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Belligerents and Participants
The tricolor of gold, black, and red have a long standing history within the German states, but they had also become associated with Austria, which became problematic with German nationalists one Prussia and Austria went to war in the mid 19th century. As a new German empire emerged from this conflict the black white Prussian flag and the red white Brandenburg flag were combined into an imperial flag tricolor by the North German Confederation in 1867. Even though this new flag was not officially recognized until 1892, the tricolor had come to represent the Empire in most German minds and was widely used on all sorts of patriotic items. While many nations placed there national colors on patriotic postcards during World War One, they appeared so often on German cards that they are considered a specific theme referred to as black, white and reds. These colors were presented as flags, decorative borders, and were even used as a verbal rallying cry on German propaganda cards to represent nationalistic urges.
Michel (Der Deutsche Michel) appears in many political cartoons as a pipe smoking nightcap (Zipfelmütze) topped character that dresses in German national colors when not wearing a nightgown. His origins date back earlier than most national personifications such as Germania, but he only began to appear in pictorial form during the revolutionary period of the 1840’s. While he originally represented a victim of authoritarian repression, the figure of Michel slowly evolved alongside nationalistic feelings to represent the aspirations of the German people. By World War One he had come to represent the typical German and was often substituted for soldiers on postcards. Michel can be characterized as a good natured simple man who is best not stirred, for those who wake this sleeping giant from his quiet lifestyle will feel his wrath. He usually arms himself with a flail, not the typical type used in warfare but the tradition tool used by peasants for threshing. He is a man of the land who can dispatch Germany’s enemies as efficiently as he mows grain.
One of the most significant problems facing the German command throughout the War was that its troops were constantly being siphoned off to help with problems developing on the Austro-Hungarian fronts. With the collapse of Conrad’s offensive into Russia in 1914, the Germans had to open a new front in Poland to prevent the Russians from seizing Silesia. After two failed attempts to knock out Serbia, Germany took control of this front and victory was finally achieved with the aid of Bulgarian and German troops in October 1915. German troops also had to reinforce the Austro-Hungarian army when the Russians unexpectedly broke through thei defenses in 1916 during the Brusilov Offensive. When Romania declared war on Austria-Hungary and seized Transylvania, German troops were rushed in to counterattack and destroy this new opponent. Many of these same German soldiers found themselves aiding the Austro-Hungarian offensive at Caporetto in 1917 to put an end to the threat from Italy. While the loss of these men curtailed German operations elsewhere, there limited presence on all these fronts proved decisive.
Germany also did a great deal to help its Ottoman ally. While there was no major troop deployment to this region, officers and specialists such as machine gunners and pilots served with many Turkish units. Their training skills helped the Turks face the modern Allied armies that fought against them. Even the leadership of Turkish were sometimes in German hands. This pipeline of men and arms played a crucial role in the defense of the Ottoman Empire. While not a common subject for postcards, German soldiers serving in exotic lands were enough of a curiosity to generate a fair amount of public interest.
Germany had acquired a number of African and Asian colonies under Bismarck in the 1880’s, but little interest was shown in them. It seemed that having a colonial empire was more about earning respect and prestige as an important world player. These colonies remained relatively underdeveloped when the Great War broke out, making them susceptible to invasion from the neighboring colonies of their enemies. Though these far off colonies could not play any significant part in this great struggle, they were drawn into the conflict anyway. Their small contingent of troops was only meant to keep order among the locals, and with Germany blockaded they could not expect to receive reinforcements or supplies. Their main role was to hold down the Allied troops that were deployed against them as long as possible so they could not be used in the European theater of war. Under these conditions most fell rapidly.
German troops spread across Asia were quickly concentrated to defend the Tsingtao naval base at their Klautschou Bay Concession in China. It was besieged and fell in November 1914. The poorly defended African colony of Togoland fell to the Allies in August 1914, South-West Africa surrendered in July 1915, and most Germans in Kamerun had fled by the end of the same year. Only German East Africa held out until the end of the War, largely due to the leadership of Colonel Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck. All of Germany’s colonies would be divided up among the victors after the War. While postcards exist of these campaigns, they are few in number when compared to the European theater of war. Despite the exotic appeal, there are relatively few postcards depicting these events.
Speed was so crucial to the success of the German offensive through Belgium, that the German High Command was constantly worried about it being slowed do to irregular fighting by francs-tireurs behind the lines. Their attack on Liege suffered when Belgian saboteurs destroyed the railroad tunnel at Herbesthal, slowing the arrival of large siege guns. With few troops to spare to guard essential supply lines, violence initiated against Belgian civilians due to ethnic and religious hatred was initially overlooked by commanders believing fear would help generate respect for German authority. Even when large scale massacres occurred they were just seen as a necessity of war. In German eyes civilians not only had a duty to behave; failure to do so was tantamount to treason (Kriegsverrat) and punishable as such. In many ways this brutal strategy worked as there would be very little resistance from civilians forthcoming. Even so, German publishers produced postcards depicting snipers and even intense street fighting. While some of these fights may have been with civic guards within the Belgian army that did not wear uniforms, German publishers illustrated all such events as encounters with civilian francs-tireurs that probably never took place. This was most likely an attempt to help rationalize the actions of their army, though few outside of Germany were willing to listen.
