The Starving of Germany in 1919
I first read about the starvation of Germans at the end of WWI in a book written by British historian Clive Ponting, he reported that close to 900.000 Germans died of starvation in 1918 and 1919.
The “starvation policy” had begun in 1914. Winston Churchill, then First Lord of the Admiralty and one of the framers of the scheme, admitted that it was aimed at “starving the whole population — men, women, and children, old and young, wounded and sound — into submission.”
Such British policy was in contravention of international law on two major points.
First, in regard to the character of the blockade, it violated the Declaration of Paris of 1856, which Britain itself had signed, and which, among other things, permitted “close” but not “distant” blockades. A belligerent was allowed to station ships near the three-mile limit to stop traffic with an enemy’s ports; it was not allowed simply to declare areas of the high seas comprising the approaches to the enemy’s coast to be off-limits.
The second point is related to contraband. Briefly, following the lead of the Hague Conference of 1907, the Declaration of London of 1909 considered food to be “conditional contraband,” that is, subject to interception and capture only when intended for the use of the enemy’s military forces.
In December 1918, the National Health Office in Berlin calculated that 763,000 persons had already died as a result of the blockade by that time. In some respects, the armistice saw the intensification of the suffering, since the German Baltic coast was now effectively blockaded and German fishing rights in the Baltic annulled.
The reason for the food blockade to be kept in place after the end of the hostilities was aimed at forcing Germany to sign the Versailles Treaty without any change on the strict conditions they were imposing. Today no one remembers it because it was kept secret and there were no leaks to the western press while 900,000 German men, women and children died because of the British naval blockade. Even today only a few non-Germans know the truth and American and British historians, seems to have brushed off this most appalling crime as a footnote in history.
Even the founder of the Boy Scouts, Robert Baden-Powell, naively expressed his satisfaction that the German race is being ruined; though the birth rate.
Although the war had ended in November 1918, Germany was still under Allied blockade, which was ruthlessly enforced. The first state of Germany to benefit from a lifting of the blockade would be communist-controlled Bavaria.
One must search diligently for historical references to the continued, devastating blockade. Diether Raff confirms the peace-time blockade in his “A History of Germany – From the Medieval Empire to the Present”:
“The Allied peace terms turned out to be extremely severe, far exceeding the worst fears of the German government… The peace treaties of Brest-Litovsk and Bucharest were declared invalid and the food blockade around Germany was to continue… Thus Germany’s capitulation was accomplished and an end set to four years of enormous bloodshed.
“It was the blockade that finally drove the Central Powers to accept defeat,” says Richard Hoveth in his study of the struggle on the high seas during World War I: “At first mild in its application, the blockade’s noose gradually tightened until, with the American entry, all restraint was cast aside. Increasingly deprived of the means to wage war, or even to feed her population, the violent response was insurrection; apathy and demoralization the mute consequence of dashed hopes and thin potato soup.”
Basil Liddell Hart is quoted by Hoveth to the effect that, revolution and internal unrest notwithstanding, the blockade was “clearly the decisive agency in the struggle.”
After confiscating the German merchant navy, the Allies proceeded to confiscate German private property all over the world, contrary to all precedent from previous wars when private property had been held in escrow until the ratification of peace treaties, when it would revert to its legitimate owners.
The Allied powers reserved the right to keep or dispose of assets belonging to German citizens, including companies they control [Article 167 B]. This wholesale expropriation would take place without any compensation to the owners [Articles 121 and 279 B].
But Germany remained responsible for the liabilities and loans on the assets that were taken from them. Profits, however, remained in the hands of the Allies. Thus, private German property and assets were confiscated in China (Articles 129 and 132), Thailand (Articles 135-137), Egypt (Article 148), Liberia (Articles 135-140) and in many other countries.
Germany was also precluded from investing capital in any neighboring country and had to forfeit all rights “to whatever title it may possess in these countries.
The Allies were given free access to the German marketplace without the slightest tariff while products made in Germany faced high foreign tariff barriers. Articles 264 to 267 established that Germany “undertakes to give the Allies and their associates the status of most favored nations for five years.
Germany was already experiencing near famine conditions but it was at this moment that the Allies decided to confiscate a substantial part of what was left of Germany’s livestock. The American representative at Versailles, Thomas Lamont, recorded the event with some indignation:
“The Germans were made to deliver cattle, horses, sheep, goats, etc.,… A strong protest came from Germany when dairy cows were taken to France and Belgium, thus depriving German children of milk.”
Herbert Hoover, a mining engineer and future president of the United States – in 1900 defended Tianjin from the assaults of the Boxer – was sent on a mission to help the starving population but he could do very little because of the fury of the French and the British. Shipments had been delivered to Allies and to neutrals, but British officials had refused to break their blockade to let cargoes go into Germany. Moreover, Germany had failed to act on an agreement to turn over merchant ships before receiving food [eventually forced on the Weimar government and showed no desire to pay for shipments in gold – a possibility that French financiers were thought to be opposing so that their nation might get what gold there was as indemnity.
There is evidence that Wilson actually thought the European powers would accept his 14 Points” and feed starving Germans now that the war was over but, of course, that was not the case as discovered by Wilson’s humanitarian point man, Hoover. England’s Prime Minister, Lloyd George, meanwhile, thought that the starvation was being ameliorated. He favored – although quietly – feeding his ex-enemy.
In early March 1919, General Herbert Plumer, commander of the British Army of Occupation, informed Prime Minister Lloyd George that his men were begging to be sent home; they could no longer stand the sight of “hordes of skinny and bloated children pawing over the offal from the British camps”.
Finally, the Americans and British overpowered French objections and at the end of March, the first food shipments began arriving in Hamburg. But it was only in July, after the formal German signature to the Treaty of Versailles, that the Germans were permitted to import raw materials and export manufactured goods.
On May 7 of that year, Count von Brockdorf-Rantzau had indignantly referred to this fact in addressing the Versailles assembly:”The hundreds of thousands of noncombatants,” the German chief delegate had stated, “who have perished since November 11, 1918, as a result of the blockade, were killed with cold deliberation, after our enemies had been assured of their complete victory.”
The food blockade ended on July 12, 1919.
Besides the direct effects of the British blockade, there are the possible indirect and much more sinister effects to consider. A German child who was ten years old in 1918, and who survived, was twenty-two in 1930. Vincent raises the question of whether the miseries and suffering from hunger in the early, formative years help account to some degree for the enthusiasm of German youth for Nazism later on.
Incredibly, the last cheque covering reparations for WW1 was issued by Angela Merkel in 2010.