* home front and rationing during World War I : Germany food shortages








The Homefront and Rationing World War I: Germany--Food Shortages


Figure 1.--Here we see a photograph showing Berlin children headed toward a garden to help grow potatoes and other vegetables. That may be a teacher that is supervising them. The photograph is undated, but we would guess was taken about 1917. A severe potato shortage developed as a result of a very poor 1916 harbest, leading to the Turnip inter. Click on the image for an elarged detail.

German officials focused primarily on industrial production. Less attention was given to the needs of the less glamerous agricultural sector. Large numbers of men from rural areas were drafted. Officials assumed that the war would soon be short and conscripts could be returned to the rural work force. Significant problems soon developed. The massive losses on the battlefield mean that more and more men had to be conscripted. This further depleted the rural workforce. And the Royal Navy blockade made it impossible to import food. Germany unlike Britain could not import food from America and the Dominions. In addition, fertilizer imports were also cut off. German factories were used for the production of munitions. The shortage of fertilizer resulted in a sharp decline in agricultural productivity. Food was not the only commodity in short supply. Shortages developed for fuel (coal) as well as clothing and footwear. Food shortages were, however, most keenly felt. Clothing purchases could be deferred. Food was a different matter. Of course the War did not end quickly and production short falls began to cause serious food shortages at both the front and on the domestic market. We do not yet have details on the response of the German Government to the developing shortages. The German soldiers at the front were affected by food shortages. German troops were chronically undernourished affecting their ability to conduct operations. There are reports that when they managed to seize Allied food stocks, they would stop gorge themselves, in some instances impairing offensive operations. This also caused the soldiers to engage in looting. The situation at home was even worse. Many Germans by the time the war ended were close to starvation.

Pre-War Food Situation

Germany at the daem of the 19th century was divided into many principalities and a few larger states. Even the larger states (Austria and Prussia) werev heavily rural, with some urban trading centers< Industry was mostly handicraft operations. Germany at the time was self suffient in food production. The German states until the mid-19th century were largely agricultural countries. With the advent of the industrial revolution, the poplation grew, especially the city populations. And while the population increased the demand for food also increased. Germany thus became more and more dependant on imported food for the growing industrial work force. Prussia emerged as the leading Grman industrial power. The Prussian state promoted industrial expansion, led by heavy industry. German industrial expansion occured evn though the ountry had few importantnatural resources, the mot importat being coal. Industry was a major factor in Prussia's defeat of Austria in the Austro-Prussian War (1866) and thus German unification was accomplished around the Prussian monarchy (1870-71). The security concious Prussians were aware of the danger of losing self suffiency in food. Chancellor Bismarck leveled a new tariff on imported grain and at the same time introduced the sugar beet as a primary crop. Many farmers began to abandon traditional, inefficient practices and adopted modern new methods, including use of new fertilizers and new farm machinery. The knowledge and tools gained from the intensive farming of sugar and other root crops made Germany the most efficient agricultural producer in Europe. [Perkins] Even so, farms were relatively small adversely affecting productivity. Women did much of the field work. And as workers moved into the fity for better paying industrial jobs, Gemany became increasingly dependent on migratory workers, especially from eastern Germany with Polish popultions. While German food production increased, it did not keep up with the expnding industrial workforce. By the time of World War I, Germany was the greatest industrial power in Europe with the largest economy. It was also highly dependent on imprted food to feed in huge industrial work force. Germany imported roughly one-third of its food. And most of it was affected by the war. Imports from Russia ceased. And the Royal Navy blockade cut off maritime imports. [Perkins, p. 60.] A major problem was animal feed. The resulting shortahe caused a massive reduction in the live stock sector which would decline some 65 percent during the War. [Elizbacher] The general military assessment was that any future war would be a short conflict like the Franco-Prussian War (1870-71) and German agriculture could deal with the country's needs. German authorities and the Reichstag began to study the issue of food security and national grain reserves, but not action was taken before the outbreak of the War. [Duffett, p. 60.]

Economic Policy

German officials with the out break of the War focused primarily on industrial production, especilly the aramnents industry.

Conscription

Less attention was given to the needs of the less glamerous agricultural sector. Large numbers of men from rural areas were drafted. This included not only agricultural workers, but also farmers. Officials assumed that the war would soon be short and conscripts could be returned to the rural work force. Significant problems soon developed. The massive losses on the battlefield mean that more and more men had to be conscripted. This further depleted the rural workforce.

Allied Naval Blockade

The Sea war was nore important than suggested by most World War I histories. The Royal Navy North Sea blockade was very effective. It botteled up Germasny's great port of Hamburg. The Baltic Sea was open, but none of the neutral Scandanavian countries were important food sources. The blockade made it impossible for Germany to import the food or the fertilizer needed go maintain sgricultural prioductivity. Germany unlike Britain could not import food from America and the Dominions. Even without the blockade, Germany would have been hard put to import needed food supplies. Unlike the Allies who could obtain American loans, Germany did not have the finanxcial capability to pay for them. It could not export mamufactured goods, because German industry was fully committed to the war effort. The German Navy made one effirt to break the blockkade, resulting in the Battle of Jutland (1916). But they just did not have the fleet strength to take on the Royal Navy. Then the United States Navy arrived to not only streghen the blockade, but to add to convoy esorts (1917).

