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This page contains both original essays and comments on postcards as well as articles formally published in Metro News, the bi-monthly bulletin of the Metropolitan Postcard Club while I served as editor. Many of these reprinted articles have been enhanced on this website by adding additional content.
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The F Word on Postcards
As a teenager collecting postcards, it was quite a surprise when I first saw the caption “Hunting for Faggots” on an English postcard. What the heck is this all about? I knew homosexuality was criminalized both in England and the United States, but were they actually hunting down gays in the British Isles?
The picture showed a rural couple with armfuls of twigs wandering along a path in the forest. Of course, it didn’t take much research to learn that the word faggot in England referred to small branches or twigs which could be used, say, to heat a country cottage. I also learned at the same time that fag meant cigarette in British English.
Since then I’ve run across many postcards where the double meaning of fag and faggot can’t help but produce a twitter - like seeing the word gay on a pre 1930’s card where the word means happy. To wit, a card showing three British soldiers huddling together and captioned: Before battle, in battle and after battle, our “Tommies” are ready for a “fag” now takes on a lighter tone, suggesting that a little recreational sex with a gay guy might be just the thing straight male soldiers could use in combatting battle fatigue.
And, talking of fatigue, (or being fagged out), how about the card depicting a guy curling up in the moonlight with a gal on his lap? A doctor’s prescription form above reads: “Mr. . . Is suffering from ĎBrain Fag. I therefore order him an entire change, new scenes, new faces and . . .” The wording leads down toward the above mentioned moonlit scene. Is this a reference to aversion therapy on the early postcard? You remember, where gays were provided with heterosexual sensory stimulation as a doctor’s cure for you know what.
Interestingly, the word faggot is said to derive from the kindling wood used in the Dark Ages to burn alive witches (uppity women who didn’t know their rightful place in society). Along with the wood, homosexual men (or sodomites) were supposedly added to the mix to start the flames. Thus, faggot came to mean homosexual. In recent times, the word has been reclaimed, as has queer, by the LGBT community and used proudly to self-identify. The idea was to deprive the word of its derogatory meaning; thus the name for a pioneering gay newspaper in the 1970’s from Boston called Fag Rag.
And lastly, a modern postcard (1978) copyrighted by Daniel Nicoletta, showing two outrageous queens, one of whom is wearing an orange top reading “Faggots are Fantastic.” And he surely isn’t referring to twigs! Ahh, the vagaries of the English language as it crosses the Big Pond.
The Wandering Birds
The sudden expansion of urban and industrial life at the end of the 19th century brought about drastic changes to many nations. Previous freedoms found in rural life were replaced by a more rigid, authoritarian, and repressive society. Few saw they had any alternative but to accept these changes for the migration to cities was based more on economic survival than desire. While most begrudgingly accepted these new conditions, an undercurrent of protest arose fueled by dissatisfaction. While many laborers organized into workers movements, young people as they usually do also challenged this future laid out for them.
In some countries the growing unrest among urban youth was siphoned off through Scouting, which allowed at least a temporary escape from the corrosiveness of city streets. While the chance to spend time in a clean open-air environment had universal appeal, Scouting never took off in Germany as it did elsewhere. It was too oriented towards reinforcing society’s values, which conflicted with the mood in Germany that had turned rebellious against the status quo. This urge to return to nature however began to coalesce by the mid-1890’s as a number of similar groups began to form that became collectively known as the German Youth Movement. The most important of these was Wandervogel that formed around the informal outdoor excursions led by Hoffmann Fölkersamb while he was a student in Berlin. These outdoor activities grew so popular that Wandervogel was formally established as an official youth organization on November 4, 1901.
The name Wandervogel can be translated a number of ways, but to arrive at its essence it cannot be presented too literally. I have chosen Wandering Birds for Wandervogel was very much a counterculture movement similar to that found in the 1960’s. While it is sometimes captured on postcards by small bands of youth in wanderlust, it had no single form of expression.
