What were the economic effects of World War I

The First World War

Wolfgang Kruse

Apl. Prof. Dr. Wolfgang Kruse, born in 1957, is an academic senior counselor and adjunct professor in the field of Modern German and European History at the Historical Institute of the Distance University in Hagen. His main research interests include the history of the First World War, the history of the French Revolution, the history of the German and international labor movement and the history of the political cult of the dead. Among others, von Kruse has published: Wolfgang Kruse: The First World War, Darmstadt 2009 (history compact of the WBG).

Germany was not prepared for a long-running war of industrial attrition. As a result, at the beginning of the First World War there was a massive transition crisis in the German economy. Despite the conscription of millions of men to the military, unemployment grew rapidly. This was followed by a strong war economy, due to government orders to the armaments industry. At the same time, a serious shortage of labor became noticeable, which brought major societal and social changes with it.

Misery of the German population in the war year 1916: An old woman collapses from hunger in line in front of a grocery store. (& copy picture-alliance / dpa)

During the First World War, German civil society was only affected to a minor extent - by bombing in areas near the border - directly by fighting. Nevertheless, the increasingly total war had a considerable impact on the economy and society on the so-called home front. The economy was converted more and more rigorously to war production, and women played a growing role in public life. People began to suffer deprivation and material hardship, and class social antagonisms and social protest potentials developed more and more clearly in society, which soon also took on anti-war characteristics.

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"Hunger" leaflet (June 1916)

What had to come has happened: hunger!

In Leipzig, in Berlin, in Charlottenburg, in Braunschweig, in Magdeburg, in Koblenz and Osnabrück, in many other places there are riots of the starving crowds in front of the grocery stores. And the state of siege government has only one answer to the hunger cries of the masses: heightened state of siege, police sabers and military patrols.

Herr von Bethmann-Hollweg accuses England of the crime of being to blame for hunger in Germany, and the persecutors and government pimps are chatting it up. Meanwhile the German government should have known that it had to come like this: the war against Russia, France and England had to lead to the cordon off of Germany. It was also always the custom among the noble brothers during the war to inflict economic damage on one another and to cut off the supply of food. The war, the genocide is the crime, the plan of starvation is only a consequence of this crime.

The evil enemies have 'encircled' us, the warmakers blare. Why did you have a policy that led to encirclement? Is the simplest counter-question. [...]

Another crime was added to the crime of instigating the world war: the rise in prices did nothing to counteract this famine. Why did nothing happen? Because the hunger of the masses does not hurt the government clans, the capitalists, junkers and food usurers, but serves as an enrichment. Because if the struggle against hunger and hardship had been taken seriously from the start, the blinded masses would have realized the terrible gravity of the situation. But then the enthusiasm for war would soon have evaporated.

That is why the masses were stunned with howls of victory triumph and at the same time they were handed over to the agrarian and capitalist food usury. [...]

What should be?

You can still wage war for half a year, maybe a whole year, by slowly starving people to death. But then the future generation will be sacrificed. In addition to the terrible victims of the dead and cripples on the battlefields, there are other victims of children and women who, as a result of the shortage, become infirm.

From: German history in sources and representations, vol. 8, p. 415f.



Priority and organization of war production

As in all other countries involved in the war, the economy in Germany was not prepared for a long war of industrial attrition. This was made more difficult by the lack of necessary raw materials such as saltpetre, which was required for the production of gunpowder, caused by the isolation from the world market. On the initiative of and under the direction of AEG director Walther Rathenau, a war raw materials department was established in the Prussian War Ministry on August 13, 1914. It organized the collection and distribution of raw materials essential to the war effort and the production of substitute materials such as artificial saltpeter using the Haber-Bosch method and thus became the nucleus for the expansion of the German armaments industry. Starting from the metal and chemical industry, under her guidance, more and more economic areas were merged into so-called war raw material societies, in which the distribution of war-essential raw materials was organized through the interaction of economic self-administration and military authority supervision.

