World War One: The German and Russian Home Fronts

(This essay is the exclusive intellectual property of Brianna L. Gray. It may not be copied or repurposed in any way without the express, written permission of its author.)

In modern total war, the war is won or lost on the home front. Such was the case in Germany and Russia in the First World War, in which the industrial, economic, social, political and organisational structures of the nations were geared towards sustaining their war efforts. The home front can be defined as the ‘civilian population and activities of a nation whose armed forces are engaged in war abroad, which acts as an active support system for the military’. The immense breadth of such a definition means that an examination of the home fronts of Germany and Russia must be narrowed down to four key aspects of civilian life during the First World War: the uses of structure of control to mobilise personnel in the civilian war effort, the production and acquisition of food, the rapid expansion of industry, and the role of women in wartime society. In doing so, while it becomes clear that both nations struggled with food shortages, the difficulty of mobilising sufficient labour to expand an economy and industrial system hindered by military conscription and a lack of resources, the changing roles of women, and the need to promulgate laws which enabled the necessary  restructuring of society and its institutions, Germany and Russia experienced these issues to differing extents, and dealt with them in different ways, which produced varying results. Overall, the greater industrial advancement and bureaucratic organisation of Germany allowed it to better cope with the complexities of simultaneously conducting a total war and maintaining relative stability on the home front, enabling the German ruling bodies to maintain authoritative legitimacy and a relatively successful home front for a full year longer than Russia.

The mobilisation of civilians to sustain the war effort and provide for the needs of the home front dominated domestic life and policy in both Germany and Russia during the First World War. Although already autocratic states, whose democratic bodies – the Reichstag and Duma – had negligible political power, in both Germany and Russia the role of the state increased further still, as it came to regulate food, industry and munitions, to different extents and with different methods in each country. The German Auxiliary Service Law legislated the compulsory civil conscription of every German man between the ages of seventeen and sixty, while in Berlin the Central Labour Exchange dedicated itself to finding work for women.[1] In Russia, martial law was declared for the duration of the war, allowing Russian authorities to conscript civilians into forced labour in whichever capacity they saw fit.[2] German institution of martial law, on the other hand, was limited to specific factories; the ruling bodies instead chose to pass emergency legislation which lent greater legitimacy to its significant extension of its own powers, such as the Enabling Act – which allowed the government to pass those laws deemed necessary without parliamentary consent – and the Prussian Law of Siege, which allowed Deputy Commanding Generals to imprison individuals without trial and expel them from their districts.[3] Both countries also utilised the forced labour of refugees, or the inhabitants of occupied countries (in the case of Germany), to increase their industrial and agricultural output. By October 1916 more than 350,000 refugees laboured in Russian agriculture alone, while by 1918, 700,000-800,000 Polish workers had been deported to Germany, in addition to those forced into labour battalions in Poland.[4] Hence, the German and Russia home fronts both witnessed the immense extension of governmental powers into the regulation of everyday life, with the difference being that in Germany, these extended powers were more thoroughly legislated, and used to assert greater influence over German nationals and those of occupied territories.

The production and acquisition of food was a chief priority of Germany and Russia’s wartime leaders, While both countries recognised the importance of food in the maintenance of civil order, Germany chose to predominantly regulate its consumption, by rationing staple foods such as bread, butter, milk, and meat, while Russia regulated production by fixing prices for products such as sugar, grain, salt and oats, and forcefully requisitioned supplies at 75% of the usual price if farmers refused to sell them.[5] Attempts to maintain constant food supplies for the civilian population were hindered by the Allied blockade of German ports, and the German and Ottoman blockades of the Baltic and Black seas, albeit to different extents. The Allied blockade crippled Germany’s food supply, which had been reliant on foreign imports for one-third of its overall food supply prior to August 1914, as the British confiscated food stuffs as “contraband of war”, and deprived Germany of imported fertilisers which were vital to food production.[6]  Conversely, the blockade of Russian ports principally affected Russia’s grain export market, creating a surplus of food and a lack of income with which to buy other needed supplies.[7] In both nations, fuel shortages, frozen waterways and the precedence given to the transportation of military goods and personnel, increased difficulties in food distribution. In Russia the ability of commanders to arbitrarily requisition goods at their own discretion, and the need to transport food  immense distances from small, country producers to the increasingly urbanised population created disorganisation and frequent food shortages; even in the conveyance of military foodstuffs a 10-15% deficit in the required transport capacity was not uncommon, and as Struve states, “the remaining consignments of [civilian] foodstuffs…had to bear the full weight of the general inadequacy of railway facilities”.[8] Thus, while both Germany and Russia experienced the difficulties of regulating food supplies on the home front, it was Russia who was less successful in coordinating the production of food and satisfactorily distributing it to the civilian population.

