16/10/1916 Hunger in Central Europe

The food situation in central Europe is increasingly problematic. Agricultural production has fallen. There are a number of reasons for this. Many agricultural labourers have now been drafted into their armies. Thanks to the British blockade, Germany and Austria-Hungary are also unable to import the Chilean nitrates that they had been using to fertilise their lands. And now the German potato harvest largely fails thanks to a blight that destroyed the nutritious tubers just as they are being harvested.

Even before the war, Germany had been a food importer. But now, again thanks to the British naval blockade, American wheat can no longer feed German cities. Romania’s entry into the war means that its harvest too is no longer available to the Central Powers, at least until Mackensen and Falkenhayn can overrun the Balkan country.

The food shortage is creating great problems for people within the two empires. Food prices are rising and simply finding enough to eat is increasingly difficult. Inflation means that those on fixed incomes are seeing the value of their wages collapse.

The two empires are trying a variety of methods to manage the food problem. Rationing has been introduced, at least to an extent, with workers in war industries receiving higher food allocations. For the two conservative empires this has created the troubling situation whereby industrial workers are often less troubled by food insecurity than state officials. In a further sign of change, Germany has now recognised that women too can be employed in war production and accordingly receive the more generous ration.

Public food kitchens have appeared in both Germany and Austria-Hungary. They have also started putting prisoners of war to work on the land to improve agricultural production. And Germany has its conquered territories in Poland and OberOst to exploit. These are being squeezed of food as much as possible. Rations in Warsaw are reputedly just two-thirds of those in Germany, while those in OberOst are probably worse.

Even so, in both Germany and Austria-Hungary social cohesion is beginning to fray. Food riots have been reported. City folk have been going out into the countryside to steal food or to buy directly from farmers, bypassing rationing rules. German farmers meanwhile have been taking their money out of banks, fearing that the authorities will confiscate their deposits or seize them in compulsory war loans at disadvantageous rates of interest.

The food situation is worse in Austria-Hungary than Germany. The authorities have been less effective in their response to the problem, but also they do not have conquered territories to exploit. The internal politics of the empire are creating further complications. Tisza, Hungary’s prime minister, is blocking food exports to Austria and resisting any attempt to equalise rations across the whole empire. He believes that his position is dependent on Hungarians feeling that they are getting more food than those elsewhere in the empire.

As their empire’s face into a winter of hunger and food insecurity, the leaders of Germany and Austria-Hungary are gripped by the fear that the people will become angry and turn on them. This cannot continue. The leaders, particularly Germany’s leaders, are convinced that the war must somehow be brought to a victorious conclusion in the new year.

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