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Themes of World War One:
The 49 days that follow Easter Sunday leading up to Pentecost Sunday is closely associated with the Easter holiday. Each Sunday within this period is celebrated like Easter, and is often referred to as Eastertide. While the celebration seems to have grown out of the 49 day Festival of Weeks (Shevout) that follows Passover, its meaning is different to Christians. In the Jewish tradition, this is the commemoration of God presenting the Ten Commandments after the Exodus. For Christians this period marks the decent of the Holy Spirit upon the disciples of Jesus Christ, and the birth of their church. Pentecost is celebrated differently throughout Europe; in Germany it is met with great fanfare and in turn it receives much recognition on their postcards.
Like Easter’s association with spring, this holiday is connected to the arrival of summer and many references to nature are made on Pentecost cards. On some postcards this celebratory connection to nature is so great that this holiday seems more pagan than Christian. There seems to be an undercurrent of older fertility rites in both Jewish and Christian traditions despite their liturgical overlays, so it should be of no surprise that some of the more primal aspects of the season should shine through on modern Pentecost cards.
There is much symbolism attached to the celebrations of Pentecost, though the references are often so obscure and subtlety represented that Pentecost cards are not always easy to spot. Red is its color symbolizing the fire of the Holy Spirit that is often represented by flowers and fruit. In Germany red peonies are often referred to as Pentecost roses and they can be found on the hats and in the lapels of soldier’s uniforms when represented on holiday cards.
A common and perhaps particular characteristic of German Pentecostal (Pfingsten) cards is their inclusion of beetles in their compositions. Not only are they a sign of the season, there is a long tradition in Germany of using the scarab beetle to symbolize Christ. Its origins most likely date back to ancient Egypt where this beetle was associated with resurrection and eternity. It is said that their young emerge from their egg-like dung ball on the Spring Equinox; the birthday of the world, which corresponds to the birth of Christianity in Pentecostal celebrations. Most military Pentecost cards depicting beetles vary little from their peacetime versions except for the addition of some minor patriotic flourishes.
While beetles on German Pentecost cards are usually shown in their natural form clinging to newly sprouted branches, many illustrators also placed them in anthropomorphic situations, which often relate to spring. This trend carried over onto military holiday cards where these insects assume the same roles found in common military narratives. The story above is typical of a farewell card, but here it is a beetle that is leaving home for the battle front. The narrative and the holiday are only loosely tied together by using beetles as characters.
There may be nothing overtly patriotic about Pentecost, but that did not stop many illustrators from using the holiday for propaganda purposes. On the card above a beetle is substituted for a flag waving, goose stepping solder. There is nothing presented here that relates to Pentecost, not even the symbolism of the beetle. The beetle no longer represents Christ but stands in for the holiday itself. In this way a holiday card could be made that expresses an entirely different story line relating to the War rather than religion.
Eastertide is associated with a number of early fertility rights that have come to be translated into the Christian tradition. One of these rituals entails the planting of Pentecost trees (Das Pfingstbaumpflanzen), usually of birch. While a common practice in Germany, there are similar springtime traditions elsewhere such as Green Week in Russia. By World War One these practices had become more obscure and were rarely represented on postcards. The charity card above however, that solicits funds for repairing war damage does not depict burnt out buildings but the planting of a tree holding spring blossoms. It is a direct reference to resurrection and the coming of a new world, which is also represented in Eastertide.
There are two different types of May Day celebrations, the earliest marking the first day of summer in some pagan traditions. Although the Christian Church transformed May Day into the devotional holiday of the crowning of the Virgin Mary as the Queen of May, the lack of consistency in the way this date is marked has led to the dominance of more secular traditions such as dancing around a Maypole or giving May Baskets filled with candy and flowers. The May basket tradition was seriously waning by 1914, so it is difficult to say if it is related to the many postcards depicting women giving out treats to troops leaving for the front. The connection may have been presented in generic terms to generate more sales year round.
