Food in WWII
In all my classes in school and history reports or news or media
or any other informational writing or broadcasting about the Holocaust,
I have noticed, over the years, a lack or outright blackout of one
subject: food and its effects on the decision making processes of
Hitler's high command in relation to the Jewish question. Could you
direct me to information about how the embargo of Europe by the Allies
during the Second World War might have affected the Final Solution?
Harry W. Mazal OBE answers:
I am one of the persons who replies to questions on The Holocaust
Although you might be right in pointing out that there does not appear
to be a wealth of information regarding food supplies in the Third Reich
before, during and after World War II, I believe that no "outright blackout"
of the subject exists. Most information about Germany regarding food and
agriculture in general can be found in books dealing with the German
wartime economy rather than those on war crimes.
It is, however, important, to separate the so-called "Jewish question"
from the availability or lack of food in the Third Reich. Plans for the
expulsion, ghettoisation and annihilation of the Jews were, for the most
part, in place long before any effects of an embargo could have affected
food supplies for the German civilian population:
A circular order issued by Reinhard Heydrich on the 3rd
of September, 1939, addressed to all senior principals in the SD, the
Security Police the Gestapo and the border police specified:
...the most Draconian measures against anyone even suspected of
hostility to the Reich and the war effort. The key paragraph ordered
the referral of all information on arrested suspects to Heydrich's office
The following is emphasized in the original
...because on the basis of higher authority the brutal
liquidation of such elements will follow.
On March 9, 1940, Himmler issued the blanket order forbidding
the wartime release of Jews held in concentration camps.
The mechanism for extermination was in place long before any
effective blockade or embargo could have taken place.
Whatever embargo the British or French naval fleets might have
attempted during that time would not have been enormously
successful. In reality, the British were suffering considerably
from the German blockade with severe food rationing in place
long before the United States entered the war. Such rationing
did not take place on the same scale in Germany even during the
closing months of the war. One reason for any apparent food
shortage in Germany is lamely explained in the following excerpt:
On December 14, 1940, Herbert Backe, the State Secretary who
was the driving force in the Food and Agriculture Ministry,
released a confidential report on the European food situation which
caused a stir at the top level of the Reich Government. Citing
critical shortages in the first wartime continental harvest, Backe
drafted far-reaching plans for German rationing and for the
wholesale confiscation of foodstuffs from occupied Europe. The
goal was to take enough from elsewhere to offset what otherwise
would be disastrous shortages in meat and grains available to the
German population. Backe further concluded that the longer-term
food shortages could only be solved through an attack on the Soviet
Union, followed by wholesale confiscations of Russian foodstuffs
and livestock. Even if all the Russian food and agricultural resources
became available to Germany and her allies, Backe concluded, the
only way to guarantee a blockade-proof Nazi Europe would be to
kill off millions of Russians by liquidations, starvation, or deportation.
Backe's report did not take into account the Nazi policies that had
led to the decline of German agriculture from 1933 onward. His
statement could well have attempted to cover up those Nazi policies
that led to a decline of farm production:
Between 1933 and 1939 the agricultural population of Germany
within the boundaries of 1937 declined from 20.8 percent to 18
percent of the total population and workers in agriculture and forestry
decreased from 28.9 percent to 26 percent. At least 700,000 people
migrated from the country to the cities. [...] Until 1935 farm
income increased , but thereafter stagnated , while the national
income continued to rise by 6 to 12 percent annually. Farm income
amounted to 8.7 percent of the national income in 1933, but
only 8.3 percent in 1937. And in order to make a living, the farmer,
and particularly the small farmer, had to put in more and more
hours of work.
As early as 1914, Germany had produced about 80 percent of her
food. It is unlikely that the populace would have suffered any
great threat of starvation early in the Second World War, more
so that huge shipments of food confiscated from Poland, the
Ukraine and other Eastern European nations flowed into the
Reich. By the time that food was becoming scarce in late 1944
and early 1945, most of the victims of the Holocaust were dead.
Even that scarcity was relative. When the British captured the
infamous Bergen-Belsen camp on April 15, 1945:
[They]...discovered the conditions which were to astonish and
horrify the world a day or so later. Briefly, these were that in a
camp of the approximate dimensions of 1500 by 350 metres were
confined about 40,000 men and women in the most extreme state
of starvation and emaciation, many of them suffering from typhus;
that there were, in addition, 13,000 unburied corpses, and that for
the living there was little food...
