From 1939 to 1945, the world experienced one of the largest conflicts in recorded history. The Second World War touched every corner of the world, with the Axis and Allied powers engaging in fighting across a number of continents. It resulted in the death of an estimated sixty million people; a horrifying statistic which still shocks the global community today. How such a terrible war came to be is a question that is still widely contested by historians. Whilst many will agree that it was the drive of the Axis powers for territorial expansion that lead to the war breaking out, there are differing views as to why they sought to conquer new land.

Answering this question is a considerable task, however those who have engaged in such tend to overlook a blatant and striking factor. Food, in particular its security, is often under appreciated as a driving factor in the build-up to the conflict. It is arguable that for both Germany and Japan, it was the aim of self-sufficiency in food production that predominantly fuelled their territorial desires. Walther Darré, Reich Minister of Food and Agriculture from 1933 to 1942, stated ‘The basis of foreign policy remains the following: the efficacy of every action undertaken by a nation in foreign affairs depends directly on the extent to which it is able to be and remain independent of other nations in its food supply.’[1] This argues that food was directly connected to foreign policy in the build-up to the war, that its importance to each nation must have been considered when deciding to invade other countries. It is therefore essential that food security be addressed when considering why these Axis powers looked to expand their domain. This essay aims to analyse the evidence I have found in order to come to a balanced conclusion over the extent to which food was a driving factor in the build-up to the Second World War.

For Germany, the issue of food security was triggered at the end of the Great War. When the war ended the leaders of the winning side met and agreed upon a declaration designed to both punish the defeated nations and prevent another war from happening. The Treaty of Versailles, signed on the 28th of June 1919, imposed harsh sanctions on these states, forcing them to not only give up territory, but also to pay unaffordable reparations. This was to have a drastic effect on German food production and supply. The loss of land meant that Germany was producing a significantly less than it could before, whilst the reparations made it increasingly harder to afford to import the deficit of food. The harsh nature of the treaty made Germany resent the nations that enforced it upon them.

Agriculturist August Skalweit stated his views in 1927 where he believed that Germany was then right to shy away from the hostile world market, that it should indeed begin to strive toward self-sufficiency.[2] The policy of self-sufficiency in food security first gained its popularity in the early 1930s. Autarky was expected to revive the state into the dominant power it was before, however in trying to achieve a self-sufficient system, Germany arguably put itself on a war path. Historian Michael Tracy agrees commenting that ‘the pursuit of such autarkic aims was bound to make the outbreak of war more likely.’[3]

Why Germany then took such a path, knowing the risk of war, is down to one predominant reason. As mentioned previously, the Treaty of Versailles resulted in an aggrieved population who wished to enforce justice against those who treated them unfairly. This anger was then used by politicians to fuel their autarkic ideas. The National Socialists, who came to power in the early 1930s, saw autarky as Germany’s way back to becoming a global power. Artur Schürmann wrote in 1940 that ‘The National Socialist leadership was in no doubt that the battle for honour and equality amongst nations could be won only, on the firm basis of security in food supplies.’[4] This quote shows that the leaders of Germany were more than content to continue down this war path as it would lead to a stronger state which would not fear war if it was to break out.

Now that the main reasons for this drive for self-sufficiency are covered, the link between territorial expansion and autarky can be addressed to a greater extent. Why this link occurred is down to the crucial fact that Germany could not attain self-sufficiency within its current borders. From 1927 to 1939, the government was only able to make a fifteen percent increase in self-sufficiency amongst all food groups.[5]

In 1939 there was also still ‘a large dependence on foreign trade for fats and livestock feeding stuffs.’[6] This clearly shows that autarky was not being achieved. Why it was doing so was the result of a number of problems. The most important was the military budget. Historian Robert Moeller explains that ‘fewer food stuff would permit the import of more raw materials from abroad for armaments.’[7] With the budget for arms increasing from 0.7 billion Reich marks in 1933 to fivefold that amount in 1934, it was clear that food imports must be reduced.[8] There was little chance that the National Socialists would be content with reducing the military budget, in fact they wished to increase armaments spending, so they needed a solution to the draining effect food was having on the governments funds.

The solution they came to was ‘Lebensraum’, a term developed by Rudolf Heß’s professor Karl Haushofer.[9] It translates in English to ‘living space’ and it was exactly what Germany needed. Historian Farquharson explains that the government knew that ‘there was no hope of achieving full autarky from Germany’s present soil.’[10] This is backed up by Tracy who explains that ‘Difficulties in the campaign to expand food production convinced Hitler that self-sufficiency within the nation’s frontiers was impossible, and contributed to his determination to seek Lebensraum.’[11] It was Lebensraum that provided hope for Germany.

