Inflation in Germany – Part 3: After World War I: Berlin children suffered particularly hard
The rapid devaluation of money in the years after World War I had a major impact on people’s health, as many could not afford adequate nutrition or medical treatment. The Berlin children were particularly hard hit.
In 1922, the number of suicides in Berlin increased as fast as the value of the US dollar against the Reichsmark. Inflation, the rapid devaluation of money, had long held Germany and its capital firmly in its grip. The consequences for millions of people were catastrophic. In the big cities, fewer and fewer residents were given the opportunity to buy enough food and fought desperately against the daily hunger. But the number of those who gave up this fight grew steadily. Between September and December 1922 alone, 502 suicides were recorded in Berlin.
Many corpses had been gnawed on by rats
These people had given up, they no longer wanted to. The actual number of suicides has probably been much higher and increased sharply during 1923 when hyperinflation made life unbearable for even more people. And how large the number of failed or prevented suicides was cannot be assessed.
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For Berliners, it was almost part of everyday life on the way to work in the morning when they saw the bodies of people who had committed suicide here floating in the Spree or Landwehr canal. Some of them had been bitten by rats.
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Well-known actor Kurt Gerron sang in the cabaret “Wilde Bühne”: “There is a corpse in the Landwehr canal. It’s a long time ago, but do not squeeze it so much.” The guests laughed, but many could not laugh.The biting hunger attacked many people, hunger edema was a part of everyday life.
Officially, four men and four women died of starvation in Berlin in the last three months of 1922, almost all over the age of 50. The actual number was undoubtedly much higher as hunger was not considered a disease. Anyone who died of a disease that they would have survived if they had not suffered from starvation was not considered to have died of starvation, they died only officially in connection with starvation.
Many people’s bodies were weakened
Other people died in droves of diseases that would have been treated in normal times. But they had no money for the treatment, were not treated adequately in the hospitals because the staff did not have the funds for it or because they had to be rejected immediately. A visit to the doctor was unaffordable for many. Many people’s bodies were weakened.
In 1922, 7,674 people died of influenza in Berlin alone, which was 2,000 more than the year before, when the Spanish flu was still widespread, claiming tens of thousands of lives worldwide. The number of tuberculosis cases rose sharply in the six districts of Berlin, so that the death rate per 10.0000 inhabitants was 50 per cent higher than in central London.
The children’s misery was particularly bad
The little ones were hit hard by the health crisis. “Hundreds of thousands of Germans, millions of German children live in this misery today,” wrote diplomat and politician Harry Graf Kessler in a sensational article in the magazine “Deutsche Nation” in 1920. Otherwise known as an esthete and bohemian, Kessler did not want to turn around the blind eye to the misery of the children.
The misery no longer affected not only the children of the working class but also those of the middle class. Kessler’s article was framed by heartbreaking images of Berlin children being malnourished, neglected and hopeless. They showed the conditions under which 90 percent of the capital’s children would live, according to Kessler, adding: “They are the visible and terrible commentary on the statistical calculations.”
But the bare figures already make clear the extent of the children’s misery, which was partly due to the war of 1914 to 1918, but even more so due to the devaluation of money, which made it impossible to buy even the most important food. The director of the statistical office in Berlin-Schöneberg calculated that the subsistence level of a family with two children in 1920 was 19,000 marks a year – but that less than ten percent of the families actually had this income.
Even before hyperinflation, nearly 750,000 children suffered from malnutrition and disease
At the latest from the middle of 1922, the situation worsened drastically again, at a time when many children had suffered from malnutrition for years. At the beginning of the following year, in the capital alone, 40,000 infants, 190,000 young children up to six and a half million schoolchildren suffered from malnutrition, rickets, tuberculosis, anemia, worm infections and a host of other diseases due to rising prices.
Because their parents could not buy them enough clothes, several respiratory diseases also developed. Infants were not given milk or cheap substitutes, which was often detrimental to their development. In 1923, when the Reichsmark plunged, the number of affected continued to rise.
Without private help, many children would have died
A school medical examination in the Berlin district of Pankow in October 1921 revealed that the physical condition of 23 per cent of children made it imperative to take emergency measures. A year later, the physical condition of only 15.8 percent of the children in the Schöneberg district was classified as good. In 1913 it was 45.1 percent – even that was a shockingly low figure for an industrialized country like Germany.
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In the fall of that year, nine out of ten school children were considered malnourished. Although the number of school meals increased, the city of Berlin was not even able to come close to meeting the demand. Without private help, especially from American Quakers, many children would probably have died of starvation and disease. Such feeding was the only meal a day for hundreds of thousands of children in Berlin.
It was especially bad for young people who were fired from school. In Pankow, 22 percent of boys and 25 percent of girls were considered too young and underweight for their age. About a third of the school students of both sexes were unable to take work or an apprenticeship due to their poor physical condition.
Many parents, especially mothers who had to see their children’s misery without being able to help them, were driven to pure desperation. But many parents also felt compelled to send their own children out to look for something to eat in the trash, beg or even steal. At a time when all values lost their value, this was also a part of everyday life for many families.
Above all, Harry Graf Kessler accused politicians and business executives of seeing the misery without doing anything. In his article, he wrote: “It is incomprehensible, even deeply shameful, that this national catastrophe, the enormous child tragedy taking place in our midst, does not seem to be attracting attention.” He urged those responsible to tackle the misery: “If nothing else can shake people’s consciences, drive people rather than finally get serious, then the dead children’s eyes of the big cities should do it.”
In fact, the city of Berlin, like the other big cities, did everything to help children in need. But the hands of the city authorities were bound by lack of funds. The imperial governments let inflation take its course because Germany benefited from it elsewhere. And other countries saw the other way – after all, Germany had a few years earlier waged war against countries like France or England that had killed millions.
In vain call for help
And the large Berlin companies that Kessler appealed to were also reluctant to help the children. In his 1920 article, he called for greater action from Berlin’s economy, hoping: “May those who can do what is necessary, quickly and on a large scale.” This remained a pious wish in a time of great need, when almost everyone thought only of themselves. Hyperinflation had to stop at the end of 1923 before the smallest and weakest could gradually improve.
Focus Online author Armin Fuhrer has a book titled “Hunger and ecstasy. Berlin 1922/23” about the dramatic years of inflation.
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