The People Must Be Paid

Paul Smith

  • Capital Cities at War: Paris, London, Berlin 1914-1919 edited by Jay Winter and Jean-Louis Robert
    Cambridge, 622 pp, £60.00, March 1997, ISBN 0 521 57171 5

The war that broke out in 1914 was the first in which highly industrialised and urbanised states were to be found on both sides, and industrial muscle and urban stamina counted for as much as military professionalism, conscript grit and peasant stoicism. How far urban stamina could be relied on was not the least of the questions troubling nationalists in the years before the war. Big cities readily produced outbursts of jingoism in national emergency, or of intolerance when supposedly national values were challenged. But, alongside the clerks who ‘mafficked’ in London and the students of the Action Française who disrupted the Sorbonne lectures of Professor Thalamas (regarded as a traducer of Joan of Arc) stood groups less obviously inclined or adapted to answer the nation’s call. Nationalists feared the great towns as the seats at once of lust for gain and taste for luxurious ease which sapped the will to sacrifice self for state, and of the proletarian alienation and socialist militancy that placed the class before the national struggle. They need not have worried. The ability of each of the states concerned to represent its war as one of defence turned the flank of a socialist movement which was far from having eradicated in its adherents instincts of patriotism and habits of obedience.

The worry was not only about the willingness of urban workers to fight, however, but about their ability to win. Armies conventionally relied on the toughness and endurance of the peasantry. There was much pessimism about what could be expected from the physical specimens bred in the unhealthy tenements of large towns. The problem went further than the fighting men. If the conflict became one of attrition, victory or defeat would turn equally on the stamina of the women as well as the men who’d been left behind. Those who understood that a European war, unless very quickly decided in the field, would involve the participation of whole populations to an unprecedented degree, might understand also that victory in such conditions could have almost as many costs for the established order as defeat. ‘All great victories,’ the German Foreign Minister, Kiderlen-Wächter, observed, ‘are the work of the people and the people must be paid for it.’ If it became necessary to sustain the popular effort through a long conflict, however, payment, in the sense of an expansion of entitlements and an effort to implement recognisable principles of distributive justice as a matter of urgent public policy, would have to begin promptly. That the superior capacity of the French and British states to meet this need was a vital element in their victory is the burden of Capital Cities at War.

In a contest dependent not only on the brute weight of national resources but on the ability to mobilise them in a manner seen to be ‘fair’, the capital cities in question offered a microcosm of the administrative and political efficiency of their respective states. The work of Winter, Robert and their collaborators examines how they dealt with the problems of employment, welfare, food and fuel supply, housing and public health, in an effort to estimate the degree of satisfaction which they were able to maintain among their populations. Satisfaction is not to be equated with simple quantitative measures of material provision. In a very good introductory chapter, Jay Winter bases the book’s concept of well-being on Amartya Sen’s idea of ‘capabilities’ and ‘functionings’, a functioning being, in Sen’s words, ‘an achievement, whereas a capability is the ability to achieve’ or an indication of the ‘real opportunities you have regarding the life you may lead’. Issues of distribution, fairness and injustice are all ‘integral parts of the sense contemporaries had of capabilities and functionings’. The standards contemporaries could expect to enjoy were inevitably constrained by the war (not always detrimentally), but their sense of well-being, or their capacity for tolerance, depended in the last resort more on their view of the fairness or otherwise of their relative situation than on the degree of satisfaction of their material wants.

