Magazine article The Spectator

A War of Nutrition

Magazine article The Spectator

A War of Nutrition

Article excerpt

The Taste of War

by Lizzie Collingham

Allen Lane, £30, pp. 634,

ISBN 9780713999648

The long summer that led up to the last days of peace in Europe in 1939 - the vigil of the Nazi assault on Poland on 1 September and the ensuing Phoney War - gave little hint of the storm to come. As German troops engulfed Poland, however, the Nazi science of massacre was put to the test.

Within two months of Hitler's invasion, an estimated 5,000 Jews were murdered behind the Polish lines. Millions were subsequently starved to death.

Food is the central focus of this grimly absorbing enquiry into the second world war. At least 20 million people died of starvation and malnutrition during the conflict, according to Lizzie Collingham: a number almost equal to the 19.5 million military deaths. Dreadfully, Hitler's plan to acquire 'living space' for German settlers in occupied eastern Europe required the whole - sale removal of Slavs and other 'useless mouths'.

Starvation was essential to Hitler's war against the Jews. At Auschwitz in occupied Poland there was a chronic hunger unknown to free men. The daily 500-gram bread ration was not enough to survive on: gaining a Nachschlag - a 'second helping' - made the difference between life and death.

According to the Auschwitz survivor Primo Levi, each day civilian trains passed his subcamp of Monowitz with mocking advertisements for Knorr soup: ' BESTE SUPPE KNORR SUPPE', as if the prisoners could choose between one brand and another. At night in his dreams Levi conjured succulent dishes and fantasy menus.

The Nazi so-called Hunger Plan was the work of Hitler's chief agronomist, Herbert Backe, who made possible the mass starvation of Slavs, Jews, gypsies and other 'asocials' and the diversion of foodstuffs to German civilians and the Wehrmacht.

Food was thus integral to Hitler's murderous racism, and its effects were seen to be calamitous. The British troops who liberated Belsen in April 1945 were profoundly disturbed by what they saw. It was not just the corpses; the prisoners before them were casualties of starvation.

For all his importance, Backe has not received due recognition, argues Collingham. As one of the Fuhrer's so-called Schreibtischtater - 'desk-murderers' - he condemned millions to death at the stroke of a pen. Rather than face trial in the Soviet Union after the war, wretchedly, he hanged himself in his cell in 1947 at Nuremberg. …

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