Mothers Turned Cannibal as Hitler Wolfed Down Chocolates: Books

The cover jacket of "The Taste of War: World War Two and the Battle for Food" by Lizzie Collingham. Source: Penguin via Bloomberg

Any notion that Lizzie Collingham’s “The Taste of War” might be a whimsical new take on World War II is dispelled in its first pages. A former research fellow at Jesus College, Cambridge, Collingham has produced a first-rate, substantial and enthralling addition to the literature.

Securing food supplies, she shows, not only helped impel Germany and Japan into war: It frequently dictated their strategies and lay behind atrocities they committed.

Familiar with murderous bureaucrats such as Adolf Eichmann, we hear less of Herbert Backe, a nutritionist and senior official who emerges as an equally sinister figure. A fervent Nazi, he believed Germany needed Lebensraum -- living space in Eastern Europe -- to feed itself, in the same way the British Empire helped feed the U.K.

Under his “Hunger Plan,” Russia was to be swiftly conquered, its food supplies diverted to Germany, and Soviet cities systematically starved to reduce consumption. The same logic of eliminating “useless eaters” was applied to the Jews.

The advance of the Red Army derailed much of the plan, though not before 1 million Leningrad residents and vast numbers of Poles, Ukrainians and Jews had died. Cannibalism, mainly by women desperate to feed their children, was one consequence of Backe’s satanic vision. Indicted for war crimes, he committed suicide in his cell.

The puppet state of Manchukuo in northeastern China was to be Japan’s Ukraine. A million Japanese farmers were dispatched there, to little avail. Many were killed by Chinese peasants and the remnants shipped home when Josef Stalin attacked Manchuria in 1945.

Hiroshima and Nagasaki

On Japan as elsewhere, Collingham’s judgments are sound and sober. Her account of how the decision to drop the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki was reached is the most succinct and persuasive I have seen. Here again, food was a vital factor.

How would the American public have reacted, she asks, to the spectacle of millions of Japanese starving as U.S. mines cut off imported food? Or to the news that a million U.S. troops were dying in an invasion that faced fanatical resistance? Wearying of the war, she suggests, Americans would have called for negotiations rather than a Japanese surrender, thereby leaving the militarists in power.

In Germany, forced labor produced 20 percent of the food, while the 9 million-strong Wehrmacht consumed 40 percent of all grain and 62 percent of the meat. As the populace was rationed, the Nazi elite gorged. Adolf Hitler, a vegetarian, could put away two pounds of chocolate a day (about a kilo of the stuff), while the corpulent Hermann Goering entertained lavishly.

Herring and Potatoes

Joseph Goebbels, by contrast, fed his guests herring and boiled potatoes. “The fighting won’t stop until Goering fits into Goebbels’s trousers,” went one Berlin saying.

Americans, meanwhile, had never had it so good. The war pulled agriculture out of recession, stimulating scientific advances. And when it came to transporting bully beef or dried eggs to Europe under the lend-lease program, the country’s phenomenal production of Liberty ships made up for vessels sunk by German U-boats.

U.S. propaganda posters showing an American family sharing its table with a GI, a Russian, a Briton and a Mexican were based on fact: American farmers really did feed all those people. It would be nice to believe the millions who owe good constitutions today to lend-lease cod-liver oil or orange juice are retrospectively grateful. I certainly am, though as a child I hated the taste of that oil.

‘Land Girls’

Britain could feed itself for only 120 days a year when war broke out in 1939. By 1944, the figure had risen to 160 days, thanks to a combination of “land girls,” women who filled in for absent male farm hands; prisoner-of-war labor (Germans worked well, Italians needed bribing with chocolate and cigarettes); and a switch from pastoral to intensive cultivation. Rationing worked well.

Without America and the Empire, though, we would have starved. Some colonies themselves suffered horribly, and Collingham spares a thought for the victims of the Bengal famine of 1943, on which Winston Churchill took an unsentimental line. In response to an urgent request to release food stocks, the prime minister notoriously sent a telegram asking why Gandhi hadn’t died yet.

Collingham’s book is a feast of facts, and a triumph. Far from distracting from the armed struggle against fascism, her focus on food brings the reality of war closer.

“The Taste of War: World War Two and the Battle for Food” is from Allen Lane in the U.K. (634 pages, 30 pounds). To buy this book in North America, click here.

(George Walden, a former U.K. diplomat and member of Parliament, is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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