The Diverse Roles of Food in the Development and Implementation of Nazi German Policies

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The Diverse Roles of Food in the Development and Implementation of Nazi German Policies

Maria Dawson

Food is a fundamental necessity for human life, to such an extent that according to Moslow’s hierarchy of needs access to food is one of the requirements that must be fulfilled before an individual can make considerations with regards to other aspects of life and happiness. While this theory in its details is fiercely debated, it highlights the crucial nature of food in human lives. And thus by extension, the potential for food to be used as a tool of power, control, and destruction. Psychology, nutrition, cultural studies, and history as disciplines all have different ways of examining food and the role of food in society. In Nazi German policies food played a wide range of roles, a sample of which will be examined through a historical lens focusing on economic policies in the General Government region of occupied Poland and food deprivation and starvation as tools for implementation of the extermination programs within Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp in order to demonstrate the breadth of influence food holds.

Economics and Overpopulation

Agricultural and industrial food production in occupied Poland, and the failure of those industries to meet Reich standards of efficiency of production was amongst the most pertinent justifications for the relocation of Poles upon the commencement of the German occupation. The displacement and extermination of European Jews and Poles was in part a pragmatic decision justified not by social policy but instead by perceived overpopulation and lacking labor productivity.1 The economic systems of Eastern Europe and Germany functioned based on contrasting principles and practical decisions. Germany’s economy was more focused on high-efficiency and mass production with the intention of maximizing national wealth, while the Polish economy was more agrarian in general and more locally focused, often with trade interactions not stretching beyond the local.2 Additionally, in this Polish agriculture market was based on a model in which there was very little, if any surplus, in production.3 This economic system of self-sufficiency within Polishes villages did not meld well with the Nazi German economic model. For the Third Reich government, a reduction in population in the General Government region was seen as being critical for increased productivity in the region in order for the economy to be more reflective of Nazi German ideals. 4 Connection between poverty and the economic model in use in Eastern Europe were also drawn, many of the Ostjuden were in lower economic brackets, and thus their elimination was seen as a means of reducing poverty.5

‘Overpopulation’ was determined by German spatial planners and economists to be the primary problem preventing the General Government region from achieving a correct economic order.6 This label of ‘overpopulated’ was designated to a region if the calculated potential productivity of the land was higher than the actual productivity or was based on the level of unemployment.7 Overpopulation was seen as reducing the amount of space available for agricultural development based on a formula that based the available space for food to be produced off of the number of people living in a given area and the cost of living.8 This model was flawed however, as the equation was written in such a way that it could be manipulated in such a way that suggested the in circumstances where the available space for agriculture was limited, and the cost of living was already relatively low, a reduction in population would improve the situation.9 In the original equation, population was the product of available space and cost of living, but the equation was manipulated to suggest that population was also a variable in the equation.

These problems meant that the Poles were seen as being a “burden” on the rest of the region.10 Conveniently for the Nazi Germans, the issue of overpopulation could be resolved in their eyes with the removal or elimination of the Jewish population from the General Government territory, as the portion of the population that was Jewish was approximately equivalent to the percentage by which the population would need to be reduced in order to achieve the desired population count.11 Thusly a link was drawn between economic development and the elimination of the European Jews.12 This is important to acknowledge and review for the sake of understanding the political role of food, separate from its physiological role.

Food Production in KL Auschwitz-Birkenau

Food produced in the camp was made with the intention of being fed to both prisoners and to German personnel, SS at Auschwitz-Birkenau and soldiers on the frontline. Between these groups there was an evident and intentional discrepancy in the quality of the food. For example, sausages produced for the SS were made in a room separate from that where sausages produced for prisoners were made.13 In addition, these sausages were noted as having a higher caloric count and fat content than those for prisoners, and the production process used proper techniques for preservation, a luxury not afforded to the food of prisoners.14 The lesser quality of preservation of sausages allocated for prisoners made the meat more prone to contamination and bacterial growth that would result in disease. In part as a result of the higher quality of meat afforded to the SS, theirs was the primary source of smuggled meat into the camp.15 In order to smuggle meat out of the work detail any stolen food needed to be compensated for, as the SS kept close track of the amount being produced. This could be done by adding water to the sausage mix is order to replace the stolen volume.

