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Targeting Civilians in War: The Starvation Blockades of World War I
Unformatted Document Text:  26 The food situation in Germany reached its nadir in the first half of 1917 following the failure of the potato harvest. Cool and damp conditions caused an outbreak of the fungus phytophtora, which destroyed about half of the potato crop in the winter of 1916-17. The weekly ration of potatoes dropped from seven pounds to three pounds per person, and per capita consumption fell by one third. 130 Germans were forced to substitute turnips in place of potatoes, causing this grim season to be known as the Kohlrubenwinter, or turnip winter. The official ration plunged below 1,000 calories in February 1917 before beginning to recover that summer. 131 Mortality. The fourth and final effect of the food shortages in Germany brought about by the blockade was increased civilian mortality. Official German statistics put the excess civilian death toll at 763,000 distributed as shown in Table 8, not counting 150,000 fatalities due to influenza in 1918. 132 Another estimate performed ten years after the war arrived at a figure of 424,000 excess civilian deaths, and put fatalities from influenza at an additional 209,000. 133 Women were hit particularly hard: by 1918 the female death rate in Germany had increased 50 percent over the rate in 1913, and was also 50 percent higher than the corresponding rate in England. 134 The age group of both genders that suffered the highest mortality rates was young people between 5 and 25. Individuals between the ages of 20 and 24 died in 1918 at double the rate for their age group in 1913, not counting influenza victims; if they are included, the mortality rate is almost triple what it was before the war. 135 Austria-Hungary, although less studied, suffered grievously as well, losing an estimated 467,000 civilians to the effects of the blockade. 136 [ Table 8 here ] Skeptics might argue that since people did not die of actual starvation, the blockade did not cause their deaths and the Allies should not be held responsible. A critic might also point to the fact that some of the food shortages in Germany resulted from domestic crop failures and mismanagement of the rationing system by the authorities. Neither of these criticisms is convincing. Just because Germans did not drop dead of starvation does not mean the blockade did not contribute to their deaths. As shown above, the blockade led to food shortages, increased food prices, weight loss, malnutrition, and increased vulnerability to disease. Furthermore, German crop failures were not independent of the blockade; harvests grew less fruitful over time in part because of the lack of imported fertilizers. And while the measures taken by Wilhelmine officials to manage the food situation left much to be desired, such as their attempts to assure access to food by setting maximum prices, their slow response to the crisis and lack of a comprehensive plan for agriculture, and their failure to propagandize for belt-tightening measures and lifestyle changes by the public, “It is wrong … to blame the German food crises on mismanagement alone. Blockade made them almost inevitable.” 137 130 Guichard, Naval Blockade, 286, and Roger Chickering, Imperial Germany and the Great War, 1914-1918 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), 142. 131 Chickering, Imperial Germany and the Great War, 143. 132 Vincent, Politics of Hunger, 141. 133 Offer, First World War, 34. 134 The German female death rate per thousand in 1918 was 21.6 compared to 14.3 in 1913, and 14.6 in England in 1918 (Ibid., 35). 135 Ibid., 37. Interestingly, infant mortality (one year or younger) actually declined for most of the war. As children grew older, however, their chances of dying prematurely increased. 136 Leo Grebler and Wilhelm Winkler, The Cost of the World War to Germany and Austria-Hungary (New Haven: 1940), 147. Chickering (Imperial Germany and the Great War, 195) cites the figure of 2,320,000 million excess civilian deaths in the Dual Monarchy during World War I, a total originally put forward in Horst Menderhausen, The Economics of War (New York: 1943, 361). This may be an accurate figure, but not all of these deaths were due to the blockade. 137 Offer, First World War, 70.

Authors: Downes, Alexander.
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26
The food situation in Germany reached its nadir in the first half of 1917 following the failure of the
potato harvest. Cool and damp conditions caused an outbreak of the fungus phytophtora, which destroyed
about half of the potato crop in the winter of 1916-17. The weekly ration of potatoes dropped from seven
pounds to three pounds per person, and per capita consumption fell by one third.
130
Germans were forced to
substitute turnips in place of potatoes, causing this grim season to be known as the Kohlrubenwinter, or turnip
winter. The official ration plunged below 1,000 calories in February 1917 before beginning to recover that
summer.
131
Mortality. The fourth and final effect of the food shortages in Germany brought about by the
blockade was increased civilian mortality. Official German statistics put the excess civilian death toll at
763,000 distributed as shown in Table 8, not counting 150,000 fatalities due to influenza in 1918.
132
Another
estimate performed ten years after the war arrived at a figure of 424,000 excess civilian deaths, and put
fatalities from influenza at an additional 209,000.
133
Women were hit particularly hard: by 1918 the female
death rate in Germany had increased 50 percent over the rate in 1913, and was also 50 percent higher than
the corresponding rate in England.
134
The age group of both genders that suffered the highest mortality rates
was young people between 5 and 25. Individuals between the ages of 20 and 24 died in 1918 at double the
rate for their age group in 1913, not counting influenza victims; if they are included, the mortality rate is
almost triple what it was before the war.
135
Austria-Hungary, although less studied, suffered grievously as
well, losing an estimated 467,000 civilians to the effects of the blockade.
136
[ Table 8 here ]
Skeptics might argue that since people did not die of actual starvation, the blockade did not cause
their deaths and the Allies should not be held responsible. A critic might also point to the fact that some of
the food shortages in Germany resulted from domestic crop failures and mismanagement of the rationing
system by the authorities. Neither of these criticisms is convincing. Just because Germans did not drop dead
of starvation does not mean the blockade did not contribute to their deaths. As shown above, the blockade
led to food shortages, increased food prices, weight loss, malnutrition, and increased vulnerability to disease.
Furthermore, German crop failures were not independent of the blockade; harvests grew less fruitful over
time in part because of the lack of imported fertilizers. And while the measures taken by Wilhelmine officials
to manage the food situation left much to be desired, such as their attempts to assure access to food by
setting maximum prices, their slow response to the crisis and lack of a comprehensive plan for agriculture,
and their failure to propagandize for belt-tightening measures and lifestyle changes by the public, “It is wrong
… to blame the German food crises on mismanagement alone. Blockade made them almost inevitable.”
137
130
Guichard, Naval Blockade, 286, and Roger Chickering, Imperial Germany and the Great War, 1914-1918 (Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press, 1998), 142.
131
Chickering, Imperial Germany and the Great War, 143.
132
Vincent, Politics of Hunger, 141.
133
Offer, First World War, 34.
134
The German female death rate per thousand in 1918 was 21.6 compared to 14.3 in 1913, and 14.6 in England in 1918
(Ibid., 35).
135
Ibid., 37. Interestingly, infant mortality (one year or younger) actually declined for most of the war. As children grew
older, however, their chances of dying prematurely increased.
136
Leo Grebler and Wilhelm Winkler, The Cost of the World War to Germany and Austria-Hungary (New Haven: 1940), 147.
Chickering (Imperial Germany and the Great War, 195) cites the figure of 2,320,000 million excess civilian deaths in the Dual
Monarchy during World War I, a total originally put forward in Horst Menderhausen, The Economics of War (New York:
1943, 361). This may be an accurate figure, but not all of these deaths were due to the blockade.
137
Offer, First World War, 70.


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