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’.

The problem for the Germans was that the Hunger Plan didn’t work, or not quickly enough. It takes quite a while to get from atrophy of the intestines to organ failure. And starving people can be quite resourceful in finding food. The most stomach-churning passages of this dreadfully graphic book are those that describe some of the things eaten in extremis: not only by Poles, Russians, Jews, Manchurians, Bengalis and Japanese prisoners of war, but also at the end of the war by Japanese soldiers and German civilians. We all know about rats, cats, dogs and horses during the Siege of Leningrad; other delicacies included pine needles (rich in vitamin C), elm bark, insects, the green slime from puddles, cows’ rectums, maggots scooped out of toilets, and each other. These things kept people alive, and so, from the Nazis’ point of view, delayed the intended outcome of the Hunger Plan. The solution was to shoot people instead; and then to gas them. The death camps, therefore, were a direct result of the unexpected resilience of the Polish Jews in the ghettos: another way in which food was central to the war.

A further reason for the Hunger Plan’s failure was that the Nazis couldn’t find enough German takers for the farms the plan had freed up in the east, and those who did settle there soon became disillusioned. Attempts to supplement them with ‘Aryan’ Dutch and Danes had even less success. An earlier Japanese plan to settle a million farmers in Manchuria and Korea met the same fate: after – again – attending programmes to teach the women how to be ‘good wives’, 220,000 emigrated, but most were ‘unhappy and alienated’ and only 140,000 survived (67,000 died of starvation). Neither scheme did much to feed the German or Japanese homeland. Both countries soon discovered that ‘the more exploitative their policies the less effective they were.’ For a start, it made no sense to weaken potential sources of labour. There can be little doubt that it was better, even in occupied territories, to treat the native populations well. Holland and Denmark, for example, which suffered relatively little real hunger until the very end of the war, were able to ship large surpluses into Germany.

To starve people could also be counter-productive militarily. It failed to force the Leningraders to surrender, and may even have stiffened their resistance: they knew that if they surrendered they would be starved all the same. As the besieging Quartermaster-General Wagner put it: ‘What are we supposed to do with a city of three and a half million which just rests itself on our supply pouch?’ In the Ukraine the policy merely ‘swelled the ranks of the partisans’. That was why several German commanders turned against it: ‘It is not sensible to follow a course which makes the civilian population 100 per cent into an enemy.’ It was, another wrote (while recommending that the Ukrainians be given at least enough food to live on), ‘not a humanitarian concern but a purely practical consideration in German interests’. Göring disagreed, apparently quite happy with the prospect, as he told his generals as early as 1941, of ‘the greatest death rate’ from starvation ‘since the Thirty Years’ War’. In the countries occupied by the Japanese, the number of deaths from starvation was similar – it’s difficult to get exact figures – though Collingham claims they were the result not of deliberate genocide but ‘the ethos of senseless brutality that saturated the Japanese army’. In both cases ideological racism played a part. Indeed, this may have been largely responsible for the failure of the Hunger Plan. If it had been more ideologically supple, it might have been more successful.

The Allies won the food war hands down. This was partly because they were more pragmatic; but mainly because of the huge agricultural resources they commanded in America and the British Commonwealth (though first they had to persuade the Americans to share them, and then pierce the U-boat blockades). One of the factors that originally provoked the war on both the German and the Japanese sides was their perception that Britain and America were dominating the world food market. One can’t help thinking that the neoliberals – following the 19th-century British free traders – are right here, and that it would have been better for the Germans and Japanese, and for the rest of us, if they had joined the world market much earlier, before the First World War, rather than trying to set up rival ones. The assumption behind this is (and was) that trading partners rarely go to war with one another. One reason the Germans and Japanese didn’t follow this course, apart from the belief that security rested on self-sufficiency, was that it would have meant scaling down their allegedly idyllic agricultural sectors, which had become central to their national ideologies – ‘Kinder, Küche, Kirche’ and all that. But it left America and the Commonwealth with the advantage. American civilians scarcely noticed the difference, food-wise, between wartime and peacetime; the US military ate astonishingly well; and the besieged Britons and fighting troops did pretty well considering.

Britain was helped by its egalitarian system of rationing, though it had its problematic side. Certain people needed more food, such as those engaged in heavy war industries. Germany’s system recognised this, and prioritised its war workers, which was more efficient (though the same rationale justified sending the mentally ill to the back of the food queue, usually to starve). After 1942, Britons could supplement their rations by eating in works canteens (made compulsory in 1943) and in the ubiquitous ‘British restaurants’ – originally to be called ‘communal feeding centres’ until Churchill realised how socialist that sounded. The main advantage of Britain’s system was its effect on morale: it persuaded the majority that everyone was in this together when they read of the king being served spam. Of course, there were some inequalities, and an enterprising black market (Private Walker in Dad’s Army); and I still remember (or think I do) the farmers in Staffordshire who grudgingly took me and my mother in as evacuees towards the end of the war feasting on lovely fresh brown eggs while we had to make do with our rations of powdered egg. In Germany, by contrast, everyone knew how well the Nazi elite ate (except the austerely vegetarian Hitler). ‘The fighting won’t stop,’ a popular Berlin saying of 1945 had it, ‘until Göring fits into Goebbels’s trousers.’

