The Holocaust Historiography Project

Book review

The Politics of Hunger

  • THE POLITICS OF HUNGER: THE ALLIED BLOCKADE OF GERMANY, 1915-1919. By C. Paul Vincent. Ohio University Press, Athens (Ohio) and London, 1985; pp. viii, 191.

Reviewed by Robert A. Hall, Jr.

When did the First World War end? Yes, that is a “catch-question.” Virtually everybody will reply “November 1918;” but, in so doing, they will be wrong. That was the date on which hostilities on land ceased. On sea, however, although there was no more combat, the Allied (chiefly English) blockade of foodstuffs and other materials continued until July 11, 1919, eight months after the Armistice was signed at Compiègne. The purpose of the blockade? — to force the new government of Germany, the “Weimar Republic,” to ratify the Versailles “peace” treaty without delay. In this way, an intentionally continued and increased scarcity of food and the resultant famine was used as a militarily enforced weapon against the civilian population of Germany. Vincent’s book, originally conceived as a study of the post-1918 blockade, grew into a detailed history of the entire operation and it’s background, from 1914 onward.

Vincent’s study is divided into six chapters. In the first two, he treats pre-1918 history; in the next three, the events of 1918-1919 and in the last, the longer-range effects of the starvation resulted from the blockade. Chapter I, “The Loss of Innocence,” deals with the developments in the first year of the war that led to the establishment of the blockade. On both sides, at the outbreak of hostilities, the populations appeared to be enthusiastic about the war and in a state of euphoria which owed a great deal of its virulence to the glorification of War by the “futurists” in literature and art, as well as by the more rabid nationalists during the first decade and a half of the new century. A major factor in this now strange headlong rush into Armageddon was the widespread expectation that the war would not, in fact, could not, last more than a few months. (Your reviewer’s first coherent memory is of a bright September afternoon in Minneapolis, listening to the adults deploring the outbreak of “this terrible war” in Europe, and expressing the hope that it would be over by Christmas.)

As time passed, it became evident that both sides were going to have to take drastic measures to counteract the ill effects of the excessive strain placed upon the civilian populations. Vincent points out that “the severe wartime conditions and the experiences of the English and the French on the homefront were generally matched and in many cases exceeded in Germany” (p. 15). In the following pages, Vincent analyzes the situation in Germany, with the interesting conclusion that — contrary to our prevailing folklore — the German war-effort was poorly organized, with unwise priorities given to industrial and business interests at the expense of those of civilians and farmers. Although foreign sources of food and fertilizer were cut off, the authorities “virtually ignored the […] effects of a food shortage” (p. 30).

Matters may have been made considerably worse by the administration of the food regulations being incredibly decentralized. Under the provisions of the Prussian Law of Siege (p. 17), the procurement and distribution of the domestic food supply was administered by no less than twenty-four separate German army authorities, under generals who differed widely in their attitudes and approaches to the problem, and who often worked at cross-purposes from each other and from the overall army administration. By 1916 the German population was surviving on a “meager diet of dark bread, slices of sausage without fat, an individual ration of three pounds of potatoes per week, and turnips. Only the turnips were in abundant supply” (p. 21). By mid-1918, the army’s food ration was no better, and this scarcity contributed to disaffection among the troops. Vincent quotes (p. 23) General Ludendorff’s allegation that the German defeat was due to a “stab in the back” (Dolchstoss, literally “dagger-stab"). True, says Vincent, at least in part, but what was not mentioned by Ludendorff was “the fact that the amry had fashioned the knife” by its maladministration of the food-supply throughout the entite war.

In Chapter II, “The Blockade,” Vincent summarizes the events which led up to its establishment in 1915 and its effects in Germany. These were especially severe in the terrible Kohlrübenwinter ("turnip-winter") of 1916-1917, “during which the collective weight (sic) of the German population plummeted sharply” (p. 45). The blockade was almost totally effective in cutting off Germany’s imports of food and materiel. In 1917, with German morale nearing the point of collapse, the Kaiser decided on the now infamous policy of unrestricted submarine warfare. In so doing, Vincent argues that the German leadership committed two serious errors; “They totally underestimated the vigor with which the Allies would counter the effects of the submarine;” and “they failed to appreciate the consequence of America’s potentional addition to the side of the Allies” (p. 47). By November, 1918, the food-shortage in Germany had become catastrophic; the action of the Allies in continuing the blockade, after the cessation of hostilites on land, made it even worse.

Vincent’s next two chapters deal in detail with the events of the eight months after November 11, 1918, primarily on the diplomatic front. He describes the November armistice as “A Conditional Surrender” (the title of Chapter III). Even before the cessation of hostilities on land, there had been ominous anticipations of coming discord among the Allies. Wilson’s famous “Fourteen Points” (which included “absolute freedom of navigation” at all times) seem to have been taken more seriously by the German government and negotiators than by Foch and Clemenceau with their intense desire for unlimited revanche, or by Lloyd George with his stubborn insistence on undiminished British command of the seas. As a consequence, and much to the dismay of the German negotiators, the continuation of the naval blockade was made one of the conditions for the Allied granting of an armistice (hence Vincent’s title for this chapter). On November 11, just before the signing, the Germans were so perturbed at the prospect of continued starvation through the continuance of the blockade that a clause was added to the armistice agreement, to the effect that the Allies “contemplated relieving the famine.” This, however, as later events showed, was only an empty phrase.

