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Grams, Calories, and Food: Languages of Victimization, Entitlement, and Human Rights in Occupied Germany, 1945–1949

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  04 March 2011

Atina Grossmann
Cooper Union, New York


By spring 1945 when the Allied Military Government and the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA) confronted the masses of refugees and displaced persons gathered in, or streaming toward, occupied Germany in the wake of the Third Reich's defeat, food—its supply, distribution, and, not least, symbolic meaning—had been clearly established as a key political and psychological issue for military and occupation policy. The rhetoric of allied war aims and of relief work posited food provision as a fundamental issue of human survival, development, and dignity. In 1943, the anthropologist Margaret Mead, deploying both political and psychoanalytically oriented social work discourses, cautioned American policy makers planning the future of a defeated Nazi Germany about the importance of rationing for establishing control over an occupied population. “Whenever a people feels that its food supply is in the hands of an authority,” she reminded them—in terms suffused with unarticulated gender assumptions, “it tends to regard that authority as to some degree parental.” Moreover she added, “probably no other operation, even the provision of hospitalization and emergency care, is so effective in proving to an anxious and disturbed people that the powers that be are good and have their welfare at heart.”

Copyright © Conference Group for Central European History of the American Historical Association 2011

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1 Mead, Margaret, “Food and Feeding in Occupied Territory,” The Public Opinion Quarterly 7, no. 4 (Winter 1943): 618628CrossRefGoogle Scholar, here 619–20.

2 FDR's support of the establishment of the FAO was also a means of coping with the United States' own crisis of wheat overproduction by unloading it onto the world market. See the fascinating article by Cullather, Nick, “The Foreign Policy of the Calorie,” American Historical Review 112, no. 2 (April 2007)CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed: 23.

3 On UNRRA, see among the many books and memoirs written by those who had worked in the field Susan T. Pettiss with Taylor, Lynne, After the Shooting Stopped: The Story of an UNRRA Welfare Worker in Germany 1945–1947 (Victoria, BC: Trafford Press, 2004)Google Scholar; Wilson, Francesca, Aftermath: France, Germany, Austria, Yugoslavia 1945 and 1946 (New York: Penguin, 1947)Google Scholar; and George Woodbridge, UNRRA: The History of the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration, Prepared by a Special Staff Under the Direction of George Woodbridge, Chief Historian of UNRRA, in three volumes, vol. 3 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1950). On conditions in occupied Germany, see also Jessica Reinisch, “Public Health in Germany under Soviet and Allied Occupation 1943–1947” (Ph.D. diss., University of London, 2005). For an excellent and provocative analysis of the politics and culture of food and hunger in postwar Germany, see Alice Weinreb, “Matters of Taste: Hunger, Food, and the Making of Two Germanies” (Ph.D. diss., University of Michigan, 2009).

4 Borgwardt, Elizabeth, A New Deal for the World: America's Vision for Human Rights (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2005), 115118CrossRefGoogle Scholar, 303–4. Here Roosevelt echoed Herbert Hoover, the engineer who had organized U.S. relief operations after World War I and who had warned that “famine breeds anarchy” and Bolshevism. Quoted in Cullather, “The Foreign Policy of the Calorie,” 350. See also Asbjørn Eide, “The Human Right to Adequate Food and Freedom from Hunger,”, 1999. All histories of refugees and refugee policy during and after World War II discuss food as a critical issue. The large literature on human rights also prominently features questions of food and health. But until recently, and only in reference to more recent developments, the topic of food and feeding has not been incorporated into the history of human rights.

5 This is the estimate for ethnic German refugees, cited by Frank Biess, H-German, March 7, 2006, in a (highly critical) review of Barnouw, Dagmar, The War in the Empty Air: Victims, Perpetrators, and Postwar Germans (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2005)Google Scholar. Most estimates cite a figure of twelve million.