The Maypole is a remnant of early folk traditions relating to fertility rites found many different regions. There is no consensus on the exact meaning of the pole as some consider it a phallic symbol while others see it as the sacred axis of the world. Even its dates of use vary from Pentecost Sunday to Midsummer’s eve. The most common tradition has the Maypole going up on May 1st, when it is usually followed by a May dance. While reenactments of this ancient tradition was often portrayed on printed and real photo postcards across Europe and into the Americas, it is rare to find a card of a Maypole issued during World War One. This may be due to it being a more public celebration that was not easy to engage in at the front lines. The card above drawn by Karl Arnold is a rare exception, depicting the type of pole with carved figures on its branches that was popular in Germany. Even if nothing but a fantasy, it still shows that the spirit of the holiday was present in the army.
Only in Germany where May Day marks Walpurgis Night (Walpurgisnacht) is there a strong tradition of celebrating this holiday with postcards. Its themes however tend to relate more to pre-Christian motifs than celebrating Saint Walburga who is said to have introduced Christianity to Germany. In any case this thread of representation was rarely associated with military cards. As with Pentecost, religious representations of this day can be subtle and easily overlooked.
A very different celebration of May Day is one that has no religious significance at all. To show their solidarity with the eight-hour day movement, the Socialists of the Second International created International Worker’s Day while meeting in Paris in 1889. It commemorated those killed by police while protesting for better working conditions during the Chicago Haymarket affair. Although this anniversary came to be celebrated on May 1st every year, the marking of May Day was banned in some nations. Postcards produced during the Great War that represent this day often tie the historical struggle for worker’s rights to the contentious relationship that existed between governments and labor at this time.
The year 1914 was supposed to be a turning point for the labor movement. As Socialists greatly increased their ranks, their power grew, and there were plans to call for a general strike all across Europe in the fall to press their demands. Before this took place, the threat of war approached and Socialist leaders became its most vocal opponents. While they thought they had a chance of preventing war, workers abandoned this international movement in favor of nationalistic urges and rallied around their respective flags in an emotional frenzy. What remained of the labor movement became the foundation of the peace movement, which only made them more of a target for official repression. May Day cards were automatically seen as promoting antiwar sentiment and were generally banned in belligerent nations.
Since many socialist activities were considered subversive, they often received little attention from postcard publishers. Heightened tensions between labor and governments during the Great War further discouraged the promotion of worker’s demands on cards. Bolsheviks in Russia celebrated May Day illegally until the Czar was deposed in the February Revolution. After the War, Soviet publishers began producing cards illustrating the first legal May Day parades that took place in 1917. In this context May Day parades were not just a celebration of workers, but of their efforts to gain political recognition and take Russia out of the War.
When the Church placed Christmas on December 24th, June 24th was made into the feast day of St. John the Baptist as all that was known of his birth was that it took place six months before that of Christ. Despite the Christian association with this date, it has been more widely celebrated with pagan trappings in association with the celestial summer solstice. Most are familiar with this holiday as Midsummer’s Eve, but it goes under many different names in many different countries. It was widely celebrated in Germany as Sommersonnenwende and its common themes involving bonfires began being depicted on Sonnwende cards in the 1890’s. Part of its popularity came from the official promotion of pagan traditions that encourage greater nationalist feelings. While this remained a high priority during the Great War, and Sonnwende cards continued to be produced, they were rarely combined with direct military themes. A possible explanation is that they would be somewhat indistinguishable from all the images of soldiers around their campfires and raging fires caused by combat.
Though located in Austria-Hungary, the German School Association was a tireless promoter of Pan-German nationalism on their charity cards. It was only natural for them to honor Sonnwende as a symbol of Germanic culture. Apart from bonfires, there are also cards that depict the waving of lit torches. This like all the other fire related activities were meant to honor the life giving sun, but they were also a means to drive away the evil spirits that began returning once the days began to grow darker. Although this harkens back to ancient fertility rites that were used to encourage bounty as well as protect crops from misfortune, the ritual takes on additional relevance during wartime in protecting the nation from defeat.
