That Time Germans Waged War (Against Potato Beetles)

That Time Germans Waged War (Against Potato Beetles)

In 1950, the East German government warned the population that they were going to war. The enemy had already dropped into the country by plane, and it was up to the civilians to fight back. 

The enemy was the Colorado potato beetle.

Yes, in yet another bizarre event that could have only happened during the Cold War, East Germany experienced a dangerous influx of potato beetles, and the East German government used it as propaganda to say that Americans were dropping beetles.

Beetlemania began in East Germany on May 23, 1950, when farmers spotted American cargo planes over their fields. After the planes made their appearance, the farmers found a horrible surprise: potato beetles were invading their fields. And the East German government knew exactly who to blame.

A propaganda campaign was launched regarding the beetles. The government and state outlets confidently asserted that the American cargo planes were responsible for dropping the bugs as an attempt to undermine the East German state. Potato beetles were even given the name “Amikafer,” or “Yankee beetle,” to really drive the point home. They were also called “six-legged ambassadors of the American invasion,” which might be the funniest way to refer to a beetle. 

Scott Bauer/Wiki Commons

The next time you see a beetle, just remember to call it a “six-legged ambassador of the American invasion."

Regardless of how funny the name was, though, the beetles posed a real problem. Potatoes were a crucial crop to the East German food supply, and potato beetles could do significant damage. Knowing the destructive power of potato beetles, governments had considered plans to use them as weapons in both World Wars.

To avert a potato catastrophe, the children of East Germany were called on to go into the fields and combat the “American invasion,” AKA, collect beetles. Those involved said they would catch around 20 a day, which seems like a fairly inefficient way to handle a bug problem. Regardless, when you’re fighting a guerrilla war against pests, you go with whatever works.

So while the idea of propaganda against beetles is funny, the question of where the beetles truly came from remains. It was the Cold War, a time when every wacky idea under the sun was given government funding, so the idea of Americans dropping beetles as a sort of strange weapon is not… entirely inconceivable. Realistically, this isn’t why East Germany saw a surge in potato beetles, though. 

As for actual causes of the beetles, a major contributor was likely a shortage in pesticides. Colorado potato beetles are an invasive species throughout Europe, but they had been brought over long before the American cargo planes over East Germany. It just so happened that in 1950, there was not an effective way to fight them off. 

In time, the threat of the six-legged ambassadors subsided, likely thanks at least in part to the kids who would spend time after school hunting them in the potato fields. It is important to note that even though the East German government was adamant that this was an American attack, even going so far as to publish a mostly-bogus study about it, the East German people were not tricked. 

Accounts from many who were involved in the fight against the beetles show that they knew this wasn’t some American bug invasion. People weren’t as “brainwashed” as we might believe, and instead, they knew that they needed to do their part to help save the potato crops, regardless of where the beetles came from. 

Top Image: Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-48449-0003 / CC-BY-SA 3.0

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