Greatly influenced by Romanticism, Wandervogel stressed a return to an uncorrupted natural state where young people could explore the world free of the constraints that made up their normal day to day lives. It wasn’t all adventure as there was also an emphasis on promoting the skills needed to become self-reliant. Poetry, theatre, music, and dance as well as debates and discourse were integral to its mission. While there was no escaping from religious services in a Christian society, many activities played homage to a more pure pagan past. There was already a strong nationalist trend in Germany to embrace their pre-Roman culture that was closely associated with the land. Much of Wandervogel’s activities were designed to fit into an idealized Teutonic mythology.
While the Wandervogel movement survived World War One, many of its adherents did not. In the postwar years its romantic idealism seemed outdated and far fewer were attracted to it. Youth groups stressing political or nationalist agendas would now take the forefront, and the carefree life would be forgotten. Most of us are now more familiar with Hitler Youth than Wandervogel, perhaps do to propaganda efforts to more clearly define an enemy. There are however many postcards that remain to paint a broader picture of German society at the turn of the 20th century. While most of these cards concentrate on picturing teenagers roaming the countryside with their musical instruments; presented below is a selection from a wonderful set of generic cards that will seem familiar in tone to anyone who has ever attended summer camp as a child.
There you are, with Bag and Baggage
Before Room Assignments
Goodies in the Pantry
In the Kitchen
Enjoy Your Meal!
On the Heath
On the Edge
Self Made Men
The long awaited Mail
Service in the Forest
White Rose, Red Rose
Come Children, to the Train Station!
Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi had a lifelong passion for creating colossal sculpture. When his creation Liberty Enlightening the World was finally erected in New York Harbor it dominated all the architecture around it. Its only rival was the Brooklyn Bridge, which when completed only a few years earlier was the tallest structure in the city. Now it is the skyscraper that has taken the form of the new colossus rising high above both of these older iconic visions. One might think the statue’s relevance would have faded in proportion to being overshadowed by taller glass and steel replacements, but its presence and stature has only increased far beyond its original intent in ways that cannot be measured in feet and inches.
As the way we relate to one another evolved into a system of class and privilege, the concept of liberty was no doubt debated before it was ever a word. Defining the relationship between liberty and order and the systems that support them is the history of civilization itself. Most of what we know today of these early debates come from writings of the ancient Greeks. To them liberty was tied up in the principals of freedom, which was defined by not having a master. This was extended into the political notion of democracy or as Aristotle put it in his work Politics, “The basis of a democratic state is liberty; which, according to the common opinion of men, can only be enjoyed in such a state ... This, then, is one note of liberty which all democrats affirm to be the principle of their state. Another is that a man should live as he likes. This, they say, is the privilege of a freeman, since, on the other hand, not to live as a man likes is the mark of a slave.”
Finding a way to adequately represent the world has been the constant struggle of artists. While writers have learned to deal eloquently with words, visual artists have always faced a more difficult task when it comes to turning ephemeral ideas into something visually concrete. In some ways this is not problematic, for art is akin to poetry in its ability to make known that which cannot be rendered through logic. Some concepts however beg for clearer representation, and the solution found is in what we now refer to as symbolism. A symbol’s meaning is clear as long as its elements remain part of a recognizable cultural vocabulary.
Roman art is full of symbolism as they were fond of personifying many abstract principals into gods and goddesses. Liberty, presented as a symbol that we can still easily recognize has existed at least as far back as the third century BCE. In a Roman temple dedicated to the goddess Libertas on the Aventine it takes the form of a robed woman wearing the Phrygian cap (now often called a watch cap). She is accompanied by a broken pitcher denoting her past life in bondage, and she carries a sword that symbolizes life without a master. While the makeup of image has not remained static over the centuries, two features have remained nearly constant; liberty has nearly always been depicted as a woman, and one that wears a Phrygian cap. The Phrygian cap was native to the ancient Anatolian Kingdoms of Phrygia. The Romans used to issue them to freed slaves after shaving their heads as a symbol of their passage from bondage to citizenship with all the accompanying rights.
In America we often associate soldiers of the Revolution with the tricorn hat but the Phrygian cap was actually one of the most commonly worn. Its name however was transformed into the more popular term Liberty cap. If the symbolism was not clear enough, slogans such as Liberty or Death were often embroidered on the front of these wool caps. They became a well known troupe in the United States denoting our revolutionary struggle for freedom. In this postcard reproduction of the Battle of Bunker Hill by Ken Riley above, we can find both types of hats being worn. Although many appropriately shaped geological features all across America were honored with the name Liberty Cap, and captured on numerous postcards like the one below from Yellowstone National Park, most of us today are no longer familiar with the original reference.
