War and Social Upheaval: Famine

Figure 1.--Famine has been a part of the human exstince even before the development of civilization. It ws vividly described in the Old Testament and became one of the fourse horsemen of the Apoclypse. Reverend Thomas Robert Malthus was an English cleric and scholar who formulated the first theory of population. It was in essence that human population grew exponentially (doubling with each cycle) while food production grows at a much slower arithmetic rate. Nehru and other leadrs of independent India after World War II turned to socialist economics to develop its economy and expand agricultural production. It ws aotal faolure. The press caption of this 1963 photographread read, "The children and the adults alike, flocked about the free kitchens operated by the government, for the food given out, most of it is liquid food or similar just to make the stomache feel full temprarily." While India turned to socialism and Soviet planning, it was america that came to India's aid. The Food for Peace provided emergency food assistance. But even more importabtly, the American generated Green Revolution helped Induan substantially increase food harvests.

Famine is one of the great killers of human histiory. Drought, Famine, Plague and Pestilence are the feared natural dissters discussed in the Bible. Plague remains one of the worst calamities that can befall mabnkind. It is no longer, howver, an entirely natural event. Modern society grows more than enough food to feed the entire humn population. Modern reporting continues to focus on the natural causes, especially drought. Mamy make a connction with global warming. Some are so commited tp theglobal arming nrativ that they ignore the political and economic dimensions of famine. Famine is as old as history and surely predates history. It is believed that climate change and resulting food shortages drove man to migrate from Africa. Hunter gthes were not as vulnerable to famne because they could move. Settled griculturl societies were less mobile and thus more vulneranle. Thee is a great deal of historical information on famine. We note famines enduced by drought and other natural causes. Others are cosscoul enginered events as well as due to neglect or indiference. Both political and economic concerns are involved in the engineered famines. Some are genocidal in chracter.

Irish Potato Famine (1840s)

The Irish Potato Famine began with a blight of the potato crop. The Irish had come to depend on the potato as a mainstay of their diet. No other crop produced so much food per acre of land. The blight was devestating and spread with amazing speed. Within a year a bountiful crop was reduced to rotting fields. Vast expanses of Irish firelds were ruined by black rot. It would have not been as bad if the Irish diet had been more diverse, but the poor Irish peasantry survived on the potato harvest. Potato crops accross Europe failed, but nowhere in Europe was the poopulation so dependant on the potato. Not only was the potato gone, but the crop failure caused the pricev of other food crops to soar, placing substitute foods beyond the purchasing power of the destitute Irish peasantry. The Irish peasantry were tennantv farmers who eked out a subsistaence existance with the potato not only found their food stocks roting, but were unable tom pay their rents. Soon their British and Irish Protestant landlords were evicting them from their homes. Some of the Irish peasants out of desperation attempted to eat the rotting potatos. Whole villages were devestated by cholera and typhus. Parish priests desperately tried to tend to their congregtions and feed the starving. Inn some cases the dead went unburried. Many were burried without caskets. English relief efforts wre inadequated and even these wereec abandoned in the midst of the famine. Work houses because of inadequate nutrition and unsanitary conditions were death traps. The Irish famine has been seen by many as the greatest humanitarian disasaster of the 19th centuy. This was in part because so many died and others forced emmigrate. Over 1 million are believed to have actually sucumbed to statvation and disease. But most tragic of all was that it was preventable. Throuhout the Famine, Irish, and English landowners were exporting food. One author points out that a quarter of the peers in the House of Lords owned land in Ireland and failed to act. [Wilson] As the 19th century moved on, independence became a possibility, but not an inevitability. The central development in the 19th century was the Irish Potalo Famine (1845-50). The reforms of the 19th century could have succeeded in integrating Ireland within the rest of the United Kingdom. This did not occur and the central reason was the Famine. The potato famine and more importantly the British reaction to the Famine resulted in a Holocaust of horendous proportions. After the Famine, Irish independence was inevitable.

