Hunger Stalks Through Europe

Food Shortages And Stern Measures To Meet It

[The New York Times/Current History, April 1917]

All information during late February and March indicated definitely that all the nations of Europe were suffering severely from food shortage. The crisis began to be acute in February, and until the crops of 1917 begin to mature, a period of about three and a half months, all Europe will continue to confront the most serious lack of food that has yet arisen. No portion of the entire Continent is free from privation, though the shortage seems more acute in Germany and Austria than elsewhere.

Oscar King Davis, who spent several weeks in Germany before the severance of relations, and who accompanied Ambassador Gerard on his journey home, cabled to THE NEW YORK TIMES from Havana on March 11 a comprehensive review of the food situation in Germany.

Mr. Davis wrote that Mr. Gerard regarded the condition of Germany as desperate, especially where the supply of food and general economic conditions, including finance, are concerned, and that he knew the frame of mind of responsible German officials to be quite in keeping with their recognition of the desperate situation of their country.

He wrote that one who has lived even for a brief period in the restaurants and hotels of Germany stands aghast in France, as he does in Switzerland, at the prodigal and extraordinary waste of food. If you have had a meal in a public eating place in Berlin, with the lively and significant clink of forks and spoons on plates and dishes, scraping up the last drop of sauce or gravy, and then come into a public eating place in Berne or Paris, to find not only sauce and gravy abandoned in unthinkable quantities, but bread, meat, potatoes, and every kind of thing good to eat sent away from the table untouched or hardly more than nibbled at, you are simply overwhelmed by the contrast.

"It is under such circumstances," continues Mr. Davis, "that you come to a keener realization of how the organization and control of her food supplies in their production, collection, and distribution is evidence, not that Germany is starving today, but that she is likely by these very means to win through to the bitter end without starvation. Hardship, privation, underfeeding, and for some of her people insufficient nourishment, Germany unquestionably endures today, with three or four severe months yet to sustain before she finds relief from new crops. But if those new crops respond in fair measure to the efforts Germany is making on them, her food problem will be postponed, in great measure, for yet another year.

"The German officials have not been eager to place exact scientific data in the hands of foreign observers and investigators, but there have been a few American scientific men who have made noteworthy studies, especially on food and sanitary conditions. Mr. Gerard has had the advantage of their work and knows their information. The results of their observations and their scientific conclusions will undoubtedly be included in what Mr. Gerard has to tell the President in the next few days. It will be a report tinged with malnutrition, undernourishment, anemia, low blood count, and similar scientific terms meaning that those to whom they are applied have not had food in sufficient quantities or of proper quality. It will be applied especially to certain classes of Germans, such as seamstresses, servants, persons working for small wages, children, the aged and infirm, and that sort."

A trusted observer of food conditions in Germany reported to the State Department at Washington on March 14 that 20,000,000 people directly connected with the German Army or Government, 20,000,000 in the rural population, and about 8,000,000 wealthy people were well fed, but that the rest, about 20,000,000, were in a serious plight.

Charles H. Grasty, an executive of The New York Times Company, who joined Ambassador Gerard's party in Spain and sailed from Corunna to America with him, after eleven days in intimate intercourse with the party of diplomats, Military Attachés, doctors, merchants, and travelers, who had had unsurpassed opportunities for knowing the real state of affairs in Germany, wrote on March 11:

"After discussing the German situation for eleven days, my conclusion is that the food shortage in the Fatherland is more serious than has been believed outside. The present condition is not one of actual starvation, but there is much suffering in spots, and Germany faces a crisis between now and harvest. Unless the submarine war prospers Germany can hardly escape an upheaval. "One doctor aboard the ship tells me that, even with his unusual facilities, he was much reduced by the lack of fats, and when he reached Zurich he was so ravenous that he made himself ill, devouring everything greasy. Lack of fats caused an incessant gnawing and nothing would 'stick to his ribs.' His stomach had no food reserve and intestinal digestion was suspended.

"The misery resulting from the food conditions is observable in every face. The Government took all possible precautions, but while 60 per cent. turnips could make bulk, it couldn't make nutriment. A thick soup of cabbage and turnips, a bit of meat, and a trace of grease could be bought at the community kitchens in the cities for 6 cents, (30 pfennigs), and bread at 1 cent a slice, but thirty minutes after eating, one was hungry again.

"The diet gave no power of resistance to the cold. The Americans who serve as prison inspectors say that even with huge furs they almost froze this Winter.

"Mothers and babies are without milk, and the suffering is great. While the effect of the food conditions on the public morale is temporarily offset by hysterical loyalty, physical causes must prevail over psychological in the end.

Unhealthy Social Conditions

"Throughout the trying times the German women have been showing a splendid nerve. They are taking men's places at manual labor. Many assure me if the women are called they will respond in tremendous numbers, game to perform many trench tasks, if not actually do full military duty.

"The moral and social conditions are entirely unlike old Germany. In high society spying and intrigue prevail. Nobody trusts anybody, and the conversation is all insincerity and deception. While the unwritten law still holds among the nobility, the laws regulating divorce are a dead letter.

"Soldiers at the front and wives at home are freed from marital restraints. Illegitimate births now reach 25 per cent. in Berlin, and even more in Bavaria, and the percentage is increasing.

"Popular taste on the stage calls for a murder in every act, and the big theatrical successes reek with morbid details.

"The tendencies in Germany to rule womankind with a rod of iron have been emphasized by the war. Men use women roughly and punish them physically for trifling faults. Women are treated as recognized inferiors, and they don't resent it.

"Such are some of the effects of baffled militarism upon the Germans. They went into this war expecting a three months' picnic. The resistance, followed by threatened defeat, has produced a perversity that breaks out as described.

"This is not to say that Germany is all bad. I have heard stories of splendid self-sacrifice in all circles. Some of the aristocracy voluntarily adopt short commons, and potato rations are passed to the guests by liveried servants."

Greater Berlin is now issuing weekly 3,600,000 bread cards, and 66,500,000 coupons representing daily rations find their way back to the Bread Commission, where they are checked off. Soldiers returning from the front are met at the railway station and receive bread tickets good for their furlough. One recent achievement of the German chemists has been the utilizing of tar oil, extracted from burned coal, for making soap. The new process includes the treatment of crude coal oil with potash, the finished product yielding excellent soft, hard, and powdered soaps.

Life in Hamburg

The German newspaper press reveals in advertisements some facts regarding the situation. The following is given as an example of a war dinner which may be obtained in Hamburg (Hackepeter Restaurant, Reeperbahn 103):

Herring with French beans, 1.40 marks.
Haddock (boiled) with mustard sauce and sauerkraut, 1.50 marks.
Haddock (fried) with green cabbage, 2 marks.
Hare ragout, with cabbage stewed in wine, (free from meat card), 2.20 marks.
Roast venison with red cabbage, (one-half meat card section), 2.80 marks.
Rum grog, 60 pfennigs; red wine grog, 40 pfennigs.

Sea mussel meal prepared from living fresh mussels mixed with meat is apparently a popular dish in the sense that it is freely advertised, and there are many advertisements of salted fish and even fresh fish. This, however, is very dear; five tons of plaice, for instance, is offered at 260 marks a ton, and eighteen tons of whiting and haddock at 280 marks a ton. The price of geese is so high that it cannot be reckoned as a food for the nation at large. Thus goose breast costs 11.50 marks per pound, and goose legs 9 marks per pound. Goose fat must be a great luxury, for it is sold at 17 marks a pound. Large crammed fowls can, however, be had for 4.50 marks a pound, and ducks at 4.95 marks per pound. Hens for roasting are advertised at about $1.25 apiece. Foods of a kind that are not as a rule eaten are freely advertised, such as salt seal meat and whale meat.

Soap is very scarce, and toilet soap costs 63 cents a piece, and cannot easily be got. Soap substitutes made of calcium carbonate are common. Fatless grease wash extracts for soap are freely advertised. Many firms find a difficulty in feeding their workers, and advertise for supplies. Very common is the advertisement, "We buy food of all kinds for workers in large quantities." One firm announces that it will buy any quantity of preserves, jams, and meat wares.

The strangest materials are being used to produce covering for the poorer classes of Germany. Nettle wastage and raw nettles are advertised as well as woven paper for making men's clothes. Cheap costumes are made from artificial silk, and moiré material and lining are used for dresses. There are many offers in the clothing trade journals to buy waste paper, from which paper yarn is made. A textile firm advertises for horse hair of all kinds, ox-tail hair, goat hair, pigs' bristles and hair, which are to be used in its factory. The lack of raw material has caused many textile mills to close down. Waste of every kind is eagerly bought, such as metal, rags, bones, rubber, iron, paper, newspapers and books, and empty sacks, packing cases, and bottles. There are numerous advertisements due to the war which point to the use of all available resources.

Organ Pipes for Munitions

Prussian churches are being stripped of their organ pipes. Thus we find the following proclamation from the Police President in Berlin:

The proclamation of the Ober-Kommando in Brandenburg respecting the sequestration, census, and expropriation of organ "prospekt" pipes made of tin, and voluntary delivery of other tin pipes, sound-conductors, etc., belonging to organs and other musical instruments, comes into force on Jan. 10. * * *

The Police President, Berlin.

