The Consumer on the Home Front

World War II Civilian Consumption in Comparative Perspective

December 5 - 7, 2013
Conference at the GHI London

Conveners: Hartmut Berghoff (GHI Washington), Andreas Gestrich (GHI London), Nikolaus Katzer (GHI Moscow), Jan Logemann (GHI Washington), Felix Römer (GHI London), Sergey Kudryashov (GHI Moskau)

Participants: David Clampin (Liverpool) , Donald Filtzer (London), Mila Ganeva (Oxford / Ohio), Sheldon Garon (Princeton), Wendy Z. Goldman (Pittsburgh), Neil Gregor (Southampton), Cynthia L. Henthorn (New York) , Oleg Khlevnyuk (Moscow), Jan Lambertz (Washington), Bettina Liverant (Calgary), Erina Megowan (Georgetown), Erich Pauer (Marburg), Nicole Petrick-Felber (Jena), Ines Prodöhl (GHI Washington), Uwe Spiekermann (GHI Washington), Pamela Swett (Hamilton), Frank Trentmann (London), Sergej Zhuravlev (Moscow), Ina Zweiniger-Bargielowska (Chicago)




  • Conference Report

    The home front of World War II is increasingly recognized by historians as a vital part of not only military strategies during a war with an unparalleled degree of civilian mobilization, but also as a catalyst for broader social developments, e.g. in gender and race relations. Collaboratively organized by three German Historical Institutes, this conference looked at the relationship between war and mass consumption and the role of the consumer in the war efforts of Germany, Japan, the Soviet Union, the United Kingdom, Canada, and the United States. While mass consumption has long been associated primarily with liberal democracies, research on Nazi Germany as well as Communist countries has demonstrated the degree to which these regimes also engaged the growing importance of mass consumption – even if, in the Soviet case, the structures of a mass consumer society did not fully develop until after the war. In the context of the war, however, the state rather than the market often played a central role in organizing consumption across all regimes. In addition to posing comparative questions of how war time consumption was organized and experienced, many papers also highlighted transnational exchanges and learning processes.

    Hartmut Berghoff introduced the conference topic by highlighting the significance that all major powers attributed to civilian consumption during World War II, building on the lessons from the preceding war. The "modern" home front under conditions of total war was seen as paramount in maintaining civilian morale, which meant that a shift to military consumption was inherently limited. Minimum standards of provisioning and a sense of distributional justice had to be ensured, and consumers were mobilized to participate in production, conservation, and distribution efforts. Consumption in fashion and entertainment also served as a form of distraction while planners and marketing professionals in many countries fostered forms of "virtual consumption," the promise of a consumerist postwar future which created a lasting legacy. In the first keynote address of the conference, Sheldon Garon emphasized the global and transnational nature of home front planning, which runs counter to prevailing myths and narratives of national distinctiveness in collective memories of wartime experience. Using Japan as his vantage point, Garon highlighted shared challenges in maintaining production and morale, as well as in food security and rationing. Like other powers, the Japanese paid close attention to the lessons of World War I and its blockades, shortages, and ultimate home front collapses. They drew on a growing international body of knowledge in nutritional science to prepare for the coming war and mounted an (ultimately failed) attempt to maintain food self-sufficiency during the war. As clothing became increasingly uniform and much of the nascent consumer goods industry was converted to wartime production, food consumption became ever more central to the Japanese war experience by the end of the conflict. 

