news for us all. We have already had a World War over food. It was World War II.

This amazing book traces the war’s course without once mentioning the fighting. For Lizzie Collingham, an immensely learned nutritionist-historian, the war was not about the triumph of democracy over fascism. It was the ­victory of adequate diet over starvation.

She makes it impossible to think of the war in the old terms. Just to shock you into paying attention she begins with a statistic: at least 20 million people died during the war of starvation. The number of military deaths was 19.5 million. In other words, the deadliest weapon was starvation.

Oh, but surely a lot of those deaths were an accident - an unfortunate side-effect? By no means. They were the result of deliberate policy, both by the Germans and the Japanese.

The first photograph in the book is of a Nazi you have never heard of: Herbert Backe, who was Germany’s Minister of Food and Agriculture.
Herr Backe looks the very picture of German respectability: balding, with thin-rimmed spectacles, a long harmless face, neat collar and tie, seated before his papers looking dutiful and attentive. The kind of reliable bureaucrat who went home in the evenings to his family, and dinner, and probably an occasional night out at the opera.

But the work he went home from was the detailed calculation of his favourite idea: the Hunger Plan.

Well before Hitler attacked the Soviet Union in 1941, Herbert Backe had presented the solution to Germany’s chronic food insufficiency (unlike Britain, it had no empire to supply its imports). The plan was to march east into Russia, seize the granary of the Ukraine and BeloRussia, take its produce to feed the army and much of the nation and give the land to German settlers.

But what about the Russians who lived there? They were to get nothing - not a slice of bread. They were ‘useless eaters’. The people in the cities who relied on the country for its grain and livestock were to starve to death.

When denied food, the body starts to consume itself - first its fat and muscle, then the intestines and last, the vital organs.

There is intense craving for carbohydrates and salt and uncontrollable diarrhoea before a final torpor. Organ failure is the ultimate cause of death. Those who starved in Leningrad were found to have hearts less than a third of the normal weight.

It’s worth going into this, because this was the fate that Herr Backe intended for 30 million Russian civilians. He convinced Hitler, who saw it as another powerful reason for doing something he wanted to do anyway. So the attack was launched.

The German word for Backe and for many civil servants like him, such as Eichmann, was schreibtischtater - writing desk operator. One can think of other words.

I am glad to learn that he eventually hanged himself in his cell awaiting trial.

As it turned out his Hunger Plan never fully worked. Quantities of food were seized but the peasants somehow managed to hide, hoard and divert much of their produce to the black market.

When the German attack in ­Russia unexpectedly ground to a halt, the army still needed the Russian peasants for all sorts of small services such as repairs, so they needed feeding. And some troops took pity on the starving and slipped them food on the quiet.

Meanwhile only a few thousand German farmers relocated to the east. They simply didn’t want to go. And then came Stalingrad. It was the encircled Germans who were starved into surrender.

Nevertheless, the German people at home did not go hungry until the closing months of the war. They lived on the fat of France, Belgium, Denmark and other conquered territories. German rations were about the same as Britain’s.

Goering declared that if anyone was to go hungry, it would not be the Germans. It would not, especially, be Hermann Goering. He used to go to Berlin’s best restaurant, Horchers, where he would consume a week’s rations at a sitting.

The frugal Goebbels, who gave his guests herring and boiled potatoes, was furious when he learned of this flouting of the supposed equality of rationing. Mysteriously, a mob wrecked the restaurant soon afterwards.
Lunch with the vegetarian Hitler was no picnic - ‘a horrible grey barley broth, with crackers and cheese as pudding.’

But tea was something else. Hitler adored fancy cakes and chocolate. He could get through two pounds of chocolate in a day.
Meanwhile, more than two million Soviet prisoners of war were starved slowly to death by their German captors. In the Warsaw ghetto, 100,000 were starving, hundreds falling dead in the streets daily.
But they didn’t have nothing to eat. The ground-up rectums of cattle retrieved from slaughter-houses were served as mincemeat. There was no deception. They were called dupniki - dupa being the word for backside.
During the siege of Leningrad, in which a million starved to death, there were many cases of cannibalism - presumably babies, since the accused were young women. Other people were eating bread made of cellulose, flour sweepings, the dust from flour sacks and sawdust. Compared with this, Britain’s story seems an island of calm and reason. Rationing began in January 1940, with the firm principle that everyone should get the same.
The worst period was the winter of 1940-41, when U-boats were sinking supply ships three times faster than they could be built. The meat ration (a shilling’s worth - about a pound in weight) was cut even lower. But people were far from starving, if feeling faintly hungry.