(See Sommersonnenwende, dated September 25, 2013, in the Blog archives for a more information surrounding Midsummer cards)
Holidays were not popular in the early years of the largely Protestant United States because they tended to be associated with the papist rituals of saint days. An exception to this was the secular holiday of Independence Day, which was generously represented on holiday postcards when they first began to be produced. Since it marks the successful end of a revolutionary struggle against an imperialist empire, it was fairly common for Independence Day cards to include images of period soldiers. At the start of the Great War, America’s neutrality did not provide any context in which these cards could directly reference the conflict, but their mood seems to have changed. They now tended to refer to the strength of the United States and its willingness to defend its values. These changes were usually subtle like the choice to include military symbols that do not specifically invoke the American Revolution. Though supposedly neutral, the United States was still supplying Great Britain with a great deal of loans and arms, and references to this hard fought war for independence was not compatible with current aims.
While American troops stationed in France did not need to make a big deal out of Independence Day, the 4th of July was celebrated nonetheless with great fanfare by the French for propaganda purposes. After the first American troops began to arrive in France in the spring of 1917 they were paraded through the streets of Paris on this day, but it was less to celebrate the American holiday than to show in concrete terms that the United States was committed to helping France. This same idea was repeated in 1918 on the 4th of July with much greater fanfare since there were many more Americans in France and their victories had turned them into popular heroes. This event was widely covered on French propaganda postcards.
While French participation in the American Revolution was crucial to its success, this aspect of the conflict faded from public memory over the years until it generally came to be seen as a solely American affair; at least in the United States. Even the erection of the Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor to commemorate this Franco-American friendship had little lasting effect. These bonds however were resurrected during the Great War and many postcards, especially those from France, refer to reciprocal assistance. Many cards cite General Lafayette’s role in the American Revolution, which is weighed against modern images of President Wilson or General Pershing. The Statue of Liberty came not only to firmly represent America at this time, World War One transformed it into an internationally recognizable symbol for liberty itself and the values the conflict was being fought for.
Independence Day cards published during the period of America’s participation in World War One are often closer to being unity cards than holiday cards. While they are still celebratory in nature, they often lack much of the symbolism traditionally associated with the holiday. They either speak to current concerns related to the Great War or they are made so generic that there is no specific message beyond their general patriotic tone.
After the War was over, Independence Day cards continued to be made for the American occupation forces in Germany. While they naturally remain patriotic, they also tend to capture some of the local conditions surrounding them. This could involve the generosity or Americans in regard to dispersal of food to the local population since the blockade of Germany was not immediately lifted when the War ended. While others might want to demonstrate how harsh they could be, there was a strong need for Americans not to be seen in that light. Since Americans were far more popular among the Germans than their European counterparts, the contradictory elements of the 4th of July celebration were made a little easier to swallow. Even so, the combination of celebrating the struggle for liberty while occupying a foreign land was not an easy balance to represent, and not many of these holiday cards were made during the years of occupation.
FRENCH NATIONAL DAY
French National Day (Bastille Day) commemorates the storming of the Bastille on July 14th 1789, in which the citizens of Paris captured this Royal fortress to free political prisoners and obtain arms. This pivotal event became to be seen as the start of the French Revolution and as such is the most important holiday in France. It was first celebrated with great pomp on its hundredth anniversary, and in May 1880 it was turned into an official national holiday. Ever since that day, a military parade has been held in Paris on July 14th. As these parades continued through the years of the Great War they took on greater significance as patriotic rallies. These events were captured on postcards by numerous French publishers.
By 1918 the traditional July 14th military parade took on a new look. Not only was the route moved to the Champs-Elysees, French troops were joined by Americans with whom they were now fighting alongside. The parade became a symbol of solidarity in common cause even though at this point French and American generals were bitterly fighting with one another. The French also refer to Bastille Day as their Independence Day, and so some postcards depicting the parade note in their caption that it is held in honor of both American and French troops for their July holidays.
The Independence Day holidays in both the United States and France were too similar to be overlooked by propagandists. The connection was used on many cards unrelated to celebrations and parades to become more of a direct reminder of the shared history between these two republics. These are basically unity cards meant to reinforce international bonds in this hour of need, and overcome any memory of strained relations from the past. The International Red Cross, which worked across borders was an important promoter of these types of cards.
