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Part III: The Rationing System and the American Embargo   (cont'd.)

Chapter 36: The Relaxation of the Blockade

The relaxation in Europe. – The relaxation of the blockade in the Mediterranean.

i) The relaxation in Europe

When the armistice with Germany was signed, the blockade ministry was roughly on the same footing as it was when first instituted: the contraband department was still the executive branch of the whole system, the enemy exports committee, the foreign trade department, and the department for restricting enemy supplies were still branches of the organisation; the contraband committee had not changed its constitution since 1916, and was performing the same duties. The blockade was, however, differently administered, in that it was superintended by an allied organisation, the allied blockade committee, on which Great Britain, France, Italy and the United States sent representatives. In neutral countries, allied committees, to which each allied legation or embassy sent a representative, transacted business with all trading associations with whom the allies had an agreement, or with any private firm that was doing business not provided for under an agreement. It was by the allied blockade committee that the relevant clauses in the armistice were administered during the closing months of the year.

The armistice with Germany was specific that the blockade was to be continued. [Emphasis added by Scriptorium.] By the twenty-sixth article, it was laid down that the blockade should be maintained, and that all German ships found on the high seas should be liable to capture; the twenty-second article stipulated, that the German government should cancel and withdraw any restrictions that had been imposed upon trade between the Netherlands, Scandinavia and the allied powers. By the twenty-third article, Germany was debarred from transferring German merchantmen to a neutral flag while the armistice was in force. The armistice therefore abrogated no trading agreement with a border neutral; indeed, it was still so well recognised that restraints upon enemy trade would continue, that the Netherlands overseas trust signed a general consolidating agreement with the allies on 25th November. Nevertheless, relaxations and easings of the restraints imposed were considered necessary from the outset. On 16th November, the United States authorities urged that all agreements should thenceforward be leniently administered, and, before the end of the year, the allied committee had ordered a number of relaxations. The censorship of the neutral parcel post ceased on 30th November; on 10th December, the committee first reconsidered the scale of rations to neutral countries; and, by the end of the year, they had agreed to raise the rations of all the northern neutrals. No additional supplies of corn and fodder were allowed; but the new rations constituted a relaxation on a point of principle, in that the policy so long pursued of reducing domestic exports of the border neutrals by reducing their imports of fertilisers was virtually abandoned. Holland's ration of phosphate rock was raised from 40,000 to 100,000 tons; the ration for pyrites and fertilisers was more than doubled. Jute control was virtually abandoned, in that the rations for each country were increased by about eighty per cent. Almost simultaneously, the existing restraints upon the domestic exports of all allied countries were eased, in that the black lists were so reduced that only enemy firms in neutral countries, and firms known to be acting as a cover for them, were retained on the lists.

Meanwhile the British fleet had entered the Baltic, and the allied blockade committee determined that no additional restraints should be imposed upon such trade as was running between Scandinavia and Germany. The agreements signed with [706] the northern neutrals during the last months of the war expressly sanctioned trade in certain commodities; the committee therefore ruled, that exports from Scandinavia to Germany should be allowed to pass, provided that the legation committees certified them as goods that would have been exported in the ordinary course of trade. In the same minute, it was ruled that German raw materials should be allowed to be exported, provided they were carried in Scandinavian vessels. Finland was to be treated as a neutral country, whose trade with Holland and Scandinavia was to be subject only to the restraints imposed in the last agreements upon trade between two border neutrals.

Early in the new year, the delegations to the peace conference began to assemble in Paris, and two new organs of administration were soon afterwards established. A conseil supérieur du blocus was set up at the instance of the French; soon afterwards, a supreme economic council was established at President Wilson's request. The duties of the various councils and committees were now as follows. The supreme economic council was, as its name implied, an executive committee for supervising and co-ordinating all inter-allied committees that were concerned with food supplies, relief, and shipping. The conseil supérieur du blocus was roughly subordinated to it. The allied blockade committee, which was still sitting in London, thus became an administrative committee for supervising such trade as was allowed to run between the allied countries and northern Europe. A comité du blocus de l'orient was established to supervise such trade as was to be allowed between allied countries, Switzerland, and the Mediterranean neutrals. These various councils and committees were at once so much occupied with ordinary daily business that their minute books contain very little about general policy. Nevertheless, it is not difficult to guess what policy they were obliged to follow. When President Wilson announced the armistice to congress he stated, unequivocally, that food and supplies should be despatched to the central empires as soon as possible, as: Hunger breeds madness. An ugly distemper was, indeed, spreading all over Europe: strikes, half political, half industrial, disorderly assemblies, and street riots, were reported daily from almost every country; the eastern countries, such as Poland, and the new Baltic states were literally suffering from famine. Without recording it in their minute books, therefore, the councils and committees now administering the blockade determined, in a general way, to facilitate the circulation and production of food, and, at the same time, to keep the machinery of control in working order, so that the old restraints might be re-imposed, if an emergency arose, or if the German government rejected the conditions of peace.

Early in the new year this policy was much advanced by pressure of circumstances. When the armistice was signed, the allied representatives undertook to relieve the scarcities in Germany, in so far as was thought wise to do so; and this promise was soon productive of very good consequences. It cannot perhaps, be proved outright, that the political and social disorders in Germany are attributable to the economic campaign, but the inference that they are so is much strengthened, if the circumstances in which the revolutionary hurricane subsided are even briefly examined: for, just as the German people rose and vented their anger upon all instruments and organs of public authority, when they thought they would have to bear another winter of want and scarcity, so, their anger subsided; they returned to their orderly habits; and showed themselves very anxious to live under a settled government (and most willing to obey it), as soon as their sharpest sufferings were relieved. In the first days of December, it was still doubtful where authority resided in Germany. In Berlin, there was a cabinet of ministers, and, outwardly, they were the rulers of the country: the ministers were in charge of their departments of state, and the civil service were obeying them; foreign powers were treating with the Berlin government; and the army, which was then retreating through Belgium, was executing orders that were being received, daily, from the capital. In the country, however, [707] executive committees were established in every Stadthaus and Rathaus, and these executive committees not only claimed, but exercised, authority; for the provincial civil service, the local police, and the local authorities obeyed them. Whether these local committees intended to obey or disobey the ministers at Berlin was still uncertain; but there was, obviously, good material at hand for a fierce conflict between the two: the local committees were, for the most part, composed of real faction leaders, whereas president Ebert and his colleagues were industrious, orderly citizens of modest means and unassuming habits, just that kind of person, in fact, whom the mob general knows to be his most formidable enemy. If the fierce, turbulent men, who temporarily controlled the provinces and provincial towns of Germany, had been able to strengthen their influence over the common people, during the winter months of 1918, it is hardly doubtful that the country would have been the theatre of prolonged disorders. This, however, was denied to them: from the outset, the revolutionary councils had no choice but to leave all administrative matters to the civil servants whom they nominally commanded; and when the first conferences between the allied and the German authorities were concluded, and the results of them known, those German officials who were administering the food regulations decided, almost simultaneously, and without consultation together, that they could safely raise the rations, as supplies from overseas were now promised, and would reach the country before long. The Bavarian and Saxon authorities did this soon after the armistice was signed; the Prussian authorities were slower, and did not issue the necessary orders until the last days of November; during the first week of December, however, better rations were being given in most of the German towns.

This seems to have been the turning point; for public order steadily reasserted itself during the weeks following. In Berlin, a small band of energumens, who called themselves Spartaci, still looked threatening, and prepared for an armed conflict; but in the country, the great mass of the German people were showing, by their daily habits and conversation, that they were turning their backs upon the men whom they had allowed to lead them during their brief hour of delirium. Pamphlets and proclamations about the revolution that was to be completed and made perfect still circulated freely; but the people cared for none of this, and in every town, village, and hamlet the talk was not of the revolutionary committees, who still sat in the town halls and council rooms, but of the national assembly that was to be elected at the end of the year. The writs for electing this assembly were issued soon after, and were a sort of challenge from the ministers at Berlin to all persons in Germany who still desired to set up a government on the Russian model: the challenge was hardly accepted; for, during the last week of December, the soldiers and sailors councils (the very bodies to whom the faction leaders looked for support) passed an overwhelming vote in favour of electing a constituent assembly. As soon as this vote was passed, the revolution in Germany was virtually over; for the ends pursued by the first managers were, thenceforward, impossible of attainment.

