Difficult Words No 10: Autarky
The first thing to know about autarky is that it’s not “autarchy” — a government-less state where every individual rules him- or herself. Autarky refers not to individuals, but to societies which are self-sufficient. That self-sufficiency can manifest in a number of ways, but the most fundamental meaning is economic, and the root of all economics is the trading of food. So, that’s our difficult autarky, the word that tells us a society can feed itself from its own resources.
It’s a timely term in an age of a global food system that has provoked backlash in a bewildering variety of localist movements. When confronted with immense, impersonal and uncaring systems that control the choice about what to put on your plate and into your mouth, it’s not surprising that an increasing chorus of voices suggest that the only sane move is to simply opt out — to become autarkic when it comes to food.
The appeal is intrinsic; if food is the glue of society, what could be more right than knowing the people who raise your food? But autarky, as promised, is difficult. Relatively few nations have achieved autarky, but those that have will give us pause: North Korea, Ceaușescu’s Romania, the Talibans’ Afghanistan, 1970s Albania, and (cue the Dead Kennedys) Khmer Rouge Cambodia. Is there a moral behind this historical murder’s row and if so, do we really want to hear it?
One way to find out is to read Lizzie Collingham’s book, The Taste of War. It’s an exquisitely researched, elegantly written Pandora’s Box and once opened, it just won’t shut. So, rather than sitting here alone with the horror, let me share a bit of it with you.
Collingham’s topic is the under-reported role of food in the Second World War. How under-reported? How about the fact that 60% of Japan’s military losses came from starvation, not the US Marines? Or that the heroics of the Battle of the Atlantic kept Britain fed partly because Britain blew off food security for its colony of India, leaving three million to die of famine? Or that while the war’s military action claimed the lives of 19.5 million people — another 20 million died because they didn’t have enough to eat? Or how about this: Nazi Germany ignited the war because of food.
If this doesn’t tally with your received wisdom about the Good War, you’re not alone. So, come with me, here on the verge of the 100-year anniversary of Part One of that war and cast a wary gaze back to see if the groundswell which powered the bloodiest century in history is still rolling into shore.
• • •
The global food system that feeds us today was already a reality by the last quarter of the nineteenth century. Britain lead the way, shifting workers from fields to the factories, and outsourcing food production to both its colonies and places like North America, Argentina, Australia, and Russia. Grain flowed, followed by meat frozen with ice harvested from North American ponds. Animal feed, too, came flooding in, and European livestock grew fatter faster and gave more milk. The business of importing food to Britain had once been about luxuries for toffs. Now it was about sustaining the working man, and the working man felt good with his new white bread and jam. The free market, Britain demonstrated, was a boon to all.
But the boon was part bane. While American roller-ground wheat traveled well, it produced loaves that were less nutritious than those of British wheat. The calories which used to come from local vegetable production were now replaced by easily shipped sugar, so much that every Brit was soon consuming 80 pounds of sugar per year. By 1914, the year WWI began, Britain was both less well nourished and importing over half of its food.
Germany, interestingly enough, was eating better because it was behind in the industrialization race. It’s important to remember that Germany hadn’t become the unified country of “Germany” until 1871. Because of that, there was no German overseas empire and her economy was, largely, a local one. It kept her farmers in the fields and not the factories, and it kept Germany surprisingly close to autarky. But the one thing it didn’t do was allow her people to stop feeling envious of the apparent wealth and modernity of a nation like Britain. Germany had become a great industrial power, but it wasn’t living like one because the colonies, world markets and international trade system were already divvied up, leaving just scraps.
A rat’s nest of reasons ignited WWI, but once it was coming, German politicians found themselves thinking that a short, successful war might be just the thing to readjust the balance of economic power and give Germany a fair share.
It didn’t go that way, of course. The war was endless and the British economic blockade ensured that it was hungry, too. Germany intermittently starved during WWI, and then, when it was over, they kept starving. That’s because Britain maintained its economic blockade as a cudgel, attempting to force Germany to agree to the Treaty of Versailles’ punitive conditions. If Germany agreed, it would leave the Germans caught between the rigged game of global trade — controlled by Britain and the US with substantial assists from the imperial nations of France, Belgium and the Netherlands — and the need to keep forking over cash, equipment and raw materials to the winners of WWI as Germany’s punishment for, essentially, being the loser.