If artist drawn cards can be accused of being subject to a fanciful imagination, then real photo postcards are often given the benefit of the doubt when it comes to truthfulness. This is a popular perception even if it does not lie in reality. If doubts should be raised to the existence of francs-tireurs hindering the German advance through Belgium, then one need look no further than real photo postcards for proof. Many civilians were arrested or rounded up to work as forced labor in the industrial Ruhr, but this does not guarantee the people pictured were guilty of anything.
The atrocities committed in Belgium would largely end once the Germans realized they were creating a propaganda bonanza for the Allies that was turning world opinion against them. This change however made no difference to Allied publishers who had quickly created the myth of German Barbarism that could not be easily erased. An endless supply of Allied propaganda cards would continue to be produced until the end of the War regardless of facts. German Publishers also produced postcards early in the War that showed the Allies suffering at the hands of their soldiers, but these were quickly banned when it was felt that they detracted from German professionalism. Instead a new propaganda strategy was introduced that stressed the Good German. German soldiers in occupied lands were now shown farming fields, helping civilians with chores, and sharing food with hungry children. Terms such as barbarian are often found in quotes on these cards indicating they were made in direct response to Allied allegations.
Most Germans resented the label of Barbarian since they saw themselves as being more socially progressive than their neighbors. They did however often take pride that their ancestry was not based on the ancient Mediterranean cultures but the people that opposed Roman imperialism. To them the Teutonic warrior was not a symbol of the destroyer of civilization as portrayed on Allied postcards but a fierce protector of an independent people. This connection had long been played up through mythologies that found its way into German culture until it became an important element of national identity. While many German cards picked up on this theme, its use was probably curtailed by fears of reinforcing Allied propaganda.
While the Allies set up immense programs for the creation and dispersal of propaganda, many in Germany were oblivious to its value. The mistreatment of civilians and purposeful destruction of cultural icons went ahead as a normal outcome of warfare, without realizing how it might turn others in neutral nations against them. Some military leaders wanted Germany to launch a propaganda war early on, but there was too little regard for public opinion among naive officials. Some censorship was directed against the images used on postcards; but a Censorship Department (Oberzensurstelle) operating under the general staff was only set up in February 1915. Even then many local administrators only took their proclamations as guidelines so rules were never evenly enforced. It was not until March 1917 that the War Press Office was set up as a department to concentrate on promoting government sponsored propaganda, but this paled in quantity and quality to what the Allies produced. Their failure was in their righteousness, they largely tried to refute Allied propaganda with facts instead of promoting myths that might have caught the public imagination.
Much of what might pass for propaganda in Germany was little more than exaggerated forms of general patriotic themes. These cards tended to show off German military might and the strong character of its soldiers so that no one could ever doubt that a victory would be secured. None of this was substantiated with facts as these cards relied on simple cliches and long standing national myths that could pass their message across easily. While such formulas were common to many nations, one particular German trope was to represent their army as a single colossus towering over the fleeing enemy. Such representations are similar to horror movie posters that would appear in postwar years, but these cards are too overtly symbolic to be scary. They were primarily meant to reassure those at home, not frighten the enemy. This trope was also latter used with generals to symbolize their prowess.
In Great Britain the Ministry of War had such complete control over news coming from the front that their optimistic reports became the basis for actual military and political planing. This created a strange paradox, for while they continually thought that German armies were growing so weak on the Western Front that one more great push would break their lines, they feared the Germans had enough spare troops to launch an invasion of Britain. Contradictions may be common in propaganda, but here it was taken seriously enough to create a home guard to secure Britain’s shores. Many British postcard publishers took up this theme showing the German navy on the Channel bottom. German publishers, just as ignorant of the facts followed suit showing the victorious conquest of Britain. While not in as bad shape as the Allies suggested, Germany still never had as many troops as they need for the campaigns on the Continent let alone an invasion. They were actually in more fear that Britain might open a new front in neutral Denmark or the Netherlands, and had to use sparse resources to guard these borders.
Propaganda cards were produced in Germany early in the War, but there was no centralized control over their message. This gave German publishers mush more leeway to produce what they wanted even in the face of strict censorship. German military cards often have a more rounded approach to the War, covering a wider variety of subjects than found on cards from the Allies. Many seem more matter of fact as if attempting to capture the essence of the situation was more important than promote an overt patriotic message. Showing German troops bravely fighting was good enough.