This inability to effectively manage food production and distribution in both countries, and the effects of the Allied blockade in Germany, created food shortages which negatively impacted morale  and incited popular demonstrations and unrest. With a German population of 65 million and a Russian population of 167 million in 1914, both nations struggled to feed their populations while simultaneously sustaining a total-war effort. In Germany, rationing was progressively tightened and ersatz foods – such as Kriegsbrot or ‘war bread’ – became commonplace, while by 1917, St Petersburg was receiving just over half its daily requirement of grain, and Moscow only one-third.[9] Although Russia did experience significant food shortages, its problem was ironic, in that abundant food was available, but in the wrong places; this meant, however, that food shortages were usually only temporary.[10] On the other hand, in Germany, which was already much more highly industrialised than Russia, the loss of 60% of its agricultural labour force to military service, and the devastating effects of the ‘turnip winter’ of 1916-1917 brought the onset of a genuine food crisis, and generated widespread discontentment.[11] Although recent estimates suggest that food shortages led to only 250,000-424,000 excess civilian deaths during the war, and not the 762,000 traditionally claimed, Ian Beckett argues, “it was the psychological perception of starvation that made the greatest impact”.[12] Such food shortages undermined support for the war and its leaders in both countries, as evidenced by the German women in the August 1916 food riots in Hamburg who shouted “Down with the Kaiser!” while calling for an end to the war, and by the notorious Bolshevik slogan of “Peace, land and bread”.[13] It is significant, however, that while discontentment with food shortages led to civil unrest in both countries, and the food situation was more critical in Germany, it was in Russia that food riots directly led to the overthrow of the imperial ruler.

It can therefore be inferred that the way in which food shortages and the corresponding civil unrest were dealt with determined the continued success of the home front and its leadership. According to Proctor, the food demonstrations in Russia in late 1917 which sparked a popular revolution which forcefully dismantled the Tsarist autocracy “were not…markedly different from those in Berlin”;[14] it was Russia’s use of violent force to suppress the unrest which undermined the regime’s legitimacy on a home front predicated on the cooperation of civilians and the state as a support for the military. Instead of concentrating his efforts on resolving the temporary shortage of flour and fuel in Petrograd which civilians were protesting on 26 February 1917, Tsar Nicholas ordered the Russian army to fire into the crowd, and in doing so sparked a revolution by using the military that the civilians were working to support against them.[15] In Germany, conversely, the Deputy Commanding Generals in Germany had been ordered to act cautiously when repressing civil disturbances, so as not to create martyrs which would fuel a revolutionary cause;[16] in several cases, German authorities yielded to the people’s demands, as in April 1916 when the government promised 220,000 striking workers in Berlin an increase in the meat ration.[17] Furthermore, the German state maintained the legitimacy of the home front for longer than Russia by the institution of food rationing, which constituted an effective contractual agreement between the state and citizen. The Russian Commission for Combating the High Cost of Living rejected the idea of rationing, as too dangerous, as a home-front government would have “the duty to supply, at definite periods and definite places, the commodities in question”, and the population would become “entitled to demand that the supplies that are due to it shall be issued in proper quantity”, which could augment popular unrest if they neglected to deliver the demanded goods.[18] It is therefore this unwillingness of Russia’s behalf to bindingly commit themselves to providing for the basic needs of the civilian in return for the continuance of the war effort on the home front which led to its downfall.

