Starvation Stalks Europe

Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 247th installment in the series.  

August 24, 1916: Starvation Stalks Europe

Well before the First World War, Germany had long been known for its apparently orderly society, characterized outwardly by respect for rules and deference to authority – but this regimented appearance hid deep wells of discontent based on class and regional differences. These tensions only grew as the war dragged on and physical privations mounted both in the trenches and on the home front – and soon Germany, like the rest of the combatants, was experiencing civil disorder on an almost daily basis. No surprise, the most frequent cause was food shortages resulting from the widespread disruption of agriculture and transportation during the war (top, a German bread line during the war), while the Allied naval blockade cut Germany off from virtually all its former sources of imported food.

On August 24, 1916, another everyday eruption occurred in the town of Hamborn in North Rhine-Westphalia, where an angry crowd gathered pelted local officials with rocks over chronic shortages. A week before, German coal miners in the Ruhr went on strike over rising food prices, and shortly afterwards, from August 27-30 the major port city of Hamburg was rocked as hungry workers rioted. These disruptions were especially unnerving to German authorities because so many of the participants were ordinary middle and working class housewives – not usually known for making trouble.

Unfortunately things were about to get much worse: beginning in fall 1916 the German potato harvest failed due to the spread of “late blight,” as fungus destroyed the potatoes just as they were about to be harvested or shortly afterwards. The harvest could have been prevented with a common fungicide, but this was no longer available because a key ingredient, copper, had been set aside for the country’s war industry. Further compounding the misery, the winter of 1916 was one of the harshest in decades, leaving peasants especially vulnerable to disease and starvation. By the end of the “Turnip Winter,” as it became known, hundreds of thousands of Germans had starved to death, including around 80,000 children; for the whole war, an estimated 750,000 Germans perished from malnutrition. 

Click to enlarge

Although Germany was hit especially hard – and early – by 1916 food shortages were becoming more and more common across Europe, particularly in Germany’s ally Austria-Hungary, Russia, the Ottoman Empire, Belgium (fed by U.S. aid organized by Herbert Hoover), and the smaller Balkan states. In Ottoman Palestine, the young Arab diarist Ihsan Turjman noted with growing despair in mid-1916:

I can hardly concentrate these days. We face both a general war and an internal war. The government is trying (with futility) to bring food supplies, and disease is everywhere… Jersualem has not seen worse days. Bread and flour supplies have almost totally dried up. Every day I pass the bakeries on my way to work, and I see a large number of women going home empty-handed. For several days the municipality distributed some kind of black bread to the poor, the likes of which I have never seen. People used to fight over the limited supplies, sometimes waiting in line until midnight. Now, even that bread is no longer available. 

As the war ground on shortages would spread to neutral states like Holland, Denmark, and Switzerland, and eventually even Italy and the Western Allies, Britain and France, found themselves suffering as German submarines sent huge quantities of imported food to the bottom of the ocean.

Click to enlarge

Hunger On the Home Front 

All the belligerents prioritized food supplies for soldiers fighting in the front lines, for obvious reasons, leaving civilians back home to make ends meet as best they could. As so often in war the burden of shortages, and the responsibility for sustaining families, fell disproportionately on women, who summoned all their resources and resourcefulness to make do, now without the help of husbands or sons serving in the army. Piete Kuhr, a 13-year-old German girl living in East Prussia, described a culinary coup by her grandmother in her diary on October 10, 1916: 

If only we had a bit more to eat! Bread and flour are so scarce, and it is no better with any other sort of food. There was wonderful smell in the house recent when we came home from school. With a mysterious look on her face, Grandma placed a stewed bird with jacket potatoes on the table. It tasted wonderful. Grandma smiled when we’d eaten it all up: ‘Guess what you have been eating!’ ‘A partridge!’ cried Willi. ‘A young pigeon!’ I said. ‘A crow,’ said Grandma. ‘A farmer from Colmar sold it to me.’ 

