Throughout Europe and large parts of the world the 1930s was an era of extreme levels of poverty and suffering. The Hungry Thirties as they were called followed on from the hardships of the post-Great War twenties. The twenties, following the huge expenditure of that obscene war 1914-18, and the misguided peace settlement that the French President insisted would squeeze Germany until the pips squeaked did just that, creating economic, social and political chaos in Germany.
German scientists looked to the country’s greatest natural resource – timber to provide solutions to its increasing shortages of food and other products. It is just incredible what could be produced from felled trees during pressing times and with a high level of imagination; sugar and sweets and bread, cellulose clothing, wooden shoes, mattresses, bedding, chair covers and cushions stuffed with wood-pulp. Coal and chalk were turned into glass. Nettle fibres replaced wool to make jumpers. String was made out of cellulose. Fish skin was turned into slippers (there’s a great coat made of fishskin at Aberdeen University) and can you believe it? Germany’s most loved food, the sausage was made from fish (all of the fish, not just the skin). And on the subject of fish it was pulverised and mixed with flour to create an egg substitute when stocks of eggs disappeared – only the flour wasn’t so much grain flour as potato flour (also used as a substitute for wheat flour for bread in Scotland during the Great War when importing flour from Canada was problematic) combined with a pinch of wood-fibre.
The early twenties saw German workers collecting their pay by the barrow load, sometimes twice daily, because hyperinflation had eroded the value of the mark and hourly depreciations of the currency meant as soon as wages were received they had to be spent on buying essentials for even an hour or so later the cash value would have reduced still further and the barrow full of near useless paper might buy a fraction of what it could have earlier in the day.
In 1914 four marks was equivalent to one US dollar but by July 1923 one dollar cost 160, 000 marks and by November you needed 4, 200, 000, 000, 000 marks to exchange for one dollar. The impact on Germany was devastating. The country was not able to produce enough food to feed its own population and had no currency to purchase imports. Then in 1929 there came the Wall Street crash and the Depression affecting much of the world just got deeper. In Germany it was no longer hyperinflation that caused widespread unemployment and poverty but deflation which had much the same effect.
The middle classes had lost all their savings, the working classes were impoverished still further. These people looked for political solutions from the left, right and centre. A message offering an escape from their predicament and swallowed by many came came from Adolf Hitler and the Nazi party. By 1938 when Leonard O. Mosley’s piece appeared in the Press & Journal Hitler’s Nazi party had been in government for five years. While some commentators warned of impending war Mosley did not believe this. He was sympathetic to Germany’s struggles over two decades and looked to that country for lessons on how to cope with crisis.
People had to eat and where there wasn’t food something to fill their bellies had to be found. So ersatz became the means of tackling hunger and shortages.
Mention ersatz and it is generally ersatz coffee that springs to mind but there was more, much more to the imitation business going on there than that. I would use ersatz as an adjective but in Germany it is a noun, being strung together with whatever it refers to: Ersatz – a substitute becomes Ersatzkaffee – ein kaffee, bitte became ein Ersatz, bitte. Germans became fairly adept at ersatz nearly everything it seems.
Mr Mosley report on Germany shrugged off the opinion of some that the work of its scientist producing inspired ersatz goods was part of the preparations for self-sufficiency during what some feared was impending war in Europe. Mosley explained that Germany had a long track-record of being creative with, well, resources. Mind you so were food producers in Britain who thought nothing of adding floor sweepings to loose tea, alum and plaster of Paris to flour and strychnine to beer to enhance its flavour. That was adulteration and fraudulent. What Germany was doing was creating cheap as-near-as. Everyone knew, I’m supposing, what it was and was not.
The writer was impressed, not for the sake of it of the ingenuity but its capacity to deal with the growing mountains of rubbish accumulating in European countries not least Britain and the prospect of turning that waste into something wonderful, or close to it, was welcomed by him. The German government went as far as introducing laws against waste – clothing rags, items containing metals such as copper, nickel, tine, aluminium, lead, iron and steel including toothpaste tubes, paper, glass bottles, rabbit skins, bones were collected and reused or transformed into something else. Unwanted food redistributed. What was unsuitable for human consumption went to feed what pigs remained on farms.
Shop bought jam used to be notorious in Britain for using neep (cheap) to bulk out more expensive fruit. I’ve even heard of wood shavings for pips to create the illusion of authenticity so it may surprise you to discover German jam did actually contain fruit though of course not real sugar but Germans love their meat and jam proved less than popular spread on their neep flour bread than you might imagine.
The article claimed around 90% clothes and furniture in Germany were ersatz by the late thirties and nearly 50% of the country’s food. There were drawbacks, for example a man caught wearing timber-sourced trousers in a shower of rain could expect 20% shrinkage which wouldn’t be a great look. Coats were often paper which restricted their use. German men had to endure getting a baldy with each visit to the barber for human hair was saved and used for manufacturing carpets and felts. The country’s buses ran on tyres made from coal and limestone which were not as good as rubber but then Germany did not produce its own rubber.
Oh and the coffee? It was might be made from, well virtually anything – ground acorns or sugar beet or barley or oats – roasted of course – or chicory or carrots or the old standby, the neep. The bland flavour enhanced by a soupçon of coal tar.
Germany doesn’t waste even Barbers’ Clippings The Aberdeen Press & Journal Friday June 3, 1938