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Themes of World War One:
Religion and War  pt3


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More common than religious cards depicting massive battle scenes are those that only deal with a few soldiers. They are still God’s servants and their salvation is tied to this service as warriors against evil and injustice. In many of these scenes a crucified Christ is an essential part of the composition for his sacrifice is the key to the narrative. Even though an individual soldier might hope for God’s help in keeping him safe, he knows that by his act of wearing a uniform into battle he is setting himself up for sacrifice. A soldier grows closer to God by self-sacrificing himself to be more Christ-like. This is the foundation of chivalry, which grew out of a desire to reconcile the pacifist teachings of the Christian Church with the older traditions of warriors. While the Church has never been completely happy with this code, it has helped provide Christian societies with an acceptable rational for waging war since medieval times.

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The cross is the most recognized symbol of the Christian faith and it was liberally evoked on postcards for propaganda purposes. It was rarely ever presented in a purely religious context but as a means of directing religious devotion toward the state until the two became inseparable. It is no accident that medals for heroism often resemble a cross, for what is a hero bust someone who unselfishly sacrifices himself for others. Even the graves of ordinary soldiers are often marked with a cross. A nation’s victory is implied through belief in God.

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Even when postcards present themselves in a purely patriotic manner, their religious associations can be overwhelming. With the growth of nationalism in the mid-19th century, people’s allegiances began to shift from their faith to the state without a real paradigm shift. As patriotism became the new state religion, political allegories mimicked heavenly creatures and the idea of self-sacrifice to one’s God became interchangeable with the sacrifices made to one’s country. Those that retained close religious ties and those who were purely secular both maintained very similar mindsets when it came to war.

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A true sign of the public acknowledgment of self-sacrifice were the alters that some built in their homes to honor a dead family member. On postcards these altars are always accompanied by some military symbols related to the departed so there can be no mistaking that this is a dedication to a soldier lost in the War. A crucifix is present to directly tie the sacrifice of the soldier to that of Christ in a very personal way. There is no way of telling if these altars represent a true acceptance of self-sacrifice or if they were just a method to cope with a great loss. In either case these postcards images were meant to illustrate the appropriate response by putting the loss into a socially accepted context. Their sacrifice to God and country has made them heroes.

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When we look at postcards dating back to World War One today, we tend to consider images of knights in military terms but they were largely viewed at the time in a religious context. Under the code of chivalry, a knight may be a warrior but he is primarily a soldier of God. Knights were often pictured on postcards to reinforce this historic connection with contemporary issues. Even when this connection is not so obvious, Westerners tend to follow these ideals because they are so well established within society that they seem natural. These elitist ideals however were not evenly held, and had far less resonance among the working class. The more stratified a society was by class, the more discrepancy in shared beliefs.

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Not all postcards employing the image of the knight had immediate connections to military themes. While the knight was a warrior, he was one that distinguished himself by embracing Christian values. The presence of these values is often what defined a good man, and as such knights became role models for children. Thus one can be knightly and chivalrous without ever picking up a weapon. This theme can be found in many instructional books for children produced in the late 19th century and leading up to the Great War. Those organizations like the German School Association that promoted pan-Germanic values used the knight as a symbol of the values children should aspire to. This same symbolism was also used often on English cards because of the strong romantic ties of knights to popular culture.

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There are numerous postcards depicting Christ urging soldiers forward or following them into battle to reinforce the idea that they are soldiers of God. This theme was also strengthened by directly using the symbolism of the knight. This insinuates that God is not only on their side, but there is a bond between them formed by a chivalric code. Even when these images seem to contradict Christian teachings, we are reminded that although war is bad, peace can only be restored by engaging in violent acts. To hate and destroy the enemy is to love God.

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Sometimes when knights are pictured on postcards they take on a purely medieval appearance, but many artists created hybrids between them and modern soldiers. The meaning is simple, there is no difference between the two; the soldier in uniform does God’s work just as knights did centuries long ago. By insinuating a long tradition, the tasks required of a soldier do not seem arbitrary or capricious. More can be demanded from a soldier who believes he is following in the footsteps of his ancestors. He does not want to be the one to break this long respected historic cycle.

