On 3 October 2010, Germany finally finished paying off reparations it incurred at the end of World War I.
This news item got me thinking about what life would have been like for our families in Germany. Wendy McMullin had given me a photocopy of a letter from Markus Krey, the husband of Berthe Rehder. (Berthe Rehder was the sister of my great-grandmother, Catherine (Rehder) Kuskopf who arrived in Australia in 1877). This letter was written in old German and also had many segments of text missing. A friend interpreted the old German to new German and then his wife translated this to English. Even with the missing text, it became clear that their life was miserable. Markus asks how the war has affected his sisters-in-law in Australia and says that the war has affected his family badly. “Our food rations have been severely limited, and still are. Both our sons returned in good health, but our son-in-law came back injured, shot in his lower arm; it doesn’t look good ..... There were civil riots for a while in Germany .... lots of dead and wounded”. Then the next bit is a bit patchy but says something about “spring ...hunger ...... 2 pounds of potatoes ......week .....many people....”
I realised I knew very little about the human side of World War One and what I thought I knew probably came from the movies or novels. So here is a summary of what I have found out.
The German economy suffered during the war. Industrial output fell by over 40% between 1914 and 1918. At the end of the war, machinery was obsolete in many cases and operated by untrained people. The total casualties of the war were 7 million so millions of working men were killed or injured in the war. The workforce was not physically fit enough to work as hard as required as food shortages were so bad. All food was directed to support the war effort. German citizens ate dogs, crows, zoo animals and rodents, and even the front-line troops were reduced to very small portions of horse-meat. Citizens were not permitted to drive a car and this continued after the war as raw materials were so scarce.
By 1918, Germany was producing only 50% of the milk it had done before the war. By the winter of 1917, the supply of potatoes had run out and the only real alternative was turnips. This is why the winter of 1916 to 1917 is known as the "Turnip Winter". Turnips were used as animal foodstuff and many were repelled by the thought of eating them as they were the food of cows, pigs etc. Lack of food had seriously weakened the ability of people to fight off disease. Flu had a terrible impact on Germans as the people had little bodily strength to fight the illness. It is thought that nearly 750,000 died of a combination of flu and starvation - this figure included mainly civilians but it also included soldiers who had survived the horror of war, returned to Germany and then died of the disease.
After the war. The war led to the Kaiser being forced to abdicate. This left a power vacuum that was filled by the Weimar Republic. As a result of food shortages, extremist views, such as communism, surfaced, particularly in the industrial cities. In 1919 there were several Left Wing uprisings; The Spartacists attempted a revolution in Berlin and a short lived Soviet Republic was formed in Bavaria. The government used the Freikorps; disillusioned soldiers, who were right wing in their beliefs, who employed strong arm tactics. Markus Krey mentions the civil riots and lots of dead and wounded.
The American president, Woodrow Wilson, argued for fair treatment of Germany by the Allied Powers. Wilson believed that a League of Nations was needed to prevent future wars. However, France and England wanted vengeance. The resulting treaty was called the Treaty of Versailles and it imposed terrible hardships on Germany. The treaty stripped Germany of its overseas colonies and the coal-rich Saar region. Germany was limited to a small army and was forbidden to build large ships. The treaty also forced Germany to pay Great Britain and France for the damage caused by the war to the tune of 269-billion-gold-marks to repair some of the damage. This was a very significant amount especially since the German economy was very run down and the provisions of the treaty were so limiting. The food blockade on Germany’s coastline continued after the war until June 1919 and during this time many civilians died from starvation, causing considerable anger amongst Germans.
In order to pay the reparations Germany took out a series of loans, which made its economic problems even worse. The country experienced hyperinflation, which impoverished Germany's middle class. Political scientist Dr Rick Kuhn from the Australian National University said that “the money in their bank accounts turned into ashes. They were the core of Hitler's support base”. So the rest is history in terms of the Second World War. We’ve all heard the stories about Germans needing a wheelbarrow of money just for one loaf of bread! Apparently there was one incident where a lady left a basket of money outside a store, and later when she came out she saw the money was intact but the basket had been stolen!
The economic hardships were made worse by the Great Depression when America was no longer able to lend Germany money to help pay the reparations. The momentum towards the Second World War gathered speed.
A major reason for the lack of German heritage available in Queensland is the shame of being connected to a country which caused two world wars. Many families changed their names at the time of the First World War in particular, and many names of towns were changed. Over time many heritage items brought from Germany have been lost and possibly destroyed for the above reason. Personally I think it is imperative that we should donate all our heritage items including letters to the John Oxley Library in Brisbane, Queensland, so that they can be enjoyed by all.