Strategically, the most decisive factor in the First World War was the blockade that the Entente maintained on Germany and its allies. British naval superiority permitted the Entente to cut the Central Powers off from trade outside of continental Europe; in time, it succeeded in exhausting the economies of its enemies, but the effort proved slower than British naval strategists had expected. For four years, the Germans sought ways to circumvent the challenges of the blockade, but by 1918, even the most promising methods had accomplished all that they could, and the German economy ground to a halt amid waves of discontent.
The realities of geography greatly assisted the British blockade. Because any German vessels engaging in trade with the outside world must necessarily pass Britain on their way out of the North Sea, Britain was able to block such passage by controlling both of the key chokepoints: the narrow passage of the English Channel and the wider passage between Scotland and Norway. Through a combination of minefields and patrol zones, Britain was able to enforce this blockade from a considerable distance, frustrating Germany’s efforts to provoke a confrontation closer to home, where the quality of German warships could possibly redress some of their numerical inferiority. At the same time, multinational naval activity in the Mediterranean enforced a similar blockade on Austria-Hungary and Turkey, while France and Italy prevented the arrival of goods over land. While no blockade is perfect, this one was largely effective in arresting the Central Powers‚Äô trade with the outside world.
Germany, like all major belligerents during the First World War, expected the conflict to be brief, and this conviction was shared by the public at large, not just among policymakers. In 1914, the blockade provoked little concern among the Germans, and while some sacrifices were necessary for the war effort, this was considered a natural consequence of the war. In the main, German reserves were considered adequate for a short war, and all of German military preparation was focused on ensuring that the war would be short. By the end of 1914, it had become clear that this effort had failed.
Shortages in many modern conveniences and consumer goods had appeared by the end of 1914, but food, which was classified as a strategic good and treated as contraband in the blockade, soon became the most important. The military supply network was given the highest priority, and this was accepted as proper and necessary; furthermore, people living in the countryside tend to be more locally self-sufficient in terms of food. Food shortages became felt first in the large cities, and it is there that rationing began.
Berlin saw the beginning of the rationing of bread in December, 1914. The following month, the distribution of grain was subjected to government control, and rationing of some sort could be found everywhere in the country; it should be noted that the German Empire, like the modern Federal Republic, was a federated system and the details of the ration differed from one of the constituent kingdoms to the next.
The system was fraught with unintended consequences. Government controls were intended to ensure that prices remained low while rationing kept overall consumption at a depressed level. Farmers, in turn, flirted with the notion of using their unprofitable grain to feed their profitable pigs, but this only led to a decision calling for the large-scale slaughter of the pigs. Not only did this forestall the use of much-needed grain to feed the pigs, but it also ensured that meat was reasonably plentiful for the bulk of 1915. Here, too, the gamble would have validated itself if the war had ended soon.
Instead, the last months of 1915 revealed the shortages of many other goods as the pork boom ended. Besides grain and meat, milk products, sugar and cooking oil were seen to be in short supply, and the supply only became shorter after price controls were put in place. Metals of all sorts were also being used at the fronts on a scale that had been previously unimaginable, and nonessential metal items everywhere were rounded up for reuse by the military. Meanwhile, the War Materials Department saw to their delivery to those industries that furnished war materiel.
As 1916 followed, the scope of the shortages expanded. Not only did the existing shortages intensify, with meat and dairy products disappearing for days at a time, but new shortages appeared, from beer to clothing to paint and coal. Rationing was extended to cover virtually all of these goods, including clothing; as before, the precise standards were set by regional, not national, authorities, and in many cases, the standards differed in larger cities and smaller towns. At the same time, German scientists sought new ways to meet shortages with artificial substitutes, known collectively as Ersatz goods. Here, too, the law of unintended consequences held sway: the creation of Ersatz goods ameliorated one shortage, but required the use of one or more other goods that subsequently became rare, resulting in new sets of rations and the quest for new Ersatz goods. In all, some 11,000 Ersatz products had been invented by the end of the war.
Similarly, the extension of rationing to virtually all consumer goods also resulted in the creation of a black market, which did not assume any prominence until the latter part of 1916. Those who had money, but could not buy products because of rationing, became quite willing to pay more to ensure that they received the goods they needed. During the last two years of the war, the role of the black market grew substantially, abetted by a new scale of need caused by difficult winters. Coal became scarce because so many of the miners had become soldiers; this scarcity was exacerbated by the new demands placed on the railroad networks, due to the inability to transport goods at sea. The hard winters of 1916-17 and 1917-18 only highlighted the inadequacy of coal supplies. The black market expanded from a source of illicit petty luxury for those with more money to a necessary expedient for survival for anyone who could afford it; those who could not afford it, often did not survive.
There is little evidence for death by starvation directly in Germany during the First World War, but deaths from diseases in which malnutrition was a major contributor were high; they are believed to have exceeded 700,000 by the end of the war. This growing hunger increased the level of desperation in the German public, which reached new heights in 1918. The failure of Germany’s offensives in the west, followed by Entente successes in the summer, inspired spontaneous uprisings all over the country. The Germans had accepted the notion of making sacrifices for victory; when defeat seemed inevitable, there seemed little point. The black market contributed doubly to the breakdown of social cohesion. On the one hand, survival demanded the willingness of most Germans to break the law; on the other, the perception remained that there were wealthy people who were able to pay for luxuries and privileges, resulting in the collapse of the German consensus across social lines. Strikes began as early as January, 1918, but by the beginning of November, a large cadre of sailors became willing to join forces with strikers.
Not even the end of the war resolved the outstanding issues of the blockade. The abdication of the Kaiser and the creation of a republic did not put an end to strikes and uprisings; revolutionary activity was actually emboldened, and it was not until April, 1919, that the revolutionaries inspired by the Russian revolution were defeated. Nor did the Armistice mean the end of the blockade itself. The terms of the Armistice kept the blockade in place, with only a vague provision for the prospect of aid from the Entente where such aid was deemed appropriate. It was left to the formal restoration of peace in the Versailles Treaty to bring an end to the blockade.
In the long view, the blockade was clearly the principal force that decided World War I in favor of the Entente; in the short run, however, it was much less successful. It failed, almost entirely, in the goal to degrading the fighting ability of the German Army. Rather, it defeated Germany at home through economic collapse, leaving the Army as the last bastion of order in the German Empire. It brought victory to Britain and France and their allies, but it also contributed to the renewal of hostilities in World War II. Both the desperation of 1916 to 1919 and the relative cohesion of the Army contributed to the belief that Germany had not been beaten on the field, but instead had been betrayed.
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Winter, Jay et al. The Great War and the Shaping of the 20th Century. Penguin Studio, 1996
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