All about the Beef

Bernard Porter

  • The Taste of War: World War Two and the Battle for Food by Lizzie Collingham
    Allen Lane, 634 pp, £30.00, January 2011, ISBN 978 0 7139 9964 8

It isn’t true that starvation is just like being hungry, only worse. ‘Victims of starvation die of nutritional dystrophy,’ Lizzie Collingham writes in The Taste of War,

a process whereby, once the body has used up all its fat reserves, the muscles are broken down in order to obtain energy. The small intestine atrophies and it becomes increasingly difficult for the victim to absorb nutrients from what little food he or she is able to obtain. As a defence mechanism the body reduces the activity of the vital organs such as the heart and liver and the victim suffers not only from muscular debility but from a more general and overpowering fatigue … The water content of the body reduces at a slower rate than the wasting of the muscles and tissues and the flaccidity of the body increases. Some victims of starvation develop hunger oedema and swell up with excess water … The skin becomes stretched, shiny and hypersensitive. Blood pressure drops and the victim is plagued by keratitis (redness and soreness of the cornea), sore gums, headaches, pains in the legs, neuralgic pains, tremors and ataxia (a loss of control over the limbs). Just before death the victim veers wildly from depression to irritation and then a profound torpor … Most importantly, the heart atrophies … Organ failure is the final cause of death.

This was the fate of an estimated 20 million people in the Second World War – about the same number as were killed in combat.

Some of the deaths were ‘collateral damage’; others were means to military ends, as in the case of sieges. Hunger was ‘exported’, as Collingham puts it, in order to prioritise the military, which needed calories to fight effectively, and domestic populations, to sustain morale. Usually, colonies suffered most, blatantly in Japan’s case, but also to some extent in Britain’s. Collingham argues that the great Bengal Famine of 1942-43 could have been averted or eased if the Indian government had been as solicitous of Indian nutrition as it was of European. Leo Amery, the secretary of state for India, looked back on it as ‘the worst blow we have had to our name as an empire in our lifetime’, which it probably was. To be fair, however, Britain’s colonial rulers elsewhere – where they were not thinned out by military service, as they were in the Rhodesias, leaving the awful settlers in control – did try to protect the natives, and in some places in the Middle East local diets were even improved.

All this pales in comparison with the Nazi Hunger Plan for Eastern Europe, whose object was to eradicate ‘useless eaters’ (Jews), and free up land to be settled by ‘pure’ German farmers (along with ‘village advisers’ to teach women ‘the German arts of housekeeping, childcare and hygiene’), who could then provide food for the whole Reich. Poland was to be Germany’s version of the American West, with the Slavs as the Native Americans. The Japanese saw Manchuria in much the same light. Indeed, Collingham presents this as the main motive for Hitler’s attack on Russia and Japan’s on China, and thus as evidence more generally of ‘the centrality of food as an engine of the Second World War’.

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