I Was There! - When I Left Germany Last May...
Released with other American journalists in May 1942, after five months' internment in Germany, Joseph W. Grigg, Jr., describes in the following article, reprinted from The Spectator, the differences he found in life on the home front in Germany and England.
The contrast between living conditions in Germany and Great Britain which I found when I arrived in London a few weeks ago was overwhelming. Germany has just passed through its grimmest winter since 1918. The food situation deteriorated markedly during the first four months of this year. The Germans froze in their homes because the catastrophic state of the transport system made it impossible to bring coal to the big cities. Nerves became frayed. Grumbling, despondency and war-weariness increased on the home front.
Superficially, there is much that Berlin in London have in common. People stumble around in the same black-out. There is no great difference in the basic rations. There are queues, propaganda posters, thin newspapers and uniforms everywhere. You meet some of the same wartime shortages, and hear people grumbling about much the same sort of annoyances. But in everything of real importance there is no comparison between the two countries. Food, drink, general living conditions, morale and, above all, confidence in the outcome of the war – in all these Great Britain is so far ahead of Germany that there are times when someone coming direct from Germany finds it hard to remember that this is a country at war at all.
There is absolutely no question that Britain is eating better than Germany. In Germany today practically every article of food is rationed, and ration coupons have to be given up in restaurant as well. That means in practice that the average German gets considerably smaller rations than the Briton who eats at least one meal a day in restaurants or canteens. The potato crop froze in Germany last year, and potatoes were rationed for the first time. Green vegetables of any sort are practically unobtainable, and the average German family was living to a large extent on turnips, red cabbage and sauerkraut. Bread in Germany is rationed, and the ration was cut during the winter – a particular hardship to the working class Germans owing to the potato shortage. The standard of the bread also deteriorated very noticeably. Today there is no white bread of any sort available, and the standard bread is heavy, soggy and sour-tasting. Full milk is available only to expectant and nursing mothers and small children. Even skimmed milk is severely rationed, and in winter is sometimes unobtainable altogether. The cheese ration is much smaller than in Britain. Since the beginning of the war the Germans have had no real coffee, tea or cocoa and practically no chocolate. They have to drink ersatz coffee made of roasted barley or rye, and various types of herbal tea or peppermint tea. An indication of how badly the Germans miss real coffee and tea is seen in that fact that the black market price of coffee now stands around £4 pounds a pound, and of tea around £6 10s.
Ration cards for cigarettes
Drink of all kinds has become even scarcer than in this country. German beer now has practically no alcoholic content. Spirits have almost disappeared from sale altogether. Even Hock and Moselle wines have become scarce and fantastically expensive. As far back as a year ago good Berlin restaurants were charging £10 a bottle for 1937 vintages. The tobacco situation is much worse than in this country. After months during which cigarettes were almost unobtainable a tobacco ration card was introduced last December. The ration for men is three to four cigarettes a day, and for women three every other day. Women under 25 or over 55 are not entitled to a ration card at all.
The shortage of all kinds of consumer's goods has become so severe during the past eighteen months that shop counters are almost bare. There is a clothes-rationing card in Germany as in Great Britain, but the ration is frequently only theoretical, as it is practically impossible to buy clothes. Women, for instance, are entitled to six pairs of stockings a year, but often spend months searching the shops before they can find a pair. Mending wool, which also comes on the clothing card, is another thing that was almost unobtainable. The clothes that can be bought are of bad ersatz material that wears out quickly, particularly if it has to be laundered with wartime soap-substitute. Shoes can only be bought with a special permit. Most German women now wear wooden shoes with straw or canvas tops. Shop-windows well stocked with good leather shoes which you see in England are a thing of the past in Germany. Leather shoes are only obtainable after an official has visited your house and searched the cupboards to confirm that the shoes really are urgently needed. In summertime no permits for leather shoes are given at all. Queues are generally much longer than in London. Among the articles I noticed one came by here which have disappeared almost altogether in Germany are shoelaces, darning wool, leather soles, shaving cream and string.
Little bomb damage – as yet
In Germany practically all building has been stopped, except for the most urgent work approved by the State. The clothing industry has almost ceased production for civilian purposes. Owing to shortage of labour it takes at least six months to get a suit cleaned –if the cleaners accept it at all– and about a year and a half to get one made. Owing to shortage of labour, as well as to save petrol, about 75 per cent of the omnibuses in Berlin have been taken off the streets. Taxis also have almost disappeared and only persons on urgent official business or sick people on the way to hospital are allowed to take one at all. Infringement of these restrictions are severely punishable. The result is that the streets of Berlin or almost denuded of traffic today. There is no such thing as a traffic jam any more.
On the debit side of the balance there is London’s bomb damage. Berlin has experienced about one hundred air-raid alarms since the beginning of the war. But with three or four exceptions none of the raids has been heavy, and the German capital still has to experience its first genuine blitz.