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Report on the development of public health during the First World War

The lectures by hygienic experts as well as the reports from representatives of the Reich Office of the Interior, the Prussian Ministry of the Interior and the Health Office of the City of Berlin reveal truly shocking facts.
The worst thing is that these facts have long been known in authoritative places, but their disclosure has been suppressed with all the means of censorship.

Privy Councilor Rubner shared among others. with: The censored statements of the press made the health of the population appear to be good. But a confidential survey in December 1917 showed a rapid increase in total mortality, particularly from tuberculosis. The reports from institutions where only the rationed food was given were desperate. A further investigation failed because of the resistance of certain powerful personalities: There is no measure of how far the misery goes, not only in the big cities, but also in small towns, and finally also has seized the land. The secret medical councilor Kraus discussed among other things. the disease “hunger edema” caused by malnutrition, which initially only led to death in older and hard-working people, but later also affected young people and the more resistant age groups. Privy Councilor Ezernh discussed the effects on children in particular. Up until 1916, the children's good looks were deceptive, but the only way to nourish the children was to starve their parents. Now the breast children are already being affected, since the milk of the mothers is insufficient.

The representatives of the Reich Office of the Interior and the City of Berlin mainly gave some statistical material:

The total mortality of the civilian population showed an increase of 32 percent in 1917. H., in the first three quarters of 1918 from 34 per cent. H. compared to 1913. The flu cases are not included. In 1913, 40,334 people died of tuberculosis in cities with more than 150,000 inhabitants. In the first half of 1918 41,800. In 1913, 46,000 died of respiratory diseases, in 1917 61,000. In the first half of 1918, 335,000 people without the flu. For Berlin it was found that the deaths from pulmonary and throat consumption doubled in 1917 compared to the average for 1913 and 1916. The mortality rate for women is particularly high.

From: Sociale Praxis, 28th year 1918/19, Sp. 215f.



This system benefited the heavy industrial large-scale enterprises and corporations to a considerable extent, while smaller and non-war-important enterprises were disadvantaged and often closed completely. The priority of the war industry was strengthened once again with the "Hindenburg program for the generation of army supplies" launched at the instigation of the 3rd Supreme Army Command (OHL) in autumn 1916. The program aimed at the total mobilization of business and society for the military implementation of a comprehensive peace in Sieg again led to a significant increase in the production of weapons and ammunition. At the same time, however, it exacerbated the internal problems, contradictions and conflicts in German war society, which had previously emerged more and more clearly.

Labor shortage and compulsion to work

At the beginning of the war, there was a massive crisis of transition in the German economy with rapidly growing unemployment, despite the fact that millions of men were drafted into the military. However, it was soon replaced by a strong war economy in the armaments factories that were favored by state contracts. A serious shortage of labor became noticeable here, which could only be partially compensated for by reallocations from the peace industries. State and industry tried to solve this problem in various ways: firstly, by retiring highly qualified industrial workers from military service, which, however, came up against narrow limits in view of the growing need for soldiers; secondly, through the use of prisoners of war, a practice which, however, was contrary to international law in the area of ​​war production and could often only be enforced with compulsion; Thirdly, through the use of foreign workers, whereby rigid coercive measures were used, especially against civilians from Poland and Belgium, which triggered violent international protests, especially in the case of the forced deportation of over 60,000 Belgian workers to the Reich; fourth, through attempts to increase women's labor, which were only moderately successful, especially among working women with children; finally by restricting freedom of movement and other coercive measures against the German workforce.

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Size and composition of the German workforce in 1913 and 1918

Size and composition of the German workforce
In industrial companies with 10 or more employees
Absolute numbers in each case in 1000 workers; relative changes in percent

Men and women overall7387 6787 -8%
of it grow up6816 6185-9%
of which under 16571602+6%
Men overall5794 4467-23%
of it grow up5410 4046 -25%
of which under 16384 421+10%
Women overall1593 2320 +46%
of it grow up1406 2139+52%
of which under 16187181-3%

Source: Jürgen Kocka, Class Society in War. German social history 1914-1918, Frankf./M. 1988, p. 27.



