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

Monday, April 15, 2019

Was the Food Weapon a Myth?

Mark Harrison of the University of Warwick argues yes.

Berlin Butcher Shop, Scene of a 1919 Food Riot

Food was an essential element of two world wars (Collingham 2011). Moreover, food security was a core element of German war preparations (Lee 1975). Despite such preparations, many believed, Germany was strangled by the British (later Allied) blockade. The food weapon appeared to have been decisive—Germany was starved into submission.

This belief has historic significance. After the war it helped to sustain the notion (attributed to Germany’s wartime leaders Hindenburg and Ludendorff) that Germany remained unbeaten militarily; the army was betrayed by the surrender of the home front. The memory of the blockade also ran deep in the National Socialists’ project to restructure Europe in Germany’s interest by force, as when Hitler  remarked in 1939: “I need the Ukraine, so that no one is able to starve us again, like in the last war.”

The idea that Germany was starved into defeat would have astonished prewar observers. The British and German prewar diets were quite comparable. At the outbreak of war Germany imported only 20–25 percent of calories for human consumption; for Britain the equivalent number was 60 percent. It was natural for Angell and Bloch to suppose that in wartime British consumers would starve first. Yet all measures of wartime trends show a contrast that was unfavorable to the German consumer. During the war British food supplies were somewhat constrained and their average composition deteriorated; in 1918, the average household consumed more bread, less fat, and substantially less meat than in 1913. In Germany, in contrast, in 1918 the average household ate less of everything, and supplies of meat and fats had collapsed.

Ration Stamps Issued in Alsace-Lorraine

Germany also compares unfavorably in food distribution. There, it was families on lower incomes that were less protected from average trends. In Britain the access of poorer families to food improved relative to the average (Gazeley and Newall 2013); this is more likely attributable to the high demand for all kinds of labor than to rationing, which was introduced only at the end of 1917 (for sugar) or during 1918 (for some meats and fats). In Germany price ceilings and rationing came in 1916 and covered bread and flour, meat, fats, and oil. But rations supplied little more than half of required calories, so everyone had to find unofficial sources to survive. In this setting the wealthy had the advantage. Nutritional deprivation has been observed in the heights of soldiers and and the heights and weights of schoolchildren born before and during World War I (Blum 2013; Cox 2014). Both show average declines and increases in inequality.

Finally, excess mortality among German civilians wartime is put at around 750,000, most likely because of hunger and hunger-related disease (Davis and Engerman 2006: 204).

The blockade was the adversary’s salient intervention in Germany’s food supplies, and it is easy to leap to the conclusion that the blockade was therefore the cause of German hunger. But this story is confounded by two factors. One is straightforward—Germany chose to go to war with its principal trading partners. Angell and Bloch had argued forcefully that great powers heavily dependent on trade should not attack the sources of their own prosperity. But this is exactly what Germany did (and Shinzo Abe was right to note the fact). The German economy was much more interlinked with its future adversaries than its future allies. In 1913, Britain, France, Italy, and Russia accounted for 36 percent of prewar German trade (Gartzke and Lupu 2012: 131). The same figure for Austria–Hungary, Bulgaria, and the Ottoman Empire was only 12 percent. From this perspective, Alan Kramer (2013) has pointed out, much of the “blockade” was no more than an Allied decision not to supply the enemy across the front line.

Hungary Berliners Cutting a Horse Carcass 

Another confounding factor is suggested by the fact that the loss of trade was not the only supply shock disturbing the wartime food market. Prewar plans for wartime autarky assumed that German farmers would farm more intensively to feed the nation (Lee 1975). But the opposite came about, because war mobilization stripped German farms of young men, horses, and nitrates. War mobilization also diverted domestic industries from producing the manufactured goods that farmers needed to supplying weapons for the front line. As food prices soared, farmers retreated into self-sufficiency. When civilian officials stepped in to control prices, the farmers’ aversion to trade only increased.

In his economic history of the war Gerd Hardach  asked how the blockade interacted with Germany’s economic mobilization. He conjectured:

The tremendous economic decline of the Central Powers between 1914 and 1918 was caused less by the blockade than by the excessive demands made on their economies by the war.

Hardach did not suggest how to implement this comparison in the German market; here is a simple way to think about it. Start from the fact that before the war Germany imported at most one quarter of calories for human consumption, producing the other three quarters on its own territory. In that context the war induced two welfare losses. One, arising from wartime obstacles to external trade, raised the costs of the one quarter of calories that was previously imported. The other, arising from wartime mobilization, raised the costs of the three quarters produced at home. Is it reasonable to suppose that the loss associated with the one quarter was larger than the loss associated with the three quarters?

Figure 6 illustrates the point. Pw is the peacetime world price of calories; Qp is peacetime calories produced and Qc is calories consumed, the gap being filled by imports at the world price. Suppose that war cuts off all trade—an overstatement of the case. The welfare loss from the blockade is the triangle ABC. Suppose that at the same time war mobilization raises the costs of domestic production. Then the welfare loss from mobilization is the triangle OCD. While the height of each triangle cannot be ascertained, its base is known. The trade loss is proportional to prewar trade, whereas the mobilization loss is proportional to prewar consumption. Since the share of prewar trade in consumption was at most one quarter (and not all trade was cut off), we can reasonably presume that the welfare loss from mobilization was greater than the loss from the blockade.

Further welfare losses could have arisen from price ceilings and rationing. On the evidence already cited they redistributed welfare adversely but are ignored in the figure. Wartime mobilization ended well before the lifting of the blockade, which was maintained after the Armistice and, extended to the Baltic, became even tighter. Until Germany’s acceptance of the Treaty of Versailles in June 1919, with the fighting over and German soil under German control, trade sanctions were the Allies’ only coercive lever to ensure that Germany came to terms. Among Germans the continuation of the blockade was bitterly unpopular and became a source of lasting resentment. Yet, as Offer (1989: 388–391) reports, prices did not rise and rations did not fall. One explanation is that the end of war mobilization compensated for the intensified blockade.

It was both plausible and convenient for politicians of the war period and later to blame Germany’s wartime economic difficulties on the Allied blockade. This must be largely a myth. The blockade was not the only factor in the disruption of German trade. The disruption of trade was not the only factor that disrupted the German internal market for food. Arguably, the military mobilization of agricultural resources into war, and the economic mobilization of industry, had a larger disruptive effect than the shock from foreign trade.

Source: Selected from the paper "Myths of the Great War," Mark Harrison, University of Warwick.  Presented as the keynote lectures to the Economic History Society annual conference at the University of Warwick, 28 March 2014, and the Ninth Appalachian Spring Conference in World History and Economics, Appalachian State University, Boone, North Carolina, 12 April 2014.


  1. "farmers retreated into self-sufficiency" - interesting to compare with the Soviet kulaks a few years down the road.

  2. Fascinating argument.
    Did any other nations suffer from mobilization as badly? I recall French ag production declined with so many laborers at the front, and that Russians suffered from hunger.

  3. I never thought of the loss of horses as a cause of food shortages.