Gender, Age, and Rationing

Feeding Civilians During The Two World Wars

The traditional family structure in its idealized form has the father working and earning money to support his wife and children, the wife running the home, and the children going to school and playing, blissfully innocent and carefree. In the best case scenario, the father is able to provide for his family and they benefit from his labor, but the best case scenario very rarely reflects reality. In times of war, the traditional workers and breadwinners are sent off to fight and the civilians at home must step out of their usual roles. Women take on jobs outside the home to help the war effort and to support themselves and their children. A child’s innocence is threatened by the harsh and brutal realities of war. Both have to do without the pleasures they had previously enjoyed and often suffer from outright deprivation. The experiences of civilians during the First and Second World Wars, especially in rationing and the efforts to keep them fed, illustrate how war reverses society’s roles: In peacetime, men work to support women and children while in wartime, women and children must fend for themselves.

Many find the origins of the Second World War in the harsh conditions faced by civilians in Germany during the First World War and how terribly Germany fared after the war. Germany was blockaded and suffered from social tension and crime, such as break-ins at rationing stations, mostly caused by food shortages. These food shortages are often blamed on the supposed ineptitude of the German rationing bureaucracy, a degree to which historians are divided upon. Some argue that a mixture of patriotism and pragmatism lead most people to comply with the authorities (Allen 372.) Twelve percent of the income of an average German family was spent on the staple food of bread. Rationing cards given out by the government gave an individual 1,950 grams of bread or an equivalent amount of flour, a third less than they were used to (373.) Bakers had their inventories closely monitored by government officials or risked losing access to ingredients. Wartime rationing was met with enthusiasm and compliance, as few predicted a long war. As the war went on, German agriculture, which had been declining, was unable to keep up with a food supply which had previously been dependent on foreign imports due to harsh winters and poor harvests, and the German baking industry began to chafe against government restrictions. Rationing authorities were hesitant to enforce unpopular policies, which might lead to civil unrest. Local bureaucrats had their hands full trying to keep everyone happy and the population grew tired of doing without foods they enjoyed.

Citizens began to suspect local authorities of being better off than they were and unable to understand their hardships. A Berlin housewife named Regine Eller reflected that “The well-paid gentlemen at City Hall have everything they need. With their warm stoves and attentive staff, they suffer no privation. What’s more, their private stashes of milk, meat, and flour enable them to gorge themselves whenever they feel like it” (378.) The food crisis of First World War Germany was colored by the socio-economic divisions of the early twentieth century as the wealthy could afford to buy more and better food. The country, specifically its children, suffered from malnutrition because of the lack of food caused by an allied blockade. But among children from wealthier families, that could afford to buy more food off of the black market, only saw a slight decrease in average height and weight due to malnutrition than the children of poorer families. One would have had to resort to the black market to prevent malnutrition with rations for a single person being only 1,000 calories, fifty to sixty percent of what it is recommended that a person eat a day. This led to an average weight loss of twenty percent (Bloom 1069.)

Many countries used rationing during World War II to keep control of necessary resources and both troops and civilians fed, fit, and healthy, which was necessary to the war effort because it kept up morale. To keep up food supplies, propaganda and pamphlets were issued which contained information on how to make or grow food at home, how to preserve that food, and how to find alternatives to rationed goods. Those on the homefront did their duty by doing without luxuries they enjoyed such as meat, sugar, and alcohol, and making due with a rather bland, depressing diet. Vegetables were a large part of the wartime diet because they were not rationed and could be grown in parks and backyards and other such places. Healthy eating and exercise were encouraged to keep civilians fighting fit. In countries which were able to keep their civilians fed, the rationed wartime diet could be seen as highly beneficial, because unhealthy things such as meat, sugar, and alcohol were limited and it encouraged more disciplined eating habits (Coren and Perkins). Those who were not so disciplined could resort to the black market to get rare delicacies. There are also humorous tales of soldiers bringing luxuries such as cigarettes and candy into foreign countries in order to entice local women into sleeping with them. Food is an essential part of survival and during wartime, survival instincts can be heightened.

