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Book Review: The Taste of War

The Taste of War: World War II and the Battle for Food

by Lizzie Collingham

The Penguin Press, 2012

Of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, the two closest siblings have always been War and Famine, and the grim bonds between the two are examined with rigorous and masterfully-marshalled detail in Lizzie Collingham’s incredibly good new history, The Taste of War. Even the most jaded of WWII buffs will never have read a book quite like this one before – it actually manages to do the impossible and shed new light on the Second World War. And it claims ground, as well: no comprehensive future histories will be able to omit consulting this book.

Very nearly as many people died of starvation during the Second World War as died of combat (roughly 20 million in both cases, although the former group grows much bigger if we factor in diseases-deaths brought about by malnutrition), and Collingham is right to approach her subject that way. During the war (and in the devastation that followed), nations used food distribution as a means a propaganda, statecraft, and aggression, and as Collingham is quick to point out, none of these were practices restricted to the Axis powers. Former U.S. president Herbert Hoover had scathing words for Britain’s willingness to starve Greece in 1940-41, calling Winston Churchill “a militarist of the extreme school who held that incidental starvation of women and children was justified.” And Collingham quotes a first-hand account of the starvation visited upon the Soviet city of Kharkov by a ‘scorched earth’ policy that demolished stores of food in 1941-42:

‘No sign of life is to be found. But you can notice some window frames closed with boards and a crooked stove-pipe emitting a faint stream of smoke. Here people live! People who have found a miserable corner to go and hide in, a wretched nook slowly to die in. In these very small kitchens life is pulsating still. Here a whole family and sometimes many families have found their poor shelter. All the inhabitants of Kharkiw live this winter in small kitchens often with seven to ten people together. They sleep on benches, tables and simply on the floor in dust and smoke amidst dirty dishes and garbage. In the daytime they all crowd around the kitchen stove …’

By the time the war broke out, Hitler’s National Socialists were already old hands at manipulating food supplies for political ends. Slogans such as “Nutrition is not a private matter!” and “Your body belongs to the Fuhrer!” were common, and all through the 1930s, the propaganda line was that the civilian populace had a patriotic duty to toughen itself for the hard courses of war that were sure to come. The Nazis were constantly telling their people, as Collingham puts it, “While the government prepared for war by building tanks, aeroplanes and weapons, the German people must prepare by readying their bodies to withstand the demands of war as soldiers, workers or mothers of the future generation.”

This ironic ‘strengthening’ of civilians by denying them fat and protein of course had its international counterpart; as our author scathingly points out on many occasions, the German elite was obsessed with its policy of ‘exporting hunger’ to the captured lands under its sway:

That summer [of 1942] each new problem brought cries for yet more food to be extracted from the occupied territories, for yet more deaths, more murders, the elimination of yet more ‘useless eaters’. On 5 August Goring met with the Gauleiters of the Reich who complained vociferously about the impact of the April ration reductions on the health and morale of German civilians. The next day at a meeting with leaders of the occupied countries Goring harangued them to deliver more food. ‘God knows, you are not sent out there [to the occupied territories] to work for the welfare of the people in your charge, but to get the utmost out of them, so that the German people can live.’

Many of the witnesses whose accounts Collingham has consulted agree on the slow horror of starvation, the macabre spectacle of adults walking around as little more than living skeletons, or children with hunger-swollen bellies and dead eyes. The stark extremes of the war years make the book’s account of post-war (and post-rationing) gorging all the more queasy reading, as both the UK and the United States began doubling and tripling their per capita daily intake of things like meat, butter, and sweets. Indeed, since this postwar gorging led to a wide-scale increase in obesity and cardiac disease, it could almost be said that the famines of the war years are still claiming victims.

Collingham’s book is grounded on a very long support-structure of end-notes and a staggeringly comprehensive bibliography, but in this case such things are only the ingredients – it’s our author who’s assembled them into this enormous banquet of a book. About The Taste of War that rarest and highest accolade can be said: it will permanently change the way you think about the Second World War.

 

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