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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? Thank you.

Harry W. Mazal OBE answers:

I am one of the persons who replies to questions on The Holocaust History Project.

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 for decision. 1

The following is emphasized in the original circular:

...because on the basis of higher authority the brutal liquidation of such elements will follow. 2


On March 9, 1940, Himmler issued the blanket order forbidding the wartime release of Jews held in concentration camps. 3

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. 4

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. 5

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... 6

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 7

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... 8

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 country. 9

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


  1. 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.

  2. Krausnik, Helmut, "Anatomie des SS Staates" vol. 2, pp. 98-115, 1965, Freiberg Verlag.

  3. Berenbaum, Michael & Peck, Abraham J. (editors), opus cit., p. 169

  4. Ibid, pp. 173-174.

  5. Holborn, Hajo. "A History of Modern Germany 1840-1945," 1969, Princeton University Press. p. 758

  6. Phillips, Raymond (Editor). "Trial of Josef Kramer and Forty- Four Others," 1949, William Hodge and Co., Ltd. p. xxiii.

  7. Ibid, pp. 54-55.

  8. Bezwinska, Jadwigs and Czech, Danuta (editors). "KL Auschwitz Seen by the SS," 1994, Howard Fertig, pp. 268-270.

  9. 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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