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Themes of World War One:
Literary work from the ancient Greek Tragedies to the works of Shakespeare continue to resonate with us despite their age because they touch something timeless in the human spirit. We can still recognize the characters, the plot lines, because they are us and the lives we live. Even before there was any scientific ability to study the mind with exactitude, common threads were keenly perceived and human behavior was mapped. While there is now a whole field of behavioral science based on knowledge gained from psychiatry, DNA research, and brain imaging, most people still believe that the way people act is a complete matter of choice. Behavior that is considered bad continues to be largely viewed as a character flaw that must be punished in the absence of self-correction. While every individual ultimately has choices to make, a society does itself no favor by ignoring real factors that influence our decision making. Those who understand these connecting threads have always been able to manipulate society through propaganda.
Most historians explain the origins of World War One by describing political and military alliances, the doctrine of offensive warfare, and the quest for empire. It is difficult not to see how all of these factors helped shape the way events unfolded, and like falling dominos seemingly led to an inevitable conflict that would engulf the world. Despite all this a question remains, was war truly inevitable? People still had to make their own choices, and there seemed to be few issues that could drive them into conflict at this time. Arguments for war went over the heads of most common people who shared none of the concerns of politicians and elites. Even totalitarian regimes could not count on public support for a war. Right up until the eve of the conflict, the peace movement spearheaded by the international socialist movement remained very strong and defiant.
When the first declarations of war were announced, the world turned upside down. Few said they saw it coming, and nearly all assumed it would be limited to another brief Balkan conflict. Then as the prospects for a global war quickly expanded, there was a great rallying around the flag in every nation, and even radicals that had been harshly criticizing their government or even throwing bombs at their leaders were suddenly transformed into true patriots. The Great War then grew from a small regional conflict to one that consumed most of Europe. Outside of competing interests between Austria and Serbia in the Balkans, there were no other pressing territorial claims that were crying to be resolved. There was continuing competition to accumulate power, but most nations had come to live with the status quo and the economic benefits that came with peace. There was no logic to going to war as there was little for anyone to gain. This of course changed later in the War when neutral nations were courted and bribed to take sides, and old territorial claims were revived by those already fighting.
Attempts have been made to explain away much of this patriotic fervor as part of the growing nationalist trends of the 19th century, but this is only one side of the coin. Many soldiers went off to war with no clear idea of what they were fighting for or what they were truly getting themselves into. Many authors generously claim that early in the War, soldiers were driven more by an adventurous romantic spirit than by hatred; but is this enough to kill another man? I believe there was one single denominator that caused so many to choose war when they could have demanded peace. Hatred for the enemy may not have been very noticeable in prewar years, but this animosity was ingrained in every society only waiting to be tapped. Reasons for going to war did not have to make sense; people simply hated each other.
Studies with very young children that have not yet been completely socialized have shown that we do not live in a dog eat dog world, but that generosity and sharing are an intrinsic part of human nature. The children involved were much happier when making someone else happy than when receiving gifts themselves. There is however one very important caveat when analyzing these results; they only pertain to interactions within a perceived group. In other words, these children were only kind to those within the group they knew like friends and family, while outsiders were looked upon warily. Making differentiations between insiders and the other is what defines most of human history. We divide our loyalties in many different ways and to varying degrees, and there have always been those who learned how to manipulate this process for their own gain. By World War One this mechanism was understood well enough to become a major tool of propagandists. The people of all nations were made to feel as if they were under attack by those not like them, and they united to defend their homeland, their family, and their values against this perceived enemy. From the very onset of the War, the enemy is portrayed as an outsider on postcards. While these cards are meant to instruct, they only work because they already reflect something lurking within their customers.
There seems to be a natural tendency for people to project the things they fear in themselves, their shadow onto others. While this creates the illusion of cleansing, it also helps support if not create paranoia, biases, and outright hatred. We are now good, we are now blameless, we are victims and all our problems and fears are the fault of the other, the enemy. The more we suspect that our shadow still hides within us, the more vitriolic our hatred. This creates a firm foundation for propagandists to build on. They only need direct these feelings to the cause at hand to create a reality of their own choosing. Postcards were widely used to define the enemy and create a common threat that society could mobilize against.
