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The Taste of War: World War II and the…

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

by Lizzie Collingham

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This is a fascinating book, but I’m not sure it is a book written for popular consumption (so to speak) in the United States. It is not only incredibly detailed and full of facts and figures, but moreover is somewhat critical of American food policies, taking a decidedly less sanguine view of American actions than can be found, say, in American textbooks. To me, this made the book especially valuable: I always appreciate being provided a whole new lens through which to view history. In addition, after reading many books naming the usual suspects for the motivations, strategies, tactics, and outcomes of the Second World War and the fate of its combatants, it is most enlightening to be presented with something different and intellectually compelling.

Collingham, a historian from Cambridge, seeks to uncover the important role food played in the Second World War. She avers, rightly, that this is “an often overlooked dimension to our understanding of the Second World War.” She not only wants to highlight how and why, during the war, at least 20 million people died from starvation, malnutrition, and its associated diseases, but to show just how important the demand for food was in pushing Germany and Japan into their radical solutions to the food problem. The vision of Lebensraum shared in particular by Germany and Japan, was a battle not just for land to absorb excess population, but on which to grow food and provide it for the rest of their populations.

Taking each of the combatant nations in turn, Collingham discusses their needs in terms of caloric consumption for both civilians and military, and how they coped with it. Germany, for example, did not want to risk the disaffection over hunger that plagued their country during and after World War I, and engaged in deliberate extermination by starvation of targeted groups. Polish Jews, for instance, were allotted a “derisory” 184 calories a day. The mentally ill, disabled, and Soviet prisoners of war, were put on a “starvation diet” known as “The Falthauser diet” by the “doctor” who introduced it: he argued that his method resulted in death by starvation within three months, and offered a practical solution to “the problem of disposing of these unproductive members of German society…” The Germans even set up “hunger houses” that specialized in this “diet.” As successful as this plan was, soon it seemed that even three months was taking too long, and the Germans came up with more efficient ways to eliminate what they called “useless eaters.”

Other countries experienced many deaths by starvation that were not so cold and calculating, but were nevertheless the results of misguided or cruel government policies. In Japan, sixty percent of the 1.74 million military losses were due to starvation, rather than combat. In some instances, the troops had to resort to eating their own dead comrades. Japan was isolated, but didn’t have the same resources Britain did to keep imports coming into the country.

Britain had few qualms about starving its colonies in Africa and India to feed the home country. As Collingham reports, “At least 1.5 million Bengalis died during 1943-44, when food scarcity was at its height.” Epidemics, easily killing those weakened by malnutrition, killed another 1.5-2 million. (She does attribute blame to the Indian Government was well as the Brits, but the British could have done much more about the situation had they cared as much about their “dark” subjects as their Caucasian ones.) Britain also left other nations to starve, such as Greece, where some half million civilians perished. Approximately two million starved to death in French Indochina. The parade of gruesome facts is a long one.

In the Soviet Union, citizens fell under a double whammy, as it were, being starved alternatively by Stalin and by Hitler. It is estimated between 2 and 3 million Soviet citizens died of hunger and malnutrition. (Timothy Snyder writes that between 1932 and 1942, some eleven million Soviet citizens died of starvation, first because of the policy of Soviet leaders and then because of the policy of German leaders. Timothy Snyder, “Stalin & Hitler: Mass Murder by Starvation,” NY Review of Books, June 21, 2012)

China also experienced millions of deaths from hunger, not helped by the internal struggles in the country between the Nationalists and the Communists. Collingham reports: "Two million Nationalist soldiers died and at least 15 million civilians, 85 per cent of them peasants, and virtually all of them the victims of deprivation and starvation.”

The perceived ineptitude and corruption of the Nationalist government contributed to the ability of the Communists to take over after the war, when they proceeded to increase the death toll from hunger exponentially. When Mao got power, he began to engage in “land reform” in earnest, which meant murdering some one million “rich” peasants in order to collectivize farms. But he didn’t need to murder most of the 30 million reputed to have died during this time; since the inept and unjust collectivization process took care of that.

In other areas after the war, the hunger problem actually increased, not only because of the disruption to planting, harvesting, and available labor because of the war. Also in 1946 a huge drought affected most of the world (except for the U.S). Thus, in Japan, for example, hundreds of thousands starved to death after the surrender, and in Germany, as Colingham points out, “the population only began to experience hunger after the war (not being able to take food from useless eaters anymore).

Eventually, in 1948, Europe began receiving aid from the U.S. via the much-vaunted Marshall Plan. Americans only finally agreed to share their abundance of food after it became clear that the threat of Communism loomed if the populations abroad were too dissatisfied with their governments. But a portion of the money given to each country had to be used not for food, but for propaganda extolling the benefits of the American way of life, including exhibitions, films, pamphlets, radio shows and concerts.

Then there were the Pacific Islands. There, during the fighting, the U.S. had leveled crops and fields to install airstrips and roads and bivouacs. At that time, they fully shared their food largesse with the natives, but after they left, the natives had nothing, and no way to replace it. They had become totally dependent on imports, but the U.S., ever conscious of courting the farm vote, would not grant them any tariff relief. So they became impoverished, hungry, and eventually addicted to the chemically-processed, high-fat, and high-sugar foods they managed to buy from the U.S. (at inflated prices). Even today, many of those areas suffer from obesity, heart disease, and diabetes.

