U.S. Treatment of Indians Inspired Hitler’s Hunger Policies

The US government killed millions of buffalo in an effort to kill off Native Americans who were fighting to keep white settlers from taking their lands. Photo taken in 1892 of buffalo skulls.

By Lee Egerstrom

America’s resettlement plans used against Native Americans inspired Adult Hitler and the Nazi’s starvation and resettlement plans directed at Ukrainians, Russians and Slavic people in Eastern European and Central Asia.

As the United States and allies celebrate the 75th anniversary of Hitler’s collapse and the defeat of Germany in World War II, a growing body of academic research is taking closer looks at the atrocities of war and its impact on Indigenous people.

Add a new research article from University of Minnesota economists to the list. Carlisle Ford Runge, a Distinguished McKnight Professor of Applied Economics and Law; and graduate student Linnea Graham have a research viewpoint on hunger as a weapon published in the scientific journal Food Policy, an Elsevier BV academic publication.
The article is entitled “Hunger as a weapon: Hitler’s Hunger Plan, Native American resettlement and starvation in Yemen”.

It recalls how Hitler was impressed by U.S. resettlement programs that opened the “West,” as it was called, to white, European settlement and agricultural development. Key among them was the Indian Removal Act of 1830.

The Southeast tribes of Cherokee, Creek, Choctaw, Chickasaw and Seminole were the first to be dispossessed, they noted, although the Cherokee tribe is best remembered for its “Trail of Tears” forced relocation.

It also happened in Runge and Graham’s backyard in the Great Lakes region, they point out. By 1867, they write, nearly all Ojibwe in Michigan, Wisconsin and Minnesota were relocated under treaties in which the Indigenous people relinquished 98 percent of their land to live on less productive agricultural land and on thin forest soils.

They also cited research by the University of Oklahoma’s Gary Clayton Anderson showing the Ojibwe population declined by 95 percent after relocation.

Smallpox, cholera, measles and other epidemics attacked tribal people throughout the expanding American West. Starvation was a common problem. It became a policy directive carried out by government and military forces.

“Kill every buffalo you can,” an Army colonel told a hunter brought in to kill bison in the Dakotas. “Every buffalo dead is an Indian gone.”

From a population estimated at about 30 million animals that was an important food source for the Plains Indians, the number of bison shrank to about 400 by 1893.
Massacres before and after of Dakota and Lakota people, among others, are better remembered by historians and Native scholars today. Demographic studies looking at the role of hunger and starvation haven’t kept pace.

Runge and Graham offer examples of how Hitler was influenced by the Americans’ clearing of the frontier for development from reading a German fiction writer, Karl May (1843-1912), who wrote books about the American West.

Though some of May’s books made heroes out of imaginary Native Americans, their inevitable collapse had a lasting impact on Hitler and Nazi strategists who sought ways to gain agricultural production and surplus food from conquered lands.

The Eastern Europeans and Northern and Central Asian Slavs had land resources Germany would need for conquest. Hitler, by some accounts, even referred to some Russians as “redskins.”

The University of Minnesota scholars combine a large collection of American and European research detailing how Hitler and his Nazi strategists sought a land policy that would starve up to 30 million Eastern Europeans, force their deaths or removal from productive land, and open those farms to feed the German military and civilian population.

While Allied forces, strong Russian resistance, and to this point inadequately studied American aide – especially from Minnesota and the Midwest – eventually foiled the German Hunger Plan, as many as 4 million to 7 million Russians and Eastern Europeans did die from hunger and starvation – a holocaust in itself.

Former Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev credited food aid from America in the Soviet ability to hold back the German forces on the Eastern Front. He specifically credited Austin-based Hormel Corp. in his autobiography, “Without Spam, we wouldn’t have been able to feed our army.”

There is yet another reason why the Runge and Graham paper is timely for Minnesota readers and Native Minnesotans. Displaced Indigenous people from throughout the world, facing hunger, starvation, military conquest and genocide, find their way to now-safe havens like Minnesota.

Here they often reside as neighbors to Native Americans in cities throughout the state. This is especially so in neighborhoods of Minneapolis, like the Phillips Neighborhood; and St. Paul, along University Avenue, in Frogtown and the East Side.

The original Minnesotans and the newest Minnesotans, often side by side. The Indigenous and Dispossessed Indigenous from abroad, sharing space and probably more common experiences than most realize. The Dakota, Lakota, Ojibwe, Ho-Chunk, Potawatomi, Oneida alongside Somalis, Sudanese, Nigerians, the Karen from Myanmar, and various Arabs.

Also count groups of people from Central and South America, Indigenous Americans from the start and now part of the Displaced Indigenous in Minnesota as well.

Runge and Graham stress that inhumane use of food was a weapon did not end with World War II. Nor will it likely end soon.

Until the past month or two, at least, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) have had an ongoing blockade preventing food and medical shipments to victims of warfare in neighboring Yemen. Critics around the world describe it as genocide, noting the U.S. and U.K. have mostly looked the other way.

United Nations agencies consider Yemen to be the world’s greatest humanitarian crisis at this time.

The two Minnesota economists link how that has come to be. They concluded the Nazi Hunger Plan and Native American resettlement “should cause us to look squarely at U.S. and British policy in Yemen as complicit in the perpetration of hunger as an act of war.”

A final note:
Research is their article is anchored in two courses Runge teaches and co-teaches at the University and in Graham’s graduate studies and master’s thesis.

Graham was in one of Runge’s classes. After returning from a visit to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., Graham told Runge that she didn’t see any mention of the Nazi Hunger Plan. “That got me thinking about the article we worked on together,” he said.

Runge co-teaches a special Grand Challenge Curriculum course, World Food Problems: Agronomics, Economics and Hunger. He also teaches a graduate course, Agricultural and Environmental Policy, which considers “the relationship between famines and armed conflict.”

He has a PhD from the University of Wisconsin, both a B.A. and M.A. from Oxford Univeristy while a Rhodes Scholar, and a bachelor’s degree from the University of North Carolina.

Graham, from Eagan, is a Master of Applied Economics candidate at the University and is writing a thesis on food insecurity and the Boko Haram insurgency in Nigeria. She serves as an adjunct economics teacher at her undergraduate school, the University of St. Thomas, and worked part of the past year in Rome at the United Nations’ International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD).

Students and researchers on Native American history and culture, economists and others can easily access the Runge-Graham study from Elsevier through academic library and Internet services.

Runge directs special attention to works by University of Oklahoma historian Gary Clayton Anderson, author of numerous books of regional importance including the 2019 book Massacre in Minnesota: The Dakota War of 1862, the Most Violent Ethnic Conflict in American History; Carroll P. Kakel III, historian and lecturer at Johns Hopkins University who has written extensively on Hitler’s starvation policies in the “East” and American Indian policies in the “West;” and a comprehensive 2012 book, The Taste of War: World War II and the Battle for Food, by Cambridge University historian Lizzie Collingham.

Students can access the article in the April edition of Food Policy journal through most college and university Internet sites. Other researchers can purchase the article online from Elsevier at https://www.sciencedirect.com/journal/food-policy/vol/92/suppl/C