The Taste of War Lizzie Collingham

Allen Lane, pp.634, 30

The long summer that led up to the last days of peace in Europe in 1939 — the vigil of the Nazi assault on Poland on 1 September and the ensuing Phoney War — gave little hint of the storm to come.

The long summer that led up to the last days of peace in Europe in 1939 — the vigil of the Nazi assault on Poland on 1 September and the ensuing Phoney War — gave little hint of the storm to come. As German troops engulfed Poland, however, the Nazi science of massacre was put to the test. Within two months of Hitler’s invasion, an estimated 5,000 Jews were murdered behind the Polish lines. Millions were subsequently starved to death.

Food is the central focus of this grimly absorbing enquiry into the second world war. At least 20 million people died of starvation and malnutrition during the conflict, according to Lizzie Collingham: a number almost equal to the 19.5 million military deaths. Dreadfully, Hitler’s plan to acquire ‘living space’ for German settlers in occupied eastern Europe required the wholesale removal of Slavs and other ‘useless mouths’.

Starvation was essential to Hitler’s war against the Jews. At Auschwitz in occupied Poland there was a chronic hunger unknown to free men. The daily 500-gram bread ration was not enough to survive on: gaining a Nachschlag — a ‘second helping’ — made the difference between life and death. According to the Auschwitz survivor Primo Levi, each day civilian trains passed his sub-camp of Monowitz with mocking advertisements for Knorr soup: ‘BESTE SUPPE KNORR SUPPE’, as if the prisoners could choose between one brand and another. At night in his dreams Levi conjured succulent dishes and fantasy menus.

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The Nazi so-called Hunger Plan was the work of Hitler’s chief agronomist, Herbert Backe, who made possible the mass starvation of Slavs, Jews, gypsies and other ‘asocials’ and the diversion of foodstuffs to German civilians and the Wehrmacht. Food was thus integral to Hitler’s murderous racism, and its effects were seen to be calamitous. The British troops who liberated Belsen in April 1945 were profoundly disturbed by what they saw. It was not just the corpses; the prisoners before them were casualties of starvation.

For all his importance, Backe has not received due recognition, argues Collingham. As one of the Führer’s so-called Schreibtischtäter — ‘desk-murderers’ — he condemned millions to death at the stroke of a pen. Rather than face trial in the Soviet Union after the war, wretchedly, he hanged himself in his cell in 1947 at Nuremberg.

In the Pacific theatre of operations, the Japanese were no less cruel. The Nanking massacre of the winter of 1937–38 saw the bestial slaughter of some 150,000 Chinese civilians. China was viewed by Emperor Hirohito as a ‘treasure house of resources’ where quantities of food might be released to feed his subjects. However, Nanking was not tantamount to the genocidal ideology of National Socialism. While parallels certainly exist between Shintoist emperor-worship and the myths of the German Volk, there was no stink of the Nazi death camps to the cult of Hirohito; only cruelty.

In Britain, as in Germany, acute rationing obliged civilians to bend the rules. The Ministry of Food employed highly unpopular ‘meal-snoopers’ to prevent restaurants from serving illegal extra portions. Straitened circumstances produced myriad ersatz foodstuffs from dried banana powder to (apparently revolting) reconstituted mutton. The British government’s attempt to promote consumption of whale meat and snoek (‘snoek piquante’) came to nothing, however, and unwanted tins of the stuff were sold off as cat food.

In lively prose, Collingham documents the shoulder-padded spivs, racketeers and other flash sports who worked the black market in Britain. White bread was reckoned a patriotic alternative to Germany’s ‘barbaric’ loaf of rye, and it fell off the back of many a lorry. The only combatant nation to survive the war with a booming food industry, however, was the United States. ‘Why did we fight these people?’ a Japanese is quoted as saying. ‘Even their food was outsized.’ (American potatoes were seen to be two or three times as large as Japanese ones.)

Interestingly, only at the war’s end did Germany feel the pinch of hunger. Territories in the European east exploited by Herbert Backe and his agricultural cohorts were no longer able to supply the rations needed. Inevitably this led Germans to contrast the bounty of the Hitler period with the failure of the triumphant Allies to feed the civilians in their care. (Never mind that those same Germans had plundered, murdered and starved to death their European neighbours in the name of ‘nutritional freedom’.)

An excellent book, The Taste of War chronicles a largely untold story of the second world war, and it does so with scholarship and sympathy.

This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated

Tags: Book review, Food, Non-fiction, War history, Wartime, World War 2, Wwii