There was, however, a great sufficiency of food within and in the
vicinity of the camp:
Major A. L. Berney, sworn. examined by Col. Backhouse - I am
with 817 Military Government Detachment. On 15th April I was
sent by Headquarters 8 Corps to Colonel Taylor of the Occupying
Forces of Belsen Camp. On the next day I was asked to find the
nearest food store which I did at the north of the Panzer Troop
School about three kilometers from the camp. I found the Hauptmann
in charge of the store who informed me that he was responsible for
sending some food from his store to the camp - potatoes and
turnips. He did not give me any reason as to why it was the only
stuff furnished. I obtained a list of food in the store from him, and
remember there were 600 tons of potatoes, 120 tons of tinned milk,
30 tons of sugar, upwards of 20 tons of powdered milk; cocoa,
grain, wheat and other foodstuffs. [...] There is a very large bakery
there with a capacity, I was told, of 60,000 loaves a day, which was
fully staffed. It appeared to me that there was a very vast quantity of
all the necessary materials for making bread. The bakery is still
working now [20th September 1945 -HWM] and most of the staff
The infamous Dr. Johann Paul Kremer, who witnessed gassings
in Auschwitz and survived the war, wrote in his diary while in
Munster, on March 31, 1945:
[...] At last I was able to get the tinned meat I wanted (a layer
of lard on top and pork underneath). ... I therefore got 8 heavy
tins for myself and Mrs. Glaser. ... The neighbors finally came
with plenty of beef which had been distributed before and so
at Eastertide 1945 nobody had to endure hunger in Munster.
and on April 1, 1945:
We had a magnificent dinner today. Delicious beef broth with
noodles, beans with bacon, potatoes, apple sauce and red
whortleberries. For breakfast we had cold ham, bread and butter
with real coffee and plenty of whole milk. At 4 P.M. [I was] told
that all sorts of fine things could be had free from the magazine
of the military barracks in the 'Univ-Sportzplatz' such as peas,
biscuits, noodles etc. I got to work filling ...two big air-raid shelter
paper bags which I had brought...
Photographs of the civilian population of Germany taken immediately
after capitulation do not show a people ravaged by starvation. On the
contrary, most civilians appear to be well-fed and well-dressed.
Finally, it might be useful to review the assessment made by the
Bombing Research Analysts of the Medical Branch of the
United States War Department:
The health of the German people was the basic factor upon which
depended the ability of Germany to wage war. The continuity and
nutritional adequacy of Germany's food supply constituted the
foundation of their health.
Although Germany's agricultural economy was incapable of feeding
her own population without imports, she was able to withstand
prolonged blockade by war. The effect of blockade was in large
measure circumvented by the operation of the German system of
supply control which in turn assured the continuity of Germany's
ultimate source of productive capacity. In consequence, the
extent to which the Allied bomber offensive capacity interfered with
the German food supply system is a measure of its contribution to
the defeat of Germany.
Since Germany could not raise within her own boundaries sufficient
food to supply her population adequately, self-sufficiency was a
question of serious national consequence long before the war. Even
prior to the advent of totalitarian rule many national officials labored
on the problem of increasing the degree of self-sufficiency in Germany.
With the inception of the Nazi regime, the measures invoked to achieve
this end became progressively harsher.
By the beginning of the war, Germany's over-all self-sufficiency in
food had reached a level of approximately 83 percent, on the peacetime
basis of 2200-2400 calories per day, according to Hans-Joachim Riecke,
State Secretary in the Reich Ministry of Food and Agriculture.
The country could be fed at a reduced level by the produce raised
within its own boundaries if food were perfectly controlled and
evenly distributed. [...] Consequently, it is clear that all German
civilians could be fed at a uniform level of adequacy during a war
only by control of the country's food supply at the national level
and by continued operation of the transportation network of the
The main thrust of the bombing offensive was against heavy
industry and chemical production. The damage caused to
grain mills involved in the production of rye was 9 percent
whereas to wheat it was 35 percent. It appears that damage
to food processing industries was only incidental to attacks
on other industrial targets or area bombing.
I hope that this brief essay - which does not pretend to do more than
offer a few examples - will serve as a guide to other reading material
on the subject.
Harry W. Mazal OBE
- Berenbaum, Michael & Peck, Abraham J. (editors) "The Holocaust
and History," 1998, Indiana University Press, Essay: pp. 160-186
"Executive Instinct" by Charles W. Sydnor, Jr.
- Krausnik, Helmut, "Anatomie des SS
Staates" vol. 2, pp. 98-115, 1965, Freiberg Verlag.
- Berenbaum, Michael & Peck, Abraham J.
(editors), opus cit., p. 169
- Ibid, pp. 173-174.
- Holborn, Hajo. "A History of Modern
Germany 1840-1945," 1969, Princeton University Press. p. 758
- Phillips, Raymond (Editor). "Trial of Josef
Kramer and Forty- Four Others," 1949, William Hodge and Co., Ltd. p.
- Ibid, pp. 54-55.
- Bezwinska, Jadwigs and Czech, Danuta
(editors). "KL Auschwitz Seen by the SS," 1994, Howard Fertig, pp.
- War Department (Washington D. C.) "The
Effect of Bombing on Health and Medical Care in Germany", Oct. 30, 1945,
Chapter Eleven, "Food Supply and Nutrition" by Major Henry J. Rugo,
Quartermaster Corps, AUS., pp 264-293.
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