“Propaganda”

27 Jun

Searching in vain for a preserved copy of The Kaiser: The Beast of Berlin (1918), I stumbled across this small selection of clips from anti-German propaganda produced during the war.  It makes for fascinating viewing: the production quality on the animated sequence is actually quite high, and the live-action portion is exactly the sort of thing I was looking for, albeit on a sadly diminished scale.  There were entire feature-length films like that, and I cannot properly express how keen I am to find them.

So, very much worth watching in that light — but that’s not all there is.

The clip itself comes from an old documentary series, apparently called The Peoples’ Century.  The clips are accompanied by a voice-over and some interviews with veterans intercut throughout.  All fair enough, but the impression that it all conveys is absolutely appalling.

First, yes, propaganda of this sort was certainly produced and distributed, and on a quite massive scale.  Nobody would deny that.  And second, yes, many propagandistic works made use of hyperbole and sensationalism in the prosecution of their cause; nobody should find this surprising.

What disgusts me about this clip is the complete lack of meaningful engagement with the truth claims of such works.  It’s simply taken for granted that they were all fabricated and deceitful from start to finish.  The American veteran interviewed is wearily cynical about it all, and the German veteran — who is permitted to have the final word — can only say how personally hurt he was at the slander such propaganda laid upon him and his colleagues in the German army.

But how seriously can we actually take this?  The American veteran cites some things — abuses and murder of women and children, burning of villages, general terrorizing — as though they were gross and sensational distortions, made up out of whole cloth in a bid to angry up the recruits.  The implication is that such reports are not to be trusted.  This sort of perspective is unforgivable in light of what we now know about the misdeeds perpetrated in Belgium in the autumn of 1914.  The most credible modern scholarship (see specifically Horne and Kramer’s German Atrocities, 1914: A History of Denial, 2001) makes clear that a great deal of this sort of thing really did happen, for very shabby and misconceived reasons, and that the findings of the subsequently notorious Report of the Committee on Alleged German Outrages produced under the direction of Viscount Bryce (1915) were essentially correct.  The Report‘s notoriety as an icon of deceitful governmental war-mongering, in fact, may perhaps be undeserved.

Somewhat more importantly, it doesn’t even really need the findings of modern scholarship to make this kind of thing clear.  To claim that the invasion of Belgium by the German Army in the autumn of 1914 was in fact not accompanied by the mass destruction of villages, the displacement of tens of thousands of people (1.5 million, actually, in this case), the ravaging of the countryside, the theft or destruction of untold amounts of property and the deaths of numerous civilians is to paint the invasion as being unique in the whole history of warfare.  How can those who so regularly denounce these claims as “propaganda” and leave them at that lack so much in the way of historical imagination and empathy?  What exactly is it that they think happens when a city like Louvain is burned or a national redoubt like Antwerp invested?  It isn’t an orderly affair.

In any event, I believe that most of those who are skeptical of the Bryce Report or of the more sensational claims like the film I referenced above would not insist that nothing of note at all happened during the German passage through and eventual occupation of Belgium, but one could be forgiven for thinking as much based on how they sometimes treat it in their books.  That, however, will be the subject of a later post.

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One Response to ““Propaganda””

  1. George Simmers June 27, 2013 at 8:48 pm #

    I’m not sure about the first clip, except that that gorilla image was American. Are you sure the animation is WW1 period, not a later reconstruction?
    The second clip, of the German soldiers mistreating a woman, is from the British short ‘The Leopard’s Spots’, also known as ‘Once a Hun, Always a Hun’. This was produced under the auspices of the Ministry of Information. After the short scene of the soldiers abusing the woman, the film jumps forward to after the war, when the two soldiers, now salesmen, come to an English village to sell their wares. When a woman sees that the saucepan is marked ‘Made in Germany’, she calls a policeman, and the men are chased out of the shop.
    It is a very short film, and poorly made, but caused a stink in parliament, because Liberals saw it as a ploy by Northcliffe and Beaverbrook to put forward their pet cause of Imperial preference, financed by money intended for the war propaganda effort.
    I saw the short film at the British Film Institute a few years ago. i have written about the Parliamentary debate on my blog, at:
    http://greatwarfiction.wordpress.com/2006/12/14/once-a-hun-always-a-hun/

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