107: Life on the Homefront Pt. 2


We talk about the struggles in Germany where food was hard to find.



Hello everyone and welcome to History of the Great War episode 107. This episode is brought to you by listeners just like you that have chosen to support the show ever at Patreon.com/historyofthegreatwar. Where their support gains them access to special monthly Patreon exclusive episodes where we take deep dives into topics that do not make the cut for the main episodes. Head over to patreon.com/historyofthegreatwar to check it out. Last episode I said we would be focusing on the food situation in the Central Powers this week, but push came to shove and it turns out that I had more to say just about Germany than I expected, therefore this episode will be just about the food situation in Germany during the war. There is probably more written about food in Germany between 1914 and 1919 than any other country in Europe during this time period by a pretty wide margin. There is a very good reason for this, which is that outside of maybe Russia it was the country most effected by food shortages, and also the one most effected by the actions taken by their enemies, namely the British blockade. These facts, plus just the generally central role that Germany plays in any work on the war, is why so much has been written about it. We are going to take a look at Germany’s food crisis step by step by looking at the prewar situation, then what happened in the first two years of the war leading up to the Turnip Winter of 1916-1917 which is when things go really bad. Then we will discuss the last year of the war and talk about the overall effects of the food shortages in the country during the war. Unfortunately for the people of Germany the problems did not end in 1918 with the armistice but instead continued until the signing of the Treaty of Versailles in 1919 as the British continued their blockade until that date, which meant the famine in Germany also continued until that date. The issues with food, and the other issues on the German homefront, are critical to understanding the end of the war, and critical to understanding the situation in Germany in the postwar period, really all the way up to 1933, which is my way of saying that this stuff in important and everyone should pay attention.

In the decades before the war Germany had made some efforts to be as independent as possible when it came to food. This manifested in policies such as high tariffs on imports which made locally grown food cheaper than imports. However this was not completely successful and by 1914 domestically produced food only made up about 80% of consumption. Which this seems like a pretty good number, and a number that could have gotten them through the war, there were two main weaknesses that would make it feel far worse than 80% when the war started. The first problem was that to reach these production numbers German farmers were heavily reliant on artificial fertilizers. Most of the raw materials for these fertilizers had to be imported, and they were also heavily used in the production of explosives. When the war got going, and as it ramped up, the domestic supply of fertilizer components, especially nitrates, was heavily monopolized by the war industries to the detriment of agriculture. The second problem was that the German diet had changed before the war and preferences in the populations had changed the general makeup of German agriculture. There was a huge increase in demand for wheat bread, instead of the rye that had been typical of German bread in earlier times. A large portion of this wheat had to be imported along with other items like sugar, chocolate, and coffee all of which were playing a larger role in the typical German diet, pushing out domestically produced alternatives. Some of this movement would be reversed during the war out of shear necessity, but it did not help morale, and it would have other consequences which we will discuss as we move forward.

When the war started a huge number of men were called up with something like 6 million men called up immediately, a quarter of which came from the agricultural industry. This would just increase during the war and by the end 60% of the total agricultural workers would be called up to the army. This alone would probably have been enough to cause some food shortages in Germany, but it was just the beginning. In the fall of 1914 shortages began rolling out across Germany unevenly, and because of the British blockade the first places hit hard were the ports, none more than Hamburg. Hamburg had been one of the major import cities in Germany and as soon as the war started the shipping into the port dropped dramatically, which became to cause a domino effect within the city. Businesses began shutting down first temporarily and then for good, thousands of workers in the city lost their jobs. After only a few weeks food kitchens were already springing up around the city, supported by the government, and these would range in size from servicing a few hundred to several thousand every single day. Eventually food kitchens would become a part of normal life for millions of Germans and attending the kitchens, along with standing in ration lines, were two activities that would become a staple activity for German city dwellers. At first these kitchens would be rejected by those of the middle class, those who could afford their food, out of price and a feeling that they were poor relief. However the number of people needing to use these kitchens would increase constantly over the next five years and while at the beginning they were only essential for the lower classes who could not afford their own food eventually they would be indespensible for all of German society. There were also longer term problems that would begin right from the beginning of the war, like the reduction in fertilizer imports by about 2/3rd which would happen right when the war started but would not be felt until really 1916. However, one effect that was felt all over Germany right from the start involved the staple of German diet, bread.

