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Belinda J. Davis. Home Fires Burning: Food, Politics, and Everyday Life in World War I Berlin. Chapel Hill and London: University of North Carolina Press, 2000. xiii + 349 pp. Illustrations, notes, bibliography, index. $55.00 (cloth), ISBN 0-8078-4837-9.

Reviewed by Julia Sneeringer, History Department, Beloit College .
Published by H-German (November, 2000)

Belinda Davis' new book explores the politics of food during wartime -- a story that also encompasses gender, the construction of the consumer, debates about economic fairness, German identity, and daily life during World War One. It begins with a vivid description of women and children storming a Berlin municipal market in February 1915, desperate for a few pounds of potatoes. While this book discusses many such food riots, its focus is on the meanings ascribed to these actions by police, the press, the authorities, and Berliners themselves. They all drew new attention to "women of little means" (minderbemittelte Frauen), who queued for food and protested shortages in the streets of German cities, especially Berlin, the book's main stage. Minderbemittelte Frauen came to embody an alliance of interests that "crossed prewar class lines to create a new kind of class" (p. 57). The urban bourgeois public showed a remarkable degree of support for poor women consumers who, by protesting or merely standing in line, seemed to represent the interests of urban communities against what they defined as Germany's "internal enemies" -- rural producers and profiteering merchants. Through their actions as consumers, Davis argues, these women acquired a social and political power that belied their official disenfranchisement.

Chapters lay out this story chronologically, charting Germany's first wartime food crises; female consumers' protests against fat shortages and the political meanings assigned to these actions; escalating popular demands for a "food dictator" and debates about equitable distribution; and the breakdown of consumer faith in the state's ability to provide food, which culminated in rampant theft and the state's collapse during 1918. Davis taps a variety of sources -- police reports, military morale reports, press accounts, state propaganda, papers of charitable agencies, and documents from state bureaucracies -- to expose "unofficial relations of power" (p. 5) and how these shifted around the food question.

This study questions certain prevailing assumptions in the historiography, such as periodization. General narratives credit the Turnip Winter of 1916-17 with severely buckling public support for the war, but Davis asserts that Berliners' support plummeted even before then as the state appeared increasingly helpless against merchants and farmers. The English blockade, mass conscription, livestock confiscation policies, inefficient transport and storage, poor harvests, and the state's failure to regulate merchant practices all combined to create food crises already by late 1914. The food question dominated public morale and "played a significant role in transforming relations between state and society" (p. 20) even by 1915. Attempting to forestall unrest that would weaken Germany's warrior image, Prussian and Imperial authorities -- in marked contrast to their prewar tendency to repress protests -- moved quickly during the war to respond to the demands of poor consumers, who after all could not be prevented from assembling for food. This apparent responsiveness won public approval and extended the state's legitimacy for several years. But because these measures were piecemeal, reactive, and confusing, they could never stave off the food crisis for any length of time -- indeed, they only exacerbated shortages and put further strain on those they were designed to help. Ultimately, Davis argues, "officials' actions were far more effective in legitimating popular demands than in defending the state's right to rule. Berliners and other urban Germans came to interpret state actions as deferring leadership on the central domestic issue of food management to...poor women in the streets" (p. 2). Berlin's women of little means led a slide in public opinion during 1915-16 from a judgment against the war to one against the government, now seen as jeopardizing the nation itself.

These dynamics produced a new vision of the German nation located in the popular, urban classes: by 1916 urban consumers "claim[ed] themselves to be the real site of the nation, which the government must serve or spurn at its own risk" (p. 129). Policemen implicitly supported this with sympathetic reports about food protesters. The press similarly came to depict women of lesser means as resolute, rational, and patriotic. The women, in turn, worked to turn these characterizations to their advantage, accruing power through their ability to get action from the state. Urban consumers' common distrust of merchants and farmers papered over class rifts among Berliners and created a kind of "social peace" directed against the state (pp. 2-3), though the lower Mittelstand exhibited both solidarity and suspicion. For example, lower middle-class women protested what they saw as the unfair privileging of the working classes through their access to well-provisioned factory canteens. Beneath a surface consensus around food issues lay deep, unresolved conflicts about who or what represented the nation.

Unlike previous studies of food policy, gender is central to this account of the war. Davis builds on Ute Daniel's pioneering history of women on the home front [1] by considering the political implications of discourses about minderbemittelte Frauen. These recast women's public and private roles, both temporarily and more permanently. As urban Germans increasingly viewed women as representative of the nation, state propaganda posited that "every German, above all every German woman, is a soldier in this economic war" (p. 34). In contrast, the traditional wife and mother -- especially mothers of many children -- could be vilified for performing "no special service" (p. 39). Davis argues that the public valorized feminine identities that operated primarily in the public sphere, praising female consumers for making the state aware of the public's demand for aggressive interventionism in feeding the populace.

