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Hungerkrisen in Preussen wahrend der ersten Halfte des 19. Jahrhunderts.

This is a statistically high-powered, theoretically sophisticated, empirically fresh, and convincingly argued study. It challenges the historical literature's interpretation of food shortages accompanied by high mortality in central Europe in the period 1815-1848 as instances of the "pre-industrial crises" or "crises of the ancien regime," which were first analyzed by Ernest Labrousse and, following his lead, introduced into German scholarship by Wilhelm Abel. In Bass's view, the severe hunger crises he investigates - in the Rhineland in 1816-17, in eastern Westphalia in 1831, and in Posen and East Prussia in 1846-47 - resulted not, as the literature would hold, from the absolute food shortages and attendant high prices characteristic of pre-industrial Europe, but rather from problems of food distribution in times of regional crop failures and from the politics of public and private poor relief in the early stages of industrial capitalism.

Bass emphasizes the importance of regional socio-economic structure in mediating the effects of food shortages, whether local or on distant markets. In food-importing districts, as in the industrial areas of the Rhineland and eastern Westphalia, the crucial variable was urban purchasing power, which was a function of demand for local manufactures in more or less distant markets. When sales on these markets were good, local purchasing power held up in the face of rising food prices, but when they were poor, as in Bass's cases, starvation struck home. Even if agricultural supplies improved, urban consumers might suffer if wages in a manufacturing depression plummeted more steeply than food prices. Similarly, where as in Posen and East Prussia a largely agricultural economy dominated by large estates producing for inter-regional or international export prevailed, hunger crises could result for the local wage-earning population even when harvests were ample, if high or desperate demand for food in distant markets impelled large landowners to export every available bushel, thus raising local food prices beyond what the common people could afford to pay. As for medium and smallholding farmers, the greater the degree of their self-sufficiency, the worse the effects of bad harvests. For those engaged in market production, falling output could be offset by rising prices, but beyond a certain point they too joined the work-deprived rural proletariat in starvation.

In the Rhineland in 1816-17, the combination of depression-stricken local manufactures with harvest failures in an agricultural economy highly articulated with a supra-regional web of urban markets produced a mortality crisis evident in the minimal or negative birth-rates of 1817. Vigorous popular protests and actions against price rises and food exports met with more sympathy than repression among local Prussian officialdom. Most importantly, the local bourgeoisie founded private philanthropic societies (Hilfsvereine) that purchased large quantities of imported rye, selling it below market prices to the needy, and otherwise aided the poor. Here the privately-organized, freemarket strategies of the nineteenth-century middle classes superseded earlier traditions of poor relief through government agencies - such as the celebrated Prussian army grain magazines of the eighteenth century - and the church.

Bass credits the threat to law and order posed by popular protest with significant influence on the decisions of the burghers to undertake such work, as well as on the Prussian authorities' decision to approve the new charitable societies. But most crucial of all was the existence in the Rhineland of a prosperous middle class that was actually able to contribute money in sizable sums for poor relief. Thus large expenditures on poor relief do not reflect the extent of a crisis so much as the capacity of the local propertied classes to contribute to its alleviation. Conversely, much worse crises farther east could not - because of the local bourgeoisie's weakness - induce commensurate charitable efforts.

Bass's depiction of the crisis of 1846-47 in the province of Posen is enlivened by extremely good archival sources on popular protest, which frequently pitted poverty-stricken Poles against Jewish grain traders, as well as Prussian German officialdom. In one case, the district governor (Landrat) reported that the barns and stalls of a number of large estates had recently gone up in arsonists' flames, "mainly - it seems - to get hold of the meat of the burned sheep, for bands of people, including many women, streamed in from miles around, with sacks and knives, and consumed part of the smoking cadavers of the burned animals on the spot, carrying off the rest in their sacks" (p. 256).

In Bass's three cases, local harvest crises - in 1846-47 striking the local workers' all-important potato crops - were crucial to the ignition of the hunger crises. But, given nineteenth-century improvements in agricultural productivity and transport, it was (relative) poverty, and not an inadequate food supply, that condemned the landless villagers and manufacturing workers of the Rhineland, the proto-industrial textile workers of Westphalia, and the eastern farm laborers to death from starvation or undernourishment. "In the course of the nineteenth century, regional variations in demand become the all-important determinants of popular nutrition" (p. 272). In 1831, ships loaded with export grain sailed past the starving workers of Minden-Ravensberg, and in 1846-47 the British isles sucked east Elbia dry of cheap grain. The Prussian state, having retreated from mercantilist interventionism, left poor relief to the resources of the bourgeoisie, but only rarely did these suffice.

William W. Hagen University of California, Davis
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Author:Hagen, William W.
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 1996
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