Armageddon: The Battle for Germany, 1944-1945

Hastings, Max

Knopf, 2004

pp. 414-415

Petty deceit became a way of life-stealing cabbages and carrots from gardens, seeking to deceive a shopkeeper into supposing that he had already been given your ration coupon. City families waited weeks for their turn to hire a small handcart. Then they walked miles into the countryside on Hongertrochten–hunger treks–to find farmers with whom to barter furniture, sheets, clothing for food. Some country people found the opportunities for exploitation irresistible-accepting a gold ring for a handful of potatoes. The city-dwellers of Holland harbored lasting resentment against farmers who enriched themselves amid their nation’s agonizing privations.

By January, the daily ration had fallen to 460 calories. “Those who are hungry shout,” observed a Dutch newspaper bitterly on 30 January, “but those who are starving keep deadly still.” A profound silence had fallen over Holland, as people huddled in their houses, avoiding the smallest unnecessary activity to conserve energy. Schools were closed by lack of heating. Industrial and commercial activity was at a standstill. Only Germans, and their Dutch creatures, continued to use vehicles.

Garbage piled up in the streets, swarming with rats, because there were no means of collecting it. When civilians had exhausted supplies of pulped sugar beet, they began to eat tulip bulbs–140 million were consumed that winter. “Take a litre of water,” suggested a local recipe, “one onion, 4-6 bulbs, seasoning and salt, a teaspoon of oil and some curry substitute. Brown the onion with oil and curry, add water, bring to the boil, and grate the cleaned bulbs into the boiling liquid.” The outcome was repulsive, but possessed some vestiges of nutritional value.

Jan de Boer, one of nine children of an academic living in The Hague, saw an ill-nourished horse defecate in the snow outside his home one morning. He was astonished to behold a passer-by descend from his bicycle and poke through the steaming dung, searching for undigested morsels of corn, which he ate as he crouched. A Dutchman said he learned that winter that human beings “only consisted of a stomach and certain instincts.” Twelve-year-old Willem van den Broek dreamed not of exotic adventures nor even of luxuries, but about bread, meat, cheese, sweets.

Medical research suggested that children aged between ten and fourteen suffered most from hunger. The average Dutch fourteen-year-old boy weighed forty-one kilos in 1940, but only thirty-seven kilos in 1945, and had become two centimetres shorter. Girls of the same age were a frightening seven kilos lighter and six centimetres shorter. Typhoid and diphtheria epidemics had broken out. Women stopped menstruating. Men became temporarily impotent. Corpses lay in churches awaiting burial. An Amsterdam old people’s home reported that its death rate had doubled. A visitor to a cemetery wrote: “the shrunken bodies were lying next to each other. No flesh on thighs or calves. Most had bent arms and legs, the hands clenched as if the poor devil was still asking for food.”

On 17 March, a Dutch leader sent a new appeal to London for aid: “The expression `starved to death’ has been used so often in a figurative sense that it is difficult to realise that people are dying in the street … And when the question arises: `But how can people stand it?,’ my answer is: `Those people cannot stand it; they are really going completely to pieces.”‘