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Themes of World War One:
HATRED IN GERMANY
When the Great War began, no other nation was in as good a position to fight as Germany. Their army was armed with weapons that proved their worth on the battlefield, and its leadership was structured for a flexibility that allowed it to easily adapt to changes in situation and tactics. This focus on achieving an efficient military led many in positions of power to become oblivious to the value of propaganda. While some military leaders wanted Germany to launch a propaganda war early on, there was just too little regard for public opinion among naive officials. That which was produced was largely on the initiative of individual publishers who concentrated on presenting simple patriotic images. While Germany would produce far less propaganda than the Allies, they still created a substantial amount that included cards promoting hate. These often seem as if they are an after the fact rational to convince themselves that they can live with the horrible realities being executed on the ground.
Part of the reluctance to produce propaganda may have been the strong distain for the French that already existed. The eve of the Great War marked the 100th anniversary of the Liberation War of 1813 that freed Prussia from the yoke of Napoleonic rule. The anniversary of the Battle of Leipzig was marked with the opening of a great monument that was accompanied by great fanfare; not only to celebrate, but to help popularize military values especially within youth organizations. Commemorative card sets of the battles against Napoleon continued to be printed into World War One where Prussia’s victories over France in 1815 and again in 1871 were tied to the current conflict. While they foremost say that we beat them twice before and we will beat them again, they also help to revive long standing resentment that still lingered over French occupation. It became easy to associate one’s freedom and preservation of culture to military strength.
Even though there was a strong divide in between the Social Democrats and the more traditional militarists, Germans largely saw themselves as a progressive nation that had begun to solve many of the social ills that were prevalent across Europe. The German Empire was seen as new and others including republican France, were the old archaic order of the past. While this represented cultural and social movements more than leadership, enemy leaders were sometimes portrayed as if they belonged to the stone-age. The enemy was presented as a real danger to Germany’s social and cultural progress.
Some publishers did produced postcards early in the War that showed the Allies being bested at the hands of German soldiers. Most of these portrayed the French as fleeing cowards that cannot stand up to German might. While such attacks on the French character seem a natural route for propaganda to take, they met with unexpected opposition from German soldiers. While they were indeed driving the French back after numerous victories, they had come at a very high cost in lives. If all it took for a French soldier to run away was the sight of a German, then this diminished the great sacrifices the army had made. Cards promoting victory were fine, but not those that made their job look too easy.
German illustrators also depicted the enemy in animal form, though this often followed long standing traditions. On the card above, French soldiers are fleeing like scared rabbits before the German advance. While this Narrative incorporates well known symbolism, it also helps to dehumanize the French and presents their killing in terms of sport; the big hunt. Sporting allegories were common on political cartoons, to arouse the competitive spirit.
While it was common for animals to stand in symbolically for nations in political cartoons, they were also used as a way of conveying a more hateful or violent message than could be illustrated using people alone. Even when hatred was rampant, there was a line concerning violence that most publishers would not cross. This was not so much out of respect for the enemy as its exclusion was a sign of good character. On the card above a German soldier is about to slay a Gallic cockerel as if scavenging for food. Its real message is that France will meet a violent and definitive end at the hands of Germany.
Another popular way to degrade the enemy was by infantilizing them. This was most common on German cards which depicted the Allies as unruly children who needed to be disciplined. Although often pictured as miniature adults rather than actual children, they were still taught a painful lessen through a spanking. While many cards degrading the enemy were officially banned when it was felt that they detracted from the good character of Germans, many local administrators only took these proclamations as guidelines so rules were never evenly enforced.
Although Catholics and Protestants had fought religious wars with one another for centuries, these were no longer differences two nations would go to war over. Even so, the German military had long stirred anti-Catholic feelings within its ranks as a method of creating common bonds. Even though Germany theoretically had a policy of universal military service before the War, Catholics like Socialists were often excluded due to fears over their loyalty. For many, they embraced a backward perspective that threatened German liberalism if not the German Empire’s very existence. After German troops crossed into Belgium, their generals seemed to harness this hatred to conduct deliberate acts of terrorism against civilians. Speed was the essential ingredient to victory, and so eliminating anything that might interfere with the movement of troops and supplies became part of military doctrine. While the card above represents the enemy by way of common animal personifications, its caption makes it clear that Germany is fighting devils.
When the onslaught of Allied propaganda attacks came in their accusations of the rape of Belgium, Germany was left woefully unprepared. They continued their mistreatment of civilians and destruction of cultural icons as if it had no consequences apart from their military strategy. It was only after seeing the negative effect that this propaganda had on swaying public opinion in neutral countries that any attempt to counter it was made. German publishers however were reluctant to play up anti-Catholic sentiment because a large portion of the German population as well as allies and neutrals were Catholic. Justification for these violent acts were then placed solely on the criminal behavior Belgian civilians that attacked German troops in an uncivilized manner.