While the war both boosted industrial production and inflicted economic problems such as rising prices, inflation and debt on the German and Russian home fronts, Germany’s greater industrialisation and bureaucratisation allowed it to better coordinate the maximisation of  industrial production. With the creation of the War Raw Materials Division in September 1915, the German government was able to conduct a census of all its existing supplies of raw materials in a period of just three weeks and plan for their replenishment on a large scale, while the passage of the Auxiliary Service Law on 5 December 1916 meant every German male aged seventeen to sixty not in military service was required to contribute to the war effort, often through work in industry and munitions.[19] As a result, the German chemical industry grew by 170% and the engineering and electrical industries by 49% during the war.[20] However, by March 1918, German production levels were only 57% of those achieved in 1913;[21] Hindenburg’s declaration that all Germany’s “natural resources” and “everything that industry and agriculture can produce” should be “utilized exclusively in prosecuting the war” meant that arbitrary production quotas were set with no reference to sustainability or economic impact.[22] Much less industrialised than Germany, the War Industries Committees formed in Russia in May 1915 were voluntary organisations formed by leading industrialists to unite merchants, local industrialists and workers to help coordinate war production;[23] although these Committees were supplemented later in 1915 by a state-sponsored Special Council of Defence, “most of war production went on…as if the Special Council had not existed”, with war-related government ministries ordering goods and overseeing production “more or less in the old way”.[24]  Nevertheless, the war stimulated economic growth in Russia, with the Russian economy having grown by 21.6% over 1913 levels by 1916, and the labour force in heavy industries having quadrupled in the same period.[25] Therefore, while WW1 increased debt and inflation in the German and Russian home fronts and generated significant increases in industrial production in certain sectors, on the whole, Germany’s more highly-developed bureaucracy allowed it to more successfully coordinate production and achieve industrial goals.

The production of munitions on the German and Russian home fronts followed a similar trend, in that Germany’s greater industrial capacity and bureaucracy enabled it to produce more munitions than Russia. As both countries entered the war with insufficient reserves of munitions, in the belief the war would be quickly won, they both had to exert considerable effort on the home front to either acquire or produce the necessary supplies. Russia’s initial unwillingness to build new munitions factories which would be unprofitable during peacetime, and decision to instead rely on imports from other countries, hindered its war effort.[26] Beginning the war with just seven million shells, “which sufficed for six months of war”, Russia managed to produce just 11 million and import 1.3 shells in 1915, and foreign suppliers failed to deliver more than 7.1 million of the 40.5 million shells ordered by November 1916.[27] However, when Russia’s deficiency in military equipment and shell shortage contributed towards Russia’s need to retreat from Poland in 1915, Russian administrative leaders finally “appreciated the need for shell in great quantities” and accordingly expanded Russian shell production; by September 1916 Russia was producing 4.5 million shells per month, in comparison to 0.916 million in 1914.[28] However, German military production on the home front easily surpassed that of Russia, as the 1915 Hindenburg Programme committed Germany to directing millions of men into heavy industries with the intention of doubling its supply of munitions and tripling its supply of artillery; by late 1916, Germany was producing seven million shells per month – the same amount which Russia had started the war with.[29] Yet, although German industrial production started at a higher rate than it did in Russia, and produced more munitions overall, the unrealistic and unsustainable nature of the Hindenburg Programme had a ruinous effect on the German economy and created a fuel shortage which hindered the transport of items vital to the war effort.[30] Therefore, while Russia produced fewer munitions and converted to a war economy more slowly than Germany, Germany’s industrial growth was unsustainable and inflicted a heavy toll on the civilian home front.

Women, being exempt from military conscription, played an important role in the maintenance of the home fronts in the absence of millions of men, although their contributions and experiences differed between the countries. On both the German and Russian home fronts, women came to occupy positions of greater responsibility within the household and society, as for many it became necessary to acquire paid employment and dedicate themselves to supporting their families. The task of procuring enough food for their families by queuing in food lines for hours was a principal part of this heightened responsibility; by 1917 the average working-woman in St Petersburg spent 40 hours a week in queues for food and other requirements, while in Germany women sometimes had to quit their jobs, as it became untenable to work a fifteen-hour shift, care for their family and queue for food.[31] Women’s participation in the industrial workforce grew in Russia from 27% in 1914 to 43.2% in 1917, and in Germany from 22% in 1914 to 35% of the total industrial labour force in 1918,[32] and in both nations, many women served in war-related support operations, such as refugee relief, nursing and war kitchens. While Russian women in provinces close to the Eastern Front were conscripted for construction work, in Germany civil conscription affected only men, although there were concerted, propagandistic efforts to convince women to join the labour force, in order to release able men for the army and combat labour shortages, as in Russia.[33] Women assumed greater responsibility in agriculture as well, especially in Russia, in which peasant women took charge of harvesting crops in the absence of male family members.[34] Thus, while Russian women’s involvement in the industrial workforce grew by a greater extent than that in Germany, and women in Russia were subjected to civil conscription, in both nations similar trends were seen in the changing nature of women’s roles, as they acquired greater responsibility both in the home and in the labour force.