Soon afterwards, the allied authorities received a report from the technical experts who were sent into Germany to enquire into the state of the people. These experts recommended that three hundred thousand tons of bread stuffs and fats should be despatched to the country without delay, and the allied authorities agreed to arrange with the Germans how this was to be done, when they negotiated their next monthly prolongation of the armistice. At the first conference, which was held at Treves, it was agreed that the German merchant service should be placed in the allied service, to relieve the scarcity of shipping and to assist the transportation of supplies. At a second conference, held a month later, it was agreed, also, that 270,000 tons of bread stuffs and fats should be allowed to pass into Germany; and that Germany should be allowed to pay for these foodstuffs with exported goods.

[708] Further negotiations were necessary before these discussions could be made operable; but, in February, the conseil supérieur du blocus, pursuing their policy of increasing the amount of food available for consumption in Europe, ordered that the northern neutrals' rations of bread stuffs and fodder should be raised to the quantities required for normal consumption. The allied blockade committee in London therefore sanctioned increases, which may be judged of from the following illustrative figures:

Post-armistice rations
compared with those under last agreement.

    Ration fixed by    
last agreement
New ration
Bread grains, wheat, barley, rye 300,000 tons 425,000 tons

Bread grains, wheat, barley, rye 250,000 tons 325,000 tons

Bread grains, wheat, barley, rye Not fixed 500,000 tons

Bread grains, wheat, barley, rye 325,000 tons 1,050,000 tons
Rice 50,000 tons 200,000 tons

These new rations combined with the increases allowed in fertilisers, did not in themselves ease the blockade of Germany; but they virtually made considerable relaxations inevitable; and Marshal Foch, who noticed a stiffening temper in the delegations that met him every month to negotiate a prolongation of the armistice, protested against them. [Emphasis added by Scriptorium.]

The marshal's protest was disregarded, and in the middle of March, 1919, allied representatives met a German delegation in Brussels to negotiate for the further provisioning of Germany, and for putting the German merchant navy into the allied service. When this conference assembled, the restraints still being imposed were roughly these. German imports and exports were nominally restricted to what had been allowed under the last agreements concluded with the border neutrals; raw materials, but not manufactures, were allowed to be exported from Germany; and the stipulated quantities of agricultural produce were allowed to pass into the country. All around Germany, however, the neutrals were reprovisioning themselves as fast as the scarcity of shipping would allow; and all experts were satisfied, that their exportable stocks would be materially increased during the next months. The first reliefs allowed to Germany were, however, practically consumed; and the American experts were now alarmed at the condition of the country. The task before the conference was thus to allow Germany to receive a regular supply of foodstuffs, sufficient to relieve distress, but not sufficient to allow stocks to be accumulated. The conference therefore decided to allow Germany a monthly importation of 370,000 tons of breadstuffs, forages, and fats. These imports were to be paid for in various ways, but payment by exports of all kinds were allowed. This raised the ban upon the export of manufactured goods. The German merchant navy was put into the allied service under stipulated conditions; but a fleet of small vessels was allowed to run in the German trade with neighbouring countries. Overseas shipping was, however, very scarce; and it was patent that the supplies now permitted to be passed into Germany would be most economically delivered by facilitating trade between Germany and the border neutrals. The conseil supérieur du blocus and the allied blockade committee therefore gave orders, that the coasting trade between Germany, Scandinavia, and Holland should be freed of all restraints; that all restrictions upon exports of fish from the border neutrals to Germany should be raised; and that no German exports to border neutrals should be stopped, unless [709] they were bullion or arms and munitions. Simultaneously, restraints upon trade between Scandinavian countries were eased: guarantees against re-export were still exacted; but the permit of the legation committee was no longer attached to particular consignments. An even greater relaxation was ordered in the following month; for on 9th April, the supreme economic council recommended that black lists and enemy trading regulations should no longer be operated; on 22nd April, the consent of every allied government was received and noted in the council's minute books.

