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 is 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 Dutchies had survived the war so far without running into food shortages, why was there a famine in that particular winter? There are 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 water.
At this point in the war, the south of the Netherlands had already been liberated. But as the Allied forces pushed further north, their progress was impeded by the failure of Operation Market Garden.
The Allied forces failed to seize a bridge over the Rhine at Arnhem, and 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 was also slowed at the time by the unusability of the port of Antwerp.
How did people survive the Hunger Winter?
Between 18,000 and 22,000 people died during the Hunger Winter, the majority of whom were elderly men. When we talk about survival rates, it’s important to bear in mind that it was not just the supply of food that was hampered by the blockade, it was also the supply of heating fuel: coal. So not only was it a very hungry winter, 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, people were surrounded by farms. That didn’t mean that they didn’t experience food shortages, but the survival rates were much higher outside of urban areas. For the Netherlands’ mostly city-living population, times were hard.
So how much food did people get to 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, the starvation of the Dutch population was alleviated somewhat before this through other efforts by the Allies.
Flour was shipped from Sweden and made 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. It seems that even when people were eating a normal amount once more, after May 1945, the effects of the body being in starvation mode for such a long period of time continued to play out.
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 on birth.
How is the Hunger Winter remembered in the Netherlands today?
The Hunger Winter is usually remembered in conjunction with the resistance movement and the Netherlands in general 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.
Feature image: KellyShort/Flickr/Public domain
Editor’s Note: This article was originally published in December 2019 and was fully updated in May 2021 for your reading pleasure.