- - Friday, July 6, 2012

By Lizzie Collingham
Penguin Press, $35, 634 pages, illustrated

The cliche that an army marches on its stomach is usually attributed to Napoleon Bonaparte, but he lived in more innocent times than a century and a half later, when much of the globe was burning in the caldron of World War II. Many a soldier, except for the lucky GI, might have wished for a commander who fed him in line with this dictum, but could even a leader considered as ruthless in his own day as Bonaparte have conceived of using food as a mass instrument of war?

As British historian Lizzie Collingham demonstrates in her breathtakingly broad and deeply probing study, looking at World War II through the prism of the role food played in it is not just an example of the kind of narrowing microcosmic studies that have become so fashionable in today’s historiography:

“This books seeks to understand the role of food at the heart of the conflict. The focus on food is not intended to exclude other interpretations but rather to add an often overlooked dimension to our understanding of the Second World War,” Ms. Collingham writes.

Chief among this authoritative book’s many virtues is the ability to add to our understanding of many central and side issues of the war. Take, for instance, the much emphasized famine that struck the Indian province of Bengal in 1943. Some historians have used this terrible event and the inadequate response of the Raj government and Winston Churchill to indulge in a favorite game of moral relativism that easily can end in actually equating the British prime minister and Adolf Hitler when it comes to racism and genocide. Ms. Collingham does a fine job of putting the Bengal famine into the context of huge conflicting calls on everything from resources and materiel to the beleaguered premier’s time.

Which is not to say that she is by any means stonyhearted, as she applies her capacities as a historian to look beyond the obvious:

“It is perhaps the quiet and unobtrusive nature of death by starvation which explains why many of those who died of hunger during the Second World War are largely forgotten today. While the Vietnam War is firmly embedded in the western collective memory, most westerners have never heard of the famine in the Vietnamese region of Tonkin in 1943-44 which probably killed more peasants than all the years of war that followed. And yet ‘one dies a terrible death from starvation.’ As one of the survivors of the Leningrad siege was disturbed to discover, as a result of hunger … a person’s face changed … a man became an animated corpse and … a corpse is a grim spectacle.”

This book tells us of all too many such animated corpses, from the American and other Allied POWs in Japanese camps to those victims of Nazi death camps still just alive when liberated.

While nations struggled to feed their military and civilian populations, they did not always do so in the same way. Britain used its draconian but fair system of rationing to nourish its citizens and even improve their overall health. The German authorities were ruthless in starving those hapless folk caught in Germany’s occupied zones in order to provide food for citizens (although not Jews) back in the Reich. And worse things than this kind of national selfishness were at work here, for as Ms. Collingham writes:

“One of the most powerful aspects of making food the central focus of an investigation into the Second World War is that the agrarian policy of the Nazi regime is revealed as one of the driving forces behind some of the worst atrocities committed during the conflict.”

Her exhaustive expose of this terrible aspect of Nazi conduct adds a new dimension to our understanding of the Nazi reign of terror. And it is to Ms. Collingham’s credit that her own moral compass is true, so that instead of indulging in cheap games of trying to establish equivalency between the differing participants in this terrible global conflagration, she can always put things in perspective and establish that essential but never exculpatory context.

Martin Rubin is a Washington-area writer.

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