6 In addition to Jews who had survived death and labor camps, in hiding, or with partisan units, up to 200,000 mostly Polish Jews who had either fled or been deported to the Soviet Union joined the influx of “post-hostility refugees” into the American zone. I discuss these complicated and confusing issues in Jews, Germans, and Allies: Close Encounters in Occupied Germany (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2007)Google Scholar.

7 Borgwardt, A New Deal for the World, 116.

8 Cullather, “The Foreign Policy of the Calorie,” 340, 339.

9 Documents: The Declaration of Human Rights,” Contemporary Jewish Record 8 (1945): 207209Google Scholar. The American Jewish press devoted a good deal of attention to the specific issue of human rights. See, for example, Commentary in the years 1945 to 1950.

10 There is a huge literature on the relationship between food policy and human rights, but it mostly refers to recent or current problems. See Laurence Haddad and Arne Oshaug, “How Does the Human Rights Perspective Help to Shape the Food and Nutrition Policy Research Agenda?,” International Food Policy Research Institute, Food Consumption and Nutrition Division, Discussion Paper No. 56, February 1999,

11 Cullather, “The Foreign Policy of the Calorie,” 355. It is not clear whether this “working adult” standard was intended to apply to both men and women.

12 Proudfoot, Malcolm J., European Refugees 1939–52: A Study in Forced Population Movements (London: Faber and Faber, 1957)Google Scholar, 318 ff. See also chapter 11, “Jewish Refugees,” 172–173.

13 For further general analysis of the concept, see Teitel, Ruti, Transitional Justice (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000)Google Scholar. On calories as a “magical concept,” see Glaser, Hermann, 1945. Beginn einer Zukunft: Bericht und Dokumentation (Frankfurt am Main: Fischer, 2005)Google Scholar, 127. “Universal currency” is Cullather's term.

14 On “surplus women” in postwar Germany, see among many sources, Heineman, Elizabeth D., What Difference Does a Husband Make? Women and Marital Status in Nazi and Postwar Germany (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1999)Google Scholar.

15 Clark, Dale, “Conflicts over Planning at Staff Headquarters,” in Carl J. Friedrich and Associates, American Experiences in Military Government in World War II (New York: Rinehart and Company, 1948), 211–37Google Scholar, “Rules for Occupation Officers,” 233.

16 Maginnis, John, Military Government Journal, Normandy to Berlin (Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press, 1971)Google Scholar, 319. References to numbers of calories initially granted to Germans vary from 1,000 to 1,200.

17 Howley, Frank, Berlin Command (New York: Putnam, 1950)Google Scholar, 85. The virulent dysentery epidemic of the first winter reportedly killed sixty-five of every 100 newborns in Berlin. The references to German self-pity are legion; the term “aggressive” self-pity is from von der Lühe, Irmela, “‘The Big 52.’ Erika Manns Nürnberger Reportagen,” in “Bestien” und “Befehlsempfänger.” Frauen und Männer in NS-Prozessen nach 1945, ed. Weckel, Ulrike and Wolfram, Edgar (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2003)Google Scholar, 32.

18 Quote is from Landesarchiv Berlin/Rep. 240. Acc. 2651/748. Irmgard Heidelberg had submitted her mother's diary. My discussion here draws on research about Berlin; see also Steege, Paul, Black Market, Cold War: Everyday Life in Berlin, 1946–1949 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007)Google Scholar.

19 Aly, Götz, Hitler's Beneficiaries: Plunder, Racial War, and the Nazi Welfare State, trans. Chase, Jefferson (New York: Henry Holt, 2007)Google Scholar, 314. On the devastating impact of German seizure of food in eastern Europe, see also 176–179.

20 See Kaplan, Marion A., Between Dignity and Despair: Jewish Life in Nazi Germany (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998), 150151Google Scholar, citing also Enssle, Manfred J., “Five Theses on German Everyday Life after World War II,” Central European History 26, no. 1 (1993): 119CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

21 Calluther, “The Foreign Policy of the Calorie,” 338.

22 Letter, February 13, 1947, from Adam J. Rapalski, Lt. Col. MC, Chief Public Health Branch, Office of Military Government to Amtsärztin, Gesundheitsamt Zehlendorf. Landesarchiv Berlin (LAB) Rep. 210/840/89.

