The stomach for the fight: the food policies used by the Nazis to maintain control in the Third Reich
Food was not a personal matter for those living in the Third Reich, but a way for Germans to show their patriotism and sacrifice. Lisa Pine investigates how the Nazis micromanaged what was being served on the nation’s tables through propaganda and one-pot stews, even while those at the top did not keep to the rules and so never went hungry
“Hardworking and efficient housewives know what they have to do in the service of this great German family – the German people – if it has to overcome temporary small shortages. They simply do their shopping in accordance with the interest of the great German family!” So said Rudolf Hess, deputy Führer of the Nazi Party, in a speech in 1936.
He went on to elaborate on what was expected of “good” German women: “They do not attempt to buy expressly that which is in short supply at the time, but instead buy those things which are available in abundance and prepare them in such a way that they look really good and taste really good to their husbands and children. No good German house wife particularly mourns the quarter-pound of pork which, from time to time, she now fails to get.”
Food was a key concern in the Third Reich: from their rise to power in the early 1930s through to the Second World War, the Nazis always sought to control what was grown in the fields and eaten by the nation. This was one way in which they would meet the policy objective of autarky, or economic self-sufficiency.
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To never repeat the shortages and hardship during and after the First World War – when potato harvests failed and enemy naval blockades cut access to imports, which accounted for around a third of the nation’s food – the Nazis aimed to make Germany self-sufficient. They would improve and control food production, and change people’s eating habits. Imported goods like oranges would need to become a thing of the past. In addition, any foods requiring imported fodder (feed for livestock) to produce, such as meat and butter, would be less abundant, as the regime looked to reduce the reliance on such imports.
More than control, however, the food policies shone a light on another key component of the Nazi regime: inequality. In opposition to the stated intention of establishing a “classless society” where all “national comrades” would be equal, in reality food widened class divisions. That only intensified in wartime. And that’s to say nothing, of course, of the inequalities that existed between the Nazi leaders and the rest of society.
How the Nazis put "guns before butter"
When Hermann Göring introduced the Four Year Plan in 1936 – a series of economic measures intended to prepare Germany for war – he spoke in terms of “guns before butter”, declaring that “guns will make us powerful; butter will only make us fat”.
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This was an indication that food shortages were already affecting the country. For while fish, white cabbage and potatoes were on the up, by that winter shopkeepers would only sell butter to their regular customers, leaving others to use inferior vegetable fats, and the regime was promoting a substitute, quark, for dairy products.
The Nazis utilised their propaganda machine to try and convince the nation that shouldering such shortages and changing their diets was their patriotic duty. At the point that demand for coffee far exceeded the supply, Joseph Goebbels stated: “In times when coffee is scarce, a decent person simply drinks less or stops drinking it altogether.”
Such criticisms were prevalent in the press too, with one newspaper editorial in September 1938 bemoaning “those who pretend starvation stares them in the face unless they have their regular supply of vol-au vent and whipped cream”.
The regime simultaneously mounted a huge education campaign targeted at housewives, the ones who were most commonly buying the food and cooking for others, which shared the right foods to use and tips on preparing frugal meals in times of shortage. Those who were unsure on how to use ersatz products (meaning “replacement”, a type of substitute often of lower quality) or the best method for preserving foods were encouraged to stop in at one of the 148 advice centres that were run by the Volkswirtschaft/Hauswirtschaft (National Economy/ Home Economy: set up in 1934, it was a branch of the NS-Frauenschaft, a Nazi women’s association).
The health giving properties of whole-grain bread were lauded and, accordingly, it was seen as the food of the Volksgemein schaft (or 'national community'), dubbed the 'patriotic loaf'
There, they could pick up a book on nutrition or home economics, or watch one of the many educational films on offer, such as All Kinds of Things from Quark and The Nourishment of Babies. In addition, the agency distributed millions of pamphlets, and more than 1.8 million women attended its cookery courses in 1938. The sheer scale of these campaigns and organisations demonstrates the seriousness with which the Nazis took the need to control food consumption.