It was under this regimen that German trade was allowed to run until the peace treaty was ratified. Nominally, it was still a trade, whereby a stipulated quantity of foodstuffs was delivered in the country in return for exports and securities; but as these relaxations had been accompanied by countless relaxations in points of detail, a small general commerce was running between Germany and the American continent when the peace treaty was ratified. All restraints upon trade: agreements with neutrals, black lists, bunker controls, and the rest then became null and void. [Scriptorium notes: things were by no means as rosy as the author tries to make them seem, as the allies continued to starve the German civilian population until July 12, 1919. See here for details. The actual "peace" treaty of Versailles then proceeded to dismember the central powers and much of their infrastructure.]

ii) The relaxation of the blockade in the Mediterranean

The armistices with the Mediterranean powers were drafted and presented by three different authorities, and contained no uniform provisions about economic warfare. The Austrian armistice, which was prepared by the allied naval and military representatives at Versailles, contained clauses similar to those in the German armistice, and stipulated that economic warfare against Austria was to continue unabated. The Turkish armistice, which was drafted by the British Admiralty and War Office, and negotiated by Admiral Calthorpe, contained nothing relevant to the matter. The armistice with Bulgaria, which was prepared by General Franchet d'Esperey and his staff, contained no words about the sea, or the control of sea communications. Economic warfare in the Mediterranean differed from that in Europe, however, in that whereas in Europe restraints upon enemy trade were imposed only by trading agreements with the border neutrals, regular blockades of the enemy countries in the Mediterranean had been declared. The Italian government had declared a blockade of the Austrian coasts of the Adriatic in May, 1915; the coasts of Turkey had been declared to be blockaded in June, 1915; those of Bulgaria in October of the same year. None of these blockades were raised when the armistices were concluded. [Emphasis added by Scriptorium.]

There were, however, pressing reasons why restraints upon trade should be removed as soon as possible. The Austrian-Hungarian monarchy had quite disintegrated when the armistice was signed; indeed General Weber, the commander-in-chief, agreed to the conditions as representative of the armies only, thereby intimating that no single government could be held responsible for executing them. Of the states formed from the body of the old empire, Austria was prostrate, and the population of Vienna were threatened with famine. The state of Hungary was not very well ascertained; but Bohemia was known to be suffering from scarcity, and the Dalmatian coast was much afflicted. Now the new government of Bohemia was friendly to us; Dalmatia was incorporating itself in the new Yugoslav state, an allied country; and as Austria was quite unable to renew the campaign, or to resist any conditions imposed upon her, there was no need to withhold supplies from any part of the old empire, with the possible exception of Hungary. Nevertheless, no supplies were allowed into the country until January; when Mr. Hoover, to whom Dr. Alonzo Taylor had just reported upon the terrible state of Vienna, told the Austrian representatives: You have not arranged the finance but you will get the food. The treatment to be given to the other parts of the country was not settled for the moment.

[710] Meanwhile, General Franchet d'Esperey advanced to the Danube, and negotiated an armistice with Hungary, now an independent state. During December, French troops marched into Buda-Pesth. Though hot tempered and arbitrary the French general was not, by nature, a cruel man, and as soon as he saw the confusion and distress in all the countries that his troops were occupying, he strongly recommended that commercial relations should be restored with all countries in middle and eastern Europe, with the possible exception of Hungary. On 6th February, the conseil supérieur du blocus endorsed this recommendation, which virtually ended the economic campaign against Bulgaria and Turkey. It was left to the comité du blocus de l'orient to secure such guarantees against re-export as were thought advisable.

The supreme economic council now approved a general plan of relief for Austria, and all ex-enemy countries. As Austria was the most stricken of all, it was deemed necessary to grant immediate permission for Austrian goods to be exported. This was followed, soon after, by a recommendation that the blockade on all countries bordering on the Adriatic should be raised; the right to free commerce was thereby granted to Yugoslavia, Austria and Czechoslovakia; guarantees against re-export to Germany were asked for and obtained (6th March). These alleviations were not extended to Hungary until some weeks later, and during March, April and May, Hungarian imports and exports were nominally restricted to the importations allowed by way of relief, and to the exports allowed to be despatched in payment. On 26th May, however, the supreme economic council ruled that no restrictions of any sort need be imposed any longer. [Scriptorium comments: See here.]

A History of the Blockade of Germany
and of the countries associated with her in the Great War:
Austria-Hungary, Bulgaria and Turkey.

by A. C. Bell (Historical Section, Committee of Imperial Defence).