Operation Hunger-Plan

hunger plan

This was a German economic management scheme, otherwise known as the ‘Backe-Plan’, created to ensure that Germans were given priority in food supplies at the expense of the inhabitants of the German-occupied Soviet territories (1941/45).

The plan was developed during the planning phase for the 'Barbarossa' invasion of the USSR, which began in June 1941. Germany itself was already running low on food supplies, and this was a problem which also faced the various territories occupied by Germany. The fundamental premise behind the 'Hunger-Plan' was that Germany was not self-sufficient in food supplies, and to sustain its war-making and war-fighting capabilities the country needed to obtain the food it needed from conquered lands regardless of the cost to these latter. The result was a German-engineered famine, planned and implemented as a rational act of policy for the benefit of the German nation above all others.

The plan as a means of mass murder was outlined in a document which became known at the Nürnberg war crimes tribunal hearings as 'Göring’s Green Folder'.

The architect of the 'Hunger-Plan', otherwise known as 'Oldenburg' (iii), was Herbert Backe who, with others including Reichsführer-SS Heinrich Himmler, spearheaded the coalition of radicals among Nazi politicians dedicated to the task of securing Germany’s food supply. The 'Hunger-Plan' may have been made almost as soon as Adolf Hitler in December 1940 revealed his intention to invade the USSR, and by 2 May 1941 the concept was certainly in the advanced planning stage and was ready for discussion between representatives of the major Nazi state ministries and the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht’s office of economics, headed by General Georg Thomas. The combination of the Soviet railway system’s lack of capacity, the inadequacy of road transport in the western USSR and the shortages of fuel in the region meant that the German army would have to sustain itself by living off the land in the areas it took in the western regions of the USSR.

One of the meetings for the logistical planning for the invasion of the USSR included in its conclusions firstly that the war could only be continued if the entirety of the German armed forces was fed from Russia in the third year of the war, and secondly that if the Germans took what they needed out of the country, there could be no doubt that tens of millions of people would necessarily die of starvation. The minutes of the meeting wholly exemplified the nature of the German planning for the occupation of the USSR, and revealed a deliberate decision on the life or death of vast parts of the western USSR’s population as a logical, indeed virtually inevitable, development.

Three weeks later, on 23 May, there appeared a set of economic and political guidelines for the forthcoming invasion. These had been produced by the agricultural section of the Economic Staff East, which had direct responsibility for the economic and agricultural exploitation of the Soviet territories which were to be seized, and started unequivocally that many tens of millions of people in that country would become superfluous and would die or had to emigrate to Siberia, and that attempts to rescue the population from death through starvation by obtaining surpluses from the black earth zone prevented the possibility of Germany holding out until the end of the war.

The perceived grain surpluses of Ukraine figured strongly in the vision of a German empire which would be self-sufficient in food. Yet Ukraine did not produce enough grain for export to solve Germany’s problems. The removal of the perceived agricultural surplus in Ukraine for the purpose of feeding Germany demanded firstly the destruction of what the German régime perceived as a superfluous population (Jews, the population of Ukrainian large cities such as Kiev which did not receive any supplies at all), secondly the extreme reduction of the rations allocated to Ukrainians in the remaining cities, and thirdly a reduction in the foodstuffs consumed by the farming population.

In discussing the plan, Backe came to the conclusion that western Russia had a 'population surplus' in Russia of about 20 to 30 million persons. If that surplus was denied sustenance, that food could be used to feed both the invading German army and the German population itself.

Industrialisation had created a large urban society in the USSR, and the 'Hunger-Plan' envisaged that this population, numbering many millions, should be separated from their food supply, thereby freeing the food production in western Russia, now at Germany’s disposal, to sustain Germans. Great suffering among the native Soviet population was foreseen, with tens of millions of deaths expected during the first year of the German occupation. Starvation was this to become an integral part of the German campaign. Planning for starvation preceded the invasion and became in fact an essential condition of it: the German planners believed that the assault on western Russia could not succeed without it.