Hatred and fear are natural companions because we hate that which we believe might cause us harm. These feeling have another effect, which did not go overlooked by world leaders and propagandists; it brings people together so they can better defend themselves. Although all belligerents began the War by going on the offensive, they managed to rally internal support for it beyond all expectations simply by projecting the idea that they were under attack. Adversaries within each nation bonded together in common cause, which in itself created a greater sense of belonging that only reinforced patriotic fervor. Most of this exuberance eventually wore away as the cruel reality of war set in, but unity was promoted throughout the war years. It often took on religious overtones to unite people in a crusade against the enemy. While disputes over ideology no longer matched the ardor to kill heretics as seen in the Thirty Years War, religious differences had grown into cultural differences that fed into nationalist urges. By 1914, each nation had grown to feel superior over its neighbors, thus entitled to win any disputes. When compromises had to be made with inferiors, it seemed unjust. They were an affront to God’s wishes. This only added to the distain of other cultures that were either seen as an obstacle to greatness or even a threat to it. This lack of respect only simmered during peacetime, but in conflict it afforded soldiers the liberty to hand out any punishment they saw fit to an enemy that deserved no leniency.
To the casual observer, Europe in 1913 seemed a place where trade between nations was benefiting all and mutual cooperation was assured. With the exception of the Balkans, old conflicts seemed forgotten and peaceful resolution to the occasional dispute seemed certain. Europe long racked by conflict had finally become a peaceful kingdom with a history of animosities that ran deep. While most societies believe they are governed by the values they hold dear, they are just a collection of individuals that react in the same manner as human beings. The expression of these emotions may be governed by culture, but they are always lurking behind politeness and manners. Hatred between nations grew ever stronger in Europe as the war dragged on, but it was probably always there.
The sections below are not about hatred, they only explore some of the ways in which postcard publishers tried to direct hatred within the scope of propaganda. While it may seem that something as insignificant as a postcard could not have any real effect on the propaganda war, their great popularity in this age must be taken into consideration. The constant bombardment of small messages through such a familiar medium helped to create a unified state of mind. Differences in content between nations can be attributable to many factors including what public taste deemed acceptable to the size of their printing industry. Many nations had some form of censorship in place before the Great War that kept unseemly images out of circulation. Attempts were often made by postal authorities early in the conflict to remove cards that were insulting beyond acceptable social norms. The problem was that these norms shifted quickly as the public grew to hate the enemy more and more. Even those monitoring the mail were affected by their own bias. There was never a consistent effort to keep hateful imagery out of the mail as long as it was directed against the enemy. This allowed illustrators and publishers to keep up production as long as there was a demand.
HATRED IN FRANCE
Most of the harsh feelings between France and Germany have their roots in the Napoleonic Wars. After defeating Austria, Napoleon dissolved the Holy Roman Empire and turned many of their small Germanic kingdoms into a puppet state known as the Confederation of the Rhine. While Napoleon saw Prussia as a threat to this new alliance, Frederick-William III of Prussia became alarmed over France’s new found influence over territory he coveted. A forth coalition was formed to fight France in 1806, but before these forces were united the French army invaded and Prussia suffered a humiliating defeat. A harsh occupation followed that was not broken until 1813 when the Liberation Wars began. Victory raised the esteem of the Prussian military, which came to be seen as the savior of their nation, while France became to be viewed as a perpetual threat to their survival. Both these undercurrents were still well in place in 1914.
Even though France was goaded into declaring war on Prussia in 1871, it fit into the German stereotype that the French were a danger to their survival. Once the Prussians achieved victory and formed the German Empire, the French provinces of Alsace and Lorain were added to it. These were not just spoils of war but rationalized as a buffer zone needed by Germany to help protect it from French aggression. Many French saw it as outright theft, which created bitter feelings and calls for revenge (revanche). While the return of these lost provinces became a heated issue within French politics, there was only a small vocal minority supporting this cause by 1914.