Indian Famines

World War I Famines

Germany decidedto resolve the Balkans crisis by going to war, attacking France through neutral Belgium (August 1914) Food became an issue from the very begging of the War. The German Army seized the Belgian civilian fodd supply. The Germans did not do this with the expressed purpose of starving the Belgians. They did it to further their invasion plans and with no real concern about gow this would affect the Belgians. Germany was a food importing country, but believed that their vaunted Army would win the war before food and raw material shortages would affect the German economy. The Belgians were saved by the Belgian Relief effort organized by an unknown American mining enginner, Herbert Hoover, and supported through the generosity of the American people. The Germans of course did not quickly defeat the Allies. They were stopped by the Miracle on the Marne by the French army (September 1914). This meant that because of the Royal Navy blockade, that German could not imprort neither the food needed to support its people and the raw materials needed by its industry. Serious food shortages developed early in the War. The food situation reached crisis levels with the Turnip Winter (1916). Food became aserious problem througout the Central Powers and countries occupied by the Central Powers (Serbia and Romania). The United States ws able to prevent famine in most Allied countries (Belgium, Britain, France, Greece, and Italy). It was not able to get needed food into Russua or the countries occupied by the Centrl Powers (like Montenegro, Poland--then occupied Russia, and Montenegro). As a result, by the end of the War, Europe was starving. America set in motion a massive relief effort save an entire continent from starving. This was unprecedented and at time the greatest humanitaroan effort in world history.

World War II Famines


Some three hundred thousands Greek adults and children starved as a result of the famine that occcurred during the German occupation (April 1941). This was not planned by the NAZIs in the same way that Jews were starved in the gettoes and concentration camps or that Stalin enginered the Ukranian famine. The Greek famine was the result of the fact that Greece imported food and after the occupation this was no longer possible. The condition was wornsened by German shipments of food to the Reich to support the NAZI war economy. The Germans engineered the famine, but more out of indiference than malovenence. No exact accounting exists of the death toll, but seems to have exceed 0.3 million people.

NAZI Hunger Plan

The German Hunger Plan (der Hungerplan) also called der Backe-Plan or Starvation Plan was a NAZI World War II food management plan. It is sometime called the Backe Plan, after its primary advocate. He played a critical role in planning and implementing the plan. Herbert Backe was an official in the Ministry of Food and eventually appointed to that post. The Ministry was responsible for the German rationing program. Actually there was no single centrally coordinated plan, but several separate if some times related operations. Germany's World War I experience encouraged the idea of using food as a weapon. Hitler was not the first in this arena. Stalin preceded him by about a decade with the Ukrainian famine (1932-33). We are not sure to what extent NAZI officials were aware of this. The NKVD did an efficient job of preventing details from leaking out to the West. And Western Socialists and Communists, including those in Germany did not want to believe the rumors. The desire to use food as a weapon. This combined with the NAZI regime's rush to acceptance eugenics theories as scientific fact resulted in a genocidal brew of genocidal policies. NAZI food policies were different than the Allied blockade policies which were designed to win the War. Part of Hitler's war objectives were the murder of millions of people which sometimes were given a priority over the war effort. The Hunger Plan was not a policy designed to help win the War, although sometimes presented as that. Many of the individuals killed were working in war industries supporting the German war effort. This actually impeded the war effort as a labor shortage developed in Germany requiring the introduction of forced labor to man German war industries. Rather the killing of millions Jews and Slavs was a primary German war goal. Hitler asked officials in the Ministry of Food, the agency responsible for rationing, to develop a Starvation Plan, sometimes referred to as the Hunger Plan. The Minister was one of the chief advocates for eugenics in the NAZI hierarchy. The largest elements of the Hunger Plan were: 1) Occupation policies in Poland, 2) Ghetto policies, 3) Starvation of Polish and Soviet POWs, 4) Generalplan Ost. Scholars studying the Hunger Plan provide a somewhat varied list of its elements, largely because there was no single, well coordinated NAZI effort, but rather the work of various officials with similar objectives and values. These include besides Backe, Reichmarshal Göring, Reichführer SS Himmler, SS Obergruppenführer Heydrich, and Minister of Food Darré.

German occupied East

Bengal Famine (1943-44)

Severe food shortages developed in Bengal after the fall of Burma (1942). Historians debate the cause of the famine. Several factors have been identified. Burma was a major exporter of rice before the War. After the Japamese occupied Burma, this supply of rice was no longer available to India. Estimates suggest that about 15 percent of the Indian food supply was supplied by Burma. As Burma bordered on Bengal, that proportion was even higher in Bengal. The war boom in Calcutta drove up food prices (1942). The poor increasingly found it difficult to buy even their minimal requirements. Then the harvests failed, various historians disagree on the extent of the failure. British military authorities, braceing for a Japanese invasion, seized control of food supplies. And there were exports from India to supply British forces in the Middle East. The relative importance of these various factors is argued by historians. What is more clear is that the response of authorities was inadequate. Local officials appealed to colonial administrators in London for aid. Some food was sent, but the British Government was primarily focused on first the war in Europe and than the Japanese threat from Burma. Some sources claim that some 3 million Indians died in the Bengal famine (1943-44). [Bayly and Haeper] Estimates of the victims vary, but even lower estimates are as high as 1.5 million. The British as part of their justification for colonisl rule claimed that they had eliminated the plague of famine in India. The failure of the Raj to respond effectively futher strengthened the call for independence. The Bengal Famine was the largest single disaster within the British Empire during World War II. Since independence there have been no famines of such dimensions. Some argue that this is due to India's democratic government. This may well have been important. The Green Revolution resulting from American research which substantially increased crop yields has been another factor.

