The Dutch Hunger Winter of 1944-45: Causes and Consequences

The Dutch famine of 1944-1945, popularly known in the Netherlands as the ‘Hunger Winter’, was one of the major European WWII famines. The food crisis took place in the urbanised western Netherlands during the final months of the German occupation when the Allies had already liberated the southern part of the country. After November 1944, official daily rations for the once well-nourished Dutch dropped below an already meagre 750 calories per capita, decreasing to less than 370 calories just before German surrender in May 1945. Thanks to the advanced registration practices in the Netherlands, the Hunger Winter has provided epidemiologists with a unique ‘natural experiment’ to study the long-term effects of prenatal exposure to malnutrition on health in later life. Yet while we continue to learn about the tremendous long-term physiological impact of the Dutch Hunger Winter, much less is known about how and why the famine evolved the way it did.

This paper examines the causes and consequences of the Dutch famine. In the first part of the paper, the focus is on the socio-political context in which the famine emerged and was confronted. Previous studies on the Dutch Hunger Winter have often reproduced profound misunderstandings about the causes of the famine, particularly where the role of the German occupier is concerned. When dealing with social responses to the famine, studies have generally only considered the role of the failing state and of self-serving individuals, thereby overlooking vital forms of societal resilience and agency.

The second part of this paper, based on a working paper together with L.H. Lumey (Columbia University) and Peter Ekamper (NIDI), turns to the demographic consequences of the famine, focusing on child mortality in particular. We analyse a newly compiled dataset on the Dutch famine, containing information on date of death, age at death, sex, cause of death, place of death, and place of residence for the entire country in the years 1935-47. We estimate age-specific excess mortality in reference to the population at risk and examine causes of death prior, during, and after the famine in the three largest famine-affected cities compared to the rest of the country. Our study shows that the relative impact of famine on older children was smaller than previously assumed. The impact of the famine is most visible in infants <1 years, while the age group 1-4 years shows mixed results.

Connecting the two parts, our results suggest that community efforts devoted to child relief likely mitigated the famine’s detrimental effects on this particular group. By doing so, this paper argues for a better understanding of the relation between physiological vulnerability to food deprivation and social processes fostering resilience.