The nationalist poet Paul Déroulède became the first President of the League of Patriots (Ligue des Patriotes) in 1882, a group dedicated to seeking revenge for the French defeat in the Franco Prussian War. Failure to find political support led him to launch a failed coup in 1899. Even though this resulted in his being exiled to Spain, the card above, published a year after his death revives his dream. Even though he was once reviled by many as a traitor, his legendary stature as a defender of Alsace and Lorraine could now be incorporated into the propaganda war to help rally support for the conflict.
P.J. Gallais & Co. was a publisher and printer of note from Paris that had a long history of producing artist signed cards dealing with political satire. Clearly a supporter of revanche, they busied themselves well before the Great War vilifying the Germans in control of Alsace and Lorraine in the bitterest of terms. This trend continued into the war years when interest in this type of patriotic and hateful imagery picked up.
Public perceptions regarding Alsace and Lorraine changed rapidly once war was declared. Propagandists saw that this issue could easily be harnessed into a call for justice and revenge. Once this underlying resentment was tapped, it turned to a hatred that was strong enough to encourage men to fight over a contention that they could barely remember. While French publishers produced many postcards calling for the liberation of their fellow Frenchmen in Alsace and Loraine, their true purpose was just to rally support for the War. The French government did not view this population as loyal, and they would eventually suffer under French occupation as outsiders.
Manners, morality and fair play were all concepts that permeated life at this time, especially among the higher classes. Although soldiers quickly discovered that their ideals had little relevance on the modern battlefield, those at home held on to these beliefs for as long as they could. Propagandists targeted these believers by producing cards that directly attacked the character of the enemy to make them look as different as possible from French soldiers. There was no devious trick the enemy was unwilling to embrace to kill Allied troops. While both sides produced cards showing the transport of arms and ammunition by the enemy while under the protection of a Red Cross emblem, French publishers went further to depict ambulances being used by Germans to ambush unsuspecting troops.
Similar cards attacking the character of German soldiers show them only pretending to surrender when they are actually laying a trap for their would be captors. Since Germans are deceitful and do not fight by civilized rules, they in turn are not entitled to be treated fairly. These cards provide a cover for hatred. Such behavior can be used as an excuse for killing strangers just because they wear a different uniform.
Much of the Geneva Convention concerns itself with the proper care of prisoners of war and those wounded in battle. It is a reflection on widespread values held at this time that a certain amount of generosity must be afforded those who can no longer defend themselves. Germans however are often shown defying what most would consider proper moral decency by murdering the helpless wounded and robbing the dead. Even unarmed Red Cross workers, protected by international law are often depicted shot in the back by cowardly Germans. P. Carrire illustrated many cards that showed a variety of German crimes like the one above.
German behavior was not only portrayed on postcards as bad, it was often carried over into the sadistic. It went far beyond any rational of military necessity or even what the most generous might pass off as the typical acts of cruelty that pop up in every war. On the postcard above a German soldier is not helping his wounded French counterpart but preparing to finish him off. His comrades call for him to drag this execution out so the enemy will even suffer more. It is interesting to note that nearly every nation produced postcards that show soldiers helping their wounded enemies with the exception of France where compassionate images are nearly impossible to find.
Many of the young inexperienced German soldiers that marched into Belgium in August 1914 had been made fearful by tales of francs-tieurs, French civilians who rose up against the Prussian army during the Franco-Prussian War of 1871. When the fog of war led Germans to shoot one another, blame was automatically placed on Belgian civilians who were then marked for reprisals. Even though atrocities committed seem to have roots within the biases that the soldiers arrived with, the Allies saw this as anything but a spontaneous act. To them the killing and destruction was premeditated, which in turn impugned the character of the perpetrators. It was widely believed that such acts like those that devastated Europe during the Thirty Years War no longer had a place in modern warfare, which in turn brought down excessive condemnation of these early reprisals. This was just the thing Allied propagandists needed to fuel their war, and they made use of it as quickly as they could. A barrage of cards descended on the public that portrayed the advancing Germans as not as soldiers but criminals against culture who must be punished.
The best known example of German reprisals against dubious attacks was in the town of Louvain. After an alarm was sounded on August 25th, the firing of panicked German soldiers had led to deaths, which was followed by days of civilian executions and the burning of their homes. With the torching of the university’s great medieval library, seen as a bastion of Catholicism by the Germans, their crimes were extended to a war against culture. The burning of Louvain was a story that resonated with many overseas. It was hoped that this sort of news would not only encourage enlistment, but encourage reluctant allies like Italy and the United States to join the war against Germany. The story of Louvain became so well known through the propaganda war that it could be used as an anti-German trope. If details on other incidents were unknown, the image of Louvain could always be invoked.
Atrocities were not isolated to Louvain. There was another large massacre of civilians at Dinant and then at Les Rivages, Aarschot, Andenne and Nomeny. Each incident fueled the next as it reinforced rumors that a general uprising was taking place, which had to be brutally suppressed. While this provided German soldiers with a rational to dispense cruelty toward the imagined insurgents who obviously deserved it, two different views of the War emerged. While the German high command dismissed this behavior as the price of war where a ruthlessness was still required to carry out one’s duty as a soldier regardless of signatures on treaties and accords, it flew in the face of civilized notions of war that most civilians held.
It may have been in Germany’s best interest to keep the population of Belgian terrorized so they would not interfere with the transport of men and material when speed was the essential ingredient to German victory, but the public was not conditioned to see it in these practical terms. Since the latter half of the 19th century efforts had been made to civilize warfare by setting internationally accepted rules and conventions. Even if military leaders took little notice, the public grew to believe that there were specific lines that should not be crossed. If Allied commanders grasped the motivations behind Germany’s ruthless advance through Belgium, they also knew the public would not understand the military rational and react to it emotionally. When German soldiers trespassed on these social norms, Allied propagandists harnessed public outrage and aggravated it further. If the Germans felt they could not allow anything to stand in their way, the Allies would exploit this posture in the propaganda war, not only to drum up enlistments but to persuade neutral nations of the righteousness of their cause. The military struggle was quickly turned into a cultural war.
Photo-based cards sometimes depicted the aftermath of atrocities, but these were rarely evocative and often relied on the accompanying narrative for impact. It was artist drawn cards that had the most power, and illustrators often went beyond the realistic to present the War in more resonating symbolic terms. While cities still burned, it was the Kaiser who now often stood in for pillaging troops. If it was difficult to paint all Germans with a wide brush, the Kaiser became a more than suitable villain to focus on.
The worst fears of the Allies, their worst conceptions of transgression were used to vilify German soldiers. Hatred expressed through anger often takes on sadistic expression, and it seems that this was so widespread to inspire postcard illustrations that would have never been tolerated in prewar years. The Press service of the Ministry of War, which saw postcards that exaggerated enemy behavior in order to demean them as offensive to public taste and values eventually banned them, but this rule was rarely enforced.
Images of horror were produced for effect, but not everyone could stomach these pictures. If atrocities were to be represented on postcards for the sake of propaganda, then they had to produce in a variety of ways if people were going to purchase them. While some images depict graphic violence toward innocent people, others only display the destruction of property. Some reduce the violence further by hinting at it through symbolic means. The intensity of these images often lies with the viewer, not the illustrator.
It is difficult to say if the propaganda war against Germany would have been so intense if no atrocities were committed at all. Most of the reports that entered the press or were illustrated on postcards bore no resemblance to the facts. Their purpose was to vilify by delving into the publics worst fears and emotions for inspiration. Although specific incidents were often portrayed on Allied propaganda cards, it was much easier to base the propaganda war on traditional myths. Once the bad character of German soldiers was established by their real actions, they could be associated with any similar acts of destruction or cruelty whether they occurred or not. Crimes committed against Belgians then flowed seamlessly into crimes against the French. The narrative had become a generic formula to support a culture of hatred that remained a staple of French postcard production throughout the War.
The foldout postcard above, shown closed and then open, depicts the two faces of the German you might meet. Up front we see the typical tourist with guidebook in hand, but once we open the card and look inside we find the true heart of the enemy who comes to burn those landmarks he once only pretended to admire. The card implies that even the friendliest German cannot be trusted, which is an argument that cannot be adequately answered.
