The Taste of War: World War Two and the Battle for Food

February 24, 2011

Back in the mid-19th century, the Prussian nationalist historian Heinrich von Treitschke asserted that "it is men who make history". A century later, Fernand Braudel, the Annales School historian, wrote his famous work The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II, in which he argued that the power to shape events lay in geography and climate rather than people. Now more than half a century after Braudel declared that "mountains, not rulers come first", Lizzie Collingham makes the case for food being a driving factor that shapes the past.

The Taste of War addresses the role of food in the Second World War in three main ways. The first section sets out the limits of the German and Japanese economies in their respective goals of self-sufficiency, which meant that autarky could be achieved only through territorial expansion. The second section looks at how the governments of the main combatant countries met the nutritional needs of their nations in wartime, and the third examines the political motivations that lay behind the division and distribution of rations between 1939 and 1945.

Food, Collingham argues, was at the heart of many of the policies that led Germany and Japan to war at the end of the 1930s. In the wake of the First World War, nationalists in each country saw international trade as an obstacle to their nation's ability to reach its full potential. Self-sufficiency, and specifically an "agrarian empire", was seen as hugely desirable, as it would remove the need for supranational cooperation.

The well-known Nazi drive for Lebensraum (living space) in the east was not then simply a policy conceived out of an irrational desire to have more land per se, but was rather a policy designed to make Germany free from dependency on other nations. Employing a similar logic, the Japanese singled out the state of Manchukuo in northeastern China for their Lebensraum, and planned to resettle one-fifth of the Japanese farming population to China from 1936 by evicting Chinese or Korean farmers from their land. It was the execution of these plans, Collingham contends, that prompted international conflict.

Feeding a nation in wartime was extremely challenging. War work was often far more demanding than peacetime employment, which meant that workers needed more calories to keep them going. A normal man needed approximately 3,000 calories a day, but a soldier in training needed 3,429, an active soldier serving in cold conditions required 4,238 and a soldier fighting in tropical conditions, 4,738. To meet these needs, each combatant country had to increase its food supply significantly. In addition to the increased appetites of their populations, governments also had to contend with the disruption of the global food market owing to the international nature of the conflict - a factor that further hampered the battle for food. Collingham examines how the governments of the UK, Germany, Japan, the US and the Soviet Union filled or failed to fill the stomachs of their citizens.

If specific national circumstances meant that Germany and Japan could not manage on their own food supplies alone in peacetime, how did they tackle this challenge in wartime? In Germany, forced labourers from its occupied territories did much of the back-breaking agricultural work, and non-Aryans including Jews, Gypsies and homosexuals, who fell outside the so-called National Socialist National Community, received only grossly inadequate rations. In Japan, state requisitions of rice from the occupied villages of Tonkin in Vietnam stemmed the rice shortages at home, but condemned 1 to 2 million Vietnamese to starve to death. There was thus a political dynamic to the distribution of food, with some lives clearly deemed to be worth more than others.

As Collingham convincingly argues, putting food on the table was a fundamental concern for all combatant countries during the conflict. Although The Taste of War works better as a reference book than as a continuous narrative, it is clearly written and tells us much about the economic factors that shaped the policies of combatant nations before, during and indeed after the Second World War.

The Taste of War: World War Two and the Battle for Food

By Lizzie Collingham. Allen Lane, 656pp, £30.00. ISBN 9780713999648. Published January 2011

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