War Bread, or Kriegsbrot in German, was a fixture in almost all nations during the war, all of this had to change their bread formulation in some way due to a change in available materials, in Germany it took on its own special formula. It would become less and less like the prewar German bread which had been made up a wheat and by early as 1915 the recipe of the typical German brad had been altered. It started out simple, with just 10% potato flour added in, however the amount of non-wheat flour in the bread over the course of the war would increase with potato and then turnip flour being used to leaven it out. This all came back to the wheat and rye shortages that were happening since before the war the amount of imported wheat used in bread had reduced the amount of domestic rye used for that purpose. The rye that had survived had been almost entirely shifted to animal feed. I initially wondered why they could not just shift the rye to making bread and solve the problem. However in the first year of the war growing more rye just was not an option, that just is not how farming works, and even if they wanted to increase production to try and make up for the missing wheat they would not have seen any return on this until at least the autumn of 1915. They also would have had to switch rye away from the production of animal feed. When looking at this from a calorie perspective this would have been a good trade for the German people, because while meat is desirable in many respects the conversion of grain to meat in beef and pork is very low. Basically it takes a lot of grain to produce a pound of meat when compared to the nutritional value of that grain when just used for flour and bread. So the government took the sensible move and mandated that rye be shifted to bread production. Problem solved, right? Well, sort of because now there was a problem of how to feed the animals now that they no longer had the rye. The only option was to slaughter a good number of animals, especially pigs which could not be just moved to a grass fed diet. This represented millions of animals, with the end result of the number of pigs in Germany halved during the war years and cattle also reduced by millions to save on food and to provide meat. This slaughter had some short term positive effects because it provided a lot of meat for the population and it freed up rye for bread, however it would have drastic long term ramifications.

Later in the war meat would be very scarce in Germany, and this incentivized farmers to hoard and hide their grain later in the war so that they could grow this illicitly grain fed meat which they then sold for huge profits on the black market. This would happen later in the war when both grain and meat were in short supply, making shortages feel even worse when so much of it was being used to only feed a small fraction of the population. All of these actions, the change in bread composition due to consumer demand before the war, the shift in production away from rye and the move of what was left to animal feed would all force the government to make what seemed like correct decisions. The move of rye back to bread production, the slaughtering of the animals, the change in bread composition were all correct if one basic assumption was true, that the war would be short. If the war is over by the end of 1914 like everybody expected, or even if it ended sometime in 1915 these decisions would have been just fine. However since the war kept dragging on the long term consequences that would not have been felt in peace time resulted in a much worse situation for Germany in the later war years. All of this would result in bread that was very unlike prewar bread, and even this bread made up of a large quantity of potato and turnip flour would have to be rationed heavily, here is an entry in the American ambassador’s journal where he would describe the situation before the entry of America into the war in 1917. “The so-called ‘war bread’, the staple food of the population, which was made soon after the commencement of the war, was composed partially of rye and potato flour. It was not at all unpalatable, especially when toasted; and when it was seen that the war would not be as short as the Germans had expected, the bread cards were issued. That is, every Monday morning each person was given a card which had annexed to it a number of little perforated sections about the size of a quarter of a postage stamp, each marked with twenty-five, fifty or one hundred. The total of these figures constituted the allowance of each person in grams per week.”