23 Howley, Berlin Command, 85, 87.

24 See Reinisch, “Public Health in Germany,” here 16 and especially chapter 6. On the difficult situation especially in the British zone and in Britain, see Farquharson, John E., The Western Allies and the Politics of Food: Agrarian Management in Postwar Germany (Leamington Spa, UK: Berg, 1985)Google Scholar.

25 Bourke-White, Margaret, “Dear Fatherland, Rest Quietly”: A Report on the Collapse of Hitler's Thousand Years (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1946)Google Scholar, caption on photo before 7.

26 McClelland, Grigor, Embers of War: Letters from a Quaker Relief Worker in War-Torn Germany (London: British Academic Press, 1997)Google Scholar, 145.

27 Cullather, “The Foreign Policy of the Calorie,” quoting General Lucius Clay, 363.

28 See Steege, Black Market, Cold War.

29 Diner, Hasia, Hungering for America: Italian and Jewish Foodways in the Age of Migration (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2001), 147150Google Scholar.

30 On the relationship of food to concentration camp status, see Anna Marta Holian, “Between National Socialism and Soviet Communism: The Politics of Self-Representation Among Displaced Persons in Munich, 1945-1951” (Ph.D. diss., University of Chicago, 2005), 193. The ways in which Jewish DPs' wartime experience in Siberian labor camps or as refugees in Soviet central Asia shaped their attitudes toward food as a key to survival, an object of barter, a human right, or social entitlement, remain to be explored.

31 Quarterly report, AJDC, March 1-June 1, 1946, 41 in YIVO LWS 294.1/516/R45, also in 446/R37. On food and Jewish survivors in occupied Germany, see also Grossmann, Jews, Germans, and Allies, esp. 174–178.

32 Diner, Hungering for America, 147–150.

33 The full text of the report and Truman's response are available online at <>. See Dinnerstein, Leonard, America and the Survivors of the Holocaust (New York: Columbia University Press, 1982)Google Scholar, Appendix, 292–304. Despite the repeated emphasis on Harrison's most dramatic statements, most of his report was clear-headed and controlled. Its portrayal of the relative comfort of rural Germans compared to the miserable conditions of the Jewish survivors is generally consistent with many other accounts.

34 Report on the Situation of the Jews in Germany (Geneva: Union OSE, 1946)Google Scholar, 11, 18.

35 Master Sergeant Werner T. Angress to Dr. Curt Bondy, of Richmond, Virginia, article in Richmond Times Dispatch, June 4, 1945. (From Gross Breesen Letter 15, Richmond, Virginia).

36 Letter from officer stationed near Dachau, September 17, 1945. American Joint Distribution Committee Archives, New York, file 399A.

37 Proudfoot, European Refugees, 325. For reflections on these vexed issues and the argument that “As opposed to other refugee groups who entered the market of international compassion in the 1940s, Jewish refugees were granted full status of political victims,” see Cohen, Gerard Daniel, “The Politics of Recognition: Jewish Refugees in Relief Policies and Human Rights Debates 1945–1950,” Immigrants and Minorities 24, no. 2 (July 2006): 125143CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

38 Cohen, “The Politics of Recognition,” 129.

39 The Big Lift, produced by William Perlberg, directed by George Seaton, 1950. Filmed on site during the Berlin Airlift.

40 Weinreb, “Matters of Taste,” 28. For differing perspectives on these German perceptions, see also Müller, Ulrich, Fremde in der Nachkriegszeit. Displaced Persons—zwangsverschleppte Personen in Stuttgart und Württemberg-Baden 1945–1951 (Stuttgart: Klett-Cotta, 1990)Google Scholar; and Dietrich, Susanne and Schulze-Wessel, Julia, Zwischen Selbstorganisation und Stigmatisierung. Die Lebenswirklichkeit jüdischer Displaced Persons und die neue Gestalt des Antisemitismus in der deutschen Nachkriegsgesellschaft (Stuttgart: Klett-Cotta, 1998)Google Scholar. On the connections between anti-Semitism and conflicts over food, see also Stern, Frank, The Whitewashing of the Yellow Badge: Antisemitism and Philosemitism in Postwar Germany, trans. Templar, Frank (Oxford: Pergamon, 1992)Google Scholar, 107.

