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

Thursday, August 26, 2021

Berlin at War: Deprivation, War Weariness, and Revolution

1 August 1914 – Berliners Enthusiastic for War

By Arnulf Scriba
From Cities at War, 1914–1918 by the City of Brussels Museum

The rapidly increasingly number of propaganda articles appearing in the summer of 1914 created the impression that the war would end triumphantly in a relatively short time. For most Germans the appeals for national unity and radical dissociation from enemy nations served to create a common identity in troubled times. One consequence of this patriotic ardor was a veritable “Germanisation campaign”, . . In this nationally-charged atmosphere of competitive patriotism, there was no need for any intervention on the part of the authorities to mobilize the people of Berlin mentally for the war in August 1914. In a swelling flood of patriotic books and pamphlets, poems and songs varying greatly in quality, most authors invoked national unity. Given the victorious advance into Belgium and particularly following the defeat of two Russian armies which had invaded East Prussia, victory euphoria even spread to working-class areas such as Wedding and Prenzlauer Berg, where now many black-white-red German flags were flown: “detectives, who for service reasons have much to do in working-class circles, can hardly believe that these are the same people who only shortly before cheered the Internationale in protest demonstrations and now are brimming over with patriotism”

[After the battle of the Marne, however, things began to shift.] In accordance with tradition, the list of fallen soldiers was still displayed for public view in the capital in the first weeks of the war. As these lists of losses took on ever greater dimensions, however, their display was forbidden in autumn 1914. The Chief of the Berlin Police remarked on 12 December 1914 in his report: “The number of women dressed in black is increasing noticeably and strikes a bleak note to the Christmas spirit.” To deal with the death of a family member, the Church, the traditional place for coping with bereavement, gained in importance: from the end of 1914 there was a clear drop in the number of those leaving the Church and an increase in those joining again and attending services.

Berliners Checking Casualty Lists, 1914

In February 1915 Berlin was the first city in Germany to issue bread ration cards. The ration set by the municipal authorities of the capital amounted initially to two kilos of bread weekly or 225 grams of flour daily per head, the flour ration being cut soon to 200 grams. Before the war the average per capita consumption of the population had been 380 grams. To the end of 1915 most foodstuffs in the city were strictly rationed. Despite this, the amounts to be purchased in accordance with the food ration cards did not suffice to satisfy calorie needs, as often foodstuffs which were quite simply not available were often indicated. The food ration cards therefore offered no guarantee that one would get the indicated amounts of bread, meat, potatoes or milk but merely indicated that under no circumstances could one get more. 

With the introduction of food ration cards began the time of the “Polonaises”—as Berliners called the growing queues in front of shops and market halls. As these queues were visible daily to everyone, the authorities made no attempt to prohibit public reports about the women who, from midnight, started queuing in order to be able to get some edible product the following morning. While waiting, they sat on the ground, on straw mattresses or little stools. “The others stand there apathetically, some asleep while standing, and the moonlight makes the colorless faces look even more wan. Constables appear and walk up and down morosely. Dawn breaks. New droves draw near. (…) At last selling begins. And the result: a miserable half, or if one is very lucky, whole pound each of meat, lard or butter for half the purchasers, while the other half have to go away empty-handed.

The medical doctor Alfred Grotejahn made this entry in his diary on 17 March 1916 on the consequences of undernourishment: “Every week the people of Berlin look more like Mongolians. Their cheekbones stick out and with the loss of fat their skin has become wrinkled."  Hunger and want took on even more dramatic proportions in the so-called swede-turnip winter of 1916–1917 when, because of a bad harvest, even potatoes, the staple food of the people, could no longer be had and had to be replaced by turnips. . . 

In Berlin and other German cities, as the result of the ongoing food crisis and a food distribution system seen as unjust, there were increasingly protests and disturbances against shortages and profiteering, which had to be ended by police intervention. People who saw how the better off were able to satisfy their needs fully on the black market jumped to the conclusion that there was enough food there for everyone, if only it were distributed more equitably. This led to a huge loss of credibility for the State and above all to frustration and socially-based hatred for those Berliners who, because of their privileged position or owing to illicit trade or dubious dealings, could continue to have all they wanted. The worker Hermann Lorenz wrote to his son at the front, full of loathing for the well off who “live well” and so remain “fat and portly: “I would just love there to be a revolution and then all those found with fine foods would be locked up and made to starve slowly. I would like to be the jailer. They would have to see what it is like when you have to go hungry and the others have tasty portions of roast goose and bottles of wine to wash it down

