Potatoes, declared the historian Lizzie Collingham, were the taste of World War Two. Food, she showed, lay at the heart of this global calamity.
The desire to ensure a reliable food supply drove German and Japanese aggression. Meanwhile, the prolonged conflict spotlighted the monumental challenges of feeding the nearly two billion mobilised people, alongside the millions more who worked in agriculture, in vital industries and on transport ships, or otherwise contributed in other ways to the war effort.
The responses of the warring countries differed, but potatoes were a central feature of national food policies and individual survival techniques.
The British government promoted potatoes as a way of reducing reliance on food imports while also improving the nation’s overall health. Since ‘war demands better physique and health than peace’, officials were convinced of the need to effect fundamental changes in the nation’s eating habits.
Eating properly was an individual obligation and a national necessity. In place of white bread and fresh meat fed on imported grains, the government encouraged a diet based around a greatly increased consumption of potatoes, and wholegrain bread made with home-grown wheat.
All households were urged to keep rabbits, raise chickens and, especially, grow potatoes, which were promoted as an excellent source of energy and vitamin C, suited to British agricultural conditions and the capabilities of the home-gardener.
The Ministry of Food’s Potato Division was extremely successful in its efforts to increase production. By the end of the war acreage devoted to potatoes had doubled from 1939. Such as the success that individual consumption struggled to keep pace.
The Soviet Union
When the Soviet Union entered the war in 1941 it faced enormous impediments to its efforts to feed itself. Agricultural production was in disarray as a result of Stalin’s programme of collectivisation, which had caused the devastating 1933 Ukrainian famine, in which as many as seven million people died.
Wartime mobilisation deprived the countryside of some nineteen million agricultural labourers at a moment when more, rather than less, food was needed. Consequently, by 1942 both the grain and potato harvests fell to a third of their pre-war volume. Soldiers and civilians were constantly hungry, despite rationing. When German troops captured key agricultural zones in the Ukraine, the situation worsened further.
At least three million Soviets—probably many more—starved to death during the war. Soviet officials responded by urging everyone to plant potatoes.
From the 19th century bread and potatoes had formed the backbone of the popular diet, and unlike grain, potatoes are relatively easy to cultivate on small pieces of ground. During the war, newspapers dispensed horticultural advice and factory administrators endeavoured to provide workers with allotments.
By 1943, Moscow ‘floated in a green sea of potato plants’. In 1944, such auxiliary farms produced over 2.6 million tons of potatoes and other vegetables, enough to ensure an additional 250 calories per day for workers lucky enough to have access to them. These efforts provided an essential source of food for perhaps 25 million people.
The National Socialists likewise pushed potatoes. Nazi political philosophy viewed the health of the German state as virtually identical to the health of individual Germans. Citizens had a civic obligation to look after themselves; ‘health as a duty’ became an official party slogan in 1939.
Wartime rationing was designed to nurture proper Germans by denying food to the unwanted sections of the population. Jews in occupied territories were entitled to 420 calories a day, with predictable results. German workers undertaking heavy labour were allocated ten times this amount.
Rationing was also intended to increase Germany’s ‘nutritional freedom’ by reducing its reliance on imports. Haunted by memories of hunger and civil unrest during the First World War, the Nazis were determined not to repeat the unsuccessful food policies of earlier governments.
From 1933 they campaigned with some success to make Germany self-sufficient in key foodstuffs; by 1939 nearly all sugar, meat, grain and potatoes were produced domestically. This last achievement was particularly important since, as Nazi propagandists insisted, Germans were ‘the people of the potato’.
The potato was the object of intense promotion in Nazi Germany. Countless radio broadcasts, magazines and training courses dispensed information on the multitude of ways in which this ‘nutritious, filling and at the same time cheap’ vegetable could be prepared. Over the course of the war, annual consumption more than doubled, from 12 million to 32 million tons.
But, because of the close relationship Nazis perceived between people and potatoes, their aim wasn’t simply to increase consumption. They wanted the potatoes themselves to become more German. The state invested heavily in plant-breeding programmes to produce robust, locally-adapted varieties resistant to potato wart, late blight, and other diseases. This resulted in the Imperial List of Approved Varieties.
By 1941, the sale or cultivation of potatoes not featuring on the List was banned. While in the 1910s German farmers were growing some 1,500 different varieties of potato, by 1941 they were permitted to cultivate a mere 74. Just as the Nazis stipulated which peoples and races could inhabit German soil, so they also specified which species of potatoes were permitted to grow.
German food policy, and its attitude towards potatoes, reflected the broader aims of Nazi ideology.
The taste of the war
With or without top-down encouragement people around the globe turned to potatoes to keep body and soul together during the Second World War.
Soviet peasants, almost entirely reliant on foods they grew themselves, more than doubled their potato consumption. ‘They ate potatoes for breakfast, for lunch and for tea; they ate them all ways—baked, fried, in potato cakes, in soup, but most often simply boiled’, recalled one observer.
The family of Giovanni Tassoni, poor labourers living in the countryside outside Rome, devoted their entire garden to potatoes after the occupying German military began requisitioning food in 1943.