Principals such as liberty continued to be represented through allegory in art, though the use of symbolism rose and fell over the ages. Symbolism regained its popularity during the Renaissance and took on popular form by the 18th century. One important variation to the traditional rendition of liberty is said to have begun in the British Press in 1738. Reporting on Parliamentary debates was illegal at the time so they were often described in the press as the fictional debates of the Senate of Lilliput, taken directly out of Jonathan Swift’s, Gulliver’s Travels. All individual place names needed to be disguised and the writer Samuel Johnson is given credit for turning America into Columbia. This reference to Christopher Columbus was strengthened when the name came to be personified by a Native American princess.
Columbia became a popularized symbol for America as its use spread through the press. After the American Revolution she was general accepted as the personification of the United States, though her image was already being altered. As her likeness to an Indian princess faded, she took on the tradition attributes of Liberty waring a Phrygian cap and sword in hand. A statue of her embodied in Liberty and the Eagle by Enrico Causici was placed over the Speaker’s desk in the U.S. House of Representatives in 1825; only here her sword was replaced by a copy of the Constitution. She has since been moved to Statuary Hall pictured above.
The statue by Thomas Crawford topping the U.S. Capitol dome is more of a symbolic hybrid. Though originally named Freedom Triumphant in War and Peace, its similarity to Columbia is unmistakable. Its precise iconography however is a bit muddled due to political compromises surrounding the commission. While she holds a sword and is draped in an Indian blanket, the Phrygian cap originally designed for her has been replaced with an eagle feathered helmet reminiscent of an Indian headdress. Liberty wearing a Phrygian cap had been an accepted icon in the United States for some time even appearing on early coinage, but by mid-19th century the divisions over slavery had grown much more intense and were now a divisive issue. Complaints from southern States were vocalized by the Senator from Mississippi, Jefferson Davis, who vehemently opposed the federal government making any positive reference to the freeing of any slaves.
Some artists had been combining Columbia with more explicit references to slavery for some time. The old Roman symbol of the broken pitcher was now replaced by a broken chain, either in hand or laying at her feet. The likeness of Columbia was often employed in patriotic messages during the American Civil War, especially by abolitionists who shared the fight for freedom. In the postwar years, the image of Columbia was often found in conjunction with that of Abraham Lincoln, especially when commemorating the Emancipation Proclamation. This theme would later be picked up on postcards.
By century’s end, when postcards came into play, Columbia was already being widely portrayed as a female warrior with sword and shield that carried the stars and stripes. Though she had slowly begun being replaced by Uncle Sam after his creation in 1812, she was still a potent symbol that found her way onto many patriotic postcards and political cartoons well into the 20th century. On the card above the red capped Columbia stands proudly with the American flag and symbols from the Great Seal of the United States.
Whenever a hint of patriotism needed to be aroused, Columbia was there endorsing everything from commercial products to national holidays. Although very popular on Independence Day cards, she could often be found on Thanksgiving cards when it was still had a more patriotic flavor. It was only around World War Two that Uncle Sam began to assume the role of a major American symbol. Around the same time our nation’s unofficial anthem, Hail Columbia was replaced by one of official status, The Star-Spangled Banner.
The popular personification of liberty in France took a different path but was no less significant. By the time of the French Revolution of 1789, the virtues of liberty and reason had merged with that of the new republic to create a new personification. She too wore robes and the Phrygian cap but carried a lance representing revolution. Though this symbol was chosen as the seal of the First French Republic, she was replaced in 1793 by a bare-breasted woman leading men into battle while holding the tricolor flag of France. To make here more relatable her robes were replaced by common dress and her lance replaced with a rife. She appears most famously in Eugene Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People, which was painted to commemorate the July Revolution of 1830 that overthrew King Charles X.
