Germany’s inefficient small-unit agricultural sector relied on female peasants. Nazi militarisation took men away from their farms. This placed enormous demands on the women who remained. Everyone in farming hoped military conscription would be short-term and when Germany’s armed forces triumphed in spring 1940 that looked likely. That triumph was expected to provide a peace dividend. Germany’s national pride was restored after the humiliation of the 1919 Treaty of Versailles and there would be increased access to the riches of the western democracies. Because the agricultural sector remained unreformed, its inefficiencies helped inform the apparently irrational policy of Lebansraum (living space). The wide open spaces of the eastern European plains were intended to end Germany’s reliance on peasant farming by creating American sized farms. Systemic problems in peasant farming contributed to Germany’s ultimate defeat.
Agriculture in Nazi Germany
“Nearly half of all working women in the Weimar Republic were in agriculture, most of them peasant wives….in 1925 there were actually more women than men working in agriculture.”1
Nazi ideology maintained women should be mothers, “Just as men served the state by fighting, so women served by bearing children.”2 This precept was institutionalised by outlawing abortion.3 However, women in the workforce were irreplaceable and this was especially the case in farming. “Of Germany’s 14 million women workers in 1939, only 2.7 million worked in industry…By contrast Britain’s 6 million working women fewer than 100,000 were employed on farms.” In Germany, 1939, 6 million+ women worked in agriculture.4 Conscription exacerbated Germany’s disproportionate use of female labour throughout the war years. The youngest fit German man in agriculture was 56+ after 1939.
The agricultural sector was numerically stable from 1939-44. The workforce began with 11.224 million and ended with 11.185 million. There was a dip in 1941 reflecting Operation Barbarossa’s manpower demands. The disastrous Soviet campaign meant the conscription of peasant farmers wasn’t temporary. The inefficient agricultural sector soaked up manpower to such an extent that preventing collapse involved importing quasi-slave labour.5 By 1944, 2.5 million agricultural workers were ‘Forced and foreign’, (by definition reluctant workers). Germany’s small farms needed skilled agricultural workers who knew and cared about what they were doing. The sector therefore faced two hazards. Firstly, experienced committed farmers were recruited into the armed forces, and secondly, the replacement workforce was unable to sustain productivity. Nearly 29% of Germany’s agricultural sector was in the hands of ‘Forced and foreign’ workers in 1944. Systemic inefficiencies were compounded by reliance on quasi-slave labour.
As early as 1938 the role of peasant women and labour shortages were causing concern. “Farm women were the most overworked group in the rural population…”6 The conundrum was this: Germany’s agricultural sector seemingly was beyond reform and yet was denuded of skilled men by militarisation. This increased the need for reform. Skilled peasants knew how to get the best out of the land and conscripting them was counter-productive. Relying on foreign labour made farming less productive putting further pressure on the diets of the urban population. The effect of this was known from the First World War. Hitler had identified food shortages as a major contributory factor to the fatal loss of morale in 1918. He was determined that the urban population would have good access to food. Domestic food supply was strategically important for the success of the war effort.
Germany’s peasants supported the Nazis from the very beginning, “…by the end of the 1920s the Nazi party achieved a major electoral breakthrough in the rural parts of the Weimar Republic.”7 Rural Nazis maintained a privileged position throughout the post-democratic era. Nazi ideology identified peasants as having a unique status, which should be enhanced as far as possible. Their Blood and Soil concept portrayed the Nazi ideal as rooted in the countryside and ‘genuine’ Germans. “The doctrine not only called for a ‘back to the land’ approach and re-adoption of ‘rural values’; it held that German land was bound, perhaps mystically, to German blood.” Notwithstanding that Nazi Germany was a dictatorship, networked relationships prevented meaningful reforms.8 Peasants were to be rewarded however with access to untold expanses of fertile land in eastern Europe.
The policy of Lebensraum apparently solved the issue of a domestic food supply and the manpower problem. Additionally it served other purposes. Lebensraum assuaged Hitler’s dramatic hatred of Bolshevism, his desire for empire, and it rewarded his core supporters from the peasant community. Hitler admired Germany’s only success in the 1914-8 war. This was the defeat of Tsarist Russia. He ignored the inconvenient fact that the Tsarist armies were targeted by Bolshevik revolutionaries, which led to wholesale desertion. It could be said that Germany ‘picked up the pieces’ rather than defeated Tsarist Russia. Hitler’s opinion was clean opposite to that. In his view, victory in the east was a German victory. He also believed the massive territorial gains extracted from the Bolshevik negotiators were a just settlement, unlike German losses at Versailles. Obviously this is hypocritical and inconsistent but Hitler’s Nazi ideology was riddled with incoherent juxtapositions. Germany’s territorial gains were mapped and written into the Brest Litovsk Treaty, 1918. This treaty fuelled Hitler’s contempt for the Bolsheviks.
The treaty also gave Hitler a wrong-headed opinion of the capacity of the Soviet Union to resist an invader. Hitler discounted Napoleon’s experience in two ways. Firstly, Napoleon’s troops were French and secondly, Russia had been defeated in 1918 by Germans. Put together they help explain Hitler’s fatal misjudgement in June 1941 about Germany’s ‘inevitable’ triumph over the Soviet Union. Hitler had seen western democracies collapse in an unprecedented way in a matter of weeks. He was sure the Soviets had an equally phoney reputation and were just as feeble.