41 Reinisch, “Public Health in Germany,” 284. Food riots had already broken out in some areas in spring 1946.

42 Steege, Black Market, Cold War, 48.

43 Reinisch, “Public Health in Germany,” 284–288, quote on 291. Population figures for Celle from Schulze, Rainer, “Growing Discontent: Relations between Native and Refugee Populations in a Rural District in Western Germany after the Second World War,” in West Germany under Construction: Politics, Society, and Culture in the Adenauer Era, ed. Moeller, Robert G. (Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 1997)Google Scholar, 57. The place of the expellees in Jewish survivor and allied perceptions of defeated Germans requires further investigation.

44 Bourke-White, Fatherland, 33, 61.

45 Wyman, Mark, DPs: Europe's Displaced Persons, 1945–1951 (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1998, revised edition)Google Scholar, 52.

46 See, for example, Schulze, “Growing Discontent,” 53–72, here 59, 60.

47 This ongoing discussion has produced a flood of books (including republished literature), articles, and films on German civilian suffering in World War II. For a fine resumé of the German victimization debates ignited by the approach of the sixtieth anniversary of war's end, see Moeller, Robert G., “Germans as Victims? Thoughts on a Post-Cold War History of World War II's Legacies,” History and Memory 17, no. 1/2 (Fall 2005): 147194CrossRefGoogle Scholar. For discussion of this perception of defeated Germans as “sullen” and unregenerate, see, for example, Grossmann, Jews, Germans, and Allies, chapter 1.

48 Moskowitz, Moses, “The Germans and the Jews: The Postwar Report. The Enigma of German Irresponsibility,” Commentary 2 (1946): 714Google Scholar.

49 Nachlass Amalie Harnisch, Centrum Judaicum, Berlin, Archive 5A1/367, written in 1948.

50 Strobel, Nr. 131, 1, LAB, Rep. 240/2651.

51 Steege, Black Market, Cold War, 40, 40–42. Steege has interestingly borrowed the concepts of “moral economy” and “just price” from E. P. Thompson. On food and hunger in Berlin, see also Roesler, Jörg, “The Market in Post-War Berlin and the Methods Used to Counteract It,” German History 7, no. 1 (April 1989)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; and Enssle, “German Everyday Life after World War II.”

52 See, for example, UNRRA Archives, S-401 Box 7, File 1, feeding.

53 These scenes are recorded in numerous Army and JDC (Joint) newsreels and films. See the Steven Spielberg Video and Film Archive of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.

54 See, for example, YIVO 294.2 MK 483, Roll 61, Folder 850, Farflegungsamt (in Yiddish, in Roman letters), Landsberg DP Camp.

55 Mead, “Food and Feeding in Occupied Territory,” 619–20. Altogether some thirteen million Red Cross packets were distributed; Proudfoot, European Refugees, 172–173.

56 Cullather, “The Foreign Policy of the Calorie,” 20.

57 See Alex Grobman's study of the orthodox Jewish aid organization, Battling for Souls: The Vaad Hatzala Rescue Committee in Post-War Europe (Jersey City, NJ: Katav Publishing House, 2004), 169178Google Scholar.

58 See Eide, “The Human Right to Adequate Food,”, 1999.

59 Haddad and Oshaug, “Human Rights Perspective.”

60 Hulme, Kathryn, The Wild Place (Boston: Little Brown, 1953), 211–12Google Scholar.

61 See, for example, Holian, “Between National Socialism and Soviet Communism,” 52–53.

62 This widely publicized incident did lead to the banning of German police from Jewish DP camps unless they were escorted by U.S. troops. See among many sources Dietrich and Schulze-Wessel, Zwischen Selbstorganisation und Stigmatisierung.

