The introductory article to the special issue “Empire, Colonialism, and Famine in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries” begins by pointing to some recent literature on famine theory, where stress has been made on responses of authorities to famine and on the political nature of modern famines. Literature on the connection between imperial policies, colonial rule, and famines is also briefly discussed. The Soviet Union is treated as an empire in the essay, and some of the literature on this question is also surveyed. The article then offers summaries of and highlights from essays in this volume that resulted from papers presented at two conferences on the theme “Empires and Famines in Comparative Historical Perspective,” held in 2016 in Toronto and in 2017 in Kyiv. These include papers on famine and food policies during World War II in occupied Ukraine and Moldova. Essays on famines in Soviet Ukraine, British-ruled Ireland, and British-ruled Bengal, India, are summarized as well as an essay on Raphaël Lemkin’s views on genocide and famine and an essay that looked at minorities in Mao’s China during the 1958-62 famine. The essay concludes with the observation that the investigation of imperial policies, colonial rule, and famine should be pursued further, especially in the case of the Soviet Union where this line of research is just beginning.
German theories and policies regarding the relationship between food and Jewish citizens of eastern Europe served as an important foundation of the Nazis’ Judenpolitik during the Holocaust (1933-45). The mass starvation of Jews in German-dominated Europe was the result of a carefully calculated policy to make the Jews pay for a long list of misfortunes they had allegedly inflicted on the Germans. This policy evolved from a highly restrictive and discriminatory approach toward German Jews, which unfolded against a backdrop of harsh food policies applied to the local non-Jewish population.
The Romanian regime of wartime leader Ion Antonescu concentrated the Jews of Bessarabia and Bukovyna in transit camps and ghettos, and then deported them to the Romanian-administered territory between the Dnister and Buh rivers, in southwestern Ukraine. Of approximately 160,000 Romanian Jews deported to “Transnistria,” only 50,000 survived the ordeal. The Romanians, with local Volksdeutsch and Ukrainian collaborators, also massacred and were otherwise responsible for the death of approximately 150,000 local Ukrainian Jews, including the large Jewish community of Odesa. While not comparable to the Jews in number, deported Romanian Roma and local Roma were also subjected to physical brutality, forced labour, and incarceration.
Famine and starvation did not cause all Jewish and Roma deaths in Bessarabia and Transnistria. Mass executions exacted a huge toll. So did exposure to the elements, exhaustion, and typhus. Still, while there was no famine in the region, starvation was a permanent presence. Romanian authorities controlled the food supply and denied it to their targeted victims. This article describes the steps taken by Romanian occupation authorities to isolate Jews and Roma; to limit the flow of food supplies to them; to prevent them from accessing food in local markets; and to prevent help that might have been offered by those local civilians who took pity on the starving victims. Official documentation and testimonies of both officials and survivors provide a vivid picture of the consequences. Specific cases reveal factors that made the situation in one locality better or worse than that in another, or that caused a situation to improve or deteriorate. Variations notwithstanding, however, all sources lead to the conclusion that Romania’s goal was to eliminate the Jews and reduce the Roma population. This made starvation, the use of “food as a weapon,” an acceptable element of state policy.
This article offers a brief summary of the complex factors leading to the famine in Bengal in the 1940s and discusses its longer-term impacts—the afterlife, so to speak—of famine. This episode of starvation claimed as many as five million lives in Bengal, and had long lasting social, political, and economic consequences. Several different paradigms emerged that impacted the socio-political landscape of Bengal in the midst of the famine. Famine studies often focus on causality and on peaks of starvation deaths. However, periods of mass starvation such as the famine in Bengal do not simply end when mass starvation ends. Rather, famine inscribes itself into a famine society in elaborate fashion, impacting post-famine societies in abiding ways for generations to come.
Because Stalin’s policy of famine creation in the early 1930s has been viewed through the prism of communist theory and practices, scholars have paid less attention to the imperial/colonial discourse of the period. This essay attempts to show the suitability of applying theoretical models of dependence and imperialism to analyze the dynamics and consequences of the collectivization of agriculture and the Holodomor (the mass deaths through starvation in Ukraine). The pressure applied to all regions of the USSR, resulting from the “communist experiment,” was in Soviet Ukraine supplemented and intensified, and, at some points, determined by a system of centre-periphery relations, characterized by political domination, control, the subordination of regional political elites to the centre, and the exploitation of economic resources. The appropriation of sovereignty over the Ukrainian republic by the central government in Moscow included establishing full control over Ukraine’s food resources, such as determining grain harvesting and distribution. The ongoing exploitation of Ukrainian economic resources and the anti-Ukrainian terror caused the Ukrainian famine of 1928-29. These also became significant factors in the onset of the 1932-33 Holodomor.
The Irish famine of the mid nineteenth century and the Ukrainian famine of the twentieth century have been the subject of large and quite contentious literatures. Whereas many popular explanations of the Irish famine attribute it to the English government’s infatuation with laissez-faire economic doctrines, by contrast the Ukrainian famine has often been ascribed to Stalin’s resentment of Ukraine’s resistance to the Soviet revolution. This essay suggests that despite their many differences, during these years both Ireland and Ukraine can be considered to have been internal colonies of their respective empires. The key implication of this conception is that these appalling famines arose from a common underlying cause: namely, the inferior political status of these regions relative to that of the core regions of these states. One of the defining characteristics of internal colonies is that they often suffer from alien rule. Alien rulers are typically indifferent to the welfare of the residents of the culturally distinctive regions within their borders. Due to this indifference, both the British and Soviet central rulers cast a blind eye to the fate of the Irish and Ukrainian peasants.
