World War I
the War
German Revolution, 1918-1919

World War I
the Home Front

When World War I broke out, Germans of all political directions declared their solidarity with Emperor and government. This included the Social Democrats, which until the last moments had opposed militaristic policy and propagated international cooperation instead; when the war started, the party majority had a change of heart and approved the war credits. The nation was grasped by a spirit of war enthusiasm. Volunteers signed up, the army having the option to select those regarded fit and mature enough. The war turned out to be much different from the wars which led to Germany's unification, a quick victory, much expected, proved unrealistic and the country had to adapt to a long confrontation.
A new government of national solidarity was formed, which included representatives of all political parties, including the SPD and the Zentrum, which hitherto constantly had opposed imperial policy. Walther Rathenau introduced the War Economy : Germany's supply of vital raw materials was placed under state administration, it was to be allocated according to priority; industrial production was focussed on war essentials such as ammunition, army supplies etc.; German research facilities were asked to find replacements for vital imports from overseas, such as rubber, salpeter, natural fertilizer, all of which now seized to arrive because of the British blockade. Germany's reserves of gunpowder in August 1914 lasted only 4 months. By the time it ran out, Germany's chemical industry produced Synthetic Gunpowder. It also produced Synthetic Rubber; attempts to develop Synthetic Fertilizer on industrial scale did not result in satisfactory results until after the war.
The lack of fertilizer and the absence of a considerable part of the countryside workforce led to a significant drop in the nation's agricultural production. With insufficient food, as well as other vital consumer goods such as fuel (coal), clothing, shoes available, a Coupon Economy was introduced insuring that the scarce goods would not become unaffordable and that they were justly distributed. The system was called Wartime Socialism. Of course there was a Black Market; those who frequented risked severe punishment.
As many men were wearing uniform, they left their workplace. In order for the economy to continue, many women had to be employed, in factories, offices etc. Many sources describe a Weiberwirtschaft (women's economy).
Although the economy was streamlined in order to focus the nation's energy on the war effort, the farming sector was struggling to provide the nation with the food needed. Germany went through Hunger Winters. Flower gardens were turned into petty potato or vegetable fields to provide a little extra nutrition, people kept rabbits etc (Victory Gardens).

During the war some came to realize that exaggerated nationalism would not be the answer, that a peaceful solution had to be sought. Authors such as Stefan Zweig, at first packed by patriotic fever, came to realize that Germany did not defend itself against a host of malicious enemies, but was responsible, to a high extent, for the escalation of the war.
Moderate politicians were willing to consider US President Woodrow Wilson's suggestion of a Peace without Victors (21. 12. 1916); however the German government could not agree on such peace conditions, and the war continued.
The SPD (Social Democratic Party) was a wide movement representing the nation's working class. It consisted of several wings; the moderate Revisionists (Friedrich Ebert) supported the war effort, while radicals such as Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg, began to openly agitate against the war and the Kaiserreich.

By 1917 the situation became tight. There was no movement on the fronts in the west, little movement in Italy and on the Russian front, but on both fronts the gains were not big enough to justify the effort. The government needed a victory, and it needed it fast. In 1918, with the Peace of Brest-Litowsk, the political goals in the east had been achieved and the OHL played it's last trump, attempting to penetrate the French frontline in the Spring Offensive. When this did not work and the Entente forces began a counteroffensive, Germany had no option but to surrender.
In the days preceding the surrender, the fleet was ordered to take to the sea, to fight a final battle. Germany's sailors mutinied, taking control of the harbour cities, establishing Workers' and Soldiers' Councils - the German Revolution had begun, quickly spreading from harbour cities to cities all over the Empire.

Biography of Walther Rathenau, w. scan, from DHM (in German); short biography from Cethegus (in German)
Kriegsrohstoffabteilung, from DHM (German War Raw Material Dept., in German); Ersatzstoffe, from DHM (substitution materials, in German)
Christopher Birrer, A Critical Analysis of the Allied Blockade of Germany, 1914-1918
DOCUMENTS War Bond postcards, Postcards celebrating Alliances, from Propaganda Postcards of the Great War
Images of Walter Rathenau (1922), Images from Chronik 2000 Bilddatenbank : German volunteers depart, 1914; 1916 : Meat Coupon; Winter 1916/17 : barter trade - coals for potato peels; 1917 : Women work in arms production
Alice Hamilton, At the War Capitals (1916), from How Did Women Peace Envoys Promote Peace by Touring European Capitals in 1915 ? at Binghamton
Johan Skjoldberg, Vid Världkrigets utbrott (When the World War broke out, report on the atmosphere in Kiel, Germany), posted by Nationalism Project at Univ. Stockholm, in Swedish
Ernst Vollert, "Stamningen i Berlin vid krigsutbrottet" (atmosphere in Berlin when war broke out), posted by Nationalism Project, Univ. Stockholm, in Swedish; Engl. trsl. from psm-data
World War I, from Deutschlandfunk, historical radio speeches, in German
La Grande Guerre 1914-1918 a travers les Revues d'Epoque, posted by Olivier, in French; click "Les Revues Allemandes"
REFERENCE D. Thomas Curtin, The Land of Deepening Shadow (1917), posted by Gutenberg Library Online
Carl William Ackerman, Germany - The Next Republic ? (1917), posted by Gutenberg Library Online
Gilbert Keith Chesterton, The Barbarism of Berlin (1914), posted by Gutenberg Library Online
James W. Gerard, Face to Face with Kaiserism (1918), posted by Gutenberg Library Online
Gerald D. Feldman, The Great Disorder, Politics, Economics, and Society in the German Inflation, 1914-1924, Oxford : UP 1997, 1011 pp., Part I on the War Economy (pp.25-98)
David Welch, Germany, Propaganda and Total War 1914-1918, Rutgers UP 2000 [G]
Article : Germany, in : New International Year Book 1914 pp.291-302, 1916 pp.266-273, 1918 pp.249-257 [G]

This page is part of World History at KMLA
First posted in 2000, last revised on October 29th 2007

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