The land on which the slaughterhouse was constructed was confiscated from the Polish citizens before it was designated for use by the Auschwitz concentration camp.16 Construction on the land began before the commandant of Auschwitz had gained official possession of the territory, indication the level of prioritization of food for the functioning of the Reich, as construction of the slaughterhouse began before the camp was opened. It is also indicative of the influence of the camp’s leaders in the specific region.

Agriculture played an integral role in many Third Reich decisions, from the treatment of Soviet citizens upon the German invasion in 1941, to the justification for the relocation of hundreds of thousands of individuals across Eastern Europe, to the role of Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp in broader Nazi German industry and economy. In this regard, Heinrich Himmler, the chief of the SS and man responsible for the oversight of concentration camps, had the intention for Auschwitz-Birkenau to become “the largest agricultural station in Eastern Europe,” where experiments relating to food production would take place as well as a vast complex of farms would exist as part of the camp complex.17 Thus in the summer of 1940, just after the first transport had arrived to the camp in June, the first agricultural work detail was created.18 Besides farming, Auschwitz-Birkenau also had its own slaughterhouse and dairy that were utilized for the production of food intended for consumption by prisoners as well as by SS personnel, and in some cases to be sent out of the camp to other regions of Reich territory.

Food Consumption in KL Auschwitz-Birkenau

Food and nutrition within the camp cannot be understood through broad generalizations of experience. For different prisoners who were in the camp at different time periods their experiences with food varied widely. It has been determined that with only the minimum provisions allotted to every prisoner within the camp through official means, it was possible to survive no longer than three months. In an essay by Rolf Keller, malnutrition is cited as one of the three primary reasons that of the 10,000 prisoners sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau in the fall of 1941, fewer than 10 percent were still alive 5 months later, in March of 1942. The other two reasons were the ‘brutal treatment’ they received and outright murder committed by SS.19 In order to survive longer than this, prisoners would need to either hold a position within the camp that would grant them greater rations and require less physically demanding work, or would have to acquire food through alternate means.

One example of a means of acquiring additional food was to ‘organize.’ This was the term used for obtaining items not issued officially within the camp. An example of this with regards to food was that those working in the kitchen or within the network of food production would smuggle food out of their workplace to either consume themselves or trade for other commodities on the black market that existed within Auschwitz-Birkenau. Additionally, those who worked in what was referred to as “Canada,” the area in which the belongings from newly arrived transports were sent, were able on occasion to smuggle food as well as other items that could either be consumed personally or traded with fellow prisoners. Smuggling was a risky endeavor, one that would result in harsh repercussions if a prisoner was caught.

Within Auschwitz-Birkenau the majority of prisoners who worked within the food complexes of the camp and its subcamps were Poles, despite the fact that especially in the latter year and a half of the camps operation the large majority of the prisoners population was Jewish. This may be attributed simply to the fact that food production complexes were established in the early months of the camps operation when most prisoners were there as political prisoners. This however does not stand up to scrutiny as more subcamps were created over time, as the camps population was growing to its eventual peak around 100,000, and more food was necessary. It is possible that these positions were given to political prisoners as the effort for extermination was focused on Jewish people and these jobs were considered of higher quality, officially often offering shelter, and unofficially the potential for acquiring additional food. Relatedly, in the first half of the camps operation some prisoners were permitted to receive packages from outside the camp, including food. Jewish prisoners were never granted this privilege, thus again indicating the targeted nature of starvation even within the confines of Auschiwtz.

To a certain extent diet of prisoners was influenced by where the newest transports were arriving from. Some of the food procured from the luggage of new arrivals was sent out into the Reich, but some remained within the camp. Based on this the diet of prisoners was altered over the years of the camps operations. In addition, diet could be a means by which inmates could infer where transports were arriving from without having interaction with new arrivals, based on what foods were being introduced for prisoners. Rudolf Vrba elaborates on this in his memoirs, when he mentions that they knew transports were arriving from Hungary because of the influx of sausages.


The history of starvation carried out by the Nazi German regime goes back to the 1930s. At this time starvation was introduced as the first method to be used in the T-4 euthanasia program on disabled individuals, chosen because it was “passive, simple, and natural.”20 Thus starvation as a method of mass extermination, while a more indirect method than others that were utilized, was an integral part of Nazi extermination plans from the onset of the era of the Third Reich. In addition to starvation’s use as a method for intentional killing in the pre-war years, aaccording to an Army journalist, the prisoners in the concentration camps were on a “deliberate starvation diet.”21

There are a number of levels on which starvation occurs, as Jack Shepherd observes, “the reality of the process of starvation is that rarely does a food supply completely and abruptly disappear.” 22 Instead starvation occurs to varying degrees, with a “prolonged period of caloric deficit” causing “semistarvation,” which results in both physical and mental deficits that are often permanent. 23 In order to categorize and quantify levels of starvation the medical and international communities have had to create standards of measurement for starvation. The lowest level of starvation occurs with the loss of 5 to 10 percent of an individual’s body weight and typically does not incur a loss of bodily function. The second level occurs with a loss of 15 to 35 percent of body weight, and if this occurs amongst the general population it is classified as a famine. The final and most severe level of starvation is when 35 to 40 percent of body weight is lost, and this is “invariably fatal.” 24

There are a large number of nutrients that are necessary for sustaining human life. For example, a body must be able to build its own proteins and enzymes, which are mostly protein. Without these, metabolism cannot take place, and starvation at the cellular level occurs.25 Metabolism and some other biochemical reactions also require ‘micronutrients.’ There are nutrients that, although only being required in small quantities, are essential for continued sustenance of life, and if I person is without one of these micronutrients it “will kill or disable a person as readily as insufficient calories.”26 Examples: niacin, riboflavin, thiamine (aka vitamin B)27, magnesium28

Food in the Warsaw ghetto

The Warsaw ghetto provides an example of starvation and systematic restriction to access to food that is important to examine in conjunction with starvation studies in concentration camps. It is important to recognize that starvation was not isolated to concentration camps, and in fact was in some cases arguably more rampant in Jewish ghettos established by the occupying Nazi forces. In addition, those individuals who did survive life within the Warsaw ghetto were sent, with few exceptions, to concentration camps such as Auschwitz-Birkenau. Thusly, it is crucial to understand that individuals were arriving at the concentration camps from a variety of conditions.

In Poland, calories were rationed for the three demographic groups, as seen by the Nazi Germans. Jews were allotted less than 200 calories daily. Poles were allotted approximately 700 calories while German nationals were allotted over 2500 calories. In the Warsaw ghetto specifically, even with smuggling the daily calorie intake of residents was seldom greater than 1,100.29 In 1941 and 1942 more than 10% of the inhabitants in the Warsaw ghetto died, a total of over 80,000 individuals.30 These deaths were the result of a combination of factors, not least of all starvation, overcrowding, the ghetto took up 2.4% of the city’s land and held 30% of its population, and disease that was able to rum rambant as a result of the first two factors.31

The phenomenon of starvation, as well as methods of recovery are difficult issues for scientists to study and understand because of the ethical implications that any human study would have. As a result, the examination and observation of residents in the Warsaw ghetto in 1942 and of prisoners of concentration camps after liberation in 1945 provide some of the rare observational data on starvation.32 This is also why today we have a relatively large amount of data on starvation in the Warsaw ghetto as compared to other locations.

Food restriction and systematic starvation in the Warsaw ghetto is importance to study not only for the extreme nature with which intentional starvation was carried out on a massive scale, but also for the role this ghetto specifically played in further understanding of starvation and the development of post-war international standards of human rights.

