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Themes of World War One:
HATRED IN ITALY continued
Having received assurances that coveted territories denied them in the Second Balkan War would be returned, Bulgaria joined the Central Powers. Its added weight proved decisive to the offensive that finally broke the Serbian army in the fall of 1915. A number of Italian publishers portrayed this as a stab in the back even though Italy had been persuaded to change sides with the same sort of territorial promises from Britain just five months earlier. These cards didn’t have to make sense, just sir hatred.
Humiliation was a tool often employed on propaganda against those unwilling to fight. Though largely used to encourage enlistment in the armed services, neutral nations were often criticized by Allied nations engaged in the Great War for not doing right by them and joining their cause. The Italian card above depicts the United States, personified by Uncle Sam as a war profiteer, only calling for peace after selling everyone arms. Once the United States entered the conflict, Italian publishers could not heap enough praise on America.
When Italy joined the Allies, it only declared war on the Austro-Hungarian Empire, not Germany. While this move was made to lessened the risk of facing a larger enemy force on the battlefield, German soldiers slowly filtered in, and by the fall of 1917 Italy was faced with a full scale German invasion. Publishers that once posed the dangers that a hypothetical invasion might bring were now faced with the real thing. Hateful messages were now directed against German soldiers in the same vitriolic manner as those found in France. While these cards tend to be generic, many civilians were in fact killed.
In 1914 the cry for war in Italy was very loud, but it only represented the views of a very small elite. The redeeming of territory meant little to most Italians, and few soldiers had any idea of why they were called to fight after war was declared. This changed dramatically after the battle of Caporetto in October 1917. This reversal of fortune put a huge swath of Northern Italy under German and Austro-Hungarian control. Enemy occupation was brutal, exploitive, and murderous, which now inspired Italian publishers to switch production from the highly patriotic to hateful cards that mimicked those produced early in the conflict in France.
Anti-German sentiment may have been felt in many places, but it could only expressed on postcards where there was a printing industry capable of supporting a propaganda war. If Belgium could not produce cards concerning its own fate, then it was represented on the cards produced in sympathetic nations. Nations often infused their own cultural references into foreign events, and atrocities in Belgium often look like the sack of Rome on Italian postcards. In 1917, when Germany came to aid Austria-Hungry on the Italian Front, propaganda postcards similar to those depicting the Rape of Belgium suddenly appeared in great numbers. While such images were meant to rally support for a war in which most were ambivalent toward the enemy, many atrocities were actually committed once Germans and Austro-Hungarians became an occupying force.
The card above is from a series that displays a full range of enemy atrocities ranging from forced labor to the manhandling of women. Here we see enemy soldiers celebrating with stolen drink while starving women, children and the elderly huddle in fear. Only a variety of drink, not food has been placed on the table to help disparage the professional character of Austro-Hungarian soldiers. Drunkenness also raises the prospect of predatory behavior, which in turn inspires fear of the enemy.
Portraits of enemy soldiers in the grotesque was a common way of saying, ugly outside, ugly inside. A set of cards by the artist Piccoli gives us disparaging portraits of German soldiers. They are similar to the genre of Types, only here the national characteristic of each is attached to a specific type of atrocity. It is not only the individual that is ugly but the entire nation.
Individual nations each have their own humorous sensibilities and they drew the line differently between them when it came to public taste. Attitudes as to what was acceptable to be placed on postcards was greatly expanded during the war years but difference remained. Sexual innuendo and references seem to have been used freely by Italian publishers while they are hard to find on cards from other nations. While these cards rarely invoke hatred, they are always meant to insult.
Italian illustrators also used the time-tested method of portraying the enemy as an animal. Depending on the creature chosen, these images could render the enemy as stupid, impotent or dangerous. It was always advantageous to strike from different points of view for their effect on generating hatred was accumulative.
To counter portrayals of Austro-Hungarian soldiers as barbarians and monsters, their publishers started to produce cards similar to those that depicted the Good German. Now their solders were seen helping civilians with chores or feeding hungry children. While soldiers of the Austro-Hungarian army never achieved the same bad reputation as Germans, which was a distinction they tried to stress, they did follow the Germans into committing many atrocities in Italy.
Both patriotic and hateful messages were placed on fieldpost cards given away free to Italian soldiers. The card above shows an enemy soldier breaking into a home and attacking a defenseless family. Such images were more common on Italian cards than from other country with the possible exception of France. If most soldiers could not fathom the politics behind the War, they could be motivated to fight if it meant protecting their own family.
The woman on the card above cries out, save me! It was issued to promote the sale of war bonds. Depictions of atrocities were not only used to encourage soldiers to fight, they were used to unite a nation behind the war effort. Even generic images were useful for this purpose if they could stir up emotions and creating a climate of hate.
All belligerent nations produced charity cards to help the victims of war. Most of these were designed to inspire pity by depicting refugees huddled in ruins or moving down a road. The Italian card above presses the standard narrative a little further. These refugees are fleeing a burning town being bombed by German planes. They do not only need a new home, they need to find safety. This narrative inspires more than pity. It inspires hatred and shows why a merciless enemy must be fought and defeated.
