Totalitarianism, Famine and Us

Samuel Moyn in The Nation:

Tumblr_lw0vvuxerB1qh4kgso1_500The worst human tragedies of the twentieth century were certainly most deadly when sponsored or at least unleashed by totalitarian regimes, and food was a crucial element of their politics. Several years ago, the German journalist and scholar Götz Aly showed in books such as Architects of Annihilation (2003) the role of food in the horrors of National Socialist imperialism. More recently, Timothy Snyder has made the conquest of more productive agricultural territory—especially the Ukrainian “breadbasket”—an essential factor in the episodes of mass death occurring in what he calls the “bloodlands.” Soviet and Nazi planners both sought to occupy the region for the sake of food, and their macabre policies dictated that those on the home front would eat before the occupants of the newly conquered territory, who were deemed too numerous to feed with limited resources. In The Taste of War(2011), Lizzie Collingham has offered an accessible survey of how deeply the origins and course of World War II followed from the difficulty—real or perceived—of provisioning humanity. Even Americans soon became aware that the fight against totalitarianism in postwar Asia depended on filling empty stomachs at least as much as on winning hearts and minds, a policy that Nick Cullather, author of The Hungry World: America’s Cold War Battle Against Poverty in Asia (2010), has elsewhere called “the foreign policy of the calorie.”

But the famines caused by totalitarian regimes can easily become a sensationalized distraction from considering the other causes of mass starvation. After all, mass hunger is older than totalitarianism, and in the most ancient records of human hunger, cannibalism is a depressingly common response to famine. In his already classic book Famine: A Short History (2009), Cormac Ó Gráda, the greatest contemporary historian of the topic, cites a Chinese woodblock from an 1870s famine that tells of a man who sells his daughter to avoid eating her; and many cases of cannibalism were reported in prior and later famines in China, under the rule of emperors and republicans alike.

More here.