This was not only a matter of economics, however, as what people ate was also a health issue. In the Third Reich, the individual had a duty to stay in good shape in order for the nation to be similarly strong.
The health giving properties of whole-grain bread were lauded in comparison to bread baked from bleached flour, and, accordingly, it was seen as the food of the Volksgemein schaft (or “national community”), dubbed the “patriotic loaf”. The propaganda campaign around whole-grain bread – as well as the ban on bleached flour in 1937 – ensured it became the baked good of choice in Germany. In 1939, only 2,420 German bakeries produced the Volks brot; by 1943, 27,454 were making whole-grain bread.
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On the other hand, alcohol was frowned upon by the regime, which equated its consumption with degeneracy. In his speech at the 1935 party congress at Nuremberg, Adolf Hitler had made reference to the notion that in the past, “the ideal German was the man who could handle his beer and hard liquor”.
This was no longer the case. From the mid-1930s, alcohol was discouraged on grounds of public health and the production of non-alcoholic fruit drinks increased fivefold. In 1938, a non alcoholic sweet cider was introduced as the official Volksgetränk (“people’s drink”).
Sacrificing more than others
Dictating what Germans should eat and not eat was one thing, but the Nazis also created social rituals to go alongside the new, approved dishes, while shifting the burden of shortages to the people. In 1933, the Eintopf – the “one-pot dish” – was introduced as “the meal of sacrifice for the nation”. One Sunday a month was Eintopf Sonntag, when families gave up their traditional roast for a stew made from leftovers and donated the savings to state-sponsored charitable funds.
This changed the drive for autarky into a social custom, aiming to unite the “national community” through sacrifice. Even party leaders were photographed tucking into the Eintopf to set an example. When the cameras weren’t present, however, most officials were far less inclined to follow the rigid rules surrounding food that they had set out for the rest of the population.
Göring regularly dined in Berlin’s top restaurants, including Horcher’s, where he could consume as much as a week’s worth of an ordinary German’s rations in a single meal. His excesses, matched by his flamboyant lifestyle, persistently under mined Goebbels’ attempts to portray the leadership as exemplary and restrained in their behaviour.
Göring regularly dined in Berlin’s top restaurants, including Horcher’s, where he could consume as much as a week’s worth of an ordinary German’s rations in a single meal
When it came to food, numerous members of the Nazi elite acted corruptly and misused their positions to avail themselves of luxury and delicatessen items, even at the height of the war. Wilhelm Frick, the minister of the interior, was listed as having received a host of off-the-ration items, including ham, venison, butter, fat, poultry, chocolates, tea and cocoa.
Below the top-flight members of the Nazi Party, the food policies brought distinctive outcomes to the different classes in German society. When they were eating at home, the upper class and, to some extent, the wealthier among the middle class could ignore the suggestions being promoted in propaganda radio broadcasts and magazines. Those with high enough incomes continued to buy what they wanted for as long as possible, opting for luxury goods or unseasonal foods while poorer house holds had to make do with in-season bakes and the string of new potato-based recipes.
Severe shortages and forest foraging
The distinctions were even starker during the war, when shortages grew more severe. As rationing became more widely applied, everyone was supposed to make the same sacrifices for the nation, although, not surprisingly, Jews, foreign workers and prisoners of war (PoWs) fared worst. Propaganda was intensified as housewives were branded as “selfish” if they failed to take into account “the good of the nation” when cooking for their families.
By 1941, Nazi women’s magazines were full of recipes “in keeping with the times”, such as cauliflower soup and a vegetable version of Eintopf, and gave advice on “using vegetables and fruits from the forest and garden”. As well as extolling the virtues of ersatz products, women were strongly encouraged to grow their own produce, preserve fruits in the winter months, and forage for herbs. The regime also had a role for children: gathering wild plants like rosehips and dandelions to make “German teas”.