This article reviews the historical debate on the colonial causation and dimensions of the Great Irish Famine of 1845-50. It does so by briefly reviewing the evolution of the colonial relationship between Great Britain and Ireland before focusing on a number of specific fields of debate relating to the coloniality of the Irish famine. These include the economic structures and dynamics developing over the century before 1845 and the vulnerability of Irish society, the vector of the potato blight and its impact on food availability, and, most extensively, the motivations for and characteristics of British state response to the catastrophe. The variant interpretations of these factors in the nationalist, revisionist, post-revisionist, and post-colonial historiography are reviewed. The author concludes by drawing on his own primary research to suggest that, while shaped by colonial stereotypes and a preoccupation with social engineering, the British state and public response to the Irish crisis was varied and not intentionally genocidal, although ultimately subordinating humanitarianism to perceived British national interest. Critical British contemporaries drew negative parallels between the neglect of Ireland and the prioritization of imperial expansion overseas, while Irish nationalists concluded that the mortality of the famine demonstrated the bankruptcy of the British-Irish Union of 1800.
China underwent its most murderous famine between 1958 and 1962. Although a demographic transition from the countryside to the cities was in its early stage and gross domestic product (GDP) per capita was among the lowest in the world, objective conditions were far less decisive than Chinese Communist Party (CCP) policies in bringing about the famine. A development strategy copied on the Soviet model favoured quick industrialization at the expense of rural dwellers. Such novelties as people’s communes, communal canteens, and backyard furnaces further aggravated the famine. Though ethnic minorities represented only 6 percent of China’s population, compared to forty-seven percent in the Soviet Union, Soviet nationality policies heavily influenced those of China. Initially mild, especially for Tibetans, Chinese nationality policies became more authoritarian with the advent of the Great Leap Forward in 1958. Qinghai Tibetans resisted the closure of many monasteries; then the same policies, and famine itself, caused a more important rebellion in 1959 in Xizang (Tibet). Repression and the flight of the Dalai Lama to northern India coincided with the end of Tibet’s special status in China.
Internal colonialism did not, however, aggravate the impact of famine on national minorities in China. Their rate of population growth between the first two censuses (1953 and 1982) exceeded that of Han Chinese. Among the provinces most severely affected by famine, only Qinghai was largely inhabited by ethnic minorities. Within Qinghai the same pattern prevailed as in Han populated provinces: the highest toll in famine deaths was concentrated in easily accessible grain surplus areas. The overwhelming majority of victims of the Chinese famine were Han peasants. At most, 5 percent were members of ethnic minorities, compared to eighty percent of victims in the Soviet Union in the period between 1930 and 1933.
Many words have been used to name and describe the Great Ukrainian Famine of 1932-33, including “famine” and “catastrophe,” “the Holodomor,” and now “genocide.” Was the famine genocide? Was the famine part of a genocide? Is the word genocide an exaggeration? Is naming the famine a genocide part of an attempt to dramatize events for political purposes today? Is the refusal to call the famine a genocide an act of genocide denial? This article argues that, though more than seven decades have passed and the Soviet Union has come and gone, questions about genocide in Ukraine remain intertwined in the discourses and narratives surrounding conflicts over Ukraine’s economic, political, social, and cultural position between the European Union and the Russian Federation. Given the implications of this word—“genocide”—within the context of current conflicts over Ukrainian history and identity and even sovereignty, it is important to reflect on how this concept has been used and applied. This paper analyzes conflict in Ukraine in the 1930s using Raphaël Lemkin's definition of genocide, as opposed to the legal definition established by the UN Genocide Convention, and discusses the conceptual strengths of Lemkin's definition of genocide in terms of understanding a wide-spectrum of oppressive, repressive, and violent processes of empire-building and colonization that occurred in Ukraine, and which culminated in the Holodomor.
The article examines a range of questions tied to Nazi Germany’s socio-economic policies in occupied Ukraine during World War II. In line with implementing the General Plan “Ost,” the top leadership of the Third Reich intended to cleanse the “eastern territories” of its “superfluous” population for German colonization. As contained in the “Principles of Economic Policy in the East,” these directives provided for the physical extermination of tens of millions of people in various ways, as well as the deportation of part of the indigenous population to remote areas. Ukraine’s economic exploitation was built in such a way that it doomed the local urban and rural societies to a miserable, half-starved existence. The systematic seizure of food for the needs of the Wehrmacht, the Reich, and its allies made the death of the inhabitants of the occupied lands only a matter of time. The instrumentalization of terror by famine was manifested, on the one hand, by the creation of special structures that requisitioned food resources, and on the other by establishing norms of food supplies that were below the minimal needs for existence. As well, the strict regulation of trade set limits to the sources of food products that could be brought to the cities. This caused mass starvation. The deaths and the diseases that followed created hundreds of thousands of victims among Ukrainians.