Farming and agriculture were integral to the war effort during the second world war. The war made importing and exporting difficult, so there was more pressure on domestic farms to be more productive and efficient. Britain’s agriculture had been primarily based on livestock rather than crops, which could be imported cheaper from abroad. But at the onset of war, British farmers were encouraged to switch over to planting grains and vegetables, as it was deemed more useful to plant a field of wheat than to raise a cow to be slaughtered for beef. Livestock took up fields which could be used for planting and ate grains which could be used for human consumption. Meat rations dwindled as the original supply, which came from animals slaughtered at the beginning of the war began to run out. But farmers were encouraged to keep dairy cows to produce milk and chickens for eggs, both of which were considered necessary food products. To increase food production, the British Government demanded that more land be plowed and planted than ever before, land that was often unsuitable for farming. The British Government also promoted the growing of crops which could be useful to the war effort, such as flax, which could be made into canvas and other textiles, and herbs to make medicines. Farmers who were unproductive or who did not follow government regulations risked having their farms closed and their land seized.

Because most of the able-bodied men needed for agricultural work were off fighting, other forms of labor were needed to keep farms running. Conscientious objectors, those who refused to fight in the war, could be conscripted into farm labor and prisoners of war were often put to work in agriculture. School children were often released from their lessons to help out during harvest times in what were called “harvest camps.” Famously in Britain, The Women’s Land Army sent young women, known as “land girls,” into the countryside to help grow the nation’s food. It was common for women and children to take over jobs traditionally done by men, when those men were away fighting. Due to the cooperation of civilians, the British agricultural effort during World War II was deemed an unprecedented success and Britain managed to avoid mass malnutrition and starvation (Goodman, Langlands, Ginn Episode 8.)

Because cities were often the target of enemy bombing raids, evacuees, many of them children, were sent from the cities into the countryside. Those who took in evacuees from the cities had access to more rations, as evacuees had to turn in their ration books to the people they were staying with. Individual rations could be pulled together for larger portions. Evacuees could also be put to work on farms. But the evacuee/host family relationship was not always so harmonious. In the 1988 Studio Ghibli film, Grave of the Fireflies, set in Japan in the final months of the war, the protagonists, Seita and Setsuko, are sent to live with an aunt after their village is destroyed during a bombing and they are left orphaned. The aunt begins to resent them and treat them harshly as resources run out and eventually abandons them to fend for themselves, which sends Seita and Setsuko on a downward spiral towards their deaths from malnutrition and starvation. The film paints them as innocent victims of the terrible conditions of war.

Some of the worst conditions of the war were seen during the 900 day Siege of Leningrad which lasted from 1941–1944. Food was extremely rare with rations for a child being little more than a slice of bread a day and the winters were unusually cold, descending to as low as forty below zero. Survivors interviewed by psychoanalyst Marina Gulina recall extreme hunger and cold along with darkness due to the power systems being down because of the constant bombing and the loss of loved ones and the helplessness felt due to such conditions. Among the things these subjects recall is an incident where a food store being bombed by the Germans and tonnes of sugar being burnt, making the earth at the bomb sight taste sweet, and people eating the earth to supplement their meager rations (Gulina 1315.) They also recalled eating dead house pets and rumors of cannibalism which caused their parents to forbid them from going out for fear that they would be kidnapped and eaten.

Of all the countries that were occupied by the Nazis during World War II, France suffered the worst in terms of rationing. The average calorie intake was an average of 1180 calories per day (Mouré 263) and the country suffered from malnutrition and disease, specifically TB and diphtheria. Infant mortality increased by fifty percent between 1941–3: it rose from 39 per thousand in 1939, to 91 per thousand in 1940, to 109 per thousand in 1945 (263.) The reason for this lack of food was that the rationing system was corrupt and inadequate, and full of interference by the occupying Germans, who wished to punish the French and drain French resources for themselves. Those who could afford it could buy food off of the flourishing black market or eat at a black market-operated restaurant (restaurants were given preferential treatment by food distributors.) The French Government had been hesitant to implement rationing because of the issue of public morale, but the German invasion in May of 1939 caused panic, with people buying up food to hoard and local officials taking measures to prevent local food supplies from leaving their areas. This caused depleted supplies, which made rationing difficult. The occupying Germans made sure that French civilians did worse than their German counterparts. Rations for an adult were 350 grams of bread a day, 350 grams of meat and 80 grams of fat per week, and 500 grams of sugar per month (267.) This made up about 1300 calories per day, well under the 2200 calories needed to sustain and an adult. Calorie intake for an adult dropped to between 1250 and 1100 calories. By the end of the war, it was below 1000 calories per day (268.)

