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Do hard times bring a people together?

They can. But in postwar Germany, in many instances, they didn’t. Especially in the hunger winter of 1946-47.

Hunger drove the people living in the ruined cities out into the countryside. They 414px-Bundesarchiv_Bild_183-S80285,_Bahnhof_Gorgast,_'Hamsterfahrt'traded anything they could spare for food. The “hamsters” from the industrial Ruhr area clogged trains heading north to the farms in Lower Saxony, or south to the Eifel region. In backpacks and suitcases, they carried their crystal and porcelain, their damask table cloths and silver mirrors.

When the hamsters arrived in the countryside, they went on a humiliating round of the farms – begging to trade. The problem: the farmers had everything already.

Back then, Thea Merkelbach was 8 years old. Her anecdote in the book Hungerwinter sticks in my mind as a sign of how cruel people can be to others – without realizing it.

Once my mother asked for a little milk from a farmer who had 10 cows. The farmer’s wife was baking. The cookies were too dark and hard to her, so she wanted to toss them to the pigs. My mother asked for a few: ‘Give me a few before the pigs get some!’ The farmer’s wife did. She wouldn’t have thought of it herself.

In another anecdote, a boy who was 11 years old at the time told how a farmer tossed potato peels onto a dung heap for the children to eat.

From the farmers’ perspective, the hamsters from the city were a plague. Wolfgang Herchner said in Hungerwinter:

The hamsters overran the land like locusts… They stole from the farmers, sometimes in a massive way! Some fields were half dug up because cabbage or carrots had been planted there.

Even farmers who sincerely wanted to help the hungry couldn’t give to even a fraction of the people flowing in from the cities. There simply wasn’t that much to go around.

And maybe after the Nazis trumpeted the Volksgemeinschaft (a unified community of the German people) for years, some people had enough of sacrificing for others. In postwar Germany, it was every man for himself.

*Photo:Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-S80285 / CC-BY-SA [CC BY-SA 3.0 de (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/de/deed.en)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons