The Hunger Winter: the Dutch famine of 1944-45

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?

hunger winter
Women dragging food along. Image: National Archieef/Wikimedia Commons/CC3.0

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 β€” 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.

hunger winter
Children eating soup. Image: Menno Huizinga/Wikimedia Commons/Public domain

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 β€” 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.

hunger winter
RAF plane being loaded up with food. Image: Imperial War Museums/Wikimedia Commons/Public domain

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.

READ MORE | The 14-year-old assassin who lured Nazis and traitors to their deaths

The Hunger Winter wasn’t the first time people in the Netherlands had experienced starvation β€” 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.Β 

Ailish Lalor
Ailish was born in Sydney, Australia, but grew up by a forest in south-east Ireland, which she has attempted to replace with a living room filled with plants in The Hague. Besides catering to her army of pannenkoekenplantjes, Ailish spends her days convincing her friends that all food is better slightly burnt, plotting ways to hang out with dogs and cats, and of course, writing for DutchReview.

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14 COMMENTS

  1. My mother a widow in Halfweg drove on a bicycle with solid tyres kilometers with me a four year old along farms in the poulder to find food only to reach a farm where food was given out that day as she was told to meet a closed gate.I was lucky at to eat sugar beet while mum had to eat tulip bulbs.I learned from mum never to throw away any food.I still taste the swedish white bread and chocolate .

  2. It has also been noted that children that were conceived and born around this time have greater difficulty with anxiety and stress that has had an effect on their entire lives.

  3. Those were extreme difficult conditions for the dutch citizens – during the end of WWII – sugar beets seemed to be the only survival food. Many died of starvation – conditions were cruel and citizens paid a dear price as a result of the German invasion of their country.

  4. My mother was one of six siblings and they all suffered ill health throughout their lives. All but one died in their sixties. I have always said that deprivation in the war was the cause of their ill health and early death.

  5. My Oma was one of the hunger children mentioned in this article . Poor skinny thing was sent to a farm for a period where there was more food and milk . 25 years later she returned to the farm 250 pounds and almost 6 foot tall.

  6. My mother, who was a teenager at that time, told me about the ”hongertochten” she made with her father. I learned from here to empty my dishes …

  7. If I’m not mistaken, this gave way to extreme innovation in farming and agriculture, as the Dutch wanted to prevent being dependent on imports for survival for the generations to come. Today the Netherlands is second largest exporter of agricultural products in the world.

  8. yes, my mother’s family suffered hunger and cold during this hunger winter in the Netherlands. My aunt ‘s digestion was never the same; she couldn’t really eat anything and died in her early 60s. My Mother suffered from malnutrition in her teeth, nails and bones all thru her life. When she came to the US in 1946, it took a long time for her to be able to eat anything but bits of food. But since living in the US, she lived a long time into her life, 88. Her middle sister was on a farm during the war so she had food but not alot of it. They ate the beets and tulip bulbs. we learn from their experiences.

  9. I was born at the end of October 1944 in Amsterdam, the city hardest hit by the “hongerwinter.” My father was “ondergedoken” in our apartment from the Germans. My Mom, pregnant with me, would go out on her bike, either by herself or with her brother, and barter for food with the farmers. On one occasion my Father paid 100 guilders for a loaf of bread. Times were desperate but our family survived.

  10. I’ve been researching for information about Catholic orphanages that were located in or near the Hauge in 1944. The stories I’ve read are heartbreaking. Thank you all for sharing.

  11. I missed the part of children who wereld sent to the Northern provincies from the cities in the west. They were sent to farms to survive. My father was sent from the Hague to Friesland.

  12. During that time, we ate soup from the ”gaar keuken,as I was told . soup was made from tulip bulbs,
    my dad and brother and sister went to Overijsel bij handcar,to pick up some potatoes,etc. we lived in Amersfoort,they walked for 60 km one way,on the way back the germans schot on many people who went that way to survive,and landed up side down in the ditch.some did not survive.wood was taken from near by plantsoen, to keep de kachel going.there is so much narigheden te vertellen.Many gave their lives for our freedom.good to read all the replies.

  13. My grandmother – my grandparents lived in the Rivierenbuurt in Amsterdam during the war – told me how during the Hunger Winter with dollars they had at home, they bought food on the black market and everyday, she fed 20 boys from the streets with one warm meal a day. “Mijn jongens” she called them. During that same winter, my grandfather decided to get my great-grandmother from her home in Koog a/d Zaan, 30 km north of Amsterdam, because the old widow of 87 was starving. Since there were no trains, my grandfather of 54 got a sled which he pushed over the frozen canals in the horrible cold all the way to Koog a/d Zaan, put his mother onto that sled together with a mountain of blankets and her personal belongings, and pushed the sled all the way back to Amsterdam. My granddad’s health was never the same afterwards.
    But there are other stories, like that of a math teacher of mine, a German, who told me he was a soldier of the Amsterdam garrison during that winter. The soldiers were ordered by their officers NOT to give the starving people any food. But he an his comrades every morning put bread and sausage in their great-coats, and while they were walking guard, they secretly gave the food to the starving Dutch children.
    Three stories about the Hunger Winter I got first-hand and that I now have shared.

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