Wartime Rationing During World War II and the Effect of Public Opinion in Great Britain and Austria

By Sujay Kulshrestha
2010, Vol. 2 No. 12 | pg. 1/1

During World War II, a key aspect of almost every country’s wartime strategy focused heavily on limiting domestic consumption. One method governments employed to enforce control was to forcibly reduce their citizens’ consumption through the implementation of rationing, a tactic that allowed governments to equally apportion a certain amount of a particular resource to many people, rather than allowing a free-for-all atmosphere when resources were limited. An Economic Intelligence Service of the League of Nations publication from 1942 details the importance of rationing during wartime, stating, “the control of consumption is a necessary condition…[for] the effective mobilization of resources for war purposes.”[1] Governments who effectively employed rationing programs domestically were better able to manage resources for their war efforts abroad.

World War II Ration Stamps World War II Ration Stamps

Rationing became a key part of war efforts on both sides of World War II. In Great Britain, the strains of a massive war effort and severe cutbacks in trade due to enemy naval forces pushed politicians to implement elaborate rationing systems to distribute resources. On the Axis side, the German occupation of Austria forcibly restrained the availability of goods to Austrians in favor allocating resources for the German war effort. However with these cuts in consumption came social unrest; citizens had mixed views of the cuts in consumption that their governments forced upon them. In short the strains caused by World War II caused citizens on both sides, in this case Great Britain and Austria, to make major cuts in consumption as a result of rationing; simultaneously, governments were forced to consider and react to public opinion of rationing policy.

The Second World War forced the British Government to make drastic cuts in consumption. British Citizens were placed under enormous strain during this time−British policymakers subjected many facets of normal everyday life to cuts and quotas. In the beginning stages of the war, Great Britain was blockaded by German U-boats, which created a huge barrier to trade.[2] As a result, Great Britain had to find a way to equally distribute limited domestic resources to its population; the solution to this problem was widespread rationing. In 1940 the British Government began to ration foods, a policy that would continue through the end of the war.[3] The Government categorized different foods into three categories: the first was guaranteed rationed food, comprised of rare and scarce items, the second included foods like milk, eggs, fish, fruits, and vegetables whose availability fluctuated, and the third encompassed staple foods such as bread and potatoes, which remained uncontrolled, a policy designed to stave off widespread hunger.[4] Evidently British legislators found it necessary to impose harsh restrictions on wartime food consumption to maintain a successful war effort.

The issue of rationing remained a hot topic among British citizens during and in the years immediately following the war. Gallup polls taken in the early postwar years, June 1946 to April 1949, indicated that British citizens considered food rationing one of the most important domestic issues of the time.[5] For the most part the British people viewed rationing unfavorably−a view reflected in the newspapers of the time. An editorial cartoon by Joseph Lee published in the Evening News in January 1940 depicts this disfavor; Lee illustrates a common English person in a store asking for his ration “coupons back for confetti.”[6] This cartoon demonstrates the widespread frustration with the coupon system−the system controlled so many items that it quickly became common to have more coupons than rations. With so many items being rationed with the use of coupon books, it took little time for citizens to react negatively. In 1942, Nicholas Davenport, a journalist for the city news, reported that with the introduction of food rationing “it was considered smart to circumvent the law.”[7] British citizens were not pleased with the quality of their food either−a British Institute of Public Opinion poll taken in 1944 found that 90% of respondents found their day-to-day food to be the same or worse than their food before the war.[8] With less food, more red tape, and lower quality of goods it is easy to see why rationing clearly created discontent among the British People.

Public opinion only became an effective tool of the masses after the war had ended. During the war, while there was discontent, the sense remained that these restrictions on food were for the good of the war effort and would culminate with the end of the war. Wartime rationing was viewed as a necessary evil that British citizens would have to temporarily contend with.[9] The result of this attitude towards rationing was that the Labour Party, the dominant force in British politics during the war, could afford to take certain licenses with the restrictions they placed on people, under the guise of their actions being taken for the good of the war effort. However, with the end of the war, Labour Party politicians neglected to sense a swing in mood−the war had ended and British citizens expected a shift back to prewar consumption policy, instead they received more restrictions. In 1946, the Labour Party attempted to ration bread and potatoes, items that were previously freely available, to great public discontent.[10] Furthermore, the Labour politicians, foolishly believing they were still popular amongst the people, failed to monitor public opinion polls−polls that the conservatives watched carefully. According to British historian Ina Zweiniger-Bargielowska, Gallup polls and local elections illustrated a “swing to the right,” resulting from the Conservative Party’s careful catering to the public opinion of consumption control.[11] County and municipal election results show a 989 seat increase for conservatives in the period 1945-1951.[12] In short, though the Labour Party was popular during the wartime years, their failure to recognize the public reaction to their rationing policy led to their political downfall. The Conservative Party in Britain at the time took great advantage of this ignorance, recognizing the change in the political atmosphere and taking appropriate measures to manipulate it to their advantage. As a result, the Labour Party’s disregard for the public opinion in response to their rationing measures led to Conservative Party politicians gaining a foothold and strengthening their position in the postwar era.

