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Germans and a (very) brief history of 'Hamstern'

Dagmar Breitenbach
November 18, 2020

"Hoarding like a hamster"? You bet the Germans do! At the start of the coronavirus outbreak, the world learned the quirky German verb "hamstern." A look at two world wars shows such hoarding has been done before.

A cartoon hamster sits in a grocery cart
Image: picture-alliance/Bildagentur-online/Ohde

At the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic in Germany, certain supermarket shelves stayed empty for weeks. Many people had panic-bought toilet paper, soap, pasta and canned food. The media picked up on the phenomenon and constantly used the colorful colloquial German word for hoarding, "hamstern," which means to store like a hamster.   

The coronavirus pandemic was not the first time that Germans have panic-bought — though it's been a while.

Just over one century ago, in anticipation of World War I, people mainly bought durable food, far in excess of their needs.

Black and White photo from the 1940s that shows people hanging from the sides of a train
This undated photo from the 1940s shows how desparate people from the cities clung to a train headed to the countryside Image: picture-alliance/dpa

Germany probably last saw panic-buying in any form in the post-war years. And unlike in the first weeks of the 2020 coronavirus pandemic, when Germans stockpiled toilet paper and canned goods just to be on the safe side, survivors of WWII who lived in cities flocked by the thousands to farms in the countryside.

Desperate, they swapped jewelry, clothing and household goods for urgently needed potatoes, bacon, butter, fruit and vegetables. These excursions were called "Hamsterfahrten," or hoarding trips.

You'll find more from Meet the Germans on YouTube or at dw.com/MeettheGermans.