Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Monday, July 20, 2015

How the War Was Lost: The Food Weapon?

By Mark Harrison, Professor of Economics, University of Warwick

[Editor's note:  It is our practice to present discussions that can viewed as controversial or counter to what's been previously accepted historical facts or analysis. We neither endorse nor dispute Professor Harrison's argument.  Comments are welcome. MH]

Children's Soup Kitchen, Wartime Germany

Hunger was decisive in the collapse of the German home front in 1918. Was Germany starved out of the war by Allied use of the food weapon? In Germany, this myth became prevalent and assumed historic significance in Hitler’s words (cited by Collingham 2011: 37) of 1939:

“I need the Ukraine, so that no one is able to starve us again, like in the last war.”

It is true that Germany imported 20–25 percent of calories for human consumption before the war. Wartime imports were limited by an Allied blockade at sea and (via pressure on neutrals) on land. At the same time, German civilians suffered greatly — hunger-related mortality is estimated at around 750,000 (Davis and Engerman 2006: 204).

But decisions made in Berlin, not London, did the main damage to German food supplies. The decision to attack Germany’s main food suppliers struck the first blow. In 1913 the German economy was more interlinked with future adversaries than allies. Britain, France, Italy, and Russia accounted for 36 percent of prewar German trade. Britain alone provided more German trade than the 12 percent share of Austria‐Hungary, Bulgaria, and the Ottoman Empire combined (Gartzke and Lupu 2012, Kramer 2013).

Gerd Hardach (1987) conjectured that the effects of the loss of trade were outweighed by Germany’s war mobilisation. Mobilisation policies damaged food production in several ways (described by Feldman 1966). On the side of resources, mobilisation diverted young men, horses, and chemical fertilisers from agricultural use to the front line. Farmers’ incentives to sell food were weakened when German industry was converted to war production and ceased to supply the countryside with manufactures. Government initiatives to hold down food prices for the consumer did further damage.

Because trade supplied at most one quarter of German calories, and German farmers the other three quarters, it is implausible to see the loss of trade as the primary factor. Germany’s own war effort probably did more to undermine food supplies.

Source:  Four myths about the Great War of 1914-1918, VOX, CEPR's Policy Portal

Also see our earlier posting on starvation and the war:


  1. Hunger played a major role in Austria-Hungary's collapse. The Austrian half of the dual monarchy was dependent upon the Hungarian Kingdom for a large amount of foodstuffs. According to Gordan Brooke Shepherd in the Last Habsburg, the threat of an embargo of those foodstuffs caused the new Emperor, Karl, to take the Hungarian Coronation oath, which guarantees that the kingdom will remain territorially intact. This meant that Karl's efforts to reform the Empire could not deal with the Hungarian half.

  2. German starvation played a pivotal role in the failure to press the Spring Offensive. Many soldiers stopped to raid the depots of the British and French overrun in the first days. Diseas also worked against the Germans. The flu pandemic had major impact on all armies. The lack of proper diet played made the flu epidemic a greater drain on Germany than the Allies.

  3. This article seems to presume that these internal and external factors were mutually exclusive, which they were surely not. Nor would anyone consider the loss of 25% of their food imports insignificant. I agree with Brian's comment too.