Perhaps the only time in living memory that an industrialised developed country was subjected to widespread famine.

In 1944 parts of the Netherlands had been recaptured by the British and Canadians, but most of the country was still in German hands. Germany was able to gain some time after the allied failure of Operation Market Garden, and thus German forces were well reinforced and entrenched.

The Dutch government-in-exile from London called on railway workers to go on strike, in order to disrupt Germany sending in military forces to the Western front. Despite the threat of capital punishment looming over any worker in who participated in anything to do with aiding the enemy, 90% the railway workers, emboldened by the string of recent allied victories, downed tools. More adventurous partisans engaged in sabotage activites.

Germany had to send in its own railway workers to get the trains operating again. It was a minor setback, but the actions infuriated Reichkommissar Seyss-Inquart. He could not afford to liquidate a precious supply of skilled labour, so he exacted revenge in another cruel way.

Quite simply, in October 1944 he forbade the transportation of food into the Netherlands.

It shortly had an impact on the local population, as food rations were immediately cut, and then cut again. Germany controlled most of the densely populated parts of the Netherlands, including Amsterdam, Rotterdam and The Hague. The Netherlands did not produce enough food to meet its own requirements, preferring to use what vacant, sea-reclaimed land was available for tulip cultivation (which became part of the diet as the famine intensified).

Six weeks later, Seyss-Inquart lifted the ban. However the disruption the war had on the Dutch railway system meant that food supplies could not easily get through. Later in an notoriously bitter winter the canal system froze, hampering distribution. The Germans, adopting a scorched earth policy as they left, destroyed railway, and canal infrastructure, and flooded agricultural land, intensifying mortality right into spring. Official rations were progressively cut from 1,400 kcal/day in August 1944 to 1,000 kcal/day in December, and ultimately to as low as 500 kcal/day in April 1945. A single potato, a piece of bread, and a sugar beet is about 1,000 kcal.

Not only was food in short supply, but coal and other fuel supplies were also disrupted. What trees existed in an urban environment were chopped down to be used as firewood. When that supply was exhausted, people started burning their own furniture and books to keep warm. Electricity, water, sewerage and public transport services simply disappeared (the streetcars themselves were stripped bare for anything flammable). The situation was so bad that the Germans resorted to allowing the RAF, RAAF and Polish Air Force free access to the Netherlands to paradrop food supplies.

The famine, known as the Hunger Winter, was only lifted after the Netherlands was liberated in May. 30,000 Dutch people are believed to have perished by malnutrition or exposure as a result of the famine. Many also died from toxic poisoning induced by eating tulip bulbs.

A lingering legacy for the Dutch people has been the medical effects of malnutrition for the both the survivors and their children. People conceived during the famine are more likely to suffer from obesity, diabeties, anti-social personality disorders, schizophrenia and depression. Those who starved would end up with a variety of pancreatic-related disorders. Audrey Hepburn who spent the war as a teenager in Amsterdam managed to survive edema, anemia and other ailments brought on by malnutrition, and would for the rest of her life battle depression.

The fact that records were kept makes it useful for research scientists to investigate the effects of malnutrition and other biochemical phenomena.

ref: et al

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