H-Diplo Review Essay 305- "Hunger in War and Peace"

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H-Diplo Review Essay 305

20 January 2021

Mary Elisabeth Cox.  Hunger in War and Peace.  Women and Children in Germany 1914-1924.  Oxford:  Oxford University Press, 2019.  ISBN:  9780198820116 (hardcover, $99.00).

Editor: Diane Labrosse | Commissioning Editor: Georgios Giannakopoulos | Production Editor: George Fujii

Review by Elisabeth Piller, University of Oslo

Mary Elisabeth Cox’s new monograph Hunger in War and Peace.  Women and Children in Germany, 1914-1924 tackles a subject that continues to elude historians: the scope of nutritional deprivation among German civilians during and after World War I.  The extent and nature of German civilian suffering has long been debated.  Contemporaries and historians alike have either claimed that Germany suffered serious malnourishment due to the British sea blockade (the ‘hunger blockade’), or they have insisted that German hunger was little more than a ‘myth,’ a German propaganda ploy to indict Allied warfare.  Yet, as Cox points out, surprisingly little is actually known about hunger—its extent and impact—in wartime and post-war Germany. Having conducted archival research in five countries, and equipped with an economic and social historian’s toolkit, Cox thus sets out to provide a comprehensive analysis of German nutritional deprivation in era of the Great War.

Hunger in War and Peace starts with a skillful discussion of the contested legality and morality of the British sea blockade, as well as an estimation of its effect on German food supplies.  Cox shows that alongside German administrative incompetence, the sea blockade was one factor in German food shortages, reducing pre-war food supplies by about twenty five percent (70).  These shortages, as chapters 3, 4 and 5—the book’s empirical heart—show, had a profound nutritional impact on German civilians.  To reconstruct the extent of German hunger, Cox uses regression analysis and reexamines contemporary anthropometric data from Leipzig, Strasbourg (which was then part of the German empire) and all of Germany.  In doing so, Cox arrives at a number of important insights.

First, Cox concludes that German nutritional deprivation was real.  Contemporary anthropometric data show that by common WHO standards many Germans suffered quite significant malnourishment, that caloric shortage was at its worst in 1917, and that socioeconomic status, age, and gender played a defining role in nutritional deprivation.  In particular, the upper and upper-middle classes fared comparatively better than the lower classes because they were able to amend their meager rations with black market goods (100).  While thirty-seven percent of households in 1917 Leipzig had enough calories to sustain even a vigorous lifestyle, a similar percentage were not even able to maintain a semi-active lifestyle; seventeen percent of households, mostly lower class ones, were so calorically deficient that they could maintain no more than a sedentary lifestyle (114). During the war, Cox concludes, “socioeconomic inequality manifested itself in health inequality” (133).  Two of Cox’s findings are particularly striking: First, her breakdown of household data shows that women between the age of twenty and forty, i.e., the ‘mother’ demographic, suffered the most severe nutritional deprivation (129).  As Cox convincingly argues, these women likely reduced their own calorie intake in favor of that of their children.  By 1917, between one third and one half of women in Leipzig would have suffered from chronic energy deficiency as defined by the standards of the United Nations, making it difficult to engage in more than a sedentary lifestyle (115).  The second important observation is the profound effect of food shortages on German children.  While the ‘suffering child’ emerged as a popular rhetorical trope at the time,[1] Cox demonstrates that children, especially those from lower classes, were quite malnourished, resulting in significant weight loss and stunted growth.  For example, Stuttgart boys between the age of seven and eight experienced no growth at all from 1917 to 1918 and in 1918 German children were on average 2.5 cm smaller than comparable pre-war cohorts (182).  The book’s grounding in modern nutritional science and its explanations of phenomena such as chronic energy deficiency are among its major strengths and help make sense of such historical data.

In the second part of the book, Cox changes tack to focus on developments following the armistice in November 1918.  In particular, she traces the protracted negotiations that eventually led to a (partial) lifting of the British/Allied blockade, U.S. food sales to Germany, and the emergence of international charitable efforts to ameliorate German hunger in the spring of 1919.  American, Swiss, British and Swedish humanitarian committees mobilized in mid-1919 on behalf of German civilians and initiated large-scale programs that fed up to one million children a day. While these humanitarian efforts have gathered increasing scholarly attention in recent years, most historians have been hard-pressed to establish their ‘impact.’[2] By contrast, Cox’s analysis of contemporary anthropometric data is able to conclude that international aid is largely to credit for the relatively swift recovery of German children (337).  The fact that foreign aid was provided on the basis of scientifically measured need and anthropometric data, i.e., that it targeted the most underweight, explains why those most severely affected by the war were also the fastest to recover. Whereas lower class children began to recuperate from 1918 onward, middle and upper middle class children did so only after 1919 and 1920. This might explain the widespread claim (made by the more influential and articulate middle classes) that hunger was greater after the war than during the war (334).  In all, Cox concludes that “the blockade did indeed damage the bodies of many vulnerable German civilians … but that food aid supplied by Germany’s former enemies … saved many of them” (15).[3]

