World War II and the Battle for Food
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Review by Geoffrey Wawro
Battles absorb our attention when it comes to war, but Lizzie Collingham convincingly argues that food caused World War II, drove it and profoundly shaped its aftermath. Twenty million people starved to death in World War II, more than the 19.5 million who succumbed to wounds.
The war sprang from the conviction in Germany and Japan that new food and resource areas were needed to sustain and grow the German and Japanese populations. The Germans had lost World War I because of an Allied blockade on food and raw materials. Thus, Hitler demanded Lebensraum—living space—in the East, to settle Germans and achieve “nutritional independence.” The Japanese took the same view, invading Manchuria and China in the 1930s, and the “southern resource area” in 1941.
Worries about food in Berlin and Tokyo sparked the war, but its operations were also deeply affected by the struggle for calories. The Germans starved not only all Soviet POWs, but also the Slavic and Jewish populations of Eastern Europe, who were viciously dubbed “useless eaters.” Germany’s “Hunger Plan” of 1941 would kill two birds with one stone—feed the 9 million-man German army and starve to death an estimated 30 million Soviets, clearing the way for German settlement. Needless to say, this stiffened Soviet resistance in the war, as Red Army troops, no matter how hostile to Communism, had no incentive to surrender to such a barbaric regime. The Japanese also waged war with food. Eighty percent of the Japanese army was deployed in China during World War II, and it monopolized China’s food stocks. Two million Chinese Nationalist soldiers died in the war, and 15 million Chinese civilians—most of them from hunger. In 1945, the Japanese released their Chinese POWs: all 57 of them. The rest had been starved to death.
The Americans were best at producing food and cutting off the enemy’s. Sixty percent of Japan’s 1.5 million military deaths in the war were due to starvation, not combat. Blockaded by U.S. submarines and surface fleets, Japanese troops subsisted on “wild grasses.” The U.S. surged production of food during the war (the opposite occurred everywhere else) and changed post-war tastes. Americans introduced canned, freeze-dried, condensed, powdered and other processed foods that would lead to an explosion in eating after the war as well as obesity, heart disease, diabetes and other problems. U.S. planners also introduced feed lots and industrial farming that changed the landscape—literally and figuratively—in Europe and America.
Britain, held up as exemplar of sound rationing, actually did it on the backs of its colonies. Indians starved during the war, as no pains were taken to alleviate famine there. Hunger on the subcontinent was so great that most Indian recruits for the British army had to be fed like veal calves—“nutritional reconditioning”—in order to be trained for combat.
Stalin and his henchmen ate well in the Kremlin—Collingham details their succulent menus—while the population (and over a million German prisoners) starved. This fascinating book opens a new window on the war, and will change every reader’s understanding of it.
Hardcover Book : 656 pages
Publisher: Penguin Group (Usa) ( April 12, 2012 )
Item #: 13-522504
Product Dimensions: 6.0 x 9.0 inches
Product Weight: 32.0 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)