Herbert HooverThe acute mystery which had been deliberately visited on Germany, Austria and Hungary was remorseless. British, French and Italian obstruction to all U.S. proposals which would have alleviated the crises in Berlin and Vienna appeared to be absolute. A breakthrough was apparently agreed on Christmas Eve, 1918, when the Americans thought that they had persuaded their Allies to relax the food blockade on the neutral and liberated countries. Furthermore the Inter-Allied Trade Council proposed to allow neutral countries to trade food to Germany in exchange for commodities which did not compete with Allied exports. On Christmas Day, Hoover announced to the world press that ‘it is our first move towards feeding Germany.’ He notified all of the nations involved and announced that the British blockade authorities had confirmed the decision. [1]  Unbeknown to him, or any of the American delegation in Europe, his breakthrough was blown apart by a consortium of Allied councils and executives which met in London some six days later on December 31. They reversed the original decision and re-imposed the full blockade. Hoover described it sarcastically as ‘a sudden joint meeting … to which no Americans were invited’. In fact they had not even been notified.

It was a stinging slap on the face for Hoover and another body-blow for the starving Germans. Not only had the London conspirators undermined his strategy, they had not even sufficient courage to tell him in person. Hoover’s first concern was the financial impact this would have. Money always was his first interest. The British were leading an economic revolt which would have caused an disastrous crash in the U.S. farming industries. The Grain Corporation alone had borrowed over $300,000,000 in the expectation of vast profits from sales to Europe. Hoover estimated that he had 700,000 tons of food en route to famine areas in Europe. Cold storage for perishable foodstuffs was already at bursting point.

Hoover pictured as the patriot American who fed Europe in Le Petit Journal.

At every opportunity Herbert Hoover used President Wilson to add covering letters to his dispatches, appeals and veiled threats to the allied food agencies. [2] The Americans were justifiably aggrieved. They had taken steps to increase agricultural production on a large scale, with guaranteed prices for their farmers in order to make vast post-war profits from all and sundry, including Germany. Such guarantees extended to the 1919 crop, which meant that the U.S. producers had to be protected from deliberate price-undercuts from the southern hemisphere. At one point over 1.2 billion pounds of fats and 100 million bushels of wheat were locked down in European storage. [3] Of even greater concern were perishable foods like dairy products and pork, and the tragic fact was that vast quantities of these foodstuffs were held up in Copenhagen, Amsterdam, Rotterdam and Antwerp while millions of Germans starved. [4]

Yet the British press were relentless in their denial of starvation in Germany. On 3 January 1919, a leading article in The Times dismissed the ‘German Hunger Bogy’ as spurious. What were people to think when the trusted Times reported, ‘You don’t see so many people with rolls of fat on them as you did five years ago, but you also see a healthier, harder and generally more fit population’. Such twisted, pathetic logic.

Even when, by mid-January 1919, it appeared that ‘the Big Four’ (Britain, France the United States and Italy) had agreed that Germany should be supplied with food and ‘if nothing else could be done’ pay in gold and export a limited amount of commodities,[5] the blockade remained in place. The Allied Blockade Committee refused to issue the necessary orders and the British navy stubbornly resisted any attempt by Hoover’s ships to enter German waters. The role of the admiralty in maintaining and enforcing the vicious throttling of a defeated Germany has been clearly understated. It wasn’t just that a watertight blockade was maintained; it was extended and remorselessly enforced. The admiralty ordered the cessation of all German fishing rights in the Baltic … an act of war, clothed in the name of the armistice. The German people were forbidden to even fish for their own food. The Berliner Tageblatt could not fathom why there were steamers from Scandinavia intended for Germany loaded with fish which perished in their holds ‘because the English had extended their hunger blockade’. [6] As we have shown time and again, had such a blockade been enforced in 1915 the war would have been over three years earlier.

Commander Sir Edward Nicholl M.P.

Bitter voices were raised in the House of Commons demanding retribution at all costs. Commander Sir Edward Nicholl M.P., threw vastly inflated data into the equation, claiming that 23,737,080 tons of shipping had been sunk by German submarines, [7] and seventeen thousand men of the Mercantile Marine murdered ‘by order of Count Luxembourg’, with instructions to leave no trace behind! Nicholl claimed that the Merchant Seamen’s League had sworn that they would not trade with Germany or … sail with a German until reparation is made and compensation paid to those who have been left behind. [8] Exaggerations apart (Harold Temperley then a British official, estimated the total tonnage sunk at over 15,000,000 tons. Lloyd’s Register put the number at 13,233,672 tons), the hurt of war-loss reduced sensitivity towards the losers. While that is understandable, it is no reason to deny that the starving of Germany was deliberately maintained for ulterior motives.

The notion that the Armistice was signed and sealed in November 1918 is misleading. There were a number of armistice extensions because the process of prolonging the misery for Germany required an extensive period of implementation. The first armistice of 11 November was renewed on 13 December 1918, 16 January 1919 and on 16 February 1919, with Article 26 on the blockade of Germany still in force, it was renewed indefinitely. There was in fact no agreed peace, though the fighting had ended and Germany had surrendered her naval power.

