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  • Print publication year: 2018
  • Online publication date: August 2018

19 - War for War's Sake: Political Alienation and Realignment (1916–1917)


MAURICE HANKEY, secretary of the War Council in London, advised Prime Minister Asquith in June 1915 that Britain's blockade of Germany would work in time “when the psychological moment arrives and the cumulative effects reach their maximum.” Anticipating problems in supply and distribution of foodstuffs, the German government had implemented controls in the first months of the war and sought alternatives to customary staples. In January 1915 potatoes replaced grain as the source of flour in Kriegsbrot (war bread), an Ersatz, or substitute, for the genuine article. Dearth and greed combined to drive speculation. The cost of a liter of milk in the capital went up by 175 percent in 1915, from 12 to 33 pfennige. During the Berlin “butter riots” in mid-October angry crowds smashed shop windows and fought with police over shortages and exorbitant prices. Vorwärts reported unrest in Münster and Aachen as well. With the failed potato crop of 1916 conditions worsened. Germany's increasing reliance on imports of foods such as herring, pork, and cheese prompted the British and French to buy up critical stores from neutral Sweden and Holland. Although the troops and munitions workers were adequately fed, the civilian populace was in dire need. The press was rife with accounts of food-profiteering, which the Far Right in particular attributed to parasitic Jewish middlemen. In an attempt to silence criticism from the Left, the military governors tightened state-of-siege restrictions, banning Social Democratic meetings and harassing members of the opposition with searches of domiciles and seizure of papers.

In April 1916 Kurt Eisner witnessed proof of Hankey's prophesied psychological moment when an emaciated cart-horse collapsed on a Munich street. Despite the best efforts of the driver, a policeman, and well-meaning bystanders, the beast could not be coaxed back up. “It lay there as though dead, only the labored, anxious breathing and sad black eyes betrayed that it still clung to life.” A crew of six fireman arrived, assembled a steel tripod, and by means of block and tackle succeeded in lifting the limp horse and lowering it onto a truck. A wag in the crowd shouted that fresh horsemeat would be on sale the next day.