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13 February 1916 – Substitution

For over a year, Germany has exerted strict price controls and rationing on almost all foodstuffs, as the allied blockade is cutting off the supply of many things taken for granted before the war. George Michaelis, the attorney and bureaucrat put in charge of the Reich Grain Agency (Reichsgetreidestelle) during January 1915, has become one of the most powerful men in the country, with responsibility for a budget of  70 million marks to oversee the issue of most of the food that German civilians eat now. And because so many foodstuffs are unavailable from abroad, the German government has introduced ersatz (substitute) products of all kinds: coffee made from chicory, acorns, herbs, or berries, bread made with more potato flour and rye but less wheat, synthetic powdered eggs, fake sausage, milk, jam, fruit preserves, cocoa, honey, and so on. Sold in the same pleasant stores as before (see above), all of this food tastes awful.

It is also less nutritious. Most Germans have already lost weight, and to date the average laborer’s daily caloric intake has been reduced by a third or more, with worse to come, impacting their productivity. A hungry coal miner cannot dig as fast as a satisfied one, so his output falls even when his hours are extended. Of course, Germany is hardly alone in suffering from the disruption of global and regional food systems this way. Famine is now spreading from Africa to the Balkans; the quality of bread is declining everywhere, even in Paris; the Italian munitions center around Turin is spiraling towards food riots in June, while breadlines have already appeared in Petrograd; sugar is tightly controlled in London, and so many British agricultural workers have enlisted to serve in combat now that the potato crop will fail in parts of Scotland and England this year. Yet Germany and Austria take the lead in suffering, and the allied press takes positive delight in reporting as much.

This month, British newspapers have begun to focus on reporting non-food substitutions advertised in German papers, such as wooden shoes to answer a leather shortage, imitation flannel and canvas fabrics, soap made with less fat but more sand, and so on. Rumors of worker food strikes are magnified into tales of mass demonstrations. But these stories are not just propaganda. In fact, the most damaging words come from German and Austrian newspapers, all of which pin the blame squarely on Berlin for letting inflation spiral out of control. Last week, the American journal The Nation quoted the Kolnische Zeitung: “It may be taken as axiomatic that in matters of supply our Government never takes the decisive step at the outset, never acts except under undue pressure, and never learns except from its own failures.”

Predictably, the German government has reacted by increasing its press censorship. After calling for a special session of the Reichstag to grapple with wartime inflation, Vorwärts, the newspaper of the Socialist Party, was shut down last week for its fiery denunciations of wartime profiteering: “We are of the opinion that the adequate provision of the people’s means of subsistence and the fight against profit-mongering should be an end to itself, not the means to an end.” Vorwärts will continue to suffer such lockdowns, usually for days at a time, until the end of the conflict.

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A German government propaganda cartoon depicts pork, sausage, fats, butter, milk, and meal as characters. Note the bar of soap

The imposition of censorship follows a similar track to the halting, high-handed way that Germany has imposed price controls and rationing. In mid-January, the German Chancellor requested that Field Marshall Hindenburg to suppress the Pommersche Tagespost and Goslarsche Zeitung for reportign on internal disputes at the highest levels of government, including his own clashes with Hindenburg. But the hero of the Eastern Front refused, saying that he would not use his growing, nearly-dictatorial powers on the press “for purely political speculations.” Nevertheless, ten days later a decree ordered all stories regarding conversations with, or other communications from, Army generals to pass through the Kriegspresseamt, the counterintelligence office of the Germany Army. Later this month, all discussions of German-American relations are subjected to censorship before publication.

Three days ago, the German Publishers Association presented the government with a series of requests. Some of these dealt with the annoyances of centralization, such as the requirement that combat reports come to their newsrooms through the official wire service, the Wolff Telegraph Bureau, rather than directly. From the point of view of German newsmen and printers, however, the greatest threat to their freedom is the German government’s complicated paper distribution policy, which allocates more newsprint for those papers which have shrunk between 1913 and 1915 but less for those which have grown in sheet size. This perverse system is aimed at supporting provincial journals, which are seen as more loyal and malleable, over the urban dailies which pursue public interest stories with greater vigor. As a result, the Berliner Tageblatt is seeing greatly-increased circulation throughout the war even as the size of its pages shrinks by half.