There was a danger of producing too many cards that depict enemy atrocities for it implied the national army could not protect the homeland. This message was extremely dangerous when the Italian army began its long retreat in the Caporetto campaign. After October 1917 all news was filtered through the minister of propaganda, which had a huge effect on the type of images that found their way onto postcards. As soon as a new line was established on the Piave, more aggressive propaganda began to be produced even though the Italian army largely remained on the defensive. It not only depicted the enemy being defeated, but often in a gruesome or sadistic manner in order to satisfy the public’s taste for revenge.
Even though many Italian troops at the start of the War lacked a sense of purpose, their morale ran high. This would change after years of bloody fighting on the same front that yielded little results. By the summer of 1917 ťlite assault units, the Arditi, began to be formed with the hope that they could break through enemy defenses. Although they are in some ways based on German stormtroopers, they did not use the same tactics, relying instead on their fanaticism. They are usually portrayed carrying knives, which they were trained to use in close combat. While these cards do not implicitly evoke hatred, they honor the work of fanatical killers driven by hatred. They became the mythic face of Italian militarism under fascism in the postwar years, and were placed on regimental cards with battle scenes from the Great War.
Are they performing animals or showgirls? The leaders of the Central Powers are pictured in a humiliating way on the Italian card above. While enemy soldiers are often shown committing atrocities, their leaders were selected for the worst character assassination. Here those who lead have no power, not even as men. Whether their strange depiction is meant to evoke homosexuality or an effeminate disposition, those of the stage were often looked down upon as fallen by polite society. It is always better to insult on as many levels as possible.
Hateful messages and accusations may have been directed against enemy soldiers on Italian postcards, but it was Emperor Franz Joseph that was most often dehumanized. Political differences may be resolved by peaceful means but there is no negotiating with a monster. Even when such representations cannot be taken literally, they gradually reinforce a mindset that the enemy is not like us and their evil can only be subdued by force. While Franz Joseph was indeed known for his self-righteous intransigence when dealing with other nations, reality probably played little role here. Propaganda is its own truth.
Hatred often spilled over into the realm of fantasy as people projected their desire for revenge into postcard imagery. While an entire nation could be punished, the focus again was on the nation’s leaders who in the case of Franz Joseph and the Kaiser were often depicted hanging by their necks. They are often found suspended over the death and destruction they caused so there can be no mistaking their guilt. Kings are not executed by hanging, criminals are, so such portrayals are a further sign of disrespect.
A number of illustrators were not satisfied showing the mere imprisonment or execution of Emperor Franz Joseph. The hatred directed at him was so great that nothing less than torture would do. Cards were published that show his demise in a variety of creative and painful ways, which tells us a great deal about the public’s state of mind. These cards are not aberrations; they exist in great number to satisfy high demand.
Narrative sets depicting the demise of Franz Joseph were also popular. There is often an ironic contrast between those that the emperor ordered hung and his own hanging at the conclusion. The large number of such cards indicates a strong public desire for revenge. There must have been great disappointed by the Emperorís death in November 1916, long before the War ended because he was never received the type of justice so many wanted to see.
Kaiser Wilhelm was far from immune from hateful depictions on Italian postcards. Political cartoons often displayed him in images ranging from the puppet master behind the weak Austrian emperor to a clown. While most of these are meant to demean, other portrayals as dangerous vile beasts are meant to stir up fear and hatred. Just like the monster Franz Joseph, the Kaiser represents an inhuman force that canít be reasoned with, only destroyed.
An interesting set of postcards depicts public monuments scattered throughout Milan. They do honor Italian heroes; the format is used to expose atrocities and degrade Germans in an ironic manner. On the card above, the German leader strikes a proud pose alongside his ultimate ignoble fate. While these cards have a dark humorous edge, there can be no doubt that their very existence is based on a hateful call for revenge.
Publishers that might have made a plea for peace early in the conflict were threatened with imprisonment if they dared express the same sentiments towards the Warís end. If peace was only acceptable through a military victory, then justice could only take the form of revenge. Peace does not come with Kaiser Wilhelm or Emperor Joseph still sitting on their thrones or even in prison after a trial. On the card above we see victorious Italian soldiers parading through the street with both their heads on poles; a more traditional ending to war.
While hatred can be generated over political differences, it is easier to stir it up if the enemy is portrayed as dangerous and less than human. Fear causes people to unite in self-defense, and a degraded enemy is always easier to kill with a clean conscious. To help accomplish this, postcards demeaned the enemy in a variety of ways, but what better way than to show them as evil incarnate. Cards from a large set reminiscent of Danteís Inferno depict the Kaiser as Lucifer, a potent image for those prone to see the world in religious terms. For some, this rhetoric went beyond metaphor, and was seen as real. This was indeed a War against evil in which they must give all to defeat it.
On the Italian card above, the Kaiser is shown discarding God because he is of no help to his bloodthirsty pursuits, embracing Allah instead. This image can be read as a political cartoon lampooning Germany’s close ties to the Ottoman Empire, but it is obviously meant to strike at something deeper. While this image is as much as an allegory as those that present the Kaiser as a devil, it raises personal fears and hatreds held against Islam that can transform the Kaiser’s cause into real evil. Italy was already fighting the Ottoman Turks in Libya before the Great War, and extending such biases was a natural course for propagandists to take.