109: Life on the Homefront Pt. 4


We catch up with what was happening in Italy, before just discussing some random topics from the homefront.



Hello everyone and welcome to History of the Great War Episode 109. This week a big thank you goes out to all of the podcasts Patreon supporters. By supporting the podcast they get 3 things, the knowledge that they are helping make this podcast happen, access to special Patreon only episodes like the one next week that will begin a two part series on what life was like in the Occupied Territories in the west and east, and that wonderful warm fuzzy feeling inside that can only be caused by doing something awesome. Go check out all of the awesome sources that were used to make the podcast over at historyofthegreatwar.com and clicking on the Sources like at the top. As in depth as I try to make the show it barely scratches the surface and I highly recommend picking up a book on a topic that has caught your interest. With all of that out of the way lets jump into what is our fourth and final episode on our tour of the homefronts around Europe, today we will be branching out a bit in our topics. We will start by discussing Italy by discussing just the general state of their society and why there was unrest that would built toward the end of the war. This is a good precursor to our episodes in about a month and a half where we catch up on the Italian Front. Then we will briefly touch on some of the changes that had taken place for women. Then we will look at the Hindenburg Plan, which was the economic plan put in place in Germany when Hindenburg and Ludendorff came into power. This program had the goal of massively increasing the productivity of the German economy, specifically around the manufacturing of war material. Finally, we will just briefly touch on what was happening in the Neutral countries and some of the issues they were having around food. For those who listened to the free premium episode from a few weeks ago this should add just a bit more information to that conversation, stuff that I found after those episodes were completed. As I mentioned earlier this will be our final episode on the homefronts, however there will be one more episode focusing on food next week only this time it will be about food at the front. AS it turns out over the course of 3 years I have gathered quite a few research notes on the topic and with the additions found during the research for these episodes I think it is time to do an episode dedicated just to that topic. Without further ado, lets jump in.

An important bit of information to consider when discussing Italy during the war was the huge role played by the army in society. In general the government had always been very laissez-faire with the economy and production before the war but in 1915 the Army began to fill in the gaps in direction that they saw. This meant that for almost the entire war the Minister of Arms and Munitions and his Under-Secretary were both soldiers. Then below these two leaders almost the entire industrial mobilization infrastructure was manned by soldiers. This created a situations where the army as an institution had a tremendous amount of power. They found themselves in charge of maintaining control in the factories, especially when tensions began to rise between the workers and the government. The industrial leaders of the factories tried to use the situation to their advantage, they knew that they had the army behind them so they used that to keep wages low, conditions bad, and hours long. However the government would eventually step in and begin to author laws to protect workers and increase their wages and raise their living conditions. This would not solve the issue, although it would delay it until 1917. In that year the issues began with the socialists, who began organizing demonstrations even before Italy entered the war in 1915. At that time these were pro-neutraility demonstrations designed to try and keep Italy out of the war entirely. Interestingly enough alone of the major European powers Italy did not enter the war with the backing of the major Socialist parties of the country. All over Europe Socialist parties were well documented in being against the war, but at the end of the day they all fell in line, except for in Italy. And this group would continue this antagonism for the entire time that Italy was in the war. There was also a good number of non-Socialists members of the government and among the populace that agreed with them. These groups would come around to at least not speaking out against the war once the King had committed himself to joining the side of the Entente. However this still points to the division among the Italian nation when it came to the war, right from the outset and before things started to get tough. Unlike in some other countries the focal points of the protests were neither in the agricultural areas or in the city centers but instead areas ringing the cities, the suburbs really. These areas were made up of groups of people who were neither agricultural or war industry workers which meant that they missed out on most of the economic properity that it brought some within Italian society. The groups often grew out of people waiting in line for government help, especially by women who had family members at the front. When they protested they did so in several forms, sometimes it was traditional political protests, this most often occurred when it was organized by the socialist or other radical political parties. There were also just spontaneous protests which often sprung out of economic hardships and also the belief that the war was pushing the government to remove certain basic rights from its citizens. This mindset was strongest in northern Italy and in the late summer 1917 it began to boil over. A protest led by women in Turin began in August, and it was sparked by a bread shortage with a healthy dose of help from the socialists and anarchists who saw this as an opportunity to use the anger over the bread shortage to their gain by creating a general uprising. This uprising consumed huge portions of northern Italy and the army had to be called in to put it down. They left 50 civilians dead and 200 wounded in their wake and they made huge areas of northern Italy into war zones, which allowed them to put them under strict military command. These efforts would lower the number of protests in Italy in the last year of the war, however the repression by the army would create deep fissures in the Italian society that the socialists, anarchists, and fascists would use to their advantage in the post war years.