63 Gringauz, Samuel, “Our New German Policy and the DPs: Why Immediate Resettlement is Imperative,” Commentary 5 (1948)Google Scholar: 510.

64 American Joint Distribution Committee Archives, New York, File 446, JDC Cable, January 5, 1946, referring to UNRRA Director Morgan's statements about DPs, quoting his claim from Daily Telegraph and Morning Post, January 3, 1946.

65 Dawidowicz, Lucy S., From that Place and Time: A Memoir 1938–1947 (New York: W. W. Norton, 1989)Google Scholar, 283.

66 Wives in Germany,” Life Magazine 27, no. 5 (1946)Google Scholar: 55. I am grateful to Maria Höhn for giving me a copy of this article.

67 Hulme, Wild Place, 211–12.

68 Notes on hunger and work strike of all 3,441 Jews in Föhrenwald on November 15, 1945, YIVO DPG 294.2/584/MK483/R44, 36.

69 See Cullather, “The Foreign Policy of the Calorie.”

70 Pedersen, Stefi, “Reaching Safety,” in Murphy, H. B. M. et al. , Flight and Resettlement (Paris: UNESCO, 1955)Google Scholar, 41.

71 H. B. M. Murphy, “The Camps,” in Murphy et al., Flight and Resettlement, 59. On the not dissimilar reactions of American social workers to survivors who reached the U.S., see Cohen, Beth D., Case Closed: Holocaust Survivors in Postwar America (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2007)Google Scholar.

72 Henri Stern, MD, “The Aftermath of Belsen,” in Murphy et al., Flight and Resettlement, 73.

73 Report of Conference of County Medical Directors in Europe of the AJDC, Paris, May 14–17, 1947, 67, YIVO LWS 294.1/271/MK488/R23. That these attitudes persisted long after the DP period was over is illustrated by an anecdote in Elizabeth Ehrlich's combination cookbook and family memoir, Miriam's Kitchen: A Memoir (New York: Viking, 1997)Google Scholar, 305, in which Uncle Fred explained why he didn't like buffets: “I was in a concentration camp for five years … I don't stand in line for food.”

74 UNRRA Archives, S-401, Box 7, File 1, feeding.

75 Syrkin, Marie, The State of the Jews (Washington, D.C.: New Republic Books, 1980)Google Scholar, 46.

76 Oral history interview with Elizabeth Muskal, Yonkers, New York, June 16, 2003.

77 See Cohen, Daniel, “Remembering Post-War Displaced Persons: From Omission to Resurrection,” in Enlarging European Memory: Migration Movements in Historical Perspective, ed. König, Mareike and Ohliger, Rainer (Ostfildern: Jan Thorbecke Verlag, 2006), 8797Google Scholar.

78 See the thoughtful memoir by Susan T. Pettiss with Lynne Taylor, After the Shooting Stopped. See also the even more unblinkingly judgmental early description of “untidy and dirty” as well as “neurotic and unhappy” Jewish DPs in Feldafing and Föhrenwald by British UNRRA worker Francesca Wilson in Aftermath, 45, 117. UNRRA had hired more than 5,000 mostly British, French, and American relief workers, many of them female; the IRO's reduced field staff of about 1,450 was augmented by health and social work professionals provided by American Jewish aid organizations, especially JOINT. See G. Daniel Cohen's important study, Europe's Displaced Persons: Refugees in the Postwar Order (New York: Oxford University Press, forthcoming 2011). On women relief workers, see also Tara Zahra's article in this issue, “‘The Psychological Marshall Plan’: Displacement, Gender, and Human Rights after World War II,” Central European History 44, no. 1, 37–62; and her book, Lost Children: Displaced Families and the Aftershocks of World War II in Europe (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, forthcoming 2011).

