Sunday, September 13, 2020

Famines as Military Weapons: Is Europe in Danger?

 A Dutch girl photographed at the time of the "hongerwinter", the famine that hit The Netherlands in 1945, during WW2. 

In the West, we tend to think of famines as events of the remote past that will never return, a view typified by Steven Pinker in his 2011 book "The Better Angels of our Nature." This attitude is often accompanied by sneers at Paul Ehrlich who, in 1968, predicted extensive worldwide famines that were soon to occur. Even when famines are discussed as a real possibility, they are seen as affecting only those remote countries where hordes of dark-skinned or slant-eyed people already live in near-starvation conditions. 

We forgot how close in time was an age in which hunger was a fact of life and famines a common occurrence. The last important famine in Europe was in the Netherlands in 1946 -- that was less than a hundred years ago, not in the Middle Ages. Our lack of historical memory is the reason why we are not surprised to see books such as "One Billion Americans" by Matthew Yglesias, where the author happily neglects the problems involved with supplying food and energy to a U.S. population three times larger than it is nowadays. 

The real problem with assessing the possibility of future famines is that they are often man-made, that is actively created by human actions. Starving an enemy is a time-honored strategy that works beautifully. We have a detailed report of how it was put into practice by the Romans at the time of the Siege of Jerusalem of 70 AD, but it is surely much older than that. In recent times, the US secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, threatened Iran in 2018 by saying that they must listen to the U.S. 'If They Want Their People to Eat.'  Clearly, the temptation to starve another country into submission never completely disappeared and it may returning.

So, by looking at a not so remote past, we can dimly understand what is in store for us. Famines were a major weapon during world war 2, although historians have often preferred to concentrate their attention on conventional military events. Let's review that not so old story.

The Starving of Europe -- Famines as a Weapon during World War 2

There are still people alive in Europe who experienced the food shortages of WWII. Not everywhere there were people dying of starvation, but the food supply was an acute problem all over the European land. And, in some areas, people died in large numbers. Here are some data

The total toll listed in this table is about 15 million casualties. These famines were not just the result of overpopulation and the scarcity of supply. People starved because they were the targets of extermination programs carried out by governments.

The main area of Europe where famines struck is the Eastern one. It was also the theater of the largest confrontation of WW2: the German attack on the Soviet Union. Most historians agree that it was one of the greatest strategic mistakes in history and, surely, the Germans understood that they were taking a huge risk. Why did they decide to embark on this idea? One typical answer is that since Adolf Hitler was mad, stupid, and evil, everything he did was mad, stupid, and evil, too. But there may be much more than the madness of the person at the top that generated the disaster. The attack on the Soviet Union may not have been just a military miscalculation, but a desperate attempt to reverse a hopeless situation. Simply put, despite all their flamboyant military victories, the Germans were losing the war because they had no control on their food supply. 

It is a complex subject that had its origins in World War 1. Very early, during the war, the Allies had imposed a naval blockade on the Central Empires with the specific scope of starving the Germans and their allies. The effect was not immediate: at that time, Germany produced about 80% of the food it consumed, and the Germans thought they could survive by increasing the domestic production and relying on imports from Scandinavian countries and from Romania. In practice, the situation worsened gradually with German agriculture being badly affected by the lack of manpower and of fertilizers. 

One symptom of how bad things were was the situation in Belgium, where the lack of food soon became dramatic, Being occupied by the Germans, Belgium was subjected to the British naval blockade and could not import food. That led the US to step in, supplying food that was supposed to be only for the Belgians. But it is hard to think that the occupying forces wouldn't partake at least some of it. In the book Prolonging the Agony (2018), the authors, Docherty and Macgregor, maintain that the Americans knew very well that the food they were supplying to Belgium was feeding German soldiers, but the US industry was making such good profits from the war that they didn't want it to end too soon. This is mainly speculation, of course, but may have some elements of truth and it is surely an indication of how dramatic things were in Europe at the time. 

As WW1 went on, the blockade became more effective in starving the Germans and the Austrians. The number of casualties caused by the famine in these countries is variously estimated, but the numbers range from more than 700.000 to 400,000 persons dying of starvation in Germany alone. Probably, the Central Empires would have lost the war anyway, but it is also true that starved soldiers don't fight very well. Incidentally, the physical debilitation of Europeans during the last phases of the war was probably one of the reasons for the spreading of the "Spanish flu" that killed over 2 million people more in Europe. 

