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. 

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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.

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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.

The Very Real Events That Inspired Game of Thrones's Red Wedding

Peter Graham's After the Massacre of Glencoe
Peter Graham's After the Massacre of Glencoe
Peter Graham, Google Cultural Institute, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Ask any Game of Thrones fan to cite a few of the show's most shocking moments, and the so-called "Red Wedding" from season 3's "The Rains of Castamere" episode will likely be at the top of their list. The events that unfolded during the episode shocked fans because of their brutality, but what might be even more surprising to know is that the episode was based on very real events.

Author George R.R. Martin has said that the inspiration for the matrimonial bloodbath is based on two dark events in Scottish history: the Black Dinner of 1440 and 1692's Massacre of Glencoe. “No matter how much I make up, there’s stuff in history that’s just as bad, or worse,” Martin told Entertainment Weekly in 2013. And he’s absolutely right. See for yourself.

The Massacre of Glencoe

The West Highland Way in 2005, view from the summit of the Devil's Staircase looking south over the east end of Glen Coe, towards Buachaille Etive Mòr with Creise and Meall a' Bhuiridh beyond
Colin Souza, Edited by Dave Souza, CC BY-SA 2.5, Wikimedia Commons

In 1691, all Scottish clans were called upon to renounce the deposed King of Scotland, James VII, and swear allegiance to King William of Orange (of William and Mary fame). The chief of each clan had until January 1, 1692, to provide a signed document swearing an oath to William. The Highland Clan MacDonald had two things working against them here. First of all, the Secretary of State, John Dalrymple, was a Lowlander who loathed Clan MacDonald. Secondly, Clan MacDonald had already sworn an oath to James VII and had to wait on him to send word that they were free to break that oath.

Unfortunately, it was December 28 before a messenger arrived with this all-important letter from the former king. That gave Maclain, the chief of the MacDonald clan, just three days to get the newly-signed oath to the Secretary of State.

Maclain was detained for days when he went through Inveraray, the town of the rival Clan Campbell, but still managed to deliver the oath, albeit several days late. The Secretary of State’s legal team wasn't interested in late documents. They rejected the MacDonalds's sworn allegiance to William, and set plans in place to cut the clan down, “root and branch.”

In late January or early February, 120 men under the command of Captain Robert Campbell arrived at the MacDonalds's in Glencoe, claiming to need shelter because a nearby fort was full. The MacDonalds offered their hospitality, as was custom, and the soldiers stayed there for nearly two weeks before Captain Drummond arrived with instructions to “put all to the sword under seventy.”

After playing cards with their victims and wishing them goodnight, the soldiers waited until the MacDonalds were asleep ... then murdered as many men as they could manage. In all, 38 people—some still in their beds—were killed. At least 40 women and children escaped, but fleeing into a blizzard blowing outside as their houses burned down meant that they all died of exposure.

The massacre was considered especially awful because it was “Slaughter Under Trust.” To this day, the door at Clachaig Inn in Glen Coe has a sign on the door that says "No hawkers or Campbells."

The Black Dinner

In November of 1440, the newly-appointed 6th Earl of Douglas, who was just 16, and his little brother David, were invited to join the 10-year-old King of Scotland, James II, for dinner at Edinburgh Castle. But it wasn’t the young King who had invited the Douglas brothers. The invitation had been issued by Sir William Crichton, Chancellor of Scotland, who feared that the Black Douglas (there was another clan called the Red Douglas) were growing too powerful.

As legend has it, the children were all getting along marvelously, enjoying food, entertainment and talking until the end of the dinner, when the head of a black bull was dropped on the table, symbolizing the death of the Black Douglas. The two young Douglases were dragged outside, given a mock trial, found guilty of high treason, and beheaded. It’s said that the Earl pleaded for his brother to be killed first so that the younger boy wouldn’t have to witness his older brother’s beheading.

Sir Walter Scott wrote this of the horrific event:

"Edinburgh Castle, toune and towre,
God grant thou sink for sin!
And that e'en for the black dinner
Earl Douglas gat therein."

This article has been updated for 2019.

15 Game of Thrones Products Every Fan Needs

Kit Harington and Emilia Clarke in Game of Thrones
Kit Harington and Emilia Clarke in Game of Thrones
Helen Sloan, HBO

Though Game of Thrones might be coming to its official end, that doesn’t mean that your fandom can’t—or won’t—carry on. Whether you’re a years-long defender of House Stark or have been rooting for House Targaryen since the beginning, there’s a candle, collectible pin, coffee mug, card game, and pretty much anything else you can imagine with your name (and preferred sigil) on it.

1. A Song of Ice and Fire Book Series; $46

Bantam's 'A Song of Ice and Fire' book series

Bantam, Amazon

If you’ve never read George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, the book series upon which the series is based, plenty more Westerosi drama awaits. And just because you’ve seen every episode of the series 10 times doesn’t mean you know which way the books will turn. (The TV show diverged from their narrative a long time ago—and dozens of the characters who have been killed off on your television screen are still alive and well in the books.) Plus, as Martin has yet to complete the series, you may just catch up in time for the newest book.

Buy it: Amazon

2. Map Marker Wine Stopper Set; $50

Nobody solves a problem like Tyrion Lannister … and his thought process usually includes copious amounts of wine (Dornish if you’ve got it). Something tells us you’re going need some vino yourself to get through the giant, hour-long hole left in your Sunday nights once Game of Thrones officially ends. Make sure you don’t let a drop of it go to waste by keeping one of these six wine stoppers—each one carved to represent the sigil of the most noble houses in the Seven Kingdoms—handy.