I would say that in general there is not a good amount of knowledge among people about how the war affected women. I think that the general feeling is that the war probably brought some women out of the home and into the workforce and presented them with some kind of vague ability to break the shackles the sexism in early 20th century society. There was certainly a movement of women out of the house and into the workforce, however this was not a universal trend in all countries and some would see more women finding work outside the home than others. For example in Germany and Austria-Hungary the percentage for female employment outside the home remained at roughly the same level as it had been before the war. This was not because women were not hired into the expanding war industries but instead because instead of coming from the home they often just left their other lower paying jobs. These lower paying jobs were in a variety of industries like textiles, domestic service, agriculture, just to name a few. These women were apt to shift to the factories where there were spots to fill for men who went to the front, and generally they paid far better and did at least a little better at keeping up with war induced inflation. For women moving into war industries one thing they found was that they often had more spending money, especially early in the war before food costs started to rise above wages. In some countries this caused the government to overreact and start imposing limits on what these women could do. An example of this was in France where millions of women found themselves both making far more money than before the war due to employment in the factories and also free of many of their domestic responsibilities because their male family members were at the front, so they found other ways to fill time. This meant a large increase in alcohol consumption among female factory workers. This caused the government to overreact and introduce a bunch of legislation to try and reduce the amount of drinking. All of this legislation combined to be probably more than all the anti-drinking regulations from the previous 50 years in France combined, all aimed at women, of course. I have an episode brewing discussing the effect of the war on women in societies that I am still letting incubate awhile, at the very least it will come after the Russian Revolution episodes since women play a critical role in the events in Petrograd.

A critical piece of the German war efforts in the last two years of the war was the economic plans that were put in place by Hindenburg and Ludendorff. The first of these would be called the Hindenburg Plan and it was suggested just a few weeks after the two were put in command of the army in 1916. There were several changes that they believed needed to be made to make their lofty program goals a reality. The first was a change in how the war industries were planned and managed. To make this happen the Supreme War Office was created on November 1st, 1916. The goal of this new unit of the War Minsitry was to organize Germany’s labor, arms procurement, imports and exports, raw materials, and food. This was quite the portfolio and it gave the new office pretty wide ranging powers in German society. They would use this power to try and turn the German economy into a full wartime economy focused on one goal, winning the war. However, there was one little problem, the same little problem I talk about every time something in Germany tries to be an all encompassing powerhouse, and that would be the other German states. Bavaria, Saxony, and Wurttemberg all refused to allow the Supreme War Office to have any power over their institutions. They setup similar organs inside of their governments but they did not directly coordinate with the Prussians. While many of the changes brought about by the Hindenburg Program were focused outside the military there were some problems that only the military could really solve and one of them was the number of skilled workers that were still at the front. Therefore 125,000 of these workers were released from their roels in the military and sent back to the factories. This barely put a dent in the number of workers needed though, and it was believed that Germany would need to find between 2 and 3 million more workers for the program to be successful. To round up this number there was first a simple organizational pass on the number of workers doing what and a cull of workers from all industries that were not considered war essential with anybody found through these efforts being sent to where they were needed. However, this was still not enough and Hindenburg and Ludendorff suggested to Bethmann-Hollweg that there would be a new law that made war work compulsory and give the government the power to move any worker to a war industry, and this would also apply to women as well. One member of the German government, the State Secretary for the Interior Karl Helfferich was one of those that would speak out against this final clause not because he did not think women should be working in the factories but because, as he pointed out, there were already more women wanting work than there were available jobs, and it was just a superflous clause that would increase opposition to the new legislation without any real gain. The request from the army would eventually morph into the Patriotic Auxiliary Service Bill which was initially drawn up by the Supreme War Office. When this bill was introduced it was opposed by some groups in the Reichstag. The Social Democrat, Centre, and Progressive parties in that body were all concerned that as written the act would put even more power into the hands of the military, and they were simply unwilling to do this willingly. So instead of shutting down the bill entirely the politicians did what politicians do and they began to rework it. By the time it eventually passed into law it was filled with concessions and exceptions to various groups within society. The compromises found in the approved bill were necessary for it gain acceptance among the Reichstag. Part of this new bill was the raising of the military age from 45 to 60 years of age with the older men being drafted into the Patriotic Auxiliary Service which basically meant that the military could do whatever they saw fit with them.

Generally they went to administrative jobs, factory positions, or were sent out to the agricultural industry. While this legislation dealt with factories and workers, who were often already working 15 to 18 hour days, it also diverted coal and railways capacity to industrial purposes, making food shortages in the cities even worse than they were before. What food there was now had an even harder time making it into the urban areas. There were also huge purchases of food on the black market by the armaments industry with firms like Krupp and Thyssen buying up huge amounts over the course of the last months of 1916 to give to its workers to keep them pliant and to counteract the increased demands of the new program. This made these firms better to work for, and improved worker morale and almost certainly improved productivity, it took food away from the market at a critical moment. And while a few weeks ago we discussed how these food shortages would grow worse and cause suffering among the citizens of Germany and Austria-Hungary they also caused unrest, protests, and open revolt.

