Potatoes in Prussia

The land of Brandenburg, Pomerania, and West Prussia was formed by glaciers - as was the land in Wisconsin, Michigan and Minnesota. So there are areas of good soil and many areas of sand where the topsoil has been scrapped off by the glaciers. Thus, until about 1750 the population of Brandenburg, Pomerania, and West Prussia was limited by the productivity of the soil. The crops were simple like rye, oats, and a few vegetables from a small vegetable garden; these were not the modern hybrid grain crops which are much more resistant to weather. The land rent was paid in grain and the family lived on the remaining grain and vegetables (and a cow's products if the peasant was lucky).

Famines were not unusual before 1750 and there was at least one nationwide famine per decade in Europe (and a local famine every four years). Prussia was especially vulnerable, as much of the farming land was marginal and the weather undependable. Special events like the dense cloud of the Icelandic volcano of 1783 caused many to starve.

The modern variety of potato was introduced to Europe from South America. Friedrich the Great was the most noteworthy advocate of the potato and worked hard to introduce it to Prussia. When in 1744 a great famine occurred in Prussia, Friedrich the Great ordered the peasants to grow the potato. But the Lutheran and Catholic clerics were totally against the potato. They argued that if God wanted people to eat the potato, the potato would have been mentioned in the Bible. Some believed it to be an aphrodisiac and thus to be avoided. Friedrich the Great would not put up with such nonsense and soon the potato was grown all over Prussia. Soon the land became more productive and the land could support more people. The famines ceased and the population grew. Eventually the potato belt spanned from Ireland to the Russian Ural Mountains.

The potato grows underground so it is immune to many weather problems that effect grains and vegetables. It also reproduces from cuttings so eliminating the problem of developing seed. And it stores well. However, only one variety of potatoes was introduced in Europe. And that variety was vulnerable to the so-called potato blight.

About 1845, the potato blight, a type of water mold, arrived in Europe. By September 13th of that year, it had arrived in Ireland. By 1852 much of the potato crop in Ireland and all the way to the Urals had been destroyed (including throughout Prussia). Although the famous and horrible Irish Potato famine is well known, lesser known is that this famine led to starvation in all the northern lands. And led to much migration out of Prussia and Europe in general.

For more details, see "The Eyes Have It" by Charles Mann in the Smithsonian Magazine of November 2011.



Please send any queries to Bill Remus at

November 17, 2011