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Irving Howe

Famine Spreads, Starvation
Diet Dooms Millions!

(19 May 1947)

From Labor Action, Vol. 11 No. 20, 19 May 1947, pp. 1 & 8.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

The greatest famine of modern times is killing millions in Europe and Asia. It is a famine – as we shall show later in this article – which is the result of the fantastically criminal and stupid policies of the nations which triumphed in the Second World War. It is a famine which reveals the nature of capitalist society in its most terrible and gruesome aspects.

In Germany, levels of food consumption have declined in some cities, such as Hamburg, to 800 calories a day. In Duesseldorf, people have been living for the past week on a food level of 650 calories a day – roughly the equivalent of three slices of bread.

In England, a sensation has been caused by a statement of Dr. Franklin Bicknell, a nutrition expert, that Britain is “slowly starving.” Yet Britain, where the present food levels vary from 1,600 to 2,000, has a higher level than Germany and most countries of eastern Europe!

Poland last week announced another reduction in food. In Rumania there is outright famine.

And the situation is’ getting worse – not better.

“Bearable Limit Reached!”

So terrible has the starvation become that the workers of Hamburg (once the site of a highly militant and socialist working class) organized on May 9 a monster demonstration of 120,000 workers demanding bread. The desperation of these starving workers – whose food levels are only slightly above those of the victims of the Nazi concentration camp at Belsen who were deliberately starved – was expressed in the statement of Adolf Kummernuss, chairman of the Hamburg Federation of Trade Unionists, who said at the meeting:

“We want to tell the world that a man with 800 calories cannot live – we want to give sincere warning that the bearable limit has been reached.”

Another, unnamed, speaker is quoted by the New York Times as saying that:

“We are on a starvation diet, and if 70,000,000 Germans die, then others will follow. There will be general despair that will not confine itself to any boundaries. Our problem is the world’s problem.”

Not only is the food level in the major German cities abysmally low. Even the several hundred calories a day which the workers receive are not sufficiently balanced in food types; there are. not enough fats and meats. That is why in the great Hamburg demonstration, some workers carried signs reading: “Food, not Calories!”

Life in Germany

It is impossible for a man to carry on heavy labor on a diet of even twice as much as the German workers have recently been receiving. Officially, the Allied zones are supposed to be providing 1,500 calories worth of food a day; but that is universally recognized as a myth. Actually, a working man requires a minimum of 3,000 calories a day. So we see that the workers of the Ruhr are receiving less than one-third of the minimum required. No wonder many faint over their machines.

No wonder that the workers of the Bloehm and Voss shipyards in Hamburg have staged a sit-down strike. Better to starve while resting than while vainly trying to work on empty stomachs.

Embarrassed by the disclosure of these horrible conditions in their German zones, British and U. S. officials have issued contradictory statements canceling each other out. On one hand they announce that conditions are not as bad as depicted in the German press and claimed by the demonstrating workers of Hamburg. On the other hand, they say the reason for the bad conditions – denied in previous statements! – is that the German “government” is inefficient and unable to get the food which German farmers are hoarding.

The latter argument is a scandalous piece of fakery. Everyone knows that the German zonal governments haven’t the slightest bit of REAL power; they are merely puppets of the occupying powers. The actual power rests in the hands of the occupying nations. It is they which are responsible for the mismanagement, if such there be.

Allied Responsibility

But more important: it is they, the occupying powers – Britain, U.S. and Russia – which are responsible for the entire economic set-up in Germany which can result only in starvation and economic chaos. How can a country feed itself if, after having been wrecked in the war, it still has to exist under the following conditions:

Apologists for the occupying powers claim the famine is due to the bad harvest in Europe. The bad harvest is a contributing factor, but the fact is that on the basis of the economic framework established by the Potsdam agreement there would have been starvation even with the best possible crops.

The results of this, persistent starvation are terrible to behold. It is no exaggeration to say that the entire German nation today stands in danger of extinction by starvation.

Private reports arriving at the office of this paper declare that in many German cities the rate of infant mortality is at an appalling high, in some instances as much as 65 per cent. Of mothers who breast-feed their babies, 15 per cent can feed them only up to eight weeks, 25 per cent are unable to feed their babies altogether and 41 per cent have to give them bottles immediately after birth.

On November 5 and 6 of last year, when the food ration was higher than it is today, the mothers of Freiburg, a town in the French zone, went to the officials, demanding bread. When none was to be had, they declared that they could no longer assume responsibility for feeding their children and tried to leave them at the office where they demonstrated. Such is the degradation to which humanity in Europe has been brought.

