The Power-Struggle Between Margarine and Butter in Germany

zuerst erschienen im August 2003 auf
Late last year, while attending an elephant polo tournament in Thailand (that's no joke), I had the pleasure of meeting Christian Litz, who is a layman expert on the little-known (but very real) historical power-struggle between margarine and butter in Germany. I asked him some questions on the topic, which I reprint in Q&A form here:

Rolf Potts: Just to establish things for the home audience, what is the difference between butter and margarine?

Christian Litz: Butter is made from cow milk, margarine is made of fat. In older days this meant fat from dead animals, but now it usually means fat from corn, soybeans, or peanuts. There is also artificial fat that comes from oil or coal.

RP: Are Germans particularly fond of margarine? Or do they prefer butter?

CL: The butter-margarine issue has divided German society for a long time. We are rather psychotic in this regard. Back in the time of the Kaiser, the use of butter versus margarine was an expression of social status – and in some respects that sentiment lasts to this day. Two years ago, a man killed his wife because they could not afford butter. He said, „We lost our money, we couldn’t afford butter anymore, and my wife wanted to die. So I killed her.“ On the other hand, there has always been a very strong health-food movement in Germany that has endorsed margarine. This dates back to the 19th century, when people began to eat margarine because it didn’t contain animal fat. The importance of margarine was strengthened during the two World Wars, because margarine was a subsitute for butter, and it kept soldiers happy on the front. Of course margarine ultimately became scarce because its ingredients were needed to make explosives.

RP: Didn’t that make margarine-shortage a problem for Germany during the World Wars?

CL: Margarine shortage was indeed a severe problem during wartime. It ultimately came down to the question: ammunition or margarine? In World War I they gave butter to the soldiers in the field, and most of the glycerin that would have gone into margarine was going to the ammunition industry. So this meant not enough butter or margarine for the home market. The trouble became even bigger in World War II. One big propaganda theme of the Nazis was: „Don’t eat margarine, jam is enough in the morning.“ There was also a famous Goebbels speech in which he said, „the Führer wants cannons instead of butter.“

RP: What was Adolf Hitler’s personal stance on the butter-margarine issue?

CL: He was a hardcore vegetarian, so he only ate margarine. He even made a hero out of a Jewish scientist who developed alternative methods of making margarine. This man’s name was Arthur Imhausen, and he was a so-called „half-Jew“. Normally this would have doomed him to a concentration camp, but he ran a factory in the Rhur area where he had synthesized soap from coal, and he was working on a way of making margarine from coal. So he got money and help from the Nazis and produced a kind of margarine that was very durable and didn’t spoil. Hitler and Göring we thrilled, and in 1937 they told Imhausen that he and his family would be treated as honorary Aryans. Eventually, Imhausen got two of Germany’s highest military medals for his fat-synthesis work. He survived the Third Reich, and the Imhausen company was allowed to operate in post-war Germany. Arthur Imhausen died in 1951, but his company still survives. It made headlines again when it sold chemicals to Libya during the international boycott of the 1980s.

RP: Didn’t margarine go on to play a key role in the German advertising industry after the World Wars?

CL: Actually, the margarine industry has fueled German advertising since the 1890s. No industry has ever spent so much money to promote a product. The very first radio ad in Germany was for margarine – as was the first cinema newsreel. Every print magazine in the 1920s lived on margarine ads, since the war was over and the ingredients were no longer needed for ammunition. The industry sunk a lot of money into advertising because the butter barons – rich Prussian noblemen with large cow herds – were fighting against it. For example, they started rumors about margarine causing diseases, even going so far as to take the issue to court.. So advertising was the margarine industry’s best way of fighting back.

RP: Does margarine still play a visible role in German advertising?

CL: Well, recently there was a margarine ad on TV that featured a woman having sex with two men. It really was one of the best ads I’ve ever seen on German television. It featured this beautiful blonde girl sleeping naked in her bed. She wakes up and turns over, and then you see the body of a man next to her. She climbs on top of the man, and then you see another man join in. After a few artful cuts, you see both guys laying in bed, exhausted, and the woman gets up and walks naked down the hall. She opens the refrigerator, takes out a margarine package, holds it against her cheek, and smiles. It’s an ad for Lätta margarine. I did some investigation and learned that this actress is from Spain. She lives with her parents in Madrid, and she doesn’t give interviews. And she eats butter, not margarine.

RP: Which do you prefer – butter or margarine?

CL: Butter. It tastes better, I think. But I also remember how, back the ’70s, my father tried to lose weight by eating reduced-fat margarine. It was an awful time for my family. And then there’s another image from the past: I was three or four years old, sitting on the lap of my grandfather as he drove his tractor. He had a cow farm, and he was letting me hold the steering-wheel as we drove around. Then out of nowhere he said: „I hate people who eat margarine.“ I think German dairy farmers were having lots of troubles at the time.