Farmers doubled the island’s arable land. Most people ‘dug for victory,’ producing vegetables, keeping chickens and in the country, shooting rabbits and game for their friends.

A rare treat: Bananas for sale in London

The wartime recipes on the radio were hardly tempting - carrot was used to make ‘Mock Apricot Tart’ with ‘mock cream.’ I remember chiefly how boring food was: endless dried egg and dried milk; jam so diluted that it ran off the slice of bread; the occasional luxury of baked beans on toast; children looking longingly at plaster bananas decorating a greengrocer’s window.

But then the Americans arrived. We had never seen anything like it. Massive, well-fed men marching sloppily through our streets with enormous bottoms waggling.

Their supply stores sounded like Aladdin’s caves and they showed generosity with Hershey chocolate bars and chewing gum. Here was the best-fed army in the world. For them the war was ‘the good war’ which pulled their farms and industries out of recession and into unprecedented prosperity. They were fighting for ‘The American Way of Life’. It seemed mainly to consist of enormous amounts to eat.

Japan, by contrast, was fighting for the Japanese way of death. Their attempt to turn South-East Asia into their empire, initially so successful, foundered on lack of food.

Their supply ships were sunk. Their far-flung troops were reduced to eating wild grasses. They believed all you needed was ‘bushido’ - fighting spirit. But it wasn’t enough. Some were captured waving their bayonets at the enemy but too weak to stand up. One Japanese soldier pulled down his trousers and pointed to his bottom. ‘If I die, Buddy,’ he said to his companion, ‘go on and eat this.’

This scholarly global survey of the war of nutrition is full of such gruesome but fascinating detail of how hunger makes men behave. We should be warned so that it doesn’t happen again.

Read more: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/home/books/article-1351152/Q-What-deadli...
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..During the occupation of Greece, over 300,000 civilians died in Athens alone from starvation.
- Athens , Greece, 29/1/2011 13:38
.While I fully understand that the winner writes the history, saying that Germans did not starve to death is simply not true, after Stalingrad things went downhill very fast. My mother tells me that from that point on until 1948 or so when things started to change slowly, there where no cats or squirrels..... or pidgeons....... not many dogs either. Cats where refered to as "Rooftop rabbit".
- Juma , at work, here, 29/1/2011 13:16
.Does this number include the starvation program of Josef Stalin?
- RB , East Sydney, 29/1/2011 11:05
.The Germans weren't the first to starve the Slavic peoples - Stalin had already done that with the Holodomor of Ukraine in 1932/33.
- Caitlin , USA, 28/1/2011 19:42
.RAF Lancaster bombers, most notorious for the Dambusters raid - Wendi Johnson-Fisher, Brighton England, 27/1/2011 20:48 .I think you are looking for famous not notorious or are you not a believer in brave men winning wars
- James , Brighton UK, 28/1/2011 15:16
.Less well-known are the famines in Bengal in British controlled India in 1943 & in Japanese controlled Vietnam in 1944-45. Millions died (the final figures are still disputed & may never be known) due to the effects of natural disasters, war & other factors influencing crop yields.
- Michael , Suffolk, UK, 28/1/2011 12:57
.Also, there is no mention of the Bengal famine of 1943 when British administrators denied the import of rice to prevent civil unrest and uprising against colonial rule. Actually it happened all over the Empire at different stages.
- David , Ireland, 28/1/2011 11:09
.The essay could be complete by including the miseries of the German people expelled from German territories in what is now Poland and the Czech Republic, from the Balkans, Fom Rumania. There were beaten, shoot at, starved to death to the extent that from 16 million expelled, more tan 2 million perished on their way to Germany; Also by including the German people starved to death by the allies, mainly americans, following the guidelines of the Morgenthau Plan, where more than 2 million women, children and elderly people passed away.
- Koldo , Pamplona, Spain, 28/1/2011 05:42
.Interesting that there's no mention here of the Dutch starvation. More people died in Holland throughout the war due to starvation than anything else. The problem was so acute that the RAF Lancaster bombers, most notorious for the Dambusters raid actually used to fly low sorties over Holland in the daylight to drop food parcels. The RAF called it Operation Manna and to the this day the Dutch people still remind their children of the packages from Heaven. Never forget.
- Wendi Johnson-Fisher , Brighton England, 27/1/2011 20:48


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