A simple propaganda message that was produced throughout the War was to promote Germany’s inevitable victory by reminding people of its past. Events where carefully chosen that were already packed with powerful messages of Germans overcoming their adversaries. If actual details sometimes diverged from this message, they were lost when the narrative was transformed from history into myth. It is through myth that most people find their national identity; and the more it is personalized, the less effective are facts on critical thinking. The most common historical associations represented by this myth on postcards were the defeat of the ancient Romans in the Rhineland by Germanic tribes, and the Liberation Wars fought against Napoleon. Also common were associations with the German Empire’s recent triumph over France in the Franco-Prussian War. It was more applicable to the current War, and promised an easy victory.
Many publishers from many nations produced cards with maps on the during wartime, but most seem to come from Germany. This may stem from the situation maps that were largely published by newspapers, sold through newsstands and bookshops throughout Germany. They showed were the battle lines were drawn in a variety of military theaters, and were reprinted as circumstances on the ground changed. Even though these maps did not disclose troop dispositions for obvious reasons, families could still get some sense of where loved ones were fighting and better connected to those serving at the front. Map postcards performed the same task for the less detail oriented at a lower cost.
Maps on postcards were sometimes issued in complicated forms. The triple folded fieldpostbrief card above published by Fritz Schneller of Nurenburg in 1915 had a unity propaganda message as a cover along with four separate campaign maps on front and back. While the front lines were not shown, all major battles up to this point were marked. While larger cards such as this would have cost more, it seems that an information hungry populace was willing to pay the price.
Many illustrators worked for magazines and newspapers, supplying them with war related material throughout the conflict. Many of these same illustrations were later reproduced on postcards by the same publishers or licensed out to others in desperate need of images. While most illustrations were reused for the popular postcard format, some newspapers mounted these pictures on stiffer cardboard to sell as collectables for additional revenue. Though still a cards, these items were usually larger and more square than postcards and were not meant for mailing. Some of the same images however were reproduced on postcards as well.
One of the easiest ways to distinguish German soldiers on postcards and photographs is to look for their distinctive spiked helmets (Pickelhaube). Originally designed by Frederick William IV for the Prussian infantry; it consisted of a shell of hardened leather that was reinforced with metal trim that helped hold a metal spike in place at the top. The spike gradually grew shorter over the years to reduce the helmet’s weight until it became a detachable feature. What makes this headgear so distinct to us today also made it highly visible to an enemy on the battlefield, so by September 1915 all German soldiers were wearing helmets without spikes. Shortly after the beginning of 1916 a newly styled Stahlhelm helmet made of steel was issued to German soldiers. It should also be noted that when not in combat, German soldiers usually wore caps.
The image of the spiked helmet was so recognizable that it became to be internationally understood as a symbol of Germany even after it long disappeared from military use. As such it was widely used as a surrogate for Germany on postcards produced during the Great War. While the helmet was displayed on German cards with great reverence, it quickly became an instrument for satire and ridicule for many comic and political postcards produced by the Allies. The Pickelhaube still remains a symbol of the German Empire.
Germany was the largest producer of military postcards during World War One, largely due to the size and quality of its prewar printing industry and the availability of essential supplies such as ink of which they had a near monopoly on its manufacture. Outside of Berlin, the printing houses of Bavaria produced a tremendous amount of postcards most notably those from Nuremberg and its capitol Munich. Likewise a tremendous amount of postcards were also manufactured in the printing houses of Saxony, most notably from Leipzig and its capitol Dresden. Most of their publishers seem to have issued their military cards early in the conflict and production trailed off near its end. While this may be at least in part attributable to the availability of resources, it seems more likely that this trend followed demand. Before the public became saturated with stories of stalemate and death of a never ending war, they were anxious to follow every detail of their army’s road to victory. War can be very exciting when romanticized, and postcards kept this illusion up at home long after it disappeared from the trenches. Even double fold postcards that had already fallen out of vogue were revived to celebrate important victories.
Installment postcards were another type of elaborate novelty that German publishers kept up producing during the War years. They tended to be sold in a set of ten cards where each had its own narrative plus a fraction of a larger image that only appeared when the full set was assembled. These cards that portrayed national heroes and soldiers were usually mailed out one at a time to increase the anticipation of correspondence. To save time and money, some publishers used the artwork for cards already printed for the background.
Oskar Martin-Amorbach was a student at the School of Applied Arts in Munich when he joined the German army in 1916. He served as a messenger, and was badly wounded while fighting in Flanders. He did not recover until 1920 when he resumed his studies. Afterwards he largely painted peasant themes and church frescos, but he also created paintings of battles in a highly expressive style that were placed on postcards by Gerling & Erbes. He would become a popular artist with the Nazis and he returned to military painting during World War Two.
