Seventy five years ago this month a horror winter began in northern Europe. It was particularly devastating for war-ravaged Germany, where it became known as the Weiße Tod, the white death.
A fascinating new podcast by Deustchlandfunk recounts how temperatures had already fallen to zero in October in north Germany in what would turn out to be the coldest winter of the 20th century.
By November, Hamburg no longer had enough coal to offer heating to its malnourished population, many of whom were living in the rubble of bombed-out buildings.
Hospitals were so short in the supply of basic equipment, and the population were so unhealthy due to malnourishment, that even normally mild illnesses led to death.
Impoverished and starving city dwellers went out to the countryside to steal potatoes from farmers. In temperatures of down to minus 25 degrees in January, children went to school barefoot.
Millions of refugees from the east were competed with locals for the scarce resources.
Another consequence of war that worsened the situation was the destruction of rail infrastructure, which was exacerbated by the freezing temperatures. Under these conditions, the scare food that there was couldn’t be transported around the country.
The threat of starvation was so extreme that Cologne’s archbishop, Joseph Frings, gave people his blessing to obtain their food in whatever way they could.
In is New Year’s sermon he declared that:
“We live in times when the needy individual is allowed to take what he needs to preserve his life and health, even if he cannot obtain it through his labor or by petition.”
This blessing made it into common German parlance, with the word fringsen being used to mean stealing food out of necessity.
Berlin’s mayor Otto Ostrowski compared the suffering to a Greek tragedy.
“A mass death has been unleashed and every day the number of casualties rises. And just like in the play Oedipus by Sophocales, the people are groaning under the suffering and are calling for help.”
Historians estimate that several hundred thousand Germans died due to the cold in that winter.
Former US President Herbert Hoover visited the country in February of 1947 and reported back to his homeland that he’d seen suffering that had been unknown to Europe in over a hundred years.
Hoover’s intervention, and pressure put on the US government by German emigres eventually led to the US taking pity on its former enemy and allowing charities to send care packages to Germany. These first arrived in May of 1947 though.
As the Deustchlandfunk episode points out, this wasn’t the first cold winter that Germany had experienced in recent years. In 1929, the German coast of the Baltic Sea froze over.
1946/47 was as much a man-made tragedy as a natural catastrophe. Before the First World War, as the most advanced nation on the continent Germany had all the food, clothes and energy it needed to weather the toughest winter. Three decades later it had impoverished itself through disastrous policy error after disastrous policy error and had become reliant on benefaction from across the Atlantic.
Is there a lesson for today from the white death of 1946?
I would suggest one. There is no perfect state of the climate that existed before industrialization started to have an influence on it. Extreme cold can be just as devastating as extreme heat.
Both only become a problem when they hit societies that haven’t learned how to cope with them - or ones that make such disastrous policy mistakes that they known how to cope but just can’t afford to anymore.