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Negotiating the ‘Politics of Hunger’, 1918-1919 by Alyssa Cundy

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It has recently been estimated that sixty-two percent of all war related deaths in the twentieth-century were non-combatant.  This translates to more than 54 million civilians having perished in all military conflicts of the last century.  Much has been written on the cataclysmic impact of war on society in the Second World War and continues to be a topic of interest for many scholars of post-1945 international relations.  The history of the First World War, however, has been written almost irrespective of examining civilian casualties.  My Ph.D. thesis entitled, “A ‘Weapon of Starvation’: The Politics, Propaganda, and Morality of Britain’s Hunger Blockade of Germany, 1914-1919” focuses on the British naval blockade imposed on Germany between August 1914 and July 1919 when the Treaty of Versailles was eventually ratified.  The blockade has received relatively little attention in the historiography of the First World War, despite the assertion in the British official history that extreme privation and hunger resulted in more than 750,000 German civilian casualties.

While past scholarship has emphasized the blockade’s early imposition and its complex legal and economic framework, it has yet to sufficiently detail its use as an instrument of war and, equally, potent “bargaining chip” at the Paris peace table.  My research assesses the moral and political considerations that resulted in Britain’s tightening and prolongation of the blockade circa 1917-1919.  More specifically, it considers the impact of the blockade’s prolongation after 11 November and the Allies’ ability to ratify the Treaty of Versailles on 12 July 1919.  How did the British government and press, for example, reconcile the blockade as an instrument of war with the need to rebuild relations with Germany in the peace process?  Was the blockade seen as a legitimate wartime strategy or a dubious ‘weapon of starvation,’ as Winston Churchill argued in March 1919?

Preliminary research suggests that the British War Cabinet and Allied Supreme Economic Council viewed German civil unrest as a valuable tool to insure peace.  But the Allied decision to prolong the blockade was not unanimously reached.  In fact, Churchill as British Secretary of State for War and John Maynard Keynes as a representative of the Treasury Department were two notable diplomats in favour of allowing foodstuffs into Germany after the Armistice.  So too, Herbert Hoover (Director of the Supreme Council of Supply and Relief) and Lord Robert Cecil (Chair of the Allied Blockade Committee) worked tirelessly throughout the peace negotiations to persuade the ‘Big Four’ Powers to raise the blockade before Germany collapsed further into political and social dislocation.  Whether this was a purely political consideration in order to stem the tide of ‘Bolshevism’ in Weimar Germany or, an honest attempt at postwar reconstruction, it is clear that key politicians on both sides of the Atlantic were troubled by the prolongation of the blockade after 11 November.

My research this summer at the National Archives, Liddell Hart Centre for Military Archives at King’s College, and the Imperial War Museum in London, England explores how the blockade and related questions of morality factored into the Versailles negotiations.  My next research trip will be to consult the newly available records of the Supreme Economic Council and American Relief Administration housed at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University.

The Royal Naval blockade first became of interest to me during the course of my undergraduate and master’s work at the University of Western Ontario.  Now, several years later, I hope that my ongoing research will be of similar interest to scholars in security studies and international relations and, more significantly, to military and naval historians as the centenary of the First World War approaches.

Further Reading:

A.C. Bell, AHistory of the Blockade of Germany: and of the Countries Associated with Her in the Great War, Austria-Hungary, Bulgaria, and Turkey, 1914-1918(London: H.M. Stationery Office, 1937).

Belinda J. Davis, Homes Fires Burning: Food, Politics, and Everyday Life in World War I Berlin(Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2000).

Eric W. Osborne, Britain’s Economic Blockade of Germany, 1914-1919 (New York: Frank Cass, 2004).

Marion C. Siney, The Allied Blockade of Germany, 1914-1916 (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1957).

C. Paul Vincent, The Politics of Hunger: The Allied Blockade of Germany, 1915-1919 (Athens: Universityof OhioPress, 1985).

Alyssa Cundy is a History PhD Candidate at Wilfrid Laurier University under the supervision of Dr. Roger Sarty and a student associate of the LCMSDS.   



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