The bitter taste of war

Lizzie Collingham’s book on the role of food during the Second World War is well researched. But it’s far too kind about Britain’s scorched-earth tactics in Asia and the impoverishment of the working class at home.

James Heartfield

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As a war child, my mother could remember rationing. She told us, with anger and contempt, about postwar Labour minister Stafford Cripps’ radio broadcast of a recipe for nettle soup. She spent over a year in hospital with rheumatic fever and her sister died of pneumonia – though what part poor diet played in their health we cannot know.

In The Taste of War, a history of the war told through food, Lizzie Collingham echoes the wartime propaganda line that thanks to rationing, ‘between 1939 and 1945 maternal and infant mortality rates’ declined. In fact, mortality in infants and young children increased in 1940 and 1941, before it started to fall again, as it had done throughout the twentieth century (1). Maternal mortality had been declining since 1930, a fall that was only interrupted in the Second World War. Rickets did largely disappear, as Collingham says, but that happened before the war started.

Declining maternal mortality in the UK

Of course, it is true that food rationing did arrest the very worst effects of malnutrition (coming after the long slump of the 1930s). The argument that it improved health was not an innocent statistic, but part of the public relations case for rationing, pulled together by the British Medical Association’s Nutrition Committee, heavily influenced by the anti-sugar campaigner John Yudkin and the Ministry of Food man JR Marrack (2). With the Nutrition Committee’s notes in his hand, Labour MP Michael Foot beat back demands from The British Housewives’ League for an end to rationing, claiming that the children of 1947 were ‘healthier, tougher, stronger than any breed of children we have ever bred in this country before’ (3).

More to the point, ration books were brought in to cut workers’ consumption. John Maynard Keynes’ pamphlet, How to Pay for the War: A radical plan for the Chancellor of the Exchequer, set out the argument that working-class consumption would have to be cut back just as the greater demand for war workers would ordinarily push their wages up. Keynes’ friend Josiah Stamp explained that ‘the war can only be paid for by annexing a large part of the increased purchasing power of the wage-earning class and also encroaching on the pre-war standard of living’ (4). ‘You have got to suffer the reduction one way or another’, Keynes wrote to the Labour Party leaders – and they chose rationing because it would seem to mean an ‘equality of sacrifice’ on the part of all social classes – though, of course, wealthy people easily ate ‘off the ration’, at restaurants that Chamberlain had exempted (5). Collingham thinks that rationing laid down the principle that the state’s relationship to welfare had changed. More important, though, was that the left’s goals had shifted from raising living standards to managing austerity.

Collingham’s book is very good indeed, but it is also quite orthodox in following the history of the victors in the Second World War, so that she too often tries to make the Allies look better than they were.

Collingham writes that Germany’s food policy was ‘autarkic’, and that Germany withdrew from the world market to become dependent on food imports from Yugoslavia and the USSR. Britain, on the other hand, was ‘cut off’ from the world market and forced to follow the policy of food security. This is a cute argument that reminds you of the headline ‘Fog Over Channel: Europe Isolated’. German ‘autarky’ was a reaction to the country’s defaulting on its American loans as it struggled to pay off its punitive reparation bill. But it was Britain that first pushed the world into protectionism with its ‘imperial preference’ tariffs in 1932. Likewise, it was the United States that blockaded Japanese shipping in 1940 – ostensibly over Indo-China, but it was after years of losing markets to Japanese exports. Britain blockaded German ports having, as Collingham notes, named food as a weapon of war – as ‘contraband’. Churchill gloated that Hitler would have to ‘hold down a whole continent of sullen, starving peoples’ (6).

Collingham’s account of the ‘Hunger Plan’, devised by German politician Herbert Backe who was named Minister of Food in 1942, is good. The plan was to starve the USSR while taking Ukrainian grain. However, Collingham tends to see German atrocities as the outcome of well-conceived plans when the actual extermination of European Jewry was much more of an hysterical reaction to defeat, and the Hunger Plan, as she makes clear, was never followed through.

By contrast, Collingham relates the deaths of 3.5million Bengalis in the famine of 1943 as largely a set of mistakes by incompetent officials, a sin of omission rather than commission, of ‘refusing to believe in the seriousness of India’s food situation’.

Collingham thinks that the famine was due to a poor harvest in 1942 – but in that year, Bengal was made to export 185,000 tons of rice to help the shortfall in the colonies after neighbouring, rice-exporting Burma joined the Axis (see When Churchill starved India, by James Woudhuysen).

Collingham says Japanese commanders ‘harboured a desire to invade India’. But it was Subhas Chandra Bose, leader of the Japan-backed Indian National Army recruited from south-east Asia’s expatriate Indian community, who persuaded then Japanese prime minister Hideki Tojo to overrule his generals and attempt an incursion at Chittagong. Collingham says that the ‘boat and rice denial schemes’ that robbed Bengalis and ‘had the unfortunate effect of denying the local populace both transport and sustenance’ were an ‘over-zealous’ attempt to avoid these goods falling into enemy hands: these were ‘the lessons of Burma’.

Britain’s scorched-earth policy, though, was not a departure; it was the norm. All through the retreat from its colonies in Malaya, Singapore and Burma, Britain destroyed native industry and food. Was ‘the lesson of Burma’ that the Burmese were left with too much of their own food and transport?

Britain robbed Bengal of rice and transport, starting the famine there. Not because they were ‘distracted’, but because they systematically exploited India to fund the Empire. While the famine raged, Churchill raided India’s treasury to pay for his war, and even set about defaulting on the loan to those he called ‘Baboo money-lenders’. Nor was what Leo Amery called Churchill’s ‘Hitler-like policy’ towards India a personal failing, it represented the whole character of the British Raj. Maybe that is why Hitler wrote in Mein Kampf that ‘I, as a man of Germanic blood, would, in spite of everything, rather see India under English rule than any other’. In 1942, while they were raiding Bengal’s rice stores to feed the British army in the Middle East, the British waged a small war against the Indians in India, shooting 940 dead in the streets, arresting 60,222 and jailing 18,000 under the Defence of India Rules – all because they had demanded Britain ‘Quit India’.

According to Collingham, the answer to the Bengal Famine was that the government needed to take control of the rice and distribute it. But Indians fiercely resisted the British-backed authorities’ attempts to requisition rice for famine relief. They set up their own Relief Committees, like those run by Shyama Prasad Mukherjee who called on cultivators not to sell to government agents, saying ‘the bureaucracy has taken away the food for the army and for exports’. Collingham says that ‘the Japanese tried to capitalise on the situation by spreading rumours that they were willing to send food aid from Burma’. But these were not mere rumours: Subhas Bose, with the support of the Burman leader Ba Maw, offered to supply Bengal with Burmese rice – that was only days away across the border – through the Red Cross. Indeed, Bose’s supporters in India were already active in Mukherjee’s Relief Committees, distributing rice which the British were trying to grab for themselves. Bengalis were starved into taking jobs in the British-Indian Army (swollen to more than two million by the end of the war) – on one quarter of a Briton’s pay, or as prostitutes to the British troops. At the Grand Hotel on Chowringhee, a British officer could still buy a seven-course meal, with such dishes as quartier de mouton rôtie à la Metternich.

Famine stalked not just the German empire in the East, but the British empire in India, too. And it threatened North Africa – where the Allies and the Axis wrecked countries, notably Libya, to which neither had any moral claim. In the Middle East, Britain invaded both Iraq and Iran (on the spurious claim that they were pro-Nazi regimes, a claim repeated by Collingham), severely disrupting their food supply lines and causing food riots. Collingham rightly shows how the Japanese-backed administrations of the ‘East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere’ plundered and wrecked the food economies of Burma, Malaya and, more importantly, Indo-China, where famine was severe. But she ought to pay more attention to the Allied attacks on east-Asian shipping, which also played their part, as did the scorched-earth policy of the retreating British.

Collingham seems to say that the Nazi leadership succeeded in ‘exporting hunger’, keeping German consumption high while the east and occupied Europe were starved. This argument, which both Alan Milward and Tim Mason have made, has more latterly been challenged by Richard Overy and by Adam Tooze, whose recent book Wages of Destruction says that by 1941 consumption spending was down one fifth on its 1938 level. It just is not true to say that the German population ‘only began to experience hunger after May 1945′. And what of the Germans under British and American rule? Collingham notes the savage fall in their food intake to just over 1,000 calories a day, but says little about the impact of forced labour, the thousands put in concentration camps and the dismantling of industry at the hands of the Allies. Like one official asked about hunger at the time, Collingham seems to say ‘the short answer is that Germany lost the war’.

Collingham says that she wants to look at who was well-fed during the war, who went hungry, who starved to death and why. Her excellent research goes a long way to answering those questions. Still, we might wish that she had kept it in mind as a research question throughout. The real differences in the Second World War were not those between nations – or even between ideologies – but between the ruling classes and the ruled. Those who ate well were the businessmen who owned the munitions factories, their boosted profits guaranteed under the ‘cost-plus’ system, in Germany, America and Britain as well as in occupied Belgium and Holland. Equally, the financiers, chiefs of staff and senior civil servants were not left starving. Those who struggled were the rank and file in the army, and in the factories and on the land, in Germany, America, Britain, Japan and all the more so in the Soviet Union, India, China, North Africa and the Middle East.

Holding fast to the focus on food unfortunately has not rid Collingham’s book of an ideological bias. Rather, it has left a vacuum that has been filled by the conventional view of the ‘Good War’, where virtue lies with the Allies, and all wickedness can be conveniently ascribed to the defeated Axis powers. Least sensible is her view that states are to be trusted with the welfare of the people, given that between 1939 and 1945 it was nation states that starved, enslaved, caged, shot, bombed and pressed into uniform their various peoples, in their millions.

James Heartfield is a director of the development think-tank and the author of The Aborigines’ Protection Society, 1836-1909, to be published by Hurst and Columbia University Press in June (Buy this book from Amazon(UK)). Visit his website here.

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