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Themes of World War One:
UNITY WITHIN THE CENTRAL POWERS
Even though the Central Powers consisted of far fewer member states than the Allies, they seem to have produced just as many unity postcards. While they no doubt served the same general purpose, there is a large divide between those that reinforced the political alliance between all four members and those that only promote pan-Germanic ideals. It was the latter that consumed the efforts of most publishers. The ratio might have been different if the postcard industry in Bulgaria and Turkey were not dwarfed by those in Germany and Austria.
In December 1870, the confederation of German Kingdoms that fought for unification was transformed into the German Empire and the King of Prussia was made its Emperor. Prussian domination gave the appearance that the Empire was tightly unified, but it was only the first of equals due to its relative size. The small states and even cities within the Empire had a long history of independence and it would take some time to develop a stronger sense of national identity. This was hampered by each retaining their own governments and the larger kingdoms their own semiautonomous army. Differences that plagued the Empire were coming closer to resolution on the eve of the Great War, and the War itself galvanized most behind a single cause. Some unity cards were produced to pay tribute this united front and show that all of Germany was ready for war.
The growing rift between ethnicities within the Austrian Empire reached a critical point after its defeat in the Austro-Prussian War of 1866. Fearing the Empire might collapse, a compromise was reached with their largest ethnic group, the Hungarians that created a duel monarchy in 1867. Although Hungary wanted a new coat of arms to be adopted, the double headed eagle (Reichsadler) of the Holy Roman Empire was kept in use to symbolize the new Austro-Hungarian Union. Their relationship however remained shaky, and calls for more autonomy by other ethnicities only grew stronger. Emperor Franz Joseph made little effort to compromise, and it can be argued that his attempt to make Austria a more domineering presence is what led to war with Serbia; a move Hungary opposed. While unity was desperately needed in times of war, the internal disposition of Austrian leadership was not very amenable to compromise. This set the mood for publishers, and few unity cards would be produced that dealt with divisiveness within the Empire. The strain of war brought disunity to a peak, which led many soldiers to desert and fight for the enemy.
On this very early unity card, we still find Austria-Hungary, Germany, and Italy joined together in the Triple Alliance, which was signed in 1882. The treaty was designed for defense, and so Prime Minister Antonio Salandra was able to use this as an excuse to avoid aiding Austria-Hungry in 1914 by declaring its invasion of Serbia to be an act of aggression. He also considered their collusion with Germany without Italian approval to be a breach of the treaty. Italy remained neutral while both sides bribed the kingdom to enter the War on their side. While technically still allied, growing animosity insured that few unity cards were produced. When Austria refused to give into Italian demands for territory, Italy accepted British assurances of compensation and declared war on their former ally.
After terrible defeats in the Balkans and Libya, the Ottoman Empire realized its army was in desperate need of modernization. Only Germany responded to the request for help because the Kaiser thought that the Turks had the capacity of tying down large amounts of Allied troops if they became a partner in war. Some in Turkey believed that a victorious war was needed to get over the trauma of their recent losses, and so a secret treaty was signed between the two empires in August 1914. By end October they formally entered the War by launching surprise raids against Russia’s Black Sea ports. While secrecy may have played a role in the small amount of unity cards produced, it might also hint at deeper issues. There were few internal problems for the Germans and Turks to overcome, but Austria had fought the Ottoman Turks for centuries and these wars practically defined the two empires. This may seem like reason enough to produce unity cards, but there were few postcard publishers within the Ottoman Empire, and Austria seemed to have great difficulty compromising with its own minorities. Postcards welcoming the Turks into the Central Powers are quite rare.
When there was no quick end to the War, each side began enticing neutral nations to join their alliance. Bulgaria, which felt it had been cheated out of the territorial gains it deserved by Serbia in the Second Balkan War was persuaded to join the Central Powers for the chance of righting this perceived wrong. While the subject was tackled in German political cartoons, little was made of this in terms of welcoming unity cards. Was there something unseemly about this arrangement that German publishers did not want to polish with propaganda. Bulgaria was always included on more general unity cards.