In 1792 Claude Joseph de Lisle wrote a song entitled Chant de guerre pour l’Armée du Rhin. It was popular among the revolutionaries of Marseille, and after they marched on Paris, it gained the nickname the Marseillaise. It was a patriotic song, espousing the ideals of the Revolution and how the French would stand up to their enemies then gathering around them. The French National Convention would adapt it as the republic’s anthem in 1795, but its violent lyrics were too unsettling when Napoleon began reestablishing order and he banned it. The song however remained popular and later became the anthem of the international revolutionary movement. It was restored as the national anthem of France in 1879. It was usually visually accompanied by the image of Liberty as a warrior on printed matter, and now the two are inseparable.
This new image of a red capped Liberty slowly became a symbol for all struggles against tyranny in many different nations. In France this figure took on the popular name of Marianne around 1848. This image of Liberty as the valiant warrior persisted into World War One when many postcards were made of her leading French troops into battle.
The year 1848 was also a year of revolution in Prussia. The familiar symbols of Liberty and the Phrygian cap were widely placed in use, but their own personification of liberty began to emerge in the embodiment of Germania. Just like Columbia she too is a warrior with sword and shield, though usually carrying the crest of a black eagle on a field of gold. Her robes have been replaced with armor, and her long flowing hair is not covered by the usual cap but by the Imperial Crown of the Holy Roman Empire. Germania would eventually evolve into a representation of the German Empire, and was widely employed on postcards until the end of World War One.
The need of the German people to have a symbol of their own reflected their desire for freedom. The result however was closer to other nationalistic female personifications like that of Britannia rather than standing for universal principals of liberty. This type of portrayal would eventually allow her enemies to use the figure of Germania to represent the barbaric traits of the German people, since her countenance could be separated from more traditional symbols of liberty. This was often done on French postcards during World War One but are seen far less by World War Two when the use of symbolism was fading.
Two important variations to the depiction of Liberty appeared in the early 19th century. The personification of victory as an angel with an outstretched arm holding a crown of laurel was extended to some versions of Liberty and Germania as well; only here there the crown in hand evolved into an illuminating torch so all could see her virtue. The illuminating nature of liberty was also being symbolized as rays of light emanating from her crown, for which there are many artistic precedents. The statue representing the Republic of France atop the entrance to the Palace of Industry at the 1855 Universal Exhibition in Paris is a good example of this trend. Its creator, Elias Robert replaced her traditional Phrygian cap with a headband holding seven rays of light.
All of these ongoing changes did not go unnoticed by the French sculptor Bartholdi, and they would enormously affect on his work. His long interest in monumental sculpture had taken him to Egypt in 1856 so he could study the giants along the Nile first hand. He returned again in 1869 when the Suez Canal was opened, but this time it was to promote his own grand vision. After making the proper connections, he proposed that a giant lighthouse be built in the continence of Liberty at the entrance to the new canal, an engineering marvel in its own right. Fanciful images of the colossus lighting the harbor at Rhodes already bounded, but he wanted to turn ancient myth into an actual wonder. His statue would hold a sculptured torch aloft while the actual beacon lamp would be placed within the head. The monumental Suez Lighthouse was never built because of the project’s cost, at least according to Bartholdi. His lack of discretion when the Khedive suggested that the torch be replaced with the traditional pitcher that Egyptian women typically carry on their heads might have also played a deciding role.
Bartholdi’s ambitions to build a colossus did not end with the Suez Lighthouse. He was soon working on models for a very similar statue to be presented to the United States. Though he always denied there was a connection between the two projects the similarities are unmistakable. His work on this project was delayed when the Franco-Prussian War broke out in 1870. He served in the National Guard of his home town in Colmar, and only returned to his Paris studio the following year just before the Commune fell. A month later he was bound for New York to see if his vision could be made real. He began searching out possible sites for his statue as soon as he arrived. By the second day of his visit he decided that only one place would do, Bedloes Island sitting out in the busy harbor. Now all he had to do was overcome the political differences between the two nations, secure the island, provide funding, and build his colossus.
Problems appeared from the start. Bartholdi first needed permission to use Bedloes Island, which was then under the control of the U.S. Army. Its domineering defense, Fort Wood, had long passed into obsolescence, but that was no guarantee that it would be relinquished without a fight. Enthusiasm for such monumental projects were also falling out of vogue, and relations with France had soured because of the support they lent to the Confederacy in the Civil War that ended a scant six years earlier. While Bartholdi’s extensive lobbying had gained him the backing of the Union League, he returned to France without any assurances that his statue would ever be built. Back in France he also found a lack of commitment amidst the political turmoil surrounding the establishment of the Third Republic.
After finally receiving a commitment from the new French government for building his colossus, Bartholdi tempted America to join in through his grand spectacle at the Centennial Celebration in 1876. Ever optimistic, he had already started production of the project; and now at Philadelphia’s Fairmount Park he put the completed section of Liberty’s hand holding a torch out on display. Although delays in construction prohibited its instillation until the exposition was nearly over, it still became the most popular attraction there, and generated the most mementos. Bartholdi’s offer to sell Philadelphia his sculpture once the Centennial was over did not spark much interest, but it did set off rumors that they were trying to steal New York&rsquos statue. While this helped to invigorate fundraising efforts back in New York, it would still prove difficult moving forward.
Construction of the entire colossus began in 1875 at the Monduit workshops that lay just on the outskirts of Paris. To further public interest in the project, Bartholdi allowed the statue to be intermittently photographed during various stages of its assembly. This also left behind a large visual record for posterity that became popular as postcards during the statues centennial. By the time its eminence was towering above the workshop’s roof for all to see, it had caught the public imagination to the degree that Parisians did not want to give the statue up.
Paris did receive some compensation for the loss of the colossus in the form of a thirty-six foot high cast bronze replica commissioned and presented to the city in 1889 by the American Colony. The project had begun in 1875 but it suffered from as many fundraising and construction delays as the original destined for New York. By the time the Thiebaut Brothers completed its casting, it was no longer placed to face America from the Île des Cygnesthe in the River Seine; it was turned inwards toward the Pont de Grenelle so that French President Carnot would not have to inaugurate it from a boat. To make no mistake that this statue was about American-French friendship, it was inscribed with the dates of the American and French revolutions.
Many scale models of the Statue of Liberty were made in both France and the United States for fundraising efforts and publicity. One of the best known of these was the six-foot bronze reduction commissioned by Bartholdi himself for the Paris Exposition of 1900. Afterwards it was placed in the Luxembourg Gardens where it became the subject of many view-cards (Now moved to the Museum of Arts and Crafts).
While Bartholdi cast reduction models in bronze, a number of other statues were made in iron. To fulfill other missions that diverged from its original meaning. One of the more notable of these replicas is the nine foot model placed at Poitiers to honor General Jean-Baptiste Brenton who was executed for his role in the failed 1822 revolution. It has often been a favorite subject of view-cards because of the unique illuminated light she holds in place of the flaming torch.
While the engineering problems of building such a colossus were daunting, they paled in comparison to finding ways to raise enough money to see it to completion. Many campaigns were launch soliciting pennies from the working class as well as large donations from those of substantial means. All these efforts helped but always fell short of what was needed until the press took a more active roll in criticizing the lack of financial support behind the project. Joseph Pulitzer of the New York World had labeled fundraising attempts the Great Phizzel, but his enthusiasm for the statue helped drive it to its completion in 1884. What was significant in this period to future representations of the statue, was how its likeness was promoted in fundraising attempts. Not only were tin models mass produced, its image was licensed out to promote a whole range of commercial products. This was an age when the ability to reproduce illustrations had vastly improved, and advertisers were quick to take advantage of it. Before the statue was ever built, the public was already familiar with its countenance through its representation on countless trade cards hawking everything from corn starch pictured above to oil lamps pictured below.
When the steamship Isere arrived in New York Harbor in 1885 carrying the crated pieces of Bartholdi’s statue, it was met with great fanfare. Its construction along with the building of its massive pedestal on top of Fort Wood drew the attention of many artists. They kept the public informed of its progress through wood engraved reproductions of their work in the illustrated newspapers. While there were no postcards being published at this time, many of these illustrations and photographs would later be put into print as in the card above produced just after the turn of the 20th century to the modern continental sized card below issued for the statues centenial celebration in 1986. This wasn’t just a work of art but an engineering marvel, and the expanding metal framework continued to capture the public’s imagination. Bartholdi’s statue was also a vindication of Gustave Eiffel, who resolved most of the structural obstacles. Eiffel, who been denied entrance to engineering school, was now on his way to becoming one of the most innovative and sought after designers of his day.
Bartholdi’s grand project was never popular with the fiscally conservative U.S. Congress, which thought it all beyond the scope of what the government should involve itself in. Some funds were finally appropriated towards its completion so there could at least be a celebration when Liberty Enlightening the World was unveiled on October 28, 1886. President Grover Cleveland, who was at first reluctant to attend the ceremonies, finally agreed at the last minute to accept the statue on behalf of the United States, which elevated the affair from local to national importance. Representatives of the French delegation also spoke of the ties between both republics, but after years of commercializing the statue’s likeness, the original purpose of honoring the friendship between America and France was already fading into obscurity. The statue was seen more as an advertising gimmick than a monument associated with either international ties or with liberty.
This article consist of four parts; click on the links below to continue reading.Liberty part 2
Liberty part 3
Liberty part 4
In commemorating the 100th anniversary of the Armenian genocide by the Ottoman Turks in World War One, the International Press, and more recently, Pope Francis, have been referring to the slaughter as “the 20th century’s first genocide.” Less well-known but as worth of remembrance is an earlier genocide conducted by the Germans against the Herero people of South West Africa beginning in 1904.
Few Germans traveled to Africa to settle, so many of the German possessions were populated, aside from its indigenous peoples, mostly by soldiers and single men seeking their fortunes. In the case of South West Africa, land and livestock were expropriated from the native peoples, who were often forced onto reserves. The rape by Germans of native women was rampant and murders often went unpunished. It was in this context that the Herero people rebelled in 1904. Many German farms were destroyed, though no women or children were harmed. In revenge, German General Adolf Lebrecht von Trotha gave orders in October of that year for the Herero to be exterminated. All Hereros who were found within the German borders were to be shot. Others were to be driven into the desert with no food or water and sealed off from reentering the borders.
Between seventy-five and eighty percent of the entire Herero population, an estimated sixty to eighty thousand people were slaughtered. Another fourteen thousand were put into camps, and two thousand fled to South Africa. A strong argument can be made that the model for the Nazi persecution and extermination of the Jews was set here in the German South West Africa, as a virulent form of racism existed, there was legally sanctioned separation of the races, and concentration camps for hard labor were used to imprison the Hereros who survived the massacres, camps in which many died of neglect and disease.
Though the term had not yet come into existence, this was the century’s first true genocide, carried out by official government order. At the one hundredth anniversary of the slaughter, in 2005, Germany had yet to take responsibility for or to recognize the atrocities it committed. The reason is understood to be the compensation Germany would then have to give to the descendants of the Herero people still living in Namibia.
Although Germany viewed the Herero as a primitive and savage people living in a largely unoccupied land, their representation on postcards could be deceiving. In the German postcard above, of undivided back, a group of Herero children are shown facing the camera. In the card below, dated 1907, Hereros are performing a reed dance. Neither card hints at the horrific realities the Herero were experiencing under their colonial masters in this time period.
More telling is the card above whose translated caption on the back reads: “Native Prisoners of War in Chains. German South West Africa.” African men, women and children, some chained to one another by the neck, stand under guard by armed German troops and a dog. Though the native group in the picture is not specifically named, the fact that women and children are included is rather foreboding, given that one part of the annihilation order given by General von Trotha reads: “Within the German borders, every Herero, with or without weapons, with or without cattle, will be shot. I no longer shelter women and children.”
The tragic aftermath of the rebellion and mass slaughter is hinted at in the scene on the card above, captioned: “Hererodorf Osanna, wo die Hereros zusammenkamen u. die Aufruhr-Pläne schmiedeten. Deutsch-Süd-West-Africa” (The Herero village of Osanna, where the Hereros gathered to plot the uprising. German South West Africa). A European man stands over a group of five African children in a desolate village scene. The Hereros pictured are some of the few survivors of a once thriving people.
Produced many years after the 1904 genocide, in the 1930’s, the card above shows a Herero woman in a black and white photograph. The caption on the verso is indeed chilling: “Raum ohne Volk ist Deutsch-Südwestafrika! Wir fordern Kolonien! Vergesst nicht unsere Kolonien!” (German South West Africa is A Land Without People! We Demand Colonies! Let Us Not Forget Our Colonies!).