Netherlands (1944-45)

The Netherlands was one of the countries where the Germans at least at first conducted a 'correct' occupation. Here etnicity was a factor. The Germans wanted to incorporate the Duch people into the Greater Reich. The Germans from the beginning of the occupation (May 1940), however, used the Netherlands as a source of food. Rationing meant that all but the Jews and those in hiding got were allocated enough food to survive which was not the case in the East. As the War went against Germany, rationing got more severe, but was still enough to survive on for most of the Duch people, espcially with a few black mrket purchases anf the help of friends and family in the countryside. After the failure of Market Garden and the onset of the Dutch Railway Strike, the German authorities reetaliated by embargoing food transports to the western Netherlands. The Germans partially lifted thre embargo (early November 1944). They allowed restricted food on water transports--primarily barges. The early onset of a particularly harsh winter disrupted barge traffic. The canals froze over making barge operations impossible. Occupation authorities instituted mneasures which virtuall stopped farmers from delivering food to cities and towns. Coal, gas, and electricity was also cut off. Dutch municipal officials did as best they could. Rations were 1,500 calories in October, but sliced to 900 in November. Further cuts were made. Availability differed from town to town, but in some places had declibned to 230 calories and even that was not always available by April. Municipal kitchens were set up, but little food was available. Old buildings were cut down as well as avaiable trees. The children an elderly especially began to exhibit symtoms of starvation (January 1945). The underground issued pleas, but crossing the Rhine was a huge military obstacle. Children were sent by their parents into the streets to steel food. City dwealers in weakened conditions treaked into the country side attemoting to trade whatever they possesed for food. Some farmers tried to help, but others saw these city people as thieves and looters. Often the food they obtained at great cost was confiscated by German patrols when the treakers tried to return home.


Japanese occupied Southern Resource Zone famines

Japan's decesion to go to war against the United states was motivated by the desire to seize the resources of the Southern Resource Zone (SRZ). Only the American Pacific Fleet could block access to these resources which is why it was targeted in the Japanese carrier attack on Pearl Harbor. The most pressing need was the oil to run the Japanese war machine and war economy. But the SRZ contained many other resoyrces such as food. Southeast Asia includig the Ditch East Indies (DEI) was the rice bowl of Asia. And industrial Japan needed to import food, especially rice, to live. And tragically the Japanese dramatically reduced the output turned the food producing and exporting area. Terrible famines occurred in the Japanese occupied SRZ, even though exports out of the area were ended, creating a famine in neighboring India (Bengal). The famines were particularly probounced in the DEI and Indichina (especially North Vietnam). And even where full blown famines did not occur, here were serious food shirtages. The famines killing millions occurred while Japanese wearhouses bulging with rice and other foods. In the end even the Japanese did not benefit from possession of the SRZ. The U.S. Pacific Fleet, especially the Submarine Service, cut the Japanese Home Islands as well as countless islands garisons off from the food and other supplies available from their conquests. Even before the end of the War, the Americam submarine had destroyed the Japan merchant marine fleet--the marus. The few surviving marus were afraid to come out of the ports. The American submarines took to actually entering Japanese port as well as the largely enclosed Sea of Japan.

