Monday, June 26, 2017

Alice Weinreb's "Modern Hungers"

Alice Weinreb is an associate professor of history at Loyola University Chicago.

She applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, Modern Hungers: Food and Power in Twentieth-Century Germany, and reported the following:
From page 99:
Allied rationing programs in occupied Germany had much in common with the rationing programs of the First World War because they reinforced existing societal divisions along gender, occupational, class, and regional lines. As had been the case during World War I, hungry city dwellers claimed that the rural regions were overflowing with food as the cities starved, a belief that seemed confirmed by city- dwellers’ desperate trips to farms to acquire extra provisions. While urbanites accused farmers of hoarding food in anticipation of future profits, farmers perceived themselves as the main victims, complaining not only about the authorities’ unrealistic demands, but also the waves of German expellees from Eastern Europe whom they were frequently compelled to house and feed.

There were many German food producers who exploited the widespread hunger for their own profit. Adulterating food was a popular way of stretching resources and increasing returns. It was quite common, for example, to sell flour that had been “mixed with portions of sand, plaster and other substances.” In Thuringia, several local companies were turning vegetables that had frozen due to improper storage into prepackaged salads “by first cooking them in order to make them edible,” forcing the local Nutrition Board to “prohibit all production of vegetable salads” due to serious health concerns. Inspectors in Saxony discovered that a shipment of more than 600,000 kilo­grams of butter had been inadequately refrigerated for over a year and was subsequently covered in mold; nonetheless, it was still marked for consumption. Hungry civilians also frequently accused shopkeepers, like farmers, of hoarding foodstuffs. An anonymous letter from Cologne, for example, singled out a grocery store where pickled carrots “without onions and scarcely any vinegar” were being sold for “one hears and gasps— 1 RM.” The shop owner, a Ms. Vinken, was described as “an overfed red- haired woman” and accused of being “more power-hungry than Adolf Hitler” in her “dictatorial” pricing schemes, profiting from the hunger of her desperate customers. Of course, German consumers themselves used a variety of extralegal means to obtain more and better food. Everyday efforts to acquire food expanded to include illicit activities ranging from participation in the black market to acts of prostitution and theft and even to the murder of milkmen. The occupation years thus saw a dramatic rise in illegal or semi- legal activities connected to food acquisition and distribution. These so- called crimes of scarcity shaped immediate postwar life for the majority of German civilians and were part of their larger experiences of collective hunger.

Public opinion across all four zones singled out the Allies as cruel masters indifferent to German suffering. Rationing programs that punished former Nazis or that reduced “normal consumer” allotments enforced the perception of many German civilians that they were being stigmatized and mistreated.
My book explores the relationship between the industrial food system and the modern war economy over the twentieth century. Page 99 is located in the middle of the book, in the chapter describing the transition from World War II to the Cold War. This transition is known in Germany as the “Hunger Years” of 1945 to 1949. While Page 99 does not capture the chronological and thematic scope of the book, it does highlight two crucial methodological aspects of my study of the modern food economy.

First, page 99 captures the fact that my study of the “politics of food” highlights not only state policy but the politics of the ordinary and the everyday. Although historians have traditionally described these years as a time of “pure and simple” hunger, this page details a remarkably complex food economy wherein food was constantly being modified in elaborate negotiations between individuals and state authorities. This is important because, in the immediate aftermath of the Third Reich, German civilians frequently compared their caloric intake to that of concentration camp inmates, a comparison that they successfully used to leverage for increased American food aid. The food economy described on page 99, however, exposes a food economy defined by remarkable levels of individual agency, something entirely different from Nazi camps.

Page 99 concludes by invoking another major thread of my book: detailing a nuanced approach to hunger as a topic of historical analysis. While we often imagine hunger as simply the consequence of an absence of food, hunger is rarely straight-forward or uncontested. In the case of Germany’s many and quite varied modern hunger claims, questions of interpretation and perception were crucial. People often claimed that they “felt” hungry even if they did not “look” hungry, for example. Individual and collective emotions, memories, and fantasies played crucial roles in determining how hungry and how satiated Germans were.

Ultimately, while my book focuses on Germany, Modern Hungers is really about the development of a transnational food system that links military power to control over food production and distribution. By turning discussions of hunger away from the Third World and to Germany, the wealthiest nation in Europe, my book complicates standard narratives of modernization, while historicizing contemporary struggles to control the world’s natural resources and to optimize peoples’ eating habits.
Learn more about Modern Hungers at the Oxford University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue