Nutrition and Politics in Saxon Germany, 1890-1935


A review of The Politics of the Table: Nutrition and the Telescopic Body in Saxon Germany, 1890-1935, by Kristen Ann Ehrenberger.

In The Politics of the Table, Kristen Ehrenberger elucidates how a discourse of nutrition served to tie individual Germans’ health to a broader concept of a healthy and whole social body. She refers to this discourse as a “telescopic perspective” – telescopic, because it presents a vision of the eating person from the microscopic level of cellular metabolism through a family at the dinner table to the macro level of the international food trade. This perspective was made possible by the breadth and depth of nutritional concepts popularly available in the first part of the twentieth century from a number of difference sources: mainstream and alternative medicine, industry and advertising, the press, hygiene lectures and exhibitions, and the state. In her analysis of the cultural influence of nutritional chemistry and physiology, Ehrenberger follows the approach pioneered by The Science and Culture of Nutrition, 1840-1940, ed. Harmke Kamminga and Andrew Cunningham (Atlanta: Rodopi, 1995).

The first part of the dissertation tackles the “bottom half” of the telescopic perspective: educating the German populace about nutritional science. Ehrenberger studies the circulation of ideas about nutrition in Germany through three case studies that show how ideas about nutrition were utilized in different contexts. The first was diet advice in hospitals and sick rooms, taking in the changes in popular, medical, and naturopathic nutrition for the sick from around 1890 though World War I. Usefully, Ehrenberger takes in the full sweep of ideas about nutrition in the period, noting that even furious debates between mainstream and alternative medicine helped contribute to Germans’ knowledge about nutrition.

Chapter 2 examines the telescopic perspective as expressed by the exhibitions at the German Hygiene Museum in Dresden. As the self-styled first health education organization in the country, its exhibitions underscored the idea that the eating person was connected to the rest of his society. This perspective was expressed in the late 1920s through the metaphor of the Volkskörper, or body of the people, and Ehrenberger’s argument is underpinned by deft readings of the museum’s displays and of debates among museum staff about how to depict health information.

Chapter 3 discusses the popularization of nutritional ideas through alternative medicine and advertising. Ehrenberger’s describes the naturopathic healer and self-taught chemist Ragnar Berg’s tussle with German canning industry in the 1900s-1910s. Berg believed that the customary methods of canning vegetables caused the loss of nutritious trace minerals. This amounted to “downright robbery of the national wealth of the nations,” Berg wrote in his 1911 publication The Influence of Blanching on the Nutritional Value of Our Vegetables (p. 155). Berg’s argument rested on his own experiments on mineral metabolism, and he expected that the canning industry would become convinced by his evidence. They did not, preferring instead to rely on the work of the larger body of scientists who remained skeptical of Berg’s ideas even though they were embraced by the public.

Part Two tackles the “top half” of the telescopic perspective. By examining rationing in Saxony during World War I, Ehrenberger argues that Germans’ experience of deprivation was the “turning point that summed their disparate bodies into one nation” (p. 97). Her regional focus adds to the existing literature on WWI rationing, which tends to examine Germany as a whole or focus on particular major cities, such as Jay Winter and Jean-Louis Robert, eds., Capital Cities at War: Paris, London, Berlin 1914-1919, vol. 1 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997). Focusing on Saxony allows Ehrenberger to track differences in how urban and rural populations were provisioned, revealing social fault lines with regard to class and gender. Though the goal was to stretch scarce resources by having the many eat as one, this did not work out as intended. The unequal food distribution system rewarded war workers with more food, eaten in company canteens; white-collar workers, women, and children were left with less. Ehrenberger ably shows that the German rationing regime was equitable in a system that privileged certain kinds of bodies, it was certainly not equal: extra meal for one person affected the collective in a very deep way.

Ehrenberger’s fifth chapter describes how nutritional science for sick people was scaled up for the war. The wartime sick ration plan was “even less successful” than rationing for the entire population, she argues (p. 255). It was not intended by the German government to succor a sick population, but to prevent an upsurge of tuberculosis due to malnutrition and to make sure ill people could get back to work. Ehrenberger’s use of the archives of Dresden’s head of the Patient Nutrition Division allows her to examine the rationales for sick rations and how they were communicated to the public. Under the ration scheme, a doctor could in theory proscribe special food for his patient. In practice, this food might not be available, or there would be too little of it to make an appreciable difference in the patient’s health.

Ehrenberger concludes with a discussion of how the telescopic body concept played out in Germany under the Third Reich. As bodily health was linked to racial health, the Nazis gave a racial cast to the Volkskörper. For example, a person who ate, drank, and smoked too much committed race suicide (p. 305). The family table was the center for a racialized food politics that subordinated food production to war preparedness and redirected food resources away from undesirable populations to stave them out of the social body.

Kristen Ehrenberger’s dissertation is a fresh take on how ideas about nutrition spread, and the political and social uses to which these ideas could be put, seen alongside how these ideas affected daily life. Her work is an important contribution to body culture studies, bringing nutrition into the discussion raised by books such as Michael Hau’s The Cult of Health and Beauty in Germany: A Social History 1890-1930 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003). It is also invaluable in bringing the extensive German literature on health and nutrition to an Anglophone audience.

M.S. Laas
Program in the History of Science, Technology, and Medicine
University of Wisconsin¬–Madison

Primary Sources
Deutsches Hygiene-Museum Dresden Archiv und Bibliothek
Institut für Sächsische Geschichte und Volkskunde, Dresden.
Geheimes Staatsarchiv Preuβischer Kulturbesitz (GstA-PK), Berlin-Dahlem
Sächsisches Hauptstaatsarchiv Dresden
Stadtarchiv Dresden

Dissertation Information
University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign. 2014. 363pp. Primary Advisor: Peter Fritzsche.

Image: Anatomical flap doll, Friedrich Eduard Bilz, Das neue Naturheilverfahren. Lehr- und Nachschlagbuch der naturgemäßen Heilweise und Gesundheitspflege, 93rd edition (Leipzig: Friedrich Eduard Bilz & Frankenstein & Wagner in Leipzig, 1925), frontispiece. Bibliothek, Deutsches Hygiene-Museum Dresden. Photograph by Kristen Ann Ehrenberger.

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