Famine and Food – Case of Greece during the Second World War

We must both have been hungry because we constantly led the conversation round to food.
“What is your favorite dish, grandad?”
“All of them, my son. It’s a great sin to say this is good and that is bad.”
“Why? Can’t we make a choice?”
“No, of course we can’t.”
“Why not?”
“Because there are people who are hungry.” I was silent, ashamed. My heart had never been able to reach that height of nobility and compassion.

– Nikos Kazantzakis, Zorba the Greek

Work examined: Violetta Hionidou, “What do starving people eat? The case of Greece through oral history.” Continuity and Change, Volume 26 Issue 01, May 2011, pp 113-134.

In this interesting study, Hionidou examines an aspect of famine that is often overlooked: what kind of foodstuffs people fall back on for survival in times of crisis

In recent years, and through the observation of contemporary – mostly African – populations in crisis, famine foods have been virtually equated with wild foods, although the latter are still defined by many as wild plants that ‘would not normally be consumed due to local taboos or unpleasant side effects’. Only recently has the equating of famine foods and wild/traditional vegetables been explored and challenged, again by anthropologists. Jocelyn Muller and Astier Almedom, studying a village in Niger, established that the terms ‘traditional vegetables’ and ‘famine foods’ are not synonymous… foods they consume in famine situations are familiar foods, foods that are consumed in normal times too by some sections of the famished society

In order to better illustrate the point, the study employs oral accounts from the food crisis that devastated communities on the islands of Mykonos, Syros, and Hios in German-occupied Greece during the Second World War. The Greek famine started and lasted different amounts of time, but the peak of mortality throughout the country occurred in the winter of 1941-2 with some communities suffering a second round of abnormally high crude mortality in the first half of 1944. The islands were specifically chosen for research because they were the heaviest hit by the food crisis as they relied on food shipments from the mainland even during normal times.

The “normal times” for the study in set in the 1930s when most Greeks, especially the islanders, were still fairly poor, though not impoverished. Interviews conducted for the research indicate that the rural communities consistently consumed locally produced greens and pulses.

Q. Do you remember what you were eating at your mother’s house, your father’s, when you were a child? Did you eat meat, fish?
A. We would have a pig, 150 kilos, and we would slaughter it and we would [preserve] it in salt and when it was the season for greens [horta] we would gather wild greens and we would cook two pieces [of the pork], this much [very little] every child, and a plateful of greens and we would eat. We had fava beans, chickpeas, beans, this is what we ate. With those things we supplied the household. Other things did not exist; those that exist today did not exist then.
Q. Did you eat fish?
A. Fish, we would go to the sea to pick up, this time of the year [spring] left-overs [aporihakia] and the boats would come and they would take out the fish and they would leave the small ones on the beach …
Q. How often would you eat fish?
A. Fish were cheap. If you gave him [the fisherman] a handful of beans he would give you a bucketful of fish …

Food items such as olive oil, sugar, rice and salted cod were considered luxury items that could be obtained only in towns or the Athenian market. In turn, fish, which appears readily available in many rural communities as indicated by the interview above, was not available at low cost in cities where poorer urbanites only ate small “less-esteemed kinds of fish” two or three times a week.

Throughout the country, the most important source of food was bread which constituted up to 70% of the nutritional intake. Naturally, the first food item that was short of supply during the famine years was bread – and this was emphasized heavily in the anecdotes of the survivors. Corn, which was traditionally used for animal fodder, was consumed by people (via cornflour-based products) for the first time as a bread substitute. It is evident that people began to consume less during this period with the expectation of long-term hardship. Hunting wild game, which had complemented people’s diet in normal times, was eliminated as the German occupation forces confiscated guns and fishing became increasingly restricted.

With limited food supply, people increasingly turned to locally grown wild greens for food. Olive oil, which was an essential part of the Greek diet, was available in areas that traditionally produced it, but because of the German restrictions on food transports, the surplus oil could not be transported to other parts of the country. Lard, which the poorer people relied on, disappeared alongside the fodder animals. Increasingly, people consumed what previously would have been waste product, such as the blood of animals collected in the slaughterhouses and, as is typical in severe famine cases, horses, donkeys, cats, dogs, tortoises, etc.

At the end, the crude death rate increased 9-fold on Mykonos, 6-fold on Syros, and 4.6-fold on Hios. According to records, unlike other famines in Europe during the war (like in the Netherlands in the winter of 1944-45), nearly all of above-normal deaths were attributed to starvation and not diseases.

For our purposes, what is key in this study is that hungry people defaulted to foods that were still familiar to them, relying on sources and strategies that were well known. More often than not, the foodstuffs consumed by the population during the famine were items that the poorest of the peasantry ate even in normal times. Empirical evidence reveals that although many grains were recognized as fodder for animals, a noticeable amount went to human consumption before the famine. This shows that society slides down the socio-economic ladder when facing scarcity but does not depart from convention and culture entirely in search of completely new sources of nourishment.

This case study and related studies suggests that assessing a society’s reaction to famine requires not only knowledge of what resources are readily available, but what foodstuffs are familiar to the people already. Existing survival food-acquisition behaviors of that society may already take advantage of everything available in its biosphere, but it does not guarantee it nor do these conventional behaviors ensure the most efficient intake of nutrition. A more complete overview of how to handle famine relief can be accomplished by examining what people in the lowest rungs of society rely on for nourishment in normal times as it will define the behavior that the general population will fall back on in times of hardship. It will also be be the most cost-effective means of food acquisition known to that community, thus it can also help gauge the people’s entitlement in that given scenario.

North Korea is not currently undergoing a famine, but it does face chronic food shortages. For purposes of future relief policy, organizations should undertake a more holistic examination of what activities the poorest undertake for survival. This can be accomplished utilizing interviews with defectors. The most recent UN Food and Agriculture Organization report noted that strategies for coping with food insecurity included consumption of wild vegetables but did not specify what those were and what else is available in the North Korean environment. This is a shortfall in the research that should be rectified. The case study on consumption during the Greek famine also explains why wider cultivation of protein-rich foods vital in food shortage conditions, as recommended by the UN FAO, have not yet spread widely throughout the country. People have a difficult time breaking from behavior that they assume are the most efficient strategies for survival.

These are definitely key areas that require a more intensive examination in the future for a more effective response to food scarcity in North Korea and elsewhere.

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About Yong Kwon

Analyst of international relations, writer of history, observer of North Korea's food and monetary policies, and Korea blogger for the Diplomat
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One Response to Famine and Food – Case of Greece during the Second World War

  1. Pingback: Reintroducing the Blog | Rice and Iron

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