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Ina Zweiniger-Bargielowska on a powerful study of wartime food consumption, which was a life and death struggle in itself
The Taste of War by author and historian Lizzie Collingham is the first comprehensive history of food during the Second World War that incorporates all belligerents on a truly global scale. Food was crucial to the successful conduct of total war.
Collingham shows that the battle for food determined strategy and how food became a weapon.
The aggressive imperial ambitions of Germany and Japan were motivated in part by a desire to acquire self-sufficiency in food production. In the context of growing scarcity, racial, ethnic and social differences determined who was fed adequately and whose claims were tenuous or denied.
The legacy of the war, which transformed the United States with its abundance of food into the most powerful nation in the world, shaped global food production, distribution and consumption habits until the present day.
This ambitiously conceived and sweeping book makes an extensive range of recent secondary literature accessible to a general audience, although there is little primary research.
A leading theme of the book is the hierarchy of food entitlement, which was not just a question of privation but rather became a matter of life and death. Not surprisingly, armies generally ate better than civilians, and colonies as well as occupied territories became a source of food, supporting the war effort of both Axis and Allied powers.
American GIs were fed best, followed by British and German soldiers, whereas the Soviet army fought on an empty stomach until 1943, and Japanese soldiers were frequently left to fend for themselves.
Owing to wartime disruption and the need to feed huge armies, food supplies became increasingly tight on the European continent. The Nazis’ policy of conquest included the chilling ‘Hunger Plan’, that is the mass starvation of the Soviet population to create Lebensraum for Aryan settlers. While this was never fully implemented, food supplies were diverted to Germany and millions of civilians and Soviet PoWs starved to death.
Jews were entitled to only paltry rations, if they were not denied food altogether. In the context of growing shortages in 1942, the mass extermination of Jews was accelerated in order to eliminate these ‘useless eaters’ entirely.
The brutality of the Nazis is well known. The hierarchy of entitlement also shaped decisions about food allocation among the western Allies.
The cost of protecting British civilians from severe hardship was borne by the empire and malnutrition was rife in parts of Africa and India. The most severe crisis was the Bengal famine of 1943–44, which was in part due to Churchill’s refusal to divert emergency food supplies. It resulted in the death of an estimated three million Indians.
A book of this breadth inevitably results in a lack of depth. For example, Collingham shows little awareness of the complexity of the debate about nutrition in Britain in the 1930s.
It is simply wrong to suggest that the National Government did nothing to promote civilian health. The increase in maternal mortality at the time was not just due to poverty – in the early 1930s the rate was actually higher among the better-off than the poorest.
Yet these minor quibbles should not detract from the achievement of this book which is a veritable tour de force and should become essential reading for anybody interested in the history of the Second World War.
Ina Zweiniger-Bargielowska is professor of history at the University of Illinois at Chicago