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. Adding to this fear were the low percentage of Belgians serving in the military causing many able-bodied men to be left behind enemy lines when their Kingdom was quickly overrun by the German army. When any sort of commotion arose, francs-tieurs was the first thought that came to mind of many soldiers, which often led to panicked indiscriminate shooting. The victims of this firing were usually other German soldiers, which only reinforced the idea that they were being attacked by the local population. While there is little evidence that civilians offered any real resistance, Germans were already predisposed to believing they did, and when feeling threatened with a gun in hand, it became a recipe to turn ill will into violent reprisals. German publishers produced numerous postcards showing their soldiers being ambushed by civilians. There are quite a number of postcards that depict such pitched battles in the streets when there was rarely anything more than an occasional sniper. It is however difficult to tell if these narratives of cowardly and criminal behavior were solely meant to stir up hatred or were just a reaction to Allied claims of atrocities.
French publishers produced numerous cards depicting ruins to stir up hatred for the enemy while German publishers used these same images to illustrate the power of their army. The same scenario holds true for images of fleeing refugees that are most likely to be depicted in terms of an atrocity on Allied charity cards. On the German card above, distressed refugees fleeing their burning town seems to be presented as a good thing or in neutral terms at best. There is some softening of the narrative for one soldier hands something over to a woman that has been left with so little.
Contradictory narratives were of no importance in the propaganda war; whatever messages was needed in the moment was the one produced. While numerous depictions of burnt out buildings and towns in enemy territory were placed on German cards to show the prowess of their army, the same type of destruction caused by the Russians in East Prussia were presented as atrocities. Cards of ruins and refugees were placed on numerous German cards early in the conflict until the Russians were driven out. While these cards are ostensively to raise money for war victims, they can’t help but generate hatred for the enemy that brought this on.
While a Censorship Department (Oberzensurstelle) operating under the general staff was set up in February 1915, there was still few attempts to organize a propaganda war. When Germans were accused of further atrocities including the starving of the Belgian population, individual publishers continued with their defensive strategy. Rather than stoop low and attack the character of the Allies, they introduced the image of the Good German. The postcard above breaks the stereotype of the pillaging soldier by showing a German officer purchasing food from a local farmer. There is no coercion and the atmosphere is friendly. While these cards might have eased the minds of those living in Germany, which was largely their intent, they are seen as curiosities today. It is the Rape of Belgium that resonated with most people, and it still remains representative of German behavior during the War. This may be largely due to the far superior propaganda war the Allies conducted, but also because they were the victors that controlled most postwar history. It does however also raise the question as to what best sticks in our minds. Perhaps the Great War being fought at all with little real provocation is evidence enough that we are most comfortable when thinking ill of each other.
German postcards did not portray the enemy in a bad light as much as they tried to present their own soldiers as good ordinary people. This does not seem to correspond to actual feeling for there was real hostility toward anything seen as French. The lack of personalized attacks might just be a reflection of German manners that looked upon this mode of expression as beneath them. Arthur Thiele, a very popular illustrator, is a prime example of this approach. He took up the cause of the Good German, producing a set of cards showing soldiers in occupied lands farming fields, helping civilians with chores, and sharing food with hungry children. The feeding of children became a popular theme with other illustrators as Allied claims that they were starving children grew. Terms such as Barbarian are often found in quotes on these cards indicating they were made in direct response to Allied allegations. These types of cards exist in large numbers, showing that this narrative was very popular even if ineffective outside of Germany. 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.
Not all German publishers were content with only presenting their soldiers as good people; the French had to be vilified to some extent. A common way to do this was by presenting the enemy as criminals. Since it was not always easy to vilify the character of men fighting for their country, they were sometimes presented as actual criminals released from prison. These were not professional men of honor who abide by military rules, so they need not be treated with respect when their time for punishment arrives.
While most German attempts at vilifying the French may have been tame, there are exceptions that often carried the same accusations found on French cards. On some French soldiers carry out a variety of despicable acts that go beyond ordinary criminality. On the card above we see a French soldier hiding among the dead shooting at those trying to remove wounded German soldiers from the battlefield. Such vile acts gave Germans not just reason but permission to hate.
Even though artist drawn cards can evoke a great deal of emotion, they are also tinged with an underlying sense of fiction. This could raise skepticism, and it often did, but photo-based cards were less likely to be doubted. There was already a long history of people seeing photography as representative of truth, even if it were not worthy of this attribute. Photographers however did not capture atrocities in the making. Most photo-based cards show the end results of such action, though even here we must remain skeptical. While damaged and destroyed ambulances were pictured on both sides as evidence of enemy callousness toward the defenseless, many of these vehicles probably came under fire due to the fog of war.