After the Great War came to a close, the Parisian military parade not only celebrated France’s victory, it was a time to honor all those who fought including the fallen. New monuments commemorating those sacrificed now dominated the backdrops to Bastille Day ceremonies and often became the focus of postcards. Many more cards were also produced of these monuments without any connection to this holiday.
Although Bastille Day had long been celebrated all over France, it was reinstated in the newly acquired provinces of Alsace and Loraine when the Great War ended. These events were widely captured on propaganda cards in 1919 and 1920 to illustrate that these territories were firmly back in French hands. While these cards insinuate a loyal French population in liberated territory, these years were filled with great strife. Authorities were very suspicious of the local population’s loyalty, many of whom were indeed unhappy to see the French arrive. Postcards were meant to paint a rosy picture and hide dissent so that the recovery of these provinces could help rationalize the great losses suffered in the War.
SWISS NATIONAL DAY
In 1891 the city of Bern set aside August 1st to celebrate the 700th anniversary of its founding along with the Swiss Confederacy’s 600th anniversary. From this an annual tradition arose Swiss National Day or Schweizer Bundesfeier, named after the Bunds that helped found the Confederacy. Although this date was not made an official national holiday until 1994, it was always celebrated on a local level. This inspired the production of many postcards that carry the themes of bonfires, Swiss flags, and paper lantern parades. To mark this event some publishers issued commemorative postcards every year. Those produced during the Great War often make reference to national defense, but just as many show Switzerland as a place of refuge.
While Switzerland had the status of an official neutral nation, it long realized that only by providing itself with a strong military could these rights be guarantied. Swiss postcards had long promoted self defense as a popular nationalistic theme, and great battles from the past were often evoked on Swiss National Day cards. As with other nations actively engaged in the Great War, many of these anniversary cards took to representing contemporary military scenes of the Swiss army manning their frontiers. The use of bonfires in National Day celebrations is old, but its origins are not very clear. While they seem to have some relation to those traditionally set on midsummer eve, they also relate to national defense. Signal fires have long been lit from mountain top observation posts to warn of the approach of enemies.
The arrival of Christopher Columbus during his first voyage to the Americas on October 12, 1492 was first marked in the United States by a celebration in New York City in 1792. Many more commemorations followed, but they were very sporadic. By 1906 Columbus Day was only celebrated as an annual holiday in Colorado. During the First World War, the 426th anniversary of his arrival was celebrated in 1918 as Liberty Day so that it could be better tied into the war effort. This event did not focus on Columbus as much as the evolution of liberty in America so that it could be used to raise money for war bonds. Posters were produced but it seems that postcards only played a minor role in its promotion. Since Liberty Day was propaganda driven, it faded away in the postwar years. Columbus Day became a national holiday in 1937.
The tradition of celebrating a day of Thanksgiving in conjunction with a good harvest was brought to America with the early colonists arriving from England. What little is known about the celebration held in the Plymouth Colony in 1621 comes from a few scant lines in the diary of Governor Bradford. The first Thanksgiving to receive the status of a reoccurring national holiday in the United States took place in November 1863 during the American Civil War. The great victory at the Battle of Gettysburg had inspired President Lincoln to ask the nation to give thanks for its preservation on this day. By the early 20th century Thanksgiving Day had been embellished into a popular myth but without a clear cut story line. Postcards came to represent this holiday in patriotic terms or as a harvest festival that might include Pilgrims and everything in-between. Since there was a lack of a cohesive vision as well as popularity, there seems to have been little effort by publishers to translate the holiday onto military themed postcards during the Great War. While the American made card above dating from 1916 makes no reference to the European conflict, it douse resemble the hand embroidered cards being made for soldiers in France at this time.
Word play is a common form of humor on early postcards, and it was still widely employed during World War One. The Thanksgiving holiday provided a unique opportunity to connect the traditional turkey dinner with the Turks of the Ottoman Empire. While there are a number of symbols and tropes attached to Thanksgiving, the Turkey is the most common, even recognized beyond the borders of the United States. It is surprising that so few postcards play with the word Turkey, but this may be attributable to the lack of war related Thanksgiving cards in general.