In the end, the blockade and the miserable winter of 1918-19 gave Britain what it wanted. But that winter’s hunger also gave an extended lesson in social chaos and suffering to a certain demobilized soldier by the name of Hitler. He never forgot and neither did a man you’ve likely never heard of — Herbert Backe.
We must pause here to reflect on insoluble fish/water problem that we have with food. The ubiquity of food really does make it inevitable that historians, economists or just about anyone, discount its importance. Collingham’s book is about the fact that the central event of the twentieth century has been fundamentally misinterpreted — the triggers of a global catastrophe left out of the history books — not because those triggers were a secret, but because they just didn’t seem important enough to be the triggers.
The effect is easiest to see in Backe himself. He was hiding in plain sight, but History, in those moments when it noticed the existence of Herbert Backe, representative for agriculture on the Nazi Council of the Four Year Plan, it treats him as a grace note of absurdity; look at the bespectacled agronomist fretting over animal feed and fertilizer while around him Hitler’s lieutenants plot armageddon. Trouble is, with the exception of Hitler himself, Herbert Backe was the most dangerous man in the room.
Like Hitler, Backe’s formative catastrophe was WWI. Eighteen the year war broke out, Backe had the misfortune of being the son of German farmers in Georgia, a southern province of what was then the Russian Empire. Consequently, he was interned as an enemy alien, thus ending the only world and life he had known. When he moved to Germany after the war, it was to a ruined, embittered country and grinding personal poverty. He didn’t take it well. “My tension and nervousness,” he once wrote to his wife, “are a result of my development being distorted.”
He flirted with the Nazis but ended up pursuing a doctorate in agrarian policy, where he wrote a thesis built on the disturbing foundation of racial politics and personal history. Germany, Backe said, could not achieve autarky without more land and the place to build those farms was in the east. In other words, Germany’s problems would be solved when contented German farmers tilled the Russian soil — the very picture of Backe’s prewar childhood.
Backe’s advisors failed his thesis. It was political, not agricultural, they said. It left him without a degree but with the right sort of cred to attract the wrong sort of attention.
When Hitler came to power in 1933, one of the first acts of the Nazi government was the creation of the Reich Food Corporation. Germany’s farms were a mess. There were too many of them, they were too small, too inefficient and saddled with debt. The RFC took complete control of Germany’s food system, reduced debt, erected protectionist tariffs, increased income. But the goal wasn’t making farmers rich. It was feeding the nation as a matter of security; Germany’s new leaders were very clear on importance of autarky as the foundation of military action.
As part of this drive, the RFC politicized taste. In the new Reich, Farmers were the soul of German culture and it was through the revival of German agriculture that the society as a whole would be healed. German women were encouraged to think of the white loaves made from imported wheat as decadent, while the home-grown rye was inherently German and supported your neighbors the farmers. The same went for bananas and oranges, to be passed over for apples.
There weren’t however, enough apples and rye. The Reich Food Corporation calculated that Germany needed about seven or eight million more hectares of farmland and — after rationalizing Germany’s existing farms into bigger plantations — they’d have lots of farmers without farms. The inevitable question was, where do you find the land and where do you put the excess farmers? Backe’s thesis and Mein Kampf (both published in 1926) pointed in the same direction — east. Small wonder that Backe eventually found himself inside the Nazi administration.
The opening moves of Hitler’s war are familiar to us — the Fall of France, the Battle of Britain — but what’s fatally obscure in our memory is that, from the point of view of the guys starting the fight, all this was a prelude to the real show. In a 1942 speech to young military officers, Hitler left no room for interpretation: “It is a battle for food, a battle for the basis for life, for the raw materials the earth offer, the natural resources that lie under the soil and the fruits that it offer to the one who cultivates it.”
But in May of 1940, no one outside of the Reich Chancellery knew that. Instead, the world was reeling at the Blitzkrieg and Hitler’s domination of Western Europe. Meanwhile, Herbert Backe was reeling at the food implications of the German situation.
