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"The English Disease"

A German propaganda film warns of the dangers of vitamin deficiencies that lead to rickets.
United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Courtesy of National Library of Medicine

Although Nazi propaganda urged Germans to eat a well-balanced diet rich in fresh fruits and vegetables, the regime implemented policies that contributed to an increase in diseases related to malnutrition. Nazi leaders stockpiled thousands of tons of food to prepare the country for war, and this preserved food often lost its nutritional value or became contaminated during storage. German citizens’ diets became restricted by food rationing and supply shortages during World War II. The entire Nazi food system began collapsing in the final year of the war.1

The featured Nazi propaganda film about rickets—"The English Disease"—was made in 1941. The film explains how sunlight and proper nutrition can help prevent children from getting rickets, which occurs when insufficient amounts of Vitamin D are absorbed into the body. Rickets softens the developing tissues of children’s bones, often causing thickened wrists and ankles, curved spines, and projecting breastbones. “The English Disease” begins with footage of people with these skeletal developments walking across the screen with an image of the British Isles in the background. The ominous lighting and music in this scene contrasts heavily with the more positive atmosphere in later scenes of healthy young German children.2

Nazi public health campaigns urged Germans to eat healthy foods, but there was disagreement about what exactly that meant. Nazi propaganda sometimes promoted the vegetarianism of Adolf Hitler as a model for other Germans, but other Nazi leaders enthusiastically supported pork as a staple of traditional German food.3 German doctors and medical researchers recommended specific diets intended to prevent rickets, cancer, and other diseases, but their suggestions often contradicted one another.4

Rates of several diseases related to malnutrition and contaminated foods began rising among the German population shortly after World War II began. Some high-ranking Nazi leaders supported organic farming methods in order to produce more nutritious foods for the German nation while strengthening the supposedly mystical ties between the German people and the land—an idea embodied by the Nazi propanda slogan, "Blood and Soil." Beginning in 1940, the SS established several large organic farms at the sites of concentration camps such as Auschwitz, Dachau, and Ravensbrück. But other Nazi leaders opposed the organic farming movement, and it never became more than a marginal part of German agriculture during the years of the Nazi regime.5

"The English Disease" represents a public health effort to educate the German people about preventing rickets in children with nutritious food and outdoor activities, but the film is also a piece of wartime propaganda. The narrator claims that the English government intentionally caused an epidemic of rickets in Germany during World War I, but he assures audiences that the Nazi regime will ensure that "the English disease can never become a German disease!"6

Nazi agricultural leaders kept mass hunger from the German homefront until the winter of 1944–1945 by diverting enormous amounts of food from German-occupied territories and starving millions. For more, see Gesine Gerhard, "Food and Genocide: Nazi Agrarian Politics in the Occupied Territories of the Soviet Union," Contemporary European History 18, no. 1 (February 2009): 45–65. 

Dr. Ernst Wentzler is the German pediatrician shown examining a baby toward the end of "The English Disease." Wentzler was closely involved in the so-called "euthanasia" program. For more, see Patricia Heberer, "'Euthanasia,'" in Children during the Holocaust (Lanham, MD: Altamira Press in association with the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, 2011): 209-220.

 Nazi propaganda also suggested that Germans—especially youth—abstain from alcohol and tobacco "in emulation" of Hitler. For more, see the Experiencing History item, "Nazis Hit Alcohol, Tobacco."

For more, see Robert N. Proctor, "The Nazi Diet," in The Nazi War on Cancer (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1999): 120–72.

An early system of organic farming known as biodynamic agriculture was gaining popularity in Germany at the time, but Nazi leaders disagreed about whether it supported or threatened Nazi goals. For more, see Peter Staudenmaier, "Organic Farming in Nazi Germany: The Politics of Biodynamic Agriculture, 1933-1945," Environmental History 18, no. 2 (April 2013): 383–411. 

During World War I, a blockade of the Central Powers by the British navy contributed to widespread food shortages and malnutrition. Cases of rickets rose drastically in major German and Austrian cities such as Berlin and Vienna. Because Nazi ideology embraced the myth that Germany lost WWI because it had been "stabbed in the back" by Jews and socialists exploiting domestic unrest, Nazi food policies focused on preventing similar food shortages during World War II. 

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"Light, fresh air, and sun, these are the weapons to use against rickets. A diet rich in vitamins is also of great value for the child’s healthy development. Plant products, such as lettuce and vegetables, contain a provitamin that can be converted in the body to Vitamin D. Grated raw carrots, spinach, and lettuce are especially important for a young child."

Archival Information for This Item

Source (Credit)
United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Courtesy of National Library of Medicine
Accession Number 2004.713.1
RG Number 60.4312
Date Created
Duration 00:01:10
Time Selection 07:07–08:17
Sound Yes
Videographer / Creator
Betina Ewerbeck
Moving Image Type Newsreel
How to Cite Museum Materials

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