“Gold, Food, Ships, and Diplomats,” during the next eight months, are the topic of Chapter 5. There was a strange intermingling and clash of often diametrically opposed policies on the part of victorious Allies, so that Herbert Hoover’s initial moves for humanitarian famine relief, as applied to Germany, were for months stalemated by considerably less laudable refusals on the part of the French and British to allow food to be distributed, even from stocks already unloaded in Europe. The blockade was not only maintained, but even extended. Almost wholly incomprehensible to a later generation, even German fishing rights in the Baltic were abrogated. The British sea lords were concerned with the continual assertion of their naval power, while the French politicians were more interested with extracting from the Germans every possible centime of reparations. The French government’s demands extended even to the gold-reserves held by the German government which were desperately needed to pay the American farmer for food which he had supplied. An Allied commission set up to deal with the situation, meeting at Spa, Belgium, wasted time in interminable wrangling. For three months, even eyewitness reports of the extremely bad situation in Germany failed to move either the Allied commission at Spa or the peace negotiators at Paris.

In the end, it took a violent outburst of anger on Hoover’s part to persuade Lloyd-George that a drastic change in Allied policy was urgently needed (pp. 114-11). On March 8, 1919, the Allies' policy was finally reversed (pp. 111-13) by the Supreme War Council, at a meeting which has been made relatively well-known by John Maynard Keynes’s description of it in his memoirs (from which Vincent gives several quotations). As for the sources of French and British obstructionism during these crucial months, Vincent ascribes their behavior to several causes (pp. 115-17), These included: British desire to maintain the “very perfect instrument' of the bockade for imposing peace terms (Keynes’s explanation); the ignorance of Allied diplomats as to the real situation; the Europeans' suspicion of Hoover’s humanitarianism, which they interpreted (at least in part) as evidence of a presumed desire of the United States to dominate Europe; and, most important of all, French greed for German gold.

The continually worsening starvation of the Gemran public is described in Vincent’s fifth chapter, “Famine and Starvation.” Not only the supplies of actual food (especially potatoes, grain and sugar), but also fodder, fats and fertilizer quickly came to be in very short supply. Not only the housewife, but the soldier and the prisoner-of-war, were affected. The resultant severe undernourishment was particularly telling on the elderly, the young, expectant and nursing mothers. Improper diet lowered resistance to or caused such diseases as tuberculosis, rickets, influenza, dysentery, scurvy, ulceration of the eyes, and hunger-edema (p. 137). The influenza-epidemic of 1918 had, therefore, a far greater effect on German mortality, which was 250 percent greater in that year, than in England (p.141). Vincent emphasizes (pp. 146-47) the disastrous results in malnutrition, as demonstrated in many modern physiological and psychological studies, on the human brain, especially in undernourished children. Furthermore, he points out (pp.148-50), the elementary necessity of obtaining a barely sufficient food supply undermined traditional morality and ethical standards (pp.148-50).

The end result of the blockade and especially of its continuation after November 11,1918, was, as Vincent terms it in the title of his sixth and final chapter, “The Making of a Quagmire.” Even while the blockade was being enforced and strengthened, perceptive observers on both sides pointed out the dangers inherent in its continuation, which could lead only to a complete breakdown of the social order. Even though the immediate situation was saved by a last-minute relaxation of the blockade on food, the longer-term results of the resultant famine were still disasterous. As Vincent observes (pp.112):

Whether one espouses the psychoanalytical argument that childhood deprivation fostered irrational behavior in adulthood or the physiological assertion that widespread malnutrition in childhood led to a impaired ability to think rationally in adulthood, the conclusion remains the same: the victimized youth of 1915-1920 were to become the most radical adherents of National Socialism.

Additionally, Vincent observes (p. 164) “By the same wisdom, however, one cannot intellectually dismiss the important possibility that blockade-induced starvation was a significant factor in the formation of the Nazi character.” His conclusion (pp. 164-65) is that:

The ominious amalgamation of twisted emotion and physical degeneration, which was to presage considerable misery for Germany and the world, might have been prevented had it not been for the postwar policy of the Allies. The immediate centerpiece of this policy was the blockade.

Two short appendices, of British reports made in 1919 on the famine prevailing in Germany, are printed on pp. 168-72. An extensive bibliography (pp. 173-82) and a not wholly complete index (pp. 183-91) finish the book. It is well-printed, with few typos. The very full references are contained in notes printed at the end of each chapter — a far better procedure than that of putting them all in one huge clump at the end of the text of the book.

Specialists in the field have, of course, known of the Allied blockade and of its results, for a long time. A major merit of Vincent’s treatment is his bringing together of information from all these different sources, and welding it into a comprehensive, highly readable, and yet scholarly presentation of the whole picture of both the 1915-18 blockade and its continuation and extension in 1918-19. Your reviewer, who was brought up in an intensely Anglophile and Francophile family, but who majored in German literature as an undergraduate, was unaware (like almost all other Americans) of the nature and extent of the blockade. Vincent’s book has opened his eyes to one more neglected facet of modern history. By performing this service for his readers, Vincent has made a contribution to the never-ending task of revising and refining our perception of history, which can never be one hundred percent accurate or immune to change.