The implementation of the 'Hunger-Plan' caused the deaths of millions of citizens in the German-occupied territories of the USSR, one estimate of the deaths being 4.2 million Soviet citizens (mostly Russians, Belorussians and Ukrainians) in the period from 1941 to 1944. Among the victims were large numbers of Jews whom the Nazis had forced into ghettos, and Soviet prisoners of war whose movements were most easily controlled by the Germans and could therefore be cut off from food supplies without any difficulty.

Jews were prohibited from buying eggs, butter, milk, meat and fruit. The so-called 'ration' for Jews in ghettoes of Minsk and other cities in the ambit of Heeresgruppe 'Mitte' was no more than 420 calories per day, and as a result tens of thousands of Jews died of hunger and hunger-related causes as early as the winter of 1941/1942.

The most reliable figures for the death rate among Soviet prisoners of war in German captivity reveal that of 5.7 million prisoners, 3.3 million died between June 1941 and February 1945, the vast majority of them directly or indirectly from starvation and undernourishment. Of these 3.3 million, 2 million had already died by the start of February 1942. The enormous death toll was the result of a deliberate policy of starving Soviet prisoners. The German planning staffs had reckoned on capturing and thus having to feed up to 2 million prisoners within the first six to eight weeks of the war, a figure similar to that of the prisoners taken during the western campaign of May and June 1940 against France and the Low Countries. The number of French, Belgian and Dutch prisoners who died in German captivity, however, was altogether smaller than that of Soviet prisoners.

Despite the very high death rate among Soviet prisoners, who comprised the single largest group of victims of the 'Hunger-Plan', this latter was never fully implemented, largely as a result of the ultimate failure of the German military campaign. On the one hand the Germans lacked the manpower to enforce a 'food blockade' of the Soviet cities, and on the other they lacked the capacity to seize all the food for their own purposes. However, the Germans were able to supplement their grain stocks quite significantly, especially from the arable areas of fertile Ukraine, and deny the Soviets access to them, leading to a significant level of starvation in the area still in Soviet hands (most drastically in Leningrad, encircled by German forces, where about one million people died).

The lack of food also contributed to the starvation of forced labourers, prisoners of war and concentration camp inmates in Germany.

While the 'Hunger-Plan' against the population of Soviet cities and the areas from which the grain was siphoned was unique in that no such premeditated plan was formulated against the inhabitants of any other German-occupied territory, starvation did affect other parts of German-occupied Europe, including Greece and Poland. Unlike the situation in the USSR, in Poland it was the Jewish population in ghettos (especially the Warsaw ghetto) which suffered the greatest deprivation, although ethnic Poles also faced increasing levels of starvation, and it had been estimated that more than 500,000 Polish Jews died in the ghettos from starvation. Early in 1943, for example, the German governor of Poland, Hans Frank, estimated that 3 million Poles faced starvation as a result of the plan. In August Warsaw, the Polish capital, was completely cut off from grain deliveries. Only the above-average harvest of 1943 and the collapsing Eastern Front of 1944 saved the Poles from starvation.

Western Europe was third on the German list of food reprioritisation. Food was also shipped to Germany from France and other occupied territories in the west, although western Europe was not subjected to the genocidal starvation experienced in eastern Europe.

By the middle of 1941, the German minority in Poland was receiving 2,613 calories per day, while Poles received 699 calories and Jews in the ghetto 184 calories: the Polish ration was 26% of the daily requirement, and the Jewish ration just 7.5%. Only the rations allocated to Germans fulfilled the full needs of their daily calorie intake.

Late in 1943 the 'Hunger-Plan' also had another benefit for the Germans, namely the stabilisation of German food supplies. In the autumn of 1943, for the first time since the start of he war, the food rations for German citizens, which had been cut on several previous occasions, were increased.

In 1942/43 occupied Europe supplied Germany with more than 20% of its grain, 25% of its fats and 30% of its meat.