germany and food -- 9/12/23

Today's selection -- from The First World War: An Agrarian Interpretation by Avner Offer. The starvation of Germans, and that country’s defeat in World War I, was in important respects a function of its lack of self-sufficient food supplies:

“Brigadier-General H. C. Rees emerged from the prisoner-of-war camp at Bad-Colberg, Saxe Meiningen, on 12 December 1918 and reported to London on his first impressions. 

“Germany appears to be completely beaten and disorganized; further hostilities on any appreciable scale are most improbable. The German people are, in my opinion, fully aware of this fact and accept it as a lesser evil than the continuance of the war ... The nation as a whole is on the verge of starvation .... Owing to the lack of raw materials, industry is nearly at a standstill, and the thousands of men now disbanded will not be able to find work. 

“Like an invisible net, the problems of food supply entangled German society and its leadership until the war effort became difficult, then impossible, to sustain. Germany was not starved into defeat--nor, for that matter, was it decisively beaten on the battlefield. Its downfall was ultimately a matter of economic inferiority. The problems of food were crucial. They affected the course and the climax of the war in a number of ways and also helped to shape the subsequent peace. 

“Why concentrate on food? Germany's economy was one of the most advanced, the most specialized, the most industrialized and urbanized in the world, and its total output was second only to that of the United States. It formed a complex web in which a large variety of inputs produced an even greater variety of goods and services. Yet the German economy in wartime was flexible enough to produce the munitions and maintain the armies in the field. Germany managed to produce most of the industrial requirements of the war but failed to secure a sufficiency of food. 

“For a closed economy, food presents a special difficulty, even if the economy is as flexible and advanced as Germany's was. The demand for food is not very elastic. One food can replace another, but the human body must have a minimal level of nutrition in order to function. Consequently, food supply tied up a great deal of resources which could not be used elsewhere. Unlike other industries, food production could not be turned off for the duration but had to go on at full cock. Secondly, food could not be stockpiled for very long. For most foods the cycle of production was a year or less, and most food was consumed within one cycle. Only small stocks were carried over from one year to the next. Most livestock products spoiled quickly if they were not tinned, salted or frozen. Grain also needed careful storage and deteriorated over long periods. The stocks required were physically large and were costly to store and to finance. Fruit and vegetables, as well as potatoes, were very bulky per unit of nutrition and spoiled quickly. AU sectors of economy and society (including the military) depended on food. Every single person consumed it every single day. Food was by far the largest outlay of the vast bulk of the population, amounting to more than 50 per cent of expenditure in working-class households. No activity, no individual remained unaffected by the performance of the food sector. Of all commodities, food gave rise to the greatest discontent, and emerged as the war economy's weakest link.

“Farmers – Do your Duty – The Cities are Hungry”
©Art.IWM PST 11290

“Little is known about the actual quantities of food available in Germany during the war. The first official and semi-official accounts were published soon after the armistice, when the food blockade was still in force. Those who drew up these accounts were still hungry themselves and depicted the food situation in the darkest colours in order to extract concessions from the Allies. British and American observers also reported during the winter of 1918-19. Although somewhat more detached, they relied on German experts and on official data. In the 1920s the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace commissioned several studies and its publications contain a great deal of information. Diaries, letters and memoirs which mentioned food conditions began to appear even before the war was over, and new ones still turn up. Finally, many local and regional studies of civilian experience during the war have appeared in Germany during the last two decades, but they have not seriously altered the picture already formed in the 1920s.

“A group of academic experts and officials (the Eltzbacher commission) began an urgent study of Germany's food situation almost as soon as the guns began to fire. By the time the boffins reported in December 1914 it was clear that nobody would be home for Christmas, and that food might be critical for Germany's success. The commission's task was to determine pre-war consumption levels and the scale of wartime requirements. The study was clouded by statistical, scientific and practical uncertainties. In outline at least the magnitude of the task was clear. About 19 per cent of the calories consumed in Germany came from abroad. For protein the ratio was higher, at 27 per cent, and for fats it was 42 per cent. Under wartime conditions of production, the deficit would be even greater: a quarter of the calories and a third of the protein. Serious as this outlook was, the commission had to put on a brave face. The food available, it said, although far short of peacetime consumption, still stood somewhat above the standard of physiological necessity and pre-war consumption contained a great deal of waste. The problem might be difficult but not desperate. With appropriate measures of economy and substitution, about 90 per cent of the pre-war calories would be available and about 87 per cent of the protein.

“The crux of the problem was the balance between arable and livestock production. Animals use grain inefficiently. According to German data, a pound of beef contained only 12-20 per cent of the calories and protein that produced it; for pigs the figure was 15-25 per cent for protein, and 35- 45 per cent of the calories. In the United States, at the same time, 1,000 calories in beef cost more than six times as much as the same calories in wheat flour, and protein cost 2.5-3.5 times as much.

“After spending the summer of 1916 in Germany, an American physiologist wrote: 'Had the Germans been vegetarians, there would have been no problem. To the people of India, the ratio of grain to population would have constituted luxury. For people accustomed to eating a great deal of meat and animal products, the natural impulse was to cling as closely as possible to established habits.”



Avner Offer


The First World War: An Agrarian Interpretation


Oxford University Press


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