Totalitarianism, Famine and Us
In late 1959, Chinese officials in the provinces began to investigate wild rumors that people were eating one another. Most of the officials must have already known that Mao Zedong’s call for a “Great Leap Forward,” a planned modernization meant to catapult the country into global economic leadership, had gone horribly wrong.
In the vast countryside regions of China, and with an eye to pleasing their bureaucratic masters, Communist Party functionaries had been inflating estimates of the amounts of food that peasants were producing for transfer to the industrial zones or for export sales. They also concealed that these transfers left hungry—and often for dead—the very peasants who had done all the farming, from cultivation to harvest. The horrifying reports of cannibalism sometimes involved peasants digging up the corpses of the recently deceased, among the millions who had already died of starvation. Other times, officials investigating unrelated matters came across disturbing evidence of murder and the butchering of people for meat. In Gansu province, according to one document in a new translation of source material, The Great Famine in China, 1958-1962, a person named Meng was found in his home with meat in a jar, which also contained a clump of hair “alongside a floral-patterned hair band.”
The worst human tragedies of the twentieth century were certainly most deadly when sponsored or at least unleashed by totalitarian regimes, and food was a crucial element of their politics. Several years ago, the German journalist and scholar Götz Aly showed in books such as Architects of Annihilation (2003) the role of food in the horrors of National Socialist imperialism. More recently, Timothy Snyder has made the conquest of more productive agricultural territory—especially the Ukrainian “breadbasket”—an essential factor in the episodes of mass death occurring in what he calls the “bloodlands.” Soviet and Nazi planners both sought to occupy the region for the sake of food, and their macabre policies dictated that those on the home front would eat before the occupants of the newly conquered territory, who were deemed too numerous to feed with limited resources…