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Hunger in War and Peace: Women and Children in Germany, 1914-1924

Author(s):Cox, Mary Elisabeth
Reviewer(s):Guinnane, Timothy W.

Published by EH.Net (July 2022).

Mary Elisabeth Cox. Hunger in War and Peace: Women and Children in Germany, 1914-1924. New York: Oxford University Press, 2019. xviii + 383 pp. $105 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-19-882011-6.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Timothy W. Guinnane, Philip Golden Bartlett Professor of Economic History, Emeritus, Yale University.


Embargoes and blockades have long been a feature of warfare. During World War I, both the Axis and Entente powers tried to prevent their enemies from trading, especially with neutrals. The Royal Navy’s surface blockade proved both more effective and less damaging to relationships with other countries than did Germany’s submarine warfare. Both sides justified blockades as necessary to prevent their enemies from importing material necessary for making war. Cox focuses on a part of the blockade that was harder to justify: stopping combatants from importing food. Preventing food imports had a military logic. Soldiers eat, of course, and every farmer released from agricultural work could be a soldier. Yet the clear-eyed understood that blocking food imports made war on civilians.

Food shortages led most combatants to adopt rationing schemes. Rationing did not overcome all of the supply shortfalls, however, and debates about the effects on civilians have never stopped. The impact on German civilians has been especially contentious. First, Germany’s economic structure, among the Axis powers, made it especially vulnerable to food-supply interruptions. Prior to the war, external sources accounted for at least 20 percent of total German calories. German farmers relied heavily on fertilizers, most of which had been imported. Wartime demands on labor and other inputs such as draft animals also strained domestic production. If anything, Germany would have wanted to import more, not less food during World War I.  Second, the nutritional deprivation of German civilians during and just after the war supports a narrative about the Treaty of Versailles. To some, the Treaty’s harsh reparations provisions reflected a deliberate effort to make the German people suffer for decades. The deprivation induced by food blockades, in that light, looks like a first step.

Mary Elisabeth Cox provides a comprehensive account of this entire episode and its effect on German civilians. She begins with the law and military strategy behind the World War I blockades and ends with the post-war efforts to feed the German population, especially its children. Her empirical core relies on several remarkable anthropometric studies from the war and immediate post-war periods. For most of these studies, Cox can draw on published data summaries (for example, the mean height of all boys in a particular school class) to conduct more analysis than appeared in the original work. Her statistical work forms the basis for her judgements about how the food shortfalls affected the various components of the civilian population. She concludes, with considerable justification, that the wartime blockade harmed women, children, and the poor much more than other social groups in Germany.

The anthropometric studies reflect a pre-war interest in measuring the human body, especially for children, and a growing concern about the fate of children during the war. None of them are ideal, but together they allow Cox to address the several facets of her question. A wartime sample of Leipzig families yields rare evidence on the intra-household implications of the blockade. Some observers claimed that German mothers mitigated the impact of food shortages by, in effect, starving themselves to protect their children. The Leipzig study’s results are consistent with that view. A different study from Straßburg includes both rural and urban children, and thus allows Cox to address the claim that farmers profited at the expense of urban dwellers. A composite collection published after the war has information on more than 570,000 children from 2,343 school classes and supports an all-German view not possible from the local efforts.

The post-war anthropometric studies reflect one biological and one political issue. Adults who face a temporary calorie shortfall typically recover, sometimes with long-term damage to their health. Children are more vulnerable to malnutrition. Nutritional deprivation reduces height and weight below what one would expect for a given age; it also hinders the development of the brain and other organs. However, if the deficits are made good, the affected person may enjoy a period of “catch-up” growth and reach what would otherwise have been their expected height. Some of the post-war studies document this phenomenon: German children who were unusually short or underweight in 1918 grew rapidly once they had access to adequate food.

The second motivation for the post-war anthropometric studies reflects the startling fact that the end of military conflict did not bring the end of the blockade.  For some eight months after the November 1918 Armistice, the Entente powers and the United States maintained most of the wartime embargo. As Cox notes, some wanted the blockade in place to pressure Germany into accepting the ultimate peace terms. Others (less openly) supported the continued blockade to punish the Germans.

