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Home Fires Burning: Food, Politics and Everyday Life in World War I Berlin.

Home Fires Burning: Food, Politics and Everyday Life in World War I Berlin. By Belinda J. Davis. (Chapel Hill and London: University of North Carolina Press, 2000. Pp. xiv, 349. $24.95.)

This book is an analytical narrative focusing on lower-class women in Berlin during the great protogenic catastrophe of the twentieth century, World War I. The author concentrates on "women of lesser means," based especially on reports from the Berlin political police. She describes the destitution among these women and their families as food became limited, then scarce, and finally nonexistent or substituted. The government tried four remedies: 1) "Food substitutes," such as the fodder turnip with its bitter taste, soon replaced potatoes, bread, and even coffee; 2) a four-tiered rationing system based on a person's contribution to the war, with soldiers and soldiers' wives at the top, followed by heavy industrial workers, then munitions workers, and the urban poor on the bottom; 3) government-sponsored soup kitchens; and 4) factory canteens to address the needs of the high-priority defense workers. For women of lesser means and their families, none of these worked. Millions of persons were reduced to 700-800 calories a day, which begins to approach an "Auschwitz diet" of the sort provided to concentration camp inmates in 1943. Although the food squeeze began in 1914, it really started to bite in 1916 and especially during the last two years of the war, when 700,000 civilians died of malnutrition.

All of this led to an increasing breakdown of social norms, disregard for law, outbreaks of public disorder, and sporadic violence. Already in 1915, there were potato and butter "riots" by women who had none. By 1917, when the proportion of the factory labor force was approaching 25 percent female, there began a series of one-day strikes by Berlin metal workers. In April, over 200,000 munitions workers failed to show up for work. By summer 1917, markets were being stormed by women using "wild rows, looting and blows," resulting in farmers choosing not to participate in Berlin market stalls. As the social order disintegrated--based on the fundamental anger against a government that could not feed its people--and the street lights were turned off to save fuel, Berliners began "helping themselves." Approximately 50,000 women were arrested for theft in January 1918. For the Berlin women of lesser means and their families, as well for the police who reported on them, lack of food led to a fundamental undermining of the political legitimacy of the imperial government long before November 1918.

Enhanced by 36 illustrations--political cartoons, photographs, postcards, maps, and figures--this is an important contribution to the study of Berlin women in this period and, perhaps equally significant, to a major theme currently reemerging in twentieth-century German history: to wit, that World War I was not the bridge between Imperial Germany and the Third Reich, but, to the contrary, an incomparably brutal new beginning, massively and substantially different from anything prior to August 4, 1914. The Great War, in trenches and households together, comprised the protogenic force, the true seed bed, the originating volcano of the disastrous 26 years, 1919-1945, that followed.

Arden Bucholz

State University of New York, Brockport

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Author:Bucholz, Arden
Publication:The Historian
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jan 1, 2002
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