Agricultural Sector

The War meant that as Germany would need to increase its agicultural production to replace the food imorts that were no longer possible. This proved impossible and Germanby hd no plznsin oplace to do so. The War seen as a short term effort as Germny's previous wars had been. It was more of an effort to maintain production, but here too Germany failed and failed miserably. Germany now had a vast number of formerly productive worker conscripted into the military. This included agricultural workers. Thus while Germzny was nio invaded and iccupied by fioreign armies, agricultural poriduction fell bdcauuse if the loss oif oprofuctive farm workers. The German Government introduced rationing, but took no important steps to increase agicultural production. The only important advatage of the war was the large numbers of POWs which could be used as agricultural workers. Of course the POWs also had to be fed so the actual food ballance was minimal. They were not fed well, but unlike World War II they were not purposefully starverd. The loss of farm workers was not the only adverse impact on the agicultural sector. The British naval blockade not only prevented food imports, it prevented needed imports of fertilizer. Just befgore the War the Haber-Bosch Process eabled the industrial production of nitrates (1909). (One of the ironies of history is that the same man, Fritz Havber, who created this great boon to humanity wasa also the genius behind German poison gas weaponry.) Until then nitrates had to be mined. Chile was the major source of nitrates. Industrial production of nitrates significantly increased earth's agricultural potential and this included Germany. The War chanaged the immediate benefit for Germany. Production of nitrogen fertilizers which had begun in Germany, stopped as manufacturing was switched to that of the munitions needed for the War. Denied fertilizer, German agricultural productivity plummeted. Further aggrevsating the country's food shortages. Than there was the pig crisis. The Germans press began complaining that pigs were consuming food that was needed for people. The result was a large scale slaughter of pigs creating a temporary bonaza of pork. But once gone there was an even greater shortage of meat and fats as well as less manuer fertilzer for Germany's largely peasant-based agriculture.

Other Shortages

Food was not the only commodity in short supply. Shortages developed for fuel (coal) as well as clothing and footwear. Food shortages were, however, most keenly felt. Clothing purchases could be deferred. Food was a different matter. Of course the War did not end quickly and production short falls began to cause serious food shortages at both the front and on the domestic market. We do not yet have details on the response of the German Government to the developing shortages.

Family Adjustment

Men at the front suffered terribly, but families on the home front also had to make serious adjustments. The greatest adjustment was food shortages. This ws especially the case for familes that lost husbands and fathers at the front. This had been in most cases the family breadwinner and thus the living standards of these families were radically altered. Families could nto survive on the small governent stipends. Thery had no access to exoensuive black mrket food stuffs. War widows commonly had to enter the work force as did many youth. Teenagers commonly sought jobs as well. Many were forced to leave school. And as women and youth received lower wages, many families still had trouble earning enough to pay for basic necesities. The problem was severe enough that health problemns increased as the War continued. Malnutrition is especially harmful to young children. The resulting food shortages would have an enormous impact in the German war effort.

Cost

Not only did food shortages develop, but food became more expensive. A black market developoed. And because of a poorly designed national rationing system, low-income Germans suffered. In Britain low income families actually benefitted. Thus was not the case in Germany.

Health Problems

Food shortages and prize rises mean that many families could not afford the food needed for a healthy diet. This was reflected with mortality rates, especially for both children and the elderly. People died from malnutrition and diseases associted with malnutrition.

Seizing Food in Occupied Countries

As the war proved to be very different than the Franco-Peussian War, agricultural production began to suffer. The primary problem was the concription of agicultural workers. But the shift of the ecomony to a war footing meant that needed inputs of fertilizer and farm machinery wee no longer available. Thus gricultural production declined at the same time Germany was cut off from needed imports. Germany was forced to ration the availavle food. The only other altrnative was to seize food in the countries the German Army occupied. This began in Belgium, another highly indistrialized country that was not self sufficent in food production. The German Army moved to seize the civilian food stocks within a few days of the drive into neutral Belgium. Disaster was prevented when America launched a major effort to feed the Belgians. OThis was possible because Belgium was located on the North Sea and it was possible to negotiate access with the Germans. Tragically this was not possible on the Eastern Front. There was no way of getting food to them. Negotiations over Belgium was difficult, for Eastern Europe it proved impossible. We do not yet have data on the food stocks the Germans seized in the East. We suspect that much of it went to feeding the eastern army. One report suggests that food was obtained from Romania when that country was dfeated (1917).

Chronolgical Trends

It did not take long for food shortages and associated problems to develop in Germany. Of all the World War I beligerants, Germany was the most vulnerable to food and raw material shortages as it was so dependent on imports and the Royal Navy could easily blockade its North Sea ports. Britain was also heavily dependent on imports, but could import what it needed from the Dominions, the United States, and other countries. As a result, the food suituation very quickly deteriorated in Germany. The Turnip Winter (1916-17) was caused by potato shortages. But by the time the War ebded, Germany was in the grip of very severe shortages. Other countries were also experiencing food shortages, but they were being assisted by American food aid.