When the war started the German government took the same actions as everybody else. This included a public relations campaign to try and preach conservation and that if everybody did their share of the work everything would be okay. This was followed by price controls on some staple items like bread and milk. This measure was championed right from the beginning by many members of the government and this put a maximum price on the goods that farmers could sell them for, creating situations where farmers would actually simply refuse to sell some goods for the amount of money that they were being offered. This then increased friction between farmers and city dwellers, which would just increase more with time, and it did not do anything to help increase the supply of food which no price controls could really assist with. The answer to that problem was thought to be rationing, which would begin with flour in January 1915. Rationing would become such a large part of the government policy that a special office in the German government was created, the War Food Office or Kriegsenahrungsamt. This office was created in May 1916 and would be in charge of nation wide food control. Well, sort of nationwide. It only had power in Prussia, which meant that the office did not have any power in the other German states like Bavaria or Saxony. They felt the same problems as Prussia, and had their own systems of rationing in place, however by not having a central authority the Germans were unable to be as efficient as possible with the food that they did have. The best example of this was the fact that for much of the war Bavaria refused to export a good amount of its food to the rest of Germany. Rationing would be slowly rolled out to many food items over time with rationing being put in place for pretty much everything before the end of the war. In theory this should have helped to even out the hardships on the entire population, but theory was very different from reality in this case. The government did its best, but there are problems when trying to properly ration food that make it almost impossible. In his book Ring of Steel Alexander Watson discusses how these problems might arise, using meat as his example “Butchers received carcasses, which they then trimmed, divided up and sold to consumers possessing ration cards. If the central authorities were too generous in their allocation, the butcher would have meat left over, which would be sold to favoured customers under the counter for prices above the legal maximum. If too little was supplied, the meat would run out before the needs of all customers entitled to buy had been satisfied.” This descrepencies would cause people to sometimes go hungry, which was not good, but also a short term problem, the longer term issue was that a mistake either way would slowly erode public confidence in the government and the rationing system as a whole. If the people at the end of the line did not get food they did not trust the government to get them food in the future and if there was a bunch of meat left over that was then sold on the black market for a higher price people would be left wondering why they could not get more. In both cases people could easily blame the government for their problems. This situation was exacerbated by the separation of the population based on their occupation when it came to how big their ratoins were. This was essential to keeping the war effort going, but that did not really help the person that was at the bottom of the list and not getting very much food. Because of these problems one group that did find their way to the highest tier of rations was the police, who were responsible to making sure all of the various queues in the cities, all filled with hungry people, were orderly.

All of these problems that Germany was experience in food production, distribution, and consumption came together during the winter of 1916/1917 to create what would become known as the Turnip Winter. There were several different causes on top of what we have already discussed in early 1916 the grain from the previous harvest hd already been consumed, which made Germany incredibly reliant on potatoes to make up for the food shortfall. There was a shortage of fertilizer and labor during the planting and harvest seasons in Germany in 1916. These two had been present since the start of the war, but they were felt much more strongly in 1916 than in 1915. The autumn was cold and wet which set up conditions that resulted in half of the potato crop being destroyed by fungus. Finally the winter was very long and very cold which put strain on Germany’s already depleted coal reserves. All of this created a situation where the German population could barely find enough to eat because the supply just was not available. The only food that was available was turnips which were consumed in large numbers even though they were not exactly the most pleasant food to been reliant on. Even with the turnips most of Germany was barely able to feed themselves or their families and diseases like Rickets were widespread among children who were malnourished. This also set the entire country behind in terms of food supply in a way that made the future years even worse. You can imagine it sort of setting the entire country back to zero food reserves, when they had already been pulling down the reserves during the war already, and they certainly could not catch back up. Here is a German woman describing what it was like to live in these conditions “One of the most terrible of our sufferings was having to sit in the dark. It became dark at four in winter. It was not light until eight. Even the children could not sleep all that time. One had to amuse them as best one could, fretful and pining as they were from under-feeding. And when they had gone to bed we were left shivering with the chill which comes from semi-starvation and which no additional clothing seems to alleviate, to sit thinking, thinking.”

Throughout the war there was growing antagonism between the people in the city and the food producers in the countryside. The food shortages were always felt the hardest in the cities and there was a natural tendency in the cities to believe that the farmers were not doing enough to help them, and might actually be purposefully holding back on supplies. This caused many from the cities to go on trips to the countryside to try and buy food directly from the farmers, or in the worst of times to try and scrounge for food. The purchasing of food from the farmers required a good amount of money because they could charge high markups but it occurred on a pretty wide scale. Much like in England there was also a widespread effort for those in urban centers to supplement their diets with food grown in their own gardens and allotments. These efforts of course were supposed by the government and there were efforts to facilitate the process. For their part the farmers were resistant to many of the government initiatives since almost all of them had negative consequences for them. They did not want the government to limit what they could sell their goods at, they did not want to slaughter their livestock which was suggested by the government to release rye and pasture for farming. The resistance to any livestock slaughtering was quite strong after the pork slaughter early in the war which flooded the market with pork, brought down prices, then once all of it was sold caused a huge increase which many farmers missed out on. The farmers were also able to hold back their food for their own usage before turning their produce over to the government and because of this they were often able to hold back a little extra to make, sometimes a lot of, money on the black market. In these actions they in many ways justified the antagonism from those in the city since in many cases they were doing exactly what the urban populations feared they were.