Formally ending the embargo did not return German food supply to its pre-war situation. Neither the government nor private German entities had resources to buy food in the quantities necessary. Transportation was also a problem; wartime underinvestment left the rail system weakened, and the Treaty of Versailles required Germany to give all of its merchant marine and much of its railroad rolling stuck to the Allies.  Cox devotes considerable space to the various post-war efforts to feed the Germans, many of which focused on children. Several foreign entities stepped in: the U.S. government in the form of the United States Food Administration (led by Herbert Hoover, the future president); private efforts spearheaded by German-American groups, by Quaker organizations, and by Save the Children (then a British charity created for this purpose); and even the Swiss government. These bodies succeeded in feeding millions of German children to a standard such that many of them experienced, according to the anthropometric studies, considerable catch-up growth.

The anthropometric studies Cox uses have the great virtue of disciplining wild statements made at the time and since. In some cases, her analysis shows patterns the original study’s authors might not have appreciated. Germany’s food-rationing program intended to make sure all social classes had enough to eat, but the anthropometric data show that the poor and working classes suffered more than others. This finding will surprise few, but it illustrates the imperfections in Germany’s food-rationing schemes. (These imperfections were not limited to Germany, of course.) There may be larger implications in her results: morale among soldiers and civilians alike deteriorated in the last years of the war, and the clear, differential impact of the food shortages by social class may be one reason why. The anthropometrics also shows interesting nuances in the post-war relief efforts. While poorer children were shortest at the end of the war, after the war, their heights recovered more rapidly than did the heights of affluent. Relief agencies claimed they focused on the worst affected. It seems they did.

Cox’s research shows that the blockade significantly affected the height and weight of Germans, especially children, during and just after the war. Thus the policy was not harmless to civilians, as some on the Entente side asserted, and as some earlier historians concluded. On the other hand, the data do not suggest significant, life-long stunting for those measured after the post-war food-aid programs took effect. To be clear, the right counterfactual is complex: the data show that the blockade itself did a lot of damage. Without the post-war efforts, that damage might have been much more widespread and permanent. The general conclusion (food embargoes harm civilians) differs from the historically specific conclusion (in this case, post-war programs mitigated much of the harm.)

None of the usual quibbles and cavils can undermine the core lessons in Cox’s statistical analysis.  Critics might argue with her emphasis on the Entente embargo alone, however. The social-class differences in the anthropometric results hints at a domestic policy failing. Her brief discussion of the domestic turmoil following the November 1918 Armistice also does not do justice to what most historians call a Revolution. Even if the embargo had ended with the Armistice, conditions in Germany would have made food distribution difficult.

The German government claimed that 800,000 civilians died as a direct result of the embargo. While various levels of government collected detailed and usually accurate statistics, such claims, like any that involve a counter-factual, are hard to evaluate. Excess wartime mortality among German civilians had many causes, some under government control. Cox does little with the mortality question, which is an understandable decision, but some discussion would have conveyed a better sense of the polemics involved in the blockade. Some contemporaries worried that about a generation of stunted children; many more made extravagant claims about deaths.

Hunger in War and Peace has the great virtue of considering an ugly episode from several different angles. Many quantitative historical accounts, perhaps especially those that rely on anthropometric methods, tend to focus on the numbers alone, leading to a sterile, context-free study. Some authors would content themselves with dry statistics on the height of Leipzig’s second-graders. Not Cox. Her nine chapters’ subject-matters cross several historical subfields. Her reading and considerable archival research took her to areas that one would expect from students of diplomatic or military history, or even historians of the United States. This broad perspective accounts in part for the book’s length. The length, unfortunately, also reflects some lack of discipline in the argument and prose. Some claims have little basis in her evidence; for example, “Hoover’s actions ushered in a new liberalism to the United States by creating government and privately sponsored social programmes” (p. 236). Some discussions do not seem relevant to the topic; Hoover’s personal motivations do not matter for his efforts in post-World War I Germany. A discussion of religious themes in the thank-you notes German children sent to their benefactors also seem a bit astray. She also claims repeatedly that this or that source was “forgotten” until she came along. This is an odd claim, especially when repeated; was it really forgotten, or were others simply not interested?

These are not serious flaws. Anyone interested in either the impact of war on civilian populations, or in Germany’s turbulent history in the first half of the twentieth century, should just follow her where she goes. This serious scholarship sheds new light on how World War I affected civilians.


Timothy W. Guinnane is Philip Golden Bartlett Professor of Economic History, Emeritus, Yale University. Recent publications include “Creating a New Legal Form: the GmbH” (Business History Review, 2021) and “We Do Not Know the Population of Every Country in The World for the Past Two Thousand Years” (Journal of Economic History, forthcoming.)

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Subject(s):Economywide Country Studies and Comparative History
Military and War
Living Standards, Anthropometric History, Economic Anthropology
Geographic Area(s):Europe
Time Period(s):20th Century: Pre WWII