Ersatz good

An ersatz (German: [ɛɐ̯ˈzats]) good is a substitute good, especially one that is considered inferior to the good it replaces.[1] It has particular connotations of wartime usage.


Ersatz is a German word literally meaning substitute or replacement.[2] Although it is used as an adjective in English, it is a noun in German. In German orthography noun phrases formed are usually represented as a single word, forming compound nouns such as Ersatzteile ("spare parts") or Ersatzspieler ("substitute player"). While the term used in English often implies that the substitution is of unsatisfactory or inferior quality compared with the "real thing", in German, similar connotations are not inherent and depend purely on the factual context; e.g. Ersatzteile ("spare parts") is a technical expression without any implication about quality, whereas in other cases it may mean things of poorer quality, e.g. Kaffeeersatz (a coffee substitute not made from coffee beans).

Historical context

World War I

In the opening months of World War I, replacement troops for battle-depleted German infantry units were drawn from lesser-trained Ersatz Corps, who were less effective than the troops they replaced. Also, the Allied naval blockade of Germany throttled maritime commerce with Germany, forcing Germany to develop substitutes for products such as chemical compounds and provisions. Ersatz products developed during this time included: synthetic rubber (produced from petroleum), benzene for heating oil (coal gas), tea composed of ground raspberry leaves or catnip, and coffee substitute using roasted acorns or beans instead of coffee beans.

Another example of the word's usage in Germany exists in the German naval construction programs at the beginning of the 20th century. In this context, the phrasing "Ersatz (shipname)" indicates that a new, larger or more capable ship was a replacement for an ageing or lost vessel. Because German practice was not to reveal the name of a new ship until its launch, this meant that the ship was known by its "Ersatz (shipname)" throughout its construction. At the end of World War I, the last three ships of the planned Mackensen class of battlecruisers were redesigned and initially known simply as the Ersatz Yorck class, since the first ship was considered to be a replacement for the lost armored cruiser Yorck.

World War II

In World War II, Ersatzbrot (substitute bread) made of potato starch, frequently stretched with extenders such as sawdust, was furnished to prisoners of war. This practice was prevalent on the Eastern Front and at the many Nazi labour and death camps. During the Siege of Leningrad, its citizens were given ersatz flour instead of actual wheat flour (of which there was an extremely limited supply of then) by the Soviet authorities. The lack of proper food with any nutrition meant that the city residents not only starved but became vulnerable to deadly illnesses and diseases (such as dysentery) owing to their weakened physical conditions.[3] As a result, the word ersatz entered as a pejorative into Russian and other Slavic languages.

In Britain, this was additionally popularised as an adjective from the experiences of thousands of U.S., British, and other English-speaking combat personnel, primarily airmen, who were captured in the European Theater of Operations during World War II. These Allied prisoners of war were given ersatz goods such as Ersatzkaffee, an inferior Getreidekaffee or "grain coffee" as a coffee substitute by their German captors.

Eastern Bloc

In the Eastern Bloc, many agricultural goods could not be produced domestically, such as tea, coffee, nuts, and citrus fruits. These were generally imported from abroad with scarce foreign currency reserves, or inferior substitutes were produced domestically. In 1977, the East German coffee crisis resulted in the introduction of many coffee substitutes, which were generally rejected by the population. Replacements for orangeat and succade were made from candied carrot and unripe tomatoes.[4]


When people are asked to choose an ersatz good, they tend to prefer a substitute from the same category as the good they desire to a goal-derived substitute, one that meets the same goal. For instance, a person who desires a gourmet chocolate is more likely to choose another chocolate as a substitute than a different kind of dessert or snack. Because such "within-category" substitutes are easier to compare to the desired good, however, those that are inferior are less effective than "cross-category" substitutes that fulfill the same goal. People are more able to notice their inferiority during consumption, which leads them to be less satisfying than goal-derived substitutes from different taxonomic categories.[5]

See also


  1. Mises, Ludwig von (1949). "War and Autarky". Human Action. A substitute is a good which is either less suitable or more expensive or both less suitable and more expensive than the proper good which it is designed to replace.
  2. "Ersatz - Definition and More from the Free Merriam-Webster Dictionary". 2012-08-31. Retrieved 2013-08-18.
  3. Simmons, Cynthia; Perlina, Nina (2005-01-19). Writing The Siege Of Leningrad: Women's Diaries, Memoirs, and Documentary Prose (Pitt Series in Russian and East European Studies) (1st ed.). University of Pittsburgh Press. p. 97. ISBN 0822958694.
  4. "Geheimsache Süßtafel". Der Spiegel (in German). 22 April 1991. Retrieved 1 April 2018.
  5. Huh, Young Eun; Vosgerau, Joachim; Morewedge, Carey K. (2016-06-01). "More Similar but Less Satisfying Comparing Preferences for and the Efficacy of Within- and Cross-Category Substitutes for Food". Psychological Science. 27 (6): 894–903. doi:10.1177/0956797616640705. ISSN 0956-7976. PMID 27142460.
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