The French often portrayed Germans as drunkards, and the Germans often presented Russians in the same manner. The stereotype of Russians as hard drinkers was an old one that persist to this day, which made it an easy trope to exploit. Its use attempted to show Russians as poor soldiers that were not capable of threatening Germany. Fear of the Russian steamroller was real early in the conflict, and such cards were meant to help alleviate public concern. The enemy is not only shown to be a flawed inferior, their propensity for drunkenness implied that they were not professional enough as soldiers to resist German advances. This approach is typical of German publishers who did not portray the enemy as monsters but were more likely to degrade their character.
Efforts to degrade the enemy’s ability to harm Germany in the public’s perception remained a major theme of propagandists throughout the War. While many of these early cards are almost silly or playful, a careful look must be taken to absorb their deeper meaning. Even when humorous they bombarded the public with the message that the enemy is a contemptible inferior worthy of hatred.
Cards degrading the enemy took a more serious tone as the War dragged on. Quite a number of cards focus on alleviating fear of the large alliance brought against Germany by showing the enemy was not up to the task of defeating them. Quantity does not equal quality. Since caricatures in political cartoons were a common sight, popular catch phrases and political slogans were often placed on these cards to help malign. It was not until March 1917 that the War Press Office was set up as a department to concentrate on promoting government sponsored propaganda. While more effective cards were produced, they paled in quantity and quality to what the Allies were turning out. German postcard production was also winding down at this time due to labor shortages.
Preoccupied with problems in Ireland, it did not look like Britain would even enter the War, but secret military agreement had been made with both Belgium and France that guarantied participation. When Germany’s British cousins entered the War against them, many felt betrayed and a particular hatred then developed for them. German publishers who had restrained themselves when attaching the enemy began to single out Great Britain for demonization. Some cards even try to push the blame for Belgium’s troubles onto their alliance with Great Britain, who was sometimes depicted as a poisonous spider spinning his web of treachery.
Nearly everyone in the world began to suffer once the War disrupted food production and its normal channels of distribution. While this can be viewed as an unfortunate consequence of war, Germans saw it differently after the British naval blockade caused widespread starvation. Food was now being used as a weapon, which to most Germans was beyond the pale of civilized warfare. Soldiers were not just targeted for destruction but an entire nation. This created deep bitterness toward the British, and many German cards are inscribed with the words “Gott Strafe England!” (May God Punish England!). As the phrase came to be used as a greeting on the street, it familiarity allowed publishers to produce cards that just focused solely on this hateful message.
As the inconvenience of rationing caused by British blockade turned to starvation, the hatred that arose was harnessed to rationalize the killing of enemy civilians by way of an unlimited U-boat war and Zeppelin raids on cities. Many German postcards depict this form of revenge in generic form as waves of U-boats and Zeppelins race toward England. Real events no longer had to be pictured because hatred itself became the subject of cards. Even events that were shown on Allied postcards as atrocities were now reproduced on German cards as the results of justifiable revenge. When sympathy for the enemy disappeared, there were no longer any real victims of war, and any method if fighting was made possible.
If the idea of revenge was distasteful to some, then it could be presented in terms of justice. As the propaganda war infused the public with the idea that the enemy was an inferior, an undeserving transgressor, punishment seemed the only suitable solution. This message was often taken out of the strictly emotional and presented in more lofty ways. War is shown as the way through which the world court has dispensed its ultimate judgement throughout history. This was reinforced by the common idea that war is not a bad thing but the means by which a tired sick society can be reborn.
Much of the hatred against Britain was expressed in symbolic form, which often took on religious overtones. Even if German U-boats and Zeppelins could not punish Britain enough, it would eventually come to feel the wrath of God’s divine punishment. While such cards drew their power off of existing hatred, they also reinforced the idea that the British were an undeserving people worthy of punishment. This holly War must go on.
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. While Michel can be characterized as a good natured simple man who is best not stirred, those who wake this sleeping giant from his quiet lifestyle will feel his wrath. By adding a common saying to the simple image on the postcard above, it goes beyond defending Germany and speaks directly toward the enemy now symbolically represented as shit. What is ostensively comical is really driven by hatred.
Even if mostly through political cartoons, more graphic violence towards the enemy began to appear as the War progressed. A common theme was to treat the Allies as if they were nothing more than raw meat ready to grind. These images are uncharacteristically similar to French cards aimed at an audience so filled with hatred that they have no trouble accepting a sadistic tone. There is also another level of black humor here on the level of wordplay; if the enemy deprives us of food, we will grind them up instead.