There was much debate during the War over exactly what was happening in Belgium, a controversy that continued in postwar years. While it is doubtful that the most sensational atrocities attributed to the German army are true, the killing of civilians probably went underreported at that time. There is now evidence that some incidents of mass murder were indeed planned by German commanders though we are left to speculate on the exact motive. The timetable by which the Germans moves was so crucial to their victory that striking terror into the civilian population to avoid their interference seems a reasonable conclusion to make. German military doctrine saw non-combatants as legitimate targets even if no one else did. This however does not explain why ordinary soldiers were so willing to kill. While there was some resistance to issuing collective punishment, the climate of hate that marched in with these soldiers was probably enough for most troops to willfully kill civilians once anger or fear were stirred.
Once rumors of atrocities committed in Belgium began to reach the public’s ear, propagandists were able to exploit it without limits because it was impossible to verify the facts. Artistic license greatly expanded the nature of these acts, making them ever more heinous to arouse more hatred for the enemy. While many stories were believed outright, exaggerated incidents also drew skepticism. This led some publishers to document specific incidents, which helped to reinforce similar stories based solely on hearsay. These types of cards are not common because it was nearly impossible to obtain accurate information on what was happening behind enemy lines.
Since nearly all of Belgium was occupied in the first months of the War, postcards depicting atrocities committed there were largely produced by French publishers. Similarities in culture, language and religion that had allowed German antagonism against the French to be easily transferred to Belgians, also created great outrage and sympathy in France. Even when not citing specific incidents, the crimes committed in Belgium became so associated with German barbarism that it could always be counted on to evoke a passionate response. In this way it was a rallying cry against the enemy, no matter where the cards were published. As the number of these types of cards increased, they became more effective in persuading people to hate the enemy. So many cards could not be wrong. On the other hand it might be considered that people had a need to hate in order to rationalize the situation they were involuntarily thrown into.
By the end of the War, the nonstop propaganda war against the Germans had lost most of its credibility but hatred for their former enemy still existed. This allowed Belgian publishers to approach this topic in postwar years and produce cards as vitriolic as those made at the height of the propaganda war. A good example is those published in Brussels by Photo Belge in 1919. Not only do they depict heroic scenes of the Belgian Army in action during the Great War, almost half the series is dedicated to both documented and generic atrocities presented in very graphic terms. These depictions of past events were still able to find an audience because they had become part of the national myth.
Throughout history, the ability to loot was the traditional means by which most soldiers were compensated for their service. This system was eventually replaced by paying soldiers a salary, but it was still common for looting to occur whenever opportunities arose. By World War One, much of this activity had been reduced to souvenir hunting with the worst offenses carried out by systematic government efforts to send all valuable resources to back to the homeland. Despite this reality, publishers concentrated on showing it at the more human level so it would be perceived as a fault in character rather than a rational move to support the War effort. This formula not only generated more hatred, it helped reinforce the stereotype of the pillaging barbarian. Since it was Germany that occupied the most foreign territory that could be looted, they tended to be singled out on postcards for chastising.
German soldiers were often portrayed to be more interested in looting than fighting, which was another assault on their character. They were depicted as criminals unable to control their animalistic urges rather than professional soldiers fighting for principals such as love of country. Sometimes such behavior was set in comparison to that of the patriotic French soldier whose righteousness was bound to prevail over the immoral. On the card above, a German soldier is seen with loot stolen from civilians while the French soldier is encumbered with trophies taken from the enemy on the battlefield.
The problem with pictures of looters was that they already fit into most people’s conceptions of war; it had been nearly a universal practice for centuries and was practically considered synonymous with it. To make the act truly repugnant in the public’s eye, illustrators began showing Germans being predisposed by their barbaric state to destroy items of high culture rather than steal it. These cards even denied Germans of the ability to appreciate art and culture, proving them to be true barbarians. Although presented as propaganda, it was not a total exaggeration for the conflict was fought as a war on the despised enemies culture as much as for military gains, which can easily be seen in the deliberate destruction of the great library at Louvain.