As Horne argues, however, the war entrenched gender norms more deeply into the home fronts, as while women in both nations “gained new prominence in social protest…they combined this with a heightened sense of their traditional role in protecting the family”.[35] Pro-natalistic attitudes were particularly strong on the German home front, with a Berlin university professor claiming in 1915 that bearing children was the “only female contribution to war and military power which equals” that of men.[36] German women were therefore granted six weeks’ maternity leave, illegitimate birth certificates were abolished, and both married and unmarried mothers were given financial support, in an attempt to increase the birth rate.[37] Separation allowances were also granted to military wives in Russia, although such a drive to increase the birth rate was not so evident, given that Russia was already struggling to maintain a population of 167 million on limited resources. Organisations in Germany such as the Women’s Labour Office and the National Women’s Service League aimed to engage with women on both a personal and occupational level,[38] whereas Russian women’s organisations remained centred around traditional feminine pursuits, as was the case with the nursing ‘Sisters of Mercy’, and the Women’s Battalion of Death, a women’s combat unit formed with the intention of shaming men into volunteering;[39] the women were thereby  fulfilling their traditional role of moral guardians of male virility and honour.  Although women did defy the stereotypically meek behaviour expected of them by generating unrest on both home fronts, being responsible for the August 1916 Hamburg food riots, and the International Women’s Day protests on March 8, 1917 which helped spark the Russia revolution, as a contemporary German military commander suggested, women resorted to physical force only because they knew “they [were] supposed to work and cater for their hungry families and [saw] that they [were] powerless to do so”.[40] Thus, while women on both fronts gained a greater autonomy through their participation in service organisations and popular demonstrations, they predominantly accepted their role as carers of both family and society, to a slightly greater extent in Russia than in Germany.

Hence, in this first modernised total war, in which it was just as important to out-produce as to out-fight the enemy, the German and Russian fronts both acted as industrial and agricultural support systems for their militaries, and suffered hardships and deprivations as a result of the significant redirection of supplies to military needs and the ineffectiveness of transport systems due to the naval blockades and fuel shortages. Germany’s more industrialised economy and inherently greater ability to compartmentalise its management of food, industry and munitions allowed it to produce more munitions than Russia and to regulate food distribution more effectively, despite the greater severity of the naval blockade imposed against it. Russia’s lack of central organisation and industrial preparation for the war, on the other hand, meant it produced fewer munitions and regulated food less effectively than Germany; in resorting to violent force to compensate for its failure to value the implicit pact between the state and the civilian which a ‘home front’ implies, Russia weakened the legitimacy of its power structure from a civilian perspective, leading to popular revolution and the end of Russia’s war effort. In both Russia and Germany, while women predominantly perpetuated their traditional roles in caring for their families, nursing the injured and acting as guardians of the social norms of virile masculinity and female fertility, women did gain greater personal autonomy, through their increased involvement in the industrial workforce, particularly in Russia, and achieve greater social influence, through the increased control attained by women’s labour and service organisations, particularly in Germany. In this way, when the respective characteristics of the German and Russian home fronts during World War One are compared and contrasted, Germany’s overall superior management of its war effort on the home front makes it unsurprising that Germany was able to continue hostilities for nearly a year after Lenin declared the Russian war to be over.