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The huge memorial commemorating the 100th anniversary of the Battle of the Nations in Leipzig opened in 1913 after fifteen years of construction. It marks an important victory against Napoleon in the Prussian Liberation Wars and is designed to be a tribute to the unity of the German people. The military struggle that freed Prussia from French domination is not represented by soldiers of that era; the massive statuary that adorns the monument harkens back to the medieval knight. It makes a point that goes far beyond the particular details of a single battle to tell the national myth of Germany itself. This helps demonstrate how strong the connection is between contemporary soldier and knight, and knight with chivalry was even before the Great War. When publishers began to use the figure of the knight on military postcards, there was already a strong symbolic foundation in place to work from.

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Many postcards did not bother with subtleties that needed to be deciphered; they connected the knight to the modern soldier in very blunt terms. They are often posed standing next to each other for comparison or a defiant knight stands tall as a guardian against any threat to the nation while modern troops march off to fight for the same cause.

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While the image of the knight is usually portrayed in generic archetypal terms, the role can be assumed by an individual. The classic example is of a historic figure like Jean d’Arc who was not only long associated with the Church but had become part of the national myth of France. Her cult-like status always made her a popular subject for postcards, but when she received beatification in 1909, just before the Great War, she was guaranteed a place on propaganda cards. Her close association to God insinuated that God was on the side of the troops she was now pictured leading into battle, just as when she achieved her first victories against the English. Soldiers claim to have seen her fighting with them on the battlefields of the Great War. As her popularity peaked, she became a very common theme on French military postcards where she could be used as a symbol of victory, knightly values or be a representative of God. The War helped lead to Jean being canonized in 1920, and she is now the patron saint of France.

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Sometimes contemporary figures were presented on postcards as knights to show that they embodied the same honorable virtues as a medieval warrior. A number of generals and politicians assumed this role to show they were not only close to God but they held the prowess needed to be good wartime leaders. Kaiser Wilhelm may have been the figure that was most represented this way.

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The manner in which a knight is depicted often rests on local popular culture, which in turn is based on the historical record of that nation. Even so, if a knight is a soldier of God, then his likeness can be used as a symbol by any Christian regardless of nationalist traditions. The myth of the knight was nearly as strong in the United States as it was in Europe despite the difference in history. When American soldiers were depicted as knights during World War One, the meaning was lost on no one.

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To get their message across, some postcards use as much medieval iconography as they can without visually referencing the current conflict at all. In this manner the War could be placed in a mythical context that would overwhelm any factual concerns. Details about the conflict may not be well understood but the myths surrounding warfare were clear, it was a struggle of faith. Artists did not have to aim for historical accuracy as long as they focused on the common elements of myth that had become part of popular culture. A problem with this is that some symbols had taken on additional meaning over the years and there was never any certainty as to how the public might read them. Castles for instance were an important part of medieval warfare, but A Mighty Fortress was also the best known Lutheran hymn. While we may no longer be able to grasp the full meaning of these cards today, this type of mythical iconography remains so strong that some propaganda cards from the Great War could easily pass for modern movie ads.

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One of the best known knights in legend was St. George who appears in numerous stories and was also the patron saint of England, Germany, and Russia. He is sometimes displayed as a knight that accompanies contemporary solders into battle just like those that depict angels or even Christ leading men. His saintly status says that God is on our side and victory is assured. His knightly presence is yet another way of saying that the modern soldier is also a knight and that knighthood is defined by the covenant of sacrifice to God.

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The symbol of the evil serpent eventually evolved into the more formidable dragon that came to represent the natural enemy of mankind. The only defense against these monsters was to be a good Christian, and virtue could be proven through their slaying. This story becomes the allegory for the Christian soldier whose duty is to fight against evil and injustice, and is exemplified in the story of St. George. His status as patron saint of a number of nations made it easy to turn his slaying of a dragon into a political allegory on propaganda cards. As the knightly saint kills the serpent, it forms a reminder that the nation’s army is on a holy crusade against evil.