Even wealthy industrialists and aristocrats, as civilians, found themselves forced to accept certain unexpected substitutions. On August 9, 1916, Ernesta Bullitt, an American diarist living in Berlin, recounted an exchange with an upper-class German friend: 

Stopped in to see Countess Gotzen. She had just come up from lunch. “Well,” she began, “the waiter brought me a piece of beef to-day which I couldn’t recognize the cut of for some time… I looked at it and I said to myself: ‘Now this isn’t the leg and it isn’t the rib, and it isn’t the shoulder.’ Then I said: ‘I know what it is, it’s the tail! And what’s more, it isn’t a cow’s tail – it’s a horse’s tail,’ so I called the waiter. ‘Now, waiter,’ said I, ‘I am not complaining, this is purely a matter of interest, but I want you to take this piece of meat to the chef and ask him if it is not a horse’s tail.’ In a few minutes the man came back, red to the roots of his hair, and said: ‘Madam, it is a horse’s tail!’” 

Official rationing and price controls, implemented by every national government at some point during the war, did little to alleviate shortages; in classic fashion, official attempts to impose maximum prices just drove trade in many goods underground where they could be had on the black market – for a great deal more, naturally. The result was long lines and empty shelves. Arnold Zweig, in his novel Young Woman of 1914, wrote of the shortages already facing the protagonist’s mother by early 1916: 

Times were indeed hard. Every German, great or small, had then to live on a weekly ration of four hundred grammes of bread, half a pound of meat, nine pounds of potatoes, ninety grammes of butter (watered), some cheese, and from time to time an egg. In the cities, milk was kept for children and sick persons; but owing to the lack of transport, the farmer was able to feed his young pigs on milk. In addition, everyone received half a pound of oatmeal, groats, barley, beans, or – in summer – vegetables; white or savoy cabbage, spinach, swedes, carrots, seakale. But the dreadful thing was the uncertainty as to what would be available the following week; this was the burden that weighed upon housewives and children. When, after hours of waiting in a queue, customers at least reached the counter, it too often happened that their allotted shares had already gone.

Hunger In the Trenches 

Despite their favored positions soldiers were also going hungry, especially if they were in second- or third-tier reserve or territorial units, or part of “pioneer” battalions responsible for engineering projects behind the lines. One German soldier from Alsace, Dominik Richert, described the rations for reserve troops in summer 1916:

The food got steadily worse, and soon we were down to two meat-free days per week. A day’s rations consisted of one and a half pounds of army bread in the morning and in the evening, poor-quality black coffee – often without sugar – some bread or cheese, sometimes a bit of sliced sausage, lard substitute, but mostly jam, and a sort of grey lard which the soldiers called Hindenburg- or monkey-fat. At midday each man was given one litre of soup. Everything was used to put in the soup – noodles, sauerkraut, rice, beans, peas, pearl barley, dried vegetables (called barbed wire by the soldiers), oatmeal, potato meal, and so on. Sometimes we were given green kelp fish: this much was completely unpalatable and smelt like corpses that had been lying out in the sun for a few days. 

Frontline soldiers also experienced hunger with greater frequency as 1916 wore on. According to Erich Maria Remarque, in his famous novel and memoir All Quiet on the Western Front, German soldiers would sometimes undertake dangerous trench raids merely in hopes of getting food from their better-supplied enemies: 

The corned beef over there is famous along the whole front. Occasionally it has been the chief reason for a flying raid on our part, for our nourishment is generally very bad; we have a constant hunger. We bagged five tins altogether. The fellows over there are well looked after; as against us, poor starving wretches, with our turnip jam; they can get all the meat they want. Haie has scored a thin loaf of white French bread, and stuck it behind his belt like a spade. It is a bit bloody at one corner, but that can be cut off. 

Of course, access to food also gave soldiers a key resource that could be traded for other things – including sex. On that note Remarque recounts a clandestine visit paid by him and his friends to three hungry Frenchwomen in occupied France: 

The house door opens, a chink of light shines through and a woman cries out in a scared voice. “Ssh! Ssh! camerade – bon ami –” we say and show our packages accordingly... Then we are allowed in… We unwrap our parcels and hand them over to the women. Their eyes shine, it is obvious they are hungry. Then we all become rather embarrassed. Leer makes the gesture of eating, and then they come to life again and bring out plates and knives and fall on the food, and they hold up every slice of livered sausage and admire it before they eat it, and we sit proudly by… The little brunette strokes my hair and says what all French women say: “La guerre – grand malheur – pauvres garçons…” 

Food shortages at the front highlighted the yawning chasm between the resources available to officers and ordinary soldiers, with the “grunts” always getting the worst of it. In fall 1916 Evelyn Blucher, an Englishwoman married to a German aristocrat and living in Berlin, wrote in her diary: 

A soldier home on leave tells me about the life the officers lead. Why, he said, the officers were having the time of their lives even now. Every day for dinner the tables are decorated with flowers; the officers have butter in quantities, eggs, meat, all most beautifully prepared, and the table laid as if they were in a first-rate hotel… The men get nothing of all this, neither butter, eggs, nor forks and knives; but that was just it – war! 