Since the war economy opened up good opportunities for the coveted industrial workers to achieve significant salary increases through frequent job changes, restrictions on freedom of movement occurred in Greater Berlin as early as the turn of the year 1914/15. At the same time, however, under pressure from the military authorities, the position of the unions vis-à-vis employers was significantly upgraded. Commissions made up of equal numbers of representatives of the trade unions and employers and chaired by an officer were set up to decide on the right to change jobs. This form of organization, which increased the influence of the trade unions, but at the same time made them an integral part of the war economy organization, was soon adopted in many ways and generally introduced at the end of 1916 in the "Law on Patriotic Aid Service". Above all, however, the law mandated all men from 16 to 60 to work. It was suggested by the 3rd OHL under Generals Hindenburg and Ludendorff, who wanted to enforce a general obligation to work for men and women. "If you don't work, you shouldn't eat either," was the motto under which Hindenburg demanded a general labor law from the government. However, for reasons of population and gender politics, the latter refused to subject women to general work pressure. And in the Reichstag the so-called union majority from the SPD and the center was able to enforce exemption regulations for men, according to which the company ties were broken by the principle that income improvements should justify a change of job. However, the wages in the war industry, which continued to rise, were soon no longer able to stop the war-related impoverishment of the workers. Contributing to this was not only inflation, which was fueled by the financing of the war through the printing press, but also the absolute shortage of food and consumer goods.

Food management and material hardship

Queue outside a potatoes shop. (& copy City Archives Düsseldorf)
From the beginning of the war, civil life on the home front was marked by scarcity and growing need. One reason for this was the British naval blockade, but there were other, home-made reasons. While in England, for example, the food supply of the population could be ensured through the expansion of cultivated areas and rationing only had to be introduced in the last year of the war, the German Reich, with its principle priority for war production of food and necessities, relied on shortage management from the beginning. Starting with staple foods such as bread grains and potatoes, the military authorities imposed seizures at an early stage, set maximum prices and allocated food rations.

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Earnings and food supplies during the First World War

Average annual worker earnings in 370 companies, 1914-1918

Real earnings of male workers, March 1914 = 100

Sept. 1914March 1915Sept. 1915March 1916Sept. 1916March 1917Sept. 1917March 1918Sept 1918
War industries 90,8 91,8 89,8 88,978,4 76,2 78,8 77,8 77,4
Intermediate group 92,3 83,4 81,6 79,968,3 62,3 62,8 60,4 64,2
Peace industries 83,5 82,6 77,5 73,557,9 54,3 52,7 52,2 55,5
Overall average 88,9 85,9 83,0 80,868,264,3 64,8 63,4 65,7

Source: Jürgen Kocka, Class Society in War. German social history 1914-1918, Frankf./M. 1988, p. 33.

Weight of the official food rations
As a percentage of the weight of the peace consumption

1916/19171917/19181.7. until December 28, 1918
flesh 31,2 19,8 11,8
Eggs 18,3 12,5 13,3
lard 13,9 10,5 6,7
butter 22 21,3 28,1
sugar 48,5 55,7-66,7 82,1
Potatoes 70,8 94,2 94,3
Vegetable fats 39 40,5 16,6

Source: Jürgen Kocka, Class Society in War. German social history 1914-1918, Frankf./M. 1988, p. 35.



The forced management of food, practiced for a long time at different decision-making levels by the Deputy General Command and various civil authorities at municipal, national and national level without clear centralization, was not only extremely chaotic and aroused diverse resistance. Rather, it soon turned out to be a form of shortage management that caused a variety of injustices and, above all, was unable to ensure adequate basic supplies for the population. In the turnip winter of 1916/17 at the latest, it became clear that there was severe material hardship and widespread hunger in Germany, to which older and weakened people in particular began to fall victim. With large regional and sectoral differences, the official food rations fell to around a third of the peace consumption. At the same time, the black market was booming, but only those who had large amounts of money or material resources could get additional supplies. Last but not least, the large armaments factories tried to improve the supply of their workforce and thus drove prices higher and higher.

