Death by starvation is appallingly quiet, historian Lizzie Collingham notes in her massive study, The Taste of War: World War Two and the Battle for Food. But from an enemy’s point of view, it’s just as effective as by any other means. In a book densely stuffed with statistics, two stand out starkly: 20 million starved to death overall (more than the 10 million plus civilians who died from deliberate atrocity or collateral damage, more even than the 19.5 million military casualties) and the mere 56 Chinese POWs in Japanese hands who survived until 1945. The Japanese high command was fanatical enough to believe its army could win a war on the basis of fighting spirit alone—to the extent that 60 per cent of Japan’s 1.7 million military deaths were due to starvation—and it is not hard to imagine what befell thousands of their prisoners.
The conventional view of the last world war has always been that it was a war of the big battalions, a titanic struggle determined by how many ships, bombers and fresh cannon fodder could be poured into the fight. But food, The Taste of War makes clear, was absolutely central to the Second World War: as a cause, as a chief preoccupation of the combatant nations, and as a weapon. Japan and Germany went to war over it, at least in part—the lebensraum of Nazi dreams was a vast agricultural breadbasket, an eastern European recreation of the American Midwest. Hitler also obsessed over keeping the home front as well-fed as the armed forces, because he believed Germany’s collapse in the previous war was directly tied to the hunger brought by the Allied blockade.
A German official named Herbert Backe came up with the perfect Nazi solution, one that enthused Hitler: seize the grain-growing lands of the Soviet Union; use the harvest to maintain the invading Wehrmacht; leave the inhabitants to starve; and fill the empty land with German farmers, who would keep the Reich independent in food supplies. Collingham is correct that in the historical debate on Hitler’s motives for his suicidal (in retrospect) invasion of the U.S.S.R., the question of food—where to get it, how to divide it up—has never been given its due consideration.
Backe’s aptly named Hunger Plan worked in part; if few Germans ever moved east, four million Soviet civilians and POWs did starve to death in deliberate neglect, becoming a large contingent among the war’s quiet victims: three million Bengalis in a famine caused by callous and incompetent wartime food policies in the British Empire; two million Vietnamese whose rice was requisitioned by the Japanese army; 500,000 Greeks starved by a British blockade; one million German POWs who died of hunger in Soviet hands, tens of thousands of other victims in Nazi-occupied Europe.
The food issue also sparked friction between Allies. For the war in the Pacific, the Americans virtually hijacked Australian agriculture, drafting canning experts from private firms and universities to transform Australian farming into a modern agribusiness. U.S. military demands—its forces were by far the best-fed of the war—caused unhappiness there. Australians, who found it hard to accept that grown Americans drank milk, resented having to ration supplies for their children to keep the Marines afloat in milkshakes.
There was profound tension too within belligerent nations. The demand for calories inexorably rose as everyone, not just soldiers but civilians faced with reduced transport and labouring to grow some of their own food, led a more physical life. Yet the inputs necessary for increased agricultural production—fuel, manpower, nitrates (used in both fertilizer and explosives)—were also in high military demand. In the end, it was the Allies’ capacity, especially America’s, to produce guns and butter, that proved decisive.
When Collingham looks around the contemporary world, it’s those internal tensions that seem liable to surface again. The war showed one reason authoritarian governments were inclined to external conflict was fear of their own hungry populaces. Quite rightly, too: rising prices played a role in the Egyptian protests that toppled Hosni Mubarak. Soon increased competition for fossil fuels, rising populations, loss of farmland, and increased demand (especially in China and India) may bring a new age of food consciousness, shortage and even rationing. Probably not in the West, the historian soothingly concludes. More likely for Westerners will be a renewed prominence for the one crop—cheap, nutritious, grown in every Victory Garden and on every spare scrap of land in the early 1940s—that Collingham calls the true taste of war: potatoes.