The more that wartime shortages squeezed, the more that people turned to teas brewed from forest flora. Coffee substitutes, such as malt coffee and a hot drink made from oats, grew in popularity too, but for those willing to risk it, the black market in Germany did a roaring trade in bona fide coffee beans. In the early 1940s, one pound of roasted coffee fetched an eyewatering 40 Reichsmarks; a decade earlier it would have cost 1.80 RM.
As the Second World War ground on, the demands on the productivity of German farmers only got greater. By the winter of 1941–42, they struggled to produce enough pork, while Frankfurt, Cologne and Berlin all reported shortages in potato supplies. Good grain harvests were maintained until 1943, but feeding a civilian population, the military and millions of foreign workers placed inordinate demands on German agriculture.
Bread, meat and fat rations were all cut in 1942, and reduced again the following year. By 1943–44, Germans ate 20 per cent less bread, 60 per cent less meat, and 40 per cent less fat than at the beginning of the war. People grumbled and complained; then submitted nevertheless.
The aim of the regime was to distribute a limited amount of food across the population without losing the loyalty of the working classes, in particular. Exploitation of forced foreign labour was a tactic used by the Nazis to support farming. By 1941, 1.3 million forced labourers from Poland and Ukraine were working in Germany, as well as over 1 million Soviet and French PoWs.
How the Nazis used hunger as a weapon
Polish Jew and Holocaust survivor Kitty Hart-Moxon recalls a scene at Auschwitz:
“It was nearly midday, and from the distance we could see big drums being carried out from the kitchens. I had seen these before in the prisons and knew that soup was coming. From nearby blocks, girls rushed up. Some soup had been spilled, and the girls lay on the ground licking it off the mud. Others were raiding the dustbins in the hope of finding potato peel.”
To the Nazis, hunger was a weapon to be wielded against their enemies and victims. In the concentration and death camps, the prisoners suffered terribly from extremely low calorific intake due to the wholly inadequate amount of food they received.
Those at Auschwitz, like Hart-Moxon, ate watery soup distributed at lunchtime, with no meat and only scraps of parsnips or other root vegetables; at dinner time, they had a small bread ration.
Such pitiful meals led to rapid emaciation, characterised by striking weight loss and muscular atrophy in a short space of time. The symptoms of starvation included muscular weakness and progressive decline in kinetic energy, slowness of movement and debility, a change in facial expression and hollowness of the eyes, and a susceptibility to infections.
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But while the Nazis proved themselves happy to starve prisoners at the camps, they were keen for some of the population – especially the soldiers fighting for Germany, the workers in heavy industry, and pregnant women – to have enough food on the table.
This posed a problem: Germany’s farmers were overstretched and could not provide the sheer volume of food needed. It was therefore deemed necessary to look to the occupied territories to make up for the deficit, with Hermann Göring insisting that hunger be “exported” outside the Third Reich.
To that end, Herbert Backe, minister for food and agriculture, came up with the “Hunger Plan”.
Designed to extract as much food as possible from occupied territories of the Soviet Union, it intended to feed the German troops and civilians throughout the war, but at the cost of forcing the people living there to go hungry.
The plan directly contributed to Adolf Hitler’s decision to go to war with the Soviets in June 1941, and as the food started to be seized and brought back to Germany, the war effort was ensured of continued support from the wider population.
From the Nazi perspective, the acquisition of territory clearly equated with food supply – a notion that formed part of the overall ideological claim of racial superiority of the “Aryans” over the “Slavs”, in this case in terms of land and agriculture.
Between 1941 and 1943, the Hunger Plan successfully provided Nazi Germany with 325,000 tonnes of edible fat, 2.7 million tonnes of potatoes and 7 million tonnes of grain.
But feeding one population meant the mass murder and starvation of others. During the winter of 1941–42 alone, more than 1 million Soviet prisoners of war were deliberately left to starve to death in camps, while millions more civilians were deprived of food and tens of thousands of Jews perished from starvation.