Social contrasts and anti-war protests

A forgotten uprising - the January strike in 1918. Deutschlandfunk, culture background, broadcast on January 18, 2008. Authors / Creators: Wolfgang Kruse / Bernd Ulrich. (& copy Wolfgang Kruse)

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Report from the Berlin Police President to the Prussian Minister of the Interior on unrest in front of grocery stores in October 1915

In the evening hours of the 14th. Mts. Smaller gatherings have taken place in front of the branches of the large butter company Assmann located there.
The shop windows of the Evertystr. At the corner of Straßmannstrasse, they smashed in and the food that could be reached (butter, eggs, cheese) was thrown on the street and stolen. Another attack against another branch located in the same street at the corner of Kochhannstrasse had only the result of smashing the window panes, since the protection team could be on the spot here in good time and drove the crowd apart. A total of 4 suspensions were made on this occasion. Unfortunately, this gathering was repeated to a greater extent yesterday (15th) evening. The aforementioned butter shops in Ebertystraße were initially affected by it again. Any attack on the shops was repelled by the timely intervention of the protection team. A policeman was actually resisted by a worker who had not been identified in terms of personality, and he was injured not harmlessly by a punch on the nose. The riots lasted from 5 p.m. to 11 p.m.Another attack against a branch of the same company located at Proskauerstrasse 24 took place at 7½ o'clock. Here a shop window was smashed by children. Timely intervention by the protection team was impossible here because the policeman who was set up to guard had just been called to arbitrate a brawl at Schreinerstraße 62, which is located in the same precinct, and the other forces of the precinct partly to protect the other branch located in the Schreiner corner of Samariterstraße, partly to suppress the accumulations in the Lichtenberg area in front of the branch on the corner of Frankfurter Allee and Niederbarnimerstraße were urgently needed. Another attack was directed against the Göbel butter business, Landsbergerstr. 54. This could be easily dispersed at first, since the manager of the shop immediately closed it at 6½ o'clock. However, at 8 o'clock the accumulations renewed. A few stones were thrown at the shop and the shop windows were smashed with them. Stones were also thrown against the preceding supervisory officers. A policeman was insignificantly injured by stones being thrown behind his left ear, was snatched from a policeman in the crush of sabers, and coal was thrown at the chief police officer without hitting him. 2 men and 2 women had to be brought to the guard. 500-600 people, mostly teenage boys, took part in this gathering. Some of the male participants seemed to be drunk and therefore, in contrast to the women who were approachable by kindly persuasion, could only be removed from the street by resolute action. At eleven o'clock it was quiet.

Finally, in the district of the 70th police station in the southeast at Reichenbergerstrasse 137, an attack on Leo Intrators' egg shop took place at 7:00 am. There were 500 to 600 people gathered who, as a result of the sudden attack, succeeded in smashing the window panes and the supplies in the shop window without the police being able to intervene and establish the perpetrators. Increased police protection then prevented further rioting, and by 10 a.m. the crowd was lost.

The reason why I am presenting the excesses in a big city like Berlin under the current pressure of the food issue in such detail is that they are not particularly worrying because there is a risk that they will repeat themselves and become ever larger. [...]

From: Documents from secret archives, Vol. 4, pp. 90f.



The dynamics of war society and the interventions of the military state, which political economists and war ideologues glorified as "war socialism" or as "German public economy", ultimately led to an intensified expression of class social contradictions and to an ever increasing loss of confidence in the possibilities of the intervention state . In spite of all the efforts of the trade unions, the workers experienced, according to the judgment of the social historian Jürgen Kocka, a "situation of scarcity, impoverishment and exploitation that had not existed since the beginning of industrialization". Large sections of the middle class also saw themselves increasingly socially declassed, while on the other hand the industrial bourgeoisie recorded enormous war profits. At the same time, a new type of workforce, largely dominated by young people and women, was gathering in the growing, giant armaments industry, and its ties to the unions involved in the war effort of the military state were weakening. So it was hardly surprising that in the course of the war social protests continued to spread and soon took on an anti-war, and ultimately revolutionary quality.