Berliners Queuing for Food, 1916

. . . From 1916 war weariness in Berlin grew noticeably. The willingness of the people to accept hunger and deprivation declined rapidly in the absence of military victories. There were intellectuals such as the suffragette Hedwig Dohm, the sculptor Käthe Kollwitz or the graphic artist Heinrich Zille who expressed their horror of war ever more insistently. Zille was one of the best known Berlin genre artists in the Kaiser’s Germany. On 20 July 1916 he published the antiwar sheet Das eiserne Kreuz (The Iron Cross) in the art periodical Der Bildermann which was open to public subscription: turned in on herself and clearly helpless, the mother is sitting on the bed while her little son curiously examines the “Iron Cross” lying on the table. The father who has died at the front has indeed been awarded a medal for valor but the five-member family is faced with poverty and an uncertain future. . .

Also in 1916 the largely united front of the Social Democrats which had existed at the beginning of the war began to disintegrate. The internal differences between party leadership and the pacifist left-wing of the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD) finally ended with the expulsion from the party of delegates who thereupon, in April 1917, founded the Independent Social Democratic Party of German. With their demands for immediate peace negotiations the Independent Social Democrats drew a lot of war-weary workers to their side, many of whom in 1917 sympathized with the revolutionaries in Russia. 

In January 1918, industrial workers affiliated to the USPD—among them workers in the most important companies of Berlin: AEG, Siemens & Halske, Borsig—organized the biggest in war-time strike so far for a quick end to the war and a better food supply. Spreading from Berlin, where at the end of January 1918 over 400,000 demonstrators took to the streets, the political mass strike affected major cities all over Germany. After a tighter state of emergency had been declared in Berlin and the violent dispersing of demonstrations had led to deaths and injuries, the strike was called off on 3rd February, 1918. It had given unmistakable expression to the war-weariness of wide sections of the population—and barely three quarters of a year later the entire revolutionary potential of Berlin unfolded.

Public Food Kitchen, Berlin 1916/17

With the acknowledgement of the defeat of Germany in autumn 1918, need and deprivation strengthened democratic and socialist ambitions in the German Reich. The mutinies of war-weary soldiers in North Germany burgeoned into a revolution. When they reached Berlin, the Chancellor Max von Baden unilaterally declared the abdication of Kaiser Wilhelm II on 9th November. In the morning there were already massive demonstrations in the center of the capital. Hundreds of thousands of people made known their desire for peace and for a comprehensive remodeling of political relationships. At midday from a window of the Reichstag, Social Democrat Phillip Scheidemann proclaimed the establishment of the Republic. Many of the people of Berlin associated an improvement in the food supply situation and in their personal living conditions with the new political order.

Others, on the contrary, could have no understanding of the rising disaffection with the monarchy or the revolutionary disturbances of autumn 1918—such for example as the nearly 16-year-old Fridel Schuttkowski. From October 1917 this daughter of a high-ranking official had consigned her aspirations and problems to a diary. The war and its consequences play no part in her chronicles, however: neither her father nor her brother was at the front nor had the Schuttkowski household suffered any shortage of food or other significant deprivations. Her first political diary entry, marked by anxiety about the future, comes from 12th November, 1918: “Here in Berlin the Revolution awful! The poor Kaiser fled! (…) Red ribbons everywhere. How low! I could spit in their faces.” The “experience” of the war for Fridel Schuttkowski, as for everyone else, depended on her own social situation and daily family life. 

Different in this from the country and most German cities, the “War in Berlin” was marked by the simultaneous presence of extreme opposites, and these were also to continue after 1918. For Germany the war came formally to an end with the signing of the Treaty of Versailles. When the terms of the Treaty became known, they caused utter outrage in Berlin: “Today is the blackest day of the war, the peace conditions of Versailles! All desire to live is gone, our heart fails. The “vae victis” in the cruelest, most brutal form, proclaimed by the victorious enemies. It still seems inconceivable that such a peace could become reality”, remarked the Berlin manufacturer Oskar Münsterberg on 8 May 1919 . His diary entry is representative of the feelings of many Germans of the time. For others the new political beginning meant hope in the struggle to overcome nationalism and overthrow established social norms.

Revolutionary Speaker in Berlin, November 1919

While already from the early 1920s Berlin was often a synonym in Germany for new aspirations and cultural experimentation, cosmopolitanism and dissipation, the radical right considered the struggle against the politics and culture of the Weimar Republic as a question of national honour. And during the 1920s this struggle was fought out in a bloody way on the streets of the capital in particular.

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