While the blockade allowed the navy to distance itself from its consequences, the British army had to deal with the reality of hunger, starvation, poverty and misery on the streets of major German cities. The war office in London received reports from officers in Hamburg and Hanover [9] which described the physical deterioration of the population with alarming clarity. Shamefully, milk supplies around Hanover had dried up for children over six. [10] War continued to be waged against the innocent.

Revolution threatens in the streets of Berlin.

Even with his landslide election victory behind him, Lloyd George took no action to intervene until five months of misery had reduced the immune system of the German people to desperately low levels. Economic despair brought about political unrest, riots, protests and the rise of a new threat, Bolshevism. [11] Hunger and malnutrition were indeed breeding revolt. The risks to European stability merited a change of policy. The warnings sent to the war office began to underline a growing concern about the worth of the blockade. A report from fourteen ranking army officers, mainly captains with legal, business or financial backgrounds, detailed their conclusions on the critical state of Berlin, Munich, Hamburg, Hannover, Leipzig, Dresden, Magdeburg and Cassel. They stated that a disaster was imminent and ‘the policy of starvation (note the terminology … the policy of starvation) was not only senseless but harmful to ourselves…. and it would be folly to suppose that the ensuing disaster would be confined to Germany.’ [12]  Never mind the emaciated children, the fear of hunger, the sick and the dying … starvation had become a threat to stability across Europe. It was spreading disease and a new threat called Bolshevism had begun to seep out of a dysfunctional Russia. They had no notion that Bolshevism was being funded by the great international banks in Wall Street.

The War Cabinet was issued with a memorandum on these findings in February 1919 [13] by the recently appointed secretary of state for war, Winston Churchill. [14] The picture it painted was stark. Unemployment in Germany was rising at alarming rates, the cost of living had grown to dangerous levels and industry could not find a foothold because it was starved of raw materials. Malnutrition caused physical and mental inertia, with disease adding to the misery of the people. The concluding message could not have been clearer, ‘Revictualling Germany is really urgent because either famine or Bolshevism, or both will ensue before the next harvest.’ [15]

Though Britain had been struggling to import sufficient food for its population earlier in the year, by late 1918 Hoover’s fleet provided a steady inflow from America to Britain. Yet the onward distribution remained completely blocked. The War Cabinet meeting of 12 February 1919 noted that British ports were stocked ‘to their utmost capacity’, storage facilities taxed to their limit and meat supplies so strong that the civilian ration should be increased’. [16] Although consideration was given to British exports to neutral countries, the government was advised that the blockade be maintained. There was to be no swift relaxation…until, well, Herbert Hoover, the super-hero of his own legend, burst the bubble. Safe in the knowledge that he could not be contradicted, Herbert Hoover later awarded himself the pivotal role in ending the food blockade. The following story was penned by Hoover in his autobiographic American Epic 2 written in 1959.

Haig surrounded by his army commanders. General Plummer, by all accounts a very capable officer stands front left.

On the evening of 7 March 1919, Herbert Hoover was summoned into Lloyd George’s presence in Paris where he found a distraught General Plumer, Commander of the British Army of Occupation in Germany. Plumer insisted that the rank and file of his men could no longer cope with the sight ‘of skinny and bloated children pawing over the offal from British cantonments’. He claimed that his soldiers were actually depriving themselves to feed these children and wanted to go home, adding that the country ‘was going Bolshevist.’ When asked by Lloyd George why he had not sent food to Germany, Hoover, in his own words, exploded in anger and detailed the obstructions put in his way. He ranted about ‘the three hundred million pounds of perishables, which would spoil in a few weeks, in continental ports or Belgium. He pointed to the vicious and senseless admiralty policy which prevented the Germans fishing in the Baltic, and the inhumane tactic of starving women and children after Germany had surrendered. Hoover apparently closed this rant with the warning that ‘the Allies would be reduced to nothing better with which to make peace with Germany than the Germans had had with Communist Russia.’ [17] Truth or romanticised self-indulgence? Who can say?

1. Hoover, American Epic 2, pp. 303-4.
2. FRUS vol 2. Papers Relating etc pp. 695-7.
3. Hoover, Memoirs, Vol 1. pp. 332.
4. Ibid., p. 333.
5. Ibid., p. 339.
6. Berliner Tageblatt, 13 December 1918, p. 2.
7. House of Commons Debate 02 April 1919 vol 114 cc1304-49.
8. Ibid., cc1311.
9. Reports by British Officers on the Economic Conditions Prevailing in Germany, December 1918-March 1919 , Cmd.52, HMSO 1919. ( Period 12 January-12 February 1919, in CAB/ 24/ 76)
10. Ibid., pp. 57-8.
11. Hoover, Memoirs, Vol. 1, pp. 340-1.
12. Reports by British Officers, Cmd.52, HMSO 1919. p. 84.
13. CAB/ 24/76/22
14. Winston Churchill was returned to high office on 9 January 1919 as Secretary of State for War.
15. CAB/ 24/76/22.
16. War Cabinet 531, p. 2. War Cabinet Minutes 12 February 1919. CAB /23/ 9/18.
17. Herbert Hoover, American Epic 2, pp. 337-8.