Wednesday, February 02, 2011

When Mechanization Falters

In the late 19th and early 20th Centuries, German industry was the most highly-developed and most heavily-mechanized in the world.

There was one area, however, in which Germany was woefully behind the times: agriculture.

Mechanization of agriculture in the United States began early in the 19th Century and has remained aggressive ever since. A similar level of mechanization, however, did not reach Germany until after World War II. In fact, as late as 1950, most agricultural work in Germany was performed by manual laborers.

There were serious consequences for Germany’s failure to adapt technology to its agriculture economy. One such consequence was that the nation was on the verge of starvation during much of World War I. From 1914 until the conclusion of The Great War, Britain’s Naval Blockade of The Central Powers prevented Germany from importing agricultural product necessary to feed its populace. The result: coffee and tea disappeared virtually overnight during the war years, as did citrus fruits; meats, eggs, potatoes, vegetables, cereals, grains and sugar were in critical short supply by late 1915, when the nation was forced to create turnip-based substitutes for almost all food items (turnips were the only agricultural product that remained widely available in Germany during the war years).

During the fifty-year period prior to World War I, Germany had imported bounteous foodstuffs from South America and Africa, all needed in order to feed its growing populace. From 1865 to 1914, the German Merchant Marine was one of the world’s largest and finest, successfully keeping the nation fed via overseas sources. Importation of foreign food product ceased with the onset of war.

Until advent of the German Merchant Marine in the 1860s had resolved the nation’s longstanding incapacity to feed itself, Germany’s failure to produce sufficient agricultural product was the chief cause of German emigration to the United States. From the 1820s until the beginning of The American Civil War, many German jurisdictions actually encouraged—if not rewarded—emigration to the U.S. as a means of addressing Germany’s persistent food shortage. It is owing to Germany’s policy during this period of actively encouraging emigration that at least one-quarter (and perhaps as much as one-third) of today’s U.S. population can trace its roots to German heritage.

The photograph below, from 1904, documents a key activity in German life long after comparable scenes were inconceivable, if not outright incomprehensible, in North America: threshing wheat by hand.

Before mechanization, threshing wheat was a collective effort in which all German generations participated. In the photograph, children look on as men beat wheat husks in order to separate wheat from straw.

Mechanization of German agriculture began to take hold early in the 20th Century on a very limited basis, although such mechanization was piecemeal, uneven and not-at-all widespread.

The photograph below, from 1910, portrays the earliest effort toward mechanization of German agriculture: farmers use a primitive motorized tractor and reaper to harvest grain.

Germany’s need for imported agricultural foodstuffs continued long after the end of World War I. One reason for Germany’s longing for territory in Eastern Europe and—especially—The Ukraine was the need for agriculture bounty. The search for fresh, reliable sources of food was one of the precipitating causes of Germany’s disastrous invasion of Russia in 1941.


  1. As mentioned farming reapers and tractors are the best way to make the harvesting easy.