Home Fires Burning: Food, Politics, and Everyday Life in World War I Berlin

Home Fires Burning: Food, Politics, and Everyday Life in World War I Berlin

Home Fires Burning: Food, Politics, and Everyday Life in World War I Berlin

Home Fires Burning: Food, Politics, and Everyday Life in World War I Berlin


Challenging assumptions about the separation of high politics and everyday life, Belinda Davis uncovers the important influence of the broad civilian populace -- particularly poorer women -- on German domestic and even military policy during World War I.

As Britain's wartime blockade of goods to Central Europe increasingly squeezed the German food supply, public protests led by "women of little means" broke out in the streets of Berlin and other German cities. These "street scenes" riveted public attention and drew urban populations together across class lines to make formidable, apparently unified demands on the German state. Imperial authorities responded in unprecedented fashion in the interests of beleaguered consumers, interceding actively in food distribution and production. But officials' actions were far more effective in legitimating popular demands than in defending the state's right to rule. In the end, says Davis, this dynamic fundamentally reformulated relations between state and society and contributed to the state's downfall in 1918. Shedding new light on the Wilhelmine government, German subjects' role as political actors, and the influence of the war on the home front on the Weimar state and society, ###Home Fires Burning# helps rewrite the political history of World War I Germany.


In typically understated fashion, Berlin police commissioner Traugott von Jagow warned authorities in February 1915 that the “economic war,” as Germans dubbed the British wartime blockade of goods to Central Europe, increasingly overshadowed Germany's military successes in the minds of the capital city public. “Unpleasant scenes,” he explained, “are taking place more than ever in front of butcher shops.” He counseled, “To intervene in the price of meat lies very much in the state's interest.” These scenes, of crowds gathering for food, captivated public attention even when no protest took place. As Officer Paul Rhein of the Berlin political police described one such incident in Berlin in February 1915, “Thousands of women and children had gathered at the municipal market hall in Andreas Street to get a few pounds of potatoes. As the sale commenced, everyone stormed the market stands. The police… were powerless against the onslaught. A lifethreatening press ensued at the stands…. Women who got away from the crowds with some ten pounds of potatoes were bathed in sweat and dropped to their knees involuntarily before they could continue home.”

By October 1915 —still long before the devastating “turnip winter” of 1916–17 —such scenes frequently culminated in riots, protests against merchants, rural producers, and the government. “It should certainly come as no surprise,” Officer Ludwig commented in late 1915, “if enormous butter riots arise [again] very soon….Thebad humor among the people, especially the proletariat and also the Mittelstand, grows from day to day. The view is frequently voiced that the war will not be decided on the front but, rather, through Germany's economic defeat.”

This sentiment was widespread. The most conservative press took a public stand demanding government satisfaction of the needs of poor urban consumers, even declaring its identification with this population. The Evangelical Reichsbote chastised the imperial government for its reckless inattention to the “food question,” commenting, “Unfortunately we people cannot yet live entirely on air alone.” The conservative Deutsche Kurier concurred: “One is asking for… an insured daily bread…. To care for our infantrymen and . . .

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