Growing scarcity also exacerbated tensions arising from country-city differences, especially as peasants in more rural, agricultural areas began hoarding food for themselves, at the expense of hungry city-dwellers. The farmers were also able to obtain more favorable leave conditions than their peers. One German soldier, Wilhelm Rütjerodt, wrote home on July 18, 1916: 

The only ones not in need here are the farmers. They don’t have to restrict themselves in any way and have the privilege to go on furlough quite often. Agriculture is a trump card and is supported in every respect as far as possible… The farmers have the fat, for the others there is nothing else for it than to watch how they taste it. The comrades are getting more and more fed up, for they watch the farmers living under conditions that are almost even better than those during peace time. The farmers sell butter to the NCOs for a pre-war price. 

Longstanding grudges between different regions (or between the provinces and the capital) got mixed up with food politics as well. As privation ground down the Habsburg realm’s internal cohesion, many civilians in the Austrian half of the Dual Monarchy accused those in the Hungarian half, a traditional bread basket, of holding back food for themselves. Similarly Blucher noted tartly in her diary in fall 1916 that relatively well-supplied Bavarians had found a new way to express their dislike for the Prussians in charge of the German Reich: “Prussians were much disappointed on their journeys to the Bavarian Alps this year. The Bavarians never had any food when Prussians were hungry!”

Meanwhile, fearing strikes and even revolution on the home front, governments on both sides of the war tried to fill the gap in civilian diets with man-made substitutes for a whole range of foods – some more plausible than others, and most thoroughly disliked. In his play “The Last Days of Mankind,” the Austrian critic Karl Kraus evoked the tragicomic situation with his character Frau Wahnschaffe, a German housewife who recites menus created with lists of increasingly absurd ingredients: 

So far as our food is concerned, since I am an efficient housewife, I have to make do with imagination here, too. Today we were well provided for as far as that goes. There were all kinds of things. We had a wholesome broth made with the Excelsior brand of Hindenburg cocoa-cream soup cubes, a tasty ersatz false hare with ersatz kohlrabi, potato pancakes made of paraffin… For dessert we had ersatz ladyfingers, which tasted fine to us… For tonight’s supper there’s a casserole, as always, and, for a change, liverwurst made from starch past and vegetables artificially colored red. And, as a substitute for cheese, Berlin curds with ersatz paprika. Today we’re also going to try the much-praised hodgepodge with Yolktex brand of ersatz egg made from carbonite of lime and baking powder, and a bit of Saladfix, a delicious additive that I prefer by far to Salatin as well as to Saladol. Because for the German family table the best is just good enough, and there’s nothing lacking… 

For young wives rationing provided a novel rite of initiation for the establishment of their households, as recorded by Zweig. After marrying her fiancé, back from the front on leave, Zweig’s protagonist Lenore Wahl declares: “Now let us go at once to the registration office and get my bread and meat cards, potato cards, fat cards, soap cards, sugar cards, and report myself generally…” Another popular joke, recorded by a German local newspaper in September 1917, mocked the government’s ability to hand out ration cards limiting households to certain quantities of every kind of food imaginable – but no actual food to go along with them: 

Take the meat card, mix it well with the egg card and bake it with the butter card until a healthy brown crust appears. The potato card and the vegetable card should be steamed until they are tender, and then thickened with the meal card. After-dinner coffee is prepared by boiling the coffee card and adding the sugar and milk cards to the beverage. A very succulent confection is obtained by dipping the bread card into the coffee so prepared and partaking of it in small pieces. At the conclusion of the repast you wash your hands with the soap card and dry them upon the cloth purchase permit.