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Demands of the Berlin workers' councils in the January strike in 1918

1. Rapid achievement of peace without annexation, without war compensation, on the basis of the peoples' right to self-determination in accordance with the implementing provisions that were formulated for this purpose by the Russian People's Representative in Brest-Litovsk.

2. Involvement of workers' representatives from all countries in the peace negotiations. 3. More extensive food supply by recording the food stocks in the production plants and in the trading warehouses for the purpose of uniform supply to all sections of the population.

4. The state of siege is to be lifted immediately. The law of associations comes into force again in full, as does the right to freedom of expression in the press and in meetings. The protective laws for workers must be put back into force as soon as possible. All interference by the military administration in trade union activities must be reversed and new ones prevented.

5. The militarization of factories is also to be abolished.

6. All those convicted and arrested for political acts are to be released immediately.

7. Thorough democratization of all state institutions in Germany, first of all the introduction of general, equal, direct and secret suffrage for all men and women over the age of 20 for the Prussian state parliament.


Since only unconditional solidarity promises success, we vow to fend off any reprimand by our leaders, representatives and agents with all our might. But we are also addressing the proletarians of Germany and the other warring countries as a whole with an urgent request, as our work colleagues in Austria-Hungary have successfully preceded us, to now also enter into mass strikes, because only the common international class struggle will finally create peace and freedom for us and bread.

From: Documents from secret archives, p. 246f.



As early as 1915 the first food riots developed in front of shops and at public food expenditures, which from now on did not stop and, according to Ute Daniel's apt judgment, "let the municipalities advance to secondary theaters of war". Mainly young people and women were involved. With the strike against Karl Liebknecht's arrest in June 1916, in which around 60,000 workers took part in Berlin, the protest movement began to become more politicized and spread to the company level. In April 1917 and January 1918 in particular, large-scale strike movements against the war and the military monarchy, in which hundreds of thousands of workers took part, broke out in the large-scale war industries. The group of "revolutionary stewards" played a leading role in this, and was mainly recruited from union shop stewards in the Berlin metal industry. Even if the strike movement had to be broken off due to the militarization of the factories and its leaders were partly thrown into prison and partly sent to the front, the January strikes in almost all industrial areas in Germany in particular had shown how dissatisfied large sections of the workers are had politicized in a revolutionary way.

Selected literature:

Roger Chickering, Freiburg during the First World War. Total war and urban everyday life, Paderborn 2008 (Orig. Cambridge / Mass. 2007).

Hans Joachim Bieber, Trade Unions in War and Revolution. Labor movement, industry, the state and the military in Germany 1914-1920, 2 vols., Hamburg 1981.

Hans G. Ehlert, The Central Economic Authority of the German Reich 1914-1919. The problem of the "common economy" in war and peace, Wiesbaden 1982.

Gerald D. Feldman, Army, Industry and Workers in Germany 1914-1918, Bonn and Berlin 1985 (orig. 1966).

Ders., The Great Disorder. Politics, Economics, and Society in the German Inflation, Oxford 1993.

Jürgen Kocka, class society in war. German social history 1914-1918, Frankf./M. 1988 (first Göttingen 1973).

Kai Rawe, "... we'll bring you to work." Employment of foreigners and forced labor in the Ruhr coal mining industry during the First World War, Essen 2005.

Anne Roerkohl, Hunger Blockade and Home Front. The municipal food supply in Westphalia during the First World War, Stuttgart 1991.

A. Skalweit, The German War Food Economy, Stuttgart et al. 1927.

Jens Thiel, "People Basin Belgium". Recruitment, deportation and forced labor in the First World War, Essen 2007.

Friedrich Zunkel, Industry and State Socialism, The Struggle for the Economic Order in Germany 1914-1918, Düsseldorf 1974.

Benjamin Ziemann, Front and Home. Rural War Experiences in Southern Bavaria 1914-1923, Essen 1997.