Britain and East Europe

In Britain a great stir has been created by the statement of Dr. Franklin Bicknell that its people are “dying of starvation.’’ Government spokesmen tried to lessen the effect of this statement, but their attempts were Unsuccessful. Each person in Britain knew from his own experience the truth of the doctor’s statement. The British have been living on a sub-standard died for almost ten years now; their present diet of 1,600 to 2,000 calories is about the highest for the recent period but is still woefully insufficient for a people worn out by so many years of deprivation.

What is the food situation in eastern Europe, in those countries dominated by Stalinist Russia?

No reliable figures are available. A few indications of the trend, however: The Russians have persistently refused to allow representatives of various international food and relief organizations to enter their areas in order to examine food conditions. We may be certain that if food conditions were at all satisfactory the Russians would not hesitate to admit observers.

In Poland a reduction in rations was announced last week.

In Rumania outright famine was recently averted by a shipment of wheat from the U.S., though previously there had been outright famine in some provinces around Moldavia. The political factors in the famine are brought out most clearly, however, by a report that the Russian occupation confiscated a good part of the emergency wheat shipment from the Rumanians to use for its own purposes. How can a country feed itself when it has a rapacious thief on its back taking everything from it in the name of “reparations”?

Policy of Starvation

The situation is getting worse, as is indicated by a report from Charles Egan, New York Times correspondent, on May 10:

“According to the forecasts of world food authorities in recent weeks, there is scarcely a nation on the Continent where the daily ration for the coming two or three months will not decline substantially because of the severities of the previous winter.”

This, then, js the brave new world – the world of the Atlantic Charter and the Four Freedoms – for which millions fought and died. Remember that it is now two years since the end of hostilities in Europe, and still the food situation is worse than it has ever been. Europe is today further away from economic reorganization than at any time since the war’s end. It is cut up into zones of occupation which serve as economic buffers, making impossible the most rudimentary reconstruction of its economy.

We may say without the slightest hesitation: so long as the various occupations remain, living like bloodsuckers on the prostrate continent, Europe will not be able to feed itself. So long as the venomous imperialist powers grab everything in sight, there will be no economic rehabilitation. So long as occupying troops live on a diet of 3,900 calories while European children have to live on less than one-fourth of that, there can be no real peace or reconstruction.

This is the face of Europe, of capitalist and Stalinist totalitarian society at its most horrible and total failure. This is what capitalism and Stalinist totalitarianism are doing to Europe – this is the hell to which they have brought the once proud continent. Let those who apologize for capitalism or Stalinism try to explain this, let them tell German mothers why their babies must shrivel up with hunger – while Russia loots the industrial plant upon which European economy might be rebuilt and while the U.S. insists upon limitations on production in Germany which make impossible either industrial or agricultural reconstruction.


So unbearable has the situation become that the workers of the Ruhr, though weakened from prolonged hunger, have taken to the streets demanding bread.

Good! Every worker, every socialist, every decent human being stands on the side of the Hamburg workers demanding the right to live.

What is a primary requisite in the U.S. is that some sign of international solidarity from the American workers – or at the least, from American socialists – be sent to our German brothers. Let them not think they have been abandoned!

The relief which has been organized for them, inadequate and insufficient as it is, is one such sign. But it is not enough. The voices of all socialists, in or out of organizations, must be banded together in demonstrative demand for aid to the German people, for the removal of the idiotic restrictions on. peaceful production in Germany which is the cause of starvation, and for the immediate granting of full civil liberties to all occupied countries. That is the minimum which American friends of the German workers can pay.

It is time that such words were said promptly and loudly!

End the Occupation

But there is more. The events in Europe today reaffirm time and time again the analysis of the Workers Party: the first, major tasks of the European workers is to fight against the imperialist occupation. The struggles for national liberation which must be waged against the Allied and Russian imperialist occupations can alone make possible a genuine expression of the popular will and a preliminary effort at economic reconstruction.

In the current demonstrations the Hamburg workers carried placards objecting to reparations and the dismantling of German factories. That is good, too, for it shows an understanding of the relationship of the food crisis to the general political situation of imperialist occupation.

A vast mighty popular struggle to drive out the imperialist leeches, to reestablish the national sovereignty of the European, peoples is the burning need of the day. It is the prerequisite to bread and to freedom. It is the path along which the masses of Europe can move to a total socialist reconstruction of society.

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