In this ambitious book, Alice Weinreb explores the central role of food in what she calls the ‘biopolitical ambitions’ (p. 7) of twentieth-century German states. In times of both scarcity and abundance, state authorities have displayed a keen interest in regulating and controlling the production, distribution and consumption of food. In the first half of the twentieth century, war became synonymous with mass hunger for millions of Germans. During World War I, some 300,000 Germans died from the direct and indirect effects of the British blockade. The Wilhelmine Empire’s failure to protect Germans from mass hunger helped them to produce a revolution. During the Weimar Republic, the political extremes played upon Germans’ still vivid memories of wartime hunger, but it was the Nazi movement that profited most when the Great Depression confronted millions of Germans with the threat of hunger once again. The Nazis claimed that hunger during World War I had been produced by a Jewish conspiracy to enslave Germany. Ending Germany’s reliance upon the international food economy that made the country so vulnerable in World War I would require Germans to ‘perform race’ in their eating habits (p. 57). To break the hold of ‘the global Jewish wheat monopoly’ (p. 60), for example, Germans must reclaim their racial roots by eating Vollkornbrot (rye bread), ‘the single most racially charged food’ of the Third Reich (p. 60). However, Nazi promises that Germans would never have to fear hunger again required much more than that Germans should eat rye rather than wheat bread. If Germans were to be well-fed, many other non-Germans (Jews, Soviet POWs and civilians in the occupied East during World War II) would have to starve. Between 1941 and 1943, Nazi Germany stole some ‘7 million tons of grains, 2.7 million tons of potatoes, and 325,000 tons of edible fat’ from the occupied Soviet Union (p. 69). Yet, war did not benefit Germany as much as the Nazis had imagined. The USSR delivered more grain to Germany through legal trade between 1939 and 1941 than Germany managed to steal between 1941 and 1944 (p. 69). By the end of the war, Germans began to suffer the hunger they had earlier imposed upon occupied Europe. After 1945, however, the Third Reich became a time of imagined plenty. Germans blamed the Allied occupation authorities, not Hitler, for their postwar hunger. Initially, the Allies were more concerned with the suffering of survivors in the camps they had liberated than with defeated Germans. Soon, however, Germans appropriated ‘the pervasive discourse of the inhumanity of hunger’ to depict themselves ‘as victims of a Cold War instead of perpetrators of a World War’ (pp. 91–92) who required (and deserved) massive food aid from the food-rich USA. As in the years immediately after World War I, food aid now became an important weapon in the struggle against communism. One of Weinreb’s main arguments ‘is that food’s biopolitical centrality remained a constant across eras and states’ (pp. 11–12). By the late 1950s, however, the relationship between German state power and food that mattered was economic rather than military. Between 1949 and 1989, the Cold War rivalry between the East German socialist and West German capitalist food economies played out in a variety of institutions and social practices. Weinreb looks at factory canteens, super-markets, kitchens and home-cooking in both East and West Germany. It is in this second section of the book that Weinreb’s concern with the role of food economies and state power in constructing gendered identities and in controlling women’s labour power comes most clearly into focus. Economic rebuilding in the 1950s required a productive labour force. Workers could be more productive only if they were better-fed. But how best to deliver nutritional foods to industrial workers? Experts and authorities in East Germany saw factory canteens as one obvious answer. By 1985, some 66% of the working population regularly ate at least one meal each working day in a factory canteen (p. 134). But ‘collective feeding’ was never popular. It was too closely associated with ‘the rationed, regulated, and collectively consumed meals’ of the war years (pp. 126–127). In the 1960s, when economic growth made the food supply more certain, workers abandoned ‘the collective dining hall in favour of now tastier home-cooked food’ (p. 132).The extremely high participation rates of the 1980s did not indicate that canteens had become more attractive, but rather that the steadily worsening domestic food situation made it difficult for workers to buy the food they wanted in grocery stores. School meals were more popular: ‘By the 1980s, more than 85% of East German school children were eating at least one hot meal a day at school, and mothers who cooked the midday meal for their children were anomalies’ (p. 188). In stark contrast, West German experts steadfastly resisted significant extension of school lunch programs which they regarded as a threat to the family meal cooked by the West German mother who was not supposed to work in the labour force. West German commentators insisted that the family meal was central to the regeneration of family life after the massive dislocation caused by the Second World War. If home cooking was so vital, then shopping for food was also important. But it appeared to experts that the war and the post-war crisis had destroyed women’s ability to shop ‘skillfully and effectively’. Women would have to be taught how to shop, as the numerous books of nutritional advice published in these years made abundantly clear. Observers lamented, however, that West German women were bad pupils; ‘consumer-education projects consistently depicted women as impossible to educate and as motivated by powerful irrational desires’ (p. 149). By 1990, 94% of East German women with children worked compared with only 47% in West Germany (pp. 247–248). Yet, how women shopped and how they cooked were as important in the German Democratic Republic as in the Federal Republic, because ‘neither the socialist nor the capitalist state proved capable of imagining a society in which cooking was not done by women or meal consumption was separated from the nuclear family’ (p. 195). East German women often found it difficult to reconcile the demands of wage and domestic labour. When shopping involved standing in long lines for scarce commodities, women had to be absent from work in the factory or office. Weinreb ends her book with a paradoxical similarity between East and West Germany—the obesity epidemic that by the 1970s had become a serious health problem. The nutritional advice, diets, and reduced-calorie foods developed in both East and West to help Germans lose weight were remarkably similar and similarly ineffective. On each side of the Berlin Wall, experts blamed consumer behaviour, particularly women’s inadequacies in shopping and cooking, for the obesity crisis. By showing that food is ‘perhaps the most immediate intermediary between modern states and modern bodies’ (p. 5), Weinreb encourages us to see the long arc of twentieth-century German history in novel ways. It would have been helpful to have heard more of the voices of the ordinary Germans, particularly women, who bought, prepared and ate the food that is so central to Weinreb’s story. It would also be useful to learn more about the black market during both wars and in the late 1940s. Overall, however, Weinreb has written an extremely original and thought-provoking book. © The Author(s) 2017. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the German History Society. All rights reserved.
German History – Oxford University Press
Published: Mar 1, 2018
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