One of the problems was that the Western European lands Germany had conquered were — like Germany — partly dependent on food imports. Fertilizer and fodder, the foundation upon which the rest of agriculture stood, were now locked up on the other side of the Royal Navy’s blockade. So Germany’s conquests had, far from bringing the Reich closer to autarky, actually moved it farther away. What’s more, the war so far was just clearing the chess board to allow a single-minded focus on Russia’s soil. But now Germany was locked in a contest of wills with a stubborn Britain, which wouldn’t negotiate peace and become irrelevant, as Hitler had planned.
While the RAF and the Luftwaffe dueled in England’s summer skies, Backe started writing reports warning the Nazi regime, “if the war lasts more than two years, it is lost.” By Christmas, Backe was hunkered down, redrafting the Reich Food Ministry’s annual report, further emphasizing just how dire conditions were. His efforts gained attention and, in January, he finally met Hitler.
Now that he’d alarmed the Nazi brass with his predicted catastrophe, Backe was in a position to offer his solution. It was, in essence, the same solution he’d outlined in his rejected 1926 thesis. This time, one of history’s most infamous names gave him a passing grade.
It’s telling that, even in their moment of greatest triumph, the Nazis were leery of documenting their most appalling thinking. The records are missing, much of the discussion and orders were kept oral. But finally, in May of 1941, a month before the invasion of Russia, Backe’s scheme was committed to paper. Three copies of it survived the war. The original has Backe’s literal handwriting all over it. He never really gave it a name, but history has: The Hunger Plan.
Backe converted Hitler’s diffuse lebensraum-in-the-east into a genocidally rational calculus. The Soviet steppe could feed Germany though a protracted war if you simply didn’t leave any food for the people who lived there. Specifically, Backe pointed out that the northern and industrial cities of the Soviet Union were dependent on the Ukraine and Caucasus grain belt and that once all that food was diverted to Germany, the 30 million people in those cites would, in a Nazi memo’s total failure of euphemism, “die out, so to speak.”
So, to recap, Europe’s Jewish population was, horribly, just the first in line. The non-Jewish populations of Poland and Ukraine, and Russia proper were “useless eaters” also slated to die. Collingham breaks the Nazi math down for us: “The need to secure a minimum food ration of 2,300 calories per day for ordinary Germans justified the extermination of 30 million urban Soviets, over one million Soviet POWs and at least as many Polish jews.”
• • •
There’s a temptation to simply write off the Nazis as a kind of social ebola virus, an aberration of unbelievable brutality, but that’s probably too easy. Within the pages of the General Plan for the East, the blueprint for what would be done with the blank slate created by Backe’s Hunger Plan, we find a faith in the promise of science and technology to solve all food problems and a particular affinity for men who tinker with the genetics of plants. But the thing that raises the hair on your neck is the Nazi belief that they were repeating history — specifically the history of the United States.
At first blush, it seems nonsensical, at second, grotesquely comic. The boy Hitler, along with millions of other German-speaking youths including Einstein, was enthralled by the writings of Karl May. May was a prolific author of adventures set in an entirely imaginary American West, and those adventures spoke deeply to Hitler, lodging in his imagination. The boy grew up to trigger history’s most disastrous war, but even then, he was still a devotee. In the thick of the conflict, Hitler often recommended May’s books to his generals and returned to the books himself. Albert Speer, Hitler’s minister of armaments and personal architect, commented that “when faced by seemingly hopeless situations, [Hitler] would still reach for these stories,” because “they gave him courage.”
What Hitler saw in May’s Wild West was a vision of how great nations are born. The Americans had fought for and won the riches of the land and so were becoming what Hitler accurately foresaw — the wealthiest and most powerful nation on earth.
Hitler was determined to repeat America’s journey. In Hitler’s parlance, Russians were frequently “redskins,” and once the invasion of Russia had begun, Hitler cited American history again and again. The Volga would be Germany’s Mississippi, beyond which inferior and superior races would bloodily struggle for the prize of land. “Here in the east a similar process will repeat itself for a second time as in the conquest of America.” The vision of what it was all leading to, the prize that would make all the suffering worthwhile, was crystalized in — of all things — a PR document from the SS: the future agricultural paradise in the east would become an “European California.”
