How did sugar affect World War II

lemoLiving Museum Online
  • "Goulash Cannon" in the streets of Berlin, 1914/1918

Despite the importance of a secure food supply for "war morale" in Germany, too, until the outbreak of war there was a lack of planning and preparations for a longer war. In the expectation of a quick victory, even normal food supplies were used up in the first months of the war. Plans tried to control the production and distribution of food by government authorities at the national and state levels. Extremely poor harvests and the consequences of the British naval blockade initially led to the setting of maximum prices for food and only a little later to their extensive rationing. The miserable supply with food reached a dramatic climax in the "turnip winter" in 1916/17. During the First World War, around 750,000 people in Germany died of malnutrition and its consequences.

With the mobilization in the summer of 1914, many of their most productive workers were withdrawn from the farms at harvest time. Women and children as well as the Polish migrant workers who were mainly employed on the East Elbe estates, to whom more and more prisoners of war came as the war continued, could at no time fully replace the labor of the drafted men and prevent the significant slump in food production. The seizure of a million horses as draft animals for the army, the increasingly poor maintenance and replacement options for agricultural machinery and the rapidly increasing lack of fertilizers were also responsible for the sharp decline in productivity in agriculture. Potato production fell from 52 million tons (1913) to 29 million tons (1918), and the grain yield fell from 27.1 million tons (1914) to 17.3 million tons (1918).

In order to ensure that the low-income sections of the population were fed at an affordable price level, state-set maximum prices for bread grain were introduced in October 1914. In order to stretch the grain stocks, "K-Brot" was also allowed to use a 30 percent potato as a substitute. However, the continuing shortage of bread grain led to an increase in the maximum price and to the rationing of bread in the following spring - without the quantities on the bread cards actually always being available. When crop yields in 1915 were almost 20 percent below those of the previous year, maximum prices were gradually introduced for almost all agricultural products. However, since it was far more profitable for the producers to market their products via "surreptitious trade" instead of offering them on the regular market at - not always cost-covering - prices, every setting of maximum prices was followed by a tendency to shorten the regular supply. In addition, the low prices for potatoes and bread grains, which were kept low for political reasons, prompted many farmers to feed these staple foods to produce expensive pork. In order to prevent the complete collapse of the potato supply in the industrial centers, the slaughter of a good third of the entire pig population was ordered in the spring of 1915, but despite the "pig murder" that was heavily criticized by the farmers, the potato supply in the cities hardly improved; pork disappeared on the black market and raised the prices of other meats to hitherto unknown levels. The attempts by the authorities to regulate the cultivation of sugar beet were similarly unsuccessful: Since around 40 percent of sugar production was exported before the start of the war, the - supposedly excess - sugar was initially allowed to be used for the production of brandy and grain, regardless of the associated consumption of bread cereals and potatoes. In view of the shortage of this food, the distilling of grain was banned in the spring of 1915, but at the same time the cultivation of sugar beet was so severely restricted that - despite an imposed ban on the feeding of sugar beet - there were also considerable bottlenecks in the sugar supply.

Supply bottlenecks, rising food prices and, last but not least, the feeling of unjust distribution led to the first hunger riots as early as 1915. The extremely inadequate supply in the winter of 1915/16 also made calls for a central authority to ensure food louder in the Reichstag. In May 1916, the War Food Office was finally brought into being as a Reich authority directly subordinate to the Reich Chancellor, which pursued a compromise course between the demand for consumer-friendly coercive measures against the agrarians and their desire for full price release for all agricultural products as a production incentive. Disappointed by the minor successes of the War Food Office, the Prussian government appointed Georg Michaelis, its own state commissioner for people's food, in mid-February 1917, but even with this step, it was not able to improve the food supply in the long term. Despite the system of comprehensive rationing of all foodstuffs introduced in autumn 1916, the amounts allocated were by no means sufficient to cover the daily calorie requirement. The supply of milk, butter, eggs and meat collapsed completely at times. When acute transport problems arose after the again unexpectedly bad harvest of 1916 in connection with the implementation of the Hindenburg program, the rampant system of rationing and regulation could not prevent the catastrophic "turnip winter". Regular army units were now deployed against the hunger riots that were emerging in many places. After the Russian February Revolution, dissatisfaction with the poor food situation erupted in the first mass strikes.

Since all measures taken by the responsible authorities against the dried up food market and the increasingly obvious surreptitious trade proved to be ineffective, trust in the state's competence dwindled. The demand put forward by the Federation of Farmers (BdL) in the spring of 1918 to finally allow all agricultural products except for potatoes and bread grain to be allowed for free trade and to put a stop to all further tendencies towards a "social democratic coercive state" revealed a political gap that could hardly be bridged between food producers and consumers.