Let’s Not Go Shopping: What You Could Not Buy In 1940 Berlin

Think of something that you want to buy that had a counterpart in 1940 or is the same item such as a rubber band. Whatever you think of, you could not buy it in Berlin by 1940. Many items were not rationed. They just were never available. Ever. Paperclips, rubber bands, pencils, pens, ink, most kinds of paper? Nein. Shoes? Nein. Socks? Nein. Shoe strings, shoe polish, leather to repair shoes? Not available.

This 1940 poster was part of the Nazi energy conservation campaign. The figure in black, the “coal thief,” was the symbol of wasted energy. The text translates: “There he is again! He’s always hungry, his sack is always empty. Greedily he skulks around the oven, the stove or the dripping faucet. He sneaks around the window, the door or the light switch, stealing what he can. He steals from armaments production, which needs every little bit he steals from city and countryside. Catch him! Read more about it in the newspapers.”

Candles were hard to find but were easier to find than light bulbs. If you wanted a light bulb, you had to hand over the one which had burnt out. And the bulbs were limited to 40 watts. Nazi Germany had a very successful energy conservation program: “Fight the Coal Thief” with signs everywhere reminding one to turn appliances and lights off if they weren’t in use.

Since most Germans listened to the BBC, they wanted earphones which could plug into their radios since listening to foreign radio broadcasts was a serious offense in the Third Reich and it eventually became a capital offense. People were executed for listening to the BBC. But ear phones were unavailable. So were radios. Cameras were unavailable, film usually unavailable. Furniture was not available even though people had ration cards for it.

Smokers had a hard time because cigarettes were rationed and hard to find. Cigar stores would only sell customers one cigar a day which you had to clip and light in the cigar store.

Germans quickly learned that having a ration card for something didn’t mean it was available and one had to have a ration card for almost everything including furniture and clothing. You could buy one spool of thread a month – this at a time when many women still sewed clothes for themselves and their families. But thread wasn’t of use if you didn’t have a sewing needle and those were unavailable.

Worst of all for a nation like Germany where personal hygiene is almost a fetish, each adult received one bar of “unity” soap a month. This small bit of soap was supposed to be sufficient for personal bathing, shaving, laundry, and household cleaning. This was impossible of course. More intimately, William Russell writes in Berlin Embassy about toilet paper.

…the government brought out a toilet paper called ‘unity paper.’ This paper had the appearance and texture of brown American wrapping paper, and would surely have removed the paint from any woodwork over which it might have been rubbed.

[Image courtesy of Randall Bytwerk at Calvin College.]

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Charles McCain

Charles McCain is a Washington DC based freelance journalist and novelist. He is the author of "An Honorable German," a World War Two naval epic. You can read more of his work on his website: http://charlesmccain.com/

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