Today, the English-language press reports on the GPA’s complaints, putting particular emphasis on their assertion that as many as 2,000 German periodicals of all types have shut down since the war began due to shortages of paper. Though much-ballyhooed as another sign of Germany’s imminent social collapse, it is an enormous exaggeration, for as with any other industry, the biggest problem publishers face is the number of reporters and editors who have left their trade to go serve at the front. Furthermore, German paper production is not really in precipitous decline; instead, paper is being used as an ersatz replacement for all sorts of other materials. Cut off from American cotton, which is a key fiber material for a wide range of products from clothing to bandages to artillery propellant, German industry has been forced to adapt cellulose, recycled rags, and crepe paper as substitutes. Indeed, during 1916 the first paper clothing fabrics will be introduced in Germany, and just like the ersatz foodstuffs, they are quite inferior to what they replace. Last but certainly not least, the Reichsbank is turning to paper money for increased liquidity, adding to the inflation problem. We must therefore assume that the increased number of uses for paper, as well as government policy, explain the scarcity of newsprint better than reduced output at paper factories.

But the paper shortage assumes a life of its own as it becomes a scapegoat. Later this month, all discussions of German-American relations are required to pass through censors, while reprinting of a book on the topic is nixed and the decision blamed on paper shortages. During March, Berlin’s leading newspapers cite their troubles when they refuse to print a speech by Karl Helferrich, the Minister of the Interior. In June, the German Army prohibits extra editions, and while the newsprint shortage is named as the culprit, their desire to suppress bad news from the front has much more to do with the decision. Matters get worse as the war drags on. During 1917, hotels and restaurants are banned from offering free newspapers to customers, while the papers are forced to stop giving away maps and war timelines as incentives for new subscribers.

The German people are fed up with being hungry; these decisions are driven less by a real shortage of paper than the need to dampen public enthusiasm for revolution.

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The weekly German ration of 1918: <2 ounces of meat, 2 ounces of fat, <1 oz. of butter, 5.5 lbs of unappetizing bread, 4.4 ounces of beans, just over a half-pound of flour, 5 lbs of potatoes, 1 lb of marmalade, 1 pint of milk, all sweetened with <0.5 oz of sugar

  • Gregory Robert Zieren

    I’ve looked a small sample of newspapers in 1916-17 and was surprised by the diversity of war coverage and opinions about the war. In addition to the Tageblatt, the Frankfurter Zeitung (ancestor of today’s Franfurter Allgemeine Zeitung) was especially outspoken. Yes, the censors could stop certain issues of a newspaper or discussion of a particular topic. But it was surprising to me how varied the newspapers were. The newspaper from the Ruhr, representing heavy industry, was especially radical in its support of expansion in Belgium and the East.

    • http://www.osborneink.com/ OsborneInk

      I’m interested to know how the German press performed differently during the two world wars. I expect some of the contrasts will be obvious, but others not so much.

      • Gregory Robert Zieren

        My impression is that outright newspaper closures were rare, but they did use the paper shortage as a pretext to punish some, like Vorwaerts and others. But the Berliner Tageblatt had the largest circulation in Germany and the Frankfurter Zeitung was read by bankers, investors and the upper middle class. The military had to be careful because they were still trying to preserve the illusion of consensus, or Burgfrieden. The War Information office could deny newspapers news from the front, and that would have hurt circulation. I’m no expert on the subject, but I have looked at about a half a dozen newspapers and the variety of opinion was astonishing. In WW2 the practice of Gleichschaltung had purged any dissent years earlier. Everyone knew they had to be compliant and had no illusions of independence or press freedom.

        • http://www.osborneink.com/ OsborneInk

          Very interesting. I suppose that I should have learned German before starting a WW1 blog, it would surely be helpful.

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