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First World War (1914 - 1918)

The "Turnip Winter" and Fighting on the so-called "Home Front"

None of the nations involved at the outbreak of hostilities was economically prepared for a long, continuous war which finally would use up all their resources.

After the German plan for "taking a stroll to Paris" was shown to have been wishful thinking, and the war had become bogged down in the trenches, the indirect consequences of the conflict soon affected the civilian population. Because many farmers had been drafted into military service, as soon as autumn 1914 there were considerable crop shortfalls and the first bottlenecks in food supplies. In particular basic food-stuffs, such as bread and potatoes, were soon in short supply.

A lot of food items were already rationed in 1914 and could only be obtained with food stamps. Many other non-rationed foodstuffs soon became so expensive that the poorer and low-earning sections of the population could no longer afford them.

The infamous "Turnip" or "Hunger Winter" represented a temporary peak in the shortage of food from 1916 to 1917.

A rainy autumn caused potatoes to rot, which reduced the harvest to about half of what it had been the previous year. An extremely cold winter led to a substantial coal shortage not only in private households, but also for the railway administrations, so that the transport of potatoes to consumers, mainly in the large cities, was impeded and many potatoes were spoiled in transit. In order to ensure that people at least survived, towns and parishes distributed turnips, which, for lack of any alternative, were prepared in every imaginable variation.

However, as there was an absolute lack of other foodstuffs, mainly oils and fats, items on the menu were very restricted.

The general economic situation in Germany had deteriorated more and more in the course of the war. The naval blockade imposed by Britain largely cut the German Empire off from any kind of imports. As early as 1914, all raw materials important for the war effort were administered by the War Raw Materials Department (KRA) under Walther Rathenau. Household objects made of materials that could be used in the war (including copper, tin, rubber) were expropriated. The population was induced by clever propaganda to hand over gold and other precious metals ("I gave gold for iron"). In addition, savings and any available cash ought to be invested in so-called "war bonds".

With the "Hindenburg programme" (30th September 1916) and the "Law on Emergency Services for the Fatherland" additional forces were mobilized among the civilian population.

In order to compensate for the large losses at the fronts, more and more men were drafted into military service and the jobs vacated by them, especially in armaments production and other industrial areas, were filled by women.

In 1917 bread rations were reduced yet again. The worsening supply situation, both in general and of foodstuffs, led to subsequent hunger protests and strikes. These came to assume an increasingly political dimension, combined with a demand for peace but also including an adequate socio-political role for women in accordance with their working lives (demanding the right to vote).

In Germany alone, about 700,000 civilians died as a consequence of the war. In the last year of the war, 1918, a Spanish influenza raged across the world, killing many undernourished and weakened people.   

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