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Themes of World War One:
HATRED IN GERMANY continued
With no substantial Allied occupation of German soil, German publishers could not counterbalance the Allies claims of atrocities with their own. A focus on race was substituted in its place. If the Allies were waging a war for civilization, then Germany was also waging a war for culture by associating their enemies with the barbaric races that they brought into Europe to fight alongside them. This form of portraying the other was easy for ordinary people to sink their teeth into because it was largely based on longstanding stereotypes and biases. New ideas need not be promoted; feelings that people already harbored deep within them just had to be pulled out by making them more acceptable. Postcards told people it was okay to hate those outside their community. There was already an attitude in most nations that they were superior to their neighbors and thus more deserving. The common German belief that they were being held back created resentment that was easily translated into fears of being under attack by their inferiors who were out to destroy all that they had achieved. Resentment turned to hate made men willing to kill.
The main focus of racially themed German postcards was directed against Black Senegalese soldiers (tirailleurs senegalais) serving in the French Army. Primarily stationed within France’s colonial empire in prewar years, they were brought to Europe in great numbers after tremendous casualties were suffered in the War’s opening campaign. Germans took great offense to their deployment on the grounds that such inferior peoples were too dangerous to be allowed in Europe. The card above depicts a captured French soldier with his shirt removed to enhance his primitive nature. He is described a Cannibal, a fighter “for culture.&rdquo: While racism certainly existed in Germany, it is difficult to say how much these cards were produced out of simple hatred or just resentment that the arrival of Black troops were preventing the victory over France that was expected and deserved.
French publishers produced many postcards to counter German hatred of Senegalese troops by turning their own prejudices against them. Hapless German soldiers were often portrayed as captives of these Black troops or in other humiliating circumstances. The supposition is, if Africans are inferior to Europeans, what does that say about the Germans who they easily best? While these cards imply the inferiority of Germans, they do not work to defend their own colonial troops. Their narrative still relies on their own population’s prejudice against blacks to make the message work.
Scotsmen were also singled out for ridicule on German cards. While their kilts provided cartoonists on both sides of the conflict with much ammunition to work with, German publishers emphasized their racial inferiority, often portraying them as ape-like creatures. This was also a dig at the British Empire that was often shown as propped up by inferior races. It is easy to forget today that not too long before the Great War, people from the backwoods of the British Isles like the Scotts and Irish were barely even considered human by the English. German publishers did not seem to attack the Irish in the same way as Scots. Could this be the lack of a viable pictorial stereotype or did they not want to help rally them when they were so antagonistic toward the English?
Although the British Isles is a relatively small land mass, Britain derived great power from its vast overseas empire. German publishes criticized this supposed greatness by insinuating that the British Empire was largely made up of racial inferiors that had no right to claim they were defending real culture or civilization. This was a counter argument to Allied claims that Germans were the true barbarians. Such portrayals of the enemy also degraded the British threat.
John Bull is a satirical character created by the Scott, Dr. John Arbuthnot in the early 18th century that grew to become the personification of England though the many political cartoons in which he appeared. Sometimes derided, sometimes praised, he usually appeared as a heroic archetype of the freeborn Englishman. British publishers used this stout figure on patriotic postcards with frequency during the Great War. The German card above uses the widely recognized name, but portrays John Bull as an African from one of the empire’s colonies. This becomes the true face of the British civilization that they would impose on Germany.
The Germans only faced the Japanese in the Great War at the siege for their Chinese colony, Tsingtao in the fall of 1914, but they produced more propaganda cards concerning Japan than this brief encounter might suggest. They had already found their way into German political cartoons before the War, often warning Japan that British would manipulate their relationship and lead them to ruin. This message found sympathetic ears in Japan as many were unsure who was the better partner to support when the conflict began. After choosing to honor their treaty with Britain, Germany continued producing cards with the same message, but now many took on racial tones. Japanese soldier were often portrayed as little monkeys, not a foe worthy of consideration. The card above is actually a dig at the British, claiming that they put the protection of their South Asian empire in hands of an inferior people incapable of defending it.
