22/2/1917 The continuing food crisis in Germany and Austria-Hungary

Germany and Austria-Hungary are having problems feeding their people. Before the war Germany was able to import food from overseas to feed its industrial workforce. Now the British navy cuts off the granaries of the world. Domestic food production has fallen, partly due to the agricultural labour force having been drafted into the army. The loss of fertilisers is also a factor. Germany can no longer import nitrates from Chile. What nitrates are available (largely thanks to the work of the gifted chemist Fritz Haber, who has developed a process for their synthesis) are being used to manufacture explosives. And the most recent potato harvest has failed, because copper is no longer available for the anti-blight sprays. Germans are now feeding themselves on turnips or Kriegsbrot, an unappetising bread substitute.

The Allies meanwhile have further contributed to German food woes by buying up the entire output of the neutral states bordering the Reich. Thus the Germans are denied the cheese of the Netherlands or the fish of Scandinavia.

Austria-Hungary should be in a better position, as a more agricultural country. However the situation here is worse. The authorities are less organised and regional politics compound the problems of food distribution. Prime Minister Tisza of Hungary is blocking food exports to Austria, feeling that his position is dependent on his people feeling that they are the best fed. As a result food is going very short in the cities of Austria, with starvation a real threat to many.

In Germany the food situation is causing a breakdown of social solidarity. City folk grumble about farmers hoarding food, while country folk complain about ‘hamsters’, the urbanites who come out to the countryside looking for food to buy or steal. Within the cities, everyone complains that everyone else is getting more than they are. Traditional hierarchies are inverted, as manual workers in war industries are now receiving much larger rations than their middle class betters. Everyone complains about profiteers. In Austria-Hungary meanwhile the food crisis inflames ethnic antagonisms.

Most worrying for the regimes in both countries, the food crisis in both countries leads to grumbling about the authorities, with people blaming the shortage of food on their government’s inadequate response to the problem. It is fear that this grumbling could lead to revolutionary unrest that has driven the German leadership to pursue their U-boat strategy, in the hope that this will be the last winter of the war.

image source:

Turnip ration card from Erfurt

3 thoughts on “22/2/1917 The continuing food crisis in Germany and Austria-Hungary

  1. In my great uncle’s memoirs, when he was a POW in Austria in 1917, he had much better food once the red cross parcels arrived. He said that the Austrians shared what they had with the POWs eve though they were starving themselves.


    • That’s interesting. I’ve never been entirely clear who ends up feeding PoWs. One thing I have read is that Italians captured by Austria-Hungary had a higher mortality rate than Italian soldiers at the front, because the Italian government blocked the sending of food parcels.


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