A result of the terrible experience of WW1 was that the Germans were acutely aware of their vulnerability to food shortages. On the eve of WW2, the situation was about the same as it had been during WW1, with the German agriculture able to provide no more than about 80% of the supply. There followed that an attack on Britain would lead to the same result as it did in 1914, a naval blockade and the consequent starvation of the Germans. That was one of the main reasons for the Molotov-Ribbentrop agreement, signed in 1939. The agreement is best known for the partitioning of Poland, but it also involved the supply of food and petroleum from Russia to Germany. Details on this part of the deal are reported by Edward Ericson in his "Feeding the German Eagle" (1999). Only by means of this food the Germans could think of engaging in an attack on France. As we know, it was successful and the next step for Germany was subduing Britain. 

As it happens with the best plans of mice and men, things went agley for Germany with their defeat in the Battle of Britain. In 1940, with the British navy still dominating the sea lanes and blocking the shipment of food to continental Europe, the Germans saw in front of them the specter of a new famine. It could be kept at bay only as long as the Soviets were willing to supply Germany with food. But it didn't take an especially trained strategic mind to understand that it was a risky position. What if the Soviets were to decide to ally with the British? 

Once the Germans started seeing themselves stuck in a hopeless situation, it made sense for them to try anything, no matter how desperate it was. That was the origin of der Hungerplan, one of the most evil ideas ever conceived by human minds. The plan was to occupy the grain-producing areas of Western Europe, mainly Ukraine, and divert all the production to Germany. The proposer of the plan knew very well that this would have led to the death by starvation of millions of people. The developer of the plan, Herbert Backe, noted a "surplus population" in Russia of about 20 to 30 million. Evil as evil can be but, about evil plans, something similar to the Backe plan had already been devised by the Italians in 1935, when they had planned to take over Ethiopia to gain "a place in the sun" (the equivalent of the German concept of lebensraum) for their population. Fortunately for the Ethiopians, Ethiopia was too far from Italy to be realistically seen as a source of food for Italians.

In the figure, you see the very face of evil: Herbert Backe (image from Wikipedia). It is remarkable how he looks like a harmless bureaucrat, maybe the way he saw himself. In any case, Backe injected some method in the folly that had overtaken the minds of the people in power in Germany. We tend to focus all our attention on Adolf Hitler, but he was not alone. Evil had been percolating down from the high levels of the German government, touching just about everyone. The "Unternehmen Barbarossa," (Operation Barbarossa) was a logical consequence of a certain way of seeing the strategic situation of Germany in 1941. If the Germans had succeeded in defeating the Soviet Union, then "Festung Europe" (Fortress Europe) was secure with the supply of food they would obtain from Eastern Europe.

In part, the Hungerplan succeeded: the Germans did take control of Ukraine and its grain-producing fields. Starvation did kill a large number of people living in Slavic countries. But the Soviet Union didn't surrender and the amount of food that could be shipped to Germany from Eastern Europe was limited. The result was an even more evil plan (evil does multiply!) involving the extermination of the "useless" people, those who couldn't be put to work at something useful for the war effort. That was the origin of the Jewish holocaust, but the Germans also exterminated large numbers of prisoners of war, of people judged racially inferior, and of their own citizens. The Dutch famine ("hongerwinter") of the latest phases of the war was also a consequence of the Germans concentrating all the food resources inside their own territory.

There was some method in this folly and, indeed, the Germans were successful in avoiding famines in their country. There are reports of food shortages in Germany during WWII, but not of victims of starvation. But that, of course, didn't save Germany from defeat and, afterward, the Germans experienced some of the treatment they had inflicted on their neighbors. Tens of thousands of German prisoners of war died of starvation or of diseases associated with malnutrition in Allied prisoner camps. Then, the "Morgenthau Plan," that the Allies had initially embraced, involved nothing less than the complete destruction of the German industry. As a consequence, Germany wouldn't have been able to import food from abroad and that would have resulted in the death of tens of millions of Germans. Fortunately for the Germans, the plan was soon abandoned and the Germans allowed to rebuild their country. But they had seriously risked being exterminated, just like they had planned to do with their neighbors. 

All that didn't happen during barbarian ages or in remote regions of the world: it happened in civilized Europe less than one century ago. Not so far away in time and space that you could feel safe that it won't happen again.

Europe nowadays: a risk of famines?

If you look at the data for the food import and export nowadays, you would be tempted to say that Europe is self-sufficient, it even has a certain surplus production. But that would be a dangerous delusion: it is just the result of the transformation of agriculture from a rural activity to an industrial one. In the process, the agricultural productivity was greatly increased in terms of production per unit area, but at the cost of making agriculture dependent on fossil fuels, just as many other industrial activities. And if Europe is not self-sufficient in terms of fossil fuels, it cannot be self-sufficient in terms of food supply.

