Belinda J. Davis examines the German home front during World War I by describing the severe food crisis affecting "a broadening population of Germans" (2) from the beginning of the war, particularly the lower and working classes in Berlin. Davis asserts that "women of lesser means" (3) were hardest hit by food scarcity, inflation and governmental ineptitude in dealing with the ever-growing food crisis in Germany's capital city, and that these careworn women came to symbolize the hardships of all Germans facing starvation, price-fixing, and hoarding by producers. "Gender plays a central role in this account of the war," Davis announces (3), and goes on to depict the new political role women came to play by way of street riots, public protests and entrance in to the work force (most notably munitions work.) She demands that "we must acknowledge the changes brought about" by the protests of women of lesser means during the course of the Great War that eventually led to revolution in 1918 and the collapse of the German war effort. (234) These important changes were in the form of a "just distribution of material goods and political power," (236) with which Berliners struggled for years to come. Although Davis' innovative focus on lower class women consumers from 1914 to 1918 is a provocative one, Home Fires Burning suffers from a number of organizational and conceptual problems that ultimately undermine the book's success.
Several problematic evidentiary questions are apparent in Home Fires Burning. Davis uses Berlin as a microcosm for all German cities in describing the catastrophic food shortages, such as bread, potatoes and butter, and distribution problems. Yet, despite her introduction in which she discusses Germany as a whole and a willingness to extrapolate from Berlin's example for all of Germany, Davis goes on to say that Berlin was "clearly unique within the empire." (17) This contradiction raises a question of how representative Berlin is for the entire nation, particularly since Davis engages in very little discussion of other German cities. Furthermore, she concludes that Berlin policemen observing rioting women in the streets gradually began to sympathize with those "of lesser means," and eventually colored their reports to superiors with subtle calls for actions and relief. (99-103) If it is true, however, that these police officers manipulated their statements for their own benefit, it casts doubt as to the credibility and reliability of the value of these records (upon which Davis relies heavily) as evidence-something she seems not to have questioned throughout the book.
Davis also commits the "fallacy of insidious generalization," most notably in her lack of quantification. Although Davis does provide several tables in this study and briefly discusses caloric intake quantitatively, she repeatedly generalizes in her narrative and for the most part avoids numbers. In a lengthy discussion of special consumer privileges granted to soldiers' wives, for example, her analysis rests on impressionistic accounts of police reports that echo resentments of those not afforded these benefits (primarily extra food coupons and rent protection.) She provides no analysis of what this allowance meant to soldiers' wives in real terms-was it significant or meaningful? Did those not receiving this benefit have a legitimate gripe, or were their protests based on misperceptions? Throughout this study, the reader gets little sense of the scale of the home front crisis due to a sense of imprecision. Davis employs frequent generalizations (such as "many", "all," or "none") and a persistent, sweeping use of jargon to summarize broad concepts with little or no description.
Hyperbole characterizes Davis' prose. She claims broadly that women were an "inner enemy" of society, while "particular circumstances of the war [resulted in] ...the vilification of femaleness." (45) Nowhere does she prove that all women were vilified for being females-or for any other reason. Additionally, Davis asserts that the "primacy of gender" led to working males receiving more food subsidization, and labels this "a social tragedy." Describing class and gender issues as tragic while a horrific war raged for four years is an inappropriate exaggeration, ultimately weakens the credibility of her entire argument, and should have been avoided.
Throughout her account of World War I food and politics, Davis reveals her own aesthetic of what good government should be, then and now: interventionist. She uses prose to dehumanize her descriptions of government agencies and workers responsible for providing aid, too often referring to them coldly as "the state," "the commission," or "high-level authorities." (67, 91) This literary device creates an impression of an unsympathetic, faceless bureaucracy plodding along, rather than an overwhelmed group of individuals struggling to solve and react to unprecedented domestic problems. Her choice of words when referring to government actions is telling: official actions to solve food crises were "partial, grudging," (109, while their efforts were "hapless." (115) The free market had a "degrading effect" on the German economy, and was inappropriate, (124) while Germans had "to serve, rather than be served" (11) by the state-a condition Davis evidently laments.
Davis uses a grinding, repetitive narrative to hammer home her theme that only a total governmental intervention in the economy and food distribution system of Imperial Germany, especially in Berlin, could have-and should have-saved thousands from starvation and potentially have warded off revolution by the end of the war. She employs repeated examples of limited efforts by imperial agencies to solve the various food and price emergencies to support her claim that partial solutions failed, such as ill-conceived rent controls (210), price ceilings for milk (162) and soup kitchens (156). Thus only radical measures such as "equalized distribution" of food resources (180) and "total control" of the economy by government officials (115) could bring about the "just distribution of material goods and political power," (236) especially for lower class women short of revolution. Unfortunately, Davis' argument is largely unpersuasive, given her failure to provide evidence that such extreme measures would have proven any more effective in alleviating the suffering of Berliners during the war years than the attempts of the state authorities she repeatedly condemns.