    Securing civilian nutrition was generally a central element in wartime efforts to maintain the home front, as explored in the first two panels of the conference. Rationing and price controls were part of the war experience in all societies under consideration here, albeit to significantly different degrees. Food provisioning was the central challenge in the Soviet Union, as Wendy Goldman showed, and deprivation was the predominant experience of most Russian civilians. Rationing was almost entirely handled through institutional canteens, while the retail sector was virtually non-existent. Still, the intricate rationing system was riddled with inequalities and corruption, often failing to provide factory workers with the bare minimum needed for survival. The consumer as an individual receded into the background in the Japanese case as well. Erich Pauer discussed the role of neighborhood organizations in organizing rice rationing in Japan and the increasingly centralized distribution system which had supplanted private retailers and markets by the end of the war. In Germany, by contrast, consumer choice remained more viable and certain indulgences were seen as essential to morale. Nicole Petrick-Felber showed that while coffee consumption almost entirely shifted to surrogate products, due to a collapse of imports, tobacco remained "vital" to the war effort. Cigarette production continued, but after 1944, the state increasingly lost control over the rationing process as black markets emerged. For the Western Allies, the situation was entirely different, as Ines Prodöhl's paper demonstrated. She analyzed the Combined Food Board, an international body set up in 1942 to organize the distribution of U.S. agricultural surpluses to allied nations. While shortages in areas such as fats and oils riddled Western Allies as well, American abundance and the global access to goods ensured that starvation was of little concern in the West. 

    Differences in available supplies and the distribution of foodstuffs made for very different experiences in home front consumption by civilian consumers. In the United Kingdom, as Ina Zweiniger-Bargielowska explained, scarcity, not starvation, was the primary experience. A "flat rate" rationing system promised a sense of equitable sacrifice, but black markets, self-supplied consumers in the countryside and the possibility to circumvent rationing in restaurants posed challenges to the "fair share" principle and its promise to mitigate class distinctions. Still, many postwar Britons would go on to memorialize a mythical "wartime community." Many Germans, too, Felix Römer argued, viewed the home front situation in a relatively positive light. Based on U.S. surveys among German POWs, he analyzed the views of Wehrmacht soldiers regarding the food situation on the home front and cross-referenced them with research about the German rationing system. From soldiers' point of view, he concluded, the maintenance of sufficient caloric intake outweighed the negative experience of deteriorating food quality, which was not in the least due to the vivid memory of conditions during the First World War. Donald Flitzer analyzed Soviet home front experiences by looking at infant mortality rates. Poor hygiene and pervasive illnesses, as well as shortages in milk and fuel, presented rife conditions for mass mortality, which indeed spiked early in the war. Yet, overall, the war saw an eventual decline in mortality, which could in part be attributed to state programs, but also speaks to the already high levels of mortality prior to the war and the continuity in experiences of deprivation and scarcity that, for many Russian consumers, spanned from the interwar to the postwar period. 

    The subsequent panel on wartime advertising provided a stark contrast to the realities of malnutrition in some countries and furthermore provided surprising parallels between liberal democracies, such as the United Kingdom and the United States, and the more organized economy of Nazi Germany. David Clampin related the British case wherein advertisers were keen to contribute to the war effort, but also careful to maintain brand awareness and to encourage future consumption. Postwar visions of consumerism took the form of either forward-looking visions of modernity or a nostalgic promise of return to the "good old days." The anticipation they stoked, however, proved to be a political liability, as rationing continued after the war. Many American advertisers, Cynthia Lee Henthorn argued, also blurred the line between government propaganda and commercial ads. The overriding concern of the U.S. industry, however, was to ensure a return to an unfettered market economy in the postwar years. The consumerist world of the future was to be a world of free enterprise. German advertisers, as Pamela Swett showed, also pursued their own commercial interests. While consumer goods ads linked consumption and national expansionism, industry struggled to retain a degree of distance from the regime, especially towards the end of the war. Maintaining brand awareness during rationing was central for German advertising executives, too, and Swett's examples suggested a surprising degree of continuity from the pre- to postwar period. 

