Germany 1946/47, The Hunger Winter

Germany 1946/47,  The Hunger Winter
October 1946 and Europe lay in rubble. One year after the end of WWII, and the biggest problem for most Germans was how to live and support their families. At the time they had no idea things were about to get worse, leading to the 'Hungerwinter'. Hungry winter.

As in all other countries everything was rationed. Stamps were 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 widespread.

Often it was possible to find only enough to provide 1,000 or 800 calories.

Some days not even that. Then the ration stamp and money would go unused until the following day, or even for several days.

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. 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, as a punishment to the Dutch for not having aided the Nazis.

An estimated 22,000 of the Dutch population died from starvation, but it affected millions.

A quarter of German homes had been destroyed, another quarter were damaged and unlivable, around 20 million people lived in the ruins, and there were millions of refugees arriving from the former German eastern territories. 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 only been possible to grow a few crops, but 1946 was a hot dry summer and drought conditions had led to a bad harvest, then in November the temperature suddenly sank to under freezing throughout Europe. The beginning of the worst winter in living memory.

Reaching temperatures of minus 30 degrees Celsius, minus 22 degrees Fahrenheit, it 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, so 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. Prewar it had been the most heavily industrialized area of Germany and only about 40 percent of the country's food had been produced there, 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.

It was the now Soviet occupied zone that had been Germany's main food producing region, however they sent a great deal of what was produced to feed their own people. Although millions of Russians also died during this winter.

No animal was safe, and harvested fields would be combed again and yet again for any remaining 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 that 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 "Kölsch", 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 its permitted destinations, had led to the situation of Western European nations with food they wanted to trade in exchange but not being given permission to do so.

From vegetables to fish, trade was not allowed, leading to some countries having to destroy excess crops, while going without whatever it was they needed from Germany.

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

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'.

All images courtesy of German Federal Archive, The House Of German History in Bonn, and de.Wikipedia

You Should Also Read:
Germany, its Neighbours and a New Image
Truemmerfrauen, Germany's Post War Heroines
The Berlin Diaries, 1940-1945, Book Review

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