“Imagine all the people living” in this place called Hanau, the birth place of the Brothers Grimm, today a thriving town about the size of Halifax  and Großauheim, a little village community three miles away.

The year is 1914, August to be precise.

Hanau is a town half the size it is today. With four regiments, railway pioneers, ulahns and infantry garrisoned in Hanau, and with tens of thousands of soldiers passing through, the city is a military hot spot.

When the mobilization is ordered and war declared the newspaper reports that the population is full of enthusiasm.

In the first few days of August  a population of 40.000 is billeting  17.000 soldiers per night. It doesn’t always go smoothly. Expecting billeting on a large scale in case of war the council has decided three weeks earlier to renounce the existing fees and to pay only the statutory minimum, which is less than half the money that has been paid before. Some people lock their doors or pretend not to be at home when the soldiers arrive. The council threatens them with sanctions.

New ranges of products are advertised in the paper: straw mattresses, blankets, and for the soldiers boots, raincoats, socks, vests, gloves… A shop is closed by the authorities on the 3rd August because of exorbitant prices.   

In the nearby village of Großauheim a community of 6500 people Frau Frieda Schapert writes a letter to the mayor , saying: “I hereby beg you politely to pay my midwife Frau Kämmerer. On the 25th of August (meaning July) I was delivered of a girl and on the 7th of August my husband was called to arms. I am nearly without any means with four little children of 15 days , 16 months, 4 and 7 years, and under these circumstances it is impossible for me to pay my midwife. Asking you to consider  my situation and grant my wish I remain yours faithfully…”

Consider her situation: Her husband has probably earned between 18 and 25 marks per week. But not any longer. His pay as a soldier, which is hardly enough to buy his daily ration of cigarettes, will not allow him to send money home. So what is she to live on?

On the 4th of August the German Reichstag has passed a law concerning social benefits for needy relatives. The figures the newspaper has published the day before are wrong. Without any planning ahead or structure there is no exact definition under which condition people are entitled to get the benefit, local commissions have to decide case-by-case. The local community pays an extra amount up to 100% of the original benefit. These commissions are urged to deal generously with applications.

After all the authorities are well aware that the benefit is vital to upkeep the “excellent mood and conduct”.

So this woman with her four children gets  about 2/3 of what the family has had before. But with that amount of money she is considerably better off than others. In a letter Mayor Grün points out that wives with many children fare better and that  a wife with one child will - if she has to pay a rent of 15 marks - be left with 15 marks, “on which she can’t possibly live even under greatest constraint.”  Especially as you can’t take food on credit any more.

Those families where the men have worked for bigger firms and state firms can expect some extra money. But of course those payments reduce the social benefit.

 1 in 5 households  apply for the benefit under the new law, Nearly all get it and the community pays 4030 marks in August altogether, half of the money from the communitiy’s own pockets that will never be refunded. Within a year the numbers will nearly double.

Right from the beginning factories and businesses have to reduce work. A number of shops as well as larger businesses close down.  Artisans complain that they don’t get any new contracts.

The mayor  organizes relief work for the unemployed, with reduced working hours of course, then places most of them at the local foundry (Marienhütte), at the gunpowder factory (Pulvermühle) and at the station in Hanau. At least they are off his pay roll.

At the same time others who can afford it are buying war savings certificates so that the money the Hanau Savings Bank  holds will rise to nearly 10 million marks by the end of 1914. Not a bad idea to combine your patriotic duties with a nice little profit.

 There seems to be a strong feeling of solidarity. Charity gifts as well as money are being collected. There is a daily column in the paper (“Liebesgaben”), giving the donor’s name and the gifts, ranging from half a dozen eggs, sandwiches, money, 500 cigars to 50000 postcards. The gifts go to the soldiers and needy civilians likewise, the money to the authorities. In Großauheim 5000 marks plus 1.500 marks from the co-op as well as underwear, stockings etc. have been donated, an organisation that helps out with food and basic goods has been established.  

The mood is good, the mayor reports.

Still, there are  worrying changes in everyday life. The local paper is full of proclamations and official announcements and appeals.

There are warnings of rising prices for salt, bread, potatoes, panic buying of food.

You are warned not to shoot at Zeppelins.

Some shops are said to have refused to accept bank notes. Panic cash withdrawals take place. “No”, proclaims the mayor of Hanau publicly, “the Hanau Savings Bank will not be closed down.”

The statutory health insurance asks patients to come in groups if they want to collect their sick pay, because there are no 10 mark coins and bank notes available, they also announce that they will reduce services such as special care for pregnant mothers. There is a shortage of doctors anyhow.

Those who have property to let complain that the rent is not coming in because their properties stand empty.

Postal and telephone services abroad are restricted.

No letters from husbands, sons, friends, post has been held back at least till the 14th and won’t be delivered before the 25th. Then perhaps only postcards.  They are easier to control. 3 men from Großauheim and 41 from Hanau will not even write postcards any more. Many families will learn that only later.

The authorities are ordered to organize food supplies which can be distributed instead of money if the necessity of price regulation arises or in case of food shortage in winter.. But it is still only August.

Oh, by the way, in Germany the consumption of cakes in August is higher than it has been in the months before. As the mayor said: “The mood is good.”

So  this brings me finally to the question why at the end of the war an estimated 700.000 civilians had died of malnutrition and hunger,  many more than the 500.000 who were killed in the second world war by bombs.

Wolfgang J. Hombach 21st September 2013