In 1933, the Reichsnährstand had been established to regulate Germany’s food production, even offering subsidies to farmers to ensure that autarky was put into place, but many of these people came to feel let down by the regime’s overall policies. They retreated into their own form of self-sufficiency: producing what they needed for themselves and their families, and not giving the surplus to the state. Anything extra went to the black market, where they could get a much better price. To get away with this, farmers could simply not register livestock, or the slaughterers would underweigh carcasses and illicitly sell the extra meat.
The shortages in food drove more of the affluent Germans to use their money and connections to circumvent the rationing system, or at least supplement it, by buying restricted items. Shopkeepers engaged in under-the-counter activities, popularly known as “stoop transactions”, and while hoarding, bartering and profiteering became punishable offences, the black market thrived until it became an integral part of wartime consumption.
At least, this was the case for those with enough money for the inflated prices – among them, state and party officials – while the poorer people missed out. It was difficult to proceed with prosecutions, not only as a result of the wartime government lacking the manpower to monitor black market activity, but because no one wanted to reveal to the public that officials themselves were part of the disreputable behaviour.
Make do and fend
In contrast to what the rich and powerful got away with, magazine recipes aimed at ordinary German women had grown more sparse – in number and content – by the autumn of 1943. Limited availability of numerous foods meant there were few ingredients for meals, leading to more recipes appearing without fat and eggs at all or featuring substitute goods, including “false cheesecake” and “false crab soup”. By the following winter, recipes had become so austere that they mainly consisted of cabbage and potato-based dishes.
In wartime, women living in German cities were ever-anxious about where the next meal would come from. They had to contend with long and tiring food queues, and not to mention the Allied bombing campaigns. Some maintained “victory gardens” in order to supplement their rations, which provided a small but nutritionally important addition to their diet.
One measure taken by urban women was to hoard their non-perishable items to barter for food: exchanging soap or children’s toys for dairy products or vegetables directly from the farmers. These unofficial transactions took place during so-called hamstering trips
But Berliners grew so short of some vegetables that they resorted to using nettles and sugar beet leaves in their cooking, and when meat became unavailable they made ersatz meatballs out of what they could get their hands on, including potatoes, turnips, lentils and white cabbage.
One measure taken by urban women was to hoard their non-perishable items to barter for food: exchanging soap or children’s toys, for example, for dairy products or vegetables directly from the farmers. These unofficial transactions took place during so-called “hamstering trips”, when women took trains out of the cities to forage for food.
For in the countryside, the story was different. Throughout the war, even in 1944–45 when shortages had become acute in the towns and cities, there was always plenty of food. One German lady of high society remarked how she ate “peaches and cream” on her friend’s country estate in March 1944 and described “a copious lunch” in her diary in April 1944.
By contrast, there was an account of a housewife in Cologne who complained angrily about how the grocers were supplying their friends and leaving little for ordinary customers. In particular, one local shopkeeper “ripped the red cabbage from me and tried to take away the potatoes” when stores were short.
How successful were Nazi food policies?
Certainly, they fell short of the mark in creating a “classless society”, serving only to deepen the inequalities between different sections of German society. However, in one respect, the Nazis did accomplish something when it came to food. Unlike the experiences of the First World War, they were able to feed the German population in the crisis of war, even if this was at a limited capacity. And when it came to controlling the German populace through their eating habits, the Nazis clearly achieved their aims.
The overall impact of the regime was to suppress consumption and to deny many Germans the foods that they would have otherwise chosen, had choice been available. Under Hitler, housewives had to work harder to put what they often considered to be less desirable food on their tables. Propaganda and educational campaigns directed towards these women became a part of everyday life in the Third Reich, as did ersatz foods that freed up resources for the fighting men.
As in almost all other areas of life in Nazi Germany – be it leisure, health or the family – food was not a private matter, but another weapon in the state’s arsenal with which to tighten its grip on the population, whether that was in peacetime or war.
Lisa Pine is a historian and author who specialises in Nazi Germany and the Second World War. Her latest book is Dictatorship and Daily Life in 20th-Century Europe (Bloomsbury, 2022)
This article was first published in the October 2022 issue of BBC History Magazine
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