Perhaps the most curious racial cards are those published in Germany that depict Americans. Most caricatures of foreigners were based on stereotypes that existed for centuries, but the United States proved difficult to define since its population was composed of many nationalities. When accurate knowledge was lacking, some illustrators relied on what they learned from popular American movies such as the Western. Native Americans seemed to have been picked out for ridicule by Germans because they needed someone who looked uniquely American that could also be labeled a savage, Too many Blacks lived in other Allied empires so they could not be used to create a unique identity. While there is some logic to this approach, these cards make no sense to an American eye. German illustrators could also be confused. On the card above we see an American Indian who has been mislabeled a Gurkha from India.
Political cartoons by their very nature are prone to pictorial exaggeration, which often makes it difficult to differentiate between racist depictions and artistic license. When we see these same racial themes picked up on photo-based cards, we can better judge the overall mood of a society by how often they appear. Prime examples are postcards showing prisoners of war, where direct contact is made with the enemy. While some portrayals are very matter of fact, those that go out of their way to show a wide variety of allied prisoners often serve another purpose. They do not just show off the large numbers of prisoners taken, they are meant to show the enemy as a motley lot, incapable of defending themselves and barely worth any consideration. There is only one conclusion to be drawn; our enemy cannot hold out against our superior troops for much longer. While usually presented in racial terms, they are often overly general. Just about anyone from Africa can be labeled an Arab or a Turk.
European publishers had long produced postcards of types to show off people from other places. During the war, many of these same people were now held prisoner in camps where they became the subject of war artists. The results were mixed with some portraits capturing the dignity of the soldier while others reinforced stereotypes. German publishers were more likely to stress the racial makeup of these men. While some inferiority is implied in presentations of the exotic, many of these cards present enemy colonial soldiers as the dregs of the earth. Since many were only formally familiar with such people through ethnic displays at zoos, it became easy to characterize them as less than human.
While Germany did not seem to harbor any immediate territorial ambitions in Europe at the outbreak of the War, the German people had a long history, dating back centuries to the Northern Crusades, of eyeing the lands to their east for expansion (Drang nach Osten). Most of this territory had been absorbed into the Russian Empire by the18th century, and the outbreak of war in 1914 revived German ambitions to seize it. Once Hindenburg and Ludendorff rose to power they openly espoused the policy of Lebensraum where large swaths of territory, mostly at the expense of Russian Poland, Belarus, and Lithuania, would be directly annexed into the German Empire as part of its sacred destiny. Russians were depicted as an inferior Mongol race who were unworthy of occupying these lands on all sorts of cards. While Germans often presented themselves as liberators of these former kingdoms, these were purely Imperialistic intentions.
It is always easier to steal if you believe the owner is not worthy of possession. German publishers who might have held back on their depictions of British and French soldiers showed no reluctance when depicting Russians in a bad light. Their purpose was less to drum up hatred than reinforce a racial stereotype. While cards of occupied Belgium and France largely depicted ruins, those from occupied Russia often showed the poor living conditions in the homes of inferior lice infested peasants that were little different from the farm animals they lived with. Their contrast with Germans surely made them ripe for colonization. These types of cards were extremely popular, perhaps because they were more easy to identify with than lofty political ambitions.
Some photo-based German cards show scenes of Russia that seem rather innocuous at first, but one must look harder for meaning. The card above from 1915 shows German soldiers on a farm in Russian-Poland but the real focus is on how primitive and messy things are compared to German farms back home. The subtle message is that these people would be better off under German supervision. The narrative mimics that of all colonial powers in that subjugation is disguised as a civilizing mission.
The harshest depictions of the enemy on German postcards usually follow one of two basic rules. The Allies can be shown as a united front so hatred can be spread out among all of them The visual tone tends to be light hearted even when the message is severe. Russians however were often singled out for the most sadistic images because they were not seen as part of European; often described as Asians or Mongolians, and sometimes not even as human. While the manners a polite society are extend to others like them, even if an enemy, they did not apply to Russians. Even so, when images depict Russian soldiers being swept away by infernal machines were placed on postcards, German illustrators still had to try to hide their sadism behind humor.