Two other aspects of food and war receive a thorough treatment by Collingham. One is the logistics of war itself; i.e., the need to keep soldiers who are on the move fed and watered, and with enough vitamins to ward off deficiencies common in wartime. Soldiers also require more calories, since they expend a great deal of energy. The amount of food required is incredible, and the lengths to which combatants will go to get it is amazing as well. (This is of course in addition to the vast amounts of fuel, ammunition, medical supplies, etc. that also need to be transported along with the soldiers. But without sustenance, nothing else will matter.) The importance of making sure there is enough food for both soldiers and civilians, and adequate means of transport to distribute it, cannot be overemphasized. Most of the combatants simply did not think to, or feel able to, release ships and rail lines from the use of the military for conveyance of food. Also, thinking, as most combatants initially do, that the war would be short, they destroyed land and crops and animals without worrying where their next meals would come from.

Collingham also allocates some space in this book to the problems the future may bring because of the changing nature of the demand for food, both in terms of quality and quantity; the effects on the environment and resulting repercussions; and the unequal distribution of wealth and ergo food, which is bound to affect international relations.

Evaluation: I’ve long been interested in the logistics of war, and the importance of getting food and water not only to the troops but to the animals that service them. It can certainly make a difference in success or failure of an operation, particularly in the desert. (Indeed, in some areas of the world, the fight for water and/or water access is becoming as important as the battle for land used to be.)

I learned so much from this book, and strongly advocate that any scholar of war, history, or socioeconomics at least read through Part I, which contains more general information before the author goes into greater detail. It definitely added to my understanding of world affairs. ( )
  nbmars | Jan 20, 2014 |
Hitler was motivated to take over so much of Europe and get rid of the troublesome people living there because Germany needed to produce more of its own food and didn't have enough land. ( )
  picardyrose | Nov 22, 2013 |
A wide-reaching history of food supply and distribution throughout the Second World War. This was a fascinating read!

The chapters on the US were the least depressing. The United States was then, and is now, a major net agricultural exporter. As the Soviets overwhelmed the enemy with men, the US overwhelmed all with sheer mass of material, food, weapons, etc. Troops had incredibly generous rations of 4,000 or more calories a day, more than satisfactory for young men doing vigorous activity. The Australians had a large surplus too, but their tastes and the Americans' did disagree. They needed it for the intense Pacific campaigns. There is the unfortunate matter of using Mexican bracero labor and confiscating Japanese-American owned land, but that incident pales to later on.

The British had a tighter rationing system, and had to deal with German U-boat raids and bombing, and nearly ran out of stocks several times. They had to apportion out food from their vast empires, and some disasters in sinking and rationing led to famine. The Indians were hard hit, as their rationing system was a complex mess which had to take into account the tastes of the Muslims, Hindus, and the caste system. Most got tough goat meat.

The Germans had another system entirely. The Army and factory workers got best dibs. Their system was also a mess, and the landed aristocrats and Gauleiters ate lavishly while the citizens had a rationing system similar to the British. Goebbels had to have a mob attack one of Goering's favorite restaurants.

Their Empire had another story. The Western and North Europeans were fed relatively well, but worse than the Germans.

The Eastern Europeans were supposed to be starved to death. They were given enough to work the factory machines, or nothing. The German plan for the invasion of Russia was to exterminate 70-90% of the civilians by starving them (don't need the gas) and using the rest as serfs. German officials calculated the percentages of each ethnicity to be killed. 'Desk perpetrators' is the word for these men. Backe, Sauckel, Darre, Speer.

The Soviets were barely any better off anyways. They had endured several years of famine before, and again in 1946! American Lend-Lease aid went to the soldiers and factory workers, but most civilians had to forage. All wild animals and garbage disappeared. Those in occupied areas lived worse. Eating the glue in book bindings and the wallpaper.

As for the Japanese, the situation was particularly bad. The Americans, who learned from German submarine tactics, suffocated the Japanese island detachments. Most had to forage. By 1944 or 1945, they had to resort to cannibalizing POWs. One doctor's diary, cited in the report, regards the hunger and resentment the troops felt, as they smelled the American mess halls and coffee in the distance as they boiled leaves. They were utterly unprepared for the wars of attrition which followed. More died of disease and wasting than American firepower.

Napoleon's old maxim was that "an army marches on it's stomach", and many remember this lesson from the war. The Americans still have a very well maintained (almost extravagant) supply system. The British have adapted their food rationing system into the Welfare State, and so have many others in imitation. Economic and logistic factors play as big a role as 'decisive battles', and the quartermaster has as big a role to play as the front-line general.

This will become one of the most cited books on WW2 - it is original and exact in its conclusions. Not just a fine economic history, but good history over all. ( )
  HadriantheBlind | Mar 30, 2013 |
Adds a major dimension to thinking about World War II. The importance of food is shown to be essential at every place and time throughout the war. The concept is so central, and so convicingly argued here, that one wonders why it took 65 years for this fact to be given its proper due. ( )
  RTS1942 | Nov 4, 2012 |
Showing 4 of 4
The book opens with an insightful discussion of the important role of food in driving Germany and Japan to war. Both countries sought to resolve the problem of food autarky through violent expansion. Hitler aimed to realise this goal by building an eastern European empire in which the fertile fields of Ukraine would make Germany independent of world trade. The experience of the first World War, during which the Allied naval blockade had successfully cut off vital German imports, taught the Nazis that adequate food supply was crucial to the maintenance of civilian morale. The Japanese army simultaneously sought to reduce its country’s economic dependence on the United States by expanding its colonial possessions in mainland Asia.
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Food, and in particular the lack of it, was central to the experience of World War II. In this richly detailed history, Lizzie Collingham establishes how control of food and its production is crucial to total war. Tracing the interaction between food and strategy, on both the military and home fronts, Collingham demonstrates how access to food was a driving force within Nazi policy and contributed to the decision to murder hundreds of thousands of "useless eaters," and brings to light the fact that famine was not only caused by Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan, but was also the result of Allied mismanagement and neglect, particularly in India, Africa and China. She also shows how the war subsequently promoted the pervasive influence of American food habits and tastes in the post-war world.--From publisher description.… (more)

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