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The story of St. George and the dragon is updated on many cards so that the Great War takes on mythic proportions. A modern soldier stands in for the knight as he combats a dragon that has been transformed into 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. It is difficult to know how many people really saw the War in such dramatic terms but these sentiments did exist. This often made it difficult for politicians and generals to create rational policies concerning the enemy.

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Most cards using the knight slaying the dragon metaphor come from Germany, but the Allies made some as well. In the card above we see the same multi-headed beast, only here it represents the Central Powers. It is not being slain by a knight but a host of angels, each wearing a hat of an Allied soldier. It implies a different message from the German version in that soldiers are not doing God’s work as much as God is enacting divine justice upon the enemy through soldiers. Personal motives may be questioned but not the will of God.

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Religious allegory was sometimes used to present messages in subtle ways. At first they seem less biting than cards with more graphic imagery but the message can be just as strong. The enemy can be represented as a snake or serpent that either must be guarded against or slain. It is a simple tale of good against evil, familiar to all Christians. Although much Christian symbolism dates back to medieval times or earlier, it was still a potent part of society’s vocabulary during World War One. Even those who were illiterate would have no trouble deciphering religious messages on postcards.

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When myth is transcribed through visual imagery it must employ the tool of symbolism to get its complicated message across. If a society is very familiar with the story line, then it can move past traditional religious iconography and assume contemporary meaning solely through the use of modern symbols. In this way a national personification can stand in for St. George regardless of gender difference; and a national symbols that is often represented by an animal can stand in for the beast he slays. While the narrative of one nation defeating another can be told without all this symbolism, tying it to this ancient myth gives the story more resonance since it implies victory has come with the help of God.

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When the meaning of a myth is stronger than the narrative it comes from it can be reapplied to another context. The Christian story of St. George and the dragon was so well known that it was easily transformed to fit into the pre-Christian national myth of Germany. A pagan warrior now slays the monster but its inherent meaning remains the same. This is more than simply exchanging one symbol for another. By changing the characters in the story line it becomes less universal, and can now imply that one people alone are following a divine path.

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While the knights relationship to God expressed through chivalry had become a near universal myth, there was still an old variation within this theme that was sometimes exploited for propaganda. Regardless of religious symbolism, some cultures, especially in Eastern Europe viewed knights in a negative light because they historically represented the powers that exploited, repressed, and killed them. Even when their own knights are depicted, they are usually referred to in another manner such as heroes. This alternative myth, though contradictory was widely understood and the two often coexisted side by side. Strong negative associations with knights were often tied to those of Germany in particular; not doubt due to their connection to the Northern Crusades. We can see use of this employed on some propaganda cards from World War One where the warrior comes to represent the enemy of Christ as he defies Christian teachings of love and peace. It is interesting to note that the Dutch artist Louis Raemaeker exploited both myths of the good and evil knight on his propaganda cards. It is a prime example how beliefs can be compartmentalized.

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There is often a disconnect between what we say we believe in and what we practice in real life. This is the premise behind the production of many religious cards that try to push men beyond their reluctance to sacrifice themselves. While many soldiers gave their lives freely for their cause, there were also many if not many more that desperately wanted to return home to their families. This expression does not appear often on postcards because it runs contrary to efforts to put as many men into uniform as possible. There is however a tradition found in 19th century literature and art that presents the knight as willing to lay down his arms in pursuit of the Christian virtue of peace. While this alternative view of the Christian warrior was anathema to those leading the War effort, it was sometimes voiced in a disguised manner.

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Christ does not always appear happy on battlefields. When not leading an army or helping the dead he laments their passing as he walks through the carnage created by man. These cards were probably made to reflect the grief suffered by individuals, and to show they were not alone in their suffering. It was difficult for censors to completely circumnavigate Church teachings that were so ingrained in society. These types of images might have been deemed acceptable because they primarily focus on the abhorrence of war while not casting blame on any individual or country as the cause of this misery. Despite this it is still difficult to see these cards in any terms other than an antiwar message.

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Some postcards depict Christ within an obvious antiwar message, even though there is no reference to a specific nation onto which blame should be cast. Here the criticism is leveled against those who follow their earthly desires above the teachings of the Church. While many of the contradictions between religious doctrine and the ways of the warrior had been reconciled through chivalric codes, this type of convenient whitewash never held up well with those suffering from the pain caused by war. Since most publishers tended support their government’s efforts to carry out the War, even mildly dissenting views were rarely placed on postcards.