An advertisement in the Berliner Tageblatt gives instructions as to how these orders are to be carried out. In it the "prospekt" pipes are described as all those visible on the outside of an organ. The price fixed for these tin organ pipes is 6.30 marks per kilo, in addition to a payment of 35 marks by way of compensation for every organ damaged.

There is a great search after gold and jewelry, a committee having been formed for this purpose with the Crown Princess of Prussia as its patroness, and backed by the signatories of Bethmann Hollweg, Wermuth, Oberburgermeister of Berlin, and Dr. Haverstein, President of the directorate of the Reichsbank.

It is stated that the offices of the committee are open every weekday from 10 A. M. to 2 P. M. in various parts of Berlin. The price of the objects bought is fixed by valuators. Deliverers of gold trinkets receive a written certificate, and those who offer gold chains get an iron chain at the cost of 2.50 marks, to celebrate their patriotism, or a medal. All those who offer gold objects worth at least 5 marks receive a similar medal.

In analyzing any list of advertisements it is necessary to remember that most of the necessaries of life cannot be bought without the production of official vouchers. Thus edible fat, eggs, and sugar can only be bought on production of a food book which entitles the buyers to certain quantities as per ration. This applies, of course, to all articles of food on the food ticket. Poultry, however, and game are freely sold without cards, which means that the well-to-do can still get plenty to eat. A new order forbids under heavy fine the bringing of dogs into rooms where food is kept for sale.

Cultivating Town Lots

Many advertisements appear in the agricultural papers urging the farmers to cultivate vegetables in large quantities, for a shortage of vegetables, on which the poor in the absence of meat so much depend, is feared. Building grounds in towns are being parceled out for cultivation. Thus we get the following announcement in the Münchener Neueste Nachrichten:

In order to hold out more easily we are making available for the cultivation of fruit and vegetables the Maxhof estate within the town boundary of Munich, situated between Forstenried, Neuried, &c. Thirty-five minutes distant from Waldfriedhof and Solin. Since work must soon be begun it lies in the interests of the buyer to choose quickly. Owing to the bad weather during the recent holidays we retain the old price of 7½ pfennigs per square foot for Saturday and Sunday, when the ground can be viewed, etc. One-quarter plot (tagwerk) equals 850 square meters, cost 750 marks, etc.

Forstenried Garden City Co., Ltd.

Shortage of labor is a great difficulty in getting the land cultivated, and even men with artificial limbs are being used in farm work. Belgian labor is offered as if it were slave labor, if one may judge from the following advertisement in the Magdeburgishe Zeitung:

"Thirty Belgian civilian workers are to be disposed of during the frosty weather."

The high prices in Germany naturally encourage smuggling from Holland. The Dutch paper, Vaderland, declares that the smuggling trade has grown such a lucrative one in the Coevorden district that many workmen are leaving their employment to take this trade in hand. The Algemeen Handelsblad is informed from Zevenaar that at Didam, Bergh, Wehl, and Zevenaar more than 5,000 kilos of fat and soap have been seized from smugglers. A number of the smugglers have been caught and warrants have been issued against 200, including some Amsterdam people. The Dutch require these articles for themselves, since prices are very high in Holland.

Picture of Berlin Life

The Frankfurter Zeitung publishes an account of the extraordinary change in the appearance and life of Berlin. It is only lately that Berlin has really altered its character since the shops shut at 7, the houses at 9, the theatres at 10, and the restaurants and cafes at 11:30, while practically all the street cars stop at midnight, and the population, adapting itself to circumstances, really goes to bed early. The Frankfurter Zeitung gives the following picture:

Without any exaggeration, Berlin has become a different city. For every town the new restrictions mean much, but for Berlin they mean everything. In other places people were active, but in Berlin they were creative. Here was the new Germany, the new Europe. The manifold activities, the vitality have gone, and all that remains is war, victory, and peace. Although the individual artist, merchant, or professor may still have his ideas and pursue them in secret, Berlin as a whole is waiting, breathless, silent, tame, but burning for the moment when she can again pursue her innumerable purposes with the old eagerness and a new impulse. That is the characteristic of intellectual and scientific Berlin waiting for the new moment, the new time. * * * The streets are now quieter by day and empty in the evening. Life is a provisorium. One sees few taxicabs, and notices more and more the scarcity of vehicles generally and in many cases of personnel. The women are beginning to dominate the sphere of work, doing everything on their own responsibility. * * * We have our own army of occupation, since whole rows of houses are taken up by the new War Bureaus and the countless subordinate departments which are carrying out the national organization. What was called 'shopping' has stopped. Since everything is rationed, shopping due to fancy, luxury, or boredom in other words, women's shopping has ceased."