If most German cards depict Russians in a derogatory manner, it is usually expressed through long established stereotypes that did not require much thought to take in. These eventually proved to be inadequate for they were far too easily understood as common human faults. If the enemy was to be dehumanized as a precursor to enslavement or worse, then a harsher caricature of him needed to be developed. A number of German cards depict Russians as lacking the traits normally associated with civilized people. While these portrayals may seem comic, there was a serious message behind them.
Most German cards depicting Russians were meant to portray them as an inferior undeserving people to rationalize colonization. Some publishers went further and borrowed from the vitriolic depictions of Germans found on French cards. On the postcard above, Russians are not an inferior people, they are not people at all but vermin in need of extermination. Such attitudes may not have been widespread at this time, but they were obviously present and only grew during postwar bitterness. It is as if these cards expressed a great annoyance that the peoples to the East even existed.
Dehumanization did not only make it easier to kill enemy soldiers, it is an essential ingredient for exploitation. Many civilians in lands occupied by German troops were conscripted for forced labor in Germany. Governance of occupied territory was set up on a colonial model, which was oppressive and often violent; and it used racial stereotyping for its foundation. This form of racism ran so deep that the plight of Eastern Europeans received scant attention from the Western Allies who were focused on crimes against Belgium and France. Germany however did not leave this hatred in the East and hateful propaganda grew to include the Western Allies.
Although it was Russians that were first dehumanized by Germans, eventually no one escaped their attention. While running the war machine, Hindenburg called for all enemies of Germany to be threshed. Why would anyone let grass in a field stand in the way of nationalist ambitions? The needs of the War now defined good behavior, not Western traditions. Anything that brought the German Empire closer to victory was not only sanctioned, it was encouraged. While such messages were presented through symbolism, their call for harsh measures were still often presented in very graphic terms.
Though we tend to view images of knights in military terms today, at the time of the Great War they were seen in a religious context. Under the code of chivalry, a knight may be a warrior but he is primarily a soldier of God. This symbolism of one’s soldiers fighting for a just cause sanctioned by God not only helped to anchor support for the war effort, it presented the enemy as someone who deserved to be punished because they were also the enemy of God. This is often presented through images of St. George fighting a dragon, an inescapable symbol of the nation’s enemies. Sometimes the typical dragon is reshaped into the multi-headed red beast that St George fights in the Book of Revelation. It implies that this is not just a fight against evil but the final battle against the anti-Christ of which no one can ignore.
If there should be any doubt as to the role the German soldier was playing, St. George is often replaced by the continence of a modern uniformed soldier. Knight and soldier are the same, a reminder that the nation’s army is on a holy crusade against evil. When charged with such a sacred task, more can be demanded from a soldier. His actions do not seem arbitrary or capricious. Hatred sanctioned by God legitimizes violence against God’s enemies.
At the beginning of the Great War, the message on all German propaganda cards was one that led to inevitable victory to come, but these grew far and in between as the War went on. When it became difficult to convince people that the conflict could be won, publishers began scaring them by presenting what a defeat might look like. A very interesting set in this regard was produced by Selmar Bayer of Berlin who not only depicted Allied attacks on German soil but its colonization at War’s end. The message is don’t give up, any cost must be paid to prevent this outcome. This type of propaganda only works because the enemy had already been converted into monsters in the public’s eye. Few cards carried such a powerful message, which may be a sign that many saw them as defeatist. Stirring up fear can became counterproductive when people began demanding peace.
Some publishers played on deeper fears than what fighting alone might bring. A surrender might initiate a tragic future where postwar Germany is not only filled with ruins but with Black Africans plowing the soil while Germans are enslaved and toil under British masters. Such images were able to stir up real fear because of all the demonization of Britain and years of racial stereotyping placed on propaganda cards. If this future was to be avoided, then defeat cannot be an option.