While famine can be caused by extremely adverse climatic conditions, the most severe examples over the past century have been man-made via coercive politics and warfare. Sources for statements below are provided at the end of this post.
SOMALIA 1991 AND 2011
“Across Somalia, about 3.7 million people, half the population, are facing starvation. . . It’s the worst hunger crisis in Africa [since] 1991 . . . [when] the crisis was [also] in Somalia. . .
“The 1991 Somalia famine occurred after civil war destroyed agriculture and clan warlords hijacked humanitarian aid. . .
“The situation today is complicated by the Shabab [Al Shabab, an Islamist militant religious and terrorist group], which in the past has imposed informal taxes on humanitarian agencies . . . limited their access and demanded that they send female staff home. The World Food Program withdrew early last year from areas controlled by the Shabab because of security threats . . .”
Quoted from “U.N. declares famine in southern Somalia,” by Robyn Dixon, Los Angeles Times, July 21, 2011.
NORTH KOREA DOUBLE FAMINE
In the mid-1990s North Korea suffered a self-inflicted famine which took the lives of between 600,000 and 3,500,000 people. That wide range of estimates is due to the secretive nature of the North Korean state, which tried to cover up the tragedy. Knowledgeable observers say the best estimate is around 2,000,000 deaths–ten percent of the population–due to the famine of the mid-1990s.
North Korea has one the most totalitarian dictatorships on earth. Its political masters—the oligarchy running the communist party—profess to be practitioners of “scientific socialism.” In accordance with their beliefs they have outlawed private property in agriculture, consigning farmers to collective farms. This, with other restrictions on domestic and international commerce, as well as bad weather for growing crops, deprived North Koreans of not only domestic food production, but also drastically reduced the country’s ability to obtain food through foreign trade and international food aid.
Last year, according to a report in The Los Angeles Times, “the whole economic structure [of N. Korea] has collapsed because of the currency reform [see below]. Food remains in such short supply that a single egg costs a full week’s salary for many. Rice remains largely unavailable at state stores and can be purchased only illegally at about the equivalent of more than two weeks’ salary.” Quoted from “North Koreans fear another famine amid economic crisis,” by Barbara Demick, The Los Angeles Times, March 25, 2010.
Several years ago the N. Korean state relaxed its restrictions on individual enterprise. In direct consequence the economy began to perk up, and some enterprising citizens started to accumulate savings of their own. That was contrary to communist ideology, so the N. Korean state announced on November 30, 2010 that it was issuing new currency and that the old currency would become invalid. People were permitted to trade in their old money for new, but only in exchange for the equivalent of about $30.
“The idea behind the currency exchange, economists say, was to confiscate the cash of people who had become relatively rich selling on the private market and to restore the equality espoused by the communist system. ‘They wanted to make everybody the same,’ said Choi Kum Ok, a 54-year-old member of the Korean Workers’ Party . . . interviewed in China. ‘There is no food, and what there is has become unaffordable,’ Choi said.
“Song Hee . . .[a N. Korean woman interviewed after she escaped to China] said ‘People were in shock. Our money was becoming like water. With the psychological stress, many people had to go to the hospital,’ she said. As far as she knew, nobody dared to disobey the order for fear of punishment.
“‘We were told that somebody decided he would burn the money instead of giving it to the government. The money had the picture of [N. Korean dictator] Kim Il Sung, and because he burned it he was shot to death for treason,’ Song Hee said.
“‘The whole economic structure has collapsed because of the currency reform,’ said James Kim, a Korean American educator and president of the Yanbian University of Science and Technology in Yanji, China.”
Quotations from “North Koreans fear another famine amid economic crisis,” by Barbara Demick, The Los Angeles Times, March 25, 2010.
CHINA 1958-1961—38 MILLION PEOPLE DIE IN STATE-INDUCED FAMINE
Mao Tse-tung (Mao), as the top man in the Chinese Communist Party, held absolute power over the lives of the people of mainland China from 1949 until shortly before his death in 1976.
Soon after the communist takeover in China in 1949, the communist party carried out a program of killing all the most prosperous and enterprising farmers on the grounds they were bourgeois, capitalist exploiters of the common people. Agriculture was then socialized with all farmers working for the state.
In 1957-1958 Mao conceived his idea of “The Great Leap Forward,” a program by which he intended China to develop in just four short years an industrial, technological and military capability equal to that of the U.S. and Russia. To do this Mao ordered, and his followers carried out a massive diversion of human beings from agriculture into steel manufacturing and other activities Mao deemed necessary. Enormous amounts of food were confiscated from farmers and diverted to city workers and even to rural people engaged in trying to produce steel in their back yards.
38 million deaths by starvation in rural areas was the consequence of The Great Leap Forward, which was a total failure in every way.