Although people put the best face they could on the situation with humor, there was no question that discontent over food shortages was fueling growing political dissent in Germany, as in other combatant nations. On August 26, 1916, a German housewife voiced typical sentiments in a letter to her husband, showing how easily anger at conditions on the home front could translate into demoralization in the trenches, and vice versa:

My poor dear Paul! I have received your card from 20 July. If only this misery that has come upon mankind came to a quick end… We are all fed up here and we want peace as soon as possible. Yesterday there was a huge meeting in the Albert hall about peace and it said as follows: ‘Millions and millions of people have to demand with one voice: It is enough! Will you listen to reason and come back to your senses again! Become human beings among human beings again!’ (Storming applause) There were 50,000 people taking part in the gathering… If you were here occasionally, you would have been fed up for a long time… They have opened a war kitchen […] and I have to get the meals form there. You can imagine what kind of much this is! If you were able to see it, you would get an idea what we women are going through… Our main food is bread with cabbage, it is a shame. Just don’t be stupid and let them fool you, everything that I am writing is the truth, otherwise I wouldn’t write it. 

See the previous installment or all entries.

nextArticle.image_alt|e
Always Fits
arrow
books
Revisit Your Teen Years With Vintage Sweet Valley High Editions
Always Fits
Always Fits

The '80s and '90s were a special time to be a reading-obsessed child. Young adult series like The Baby Sitter’s Club and Sweet Valley High were in their prime (and spawning plenty of spinoffs and blatant knockoffs), with numerous books a year—Sweet Valley High creator Francine Pascal published 11 books in her series in 1984 alone.

You can't find original Sweet Valley High books on the shelves anymore (unless you want to read the tweaked re-release versions published in 2008), but fans of Jessica and Elizabeth no longer have to trawl eBay looking for nostalgic editions of their favorite installments of the series. Always Fits, a website that sells gifts it describes as “nostalgic, feminine, feminist and wonderful,” has tracked down as many vintage teen series from the '80s and '90s as it can, including a number of Sweet Valley High books.

A stack of Sweet Valley High books
Always Fits

The collection of books was sourced by the Always Fits team from vintage shops and thrift stores, and covers editions released between 1983 and 1994 (the series ran until 2003). While you can’t get a shiny new copy of books like Double Love, you can pretend that the slightly worn editions have been sitting on the bookshelf of your childhood bedroom all along.

Each of the Sweet Valley High books comes with an enamel pin inspired by the cover for one of the series's classic titles, Secrets. Unfortunately, you can’t pick and choose which installment you want—you’ll have to content yourself with a mystery pick, meaning that you may get In Love Again instead of Two-Boy Weekend. Hopefully you’re not trying to fill in that one hole from your childhood collection. (You may not be able to get Kidnapped by the Cult!, but it appears that Crash Landing!, with its amazingly ridiculous paralysis storyline, is available.)

The Sweet Valley High book-and-pin set is $18, or you can get a three-pack of random '80s books for the same price.

nextArticle.image_alt|e
Telepictures
arrow
entertainment
10 Things You Might Not Know About Love Connection
Telepictures
Telepictures

Between September 19, 1983 and July 1, 1994, Chuck Woolery—who had been the original host of Wheel of Fortune back in 1975—hosted the syndicated, technologically advanced dating show Love Connection. (The show was briefly revived in 1998-1999, with Pat Bullard as host.) The premise featured either a single man or single woman who would watch audition tapes of three potential mates discussing what they look for in a significant other, and then pick one for a date. The producers would foot the bill, shelling out $75 for the blind date, which wasn’t taped. The one rule was that between the end of the date and when the couple appeared on the show together, they were not allowed to communicate—so as not to spoil the next phase.

A couple of weeks after the date, the guest would sit with Woolery in front of a studio audience and tell everybody about the date. The audience would vote on the three contestants, and if the audience agreed with the guest’s choice, Love Connection would offer to pay for a second date.

The show became known for its candor: Couples would sometimes go into explicit detail about their dates or even insult one another’s looks. Sometimes the dates were successful enough to lead to marriage and babies, and the show was so popular that by 1992, the video library had accrued more than 30,000 tapes “of people spilling their guts in five-minutes snippets.”

In 2017, Fox rebooted Love Connection with Andy Cohen at the helm; the second season started airing in May. But here are a few things you might not have known about the dating series that started it all.

1. AN AD FOR A VIDEO DATING SERVICE INSPIRED THE SHOW.

According to a 1986 People Magazine article, the idea for Love Connection came about when creator Eric Lieber spied an ad for a video dating service and wanted to cash in on the “countless desperate singles out there,” as the article states. “Everyone thinks of himself as a great judge of character and likes to put in two cents,” Lieber said. “There’s a little yenta in all of us.”