Instead of paradise, the world got a holocaust on top of a holocaust. Poland lost a fifth of its population, six million people, half of them jews. Germany lost between seven and nine million. The Soviet Union lost between 19 and 26 million. (For comparison, the United States got off with a little more than 400,000 dead — less than the casualties of the Philippines.)
If you want to be thoroughly cold-eyed about it, you could say that Backe came close to getting his wish of a depopulated east. But the only hunger plan that was implemented belonged to the War itself because — spoiler alert — war isn’t really a rational, technocratic operation, but a wilderness of chaos, error and murder given posthumous legitimacy because of the victor’s need to believe it happened for a reason.
When it was over, all those mouths on everybody’s side didn’t need to be fed anymore. Autarky, needless to say, never arrived.
• • •
Five hundred years ago, Europe’s rulers were in the same trap as Hitler: too many people, not enough food, not enough gold in the bank. Their salvation was a technological innovation — the deep sea sailing ship. Over the horizon they found half a world waiting to be depopulated and plundered, a place that could soak up extra Europeans and export food and gold in trade and that’s exactly what happened for the next four centuries. It made Europe rich, and it also instilled a historically validated faith in the new secular religion of technologically enabled progress and nowhere more so than in the United States.
By the nineteenth century, the colonization of the world was mostly played out. But within the US’s borders, against a landscape of mythic wealth and beauty, the final collision of cultures unfolded. It was the main event of the first era of mass culture, and so the Wild West didn’t stay put. The tropes and cliches spread everywhere in vehicles like Karl May’s novels, Edwin Porter’s photographs and when the West was done, its graying survivors got work in the industrial art of movies, which kept the West more alive than it had ever been in reality.
Whether the winning of the West strikes you as Manifest Destiny or an American holocaust, it’s something else, too. Before the arrival of the Europeans, North America was a mosaic of autarkic cultures. The Native Americans had no choice but to survive off what the land gave them. What replaced them struck Hitler as a shining example of autarky, but was it? The isolated high plains farmsteads, the cowboys riding herd on thousands of beeves — these images are so familiar that it’s hard to see how little intrinsic sense they make. Who’s going to eat those thousands of cattle? Why are they growing wheat so far from any market?
Just as the sailing ship had enabled Europe’s global conquest, the steam engine was the technology that made economic sense of America’s vast West and it begs an interesting question. Yes, the United States was autarkic within its borders, but by the time of Custer’s Last Stand, that autarky was inextricably bound up with industrial transport, transport which quickly escaped the boundaries of the country and became the backbone of the globalized food and trade system that Hitler found himself on the wrong end of. And he wasn’t the only one.
I’ll leave the details to Collingham, but at the exact same time as the Nazis were making plans, Japan’s militarized government was responding identically to an identical problem. The only difference was that their “frontier” to be cleared and settled was Manchuria. In other words, the two aggressors of WWII went to war because of the exact same reason.
I believe that’s what they call a “sign.”
After half a millennium of outflanking limits, the great powers found that they were fresh out of the empire, enslavement and genocide which had kept the merry-go-round turning. Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan turned cannibal simply because there was nothing left to colonize. It turned into a global bloodbath because — at long last — the “indigenous” peoples were as well-armed as the invaders.
• • •
The history of the food system since WWII is generally rendered as the triumph of the Green Revolution, the application of industrial techniques to agriculture which radically upped the amount of food extracted from the land. This went hand-in-hand with a metamorphosis of colonialism. Colonies achieved political independence but their imperial taskmasters simply mutated into corporate taskmasters; the MBAs had worked out that the colonial gig of conquering land and administering populations was a sucker’s game. All you needed were global free trade treaties written by global corporations and enforced by global institutions like World Bank and IMF, which happened to be staffed by veterans of the same corporations. That way, you could shape developing nations to fit the first world economic agenda, make a fortune, and wash your hands of the political debacles that unfolded one after another.
It wasn’t pretty, but it enabled the addition of five billion souls to the already full world that triggered WWII. Or so the story goes.
There is, however, another way of interpreting the agricultural and economic transformations of the postwar. You can look at the damage done to the living systems that feed us — the topsoil washing away from the American breadbasket at 16 times replacement rate; the permanent fishery collapse as depleted populations are replaced with inedible creatures; the ten calories of petroleum energy an American farm uses to produce one calorie of food food; the petrochemical fertilizer that is the source of literally 50% of the biomass of all living human beings; the sacrifice of the stable climate that supported the entire history of civilization — and you can see all that as regrettable side effects. But they’re not side effects. They are What Makes The System Work.