EASTERN EUROPE 1941—NAZI GERMANY STARVES TO DEATH NEARLY FOUR MILLION RUSSIAN PRISONERS OF WAR
Adolf Hitler became the absolute ruler of Germany in 1933, using as his power base his National Socialist Workers Party (NAZI for short) to create a totalitarian police state, of which the German people were the first victims.
Hitler advocated the expansion of the German people into the Slavic countries east of Germany, namely Czechoslovakia, Poland and the vast lands of Russia and Ukraine. In Hitler’s murderous and racist ideology the Slavs were subhuman creatures who deserved only to be slaves to Germany at first, and ultimately to be exterminated by starvation—in order to make room for the expansion of Germany’s population from 80 million to 250 million via conquest and takeover of the Slavic countries.
In the first few months after Germany invaded Russia on June 22, 1941, some 3.9 Russian soldiers died, some in combat, but most behind barbed wire in German concentration camps where they were starved to death.
In this example mass starvation was not a byproduct of political ideology, but a deliberate action implementing a previously conceived political plan to exterminate the entire population of a conquered country.
All in all, at least another 20 million people perished at the hands of Nazi Germany solely due to Hitler’s belief that some races and ethnic groups were subhuman and did not deserve to live.
UKRAINE 1929-1933—FIFTEEN MILLION DIE IN FAMINE CAUSED BY POLITICAL IDEOLOGY
The Soviet Union rose in 1918 on the imperial edifice built by the Czars of Russia. Ukrainians, a separate people with their own Slavic language, had been conquered by the Russian czars. Due to its rich dark soil and its vast fields of wheat and other food products Ukraine earned the nickname “bread basket of Europe.”
After the Russian revolution of 1918, and the consolidation of power by the Russian communists in 1918-1921, Ukraine became the target of deliberately caused famine perpetrated by the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) under its absolute dictator, Joseph Stalin.
Like the dictators of China and North Korea after him, Stalin decided that all agriculture must be brought under state control. Independent farmers were required to give up their farms and become virtual slaves on state-run “collective farms.” This policy was the realization of the statement of the communist ideologue Karl Marx, that “the theory of the Communists may be summed up in the single sentence: Abolition of private property. “
The communization of agriculture was implemented across the entire area controlled by the CPSU, including Ukraine between 1929 and 1932. The policy involved “. . . the killing or deporting to the Arctic with their families, of millions of the most [enterprising] and influential farmers.” [Quoted from Robert Conquest, cited below.]
To eliminate forever any remnant of Ukrainian opposition to these policies, in 1932-1933 the Soviet communists inflicted a terror-famine on the already collectivized peasants of Ukraine and neighboring regions, a territory about as large as the American state of Texas, with some 40 million inhabitants. The methods were “. . . setting grain [production] quotas far above the possible, removing every handful of food, and preventing help from outside from reaching the starving. . . [W]ell-fed squads of police or [communist] party officials supervised the victims.” [Quoted from Robert Conquest]
LOOKING FORWARD–HUMANITARIAN AID, FREEDOM, AND MODERN TECHNOLOGY COULD ELIMINATE FAMINE FOREVER
As noted above, there have been attempts by humanitarian groups to bring food to starving people in Somalia. Starvation in North Korea could have been averted had the North Korean state not at first rejected, then restricted offers of humanitarian aid from outside the country.
While the U.S.A. justifiably can be criticized for some of its activities in foreign countries, it has assisted and not hampered the efforts of private American groups to aid the victims of famine or natural disasters around the world.
Achievement of freedom is the most important step necessary to the elimination of hunger in the world. With freedom from domestic political coercion every country in the world is capable of obtaining enough food either by its own production or by acquiring food in exchanges of trade with countries having an agricultural surplus.
The V-50 lectures remind us that every sustainable culture embraces some version of the biblical Golden Rule: Do not unto others that which is hateful to you. Aggressive wars are either (1) a form of organized, coordinated theft, or (2) a religious war to eradicate another religion, on the premise that the aggressors’ religion is the one true belief with the one true god. We see that today in the global terrorism being carried out by people claiming to be engaged in righteous killing pursuant to the dictates of their religion.
Andrew J. Galambos and Jay S. Snelson, in the V-50 lectures, advocated producing freedom for all by establishing property protection companies and services that would assure to all mankind the right to be in full (100%) control of their lives and the intellectual and material derivatives of their lives. War and political tyranny can become things of the past when humanity learns to produce freedom by protecting completely the property of individuals (including life and its intellectual and tangible derivatives).
Conquest, Robert, The Harvest of Sorrow: Soviet Collectivization and the Terror-Famine (1986)
Jung Chang and Halliday, Jon, Mao: The Unknown Story (2005)
Demick, Barbara, Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea (2009)
Heller, Mikhail and Nekrich, Aleksandr, Utopia in Power: The History of the Soviet Union from 1917 to the Present (1986)
Shirer, William L., The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich: A History of Nazi Germany (1960)