Davis' gendered interpretation of the war ultimately forces a rethinking of notions of politics and citizenship. Her work illuminates how women acted politically before suffrage and asks whether politics can be truly separated from personal interests, economic needs, or daily life. She broadens our understanding of politics by invoking contemporary visions of it. The police and authorities interpreted women's bread riots as political and accepted such extraparliamentary acts as mechanisms of political change. Davis' most powerful finding is that women's behavior as food protesters won them respect as political actors, allowing both the state and the public to imagine them as citizens worthy of enfranchisement. Significantly, poor women responded coolly to the suffrage campaign, likely because they perceived their street presence to be a more potent political weapon in the struggle over the immediate issue of food.

Davis also attempts a more precise accounting of the sources of the 1918 Revolution. She sketches a geography of protest, revealing how less studied marketplaces in Berlin's east and north served as sites of both food protests and revolutionary unrest. She also shows how the food question eroded the state's ability to rule. In 1915 the government essentially promised to ensure the people's nutrition and, in so doing, legitimized the expectation that the state was responsible for the needs of the population. As edible food disappeared from the legitimate market, the state was forced to admit its inability to fulfill basic food needs; by autumn 1918 it gave up trying. The story doesn't end there -- Davis concludes with a brief look at the implications of the transformation in power relations around food for the Weimar Republic. By creating a popular vision of a state that responded to popular demand and guaranteed basic needs, the experience of food crisis shaped Weimar's foundations, providing a new, potentially democratic, view of social politics and welfare. The burden of these expectations also produced some decidedly undemocratic impulses, such as the demand for a strong leader (a legacy of wartime demands for a "food dictator"). Wartime food discourses also bequeathed a toxic legacy of ranking social groups' contribution to the nation -- discourses with often antisemitic overtones.

Davis' text is at its liveliest when it meshes the political story with a look at the cultural meanings of food. For example, allowing bakers to fill rations with flour rather than bread constituted an insult to the working classes, who perceived having to bake one's own bread as a sign of "meanness" (p. 31), not to mention housewives who were forced to scrounge for the fuel to produce an edible loaf. This is a complex story, and Davis does an admirable job laying out the many players and steps in the process of provisioning cities.

Focusing on specific foods provides a picture of both these items' place in Germans' daily lives (particularly the women whose job it was to procure and prepare them) and the larger issues of power and identity that foods represented. Davis links notions of taste--literally, what Germans of different classes found tasty--with notions of class and Germanness itself, which emerged in discussions of coffee, white rolls (Schrippen), and "K-bread." "Eating German" was not limited to what one ate, but where, as shown by popular reaction to public kitchens, which only succeeded in cities where they were numerous and less stigmatized by poor relief.

While Davis' arguments are largely convincing, the text itself is often difficult to follow. The rough chronological arrangement of the material seems intended to demonstrate the evolution of consumers' power. But chapters' shifting emphasis from specific foods to debates about gender to notions of politics sometimes obscures this story, as well as the roles of the police, unions, and women's groups. It is also difficult to discern the precise contours of antiwar sentiment. Early chapters in particular feel unfocused--this is the hazard of trying to produce a decentered narrative that does justice to the complexity of the situation. Davis' study is thick and nuanced, but it is not always accessible, particularly to non-specialists, as knowledge of events and personalities (the Zabern Affair or Bethmann-Hollweg, for instance) is taken for granted.

The role of political parties is also curiously muted. While the Social Democratic Party (SPD) had over 20,000 female members in Berlin, its role in food protests remains unclear--were any connections made with poorer women or consumers? While Davis justifiably stresses the spontaneity of consumer demonstrations, it would have been useful to consider the degree to which exposure to socialist ideas about markets or women's political role helped spur minderbemittelte Frauen protests. Davis also does not follow up police report claims that the radical left was increasingly led by females. A more sustained look at the parties' role in food protests would enhance our understanding of how politics itself was being reconfigured.

Overall, however, Davis has produced an important study that forces us to rethink traditional views of the interaction between state and society. This is a bold, sophisticated work that manages to convey the complex meanings of food during a time of widespread privation. It should be read by everyone with an interest in the social, political, and gender history of Germany during these tumultuous years.


[1]. Ute Daniel, The War from Within: German Working-Class Women in the First World War. Oxford and New York: Berg, 1997.

Document compiled by Dr S D Stein
Last update 21/03/2001
S D Stein

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