Post-war Ramifications

Starvation was incorporated in to the Convention for the Prevention of Crimes of Genocide in December of 1948 as one of the defining components of what constitutes genocide.33 This decision acknowledged the specific role of starvation in the Nazi German extermination efforts. It also acknowledged the degree to which starvation is able to decimate a population, the broadness of the definition of genocide, that the methods of killing do not have to be on an individual basis, but may be implemented, for example, through the systematic restriction of access to food.

With regard to instances of mass famine or starvation in a variety of locations and time periods, the reaction of external parties to provide aid is often too late in coming. This is largely because potential donors ask for quantitative evidence of the crisis, usually in the form of a death toll. This means that the crisis has to be well under way in order to elicit an international response. While denial of a crisis’ occurrence and delays in realized action play a role in prolonging the wait for aid, the demand for quantifiable data demonstrating the need for aid is the primary source of delay. 34 It is important to note that these statements were made primarily with regards to famines in the latter half of the twentieth century, but they still carry pertinence to the study of the Holocaust and the international response of reports of starvation within the concentration camps, as well as the more broad conditions.


Food plays a role in human life and interaction beyond its ‘simple’ physiological importance on an individual base. From the conception of ideological policies supported by, or even arguably rooted in, agricultural concerns to the systematic deprivation of food and essential nutrients to specific populations based on ideological policies. The complexity of these roles are crucial to examine in studying the frameworks used for the displacement of hundreds of thousands of people in Nazi German occupied territory and the means of extermination used against, primarily, Europe’s Jewish population.


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1 Aly. “The Economics of the Final Solution,” 141

2 Aly. “The Economics of the Final Solution,” 141

3 Aly. “The Economics of the Final Solution,” 145

4 Holocaust: Critical Concepts in Historical Studies Vol. II ed by David Cesarani, p 141

5 Holocaust: Critical Concepts in Historical Studies Vol. II ed by David Cesarani, p 142

6 Aly, “The Economics of the Final Solution,” 144

7 Aly. “The Economics of the Final Solution,” 146

8 Aly. “The Economics of the Final Solution,” 145

9 Aly. “The Economics of the Final Solution,” 146

10 Aly. “The Economics of the Final Solution,” 146

11 Aly. “The Economics of the Final Solution,” 141

12 Aly, “The Economics of the Final Solution,” 140

13 Martyniak,”Schlachthaus und Molkerei” 5

14 Martyniak,”Schlachthaus und Molkerei,” 9

15 Martyniak,”Schlachthaus und Molkerei,” 9

16 Martyniak,”Schlachthaus und Molkerei,” 2

17 Martyniak,”Schlachthaus und Molkerei,” 1

18 Martyniak,”Schlachthaus und Molkerei,” 1

19 Keller, Racism verses Pragmatism, 118

20 Berenbaum, The World Must Know: the History of the Holocaust as Told in the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, 64

21 Berenbaum, The World Must Know: the History of the Holocaust as Told in the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, 189

22 Butterly, Hunger: The Biology and Politics of Starvation, 58

23 Butterly, Hunger: The Biology and Politics of Starvation, 58

24 Butterly, Hunger: The Biology and Politics of Starvation, 58

25 Butterly, Hunger: The Biology and Politics of Starvation, 65

26 Butterly, Hunger: The Biology and Politics of Starvation, 71

27 Butterly, Hunger: The Biology and Politics of Starvation, 65

28 Butterly, Hunger: The Biology and Politics of Starvation, 70

29 Berenbaum, The World Must Know: the History of the Holocaust as Told in the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, 74

30 Mogilanski, The Ghetto Anthology 57

31 Berenbaum, The World Must Know: the History of the Holocaust as Told in the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, 74

32 Butterly, Hunger: The Biology and Politics of Starvation, 56

33 Bernbaum, The World Must Know: the History of the Holocaust as Told in the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, 202

34 Butterly, Hunger: The Biology and Politics of Starvation, 139

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