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Before the United States entered the War, a number of publishers openly produced postcards with antiwar messages. Some of these were based on strong religious convictions that taught killing for any cause was a sin. Once war was declared and the Espionage and Sedition Acts passed, the distribution of such material became a crime. Those who thought their religious beliefs could provide them with conscientious objector status were harassed and often sent to prison. Today any type of antiwar card is difficult to find.

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Religious cards do not usually cast blame for the destructiveness of war because it is difficult for any side to escape culpability. When war is presented in the abstract, then the tragedy of it can more comfortably fit into Church teachings. There is always a danger in leaving the interpretation of these cards too open, for even if unintended they can call into question one’s own morality. A number of religious cards take a different tact and blame all the horrors of war directly on the enemy, simply ignoring moral hazard. This approach was common on other types of propaganda cards, so it should be of no surprise that something with as much persuasive power as religion was incorporated into the propaganda war.

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In general, religious cards directed against the enemy usually showed their leaders, Kaiser William and Emperor Franz Joseph being the most prominent, receiving their just rewards at the hand of God. While judgement day was a popular theme, other familiar stories from the Bible or historic narratives were employed as well. These cards tend to focus in on a very specific point since there is never a perfect comparison. In this way they are similar to greeting cards in that they quickly make their point through sentiment and cliche without requiring the viewer to think too much. The Italian card above referencing the famous painting of St. Sebastian by Tiepolo implies that the defeat’s of Franz Joseph have earned him the martyrdom he craved, but the narrative cannot be analyzed too deeply before it falls apart.

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The idea that Christians were pitted in a savage war against each other caused a moral dilemma for many. Great propaganda efforts were made to explain why the enemy wasn’t truly Christian, and thus why it was okay or even your duty to kill him. Sometimes this message was directly spelled out on postcards, but it was also presented in more subtle ways. On the Italian fieldpost card above we find a sullen German soldier as broken as his massive gun. There is an insinuation that by placing their hope for victory on the technology of war, Germans are worshiping false gods that will ultimately fail them.

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On some cards the artist who drew the image and the publisher that produced the card do not seem to be of like minds. There are images of Christ holding out an olive branch and gesturing to battling soldiers to stop their fighting while captions ask for God’s blessing over the army so victory can soon be achieved. It is doubtful that these mixed messages express some hidden agenda, as they are more likely just a sign that the different people involved in the cards production did not feel they needed to coordinate with each other. Faulty cards could slip into the market because profit was more important than propaganda to many publishers.

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There are many generic German postcards that show Britain under attack by U-boats and Zeppelins with the title God Punish England! (Gott Strafe England!). While this sentiment seems to have grown directly out of the British blockade that was causing hunger and starvation, it is more than retaliatory. The suffering in Germany led many, including the Kaiser, to believe that Britain had succumbed to demonic forces, and their destruction by any means was not a crime but a holy mission. Those that drown at the hands of German U-boats are no longer innocents killed but those condemned to their cruel fate by God. Some German cards go as far to show the hand of God aiding in the sinking of British ships.

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If the War you fight is righteous, then God must be on your side. By this reasoning God is not on the side of the enemy no matter how much they claim him to be so. In fact your enemy must then also be the enemy of God. Belief in this argument was probably held by most people during the Great War, and thus there was a large audience for propaganda cards that exploited this theme. This was done a number of different ways but most often by depicting confrontations between Kaiser Wilhelm and Christ or showing the Kaiser allied with death. These cards basically mock the faith of the enemy, and help relieve the conscience of those killing them by insisting they are not really fellow Christians.

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Although the book of Revelation at the end of the Bible was a very old text, an agreed upon interpretation only began to coalesce at the turn of the 20th century. The basic accepted premise was that before Christ returned to earth to set up a heavenly kingdom, the world would be plagued by the end of times filled with violence and destruction. It is no small wonder that many associated the horrors brought about by World War One with this apocalyptic vision. As this helped transform the Kaiser into the anti-Christ or England into the Whore of Babylon, the War began being thought of and depicted as something beyond the earthly realm. Although there are numerous cards that show the destruction caused by the War or expressions of military might, some cards seem to embrace an apocalyptical vision even when no direct reference is made to it.