Through territorial expansion, the National Socialists believed they could solve their hunger for food security. Historian Thomas Weber states in his work that Lebensraum attracted Hitler when ‘he was attempting to find a new answer to Germany’s security dilemma: namely, that states had to have sufficient territory to be able to feed their population.’[12]  Hitler states in his own book ‘Mein Kampf’ that ‘It [Germany] must find the courage to gather our people and their strength for an advance along the road that will lead this people from its present restricted living space to new land and soil, and hence also free it from the danger of vanishing from the earth or of serving others as a slave nation.’[13] It is clear then Germany needed to expand its territory if it was to secure food for it population.

Where Hitler would go looking for this ‘new land and soil’ is the East as he goes on to explain, ‘For it is not in colonial acquisitions that we must see the solution of this problem, but exclusively in the acquisition of a territory for settlement, which will enhance the area of the mother country, and hence not only keep the new settlers in the most intimate community with the land of their origin, but secure for the total area those advantages which lie in its unified magnitude.’[14] With the majority of Africa, South America and Asia already conquered by other European empires, colonizing outside of Europe was not a viable option for Germany. It was therefore settled that she may only look East if she wished to become ‘the hegemon of the Eurasian land mass’ as stated by Weber.[15]

With a large mass of cultivatable land that would be relatively easy to conquer with the sizeable army the National Socialists had created, the East was the answer to creating an agrarian system great enough to support Germany.[16] In fact Historian Snyder states in his work that the agrarian dream the Nazis envisioned ‘depended on foreign triumph’ in the East.[17] This was the conclusion that Herbert Backe envisioned when he devised and employed his ‘Hunger Plan.’[18] This plan was the key to Lebensraum and one which Hitler happy to follow. Its main aim was to shift the hunger of the German people to the east. By starving the ‘useless eaters’ in Eastern Europe, for example Slavs and Jews, Germany could use their food for its own people. [19]

The Germans would invade, take over the farming areas and then begin harvesting the produce for itself, leaving little for the previous occupants. The benefits the plan would create for Germany were in abundance. The obvious advantage is the increase of capacity of food, which would result in less hunger amongst its people, higher morale and a greater support for the National Socialists. Another would be that the fascist government would get their way and rid the Eastern populations of Jewish and Slavic citizens, races which were considered harmful to the pure Aryan society it was trying to create.

Finally, and arguably most importantly, the ‘Hunger Plan’ would reduce the amount of capital needed for imported foods and fodder. Why this is so important relates specifically to its effect in the build-up to war. By reducing the amount spent on food stuffs, the government could afford to increase their armaments budget. This would in turn lead to a more powerful army, with greater weaponry that would have the capacity to win a future world war.

What can be deduced from this is that territorial expansion into the East, driven by a desire for greater food production, gave the National Socialist the capital they needed to instigate war. Without the money saved from importing food to fund arms, the government may have been more reserved when risking war in the build-up to 1939. The evidence found regarding the security of food for Germany provides a comprehensive argument that suggests that it was in fact to large extent that it food was a significant driving factor in the build-up to the Second World War.

Whilst Germany had its vision of Lebensraum, on the other side of the world Japan also envisaged territorial expansion in the quest for food security. It was a driving factor in the invasion the Chinese region of Manchuria in 1931 and ultimately war against them in 1937. This drive for expansion, much like Germany’s, was the accumulation of numerous factors. The first, chronologically speaking, being the failure of agriculture in the 1920s. The agricultural business was failing to modernize due to lack of resources which in turn lead to inefficient farming techniques.[20] This was to prove a problem as the rest of Japan was modernizing at an alarming rate. The amount of food being eaten increased by thirty percent during the inter war period, and it was to have a significant impact on the state’s agricultural capacity.[21] In addition to this, cheaper rice from abroad, which was being imported to cope to feed the population’s growing appetite, was having a devastating effect on Japanese rice prices. What used to sell for forty one yen a bushel was now selling at eighteen yen. When the bushel cost twenty one yen to yield, things did not look bright for Japanese farmers.[22]

In 1932 the Japanese peasantry were borrowing so much that farming debt sat at nearly five billion yen; equivalent to a third of Japan’s GNP.[23] The government now began to suffer as the rural populations could no longer afford to pay their taxes. It didn’t get any better in the thirties as the country went into a state of crisis. The government were starting to realise they needed greater independence from western capitalism as they were becoming too reliant on expensive imports, and with industry failing to expand, exports were making little profit.

A solution had to be found, and like the Germans, the Japanese recognised that conquering new territory was the best way to keep Japan’s place amongst the other world powers. Manchuria looked to be Japan’s Eastern Europe. Livestock and soya beans were just two of the promising resources the region could provide Japan. Historian Collingham explains that it was thought that with Manchuria under Japanese occupation ‘the state could survive political isolation and the economic threat and military might of other powerful nations.’[24] Similar to Germany, they believed that territorial expansion could offer security of food supply to revitalize Japan’s greater economy.