The disparity in the population size of Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union meant that Germany’s reserves were fully committed in 1941. Operation Barbarossa was a reckless gamble.9Adam Tooze’s analysis highlights Germany’s demographic stress before the attack began,
By the summer of 1941, the population of German men between ages of 16 and 56 had been divided into three unequal groups: 7.388 million were under arms and another 2.12 million teenagers between the ages of 16 and 19 were undergoing military training;10 (my emphasis)
Thus 9.5 million men were directly recruited into Germany’s armed forces. Those unavailable included 3.6 million for medical exemption and 5.52 million men indispensable to the war economy. In brief, 9.5 million were directly recruited into the armed forces and 9.12 million ‘others’. In June 1941 more than half of all of Germany’s manpower was in the armed forces. There was no surplus. There was no pool of men available to be called upon to sustain the Wehrmacht as the inevitable losses mounted up. This was Germany’s manpower position at the moment Operation Barbarossa was launched.
Germany’s expansionist policies in eastern Europe pre-dated Hitler as we saw with the territorial gains made, albeit short-term, after the Brest Litovsk Treaty.11 Hitler had long identified expansionist policies as central to his vision of a restored Germany, “[We]…must find the courage to gather our people and their strength for an advance along the road that will lead this people from its present restricted living space to new land and soil…”12 Operation Barbarossa was therefore the culmination of ‘national destiny’ and a desire to literally grow Germany. And to do so Hitler stripped Germany of all available manpower for conscription. The conscription age range for German men lay between the ages of 16 and 56. (In the UK the relevant age groups were 18 to 41.) What’s immediately obvious is that Germany really did scrape the barrel because of manpower shortages. Himmler noted this as a matter of regret in his Posen speech 1943,
We did not then value the mass man as we do now, as raw material, as manpower. Which is not a shame in the end, if one thinks in terms of generations, but it is regrettable today due to the loss of manpower: the prisoners died by the tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands from exhaustion, from hunger.13 (my emphasis)
Germany’s agricultural sector was a failed model for a modern industrial country and was unable to supply the urban community. Like other western industrial countries, Germany relied on food imports and with British control of the seas this was no longer possible. The land frontier with the Soviet Union was of critical importance. The 1940 German-Soviet Union trade agreement was working smoothly to the benefit of both countries but that was irrelevant to Hitler.14Any dependency on the Soviet Union was anathema to him. Operation Barbarossa was an ideological necessity impervious to objective analysis. One of the key drivers was the special status of agriculture in Nazi mythology as well as the morale of the Germany’s population.
Lebensraum was intended to provide limitless food supplies for Germany. The indigenous eastern European population were going to be allocated a diet suitable for slave-labour, leaving a massive surplus for export to Germany. Nazi ideology was utterly brutal in its acceptance of starvation as a strategy. Germany’s leaders were rightly concerned about their inability to increase productivity on German farms. Resolving this through normal trade agreements was defeated by ideology. A triumph of ideology over reason. So no matter how successful the German-Soviet Union trade agreement was, it was doomed. In this sense although agriculture was of over-whelming importance nothing in Nazi Germany could compete with ideological precepts.
1 Bridenthal, Renate. “Beyond Kinder, Küche, Kirche: Weimar Women at Work.” Central European History, vol. 6, no. 2, 1973, pp. 148–166. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/4545664. Accessed 10 Jan. 2021. See also the film noted in Sources
2 Rupp, Leila J. “Mother of the ‘Volk’: The Image of Women in Nazi Ideology.” Signs, vol. 3, no. 2, 1977, pp. 362–379. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/3173289. Accessed 10 Jan. 2021. p363
3 ibid p371
4 Adam Tooze The Wages of Destruction: The making and breaking of the Nazi Economy p359; see especially Werner Abelhauser Germany: guns, butter and economic miracles in Mark Harrison (ed.) The Economics of World War II: six great powers in international comparison
Tables 4:17 pp160-2 All statistics in this section are taken from these three tables
5 The use of quasi-slave labour suggests the query: What was the American experience? Their slave-economy worked principally on single crop plantations and was just about profitable. German agriculture was far more complex needing skills and judgement to get the best out of the land. Slave labour was wildly inappropriate.
Foust, James D., and Dale E. Swan. “Productivity and Profitability of Antebellum Slave Labor: A Micro-Approach.” Agricultural History, vol. 44, no. 1, 1970, pp. 39–62. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/3741360. Accessed 13 Jan. 2021.
6 Tooze op cit p264
7 There was a belief that Germany’s economy was well organised but that’s simply untrue. Agriculture remained unreformed but when German industry was handed over to Albert Speer who knew that, “Fundamental- indeed almost revolutionary – changes would have to be made in the armament-procurement machinery and, novice though he was, he already had clear ideas a to what had to be done.” Gita Sereny Albert Speer: his battle with the truth p292 The principal stumbling block was Goering a very senior power hungry Nazi.
8 Blood and soil – Wikipedia See also Kamenetsky, Ihor. “Lebensraum in Hitler’s War Plan: The Theory and the Eastern European Reality.” The American Journal of Economics and Sociology, vol. 20, no. 3, 1961, pp. 313–326. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/3484695. Accessed 14 Jan. 2021.
10 Tooze op cit
If you want to watch a short film about Nazi era agriculture see Farming life in Germany, 1940’s – Film 32690 – Bing video
For all Nazi era films see nazi film about agricultural workers – Bing