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Famines in European Economic History: The Last Great European Famines Reconsidered

Editor(s):Curran, Declan
Luciuk, Lubomyr
Newby, Andrew G.
Reviewer(s):Alfani, Guido

Published by EH.Net (June 2016)

Declan Curran, Lubomyr Luciuk and Andrew G. Newby, editors, Famines in European Economic History: The Last Great European Famines Reconsidered. New York: Routledge, 2015. xvii + 267 pp. $160 (hardcover), ISBN: 978-0-415-65681-8.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Guido Alfani, Dondena Centre for Research on Social Dynamics, Bocconi University.

In the recent historiography on famine, some episodes have tended to attract most of the attention. This is especially the case of the Great Irish Famine of 1845-50, which surely was a major event in the European history of the last two centuries — an event which however, as is often the case, can be understood fully only in comparison to others. This book, edited by Declan Curran, Lubomyr Luciuk and Andrew Newby, aims to provide us with this much-needed comparative perspective.

The book is organized in nine chapters (plus introduction), evenly divided between three of the main famines affecting Europe during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Apart from the Great Irish Famine, the book covers another relatively well-researched episode, the Holodomor (“Death by Starvation”) affecting Ukraine in 1932-33, as well as an important but not internationally well-known episode involving northern Europe and particularly Finland, the “Great Hunger Years” of 1867-68. All these famines were characterized by particularly high death tolls, which (according to the estimates summarized in the editors’ introduction) amounted to about 1 million in 1845-50 in Ireland, 100,000-150,000 in 1867-68 in Finland and 1.9 million in 1932-33 in Ukraine. Notice that these figures do not include victims caused by these famines outside the boundaries of the three specific geographic areas that the book focuses on (see below).

Overall, the authors of the chapters explore in considerable detail the political and cultural consequences of famines. In Ireland and Ukraine in particular, the “politicisation” of famine — i.e. the way in which the crisis is used in the political discourse — and its “appropriation in collective memory and national identity formation” (p. 3) is particular apparent, while the case of Finland is singled out as one in which famine underwent (to a degree at least) a process of collective forgetfulness. A particularly interesting aspect is that of “culpability,” which has also to be understood in the context of areas which were all peripheries in much broader empires. So, while in Ireland and in Ukraine a discourse with political undertones developed blaming respectively the British and the Russians, in Finland the political center was never indicated as the culprit for the catastrophe, presumably because in 1867-68 Finland was a largely self-governed and well-identified territorial entity within the Russian Empire.

There is much to like in this book, particularly because many chapters provide interesting new information which will surely be of great use to other scholars. The attention dedicated to the famine in Finland in 1867-68 is particularly welcome. However, the book as a whole also has a few shortcomings, which somewhat hinder its ambitious comparative aims. A first problem, is that it never provides a clear definition of what a famine is — a topic which was quite contentious until recently, but has probably been settled (at least temporarily) by Cormac Ó Gráda with his recent definition of famine as a “a shortage of food or purchasing power that leads directly to excess mortality from starvation or hunger-induced diseases.”[1] Quite obviously, all three episodes covered by Curran, Luciuk and Newby’s book fit into this definition (as they were characterized by mass mortality) — but the book is never entirely clear regarding the very important issue of causation. As Ó Gráda makes explicit, a famine can be due either to production problems (a shortage of food) or to distribution problems (a lack of purchasing power or “entitlement” to resources, à la Amartya Sen[2]). Quite obviously, this issue is also key to understanding correctly the debate about culpability of political authorities, which seems to be close to the heart of many of the authors of this book and consequently, a more detailed and encompassing discussion of famine causation would have been useful.

A second problem is that the book does not attempt to place the three specific episodes into an even broader perspective. First of all, the large literature on the continental European famines of the early modern period is almost entirely neglected. This matters because, as clearly shown by a very recent attempt at a comparison of European famines in the very long run (which admittedly the authors could not know about)[3], some reference to at least the main earlier episodes — like the famous “years of misery” of 1693-97 when famine ravaged most of the continent[4] (including Finland where the overall mortality might have been in the order of 25-33%, i.e. about three times the rate which can be estimated for 1867-68[5]) or the terrible famine of  the 1590s[6] — considerably puts a different complexion, in relative terms, on the European famines of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Additionally, the three famines covered by the book were not exclusive to Ireland, Finland and Ukraine but also affected other areas, which is an important aspect to consider when assessing both the issue of causation, and that of the use of famine in the political discourse. So for example, the so-called “Great Irish Famine” was only one component (although admittedly the main one and by far) of a much broader crisis associated to the failure of the potato crops caused by a fungal disease (phytophthera infestans), a crisis which also affected the Low Countries, northern Spain (Galicia) and parts of Germany[7] (this is only mentioned in passing in Curran’s chapter), while the Ukrainian famine of 1932-33 also affected (albeit less severely) other regions of the Soviet Union[8].

Notwithstanding these limitations, there is no doubt that Curran, Luciuk and Newby provide us with a very useful book, which advances our knowledge in many directions and especially regarding the political and cultural consequences of famine. It will be of considerable interest to all researchers working on modern famines.

1. C. Ó Gráda, Famine: A Short History (Princeton University Press, 2009), p. 4.
2. A. Sen, Poverty and Famine: An Essay on Entitlement and Deprivation (Clarendon Press, 1981).
3. G. Alfani and C. Ó Gráda (eds.), Famine in European History (Cambridge University Press, forthcoming 2017).
4. M. Lachiver, Les années de misère: La famine au temps du Grand Roi, 1680-1720 (Fayard, 1991).
5. M. Lappalainen, “Death and Disease During the Great Finnish Famine 1695-1697,” Scandinavian Journal of History 39 (4), 2014: 425-47.
6. G. Alfani, Calamities and the Economy in Renaissance Italy: The Grand Tour of the Horsemen of the Apocalypse (Palgrave, 2013).
7. C. Ó Gráda, R. Paping and E. Vanhaute (eds.), When the Potato Failed. Causes and Effects of the Last European Subsistence Crisis, 1845-1850 (Brepols, 2007).
8. R.W Davies and S.G. Wheatcroft, The Years of Hunger: Soviet Agriculture, 1931-33 (Palgrave, 2004).

Guido Alfani is Associate Professor in Economic History at Bocconi University (Milan, Italy). He is the author of Calamities and the Economy in Renaissance Italy: The Grand Tour of the Horsemen of the Apocalypse (Palgrave 2013).

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Subject(s):Agriculture, Natural Resources, and Extractive Industries
Economywide Country Studies and Comparative History
Historical Demography, including Migration
Household, Family and Consumer History
Markets and Institutions
Geographic Area(s):Europe
Time Period(s):19th Century
20th Century: Pre WWII