79 See the classic article detailing women's “economy of expedients” during crisis by Hufton, Olwen, “Women in Revolution 1789–1796,” Past and Present 53 (1971)Google Scholar. On Germany during and after World War I, see Davis, Belinda, Home Fires Burning: Food, Politics, and Everyday Life in World War I Berlin (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2000)Google Scholar.

80 Frederic Morgan, unpublished diary, entries for March 23 and 26, 1946. Imperial War Museum Archives, London. I am grateful to Ben Shephard for giving me these copies.

81 Proudfoot, European Refugees, 343–344. Proudfoot calculated the total costs as fifty cents per person per day for about 200,000 infiltrees in the U.S. zone; 345.

82 Ibid., 317.

83 Documents: The Declaration of Human Rights,” Contemporary Jewish Record 8 (1945): 207209Google Scholar.

84 See Cohen, Daniel, “The ‘Human Rights Revolution’ at Work: Displaced Persons in Post-War Europe,” in Human Rights in the Twentieth Century, ed. Hoffmann, Stefan-Ludwig (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2011)Google Scholar.

85 Arendt, Hannah, “The Stateless People,” Contemporary Jewish Record 8 (1945)Google Scholar: 150.

86 Genêt, [Janet Flanner], “Letter from Aschaffenburg, October 20,” New Yorker (October 30, 1948): 98101Google Scholar.

87 Documents: The Declaration of Human Rights,” Contemporary Jewish Record 8 (1945)Google Scholar: 209. For discussion of such debates, see Mazower, Mark, No Enchanted Palace: The End of Empire and the Ideological Origins of the United Nations (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2008), 104148Google Scholar.

88 See the astute discussion of rights vs. duties and the universal vs. the particular in Cmiel, Kenneth, “Review Essay: The Recent History of Human Rights,” American Historical Review (February 2004): 117135CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

89 Arendt, “The Stateless People,” 137–153. This piece was clearly part of the process that resulted in Arendt's chapter 9 on “The Decline of the Nation-State and the End of the Rights of Man,” in The Origins of Totalitarianism (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1951)Google Scholar, which she had begun working on in 1945. See also Sznaider, Natan, “Hannah Arendt's Jewish Cosmopolitanism: Between the Universal and the Particular,” European Journal of Social Theory 10, no. 1 (2007): 112122CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Giorgio Agamben, “We Refugees,” trans. Michael Rocke, Symposium 49, no. 2 (Summer 1995): 114–19, European Graduate School/Media and Communications, New York, 1997 (from Web); and Hoffmann, Stefan-Ludwig, “Jewish Refugees and Human Rights in the Age of Global War,” Bulletin of the German Historical Institute London 24, no. 2 (2004): 4356Google Scholar.

90 Arendt, Hannah, Origins of Totalitarianism (here Cleveland: World Publishing Company, 1958)Google Scholar, 269. As Mark Mazower has pointed out in his The Strange Triumph of Human Rights, 1933–1950,” Historical Journal 47 (2004): 379398Google Scholar, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights actually represented a weakening of international enforcement authority compared to the post-World War I League of Nations system of collective minority rights, but this shift to declaration without enforcement was probably the necessary price of both U.S. and Soviet support for passage. For differing evaluations of the postwar “human-rights revolution,” see Moyn, Samuel, The Last Utopia: Human Rights in History (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2010)Google Scholar; and Cohen, Europe's Displaced Persons.

91 See, for example, Dr. Birgit Toebes, “Human Rights, Health, and Nutrition,” lecture, Abraham Horwitz, ACC-SCN Monitor, no. 18 (1999)Google Scholar.

92 On Zionism and the DPs, see especially the careful account by Mankowitz, Zeev, Life Between Memory and Hope: The Survivors of the Holocaust in Occupied Germany (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

93 Holian, “Between National Socialism and Soviet Communism,” 345. For an elaboration of this argument, pointing out the many ways stateless DPs were able to assert themselves as political agents and to carve out political as well as social and cultural space for themselves in occupied Germany, see Holian, Anna Marta, Between National Socialism and Soviet Communism: Displaced Persons in Postwar Germany (Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, forthcoming 2011)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

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