Davis, Belinda J. Home Fires Burning: Food, Politics, and Everyday Life in World War I Berlin. Chapel Hill, University of North Carolina Press, 2000.
Beyond being simply interesting and well-written, Davis’ work has far reaching impacts for understanding this period of German history. Beyond raising questions of legitimacy and the definition of politics, Davis’ narrative of the collapse of the German Empire is much different than Chickering’s account of a controlled abdication of the throne from the top. The fact that women of lesser means, who had no political power, but great symbolic power (136), were able to protest about food distribution, and that the imperial government actually responded to those demands rather than subduing the open protests, represents a profound shift in our understanding of Germany during the First World War.
Davis’ book focuses on the food shortage in Berlin caused by the British blockade of the city during the war. Because “women customarily controlled the major part of the purchase, preparation, and consumption of food in a German household at this time,” a food shortage suddenly thrust women into the political sphere (33). While initial government propaganda efforts tried to convince the German population that this food shortage was good for them (by “hardening them up”), working and lower-middle class women quickly dismissed this as the government trying to sidestep its responsibility. In response, women took to the streets in open protest, demanding that the government do something to help them.
The shortage of bread and potatoes during the winter of 1914/1915 “transformed shopping into a task riddled with anxiety and rancor,” and as a result, the “woman of lesser means” emerged as a new social protagonist. These women came to “represent the front-line soldier in the inner economic war fought in the streets” of Germany (48). These women led protests against the government, calling it indifferent at best, and incompetent at worst. Even the Berlin police commissioner recognized that the “state must act to throw its lot with poor consumers or it would be seen as against them” (75).
Davis also shows how the government responded to these protests: government agencies, such as a national butter distribution authority, were created, and regulations were placed on the economy. By responding to these women of lesser means, Davis asserts that “imperial officials both acknowledged and legitimated the notion that street protestors should set the agenda for official action” (112). However, by 1918 – even after the creation of the War Food Office in 1916 and a “food dictatorship” under the OHL later that year – the women of lesser means deemed that the government had failed them. A series of food-hoarding scandals in 1917 dashed notions of the government’s “good intentions,” and poor Berliners concluded that they should no longer place faith in the regime (191).
Davis sees this period as the death of the Staatsnation, in which the nation existed to serve the state, and the birth of the Volksnation, in which the people were the seat of the nation (135). This is important because when the home front decided that its government was un-reformable and had failed them, it cultivated an atmosphere that helps explain the revolution of 1918. Davis’ book ultimately shows that women at the home front played a vital role in World War I (and knew that they played an important role) by causing drastic changes in the way the government was perceived, and the way the government perceived itself. In doing so, she makes us question what constitutes politics (these women had no political power, yet ultimately wielded great symbolic power).
For more books on modern German history, see my list of book reviews HERE.