    Wartime nations thus frequently relied on "virtual consumption," the deference of immediate consumer satisfaction in anticipation of later rewards. In addition to advertising, the commercial entertainment industry was utilized to boost morale and to influence consumer desires. Mila Ganeva discussed the prominence of fashion in wartime German media, from magazines to movies. While managing scarcity was an acknowledged reality, the imaginary consumption of luxury high fashion retained a prominent place in the media landscape. Even in the Soviet Union, as Sergej Zhuravlev showed, new fashion magazines appeared during the war. While textiles were extremely difficult to attain, wartime photographs attest to a continuous concern with appearing fashionable among many Russian civilians. Despite a widespread struggle for survival, Russian workers in provincial factories also often had their first encounters with theater and ballet, as cultural institutions were displaced from the major population centers. Erina Megowan argued that the Soviet policy of bringing "high culture" and brigades of performers to the hinterland during the war was well received and had a lasting impact on cultural consumption across the country. In Germany, by contrast, as Neil Gregor suggested, the continued practice of regular attendance of symphonic concerts attested to a continuation of "banal social habits" and a sense of everyday normalcy amidst total war. At least in certain areas, "normal life" persisted and a shortage in material goods meant that surplus incomes during the war could be spent on entertainment. This panel certainly raised questions about the paradoxes of wartime consumption and the at times jarring juxtaposition of cultural consumption and entertainment with pervasive mass death. 

    The final part of the conference focused on the legacies of wartime consumption. Frank Trentmann opened this section with the second keynote address. He challenged the audience to consider the implications of the war for the long-term development of mass consumption, especially in the Western World. On the one hand, 1945 was not the dramatic break that is often assumed and consumer desires were deeply rooted and well developed prior to a war which did not fundamentally challenge them. On the other hand, the war left its mark on postwar mass consumption. It widened the transatlantic gap in consumption levels, it shifted tastes through wartime migration and exchanges, and it impacted generational patterns of consumption. Finally, the war heightened belief in the possibility of statecraft and planning for consumption, leading to a secular rise in taxation and public forms of consumption across Western nations. 

    The papers in the final panel then looked at various legacies of the war primarily through its impact on expert communities. Jan Lambertz discussed the wartime and postwar studies of U.S. and British nutrition experts, which yielded new analytical techniques for measuring human "need" and "deficiencies" and which would find later application in defining civilian health standards. Looking at Canada, Bettina Liverant showed the impact of the war on economists and policy experts. Canada's experiences with strategic austerity, with rationing, price freezes and consumer surveys, which pre-dated those of its American neighbor, informed postwar efforts in controlling consumer spending and inflation within the framework of a Keynesian economic policy. Jan Logemann similarly argued that the wartime expansion of state-sponsored market research in the United States acted as a catalyst for postwar transformations in marketing research. Focusing on three prominent émigré consumer researchers, the paper traced both transnational transfers in consumer psychology and the entanglement of commercial, academic and government research that connected the warfare state to the postwar consumer's republic. In the Soviet Union, Oleg Khlevnyuk showed that basic structures of provision remained in place from the 1930s to the 1950s, but victory in the war promoted a growing gap between consumer expectations and the continued reality of shortages. Especially as Russian soldiers came into contact with consumption levels in other parts of Europe, pressures for reform mounted, leading to a "new course" after Stalin's death. The impact of war preparations on innovations in the food industry, finally, was at the center of Uwe Spiekermann's paper, which traced the effects of efforts by German nutrition experts to improve military food. Iconic consumer goods of the postwar "economic miracle," such as instant potato dumplings, he showed, were literally field tested during the war. His paper also provided an important reminder of how closely consumption on the military and civilian home fronts were intertwined. 

    The concluding discussion, led by Hartmut Berghoff and Andreas Gestrich, emphasized the surprising degree to which continuities could be traced in various areas of consumption from the pre- to postwar eras. Especially for the more developed consumer economies, World War II was not as decisive a break in the long-term development of mass consumption. It did, however, provide a point for broader implicit and explicit societal debates about the role of consumption between market and state, individual and community. Despite structural similarities in the challenges posed by wartime consumption and parallel developments across regimes, the comparative look made clear that the experience for consumers also varied tremendously among the countries surveyed, with the United States and the Soviet Union representing opposite ends of a spectrum between curtailed affluence and mass deprivation. The everyday wartime experience, for example in the various constellations of black or grey market activity, was finally noted as an important field for future research – especially as the memories of wartime sacrifices helped shape the cultures of mass consumption in subsequent decades. 