All of the problems just kept getting worse for the German people as the war progressed. By the summer of 1917 rations were down to just 1,000 calories a day, which represented an almost 50% decrease from the start of the year and less than half of what the prewar government considered the minimum required. This was enough to keep people going, but barely. One German woman would say that in 1917 and 1918 their rations were too little to live but too much to die. While this pain was always felt by the poorest classes of society the worst even the middle classes felt severely pinched and there was a noticeable reduction in quality of life. Here is Edith Doerry who was a child living in Berlin during the war. She was the daughter of a well-known Germany athlete and therefore strongly in the middle class before the war. “by and by a change could be felt: rationing had steadily reduced our standard of living, though we never actually went without in the early days. There is nothing dramatic about slow starvation. Its effect is upon you before you know, and it can become almost a way of life, something monotonous, something one gets used to, like traffic noise. Soon the quantity and quality of the food at our disposal declined so much that we were always hungry. After all, we were four lively, growing children and had by no means forgotten the meals we once enjoyed: large slices of good bread, crisp rolls with plenty of fresh butter and our favourite type of sausages on them. Cakes, whipped cream, chops, chicken, ham and lovely puddings became a tantalising memory. The bread was now almost uneatable, like putty, made with the addition of potatoes and swedes. It took years before I could look upon a swede again as a desirable vegetable, because swedes, carrots and now and then kale was all that could be found in the shops. The bread caused much discomfort and embarrassment to people. It swelled up inside them, very likely reducing that gnawing feeling of emptiness. Yet, as I said, there was still always something to eat.” There are some wide estimates on how many civilians lost their lives due to the food shortages in Germany during the war. Numbers are hard to determine because it depends on how you count and what you consider as caused by the shortages. One estimate after the war put it at as many as three quarters of a million Germans but other numbers put it at around 300,000. These numbers do not even count those lost during the 1918 flu epidemic which would hit the weakened populations all over Europe very hard after the war. The birthrates in Germany were also halved during the 4 years, but that could also have other causes. Just to add insult to injury 1918 was not the end of the problems. After the armistice was signed in November the allied blockade was not removed and instead continued all the way until the treaty was signed at Versailles in 1919. This represented the worst of times for the German people, something that would cause some bad memories that would be used by later political leaders. Here is one observer discussing what they saw during the war “As you go through the schools, stand in the class-rooms, watch the children at work, you have the sense of a whole generation stricken by a blight. It is revealed in the puckered brows, the lustreless, uncertain eye, the anaemic faces, the bandy legs, the dry, cracked, flabby skins, the swollen abdomens, the universal air of exhaustion. It is a generation who have never known what a sufficiency of food means. For five years – that is, for almost the whole of the life they remember – they have been starved. They were never worse starved than during the nine months’ blockade that followed the war. They are still starving – a whole nation of children. The fortunate ones die (50 per cent, more infants died in Berlin alone during 1919, a year of ‘peace,’ than in 1913); the rest are starting their life with a physical and mental inefficiency that will make life a burden. The ‘English sickness’ alone (rickets), the result mainly of the post-war blockade, has claimed hundreds of thousands. Tuberculosis in all its variations has swept the child life like a plague. In Leipzig there are 8,000 tuberculous children; in Cologne, 10,000; Berlin, 30,000. The mortality among small children has reached 25 per cent. The mortality of older children has gone up 85 per cent – nearly double. In the 115th public school of Berlin, out of 650 children examined, 305 had no proper sleeping space, 370 had no heating in their homes, 341 had not a drop of milk from week-end to week-end. The number of children who have died of tuberculosis and hunger in Germany had reached a million in April last.”