If German and Austro-Hungarian publishers rarely publicized the creation of individual alliances, they did produce many cards showing all four nations aligned equally as part of the Central Powers. These range from realistic cards portraying all four heads of state to many images decorated with symbols.
On the unity card above, published by the German School Association, we find soldiers of all four Central Powers advancing under the personification of victory. Soldiers were often used to stand in for nations, just as they did on Allied cards.
The purpose of the German School Association headquartered in Vienna was to promote pan-Germanic solidarity, and to that end they built and staffed private schools with a curriculum that stressed Germanic ideals. They also produced a lot of charity cards that tended to promote some aspect of German culture. The vast majority of these do not incorporate any military imagery, the card pictured above being an exception. Although the unity card above honors Otto von Bismarck, a pivotal figure in the creation of the German Empire at the expense of Austria, Austrians in this image still cheer him as a god-like figure. Here he does not represent Prussia but is honored for his uniting Germanic people.
German unity cards tend to be more serious than those produced in allied nations, though some illustrators had the same propensity to get cutesy. Dogs were the favorite substitutes for soldiers just as on Allied cards, but they were not always used in the same way. Instead of using different breeds to stereotype different nations, dogs are used on the card above to emphasize their loyal character, thus reinforcing the idea that the four Central Powers are strongly united.
Some unity cards can be so subtle that their meaning does not come across at first glance. The card above shows cavalrymen watering their horses at a trough, but it takes a minute to realize they are not all from the same army. While units from different nations occasionally fought in the same battle, they rarely met up with one another.
While many unity cards depict all four of the central powers, they pale in comparison to those cards that only represent Germany and Austria-Hungary. There was of course residual antagonism from the mid-19th century conflict in which Prussia wrestled control over the smaller Germanic states from Austria to form the German Empire, but there seems to be more cards than needed to heal these wounds alone. They most likely represent the growth of the same pan-Germanic sentiment that led to the creation of the German Empire. This was sometimes represented through national emblems, which are entwined on the card above. A danger to one brother is a danger to both.
The display of the national flag was long seen as a patriotic gesture, and they appeared in great number filling streets at the beginning of the Great War. It was only natural that this tradition would eventually be extended to patriotic postcards. Many cards were produced that showed flags and patriotic banners out on display as a show of national unity. The German Red Cross card above extends this meaning further by showing the colors of both German and Austrian flags. While the celebratory nature of this card makes the display of flags easy to incorporate, illustrators found many ways to add them.
Western Germany (Germania) was only integrated into the Roman Empire in the 1st century, and the Romans gave up trying to conquer the eastern half of Germany after their defat at Battle of Teutoburg Forest. This lack of Romanization created real cultural differences that were still in place when the German Empire was formed. German nationalism in the 19th century relied heavily on this ancient mythology to create a unique sense of pride, and these differences became part of the national myth. While ties to this Teutonic past were used to unify all German people, it helped to create the stereotype of the barbarian that was used against them by Allied propagandists in the Great War.
While less typical in its depiction of two ancient warriors representing Germany and Austria, it presents the idea that the bonds between the two empires are long and run deeper than national boundaries might indicate. There is no battle raging, but they stand guard over the same bountiful land, shoulder to shoulder to meet the enemy. Since this was not always historically true, establishing a myth that promoted this long standing indivisible bond was a very important element in creating a spirit of unity.
The most common form of unity card was to show a German and Austrian soldier side by side in some sort of narrative. The most common narrative showed this pair in triumphal combat against the Allies. These were usually generic scenes, and the soldiers might even be accompanied by allegories of victory.
The giant artillery shell in the center of the unity card above might only be a generic symbol of military might, but it most likely has deeper meaning. While the Germans produce many powerful guns, the largest were made in Austria. On the eve of the War, a number of 420mm howitzers were lent to the German army, which became the deciding factor in their speedy advance through Belgium. Afterwards, these large guns came to symbolize German might. While many cards were produced to show that faith can be put on technology, the presence of this shell on a unity cards says that cooperation will lead to victory.