Instead of a ‘Hunger Plan’ however, Japan had what it called the ‘Plan for the Settlement of One Million Households over Twenty Years.’[25] With the space Manchuria could provide, Japan saw a solution to its overcrowded farming land. A survey carried out by the Ministry of Agriculture showed that four acres was the optimum size of farm for the Japanese; this would therefore require thirty one percent of the current population needing new land to cultivate.[26] Manchuria was the land that Japan needed if it wished to reboot its failing agricultural economy. The plan involved the emigration of one million farmers across twenty years to Manchuria beginning in 1936, which equated to twenty percent of all farmers in Japan. These were to be the poorest of Japan’s farmers who were targeted to be sent abroad in order to turn those who remained into middle class farmers, thus not disrupting the social order in the homeland.[27]

It is clear to see that Japan had similar intentions to that of Germany when it came to territorial expansion. The drive into Manchuria was predominantly out of need for new land for agriculture. Whilst it held the benefits of becoming a potential buffer zone against Soviet attack on Japan, and as an asset in surviving a long war, its main purpose was to provide Japan with a local colony with which it could feed its vastly increasing population.[28] Its link to the build-up to war is evident as had Japan not invaded Manchuria in the aim of securing new farmland, there is little chance that the break out of the Second Sino-Japanese War in 1937 would have occurred. This ultimately in turn triggered a chain of events that led to the Japanese becoming a part of the Second World War.

In conclusion, the issue of food security for the Axis powers of Japan and Germany had a crucial role in the build-up to the Second World War. For Germany, the issue of food had created turmoil throughout from the late nineteen twenties and into the thirties. The evidence shown throughout the essay creates a clear argument as to the effects food had leading up to war. The heavy cost of importing high quantities food stuffs had a significant effect on Germany, one that, given circumstances, could only be solved through territorial expansion. The expansion into the lebensraum in the east was the result of these problems, and which ultimately triggered war when Germany invaded Poland for its resources. Japan’s case is relatively similar, Like Germany with Eastern Europe, it saw Manchuria as its promise land for food resources. It offered a solution to the overpopulated farming land in Japan, and offered a promise of reducing farming debt; a debt the country could not afford to carry. This in turn prompted the invasion of Manchuria which eventually brought war to Japan first in 1937 and again in the 1940s. There is therefore a comprehensive argument that claims it was in fact to a large extent that the issue of food security was a significant driving factor for both Axis powers in the build-up to the Second World War.


[1] M. Tracy, Government and Agriculture in Western Europe 1880-1988 (Exeter, 1989), 189.

[2] M. Trentmann, Food and Conflict in the Age of the Two World Wars (Basingstoke, 2006), 26.

[3] Tracy, Agriculture, 201.

[4] Tracy, Agriculture, 190.

[5] J. E. Farquharson, The Plough and the Swastika: The NSDAP and Agriculture in Germany 1928-45 (London, 1976), 179.

[6] Tracy, Agriculture, 198.

[7] R. G. Moeller, Peasants and Lords in Modern Germany (London, 1986), 246.

[8] Farquharson, The Plough, 162.

[9] T. Weber, Becoming Hitler (Oxford, 2017), 321.

[10] Farquharson, The Plough, 169.

[11] Tracy, Agriculture, 191.

[12] Weber, Becoming Hitler, 321.

[13] A. Hitler, Mein Kampf (Munich, 1925), 646.

[14] Hitler, Kampf, 653.

[15] Weber, Becoming Hitler, 320.

[16] H. Picker, Hitler’s Tischgesprache (Stuttgart, 1976), 495.

[17] T. Snyder, Black Earth, The Holocaust as History and Warning (London, 2015), 52.

[18] L. Collingham, The Taste of War: World War Two and the Battle for Food (New York, 2013), 32.

[19] Collingham, Taste of War, 33.

[20] Collingham, Taste of War, 51.

[21] B. F. Johnston, Japanese Food Management in World War Two (California, 1953), 84.

[22] S. Wilson, The Manchurian Crisis and Japanese Society, 1931-1933 (London, 2002), 126.

[23] K. Smith, A Time of Crisis: Japan, the Great Depression and Rural Revitalization (Massachusetts, 2001), 59.

[24] L. Young, ‘Imagined empire: the cultural construction of Manchuko’, in P. Duus, R. H. Myers and M. R. Peattie (ed.), The Japanese Wartime Empire 1931-1945 (Princeton, 1996), 77.

[25] Collingham, Taste of War, 59.

[26] L. Young, Japan’s Total Empire. Manchuria and the Culture of Imperialism (Berkeley, 1998), 316.

[27] Young, Total Empire, 336.

[28] Y. T. Matsusaka, The Making of Japanese Manchuria, 1904-1932 (London, 2001),