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Germany 1946/47, The Hunger Winter

Europe lay in rubble in October 1946. It was one year after the end of WWII, and the biggest problem for most Germans was how to live and support their families, and at the time they had no idea that things were about to get worse leading to the Hungerwinter. Hungry Winter.

As in other countries everything was rationed with stamps used to claim what was available, but although a maximum of 2,000 calories were the recognized recommended daily intake for those days, across Germany from Hamburg to Leipzig hunger was wide spread. It was often possible to find only enough to provide 1,000 or 800 of those calories.

Not even that some days, then the ration stamp and accompanying money would go unused until the next day.

An average calorie intake per day per person during this time is believed to have been around 1,000, while famine was an everyday reality. Nevertheless the possession of a ration book meant the difference between life and death.

During 1945 the occupying forces had enforced a rule that no international aid was to be given to ethnic Germans, but instead to non-German refugees, Allied Prisoners of War who had been liberated, and survivors from the concentration camps.

The opinion of the deputy to General Eisenhower, General Lucius Clay was:

"I feel that the Germans should suffer from hunger and from cold, as I believe such suffering is necessary to make them realize the consequences of a war which they caused."

And indeed food had been taken from the countries they conquered and sent to Germany, regardless of local needs. Additionally leading to a famine in the occupied Netherlands, known as the "Hongerwinter", also meaning Hungry Winter, when a German blockade in 1944 prevented the arrival of any food and fuel shipments, in order to punish the Dutch for not having aided the Nazis.

An estimated 22,000 of the Dutch population died but millions were affected.

A quarter of German homes had been destroyed, another quarter damaged and unlivable, around 20 million people were living in the ruins and there were millions of refugees arriving from the former German eastern territories, and conditions would have been even worse if Truemmerfrauen had not been been at work clearing away the debris of war.

There were few clothes or shoes to be found.

It had been a hot dry summer in 1946, drought conditions had affected what few crops it had been possible to grow leading to a bad harvest, then suddenly in November throughout Europe the temperature sank to under freezing and began the worst winter in living memory.

Reaching temperatures of minus 30 degrees Celsius, minus 22 degrees Fahrenheit, this lasted until March 1947.

Known as the time of "Weisser Tod", white death, and "Schwarzer Hunger", black hunger, the situation was especially critical in the cities, and many hundreds of thousands died from cold, hunger, thirst and lack of strength to fight illness. The young and old were particularly vulnerable.

By January in the areas occupied by the French and the British the Rhine River froze for 60 kilometers, 37 miles, and the River Elbe completely, which meant no supplies could be delivered by ship, while much of the transportation system had been destroyed by bombing.

The situation was most serious in the Western occupation zones in which 60 percent of the German population lived, as pre-war it had been the most heavily industrialized area of Germany where only about 40 percent of the country's food had been produced, while, as it was one of the most heavily bombed areas, war damage and the loss of farm workers had had a dramatic effect on the possibilities for producing food.

The zone now occupied by the Soviets had been Germany's main food producing regions, however they sent a great deal of what was produced to feed their own people although it is believed millions of Russians also died during this winter.

No animal was 'safe' and harvested fields would be combed again and yet again for any left over vegetables.

At the same time there was a severe lack of coal for heating. Everything capable of being used as fuel was taken, people would walk for hours to find trees which still had branches, others would wait for a train or truck with a load of coal to stop and then rush to steal as much as they could before risking being caught.

The only thing which existed in abundance was hardship.

On December 31st 1946 Archbishop, later Cardinal, Josef Frings of Cologne gave his blessing to those who had to steal to feed or warm their families. This added a new word to "Koelsch", the local Cologne dialect, ‘Fringsen’, stealing for a reason.

Although Archbishop Frings did add that whatever was taken had to be replaced or reimbursed as soon as possible.

Anything and everything was bartered. Valuable property, jewelry, whatever was of value was exchanged for food. Many farmers and owners of Schrebergarten took unfair advantage of this, as did some occupation troops, while black-marketeers and speculators took whatever they could of what was available, but for the people the most important thing was survival.

April 1947 spring finally arrived, and with it an end to the bitter cold, but not to the hunger. The situation improved but the harvest failed again that year and food shortages continued until the summer of 1948.

Allied restrictions on German steel and coal production, and to where it was allowed to be delivered, had led to the situation of Western European nations with food they wanted to trade in exchange not being given permission to do so. From vegetables to fish, trade was not allowed, meaning some countries had to destroy excess crops, while going without whatever it was they needed from Germany.

In addition the restrictions had affected fertilizer, causing further problems with food production.

However by the summer of 1947 the Allies opinion had changed to: "an orderly, prosperous Europe requires the economic contributions of a stable and productive Germany".

Many restrictions were lifted and West Germany was on the road not only to its Wirtschaftswunder, quick economic recovery, but to becoming a driving force behind European integration.

A success story of the post-War era with a Nobel Peace Prize awarded to the European Union, "for over six decades contributed to the advancement of peace and reconciliation, democracy and human rights in Europe".

This probably could not have taken place without Germany and the experiences and lessons learned from its own history. Including the country's 'Hungerwinter'.




Berlin Diaries, 1940-1945. Using whatever paper available Missie, an exiled Russian princess stranded in wartime Germany, wrote an evocative diary about her own life and the lives around her. Including those of her friends, the group that tried to assassinate Hitler. Infinitely readable and absorbing.

Hitlerland: American Eyewitnesses to the Nazi Rise to Power A fascinating window on to a not often discussed subject from the viewpoint of Americans living there at the time. May of whom were initially impressed by the Nazi regime.

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