2. CONTESTANTS WERE GIVEN SOMETHING CALLED A PALIO SCORE.

Staff members would interview potential contestants and rate them on a PALIO score, which stands for personality, appearance, lifestyle, intelligence, and occupation. Depending on the results, the staff would rank the potential guests as either selectors or selectees.

3. IN 1987, THE FIRST OF MANY LOVE CONNECTION BABIES WAS BORN.

John Schultz and Kathleen Van Diggelen met on a Love Connection date, which didn’t end up airing. “They said, ‘John, she’s so flat, if you can’t rip her up on the set, we can’t use you,’” he told People in 1988. “I said, ‘I can’t do that.’” However, they got married on an episode of Hollywood Squares. As the article stated, “Their son, Zachary, became the first baby born to a Love Connection-mated couple.”

4. IT LED TO OTHER DATING SHOWS, LIKE THE BACHELOR.

Mike Fleiss not only created The Bachelor and The Bachelorette, but he’s also responsible for reviving Love Connection. “I always had a soft spot for that show,” Fleiss told the Los Angeles Times in 2017. He said he was friends with Lieber and that the show inspired him to “venture into the romance TV space.” “I remember it being simple and effective,” he said about the original Love Connection. “And I remember wanting to find out what happened on those dates, the he said-she said of it all. It was intriguing.”

5. A FUTURE ACTOR FROM THE SOPRANOS WAS A CONTESTANT.

Lou Martini Jr., then known as Louis Azzara, became a contestant on the show during the late 1980s. He and his date, Angela, hit it off so well that they couldn’t keep their hands off one another during the show. Martini famously talked about her “private parts,” and she referred to him as “the man of my dreams.” The relationship didn’t last long, though. “I had just moved to LA and was not ready to commit to anything long-term," Martini commented under the YouTube clip. "The show was pushing me to ask her to marry me on the show!" If Martini looks familiar it’s because he went on to play Anthony Infante, Johnny Sack’s brother-in-law, on four episodes of season six of The Sopranos.

6. BEFORE THE SHOW WENT OFF THE AIR, A LOT OF CONTESTANTS GOT MARRIED.

During the same Entertainment Weekly interview, the magazine asked Woolery what the show’s “love stats” were, and he responded with 29 marriages, eight engagements, and 15 children, which wasn’t bad considering 2120 episodes had aired during its entire run. “When you think that it’s someone in our office putting people together through questionnaires and tapes, it’s incredible that one couple got married, much less 29,” he said.

7. CHUCK WOOLERY WAS AGAINST FEATURING SAME SEX COUPLES.

In a 1993 interview with Entertainment Weekly, the interviewer asked him “Would you ever have gay couples on Love Connection?” Woolery said no. “You think it would work if a guy sat down and I said, ‘Well, so where did you meet and so and so?’ then I get to the end of the date and say, ‘Did you kiss?’ Give me a break,” he said. “Do you think America by and large is gonna identify with that? I don’t think that works at all.” What a difference a quarter-century makes. Andy Cohen, who is openly gay, asked Fox if it would be okay to feature gay singles on the new edition of Love Connection. Fox immediately agreed.

8. ERIC LIEBER LIKED THE SHOW’S “HONEST EMOTIONS.”

When asked about the show's winning formula, Lieber once said: “The show succeeds because we believe in honest emotions. And, admit it—we’re all a little voyeuristic and enjoy peeking into someone else’s life.”

9. IN LIVING COLOR DID A HILARIOUS PARODY OF THE SHOW.

In the first sketch during In Living Color's pilot—which aired April 15, 1990—Jim Carrey played Woolery in a Love Connection parody. Robin Givens (played by Kim Coles) went on a date with Mike Tyson (Keenan Ivory Wayans) and ended up marrying him during the date. (As we know from history, the real-life marriage didn’t go so well.) The audience had to vote for three men: Tyson, John Kennedy Jr., and, um, Donald Trump. Tyson won with 41 percent of the vote and Trump came in second with 34 percent.

10. A PSYCHOLOGIST THOUGHT THE SHOW HAD A “MAGICAL HOPEFULNESS” QUALITY.

In 1986, People Magazine interviewed psychologist and teacher Dr. Richard Buck about why people were attracted to Love Connection. “Combine the fantasy of finding the perfect person with the instant gratification of being on TV, and the two are a powerful lure,” he said. “There’s a magical hopefulness to the show.”

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER
More from mental floss studios