Save the children

Social self-organization and domestic relief in Amsterdam during the Dutch food crisis, 1944-1946.

Ingrid de Zwarte

How do modern societies cope with food crises? Dutch historians have stressed that during the so-called ‘Hunger Winter’ of 1944-1945, the collapse of centralized food rationing caused a breakdown of civil society in the still Nazi-occupied northwest of the country. People were supposedly fending for themselves, while solidarity and co-operation all but disappeared. According to this interpretation, the authority of the Dutch resistance movement, the churches, and the Dutch government in exile were not able to keep social order from crumbling.

Contrary to this view of the Hunger Winter – or as I would like to call it, the Dutch food crisis – as a period of mere social disintegration, this paper will demonstrate that the food crisis in the Netherlands in fact gave rise to extensive co-operative social responses from Dutch society similar to coping methods observed during other historical food crises. At all levels of society, people joined forces without central initiative in order to take over responsibilities from the regular public authorities for the provision of food and relief. These self-organized networks emerged throughout the country and were not limited by religious or political beliefs. By efficiently targeting the weakest members of society, notably school-age children, non-governmental domestic relief averted the worst consequences of famine. The willingness of thousands of ordinary citizens to co-operate and help each other was at the heart of its success.

This paper explores the organization of domestic relief during the Dutch food crisis in Amsterdam, opening up new perspectives on social self-organization and the communal coping mechanisms of a modern society facing catastrophe. Firstly, this paper briefly addresses responses to the food crisis by officials and agencies formally responsible for food provision and relief. Secondly, I will examine the Interchurch Bureau, a national NGO for emergency relief that was constituted several weeks into the crisis with approval of the German occupier. Finally, this paper investigates social self-organization and community strategies, such as neighborhood committees, small relief campaigns, and food protests. I will break with the traditional periodization of the Dutch ‘Hunger Winter’, and focus on the period between the first public responses to an impending food crisis in September 1944 and the dismantling of emergency organizations in the course of 1946.

This paper thus argues that food-aid during the Dutch food crisis was not primarily organized top-down, but rather that it should be considered as a dialogue between different social groups and individuals to work towards the same goal: survival of a future generation.