Communist Famines

Communist theorists present socialism and central planning as a scientifically proven method of managing eonomies, making economies more efficent and avoilding the uncertainty and chaos of market fluctuations. Communist regimes use images of happy peasants producing boutiful harvests and well-fed workers. As with most aspects of socialism, the theory is seductive because it sounds so wonderful. Actual performance could, however, not be more different. Communist regimes have tragically not only oveseen subtantial declines in harvests, but have actually caused the worse famines in human history. No economic system has so collasally failed. The Communists also failed in industry, but the agricultural failure was more collasal and castistrophic. And in many instances caused these famines in countries that were historic bread baskets. The Communists, for example, turned Russia and Ukraine from a major grain exporting area to a country that had to import grain to fed its population. A famine has two causes. First is a dramatic drop in harvests. Second is a failure of relief operations. This explains why Communist regimes have caused so many of these terrible famines. Not only does collectivization based on Marxist theory reduce harvests, but Communist regimes have typically attenpted to prevent news of their failure from leaking out of their closed societies. To admit a famine is to admit failure which is something they can not do and continue to claim that that they have the cietific key to the future. Hiding these famines meant that tens of millions of people died. Communist leaders prefered to let their people die in the millions rather than admit failure. And if that was not bad enough, the Communists have actually created artifical famines to target people who they considered untrustworthy. This was the case in the terrible Ukranian Famine created by Stalin.

Modern African Famines (late-20th century)

Most of Africa achieved independence from European colonial power after World War II in the 1960s. In most countries the transition was peaceful. The new colonial leaders knew virtually nothing about economics, but widely believed that theough Governmenment management and socialist policies that they could rapidly develop their economies. Depite massive foreign assistance, virtually every country except South Africa proved to be economic disasters. Not only did the newly independent countries not rapidly develop, but living standards in many countries have actually deteriorated. And a tragic series of famines followed one after another in steady sucession. Civil wars and droughts were often involved as had rapid population increases, but the larger cause has been incompetent leadership, widespread corruption, socialist big government policies, and in more recent years Islamic fundamentalism. The people of Africa have, as a result, paid a terrible price. The famines that were once rare have now become endemnic. Millions of people through Africa are now affected. The situation is worst in East Africa. The countries hardest hit vary from year to year. The press tends to focus on drought and try to explain the problem away with climate change. There is little doubt that climate change is a factor, although there is a great deal of doubt how global change is ocurring and what can be done about it. Drought certainly can lead to a famine. And global warming can cause a famine and lead to a higher frquency and length of a famine. It is unlikely that all these famines could suddenly appear just because of global warming. The Sahel is especially vulnerable, both because of the environment, but also because of primitive technology. The sharp increase in famines over such a short period since independence (1960s) in no coincidence. It suggests much more is involved other than global warming. One noted economist points out that no substantial famine has ever occurred in a liberal democracy. [Sen] Too often the political or economic dimensions of fammine are ignored. Many of the best known famines are political famines such as Stalin's Ukranian famine and the famines caused by the NAZIs during World War II. Sometimes and in the case of Stalin, they Were politically inspired . In other cases such as the NAZIs in Greece, the Japanese in Indonesia, or the British in Bengal, it was largely a matter of indiference. The African famines seem to have a more complex mix of causes.

Green Revolution

One of the most important, but least recognized events of the Cold War was the Green Revolution. While the Communisrs (Soviets, Chinese Communits, Ethioppia, Kymer Rouge, and North Koreans) like the Facists before them caused famines, America generated an explosion of farm productivity. Even before World War II, populations in many developing countries began to grow at extremrly fast rates. These high rates were in part the results of historical trends. A major factor was also improvements in health care made possible by health care programs financed by Europe and America. While populations were increasing, farming technology in much of the Third World had remained unchanged for centuries. Economists by the 1950s began to talk about a world-wide Malthusian famine because population growth would outrun the food supply. Agromists had been increasing crop yield by using mpre and more nitrogen fertilizer. This was possible because a German Jewish scientist, Fritz Huber, before World War I had figured out a chemical process for fixing nitrogen. This made possible increased food production by increasing the avialabilitt and cost of fertilizer. Farmers by the 1950s, however, had reached limits on the use of nitrogen. They found that seed heads were growing so heavy that stalks would collapse. An American agricultural scientist, Norman Borlaug, began working for the Rockefeller Foundation and began working on a project to help Mexico conquer hunger. Borlaug found a strain of wheat with a stubby stalk that could support a heavy seed head. He then transferred the gene to tropical weat and produced a strain that could support large sead heads. Bourlaug's work resulted in a wheat strain that could produce yields four times per acre than what was previously possible. This was just the first step in what is now known as the Green Revolution that eliminated famine in much of the Third World. The number of lives he saved are virtually impossible to calculate, but musr be in the hundreds of millions, if not billions. About half the world now eats grains descended from Borlaug's work. Bourlaug was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize (1970), surely one of the indivuals most deserving of the award.


Sen, Amartya. Democracy as Freedom (Anchor, 1999).


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Created: 3:00 AM 9/5/2012
Last updated: 5:20 PM 11/13/2016