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The association of World War One with the apocalypse was not just a casual pairing; these years saw one of the world’s largest outbreaks of messianic fears. While apocalyptic visions of the world’s end were sometimes used to frighten, the subject could also be approached in a more positive light in that Christ’s return was near. Even mystical offshoots like Theosophy that accepted the Indian idea of Bodhisattvas, were able to embrace the messianic tradition with little trouble. Many followers believed that the War was a sign that a new messiah would shortly appear to usher in a Utopian era. These sort of ideas were very potent and governments were afraid they could get out of hand. Since public opinion needed to be carefully controlled to carry out the War, it was rare for these sorts of messages to find their way onto postcards. Even so, the symbolism used on some cards clearly seems to incorporate these beliefs.

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In the United States a fundamentalist religious upsurge grew at the turn of the 20th century in reaction to the fast pace of modernization. The Pentecostal movement was born from this, which helped to spread an apocalyptic outlook. By the time the Great War broke out many evangelists, like Billy Sunday, were roaming the Bible Belt and beyond, equating the current conflict with the struggle between Heaven and Hell. Having taken sides he would do much to encourage America to enter the War, and help promote recruitment and bond raising efforts afterwards. Others however turned these same beliefs into strong antiwar rhetoric, and became the focus of prosecution under the U.S. Espionage Act. Government fear of loosing control of the official message prevented many of these ideas from being expressed on printed postcards, but a number of real photo cards capture the very popular revival meetings of these times.

The importance of religion in Russia at this time cannot be understated. The empire was undergoing a religious revival when the Great War broke out with an emphasis on mysticism. This greatly affected the outlook toward the War where it was seen by everyone from the lowly peasant to the Czar as a holy crusade. The influence all this had on Russian postcard production if any is difficult to discern due to the relatively small number of Russian cards now available to analyze. Religious orders that published charity cards seemed to have concentrated on producing art reproductions and folk illustrations over propaganda themes.

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While soldiers of various religious faiths fought in World War One, this section is primarily concerned with Christianity since it dominated the values expressed on postcards from this time. Despite the large numbers of Muslims that fought for both sides, there are few cards that make a direct reference to Islam. While Sultan Mehmed V, in his capacity as Caliph, proclaimed a holy war against the enemies of Islam, namely Britain, France and Russia in November 1914; he had not held much power as Caliph since the Young Turk revolution of 1908. This proclamation seems to have been more the result of Kaiser Wilhelm’s prompting than any internal pressure from within the Ottoman Empire, and it had little effect. Most Muslims just followed their own local self interests. While many colonial Muslims serving in Allied armies were reluctant to fight against the Turks, they remained loyal despite this call for jihad and had no trouble at all killing Germans. Even in neighboring Persia it only seemed to find appeal among Sunnis who were already resentful of the British and Russian presence in the region.

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The few cards that reference an Islamic holy war seem to originate in Germany. They even tried to stir things up themselves by creating a special camp for Muslim Allied prisoners in Zossen where they would be exposed to propaganda encouraging jihad. Similar efforts to create foreign legions among enemy ethnic groups succeeded because they were impassioned with a drive to achieve national independence. Muslim prisoners by contrast shared no common goals, and they could not be recruited in any noticeable numbers.

(See JIHAD: World War I dated March 6, 2015, in the archive of the website’s Blog section for more information on the POW camp at Zossen)

A second call for jihad was issued in 1918 by Enver Pasha who now had grand visions of a Pan-Turkish empire and was setting out to not only regain all territory lost to the Russians in the War of 1877 but to conquer Central Asia and perhaps India as well. Relatively few Muslims had ever rallied to the Ottoman cause, so he established the jihadist Army of Islam to be led by Nuri Bey in hopes of gaining more support for this new campaign. While religious fervor was generated it seemed to be only concentrated within Turkish communities. By this time the Arabs had already abandoned his cause, which is no doubt what helped inspire this new quest for empire.




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