Monday, June 13, 2011

Food, Famine, and Wartime Genocide
Maimon Schwarzschild

Here is a fascinating TLS review of The Taste of War by Lizzie Collingham.

Their experiences of the First World War gave the dictators of the 1930s a heightened sensitivity to the importance of food supplies...  Food [became] a purpose of war and one of the chief drivers of their strategies that led to the Second World War.

Collingham shows how the fear of food insecurity was a common factor in the war plans of the dictators. Then she discusses how war distributed hunger. Everywhere the war disrupted trade and forced the regions of the world into self-sufficiency. A fortunate zone spread westward across the Atlantic from the British Isles to the Americas and beyond into the southeastern Pacific, ending in Australia. Here, food loomed large in the perceptions of people and governments, but even though there were shortages by peacetime standards, many ate well and nobody starved. Americans had more guns and less butter but, as Hugh Rockoff has pointed out, at the same time they also had more ice cream. Elsewhere, war mobilization under conditions of wartime self-sufficiency brought generalized hunger, frequently tipping over into famine.

Deaths mainly or wholly from hunger occurred at various times in Tanganyika, the Netherlands (22,000), Kiev (150,000), Greece (half a million), Leningrad (one million), the Japanese armed forces (one million), Vietnam (1 to 2 million), the Soviet interior (another 1 to 2 million), Bengal (1.5 to 3 million), among Soviet prisoners of war held by Germany (2 million), and in China (15 million). And this is far from a complete account. In total, hunger killed more civilians than combat killed soldiers.

The very persuasive conclusion:

[T]he evidence of [Collingham's] book is that it was precisely when food security took priority that people starved, because markets were broken up and borders were closed to the free movement of people and food.

The Taste of War shows that food security was one of the most destructive ideas of the twentieth century. Political peddlers bundled utopian dreams of agrarian self-sufficiency, with xenophobic fears about dependence on trading partners, to sell the case for war to the public. Food security was the pretext for national policies that ended in conquest, genocidal famines and mass murder. If we wish to live in a world free of famine, we should do all we can to promote free trade and the free movement of people and goods.

Read the whole thing.

For a dramatisation of one of the Second World War famines, namely the siege of Leningrad, you can watch the movie Attack on Leningrad online.  The film was made for Russian TV, but it has an international cast, including New Jersey-born Mira Scorvino who is surprisingly credible, I think, as a British journalist stranded in Leningrad during the 900 day Nazi siege.  The movie got mixed reviews and was barely released in the US.  It's a somewhat improbable mix of political history and melodrama, but it conveys the physical experience of what Leningrad must have been like very convincingly, and the political history - although broadly acted - is quite accurate.  The film is on YouTube in 11 parts.  See it.

UPDATE:  Michael Livingston rightly adds that Timothy Snyder's Bloodlands tells the devastating story of Hitler's and Stalin's politically-contrived famines in eastern Europe.  More human beings starved to death in these famines than died in combat in the Second World War.  Here is Anne Applebaum's review of Bloodlands.

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Maimon Schwarzschild



This issue, or more exactly contrived famines, is discussed in detail in Timothy Snyder's Bloodlands.

Posted by: mike livingston | Jun 13, 2011 6:35:12 AM

"markets were broken up and borders were closed to the free movement of people and food."

I suppose one could describe the blockade of Leningrad this way, but it would surely be a pretty unusual way to describe it, and I think you'd have to wonder about the motivation of anyone who did. The other cases are perhaps less clear, but I suspect that in many of them, too, you'd have to wonder about anyone who would frame the case this way.

Posted by: Matt | Jun 15, 2011 8:46:07 PM

A friend is one who is there to care.

Posted by: Air Max | Jul 29, 2011 11:15:04 PM