Industrial agriculture can produce at the high yields of our times by means of the widespread availability of fertilizers, pesticides, and mechanization, all depending on the availability of fossil fuels. In addition, as I wrote in a previous post, the problem is not so much food production, but food supply. The latter requires processing, refrigeration, packaging, and more -- again, dependent on fossil fuels. All these are elements of a complex system that brings food from the fields to the plates of European citizens. Remove one of them, and the plates go empty. That says nothing about the problems that climate change and soil overexploitation are creating, but let's skip that. The situation is worrisome enough already.

Now you see what the problem is: all the elements of the food supply chain in Europe depend on the availability of energy, mostly in the form of liquid fuels. Remove the fuels and the system collapses, people starve and die. Now, think that Europe is highly dependent on imports for its energy: more than 50% on the average. Note also that the energy that Europe produces internally is mostly coal and nuclear, plus some solar and wind. It is mainly electrical energy, but agriculture, as it is nowadays, is based on fossil fuels. It would be possible to transform the agricultural processes in ways that would power it using electricity, but that would take time and money -- and nobody seems to be willing to invest in such an effort. Finally, consider that an important fraction, more than 30%, of the imported fossil fuels in Europe comes from Russia. Now you see that in many respects history repeats itself: the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact comes to mind.

Fortunately, Europe is not at war (so far), but its strategic position in terms of food supply is just as fragile as it was 80 years ago. The coronavirus crisis of 2020 gave us some idea of what can happen. For some days, the disruption caused by the virus caused people to storm supermarkets, often finding just empty shelves there. Fortunately, the food crisis seems to have been short-lived, but it was there and it is still having consequences. If Europe were to face a serious international crisis and its capabilities to import food and fuel were reduced, we would go back to 1945, with food having to be rationed, people going hungry, and probably dying.

From here on, it is not difficult to imagine apocalyptic scenarios. You know that Western European governments seem to feel an irresistible attraction toward attacking Russia (preferably in winter), to the point that they did that several times during the past few centuries. So, it is not inconceivable that they could decide to try again. Apart from the military results of such attacks, by now proverbial, the cost and the resulting economic disruption would probably guarantee a Dutch hongerwinter for all Europe.

An exercise in applied catastrophism can lead us to imagine various scenarios in which hundreds of millions of Europeans starve and die, but these are scarcely useful as planning instruments. We might instead wonder how famines could be avoided. Here, an interesting exercise is to compare the events that started in 1939 with those that took place some 70-80 years before, when Prussia embarked in a series of wars of conquest that culminated with defeating France at the battle of Sedan, in 1870. At that point, the European situation was not unlike that of 1939, with France defeated by Germany. But, after Sedan, the French and the Prussian governments agreed on a peace treaty. The prisoners of war were not exterminated, the leaders of the losing side were not hanged, there was no talk of exterminating or enslaving the untenmeschen -- the inferior races. Nothing like that.

What made 1870 a much smaller disaster than WW2? Probably not a single factor, but there was one fundamental difference: In 1870, the European population was less than half of what it is today and Europe was self-sufficient in terms of food production. The mother of all mistakes for Europeans came later: it was to raise the European population to levels that relied on imports for the food supply. One of the results was an ideological vision that saw the European nations engaged in a cutthroat competition for the lebensraum, the "vital space."  Once they got into this frame of mind, the logical conclusion for every state was to expand their population at the fastest possible speed, exterminating or enslaving everyone who didn't belong to the herrenvolk "master race."  

Today, with the European natality plummeting and the native European population imploding, the idea of conquering a lebensraum for Europeans seems to be a little outdated, to say the least. Nevertheless, the European population is still large and the problem of food supply remains. Maybe it will be possible to keep things under control and steer Europe toward a lower population and a self-sufficient energy supply based on renewables. But the future is coming fast, as it usually does, faster than you would like to see it arriving. And, as usual, the future is full of surprises.

A comment by Ugo Bardi's personal troll, Mr. Kunning-Druger

I see, professor, that the subject of extermination fascinates you. It must be because you belong to that group of fanatical anti-human ideologues who fashioned for themselves the name of "Club of Rome" and who had the extermination of mankind as one of their first stated purposes -- part of their ideological manifesto titled "The Limits to Growth". So, every post you publish, is a nail in the coffin of these obscure forces who work against us. We know who you are, and you'll be treated as you deserve. Did you mention "extermination?" Oh, yeah.....


Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome, faculty member of the University of Florence, and the author of "Extracted" (Chelsea Green 2014), "The Seneca Effect" (Springer 2017), and Before the Collapse (Springer 2019)