1914

Germany could not have launched the War at a worst time, at least as far as food is concerned. The German Army smashed into Belgium just as German farmers were preparing for the 1914 harvest. The call up of the reserves, meant that many agricultural workers and farmers' sons, as wella s younger farmers were called up for military service. This affected the 1914 harvest and as a result there were shortages in Germany almost from the beginning of the War. Crop shortfalls and the transport bottlenecks caused the shortages. Civilias soon experienced shortages of basic food-stuffs (bread and potatoes). This was one reason that the German Army seized the civilian food supply in Belgium which would had led to mass starvation had Americans not organized Belgian Relief--the first step in a massive American relief effort to feed refugees and populations facing severe food shortages. The German War Plan had not provided for food measures because they expected victory after a short summer campaign. After the War, the Germsns would complain of food shoirtages. ignoring the food shortages they had cause in kther Eurooean countries.

1915

Food shortges which developed eatly in the war reached critival levels in many urban areas. City residents begn expressing resentment toward farmers and rural workers. Rumors spread of farmers hoarding food. The first foot riots were reported. Other basic amenities became increasingy scarce.

1916

Dood shortages became more severe and widespread. Products like soap, fat, cheese, butter and eggs were generally unavailable. Scarcities of coal, shoes and textiles were reported. Food prices rose. The Government decreed price contrls, instituting maximum rices. This drove food on to the black market. Sugar and potatoes were affected. This was understandable for sugar which was mostly imported,but pottoes were a sraple. The German government mandated compulsory 'meatless' and 'fatless' days. The terrible Turnip Winter began at the end of the year. This was the first major food risis in Germany. Germany experienced a very rainy autumn. As a result, a substantial part of the planned turnipharves rotted in the fields. With soi mny men in the army, apart of the problem was labor shortages for the hrvest. The end result was that the potto harvest was only about half of what was expected. And a very cold winter led to an ibcreased demand for coal. Coal was the major fuel used in German homes. As production cold not be increased, coal shortges developed. Coal was also the fuel trains used. Shortages thus delayed rail transport, including the delivery of potatoes nd other food stuffs to the cities. This led to the loss of harvested potatoes due to spolage. spoiled in transit. In order to ensure that people at least survived, towns and parishes distributed turnips, which, for lack of any alternative, were prepared in every imaginable variation. This was in addition to the shortages created by the Royal Navy blockade, especially oils and fats.

1917

The Turnip Winter (1916-17) affected many families. Unable to find potatoes, German civilans were forced to turn to turnips. The turnip was a vegetable that before the War was mstly used for ankmal feed. It was much less nutritous than potatoes which constituted an important pasrt of the German diet..

1918

The food supply reached crisis levels during the last year of the War. German civilians had been forced to rely primrily on diet of bread and potatoes. But by th lat year of the War there were shortages frof even tese staples. Prices rose and there were times in which they were not avilable at all. Many Germans by the time the war ended were close to starvation.

Battlefield Food Supplies

The German soldiers at the front were affected by food shortages. German troops were chronically undernourished affecting their ability to conduct operations. There are reports that when they managed to seize Allied food stocks, they would stop gorge themselves, in some instances impairing offensive operations. This also caused the soldiers to engage in looting.

Rationing and Distribution

The situation at home was even worse. Thw German Government attempted to control the supply and distribution of food and household products. Germany set up the War Food Office. The Office was, however, was not in full control. Other agencies had conflicting jurisdictions. Laws and regulatins were implemented to distribute food fairly. The many laws and agncies often acted at cross purposes. And Government efforts were f little assstance to suffering families.

Post-War Shortages

After the Armistice the Brutish maiuntained the nacval blockade (Novenber 1918). As a result the Germans were unable to import foid or notrogen fertilizer. Serious food shortages thus peristed in Germny after the War. The British policy was that ythis was necessary to force German compliance with the terms if the Armistice agreement. It weas a factior in the turmoil that occurred in Germany immediately after the War. Whatever the reason, it caused real suffering in Germny andd serious malnutrition isssues, especially among low-income families. Of course , the Germans meerly experienced at first habd, the problems they had created in other countries like Belgium. It would, hiwever, be the beginning of the radicalization of the German population that would eventually culminate in the NAZI seizure of power.

Sources

Duffett, Rachel. Food and War in the 20th Century (Routledge: 2016), 294p.

Elizbacher, O. 1914.

Herwig, H. The First World War: Germany and Austria-Hungary 1914-1918 (Bloomsbury Academic, 1996).

Perkins, J. A. "Dualism in German agrarian historiography," Comparative Studies in Society & History (April 1986), Vol. 28 Issue 2, pp 287�330.







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Created: 7:43 AM 4/22/2006
Last updated: 11:51 AM 12/19/2020