Home Fires Burning
Belinda J. Davis
The collective power of Berliners of lesser means returned with a vengeance in the late winter and spring of 1917. They coalesced in calls for equal distribution of food among themselves and demanded the government address both official measures and private acts that compromised this equality. Poor urban consumers riveted their attention on the black-marketing that blossomed in this cold winter, largely displacing conflicts among themselves once more. The renewed street protest was closely tied to the shop-floor unrest of February and April. The well-studied strikes of April 1917, which began in Berlin metalworks and spread around the country, have often been perceived as the first sign of serious political unrest in Germany. Scholars have often interpreted the strikes, like the revolution of November 1918,1 as a popular revolt against the attempted tyranny of a government that had imposed total war on German society. But popular fury through the war arose as heatedly from the inability of Prussian and imperial officials to impose their authority as firmly and as effectively on the food question as many would have liked.
In spite or perhaps because of the single-minded focus of the Supreme Army Command (OHL) on winning the war, civilian and military authorities reacted with redoubled responsiveness to street and shop-floor protests alike, committing the highest officials to the tasks of equalizing food distribution and prosecuting speculation. In turn, as late as the fall of 1917, Berliners and other Germans still maintained some faith in the Government's good intent, if not in its ability to execute it, and this, along with the promise of peace negotiations in the East, kept Germans from following the revolutionary path of their eastern neighbors. Indeed, poor urban Germans wanted to believe that officials represented their best chances at getting food. Nonetheless, government food scandals rocked Berlin in the fall and winter of 1917, pitching residents into numb despair. By the end of the year, hope even for officials' good intentions was wiped out by the image of cynical authorities who indulged in speculation themselves at the expense of just distribution among the larger population. Even as Foreign Office authorities announced renewed prospects for peace in the East, poorer Berliners concluded they should no longer place any faith in the Wilhelmine regime.