If Germany and Austria faced many enemies, then their foes had to be degraded to show it was not much of a contest. On the Austrian card above the Germanic pair are presented as brave and towering professional soldiers who are confronting an enemy of cowering grotesque figures. This formula was used on many cards. It is interesting to note that the other Central Powers are not depicted to help even the odds. This leads credence to the idea that these cards were more about reinforcing cultural unity than political alliances.
The enemy on unity cards were often degraded in the same way as cards used to stir up hatred and contempt. They were often infantilized to show their insignificance or as on the card above, all toothless after a good beating to put them in their place. If these cards border on the comical, it is because the enemy cannot be taken seriously. The production of these types of cards seem to have diminished as the conflict grew more deadly.
When troops were not pictured in actual combat, the danger to their empires could be represented in symbolic terms. If the danger was ambiguous, the response to it was not. German and Austrian soldiers have each other’s back. Such positioning also reinforces the idea that Germanic people are surrounded by foes, a concept highly played up on propaganda to encourage support for the War. Even though German armies had invaded Belgium, France and Russia, it was promoted as a defensive conflict.
Just as with Allied unity cards, the theme was played out in such volume in Germany that it became a trope. Publishers continued to find creative ways of presentation, but with each the message was diminished. The montage above seems to want to say that Germany and Austria are surrounded by enemies but at first glance it almost looks like a card that a tourist might buy.
German and Austrian soldiers are depicted fighting together on many unity cards, but they are found together much more often off the battlefield. This was most likely done to show that their pairing was not a result of military decision making, but that they are true friends. Even so, they are still often accompanied by very patriotic language of fighting shoulder to shoulder, faithful until death, so not to be mistaken for a simple good time. In reality soldiers of these two empires rarely had chances to mingle; at least not as often as these cards would imply. Unity cards by their very nature were forced to create situations that rarely existed at the front lines.
Many cards were made that show troops praying before battle, but on the card above we find a symbolic pairing of an Austrian and German soldier at a religious service. They grasp hands before the cross to show unity in purpose as if it were a marriage. This is no accident for these bonds between comrades and thus empires is are meant to be understood as a sacrament.
It was not uncommon for images of unity to take on religious overtones. A German and Austrian soldier pose before a church mosaic of archangel Michael, the patron saint of warriors. The implication is that the solders of both nations are the equivalent of knights defined by the covenant of sacrifice to God. Not only is their union sacred, they are fighting for more than political stakes. With such soldiers victory is assured.
After unity cards became very common, it became easier to use this familiar theme in more trivial ways. The Austrian New Year’s card above manages to add a patriotic message by simply putting it into the context of a unity card. While the fantasy belittles the seriousness of the patriotic gesture, the public needed a break from the serious around the holiday season. These cards represent publishers attempts to meet consumer demand more than convey a message.
It was common during the Great War to add military themes to holiday cards that already had a unifying effect through shared cultural references. Some publishers turned this around producing propaganda cards that were disguised as holiday cards. The Austrian Easter card above has nothing to do with the religious observance. Token Easter eggs are thrown in to associate it with the holiday, but the entire narrative is only meant to show how a united front will defeat the cowardly Allies.
On this fanciful Swiss Christmas postcard, published in 1916, we find all the belligerents are peacefully united in holiday celebration. How simple this could be if they only laid down their arms. Such cards could only be produced in neutral nations, for those that waged war could only follow official policy, which was to represent peace as the results of military victory. Those who tried to broker peace never made much headway because everyone thought that they would win, and thus set the terms. Even the Pope was disparaged for his negotiating efforts because his failure to take sides was seen by each party as a sign he supported their enemies. With the spirit of revenge in the air, calls for peace did not prevail. In the end it was the more hateful cards that had the greatest effect on people’s beliefs. Hate rather than unity would be the lasting effect of the War.