The obtaining and preparation of food has traditionally been a female job. The wife in a traditional family structure does the grocery shopping and the cooking. Housewives in occupied France had to wait in long lines and were often in conflict with shopkeepers, and each other, to get the foodstuffs they needed. Food inspired riots and demonstrations most made up of women were common in Paris. The wartime food shortage issue was characterized as a women’s issue and the French communist party used this issue to try to mobilize women. It succeeded in politicizing the women of France. The issue of food underscores many of the other problems facing occupied France such as the conflict between the French and the occupying Germans and the Germans mistreating the French.

Rationing and the feeding of civilians during wartime brings up many issues such as economics, social class, government control, health and wellness, and gender roles. The world wars of the twentieth century operated according to the concept of “total war,” which meant that all of a country’s resources would go to the war effort and that civilians were fair game. The former respect of women and children disappeared and they became just as vulnerable as the soldiers at the front. Issues over the necessity of total war and whether or not human rights should be respected during times of conflict exist today, most notably the Syrian refugee crisis. Resources are all finite at some point and the question of how or whether or not to distribute them equitably is something worth considering.

Wars change things for all of those affected by them, whether it be the loss of property of loved ones, lack of food and other necessities, over even the loss of life. It is easy to neglect civilians during times wartime, as they are not directly involved with the winning of the war. The “total wars” of the twentieth century often directly targeted civilians to break their morale and the morale of the enemy troops. But wartime can bring out the best, as well as the worst, in people and can bring out qualities which help them rise to challenges that such times present. It was the contribution of civilians during World War II which kept Britain from suffering from malnutrition and their lack of cooperation which caused the food crises of World War I era Germany.

Women and children, the ones who are supposed to be protected by and benefit from the traditional family structure, are made vulnerable when the traditional breadwinners and protectors are off fighting in wars. Women lose the husbands who are supposed to support them and their families, and children lose the parents who are supposed to care for them. This thrusts the women and children into a position of having to look after themselves, which can have tragic or admirable results.

The experiences of Seita and Setsuko in Grave of the Fireflies epitomize the suffering of innocent civilians during times of war. They take place during the Second World War but could happen to any child left orphaned by any conflict or disaster. Seita’s stubborn determination to keep himself and Setsuko alive is noble but the audience knows that it is doomed to failure because they are given the information at the beginning that they will both die. This tragedy is due to the realities of war. Mothers and fathers die and children are left hungry and unprotected. Grave of the Fireflies is often considered an antiwar film, though this has been denied by its creators. In a way it goes beyond being merely a war film; it is a film about survival and the basic human needs for companionship and sustenance, both of which the family structure was set up to provide and are often casualties of war.

Annotated Bibliography

Allen, Keith. “ Sharing Scarcity: Bread Rationing and the First World War in Berlin, 1914-1923.” Journal of Social History 32.2 (1998): 371. Historical Abstracts. Web. 24 Mar. 2016.

Keith Allen examines Germany’s rationing system during the First World War and argues that it was more successful than previously assumed. Although Germany lost the war, Allen makes the claim that the German bureaucracy successfully saw its people through till the end.

Bloom, Matthias. “War, Food Rationing, and Socioeconomic Inequality in Germany During the First World War.” Economic History Review 66.4 (2013):1063-1083. Historical Abstracts. Web. 24 Mar. 2016.

Germany suffered from malnutrition during the First World War due to a shortage of food because of the war. Blum’s study uses the heights of 4,000 soldiers who served during the Second World War to get an idea of the general health of the population during and after the First World War. His data points to socioeconomic differences being more pronounced; those with a higher social status were generally taller than those who were of a lower class. People who were wealthy could purchase additional food off of the black market to supplement their rations and their children only experienced a smaller decline in average height than those from poorer families.