Jews starving in the Warsaw ghetto crept into the city’s hinterland the hope of digging up a few potatoes that they might smuggle back to feed their relatives.
Home-grown, frozen, dehydrated, rotten, mashed, boiled, stolen, rationed, potatoes were the food, and truly the taste, of the war, as Collingham put it.
The origins of potato consumption
Potatoes have played an increasingly important role in warfare since they first burst onto the global scene in the sixteenth century.
The tuber originates in the Americas; scientists designate the Andes as its ‘cradle area’. It has long served as an essential food resource for ordinary people there. Potatoes also fuelled military expansion across South America by the ambitious Inca Empire in the fifteenth century. Inca soldiers sustained themselves with a version of Smash (called chuño) as they battled their way through Bolivia, Ecuador and elsewhere.
After the European invasion of the Americas started in 1492 with Columbus, the potato spread everywhere. Ordinary people appreciated the tuber’s superlative ability to convert sunlight and soil into sustenance, and they began to be grown in many parts of the world.
In Flanders, they were being raised in such quantities that during the Nine Years War (1688-97) soldiers were able to sustain themselves ‘most plenteously’ with potatoes they pillaged from local fields.
The global warfare of the 18th century saw potatoes taking on an ever–more important role in feeding the military. ‘Purtaters for Sup’ was how a New England ship carpenter during the Seven Years’ War (1756-63) ‘Con Clued the Day’, according to his diary.
Soldiers fighting on both sides of the American Revolution ate them weekly in their rations. In the wake of the French Revolution, soup kitchens peddling potato soup were set up across Western Europe to stave off radicalism with potatoes. Supporters hoped that charity soups would convince the hungry poor of the beneficent intentions of elite-run governments, and discourage them from imitating French radicals.
These efforts were not always appreciated by their intended beneficiaries. ‘Damn your Red herrings, Potatoes and you and all that have any thing to do with it’, warned an anonymous circulating in Wakefield in 1800.
Potatoes in the First World War
By the outbreak of the First World War, potatoes were well-established in diets in many parts of the world, so it is not surprising that governments responded to the conflict by encouraging potatoes, just as they would a few decades later.
The fragile nutritional health of recruits was believed to undermine military strength. One official from Bradford commented that ‘under and improper feeding’ meant that forty per cent of the volunteers fighting in the Boer War were so puny that they were ‘not good enough to be shot at’.
There was widespread agreement that government action was required to coordinate food supplies and improve public health. The UK created the Ministry of Food Control in 1916; Austria-Hungary established a Joint Food Committee, and the United States founded the Fuel and Food Administration on its entry to the war. Imperial Germany acquired the War Food Office, the War Wheat Corporation and, of course, the Imperial Potato Office.
In Germany, potatoes were the first food subjected to a price ceiling, and one official contended in 1915 that ‘the potato question is the most important, the most burning, since the potato plays such as important role for the poorer population’. The state also required that bakers use an increasing percentage of potato in their bread. The resultant loaf was known as K-Brot, with the K standing for both Krieg (war) and Kartoffel (potato).
In all countries pro-war propaganda tried to encouraged greater potato production and consumption. In Britain, farmers were issued with Cultivation Orders which stipulated the acreage of wheat and potatoes they were required to grow. From 1917 the British state purchased the entire annual potato harvest to sell at set prices.
The US government hoped that increased domestic potato consumption would compensate for the export of 20 million bushels of wheat destined for allies in Europe. Potatoes accordingly featured regularly in flourless ‘victory recipes’ distributed by the US Food Administration.
‘Eat potatoes with their starch, help the fighters on their march. Each baked potato that you eat will help to fill the ships with wheat. Eat potatoes, save the wheat, drive the Kaiser to defeat’, urged the authors of one wartime cookery book.
Across Europe these wartime experiences helped redefine the relationship between food, the population and the state, as civilians became increasingly articulate in their expectation that the state should help ensure they had access to sufficient food.
In Germany, the shortage of potatoes, bread, butter and meat reduced public support for the war, and ultimately helped bring down the government, which collapsed in November 1918.
Potatoes and the present
Today, the fight against Covid-19 is often cast in military terms: politicians talk about defeating the virus and employ a range of militaristic metaphors.
But in this crisis, potatoes are as much victim as saviour. In the US prices fell by as much as fifty percent in the first month of lockdown, as the closure of restaurants halted demand. In Belgium, 750,000 tons of commercially-grown potatoes languished with no clear destination.
At the same time, ordinary people everywhere have been turning to potatoes as a source of solace and sustenance. ‘When life gives you quarantine, plant potatoes’, read a headline in the New York Times reporting on efforts to establish community gardens in New England.
Warfare may not be the most helpful way to think about the global pandemic, but potatoes perhaps offer one small way to help nourish the human connections that give strength and meaning to our lives.
Professor Rebecca Earle, historian of food, and of the cultural history of Spanish America and early modern Europe, teaches at the University of Warwick. Growing from an interest in the cultural significance of food, her latest project is a global history of the potato, ‘Feeding the People: Politics of the Potato’ was published by Cambridge University Press in June 2020.