America was something else. With large food surpluses (following the Great Depression), and the potential for far more, food was bound to play an entirely different role. Australia, too, became a significant provider of food for the Allied troops. Collingham even claims that this was its only important contribution to the war effort, putting into the shade its military exploits in theatres of marginal significance like New Guinea. Australians might not like that. But the Americans didn’t much go for mutton, so Australian agriculture had to be radically overhauled, with advice from American experts in agribusiness, turning the whole country into ‘a vast food processing plant for the United States army’.

That created another problem. Australian troops naturally resented so much of their country’s food being diverted to the GIs. Serving alongside them, the Australians couldn’t miss the fact that the GIs seemed to eat ‘about three times as much as the average Australian in a day’. The same jealousy was found in Britain, where ‘it seemed unfair that US soldiers should scoff 12 ounces of meat per day, while British soldiers ate half this amount and civilians only one-third.’ (In 1942, a little book of ‘instructions for American servicemen in Britain’ felt the need to point out that ‘you are coming to Britain from a country where your home is still safe, food is still plentiful, and lights are still burning.’ So, ‘if you are invited to eat with a family, don’t eat too much. Otherwise you may eat up their weekly rations.’) This was exacerbated by the knowledge that American domestic greed for prime steak (as it seemed) meant they reneged on solemn undertakings to supply Britain.

Americans were far less tolerant of rationing than the other combatants, though some opinion polls suggested that 70 per cent might have gone along with it if the agricultural lobby had not put so much pressure on the government to avoid it. The American black market (in the best cuts of meat) was much larger and better tolerated than elsewhere. Collingham suggests that if Americans had had to endure the privations the British suffered, let alone Germany, the USSR or Japan, they might have ducked out of the war. After all, they were not under direct threat from Germany, and not even from Japan before Pearl Harbor (which was intended to warn them off entering the war), and they were less susceptible to the high-principled rhetoric of the time. So it was best to let them have their steaks if you wanted their help.

Indeed, Collingham goes much further than this. Prime steak was at the bottom of it all for the Americans. ‘The majority of US servicemen 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 … summed up by its bountiful and good food.’ ‘Yep,’ one American stationed in Kentucky wrote to his sister in Buffalo in October 1944, ‘people in this country are sure lucky, to be able to stock up as much food as they want. That’s what us guys are fighting for, so tell Ma to stock up.’ A famous poster by Norman Rockwell puffing the ‘American Way of Life’ showed a dinner table groaning under a huge roast turkey and all the trimmings. This ‘relentless advertising’, Collingham comments, ‘created an absurd sense that the only thing Americans were fighting for was the right to consume’. It also projected an image of American bounty to the wider world, especially with US soldiers and sailors dishing out free Coca-Cola, gum and candy (but not steak) to the people they liberated. (Coca-Cola Inc, greatly boosted by the war, became an icon of Americanism.)

One other difference between American and British food policies was that the British were guided by nutritional science to get the most sustenance out of limited resources; in America nutritional guidance was left largely to the food industry, which of course could not altogether be trusted. Britain’s way resulted in a generation of children (mine) being brought up healthier than any previous one – until we were later seduced by American food consumerism, and got fat (including me). We now know, from the recent Foresight report, The Future of Food and Farming, that this model won’t be sustainable for much longer, and Collingham thinks there will be a return to regulation, this time on an international scale. Otherwise there may be many more wars waged for food, and using food as a weapon.

The Taste of War is not flawless. Its British imperial history is superficial, relying heavily on one rather narrow military history of the empire, with no references to any more general ones, and at one stage – for a couple of quotations from Churchill – on a couple of off-the-cuff comments in a popular radio programme, which, however distinguished the presenter (Michael Portillo), should have been checked with a more reliable source. Collingham’s opinion of British imperialism is that it was essentially ‘exploitative’, which may be generally fair, but sits oddly with her criticism of the preservation of ‘peasant production’ in West Africa – one of the objects of which was to protect the Africans from capitalist exploitation – and with her critique elsewhere of the shift to American-style and often American-run agribusiness caused by the war. On the British home front she seems to think it was the left who were most against prosecuting the war; and she bases her case that Labour lost the 1951 election because of annoyance with rationing on an obscure novel by a woman whose main grievance was that she could no longer find servants, and on the marginal activities of the (right-wing) British Housewives’ League. These are the areas of her subject I’m most competent in, but they made me wonder about some of her other generalisations, concerning the ‘war aims’ of the ordinary American GI, for example. It is difficult to see where she stands on the question of nutritional science, since her analyses of the huge and beneficial difference it made to diet in the war are undercut by Daily Mail-type swipes at nutritionists ‘dictating which foods people should and should not eat’.

None of this should be allowed to detract from the great merits of the book, which lie in its extraordinary range – no one who covers such a huge and diverse area can hope to satisfy every niggling specialist – and in the entirely new perspective it throws on the Second World War. It also knocks on the head one common assumption about the connection between food and war: that you need to have plenty of the former to fight the latter. ‘An army marches on its stomach.’ Not necessarily: the Japanese army certainly didn’t, but on grass and bushido (‘fighting spirit’). The Soviets resisted the German invasion, as Collingham points out, ‘despite hunger and starvation’. In this sense ‘the outcome of the Second World War in Europe was not determined by food.’ But so many other things about it were.