Unlike Great Britain, Austria had to deal with rationing implemented by an occupying nation−Germany. The fact that Austria was an occupied nation during wartime somewhat dampens the effect of public opinion on public policy; the Nazis ruled Austria authoritatively and, to an extent, gave little thought to Austrian opinion. The Nazis began their control of Austria after annexing it to little protest in the Anschluss of 1938.[13] As with its own wartime economy, the Germans imposed cuts in consumption on the Austrians during the war, introducing rationing programs shortly after the establishment of the Anschluss.[14] The Germans established these programs to seize more resources for German citizens−Austrian historian Fritz Keller notes that in Austria “the sight of shelves that had been cleared even of staples was unknown.”[15] In short, an examination of the German economic policy for Austria reveals that the policy was designed to take advantage of the Austrian economy for German gain. Furthermore Radomir Luza, notes that the German integration of occupied countries, known as Gleichschaltung, exposed new economies to Reich and party control.[16] In Austria the Reich installed methods of controlling consumption, by placing limitations on the amounts of butter, flour, and fresh fruit that Austrians had access to. The Germans considered the Austrian popular opinion−with the introduction of rationing came the introduction of hotchpotch, a recipe introduced by the Germans during the war due to its ease in being made from limited resources. Fritz notes that the Germans held a ceremony to make hotchpotch seem more appealing to the public, indicating that they did consider Austrian public opinion before they implemented rationing. [17] However, although the Germans chose to try to improve public opinion through propaganda, they failed to modify their consumption policy.

Even with Nazi efforts to try to avoid angering the Austrian public, Austrian sentiment towards rationing programs remained largely negative. The Austrians were not used to experiencing shortages during wartime as they had a surplus of resources. As a result, the false shortages that the Germans created to justify their rationing were not widely welcomed.[18] Newspapers of the time, even though they were controlled by German authorities, reported Austrian discontent,[19] proving that the public opinion was so strong that it even transcended German censorship. Austrian Housewives voiced dissent towards limits on fresh fruit, vegetables, eggs, and meat; these demonstrations were serious enough that, in certain cases, police interference was required.[20] The Nazis angered the Austrians further by increasing the extent of the cuts in consumption. In March 1942 the Nazis cut food rations drastically, causing already disgruntled Austrians to start to voice their irritation with Nazi policy.[21] Although at first the Germans considered public opinion when implementing rationing policies, the harshening of consumption policy angered the Austrian population.

The Germans did, at first, attempt to prevent widespread outrage in Austria by responding to dissatisfaction amongst the masses. In response to concerns that the rations were not adequate to make proper meals, the German Women’s Initiative issued booklets with tips on how to prepare meals with rations.[22] The Nazis also tried to take advantage of popular Austrian figures to appease public opinion; Franz Ruhm, a popular radio personality, published a recipe book proclaiming the appetizing nature of various stews and other meals made from rations. However, with time it became apparent that the Nazis could not continue to try to appease the public and simultaneously maintain rigid control. As a result the Nazis began to implement policies regardless of public opinion. After introducing a severe increase in the amount of goods rationed in 1942, Austrian morale decreased sharply.[23] Furthermore, Hitler replaced the gauleiter of Austria with a native Berliner, angering the Austrian public.[24] A New York Times foreign correspondent in Austria described citizens as “gray and listless, threadbare and weary” − a description that indicates the failure of German reaction to public opinion in Austria.[25] With time, as a result of the strange relationship that exists between a belligerent nation and its occupied territory, the Germans shifted to an ignorance of public opinion. This ignorance was followed by a general decrease in Austrian Morale, evidenced by the changing atmosphere depicted in the New York Times article. In short, though the Germans tried to consider and pacify increasing tensions amongst the Austrian people, inevitably the German war effort came before Austrian happiness.