Buy it: HBO Shop or BoxLunch

3. Winterfell Coffee Mug; $25

If coffee is more your speed—we get it: the night is dark and full of terrors—this simple-yet-elegant Winterfell mug is an easy way to communicate to your co-workers why you’re typically a little bleary-eyed on Monday mornings.

Buy it: HBO Shop

4. Hodor Door Stop; $12

A 3D-printed Hodor door stop, inspired by 'Game of Thrones'

3D Cauldron, Amazon

An important part of being a Game of Thrones fan is accepting that showrunners D.B. Weiss and David Benioff have no problem killing off your favorite characters, often in brutal ways. One of the series’ most memorable deaths was that of Hodor, Bran Stark’s personal mode of transport, who we loved despite the fact that the only word he ever uttered for six seasons was “Hodor”—and who we loved even more when, in the final moments of his life, we learned why that was the case. Pay tribute to the gentle giant, and his backstory, with this 3D-printed door stop.

Buy it: Amazon

5. Tarot Card Deck; $25

A 'Game of Thrones' tarot card deck, from Chronicle Books

Chronicle Books, Amazon

Channel your inner Maggy the Frog and see what the future holds for you and your loved ones (your enemies, too, if the mood strikes you) with Chronicle Books’s gorgeously packaged tarot card deck. The tarot tradition and Game of Thrones mythology blend seamlessly together in this box of goodies, which includes an instruction book and illustrated cards featuring your favorite characters and most beloved scenes from the show.

Buy it: Amazon or Chronicle Books

6. Fire and Blood Candle; $12

Mad Queen or not, show that you still stand behind the Mother of Dragons by filling your home with this House Targaryen-inspired votive candle. Best of all: Just wait to see the look on the faces of your guests when they ask “Mmmm … what’s that smell?” If you’d prefer not to answer with “fire and blood—doesn’t it smell delicious?,” there are other scents available: one called "Moon of My Life My Sun and Stars," another called "Be a Dragon," and one inspired by the Iron Throne itself (which must smell like victory).

Buy it: HBO Shop

7. Clue: Game of Thrones; $50

Margaery Tyrell with the battle axe in Cersei’s bedchambers. Rewrite the rules—and brutal deaths—of Game of Thrones with this special edition of the classic board game, which tasks you with figuring out who murdered whom, using what weapon, and where the incident took place. A double-sided playing board lets you choose whether you want to set the game in The Red Keep or Meereen.

Buy it: HBO Shop or BoxLunch

8. Game of Thrones Monopoly; $24

'Game of Thrones Monopoly' game board

Hasbro, Amazon

Who wants to be the Lord or Lady of Winterfell when you can become the preeminent real estate mogul of all the Seven Kingdoms? This special-edition Monopoly board puts a distinctly Westerosian twist on the classic game, with silver tokens to represent the sigils of each of the main houses and a card holder that plays the series’ haunting score whenever you press it.

Buy it: Amazon or Best Buy

9. House Stark Hoodie; $60

If you really wanted to dress like a Stark, you’d have a master blacksmith on hand to help customize your armor—or at least turn your IKEA rug into a luxurious cape. If you’re far less crafty, there’s always this full-zip hoodie featuring an embroidered direwolf on the front and an outlined illustration of the same on the back. The minimalist design is a way to show your fandom in a way that, to the untrained eye, might just look like you’re a fan of wolves. But the rest of us will know better. And approve.

Buy it: ThinkGeek

10. Deluxe Iron Throne Funko Pop! Set; $130

Funko's Iron Throne Pop! set of five

Funko, HBO Shop

Though it seems unlikely that a few of these characters will ever sit on the Iron Throne (either because they’re dead or have gone mad), a fan can always hope. And buying them as part of this five-piece set is an easy way to collect them all. If you don’t see your favorite character here, Amazon has got plenty more squat-headed figures to choose from, including Arya, Brienne of Tarth, Rhaegal (poor Rhaegal), and Ghost (poor Ghost). If you ever happen upon a headless Ned Stark Pop!, grab it; this hard-to-find figure can sell for more than $2000 on eBay.

Buy it: HBO Shop

11. Iron Throne Bookend; $60

After devoting more than eight years of your life to seeing Game of Thrones all the way through, maybe it’s you who deserves the Iron Throne. You can’t sit on this 7.5-inch replica, the base of which features sigils from all the noble houses, but you can show off your fancy George R.R. Martin book collection … or all that dragon fan fiction you’ve been working on.

Buy it: Best Buy or the HBO Shop

12. Game of Thrones Music Box; $13

'Game of Thrones' music box

Shenzhen Youtang Trade Co., Amazon

Channel your inner Arya by psyching yourself up with the iconic Game of Thrones theme song whenever you feel the need to hear it with this hand-cranked music box.

Buy it: Amazon

13. Iron Throne Tankard; $70

Show your guests who's boss at your next dinner party—or raucous feast—as you take your place at the head of the table and guzzle your mead (or giant's milk—we don't judge) from this Iron Throne-themed tankard, completed with sword handle.

Buy it: HBO Shop

14. Game of Thrones Socks; $8

It gets cold in the North. Keep your tootsies warm with this six-pack of stylish ankle-cut socks.

Buy it: Target

15. Living Language Dothraki; $16

A copy of the Living Language Dothraki language course

Living Language, Amazon

By now, you've surely learned at least a handful of common Dothraki words and phrases. But if you wan to become fluent in the (fictional) language, this language course is one way to do it. Now: Finne zhavvorsa anni?

Buy it: Amazon

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