Starvation as a Weapon

Bashar al-Assad
Bashar al-Assad – Wikimedia

Today’s must-read article comes from Anne Applebaum, pointing to a perhaps underreported dimension of the crisis in Syria: mass starvation brought about by the policies of Bashar al-Assad.

While the international community is haggling over [Assad’s] chemical weapons, the stuff of modern nightmares, he is following the example of his medieval and his 20th-century predecessors and deliberately starving thousands of people to death.

Applebaum mentions the food relief trucks being kept from entering the city of Homs and the 20,000 refugees starving to death in a camp outside Damascus: “In this war starvation is a particularly useful battle tactic and a political tool. Not only can it help armies growing short of weapons, starvation can literally eliminate opponents. People who are starving—or dead—will not fight back.” And better yet for Assad et al., this kind of mass murder hasn’t draw significant attention from the rest of the world because it doesn’t rely on terrifying weapons of “mass destruction”: “For the perpetrators, it’s a slower, safer form of murder than a nuclear bomb. Which doesn’t mean that it is any less lethal for the victims.”

I found much the same in my just-completed class on World War II. We encountered weapons as destructively powerful and (for the time) cutting-edge as the B-29 bomber, the V-2 rocket, and, of course, the atomic bomb. Aerial bombing killed more than a million civilians in cities like London and Coventry, Hamburg and Berlin, and Tokyo and Hiroshima. Debates over the ethics of such warmaking continue to this day.

But much less famously, many more civilians died during WWII from starvation, a much simpler and older method of murder.

People have always died in war because of the way it disrupts food supply. What’s unique about World War II is the scale on which starvation was wielded intentionally as a means of slaughter. In Inferno Max Hastings summarizes how food (rather, the deprivation of it) was a key component of German war planning for the invasion of the Soviet Union:

Soviet POWs in July 1941
The Ukraine, July 1941: Soviet POWs fighting for what little bread their German captors passed out (Bundesarchiv)

The senior officers of the Wehrmacht flattered themselves that they represented a cultured nation, yet they readily acquiesced in the barbarities designed into the Barbarossa plan. These included the starvation of at least 30 million Russians, in order that their food supplies might be diverted to Germany, originally a conception of Nazi agriculture chief Herbert Backe. At a meeting held on 2 May 1941 to discuss the occupation of the Soviet Union, the army’s armament-planning secretariat recorded its commitment to a policy noteworthy even in the context of the Third Reich:

“1 The war can only be continued, if the entire Wehrmacht is fed from Russia in the third year.

2 If we take what we need out of the country, there can be no doubt that many millions of people will die of starvation.”

Barbarossa was therefore not merely a military operation, but also an economic programme expected to encompass the deaths of tens of millions of people, an objective which it partially attained. (p. 139)

Timothy Snyder, in his epic Bloodlands, quotes guidelines adopted three weeks after this meeting that made the Germans’ murderous intentions even more clear: ‘Many tens of millions of people in this territory will become superfluous and will die or must emigrate to Siberia. Attempts to rescue the population there from death through starvation by obtaining surpluses from the black earth zone can only come at the expense of the provisioning of Europe. They prevent the possibility of Germany holding out until the end of the war, they prevent Germany and Europe from resisting the [British] blockade. With regard to this, absolute clarity must reign’ (quoted on p. 163).

Snyder further notes, however, that the Hunger Plan was repeating recent history in the Soviet Union, particularly in the Ukraine, where, as a direct result of Stalin’s attempt to remake the Soviet economy, the food supply had collapsed in 1932. (Indeed, the Germans used Stalin’s own collective farms to sustain the needs of the Wehrmacht.) While it was in Stalin’s power to take steps that would have saved lives, he not only failed to take them, but decided to make the problem worse, as Snyder documents:

In the waning weeks of 1932, facing no external security threat and no challenge from within, with no conceivable justification except to prove the inevitability of his rule, Stalin chose to kill millions of people in the Soviet Ukraine. He shifted to a position of pure malice, where the Ukrainian peasant was somehow the aggressor and he, Stalin, the victim. Hunger was a form of aggression… against which starvation was the only defense. Stalin seemed determined to display his dominance over the Ukrainian peasantry, and seemed even to enjoy the depths of suffering that such a posture would require. Amartya Sen has argued that starvation is a “function of entitlements and not of food availability as such.” It was not food shortages but food distribution that killed millions in Soviet Ukraine, and it was Stalin who decided who was entitled to what. (p. 42)

Starvation victims in 1933 Ukraine
Victims of starvation lying dead in the streets of Kharkiv, Ukraine in 1933 – Wikimedia

Forced by their government to surrender precious food (some peasants even has to pay taxes in meat), almost four million Ukrainians (plus over half a million unborn children) starved to death in 1932-1933. While this was little reported outside the Ukraine, Snyder observes that

The proof was all around. Starving peasants begged along the breadlines, asking for crumbs. In one town, a fifteen-year-old begged her way to the front of the line, only to be beaten to death by the shopkeeper. The city housewives making the queues had to watch as peasant women starved to death on the sidewalks. A girl walking to and from school each day saw the dying in the morning and the dead in the afternoon. One young communist called the peasant children he saw “living skeletons”…. The city police seized famished urchins from city streets to get them out of sight. In Soviet Ukrainian cities policemen apprehended several hundred children a day; one day in early 1933, the Kharkiv police had a quota of two thousand to fill. About twenty thousand children awaited death in the barracks of Kharkiv at any given time. The children pleaded with police to be allowed, at least, to starve in the open air: “Let me die in peace, I don’t want to die in the death barracks.” (pp. 22-23)


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