Cox’s lucidly written and well-argued book makes an important contribution to the social and economic history of Great War-era Germany.  Nutritional deprivation in wartime Germany was real, and often severe.  The book’s multi-archival research, its transnational focus, and its recourse to modern nutritional science as well as the author’s seemingly effortless juggling of legal, diplomatic, economic and social history are highly impressive.  While one might point out that the anthropometric data Cox uses is not quite as “forgotten” as she claims (332),[4] it is true that very few historians have done much with it.  Indeed, her work is set apart by her use of quantitative analysis, which allows her to give fresh answers to long-contested questions.  The deeply empirical nature of her research is also manifest in the book’s approximately sixty-five charts and tables, as well as an equal number of exquisitely chosen images, including contemporary maps, photographs, organizational charts, cartoons, propaganda leaflets, and stunning color reproductions of drawings and letters from German children.  The wealth of this quantitative and qualitative data—compiled and crafted by the author with great skill and care—is in itself a substantial scholarly contribution. Surely, Cox’s book will become standard reading on Great War-era Germany.

Cox’s work should prompt further research on the questions she either cannot fully answer and or does not ask.  For example, the verdict is still out on whether rural Germans fared better than urban Germans (as suspected by contemporaries and historians) because Strasbourg, the one place for which Cox has found reliable data is—as she acknowledges—not a representative case.  More digging in local and regional archives is required to answer this question that preoccupied Germans at the time.  Diplomatic and cultural historians for their part should build on Cox’s analysis to ask a different set of questions: For example, how did hunger define not just German bodies but also the German experience of war and German attitudes towards total warfare?[5] And how did post-war foreign aid affect not just child health but international relations?  In fact, the German expressions of gratitude that Cox’s book features reveal as much appreciation of their (American) benefactors as they hint at underlying resentment.  International aid might have healed German bodies but it did not necessarily heal German souls. Even as Cox puts to bed the debate over nutritional deprivation, then, we need to know much more about what German hunger meant and how it affected Germany’s domestic and international politics in the long run.  In the end, Cox’s impressive scholarly contribution reminds us how much work still needs to be done even on so well-researched a subject as Germany in the era of the Great War.


Elisabeth Piller is a Post-Doctoral Fellow at the University of Oslo where she examines the global history of the Commission for Relief in Belgium during the First World War and its role in the rise of ‘modern’ humanitarianism.  She will be joining the Universität Freiburg as an Assistant Professor for Transatlantic and North American History in November 2020.  Her work has appeared in the Journal of Contemporary History, Immigrants & Minorities, the Journal of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era, Diplomatic History and a number of edited collections. Her first monograph on the transatlantic politics of the Weimar Republic is forthcoming.



[1] Friederike Kind-Kovács, “The Great War, the Child’s Body and the American Red Cross,” European Review of History: Revue européenne d'histoire 23:1-2 (2016): 33-62, DOI: https://doi.org/10.1080/13507486.2015.1121971

[2] Tammy M. Proctor, “An American Enterprise?  British Participation in US Food Relief Programmes (1914–1923),” First World War Studies 5:1 (2014): 29–42, DOI: https://doi.org/10.1080/19475020.2014.906317; Elisabeth Piller, “German Child Distress, American Humanitarian Aid and Revisionist Politics, 1918–1924” Journal of Contemporary History 51:3 (July 2016): 453–486, DOI: https://doi.org/10.1177/0022009416637416; Guy Aiken. “Feeding Germany: American Quakers in the Weimar Republic” Diplomatic History 43:4 (2019): 597-617, DOI: https://doi.org/10.1093/dh/dhz027; and forthcoming: Laura Huth and Daniel Maul, “Feeding the Enemy–The Quakers and American Relief to Germany 1919-1922 in Martin Baumeister, Michael Snape, Kristien Suenens, eds., The Effects of World War I on the Christian Churches (1918-1925) (Leiden: Brill, 2021).

[3] Mary Elisabeth Cox, “‘Hunger games’ or how the Allied Blockade in the First World War deprived German children of nutrition, and Allied food aid subsequently saved them,” Economic History Review 68:2 (May 2015): 600–631, DOI: https://doi.org/10.1111/ehr.12070

[4] The data is readily available in numerous German libraries: Deutscher Zentralausschuss für die Auslandshilfe.  Größe und Gewicht der Schulkinder und andere Grundlagen für die Ernährungsfürsorge (Berlin: Verlag für Politik und Wirtschaft, 1924).

[5] Heather Jones (UCL) is currently working on the cultural history of the blockade.

Keywords: Germany, hunger