For many, the celebrations at the signing of the Armistice and the end of World War I were short lived. While soldiers went home from the front, the destruction wreaked on basic infrastructure and the civilian populations became clear. Germany and Austria as defeated nations were particularly hard hit, as allies restricted imports and diminished their access to previous resources. Starvation and disease were widespread. Below is an extract from a letter sent to Quakers in Britain in February 1919 about the conditions in Austria.
The allies maintained the naval blockade of Germany for seven months after the signing of the armistice in November 1918. The blockade restricted the amount of foodstuffs coming into the country and led to shortages. In response, British Quakers started a ‘Foreign Fund’, and with other interested relief organisations, a ‘Fight the Famine Council’. In February 1919, permission was given by the British government for voluntary aid for women and children to be allowed into Germany – previously entry to Germany for British civilians had been prohibited. As civilians started to gain entry into the country, they sent back horrifying reports on the conditions there. Supplies of food were incredibly scarce and malnutrition was rife. British Quakers started to try to get aid into the country but the logistics proved difficult.
In November 1919, the American Relief Administration (sponsored by the US government) entrusted the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC), the American Quakers overseas relief body, with the administration of a massive programme for feeding German children. It is worth noting, that future President Herbert Hoover, who was then head of the American Relief Administration, was himself raised a Quaker. Hoover wrote to Rufus Jones, head of the AFSC, in November 1919, with a challenging appeal to take on this work, describing infant mortality in Germany as worse than during the war. He also implied that propagation of the pacifism Quakers were known for, would perhaps not be a bad thing in post-war Germany. The feeding programme became known as Quakerspeisung (Quaker feeding).
By the end of June 1920, American and British Quakers were feeding more than one million children daily at around 1,640 separate feeding centres across Germany.
The scheme was not without controversy though. For some Quakers, the idea of only feeding children, when their parents continued to starve, was problematic. There was also inevitably a political aspect to undertaking the work under the official administration of the US government; but faced with a choice of working with the state organ and having much larger resources to feed more people or working independently and feeding fewer people, they chose the pragmatic option. The British Treasury, meanwhile, matched pound for pound donations for aid in European countries including Austria, but denied it to Germany.
The feeding scheme was aimed at children, but not older students, and British Quakers decided this could be a focus of their work. In May 1920, Quakers opened their first Speisehalle (Feeding-hall) for 125 students in Berlin; it was soon extended with support from donors including Albert Einstein. By January 1921, 15,000 students received a daily meal.
Austria was in a severe condition after the war having to rebuild from destruction of the Hapsburg Empire, with losses of agricultural land and resources. One third of the country’s population lived in Vienna and the city was on the brink of total starvation.
British Quaker Hilda Clark led the relief operations there. She became expert in child malnutrition, and sought creative ways to solve the milk shortage, including looking into the viability of milk substitutes such as soya milk using a newly patented technique. This proved too ambitious and she instead arranged for the import of cattle to replenish supplies.In 1923, FEWVRC closed its operations. By this time, British Quakers had set up a new initiative, with the aim of fostering reconciliation in a broken Europe: the International Centres. This project was first set up by Council for International Service, and managed from 1927 onwards by Friends Service Council. The centres based in Berlin and Vienna could take on some of the ongoing relief work carried out by FEWVRC and AFSC.
Although Quakers had helped with relief work in previous conflicts, World War I provided challenges on an unprecedented scale. The people involved in these feeding programmes developed huge operational and logistical experience in humanitarian relief. Later in the century, many would contribute to the establishment of organisations such as Oxfam, who still operate in conflict zones today. Unfortunately, many of the same people would also be at the centre of even more challenging humanitarian work only twenty years later in World War II.
The Friends Emergency War Victims Relief Committee papers are the main collection here at the Library for researching this work. There are also great accounts in both A Quaker Adventure by A. Ruth Fry, and Volume I of Quaker Encounters: Friends and Relief by John Ormerod Greenwood, from both of which we borrowed heavily for this blogpost!
It is also worth seeking out the personal papers of FEWVRC workers in the collections such as the Hilda Clark papers and Silvia Cowles papers which add intimate insights into the work, and the reactions of the German and Austrian people to being helped in this time of need.