If Germans craved loot, they craved alcohol more, and the two themes were often conflated on postcards. Both tend to illustrate hedonistic behavior that the practitioner lacks the character to control. This goes beyond a personal assault, it is also an attack on Prussian professionalism. While drinking is most often presented as a moral argument, it lacks the power found on more violent cards. Most soldiers at this time received alcohol, be it beer, wine, rum or vodka as part of their daily rations. Soldiering in wartime was stressful, and it was believed that a little drink would improve morale and stiffen a soldier up. While it was very common for soldiers in all armies to overindulge whenever the opportunity presented itself, such behavior could be to easily excused.
Food is another item that Germans are sometimes shown looting, though not as often as one might expect. While this activity also implies a lack of moral character like drinking, it is a more complicated issue. Soldiers on the march have always lived off the land; and it was only when armies grew very large that rations began to be supplied. Even so, soldiers were always searching for food to supplement inadequate rations. While such activity was not unexpected, it was still presented on Allied cards as an atrocity. Soldiers did not steal from farmers because they were hungry, they stole because they were barbarians that gave no thought to the consequences of their actions. What is interesting to note is that German publishers actually pictured more scenes of their soldiers absconding with food than the French. Cards like the one above told hungry families back home they were finding enough to eat. It is not the act that creates an atrocity, it is the perspective.
The British blockade of Germany turned food into a weapon of war. Even with rationing, people began to starve and the systematic looting of foodstuffs from occupied lands began. When the civilians of Belgium began to starve they were made a tool in the propaganda war. The Allies pointed to this as another German atrocity while the Germans pointed to the British blockade. These roundabout arguments did not have to be rational, people read what they wanted to hear into them.
Germany was slow to enter the propaganda war, but when the bad publicity created by Allied propaganda cards began having an effect on public opinion they were forced to produce cards that might counter this. Rather than attack the French in kind, German publishers created the continence of the Good German who were shown helping civilians, especially with feeding children. These Good Germans were often labeled Barbarians to mock French cards. The French card above mimics the German response by showing the production of their propaganda. In it the Good German says, “I do not think I killed the mother.” German efforts to counter Allied propaganda were largely overwhelmed by the much larger effort being waged against them.
If a death in battle is considered tragic, it can still at the same time be understood as the price of war. Although civilians have always suffered during wartime, sometimes even dying in greater numbers than soldiers, they had grown to be seen as illegitimate targets of warfare. Overlooked by most military histories concentrating on battles and troop movements, the plight of civilians had largely disappeared from public consciousness in the prewar years. Since outrage largely arises when the undeserving are killed, the realities of total warfare came into direct conflict with public perceptions. While this provided a great opening for propagandists to exploit, they usually concentrated on the most sensational instead. Complex issues like slave labor and deportations were more difficult to illustrate and they require more assessment before outrage sets in. Publishers who had experience producing greeting cards already knew that facts were not needed to stir up emotions. The French card above has a long narrative in English printed on the back so that there is no mistaking this barbaric act is worthy of the Turks.
Perhaps the most innocent of the innocent are children, so their deaths are the most tragic and can best be exploited. The earliest of these cards seem to be tinged with some truth even though designed to pull on the viewer’s emotions. There is the depiction of a young boy shot dead in the street for carrying a toy gun. Such incidents undoubtedly took place, just as they do now between inner city kids and police, but the frequency of such incidents on both Belgian and French postcards is so numerous that it is raised to mythical proportions. While these cards show that children can be brave and defiant and an inspiration to adults, they also insinuate that the enemy has no ability to distinguish the innocence of youth from a legitimate target. It should be noted that in Germany, disrespect shown to an officer was seen as disrespect towards the Kaiser and the Empire; and it was the duty of every German officer to severely punish such acts. While it is hard to believe this led to the wholesale killing of children, it is easy to see why people may have believed these stories.
Eventually all children and even babies became the favorite enemy of German soldiers on postcards. Sometimes they are just depicted prostrate, trodden under German boots, but they are most often portrayed huddling in fear or already lying dead on the ground from their encounter with a firing squad. Where a soldier in the same circumstances might be portrayed in stoic defiance, there was usually no signs of bravery to be found on these faces. Pity stirred more hatred when children were involved, which of course was the purpose of these depictions. They also called German bravery into question as they seemed to prefer killing the defenseless. These cards are rarely attached to any reported incident, and were published in great number as generics.