The fact that the Armenian Genocide is the world’s most well-known first genocide of the 20th century should not mean that the earlier methodical slaughter of an African people remain in the shadows. Sometimes postcards can lead the way to largely forgotten chapters of history that need to be brought to light.
JIHAD: World War I
One of the lesser known yet highly fascinating episodes of the First World War was the attempt by Germany to change the allegiance of its Muslim prisoners of war from loyalty to France and Britain to that of the Central Powers. Jihad was to be their secret weapon.
Hundreds of thousands of non-Europeans served in the First World War, many as combatants, others behind the lines in a large variety of capacities, such as factory work and agriculture to make up for labor shortages. Among them were a large population of Moslems coming from North Africa, West Africa and India.
Early in the War, a German diplomat and adventurer named Max von Oppenheim convinced the Kaiser that Germany, with the skillful use of propaganda, could instill rebellion in the French and British colonies of North Africa, West Africa, India, and Southeast Asia, by means of jihad. Incentives would be provided to captured Moslem soldiers to transfer their allegiances to the Central Powers, now in alliance with Moslem Turkey.
In 1915, Zossen, a town not far from Berlin, was chosen as the site for implementation of the project. The prisoner-of-war camp was called Halbmondlager (Half Moon or Crescent Moon Camp) and eventually held between four to five thousand prisoners, though initially 10,000 prisoners had been anticipated. A nearby extension, Wünsdorf, also a show camp, was reserved for Moslem prisoners of the Russian Empire.
The prisoners at these two camps in Zossen were treated uncharacteristically well; they were given a better diet, better clothing, and more time for exercise. The biggest attraction, however, was a large, new wooden mosque, modeled after the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem. This was the first mosque ever build on German soil, and the rumor was circulated that Kaiser Wilhelm himself had financed it from his own private funds.
To win over the loyalty of the Muslim prisoners, all efforts were made to facilitate access to the practice of their religion. Ramadan was observed, pork and alcohol outlawed, and religious services held regularly. Lecturers and religious leaders were brought in to talk about Islam, and Jihad was preached as an obligation, especially after the Sultan, speaking at a mosque in Constantinople in November of 1914, and in accord with Germany, declared Britain, France and Russia enemies of Islam. A camp newspaper called al-Djihãd began publication in March 1915.
In the end, the project to create jihadists from captured Moslem prisoners failed. This can be attributed to several causes. First, the 3,000 plus soldier-volunteers, the majority of which were sent to the Mesopotamian and Persian fronts, quickly became demoralized. The belief in Jihad was often not as important to many of them as the privileges they were promised once they volunteered. In the field they were often mistreated and not paid, while again being subjected to the brutal circumstances of war. On a larger scope, argues Eugene Rogan, author of The Fall of the Ottomans, proponents of the German project were operating under the false assumption that Moslems could be predicted to act in a collective, fanatical manner. In reality, of course, each Moslem prisoner based his decisions on a series of factors, such as personal interests, fears and threats, as well as religious creed. And then, of course, there is an important gap in logic to consider: why were the non-Moslem nations of France and Britain targeted in jihad, and not Austria, Germany and Bulgaria?
Prisoners who did not volunteer for jihad were often punished, many sent to a secret camp in Alsace (Camp Weiler), which was unmonitored by the International Red Cross. Finally, in 1917, the 2910 remaining prisoners were sent to Romania to perform agricultural labor, a transfer interpreted by many to be an act of reprisal.
Postcard images of the camp’s large wooden mosque abound. However, as part of the propaganda campaign, other cards were produced showing the prisoners praying, at play, and even preparing halal meat. The card pictured above shows the mosque at Wünsdorf-Zossen along with an inset at the upper left depicting Moslem prisoners in a wide variety of dress. It was postmarked from the camp in 1916.
Though the memory of this episode in World War I history is largely forgotten, at least outside of German, and the once remarkable mosque demolished (due to disrepair in 1925-6), one of its lessons is unfortunately still to be learned: too often Moslems are seen by people outside the faith as a uniform mass of people easily manipulated to act in predictably radical ways.