Gulina, Marina. “The Child’s Past in the Adult’s Present’: The Trauma of the Siege of Leningrad (1941-1944).” International Journal of Psychoanalysis 96.5 (2015): 1305-33. ProQuest. Web. 22 Feb. 2016.

Psychoanalyst Marina Gulina interviewed eighty survivors of the siege of Leningrad, which saw some of the worst conditions of the Second World War, to see how those conditions affected them. Those conditions included starvation, extreme cold, no electricity, constant bombing, and loss of loved ones. Many of the people interviewed were children at the time. The memories of this experience are very painful and traumatic for those who survived through it. Gulina’s interview subjects recall feelings of helplessness, hopelessness, and having to deal with adult problems, and her report alludes to health problems they had later in life due to malnutrition, such as stunted growth and infertility.

Grave of the Fireflies. Writ. and Dir. Isao Takahata. Studio Ghibli, 1988. Web. 22 Feb. 2016.

The Studio Ghibli animated film Grave of the Fireflies follows Seita and Setsuko, who are left orphaned after village is bombed during World War Two. Seita must figure out how to survive and look after his little sister Setsuko. This film shows the suffering of civilians during wartime and how vicious some can be in desperate situations. Seita and Setsuko live for a while with an aunt, who begins to resent them for using up resources and then kicks them out to fend for themselves, which sends them on a downward spiral towards their eventual deaths from malnutrition and starvation.

Mouré, Kenneth. “Food Rationing and the Black Market in France (1940-1944).” French History 24.2 (2010): 262-282. Historical Abstracts. Web. 22 Mar. 2016.

France saw some of the most stringent rationing of any country occupied by the Germans during the Second World War. The article looks into how the French government managed food supplies and how the German occupation authorities interfered, which increased problems in the rationing system. It also talks about how the black market obtained and distributed goods to supplement meager rations, and how people began to rely on these goods as the rationing system became more and more useless. The French rationing system was badly organized and corrupted by German interference.

Schwartz, Paula. “The Politics of Food and Gender in Occupied Paris.” Modern & Contemporary France 7.1 (1999): 35. Historical Abstracts. Web. 22 Mar. 2016.

The obtaining and preparing of food has always been traditionally associated with women. This article by Paula Schwartz focuses on the struggle for food in Paris when it was occupied by the Germans during World War II, specifically the mobilization of women around the problem of food shortages. The occupying Germans and the collaborating Vichy government trivialized the issue of food by labeling it a “women’s issue,” but food was highly politicized and used by both sides to promote their agendas.

“Wartime.” The Supersizers Go… Perf. Giles Coren and Sue Perkins. BBC, 2008. Web. 22 Feb. 2016.

In an episode of the BBC series “The Supersizers, its presenters, comedian Sue Perkins and food critic Giles Coren, lived for a week under the conditions of Britain during World War II to see how people dealt with the rationing system and the deprivation of wartime. Food and its rationing were an important part of the war effort because governments had to keep control of necessary resources and keep their populations fed and fit. Doing without rationed luxuries was sold to the public as a patriotic duty, and they were given information on how to preserve food, grow things at home, and find alternatives to rationed goods. The experiments conclusion was that the rationed wartime diet is highly beneficial because unhealthy things such as sugar, meat, and alcohol are limited and it encourages more disciplined eating habits.

Wartime Farm. Perf. Ruth Goodman, Alex Langlands, Peter Ginn. BBC, 2012. Web. 20 Mar. 2016.

Food was very important to the British war effort during the Second World War. Farmers were expected to double the amount of food they produced. Historian Ruth Goodman and archaeologists Alex Langlands and Peter Ginn lived and operated a farm for a year as if it were the 1940s in a BBC series called Wartime Farm. They had to cope with the rationing system and the demands put on wartime farmers. Farms and their products were closely monitored by the government. They were expected to switch from livestock to crops and plant more land than had been previously done before. It was the job of farmers to provide a sufficient food supply. 

Rachel Lesch
Rachel Lesch

New England Native; lover of traveling, history, fashion, and culture. Student at Salem State University and an aspiring historical fiction writer. 

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Gender, Age, and Rationing