Controlling consumption was fundamental to successful war efforts during World War II. It was understood that citizens had to make significant sacrifices domestically to help their soldiers abroad. In Great Britain, the British population accepted these sacrifices during wartime, however unhappily. On the other hand, in Nazi-occupied Austria, Austrians voiced malcontent with the rationing policy implemented by the Nazis during the war. In both cases, public opinion was largely negative, but they differ in their respective government’s handling of public response to policy. The British government−specifically the Labour Party−dealt with little significant controversy toward rationing policy during the war. As a result, they fell into a state of complacency, allowing rationing policy to continue in the postwar period, and thereby losing their prominence in government to the Conservative Party, who considered public opinion. Conversely, the Germans, who tried to consider Austrian opinion, maintained their authoritarian rule and gave up trying to appease the Austrians−the German war effort took precedence over Austrian satisfaction. Evidently, a complex balance exists between maintaining a successful wartime effort through consumption control and maintaining the happiness of a nation’s people.


Addison, Paul. The Road to 1945: British Politics and the Second World War. London: PIMLICO, 1975.

British Institute of Public Opinion, “Poll #1944-105: War/Flu,” (Roper Center for Public Opinion Research, 1944),

http://roperweb.ropercenter.uconn.edu/cgi-bin/hsrun.exe/Roperweb/Catalog40/ Catalog40.htx;start=summary_link?archno=GBBIPO1944-105

Bukey, Evan Burr. Hitler’s Austria: Popular Sentiment in the Nazi Era, 1938-1945. Chapel Hill: UNC UP, 2000.

Economic Intelligence Service. Wartime Rationing and Consumption. Geneva: League of Nations, 1942.

Gallup, George H. The Gallup International Public Opinion Polls: Great Britain 1937-1975, vol. 1. New York: Random House, 1976.

Hammond, R.J.. Food, Volume I: The Growth of Policy. London, HMSO: 1951.

Keegan, John. The Second World War. New York: Penguin, 1989.

Keller, Fritz. "Eintopf for the Austrian Gourmet: How Even the Spoiled Austrians Learned to Love German Hotchpotch," Contemporary Austrian Studies 17 (Jan., 2009): 135-156.

Lee, Joseph. Smiling Through: Save For Victory. London: Evening News, 1/31/1940.

Luza, Radomir. Austro-German Relations in the Anschluss Era. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1975.

“The ‘New Order’ in Vienna,” The New York Times, November 28, 1940, p. 22.

Zweiniger-Bargielowska, Ina. “Rationing, Austerity and the Conservative Party Recovery after 1945,” The Historical Journal 37, no. 1 (Mar., 1994): 173-196.

[1] Economic Intelligence Service, Wartime Rationing and Consumption (Geneva: League of Nations, 1942), p. 1.

[2] John Keegan, The Second World War (New York: Penguin, 1989), p. 104.

[3] R.J. Hammond, Food, Volume I: The Growth of Policy (London, HMSO: 1951), p. 113.

[4] Ina Zweiniger-Bargielowska, “Rationing, Austerity and the Conservative Party Recovery after 1945,” The Historical Journal 37, no. 1 (Mar., 1994): 177.

[5] George H. Gallup, The Gallup International Public Opinion Polls: Great Britain 1937-1975, vol. 1, (New York: Random House, 1976) p. 148.

[6] Joseph Lee, Smiling Through: Save For Victory (London: Evening News, 1/31/1940).

[7] Paul Addison, The Road to 1945: British Politics and the Second World War (London: PIMLICO, 1975), p. 130.

[8] British Institute of Public Opinion, “Poll #1944-105: War/Flu,” (Roper Center for Public Opinion Research, 1944),

http://roperweb.ropercenter.uconn.edu/cgi-bin/hsrun.exe/Roperweb/Catalog40/ Catalog40.htx;start=summary_link?archno=GBBIPO1944-105

[9] Addison, 19.

[10] Zweiniger-Bargielowska, 177.

[11] Ibid., 182-83.

[12] Ibid., 185, Table 3, Panel 1.

[13] Keegan, p. 38-9.

[14] Fritz Keller, "Eintopf for the Austrian Gourmet: How Even the Spoiled Austrians Learned to Love German Hotchpotch," Contemporary Austrian Studies 17 (Jan., 2009): 136.

[15] Ibid., 135.

[16] Radomir Luza, Austro-German Relations in the Anschluss Era, (Princeton: Princeton UP, 1975), p. 196.

[17] Keller, 138-39.

[18] Ibid., 136.

[19] Ibid., 139.

[20] Evan Burr Bukey, Hitler’s Austria: Popular Sentiment in the Nazi Era, 1938-1945, (Chapel Hill: UNC UP 2000), p. 56.

[21] Ibid., 174.

[22] Keller, 142.

[23] Bukey, 174.

[24] Ibid., 162.

[25]“The ‘New Order’ in Vienna,” The New York Times, November 28, 1940, p. 22.

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