Food Fight

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

Reviewed by Benjamin Schwarz

June 2012 Atlantic


This ambitious, wide-ranging, well-written book probes the fundamental role that food played in the planning, conduct, and course of the Second World War. Synthesizing recent scholarship that has put the drive for agricultural self-sufficiency at the center of the Axis powers’ motives for war, Collingham, a British historian, explicates how Italy’s plans for colonizing Ethiopia and further infiltrating Libya, Japan’s expansion into Manchuria and China, and Germany’s drive into Russia and the Ukraine were in essence “battle[s] for food,” to quote Hitler (the SS planned to transform the Soviet Union into what it called an agriculturally abundant “European California” for the benefit of the über race). Of course, diverting food to the conquering powers meant starvation for the local populations: the slaughter of the Jews, Collingham demonstrates, was industrialized and hastened partly to diminish the amount of food that they would otherwise consume before death. The efforts to keep soldiers and workers fed, and to vitiate the fighting capacity of enemy powers by depriving them of food (the German navy’s U-boat campaign, for instance), shaped the strategies of all the war’s combatants. Collingham nicely shows how the exigencies of war, and the pecking order both between enemies and among allies, established an international—and often lethal—hierarchy governing access to food: the peoples in the territories conquered by the Axis powers were at the very bottom, and thereby suffered the most (the Germans allocated Jews in the Polish ghettos 300 to 500 calories per person per day), while American combat forces—the most essential personnel of the richest and most unscathed of the powers—were at the apex, consuming an astonishing 4,758 calories each. She also shows that, while the war brought deprivation to the civilian populations of Britain and the United States, the unprecedented intervention by their governments in the citizenries’ diets—through rationing, nutrition programs, and the like—meant that those populations were healthier and better fed at the end of the war than they’d been before it. Collingham explains how such efforts helped usher in a golden post-war era of cheap and abundant food in the West, but she argues that global population and economic changes now seem to have brought that era to an end. “In the future,” she remarks in a concluding and hardly cheering note, “food will become increasingly scarce and expensive.”

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