[1] John Williams, The Home Fronts: Britain, France and Germany, 1914-1918 (London: Constable, 1972), 151; The Auxiliary Service Law, “Gesetz über den vaterländischen Hilfsdienst vom 5. Dezember 1916” [“The Auxiliary Service Law of December 5, 1916], Reichs-Gesetzblatt [Reich Law Gazette] (1916): 1333, accessed October 7, 2014,

[2] Jonathon W. Daley, “Police and revolutionaries,” in The Cambridge History of Russia Volume II: Imperial Russia, 1689-1917, ed. Dominic Lieven (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), 653.

[3] Ian F. W. Beckett, The Great War, 1914-1918 (Essex: Pearson Education Limited, 2001), 244-245.

[4] Tammy M. Proctor, Civilians in a World at War, 1914-1918 (New York: New York University Press, 2010), 59; Ian F. W. Beckett, The Great War, 1914-1918 (Essex: Pearson Education Limited, 2001), 260.

[5] Williams, The Home Fronts, 154; P. B. Struve, Food Supply in Russia during the First World War (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1930), 43. However, it must be noted that in Germany set prices were fixed by some local authorities, to encourage the consumption of particular abundant goods, while in Russia, rationing was also introduced, but it was not widespread, and the holding of a ration card did not guarantee the goods would be delivered.

[6] Neil Heyman, Daily Life during World War I (Westport: Greenwood Press, 2002), 198.

[7] Eric Lohr, “War and revolution,” in The Cambridge History of Russia Volume II: Imperial Russia, 1689-1917, ed. Dominic Lieven (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), 661.

[8] Struve, Food Supply in Russia during the First World War, 63.

[9] Beckett, The Great War, 267; Beckett, The Great War, 366.

[10] Beckett, The Great War, 366.

[11] Williams, The Home Fronts, 223-224.

[12] Beckett, The Great War, 268.

[13] Williams, The Home Fronts, 162.

[14] Proctor, Civilians in a World at War, 246.

[15] Lohr, “War and revolution,” 656.

[16] Williams, The Home Fronts, 150.

[17] Ibid., 232.

[18] Struve, Food Supply in Russia during the First World War, 161.

[19] Williams, The Home Fronts, 36-37; The Auxiliary Service Law, “Gesetz über den vaterländischen Hilfsdienst vom 5. Dezember 1916,” Reichs-Gesetzblatt,

[20] Beckett, The Great War, 256.

[21] Ibid., 258.

[22] The Hindenburg Program, “Urkunden der Obersten Herresleitung über ihre Tätigkeit 1916/18” [Records of the Supreme Army Command on its Activities, 1916/18], ed. Erich Ludendorff (Berlin: E. S. Mittler und Sohn, 1920), 83, accessed October 7, 2014,;  Beckett, The Great War, 258.

[23] Lewis H. Siegelbaum, Lewis H, The politics of industrial mobilization in Russia, 1914-1917: A Study of the War Industries Committees (London: Macmillan-St. Antony’s College, 1983).

[24] Norman Stone, “Organizing an Economy for War: The Russian Shell Shortage, 1914-1917,” in War, Economy and the Military Mind, eds. Geoffrey Best and Andrew Wheatcroft (Totowa: Rowman and Littlefield, 1976), 111.

[25] Beckett, The Great War, 367.

[26] Stone, “Organizing an Economy for War,” 110.

[27] Beckett, The Great War, 366.

[28] Stone, “Organizing an Economy for War,” 111.

[29] Stone, “Organizing an Economy for War,” 112.

[30] T. Hunt Tooley, “The Hindenburg Programme of 1916: a central experiment in wartime planning,” The Quarterly Journal of Austrian Economics 2.2 (1999): 59.

[31] Beckett, The Great War, 372-373; Beckett, The Great War, 222.

[32] Lohr, “War and revolution,” 662; Beckett, The Great War, 236.

[33] Proctor, Civilians in a World at War, 58.

[34] Struve, Food Supply in Russia during the First World War, 300.

[35] John Horne, “Public Opinion and Politics,” in A Companion to World War I, ed. John Horne (Blackwell Reference Online: Blackwell Publishing, 2010), accessed October 7, 2014:

[36] Heyman, Daily Life during World War I, 226.

[37] Williams, The Home Fronts, 167.

[38] Beckett, The Great War, 276.

[39] Ibid., 457.

[40] Hew Strachan, World War I: a history (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), 158.


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