In this volume, the first of two, 11 historians from Britain, France, Germany and the US have undertaken a major exercise in ‘the social and cultural history of modern warfare’. Teamwork permits a range of research in the archives of three nations almost impossible for an individual, and the vast amount of information contained here will be a constant recourse for future enquirers. So devoted had Western Europe become by 1914 to compiling statistics, it is a surprise to learn that it is often hard to come by the data needed for a study of this kind. An example is the difficulty of ascertaining the military casualties suffered by the populations of Paris and London: there are no official figures. The estimates used here rely on extrapolation from the rolls of honour of, respectively, the commune of Clichy and the London County Council. A great range of information is clearly deployed, however, with very little overlap or repetition, and only the occasional obscurity deriving, apparently, from translation. The editors’ claim to have supplied a more precise chronology of the war and a better explanation of the Allied victory is not exaggerated. The book enables us to test ‘more completely than ever before the hypothesis that on the Allied side of the line the well-being of the population, defined in terms of capabilities and functionings, was more successfully defended than in Germany’. Seen from this angle, the war divides into two phases: 1914-16, when both sides faced similar pressures on the home front with roughly equal success, and 1917-19, when Germany’s relative performance deteriorated sharply, and Berlin experienced a demographic crisis extending well beyond the Armistice.

At the outset, it was Paris, immediately threatened and always lying close to the front line, that bore the brunt. An exodus of population first through mobilisation and then through flight, and a collapse of economic activity, were compounded by a crisis of supply following German occupation of the northern regions which had provided about half the capital’s, and three-quarters of the nation’s, coal. The decisive British contribution to sustaining the Entente Cordiale in the early stages of the war came not from the parade-grounds of Aldershot but from the pit-heads of Durham. If the British Expeditionary Force might reasonably be seen as ‘negligible’ in the Kaiser’s terms, British coal production could not, and it kept French home fires burning. Coal exemplified a development of inter-Allied management of strategic resources which would emerge in other vital areas: for instance, with the establishment of central purchasing through the Wheat Executive in November 1916 and the setting-up the following year of a committee to co-ordinate shipping. It exemplified, too, the readiness of the authorities in Paris, as later in London, to regulate the provision of essentials in order to meet the popular demand for a rough and ready ‘equality of sacrifice’. Free or subsidised coal distribution for those in need was introduced by local authorities in the winter of 1915-16. The price of bread in Paris had been controlled from the beginning of the war; food rationing in 1917 was followed in March 1918 by the introduction of municipally owned or controlled butchers’ shops. Most Parisian tenants were enabled by national policy to suspend their rent payments and to enjoy security of tenure. London followed in the same line as shortages and tensions developed. Even if sharp businessmen found ways around the regulations, enough was done in both capitals to preserve for the most part a sense that the burdens of war were being distributed fairly, or at least no more unfairly than the blessings of peace.

It was very different in Berlin, as the conflict wore on. The first serious food riots occurred in October 1915. ‘From early 1916 on, police reports indicate that, for a wide population of Berliners, food problems eclipsed interest in news from the front.’ From 1916, the rate of inflation was much higher than in the other two capitals, to the extent that, increasingly, workers ‘could not possibly command wages which would enable them regularly to purchase even a modicum of household necessities’. In any case, the necessities were often not there to be purchased. Though rationing and price controls were brought in, they could not ensure access to scarce commodities. By the winter of 1917-18, meat and butter allocations were about one-fifth of pre-war consumption, but getting even these meagre rations could mean endless foraging and queuing, with no guarantee of success. It was not only the effectiveness of the Allied blockade that created Berlin’s shortages. Aggregate coal supply, for instance, did not fall, but the distribution network could not cope with the task of supplying consumers with their official allocation. Only an ability to make use of the extensive black market could preserve living standards. While London and Paris saw a halt to the pre-war decline in death rates, Berlin saw a general increase of mortality in the second half of the war. Subsequent propaganda notwithstanding, the German Army was defeated in the field in 1918: had it not been, it is hard to see how the home front could have held out much longer.

