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The Battle for Food in World War II

A new book examines how food figured into the major powers' war plans

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Eintopf. Image courtesy of Flickr user siggi2234.

Author Ron Rosenbaum recently revisited The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, William Shirer’s landmark book that offered an extensive look at why and how the Nazi party rose to power. Where Shirer focused on the political and cultural environment, scholar Lizzie Collingham offers a unique perspective of the war years in her new book The Taste of War: World War II and the Battle for Food.

“It is perhaps the quiet and unobtrusive nature of death by starvation which explains why so many of those who died of hunger during the Second World War are largely forgotten today,” Collingham writes in her introduction. ”During the Second World War at least 20 million people died just such a terrible death from starvation, malnutrition and its associated diseases.” Her book addresses how the major powers on both sides of the war handled food issues, and she shows how food was a major factor in the Reich’s war machine.

German soldiers on the front lines were encouraged to live off the land, appropriating goods from civilians along the warpath. “We live well,” one foot soldier wrote during the 1941 invasion of Eastern Europe, “even though we are sometimes cut off from the supply lines. We supply ourselves, sometimes chickens, sometimes geese, sometimes pork cutlets.” This placed the burden of staying fed on the conquered; in essence, the Nazis found a way to export hunger. They also killed people they considered “useless eaters,” including the Polish Jewish population.

On the home front, Germany managed to keep its citizens relatively well fed in part due to the government’s reshaping the nation’s eating habits. Starting in the 1930s, well before the invasion of Poland in September 1939, Reich officials acclimated civilians to a wartime diet centered on bread and potatoes, encouraging people to forgo meat and butter in favor of fish and margarine.

“But the ultimate Nazi food,” Collingham writes, “was the Eintopf or casserole.” The slow-cooked meal was designed to stretch low-quality cuts of meat and make them more flavorful. And since a single vessel was required to cook it (Eintopf literally translates to “one pot”), it also had the advantage of being fuel-efficient. Families were supposed to prepare the casserole on the first Sunday of the month and donate their savings to the Winter Help Fund, a charity established to assist less-fortunate Germans during the colder months. Even the higher-ups in the Nazi Party would encourage people to hop on the casserole bandwagon, posing for photographs while eating Eintopf along Berlin’s Unter den Linden. ”This transformed the drive for autarky into a social ritual which was supposed to unite and strengthen the Volksgemeinschaft through sacrifice.”

But not even the best propaganda machine can completely convince a nation to sacrifice flavor in the name of national spirit. ”Breakfast and supper at our house usually consisted of bread and marmalade or evil-tasting margarine,” Ursula Mahlendorf recalls in her memoir about her childhood in Nazi Germany. “Dinners were monotonous. Most days we had Eintopf, a casserole of potatoes and various vegetables boiled in bouillon and thickened with flour.”

To learn more about how food figured into how the major powers fought the war, The Taste of War: World War II and the Battle for Food will be published in March 2012.

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