Hunger as A Weapon of War in Eastern Europe

By Leah Bullard

The Realization of Hunger as a Tool of War

Pictures of war throughout history show gruesome scenes, but the pictures of ordinary citizens suffering from the effects of war have always had the greatest effect on me. Those pictures could be you, or me, or our neighbors- any citizen can be profoundly affected by war. Necessities for human life can become scarce, especially food.

U.S. Army photograph captioned: "Montenegran boys eating food given them by American soldiers." Source:

U.S. Army photograph captioned: “Montenegran boys eating food given them by American soldiers.”

When I came across George Alfred Mudge’s law article, “Starvation as a Means of Warfare” in The International Lawyer 4 (1970) pp. 228-268., I was shocked. The article focuses on the legality of starvation as a weapon in warfare. It distinguishes the military role in creating starvation as well as the civilian role as victims. The majority of literature on the topic of starvation during warfare focuses on the two World Wars. Germany faced blockades and food shortages, and thus sought to supply troops with resources from the locals rather than the home front. This strategy was in turn also useful in weakening the resolve and health of the conquered peoples and create a larger sense of German dominance. It became so obvious to me that hunger is commonly used as a subtle weapon of war!

Eastern Europe during the period of World War I is a perfect (or in reality, sad) example of this. Pick up any anthology of World War I history, and you can find that almost every few pages there is a mention of the hunger and starvation that plagued areas of Europe during the Great War. Newspapers, even American papers, documented the struggles and starvation of citizens in the east. While many countries advocated for civilians to ration in order to feed the troops, many eastern Europeans had no choice in the matter. Agrarian societies were destroyed, food was forcibly removed for German troops, disease spread through weakened villages.

This is the story of starvation in areas of eastern Europe during World War I; mainly how civilians became victims of this specific aspect of warfare and were forced to find new ways to survive.


Prior to any sort of consciously malicious use of hunger as a tool of war, the ignorance of leadership opened the door through their lack of understanding over their country’s resources. The Central Powers and their disappointing decisions over providing civilians with necessities for surviving are a major focus of  Rachel Duffett Zweiniger-Bargielowska  and Alain Drouard’s book : Food and War in Twentieth Century Europe (Farnham ; Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2011). They explain that as Austria-Hungary looked into declaring war, the Hapsburgs ignorantly assumed that the war would be relatively quick, and that they could produce a sufficient amount of food within their borders to support both the army and civilians (16). I would like to think that the leaders of a relatively large population would put great weight in their decisions that could massively affect their nation, but clearly the Hapsburgs felt that assumptions could take the place of actual careful thought. Food and War in Twentieth Century Europe is a sort of treasure trove for interesting information pertaining to the connection between food and warfare. All major aspects of this relationships are put in one, concise grouping of pages. It is very useful, with its descriptions of food substitutions, rations, civilian reactions, and the ways in which armies used civilian food sources to their advantage. But most of all it highlights the faults in the leadership for allowing widespread famine and malnutrition.


As World War I progressed, it quickly became clear that whatever resources Germany or Austria-Hungary had readily available at the home front would not be sufficient. Vejas Liulevicius is an extremely well respected historian, and in his work War Land On the Eastern Front: Culture, National Identity and German Occupation in World War I. (Cambridge, UK ; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000.) pp. 72-75 he describes several situations in which these countries took advantage of the civilians in regions they occupied during the war. The Ober Ost region was forced to industrialize for the German war effort, and almost every case of this had to do with food: potato dehydration centers, preserves factories, army dairies, and processing plants. Those Lithuanians and Balkans forced into these jobs lived in horrible conditions and with insufficient rations of food– often succumbing to disease and malnutrition. In addition to the requisition of labor, Germany also took practically Lithuania’s entire population of livestock: horses, cattle, and pigs.


Coming across J.M. Winter’s The Cambridge History of the First World War. (Cambridge University Press, 2014.) was, in truth, a godsend. I had reached a standstill where many of the World War I anthologies I was looking at made little mention of the widespread hunger throughout Europe. This Cambridge History, however, changed all of that! Perhaps most useful for this topic is the exact figures that it gives for the rations civilians were subjected to in the Austro-Hungarian Empire.  By 1918 urban areas were running very low on food sources and many were suffering because of this. On average, an Austro-Hungarian citizen consumed only 23 grams of meat and 70 grams of potatoes daily. The government also made proper sustenance even more difficult with its rationing of flour, cutting the daily allowed amounts to 165 grams from the original 200 grams (158-159).


A food queueSource:

A food queue

Furthermore, The Cambridge History of the First World War provides extensive details about the discontent that grew out of the various food shortages. Austrians in urban areas went on strike until they were given empty promises of more food (159). The food shortages caused civilians to question their ruling bodies. In areas occupied by the Central Powers, hungry civilians would refuse to work for the war effort or, if the punishment for that was too severe, would simply work very slowly and shoddily as a form of silent resistance (273). Families especially struggled with being unable to to support their families. Soldiers contemplated deserting so that they could return home for harvest so their families would have food. Mothers contemplated killing their families rather than seeing them starve, while others waited hours in food queues without any sort of guarantee that they would receive enough sustenance (17).

The transportation lines throughout eastern Europe also proved to be a huge addition to the hunger problem. A primary source document in the form of a New York Times article entitled “40,000 Jews Slayed in Ukraine” (8 Dec. 1919) by Abram Corainik details the time a doctor spent in eastern Europe towards the end of the war in 1918. The statement that sticks out the most to the reader is the accusation that Russians were starving because of the inactiveness of the railways.

An Austrian boy eats a meal given to him by a soup kitchen.Source:

An Austrian boy eats a meal given to him by a soup kitchen.

Suffering and Destruction

After The Cambridge History, I found myself coming across other books that contained little hidden gems of important information and stories. One of these books is David Mitrany’s The Effect of the War in Southeastern Europe. (New York: H. Fertig, 1973). What I found so useful about this source was that it gave me so many incredible examples of how the war affected ordinary life. No matter the effort, food supply was lower than it should have been. Clothing and coal were inadequate as well, and this made winters especially harsh for many eastern Europeans. Mitrany gives accounts of people attempting to ingest more fats to shield themselves against the insufferable cold by eating rats and wild nuts (161). He talks about the lack of respect given to the farmlands and properties that the armies encountered and destroyed.

Hunger as a Weapon

Tammy M. Proctor states in Civilians in a World At War, 1914-1918. (New York: New York University Press, 2010) pp. 11 that “Cutting off food supplies, bombing cities, taking hostages, forcing labor—all these become not only acceptable means of making war but even indispensable requirements of the waging of war.” This source, as well as all of those listed above, gives examples that make it clear that starvation was often useful for the countries attempting to gain power. It was used to weaken the resolve of those in occupied lands who otherwise might have risen up. Sieges, forced hunger, requisition of food were all tools used by armies to exert their power over a group and bring them to submission. In a World War, this clearly had an extremely broad effect.

Out of hours of searching, this and the New York Times article are the only English language primary sources that focus mainly on the starvation in Europe on account of the war, but in his article on the post-war destruction in Europe,  Donald Wilhelm “Feeding a Starving World” (The Independent, 8 Feb. 1919): “If you stood in the middle of Germany today and surveyed all of Europe, you would see that virtually all its population of four hundred million human beings is short of food. Not all, but many, are starving.”