Why a state of giant economic and organisational capacity, with a pre-war system of social welfare designed precisely to preserve social solidarity, and far in advance of anything elsewhere, should have fallen so far behind its enemies, not only in provision for the basic needs of its civilians but in its ability to demonstrate that the sacrifices exacted were being equitably shared, is the question which emerges from this volume with resounding force: frustratingly, it cannot answer it. What we have is essentially a quantitative analysis. It is to be followed by another volume which will examine how the conditions quantified in the first were experienced, how ‘groups of city-dwellers adapted to wartime conditions within families, quartiers and social movements’. It is a pity that this interpretative volume has not appeared simultaneously with the raw data which underpin it, but in any case its declared focus hardly suggests that it will explain the inability of the German state apparatus, or the relative abilities of the French and British, to conduct industrialised mass warfare.

The authors of this book know better than most that metropolitan history cannot be explained except in the broadest context. ‘In wartime,’ Jay Winter is at pains to emphasise, ‘these cities were never for one moment disengaged from the rest of the nation at war’ (any more, presumably, than they had been disengaged from the rest of the nation in peace). ‘Virtually all of the key decisions’ affecting levels of well-being ‘were taken elsewhere’. The near-catastrophic failure of social policy and economic planning in Berlin ‘was not an urban one’. Where, then, did it originate? The studies of governmental and bureaucratic ethos, and of military-political decision-making, which would answer the question do not seem to be part of the project.

It is briefly indicated here that the essential difference between the Germans and the Allies lay in the latter’s greater willingness and ability to safeguard civilian as well as military needs. With the institution of the Hindenburg programme at the end of 1916, civilian requirements in Germany were subordinated to military ones with a ruthlessness which made it impossible in Berlin, as elsewhere, to ensure tolerable conditions for civilians, and any attempts at organised fairness in the distribution of scarce necessities were hamstrung by the confusion of authorities and regulations at urban, regional, national and military levels, so that ‘it became impossible to obtain anything without carefully reading the newspapers first in order to determine which coupons were valid and what they could be used to purchase’. The primacy of military considerations consorts with the whole history of the Prussian state, but why an autocratic system with one of the most efficient civil services in Europe failed to engineer the minimum of civil well-being needed to buttress its armies in the field still needs explaining, as does the greater aptitude of its apparently less disciplined and directed adversaries.

A tendency on the part of the Imperial German authorities to treat their nationals as subjects rather than citizens, and to assume their obedience rather than recognise a need to negotiate their consent, may have counted for something. More significant, perhaps, was the reliance of their opponents on traditions of civil courage and national solidarity which the German state created in 1871 did not possess in the same measure. The Third Republic had the advantage of being able to invoke with some confidence traditions of civic heroism dating back to the Revolution, which even those who despised it or felt marginalised by it could subscribe to in moments of national danger. Parisians already knew how to behave – some of them could remember the siege of 1870. Their municipal authorities could remember the Commune, too, and did not need to be instructed in the need to take measures to appease social divisions at times of crisis.

London had no equivalent tradition as a focus of national defence. It did, however, share with the rest of Britain a voluntary tradition of military service that had the effect, according to this study, of distributing liability to military casualty very evenly across social classes, and of producing in London ‘an army more middle-class and white-collar than the nation as a whole’. In all three capitals, the maintenance of social cohesion depended heavily on the readiness of middle-class patriots to put their guts where their mouths were and take their share of the perils and privations of war on both the home and fighting fronts. The non-manual part of the labour force bore slightly more risk of being killed or wounded than the manual, a substantial proportion of which had to be withheld to man the factories. The tendency was for income differentials between non-manual and manual occupations to be squeezed. Landlords had to put up with regulations which shifted the balance of advantage towards their tenants; but lower-middle-class tenants might face greater insecurity in higher-rent accommodation not subjected to control. While those in businesses which could profit from war-related demand might thrive, the holders of formerly safe investments such as government securities, municipal and foreign bonds, and property often saw drastic reductions in their real wealth. In the ‘reordering of social hierarchies’, the middle classes were more often among the new losers than the new winners. There is some evidence here to suggest that the derogation of their status was less resentfully borne in Paris and London than in Berlin. Whether that reflects a more developed sense of civic commitment and communal solidarity on the Allied side is a question on which Winter and Robert’s second volume may throw some light.