Documentation of European heritages of hunger

Case

Documentation of European heritages of hunger

NWA-project brings parties together

What do the Irish Potato Famine, the Ukrainian Holodomor and the Spanish Años del Hambre have in common? All three are European famines which have become deeply engraved in the collective memory. The Dutch Research Agenda (NWA) project, Heritages of Hunger, documents this ‘famine heritage’ and makes it accessible for education purposes and museums.

Rowan Gillespie, Famine (Dublin, 1997)Rowan Gillespie, Famine (Dublin, 1997)

When the huge influx of refugees from Syria and Iraq began to gain momentum in 2014, the reaction in Europe was mixed. Some countries were quick to close their borders, but in Ireland, there was a mass demonstration in favour of the arrival of asylum seekers. It took place in Dublin near to Rowan Gillespie’s group of bronze sculptures commemorating the potato famine, the widespread famine which struck Ireland in the years 1845-1850. Coincidence?

Famines raged across the entire continent and helped to create the European identity
- Marguérite Corporaal

Certainly not, in the mind of the project leader Marguérite Corporaal of Radboud University Nijmegen. The Irish are acutely aware that, a century and a half ago, millions of their countrymen and women fled their country in “coffin ships” when potato blight brought famine in its wake. ‘Famines raged across the entire continent and helped to create the European identity,’ recounts Corporaal. ‘They even affect the way we view all sorts of problems today.’

As Professor of Irish Literature in Transnational Contexts, Corporaal knows everything about the key role the potato famine plays in Irish history and how it contributed to the resistance against British rule. The main reason the potato blight had such devastating consequences was the lack of help from the British government. Its approach was based on laissez-faire principles. Moreover, the landowners who mercilessly evicted starving Irish farmers from their land because they could not pay their rent, often had English roots.

Corporaal discovered that Ukrainian history changed in a similar manner due to the Holodomor of 1932-1933. Stalin’s heavy-handed collectivisation of agriculture caused a famine in the southern Soviet republic which took the lives of between two and seven million Ukrainians. The hate it engendered against Russian rule which had caused the famine still plays a part in today’s troubled relationship between the two countries.

The siege of Leningrad (1941-1944) stained German-Russian relations in a comparable way. Due to the stranglehold Hitler’s Wehrmacht had on the city, starvation reached such terrible proportions that people resorted to cannibalism.

Holodomor monument, TorontoHolodomor monument, Toronto

Thousands of Fins followed the example of the Irish when extreme frost and crop failures (1866-1868) caused a famine: they emigrated to America. In contrast to Ukraine, Russia and Ireland, there was no one to blame for the famine in the far north of Europe. The Finnish Famine chiefly reinforced the idea among the population that they can look after themselves. Admittedly, many people died and some emigrated, but the vast majority survived. How? By eating “bark bread” – bread baked using tree bark. Corporaal: ‘The idea of self-reliance has therefore become part of the Finnish identity. That persists even today.’

Did you know? In Canada, the Holodomor Awareness Bus travels from school to school and the Ukrainian famine has become part of the curriculum in some states

The research project Heritages of Hunger not only compares the pattern of the various European famines. It principally looks at how the memory of them persists, right up to the present day. Very tangible examples of this are museums which focus attention on food crises and monuments erected to commemorate people’s suffering. Education also contributes to keeping the memory alive. There is even an active lobby for this in some places. Often, a political agenda is a factor here. The Ukrainian diaspora, for example, has argued for decades for recognition of the Holodomor as deliberately planned genocide. It shifted up a gear after Russia came to the aid of the rebels in the east. And that has met with success in Canada: the Holodomor Awareness Bus travels from school to school and the Ukrainian famine has become part of the curriculum in some states, alongside the Holocaust and the Armenian Genocide.

Focusing attention on the famine is certainly justified, but by doing it this way, a long-ago famine is being exploited for political gain. This research project – which receives funding from the Dutch Research Agenda – does not have that intention. On the contrary, the project’s participants are investigating how educational practices might strengthen mutual understanding and solidarity by learning from each other’s experiences. To do so, a comprehensive database has been set up. It includes reports on the Finnish Famine translated into English and educational material on the topic. The Flemish Potato Famine (1845) is part of the database too.

Bridget O'Donnell and children, Illustrated London News, 22 december 1849Bridget O'Donnell and children, Illustrated London News, 22 december 1849

Photos from national archives have also been brought together in the database and researched. The similarities in the pictures are striking. Just as photographers documenting the Dutch Winter of Starvation (1944) focused mainly on emaciated women and children, so did their colleagues who photographed the Greek ΜεγάλοςΛιμός (Great Famine, 1941-42) and the German famines following WWI and WWII.

Regional museums and knowledge institutions can obtain information about what happened in their country and international researchers can access it for comparative research: what are the similarities and what are the differences? The project partners have also begun developing their own teaching materials and online workshops.

The knowledge and teaching material about famines is systematically recorded by topic in the database. ‘If you want to find out something about the black market that sprung up during a period of famine, our database can provide material about black-market operations during all the various famines,’ Corporaal says.

Researchers can access the database, but also teachers. They can seek out information from the database on topics such as policy and aid operations, but also on a topic such as “children during famines”. Corporaal: ‘That is a subject specially intended for schools: it brings the story home to pupils.’

Project partner EuroClio, the European association of history educators, is putting a lot of effort into this educational part of the project in particular. It is conducting research with museums, publishers and research organisations into which teaching programmes there already are about famines. Work is furthermore being carried out on a Massive Online Open Course (MOOC).

Sometimes there are no curriculums at all on a famine. In that case, the partnership can help to ensure that such heritage finally enters the textbooks. The Años del Hambre, the Spanish starvation epidemic during the Franco regime, is only now appearing in school and university curriculums. ‘We are looking at what our project can contribute to documenting this memory, which used to be suppressed,’ Corporaal explains. ‘It’s easier to find your way if you can get help from parties in other countries with similar stories. That is the huge added value of this project.’

More information


Text: Edo Beerda

Heritages of Hunger is led by researchers at Radboud University Nijmegen, NIOD Institute for War, Holocaust and Genocide Studies, and Wageningen University & Research.

The following social partners are involved in the project:

EuroClio, Museum Rotterdam, Museum Het Valkhof, Netherlands Institute in Saint Petersburg, Red Star Line Museum, Irish Heritage Trust (National Famine Museum), Nerve Centre Derry, Universidad de Granada, Centro Documental de la Memoria Histórica, Holodomor Research and Education Centre Kyiv, Kuopio Cultural History Museum, Finnish Labour Museum, Ireland Park Foundation, Holodomor Research and Education Centre Toronto, Ireland Park Foundation