Karl Arnold began providing satyrical cartoons for Simplicissimus and Die Jugend magazines in 1907. His style took form during World War One when he worked for Liller Kriegszeitung, a German supported weekly newspaper in Lille for the occupation troops on the Western Front. This paper published many of his cartoons as fieldpost cards. He returned to do work for Simplicissimus after the War for which he is best known.
Hans Baluschek began to divorce himself from the traditional German art scene ever since he left his academic studies in 1893. As he absorbed leftist ideas, his paintings came to embrace social narratives largely dealing with class differences that he found in the streets of Berlin. Although the social issues he dealt with fell into the realm of realism, he developed a unique style that was closer to expressionism. He became a board member of the Berlin Secession but eventually left over disagreements of where modern art should be headed. While his strong leftist politics mad him an enemy of the aristocracy, he supported the Great War by contributing military illustrations to the journal Wartime (Kriegszeit), and to the weekly Artists Journal of the War (Kunstlerblatter zum Krieg). Other scenes of battles, hospitals, and patriotic themes wound up on postcards. Baluschek volunteered for military service in 1916 and served as a reservist on both the Western and Eastern Fronts. This inspired many painting but their mood changed from highly patriotic to somber. He was deeply disturbed that despite the great sacrifices Germany made the War ended in their defeat. Afterwards he dropped out of politics and produced little artwork.
Karl Otto Bartels is best known as a landscape painter who worked in a somewhat brushy style. While the postcard series he illustrated during World War One was drawn in a very different graphic style, these vast snowy mountain scenes capture the mood so prevalent in his paintings. Here the landscape dominates over the military narrative.
Claus Bergen was a very successful marine artist who became the official marine painter to Kaiser Wilhelm II in 1914. He produced many battle scenes and images of U-boats during the First World War that were reproduced on postcards. Some of these pictures were based on first hand experience after going out into the Baltic aboard Admiral Scheer’s flagship to reinact the Battle of Jutland. He also participated on a combat mission with U-53 in the summer of 1917. He continued with this theme in postwar years, and these images were placed on continental size cards.
The work of Emil Beithan revolved around depicting scenes of rural German life, particularly through the portrayal of types. In his more narrative work these figures evolved into recognizable characters. While his paintings a fairly naturalistic, the portraits in his graphic work show a strong almost cartoonish style. These characteristics carried over to the military themed postcards he illustrated during World War One. Many of these revolve around sentimental scenes of departure and often portray children.
August Blepp was primarily a Stuttgart based church painter, though he spent much time in Switzerland. He was conscripted into the Wuertemberg Army in August of 1914, and was stationed on the Western Front for the duration of the War where he fought at the Somme and Verdun. He made a number of expressive battlefront sketches that were placed on postcards by C. Reithmuller in Kirchheim.
Karl Blossfeld produced a wide variety of work while an illustrator working in Leipzig. His interests largely concentrated on naval themes, and he would become a well respected marine painter. His work, often loaded with heavy symbolism, is represented in both propaganda and satire issued during and in-between the two World Wars. Many of these images were placed on postcards and prints; some published by Fritz Finke and Grbr. Lempe. He also produced a good number of navel themed comic cards. (This artist should not be confused with the photographer Karl Blosfeldt).
Hans Bohrdt fell in love with ships after visiting Hamburg when he was fifteen years of age. He taught himself marine painting, and his natural aptitude gained him recognition. He developed a personal friendship with Kaiser Wilhelm II after becoming his painting tutor, and the Kaiser continued to support him as an artist. Bohrdt’s paintings became highly sought, and they were used on steamship line posters and postcards. While Raphael Tuck placed his images on their cards, more German publishers took up Bohrdt’s work as it grew ever more focused on promoting Germany’s maritime interests. He would produce strong propaganda cards during World War One, but often at the cost of his earlier artistic flair. His images of defiant German sailors in the wreckage of their ships were some of the most popular cards sold during World War One.
While Hans Bottcher is best known today for his surrealist paintings, he provided realistic field sketches that were used on fieldpost cards when a young soldier in World War One.
Frederich Bruckmann of Munich was a major printing and publishing house that had a long history of producing high quality printed products made in a variety of techniques. During the Great War they produced many artist signed cards depicting a full range of military and propaganda subjects. He was one of the few publishers to capture scenes from Germany’s African colonies.
Oscar Consée was a well known printer of art and advertising posters in Munich before the Great War. During the War and the years following they produced much propaganda work in fine lithography for both posters and postcards. Many of these were charity cards for the German Red Cross.
Michael Zeno Diemer was well known for his illustrations on a large number of fine chromolithographic view-cards produced before the War. During World War One he illustrated a number of postcards depicting naval ships, airships, and airplanes. While some of these were produced as chromolithographs, he produced a popular set of monochrome cards for J.S. Lehmanns in Munich.