1917 would be the year where the unrest of the workers in Germany and Austria would rise to a new level, but not to its height. In Germany there would be over 650,000 workers on strike during the year. This situation was precipitated by everything we have discussed so far, the turnip winter and the general lack of food, the fact that when winter was over they government was forced to cut bread and flour rations yet again. Food would be scare throughout the entire spring or summer, which brings me to a bit of a sidetrack that I simply have to take. One thing that many people may not realize is that during pre-modern times, in the ancient world, middle ages, etc, and even up into the 20th century when food was scarce during a famine or during war the worst part of the year was not actually winter, but instead the spring and early summer. During this time societies were still dependent on the previous year’s harvest and were still waiting on the current year’s to grow and mature before they would see a return. This was the situation that Germany and Austria found themselves in during early summer 1917. They had eaten through most of their food before winter was even over, and there was no large harvest in the cards for several more months. This was enough to cause the societal stress that had been building to continue to build, and then there was the Russian example. After the February revolution in Russia, and its seeming success, the workers of Germany thought that maybe following the Russian example was not such a bad idea. Because of this you end up seeing messages among German socialist groups like the following “Workers! Our brothers, the Russian proletariat were in the same situation 4 weeks ago. We know what occurred in Russia: the working people rose there and did not just force the regulation of the food question. It also at the same time – much more importantly – won freedom for itself; something of which the German worker does not yet dare to dream.” All of these factors inflamed the workers and the populace. However, the unrest in Germany would never turn into a Russian style revolution and a good part of the reason for that was how the government reacted to it. For example in the Berlin factories, whose work forces werer particularly displeased, the work forces were militarized and were told that if they did not return to their jobs immediately they would be formally drafted into the army and would therefore become subject to military discipline and they would then be forced to do exactly the same job but for less pay. These types of hard crackdowns were not abnormal and they happened in other places in Germany it was all possible because of the continued loyalty of the army and police, something that would be a critical weakness of the Russian army. Along with harsh crackdowns the German government also put renewed effort into strengthening and enlarging the propaganda campaigns on the home front. Ludendorff would put his stamp of approval on this new program, dubbing it Patriotic Instruction. They believed that these efforts were successful due to how well the 7th War Loan went in the fall of 1917. This war loan always a key indicator to public opinion, attracted 7 million citizens to give money, twice as many as the 5th war loan the previous year. This number was almost certainly buoyed by the recent massive success of the U-Boats who were at their height in late spring and early summer 1917 and this fact was still felt in the autumn of 1917 but the German people. All three of these actions, the crackdowns, the propaganda, and the U-Boat campaign were all good steps taken by the government to stave off greater upheaval, and possibly revolution, however there was one large mistake that they made. When confronted with a population that was growing more unruly by the day the government deluded themselves into thinking that surely it was caused by external agitators. In some ways they believed that they were the victims of exactly what they had done to Russia when they transported Lenin to Petrograd in early 1917. This made things easier to stomach, it is far easier to blame a foreign power that you are at war with instead of having to admit they it was themselves that were the problem. This meant that they often discounted the demands of the people for higher rations, universal suffrage, a public declaration from the government that they would accept a peace with pre-war borders, and a repeal of the Auxiliary Service Act. These demands were serious, but if the government could blame external forces on their creation it was easy to ignore them and try to do other things. However, nobody could ignore the situation forever, and while things became easier towards the end of the year with the imminent exit of the Russians after the October Revolution, the home front situation would influence Ludendorff’s military plans for 1918 and would be one of the reasons for the spring offensive that would hopefully win the war.

One final note for discussion today is food in the neutral countries of Europe. The countries that were the most affected were those inside the British blockade like Switzerland, Denmark, Sweden, or the Netherlands. This resulted in Denmark issuing ration cards in 1917, Switzerland in 1918. Some of these countries were able to reach agreements with Britain so that some amount of food could be imported, however these were always accompanied by an agreement that it would not be given to Germany, and generally a few other clauses that the neutral countries often did not like. This rationing of countries near Germany was both a key piece of the British blockade, and also extremely illegal when considering international law. Unfortunately there was precisely nothing that the neutral countries could do about what Britain was doing. If they did not agree to greatly restrict exports to Germany, and anything else Britain wanted, eventually they would find their country starving, much like Sweden did late in the war. I bring this fact up now because in a few months when we talk about the unrestricted U-Boat campaign I want you to remember the starving people of not just Germany and Austria but also all of these neutral countries. The British blockade was completely illegal, and had dire consequences for millions of people, and that is a fact that gets glossed over pretty frequently when discussing the war, however the more I research the more I realize how important it was. Just because the Entente won the war, and are generally seen as the correct side, it does not mean that they did not do some pretty crappy stuff. And on that somewhat pessimistic note, thank you for listening, and I hope you will join me next episode as we talk about food in the trenches.