While we should certainly tip our hat to Dr Strangelove for keeping the postwar peace, the real innovation wasn’t political, or military, or scientific, but temporal; we grew those five billion more people by farming time.
That’s because if you choose to extract more from the system than the system can sustainably supply, then you’re feeding the present with resources that belong to the future. It’s called “drawdown” and it was, in a way, brilliant. No international law protected Future Generations, they didn’t have a seat at the UN, they never started embarrassing social media campaigns and, best of all, even though Future Generations might well have terrifying armies, they didn’t have a time machine with which to send them back to kick our asses. At least, not as of this morning.
Now, Future Generations weren’t supposed to need the protection of law because they were your children and your children’s children and it was assumed that just about everyone could get behind the idea that child murder was bad. But child murder in the future? Well, is it really murder if they’re not born yet? An open question, apparently.
Some people have noticed that edible history of the postwar is plate-spinning on an epic scale and worry that, sooner or later, the plate spinner will get tired. Even more people are responding to the way in which immense, impersonal and fundamentally predatory forces — whether they be economic, political, institutional or corporate — seem to have all the levers of power and are unconcerned with fair play or equal shares. It creates a sense of being on the wrong end of a globalized system of power, money and food — trapped in very much the same way that interwar Germany and Japan felt trapped.
There is a difference, though. Germany and Japan felt that their survival was threatened, but what was really at stake was their leaders’ image of the kind of nation they wanted to rule. By comparison, the threat we face, posed by a political/economic system that will not stop but which can only continue by extracting infinite growth from a finite world — that is, accelerating the drawdown — really does threaten survival, on a scale beyond single nations or even a politician’s ego.
What’s so vexing about this is how opposite ends of the continuum — fascist dictators and Via Campesina (the cooperative International Peasants’ Movement) — find themselves responding to an existential threat by talking autarky. Perhaps that’s because the desire for autarky runs deep. Somewhere, in the forgotten memories of seven billion hungry babies and the collective unconscious of all the tribes-cum-nations that now sit at the UN, there’s a burning desire to know that the solution to a particular problem, the gnawing in one’s stomach, is one thing we have firmly in hand, that autarky is ours.
But autarky is never here. Autarky, in fact, only seems to exist in a dreamtime past where autarky was about geography, about the quality of the soils, the skill of the farmers, but even that is an illusion. We only turned to farming — and away from the primordial autarky of the hunter-gatherers — because that first autarky wasn’t entirely dependable and farming gave off the hope of being more controllable.
Hitler launched the Second World War in achieve autarky in the full world and that’s the unfunny joke: in the full — and finite — world, we actually have autarky. Autarky isn’t Shangri-la, it is The Law. We’re not importing red winter wheat from Mars or camembert from the Moon. It comes from here, or it doesn’t come at all.
So what do we do, now that we’ve filled the earth to the brim by eating oil and playing shell games with the future? There’s research — good, hard research — which strongly suggests that we can feed all these people without doing suicidal damage. We’ve learned a lot in the last century, enough to know, for instance, that the most enduring image of agriculture — ploughing the earth — was a multi-millennia mistake, a strategy that produces short-term results and long-term failure. The right choices, the solutions to the panoply of agricultural problems we face, are out there, scattered on individual farms from the high Andes, to the American midwest. They might be obscure, but they’re not hidden. The answers are there for anyone willing to look.
But it would be a very different kind of agriculture, focused on building fertility first (that is, giving Future Generations back their food), then feeding present generations, and filling the coffers of agribusiness a very, very, very distant third. In other words, it wouldn’t be the same way we’ve always done it in our unending search for autarky.
Our difficult word isn’t, in the end, so difficult. In fact, when you look at the really big picture, it’s meaning is quite simple: Steal land, until you run out of land. Then steal time. Until you run out of time.
Tower of Juche by Yeowatzup
Lake Scene by Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorsky
Karl May Poster by Országos Széchényi Könyvtár
Harvested Field by Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorsky
Family with Haystacks by Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorsky