Note: I did wonder whether I should pause in the telling of Riri and Fonfon’s story in the light of the appalling events unfolding right now in Ukraine. But, as we once again witness ordinary lives being torn apart by forces beyond their control, I felt it was more appropriate to continue.
Toutou and Zézé worry about their brothers. They worry about their health, their living conditions, their morale and especially they worry that there is not enough for them to eat. Riri and Fonfon reassure them on that point but they themselves are increasingly concerned that their clothes and shoes are wearing out.
When we think of the traditional image of France, food and fashion instantly spring to mind and it’s interesting to look at the impact of war on these aspects of daily life. Food first!
In one of their letters the brothers mention that food rationing is less severe in Germany than back home, which makes Mme Bernard’s gifts all the more touching, and in fact shortages had already begun in 1940 as a direct consequence of Nazi economic principle.
Hitler maintained that an economic policy was unnecessary for a great nation, since its destiny was simply to expand through conquest and to supply all its needs from the subject nations. This unlovely theory was somewhat dented at the very start of the conflict by the British blockade, which seriously restricted Germany’s access to world markets and such commodities as petrol, sugar, coffee and petroleum. However until summer 1941 Hitler was able to obtain huge amounts of grain and oil from Romania and the Soviet Union and goods poured in from the conquered nations in the West: in 1941 two thirds of French trains were carrying goods to Germany and the Reich’s demands for oil left only 8% of France’s annual production for her own supply.
France was slower than Germany to implement a system of food rationing. On March 5th 1940 a decree was passed restricting the sale of meat. Beef, veal and lamb might not be sold on three consecutive days every week, charcuterie on two consecutive days and horsemeat, mule and donkey meat on one day a week. Pâtisseries were closed and the sale of alcohol was forbidden. You really have to wonder how the French managed with these early restrictions! By April 1940 the population was required to have registered with the authorities, who divided the population into seven categories for the purposes of rationing, ranging from small children to active workers, heavy labourers and so on, who each received a different ration card and allocation. Rationing of bread, meat, pasta, sugar etc began in October 1940.
With the category system, it is not easy to generalise about the quantities that people received but for example the average consumption of beef in France, which was 3,4kg a month in 1938 had dropped to 350 gr in 1941 and was 260 gr in 1943. And the ration cards merely stated what each person was authorised to purchase. As the years went by shops very often had little or nothing on offer and it has been estimated that the population was probably existing on considerably less than the official figure of 1200 daily calories, which is already not a lot. Inevitably a black market sprang up, particularly in urban areas. In the country, exchanging extra supplies with neighbours was already a way of life and people generally did not associate such habits with criminal activity, but more likely viewed them as a form of active resistance against l’occupant.
In rural areas people were able to grow their own food, forage and keep bees, hens and so on and were thus able to help friends and relatives living in the cities. Town dwellers who had no relations or contacts in the country and nothing to exchange suffered greatly as the war dragged on and food grew ever scarcer. However even in the country things were very far from easy. An important contributing factor to food shortages was the vast amount of agricultural produce which was requisitioned by the German authorities. Contemporary accounts are hard to come by but “Welcome to the Free Zone”, written in 1942 by a Jewish couple hiding in the Ardèche, gives a good idea of the penury, even of such staples as potatoes, resulting from the ferocious quotas imposed by the Nazis to feed their army and the German population.
Long memories of these lean years mean that until quite recently parsnips and Jerusalem artichokes were practically unobtainable in France. Older French people would shudder at the thought of them, evoking winters when these were the only vegetables available. Lately a young generation of chefs, exploring old varieties and experimenting with them, have elevated the panais and topinambour to a level of chic which would have been inconceivable to their grandparents.
German food rationing cards were issued, perhaps surprisingly, on August 27th 1939 – four days before the declaration of the Second World War. The régime was determined to maintain a stable level of basic food supply and avoid a repeat of the famine conditions endured by the population between 1915 and 1918. The system was complicated and the rations rather meager even at the start, so women (who were overwhelming responsible for providing food for the family) were obliged to become inventive. In her memoir “The Past is Myself” Christabel Bielenberg writes, of the winter 1939-40 ” … I had not lived long enough in Berlin to have my ‘Quellen’ – my sources of supply as they were called; and as soon as food rationing was introduced, everything that was not on the ration cards disappeared like magic from every shop counter and out of every shop window. Unless you were known to some shop keeper … and were able to come to a deal by dint of the ingratiating smile, the tender enquiry after wife and children, cows no longer had livers, hearts, kidneys or tails and hens had vanished off the face of the earth”.
At first, thanks to the huge quantities requisitioned from the conquered territories, German food distribution worked pretty well in cities and metropolitan areas (the rural population, considered to be partially self-sufficient, received smaller rations). But in the Spring of 1942 things changed dramatically. The severity of the fighting on the Eastern Front and the Soviet scorched earth policy meant that there was little left for Germany to plunder and so food rations were cut drastically. The bread ration was reduced from 320gr a day to 212gr, meat from 53gr to 40gr and fats from 35gr to 27 gr. From October, people registered as Jewish under the Nurnberg laws, who already received reduced allocations, were denied access to meat and clothing rations and their situation became increasingly desperate. If they went into hiding to avoid arrest or deportation it was almost impossible for them to obtain food, since anyone trying to help them had next to nothing to share.
Secret reports compiled by the Security Division of the SS on the mood of the German population warned that the heavy cuts had had a more devastating effect on large parts of the population than any other events of the war to date, bringing with them the spectre of the famine winters of the First World War.
German housewives were constantly admonished that Gemeinnutz geht vor Eigennutz – community welfare comes before self-interest – but as the war became more destructive and claimed more lives the reality must have been apparent to all but the most fanatical Nazi supporters. Everything was in short supply, everything was ersatz – from Brotersatz, containing ‘tree flour’ (in other words sawdust) to Kaffeeersatzmade from ground acorns or roasted barley. Fuel was scarce and people were cold and hungry, weary after years of conflict, without their menfolk – even young boys were conscripted to fight for the Fatherland – and exhausted by nightly bombing raids.
Welcome to the Free Zone. N and L Gara, translated by Bill Reed. Hesperus Press 2013
The Past is Myself. Christabel Bielenberg. Chatto and Windus 1968
*These images of National Socialism are included as contemporary witness, not to glorify Nazism*
Unless otherwise stated, all images from Wikipedia commons. Wherever possible I have traced and credited the image authors. Any omissions are unintentional.