The Hunger Winter took place as World War II was in its final year. Following a German blockade, food supplies to the Netherlands dwindled, and people began to starve.
It was a rare instance of famine in a developed and wealthy country in recent history. Let’s talk about it.
Why was there a Hunger Winter?
If the Dutch had survived the war so far without running into food shortages, why was there a famine in the winter of 1944? There were a couple of reasons.
The obvious and literal cause of the famine was a German blockade enacted in retaliation to a Dutch railway strike that aimed to help the Allied invasion of the country.
The German army blocked water and road routes into the Netherlands and only lifted the water blockade when temperatures had already fallen too low to allow boats to operate in the icy conditions.
At this point in the war, Allied forces had liberated the south of the Netherlands. But as the forces pushed further north, the failure of Operation Market Garden impeded their progress.
The Allied forces failed to seize a bridge over the Rhine at Arnhem. They decided to focus on other parts of the liberation process first, including capturing the French ports of Calais, Boulogne and Dunkirk.
Their progress into Germany slowed down at the time because they couldn’t use the port of Antwerp.
How did people survive the Hunger Winter?
Between 18,000 and 22,000 people died during the Hunger Winter, most of whom were older men. When we talk about survival rates, it’s important to remember that it was not just the supply of food hampered by the blockade.
It was also the supply of heating fuel: coal.
So, not only was it a very hungry winter, but it was also a very cold winter for the Netherlands from 1944 to 1945.
The starvation was particularly intense in cities — after all, in the countryside, most people lived around farms. That didn’t mean they didn’t experience food shortages, but the survival rates were much higher outside urban areas. For the Netherlands’ city-living population, times were hard.
So how much food did people consume during the Hunger Winter?
Rations decreased in calorie content over the long winter. In big cities like Amsterdam, adults had to contend with only 1000 calories of food by the end of November 1944 — but that dropped to 580 calories a day by February 1945. Even the black market was empty of food.
People walked long distances to farms to trade anything they had for extra calories. As the winter wore on, tens of thousands of children were sent from cities to the countryside so that they, at least, would get some food.
When it came to heating, people desperately burned furniture and dismantled whole houses to get fuel for their fires.
How did the Hunger Winter end?
The Hunger Winter came to a close in May 1945 when the Allies liberated the Netherlands. However, Allied efforts partially alleviated the starvation of the Dutch population.
Sweden shipped flour, and the Dutch made it into bread to feed the people. The Germans also allowed airdrops of food supplies from the end of April forward.
What were the effects of the Hunger Winter on the Netherlands in the long term?
The Hunger Winter had long-term effects on the health of the Dutch population. Even when the blockade ended and people returned to eating normally, starvation had long-lasting effects on the body.
The Dutch Famine Birth Cohort Study revealed that the children of women who had starved during the Hunger Winter had health problems: including higher rates of diabetes, obesity, and cardiovascular disease. One study also showed that the grandchildren of women who had experienced famine were smaller than average at birth.
How is the Hunger Winter remembered in the Netherlands today?
The Hunger Winter is usually remembered in conjunction with the resistance movement during World War II. There is an exhibition on it at the Resistance Museum in Amsterdam, for example. There are also statues commemorating the Hunger Winter.
The Hunger Winter wasn’t the first time people in the Netherlands had experienced starvation — the Siege of Leiden during the Eighty Years’ War was another occasion where food shortages affected the population.
Did we miss anything important about the Hunger Winter? Let us know in the comments below.
Editor’s Note: This article was originally published in December 2019 and was fully updated in November 2023 for your reading pleasure.