During World War II, the Dutch regions of the Netherlands were taken over by German forces, and Nazi troops erected blockades that prevented the country from receiving food. Nearly 20,000 people died from the resulting famine, which lasted a full year. Eventually, the Allies liberated the area in May of 1945, but the effects of stress on young and unborn children at the time were proven to linger up to decades after the famine passed.




The Dutch Struggle To Remain Neutral As The War Takes Off

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In 1939, just as the war started to take off in other parts of the world, the Netherlands claimed total neutrality. Although the Dutch wanted nothing to do with the war, Adolf Hitler had a plan in mind to force them into the conflict. The Dutch had implemented an "Independence Policy" right around the same time the Nazi Party started to take rise in Germany in 1933. Dutch Prime Minister Hendrikus Colijn believed the country did not have the strength to withstand military invasion, and desperately wanted to keep his country out of the war. But all of that changed in the spring of 1940, when the Nazi Party invaded Holland with no formal declaration of war.

Nazi Troops Invade The Northern Netherlands

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Despite their claims of neutrality, the Dutch now found themselves bombarded by the Nazi troops. As it turned out, Prime Minister Colijn was correct in his assumption that the country couldn't stand a chance against a major power. The Dutch military was quickly overwhelmed, mainly because their equipment and weapons were both outdated and insufficient. The Nazi invasion brought a lot more than conflict into the country—not only were people now subject to horrifying violence, they were also forced into starvation when the Nazis cut off all of their food supplies in an effort to barricade the country.

Surrendering To Nazi Troops

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The Dutch officially surrendered to the Nazis on May 15, 1940, shortly after there was a devastating attack on the country known as the Rotterdam Blitz. The Dutch army had exhausted its supply of ammunition, and it became clear that resistance was futile. The government in the Netherlands was taken over by German civilians and military officers, and aimed to recruit the country into the Greater Germanic Reich. Lucky for most Dutch people, their Aryan looks helped them stay in Hitler's good graces.



Preparing For Operation Market Garden

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Although Nazis occupied the country, Allies were still able to set up posts in the southern region of the country, and as a result, could slowly pedal supplies like food and ammunition to the Dutch people. The Allies even planned an early attempt at liberation called "Operation Market Garden." The Allied troops planned to get total control over a bridge that connected Rhine at Arnhem; at the time, the secret mission was the largest airborne operation in the war so far. The advance failed, and the mission remained controversial long after the war and was regarded as a prime example of overly hopeful and ambitious planning. After the mission failed, things intensified in the Netherlands.

A Nazi Embargo Restricts Food To Dutch People

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In September of 1944, the Nazis shut down the national railways and placed an embargo on all food transports into the Netherlands. Prior to the embargo, national railway employees had collaborated with the exiled Dutch government by going on strike, in the hopes that it would aide Allied liberation efforts. However, the plan backfired and resulted in a tighter, stricter Nazi regime than before. As winter approached, it became clear to the Dutch and the rest of the world that they would be in big trouble if they weren't sent aide before the snow came.

The Dutch Are Forced To Ration Their Food

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In November of 1944, the Germans realized the people in the Netherlands were becoming desperate for food and temporarily lifted the embargo. However, an unusually cold, harsh, and early winter had set in, and the Germans were only allowing food to come over the water. Bad weather quickly sealed off the barges and the canals froze over; winter had come, and routes into the country were simply impassable. Food stocks quickly started to dwindle, and the Dutch were forced to implement a strict rationing system.

The Famine Grows Worse As Winter Wears On

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In cities like Amsterdam, adults were initially given a ration of 1,000 kilocalories a day. By the end of February, that ration had dropped by half—with adults getting just 580 kilocalories a day. The famine was named the Hongerwinter ("Hunger Winter") and its effects were devastating. People were only allowed to have a single potato, a piece of bread, and a sugar beet every day, and their bodies quickly became emaciated and weak.

Beloved Cheese Rations Drop To Nearly Nothing Along With Meat And Butter

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The Netherlands was soon regarded as the largest battlefield of World War II, simply because of this devastating Nazi enforced starvation. The people were desperate for food; the famine affected over 4.5 million people, and the Germans continued to destroy bridges and entrances into the country further staving off aide. Some of the first things to go were vegetable fats and butter, and slowly after that cheese was rations were reduced to 100 grams every two weeks. Before long, meat coupons were totally worthless, and bread rations dropped from 2,200 to 1,000 grams per week.

Children Scavenge For Leftovers At A Kitchen

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With so many people desperate for food, illicit food markets began to spring up, with people purchasing items off the black market if they were lucky enough to have the funds to do so. Stress and starvation affected nearly every person in the country, and people would stand in long soup kitchen lines desperate to get something to eat. After they ate their small ration of food, many scoured the empty soup bowls and cooking pots for every tiny morsel of nourishment. Some young people even walked tens of kilometers just to trade their families most prized items for something to eat. Those who were desperate also attempted to eat tulip bulbs, and some even died when the flower bulbs poisoned them.

Firewood And Fuel Also Go On Short Supply

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To make matters worse, food wasn't the only thing that was blocked from entering the country once the embargo was put in place. Dutch people were also forced to endure a freezing cold winter with little to no fuel like coal and wood. Most people hacked up their furniture and whatever trees they could find around urban areas to use it as firewood. Additionally, Dutch people were forced to live in squalor as their water, electricity, sewage, and public transportation systems were shut down. The winter was so rough, people even stripped down streetcars to their bare bones, burning anything they could find that was flammable.

Dutch Children Suffer Deeply From The Famine

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The famine lasted for a full year, and only came to an end when the Dutch were finally liberated by Allied troops. Towards the end of 1944, thousands of children had been brought from cities to rural areas where they were kept safe throughout the war. Those who were dying due to the famine conditions were often moved to the larger cities like Hague, Rotterdam, and Amsterdam. By the end of the famine, nearly 18,000 Dutch people died from malnutrition.

The Famine Comes To An End

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The famine officially came to an end in May 1945, when the Allies were successfully able to ship Swedish flour into the country and then convince the Germans to allow them to provide coordinated air drops of food over the country. Both the Royal Canadian Air Force, British Royal Air Force, and U.S. Army Air Force participated in the drop. During the delivery, Germans agreed not to shoot down the mercenaries, and the Allies agreed not to bomb German military outposts.

The Effects Of The Famine Linger For Decades

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Since the Dutch were liberated from the Germans at the end of the war, scientists interested in epigenetics, obstetrics, and gynecology have studied the effects of the famine extensively. Researchers at the University of Southampton in Britain discovered that women who were pregnant during the famine tended to give birth to children who were predisposed to diabetes, obesity, schizophrenia, neurological defects, cardiovascular disease, micro albuminuria, and stress-related issues. The famine also led to the discovery of coeliac disease, as Dutch pediatrician Dr. Willem Dicke noticed children who were starved of bread had a decrease in inflammatory symptoms, and the conditions returned when the famine was lifted and they were given bread again.