    Jan Logemann (GHI Washington)

  • Call for Papers

    The home front of World War II is increasingly recognized by historians as a vital part of not only military strategies during a war that saw an unparalleled degree of civilian mobilization, but also as a catalyst for broader social developments during the twentieth century. Especially historians of the United States have looked at the home front's role in spurring on the Women's movement or the African-American Civil Rights struggle. The war, however, was also a crucial test and catalyst for the emergence of mass consumer societies in the twentieth century. In Germany, for example, Nazi leaders were determined to avoid the civilian protests of World War I. American political leaders similarly paid close attention to "the consumer" during the War, which had become increasingly central to Keynesian economic approaches in the aftermath of the great Depression. In the UK, Labor's postwar expansion and the setting up of the National Health Service were clearly linked to the war experience and the desire for a better life after the deprivation and suffering of war.

    This conference will look at the role of the consumer and civilian morale in the war efforts of Germany, Japan, the Soviet Union, the United Kingdom, and the United States. Choosing the five major un-occupied war powers - focusing in the Soviet case on the territories beyond the combat zone - allows for comparisons across a wide spectrum of political regimes. While mass consumption was long associated primarily with liberal democracies, research on Nazi Germany as well as Communist countries has demonstrated the degree to which these regimes as well had to engage the growing importance of mass consumption - even if in the Soviet case the structures of a mass consumer society didn't fully develop until after the war. In the context of the war, the state rather than the market played a central role in organizing consumption across all regimes. This was especially true for countries like the Soviet Union, where consumption hardly went beyond the level of subsistence, depending particularly strongly on rationing and mobilization. Next to the comparative perspective, transnational transfers are of vital importance to this topic. Despite their differences, the societies under consideration still maintained varying degrees of contacts and exchanges when it came to preparing and organizing home-front consumption. To what degree did wartime enemies learn from the experiences with and approaches to home front organization of their counterparts prior (e.g. lessons of World War I), during, and after the war

    Wartime consumption includes a wide range of aspects that will be considered comparatively. Securing civilian nutrition was a central element in wartime efforts to maintain the home front. Rationing and price controls were part of the war experience in all societies under consideration here, and the conference will ask how it was organized and how sacrifice was legitimized. Advertising and the commercial entertainment industry were utilized to boost morale and to influence consumer desires. Wartime nations frequently relied on "virtual consumption," the deference of immediate consumer satisfaction in anticipation of later rewards. What postwar promises were made to civilian populations, and what kind of visions of postwar consumption - from individual affluence to public welfare supply - were created and advertised?

    Next to the organization of home front consumption, we are interested in actual social practice and the experience of consumers. To what degree did consumers have a voice, either mediated through polling and market research or by means of consumer organizations? What was the experience of minority consumers, women and other more specific segments of the consumer market? To what degree did alternative or illegal forms of provisions like home gardening, parcels from soldiers, theft and black markets spread? Finally, the conference will ask about the impact of the wartime consumer regimes both for the immediate postwar period and for longer range developments. What role did wartime consumption play, for example, in the emergence of military and commercial Keynesianism in the United States, for the shape of postwar Communism, or for the success of liberal consumer societies in postwar West-Germany and Japan?

    To address these questions we invite historians of consumption, economic and social historians, new military historians, and cultural historians who work on these five nations during the World War II era to share their research. Comparative papers are especially encouraged as the conference hopes to comparatively assess the consumer experience of the war as well as the broader economic visions that underpinned them in four broad segments:

    • I. Lessons from World War I: Political Legitimization and Avoiding Scarcity
    • II. Organizing Homefront Consumption: Between State and Market
    • III. Wartime Consumers: Experience and Social Practice of Homefront Consumption
    • IV. Wartime Legacies: Impact on Postwar Consumption Regimes

    Within these broad categories we invite submission on a wide array of topics including, but not limited to: wartime nutrition, textiles and fashion, systems of rationing and price controls, advertising and market research, consumer organizations and businesses, as well as entertainment and commercial leisure.

    Please, send a title, short abstract (max. 500 words), and CV to the GHI London by December 15, 2012. Conference language will be English. For further inquiries you can contact Felix Römer or Jan Logemann.

    Call for Papers (pdf file)