The article goes on to say that the theatres are full, but that, except in the lowest class of revues, the plays have little to do with the war. People have become quiet and introspective, and hostesses are acquiring the habit of reciting poetry to their guests.

The Berliner Tageblatt on March 7 announced that the suspension of all beer brewing in Northern Germany was imminent. This action was due to the desire to save Indian corn for bread and malt to take the place of coffee.

At a conference in Vienna March 3, attended by Cabinet Ministers, Governors of Provinces, Burgomasters, and several Parliamentary Deputies, Premier Count Clam-Martinic announced that the Minister of Finance was about to put into operation measures to provide foodstuffs for the poorer classes at considerably reduced prices.

Bread Cards in France

Announcement that bread cards would be instituted in France to prevent waste was made March 1, 1917, in an official communication issued by Edouard Herriot, Minister of Provisions. The announcement says:

"To avoid wastage, the Minister of Provisions has decided to regulate the consumption of bread by instituting cards. Instructions will be given to the Prefects of the different departments to put the new regulation into effect."

It developed in a debate in Paris that the wheat acreage of France was reduced about 800,000 by the invasion, out of a total of 16,250,000, while the deficiency for 1917 is estimated at 5,500,000 acres, of which 500,000, at least, is expected to be made up by Spring seeding of Manitoba wheat, which, it is now conceded, will grow successfully in French soil.

To increase the wheat acreage it is necessary to raise the maximum selling price from an equivalent of $1.85 to $2.25 per bushel, and also to intensify the use of modern motor implements and a greater number of prisoners of war, of whom only 35,000 have been employed on farms.

Russia also is suffering serious privation, aggravated by a serious breakdown in its transportation and distributing systems. News dispatches before the recent revolution told of food riots in Moscow and Petrograd, but the censorship was so strict that no details were allowed to filter through. Food riots in Petrograd, indeed, were a direct cause of the downfall of the Czar's Government. Those who know most concerning the internal situation in Russia declare that starvation still faces large numbers of the poor throughout that country.

Scarcity in Great Britain

There is a great scarcity of potatoes in Great Britain, and it is stated that the available stock will be entirely exhausted by May 1, unless there is a material reduction in consumption. The measures taken to increase the British food supply by restricting the importation of nonessentials are given in detail elsewhere. Among the new regulations in London is the establishing of one meatless day at all clubs. The prices of bacon, butter, cheese, and lard are regulated. A reliable observer says under date of March 8:

"All over the United Kingdom men and women are, in advance of mandatory legislation, limiting their food consumption, reducing the use of meat, of sugar, of all the things that are supplied by seaborne freights. Britain is getting ready to stand siege; millions of British subjects recognize that the cost of victory in the great struggle may be scarcity at home such as has not been known in modern times in England.

"In the restaurants and hotels only two courses are served for luncheon and three for dinner. And nothing is more impressive than the fashion in which people are submitting to that sort of regulation.

"The time has not come when there is an actual and visible shortage of foodstuffs in England. There is no starvation and there is no evidence of that very general underfeeding which all witnesses agree is so unmistakable in Germany. Britain is not yet hungry, but Britons are taking every step to avoid possible famine hereafter by making meagre now."

Deprivations of Neutrals

The war years have doubled prices of many necessities in all lands, and the suffering in the neutral countries of Europe is almost as acute as that in the belligerent nations. Reports from the Scandinavian countries and Holland tell of serious want owing to the submarine blockade. Sweden has not enough grain to last until the next harvest, and Norway has still less than Sweden.

Holland suffered a severe blow in the torpedoing of six Government grain ships by German submarines, followed by a virtual paralysis of all overseas traffic. There has been some modification of the sea lanes open to Holland, but the food shortage continues acute. The Dutch Government found itself compelled, owing to this situation, to prohibit the exportation of bread to Belgium after March 10, 1917.

Switzerland has two meatless days a week, and must limit its egg consumption, according to a measure promulgated by the Bundesrat at Berne on Feb. 23. In order to conserve the milk supply the sale of whipped cream is forbidden in all public places. The same provision forbids the giving of more than 15 grams of sugar with a tea or coffee order and limits the quantity of sugar which may be used for frostings. Butter may be served only at breakfast or at meals at which no meat or egg dishes are supplied and may no longer be used with cheese. The use of eggs in making pastry is prohibited.

The United States has not escaped its share of the war's effects. In New York City late in February there were riots in the congested districts over the high prices of food and considerable excitement prevailed for some days. Many tons of food were purchased at distant points by municipal committees and sold in New York at cost. After a week of excitement the food supply increased, prices dropped and the flurry subsided.

© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013

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