Starvation Politics in extremis

Food-Regime in the Nazi Concentration Camps

Taja Kramberger

F. Braudel writes of famine in the past that it was such an insistent recurrence that it “became incorporated into man’s biological regime and built into his daily life” (The Structures of Everyday Life, 1981: 73). Therefore, famine should be seen as a thoroughly naturalized outcome of a socio-political organization, a phenomenon which had in the course of time acquired a “profound political charge” (Vernon, Hunger, 2007; vii).
In the Third Reich hunger was deliberately used as a weapon to control the population – Winter Relief precautions, rhetoric of “unnecessary mouths” for euthanasia program (T4), or Nazi policy of “Hunger Plan” to provide the Wehrmacht with the resources from Russian agricultural regions are some of the strategies meant to be seen as inherent in the “man’s biological control”. As for the T4 project, more than 70,000 handicapped Germans had been murdered by the Nazis in an operation that, according to the appalling statistics using a “food-discourse”, “promised to save the German state 885,439,980 marks and 13,492,440 kilograms of meat over a ten-year period.” (Fritzsche, Life and Death in the Third Reich, 2008: 118)
Keeping people hungry is a highly effective way of averting protest, namely, in such a way targeted people lack “the energy required for physical resistance” (Higman ed., How Food Made History, 2012: 206). Commandants in the concentration camps (CC) sometimes even decreed “new internees should receive only half-rations for their first four weeks” (ibidem) to avoid any potentiality of the revolt. Deprivation of food as punishment measure in the CC was a habitual procedure. Through the camps as a rule ran a parallel coexistence of limited supplies, scarcity and hunger (inmates) on one hand, and abundance profusion (SS staff, auxiliaries) on the other. Camps were over-crowded, inmates ravaged by a starvation diet – receiving only a watery soup and a slice of moldy bread – and disease (hunger-dysentery, typhus). Hundreds of people died every day. At the end of the war, “death-trains” and “death-marches” with no food supplies (but uncooked rice) claimed the lives of about 250.000 people. Many women, who survived Ravensbrück, bore witness to the fact that while, in the camp’s SS-storehouses, vast quantity of provisions was decaying, underfed inmates were starving to death.
My presentation will trace food representations from different sources and of various languages (Fr. langages): discursive eyewitness accounts (Vrba-Wetzler report; P. Levi; C. Delbo; H. Langbein; C. Rajchman; various collections of testimonies), oral memories-testimonies (H. Kinsky, Z. Fantlova etc.), visual representations (Nazi propaganda movies such as Der Führer schenkt den Juden eine Stadt, 1944; photographs; drawing series – a collection of A. Frankl about Auschwitz life). I will compare these representations with those of the official documents (Statistisches Handbuch für Deutschland, 1928–1944 etc.) and later publications/studies (Hefte von Auschwitz, The Nazi Concentration Camps, Grunberger, Corni and Gies, Gerlach, Fritzsche, Aly, Collingham,Vernon etc.) with an aim to make politics of hunger and starvation, their multiple ways and sophisticated modes to control the population more visible and intelligible.