Tuesday, May 20, 2014

First World War propaganda and the stab-in-the-back legend (1 of 2)

Klaus-Jürgen Bremm in Propaganda im Ersten Weltkrieg (2013) gives us an overview of the propaganda operations by Britain, France, Germany and the United States to promote support and enthusiasm for the war efforts at home and to influence where possible public opinion in neutral countries.

Bremm introduces his readers to a cast of interesting characters, like Max von Oppenheim of the Cologne Oppenheim banking family and noted archaeologist. (Max von Oppenheim und der Schatz der Aramäer Zeit Online 29.09.32009) He tried to convince the German Imperial government they could promote a revolutionary uprising in the Islamic world including India against Britain and France. The Kaiser's government agreed to the project and Von Oppenheim established a bureau in Constantinople to promote jihad against the Entente Powers, though without much success. Central Power ally Turkey wasn't so enthusiastic about the project because they wanted to keep ruling Islamic lands it was occupying.

Max Freiherr von Oppenheim (1860-1946) who hoped to get up an Islamic revolution on behalf of Kaiser Bill

Oppenheim was acquainted with Jamāl ad-Dīn al-Afghānī (ca. 1838 – 1897), influential advocate of combining modern learning and rationalism with Islām. Oxford Islamic Studies Online's entry on Al-Afghānī says of him:

As a young man, al-Afghani traveled to India. Witnessing the effects of colonization on that country probably inspired his lifelong dislike for the British. He became an outspoken critic of Britain and its presence in India, Egypt, and other Islamic countries. ...

From 1871 to 1879 , al-Afghani lived in Cairo. A grant from the government enabled him to spend most of his time teaching. With Islamic scholar Muhammad Abduh, he introduced an interpretation of Islam that called for modernization and education while encouraging strict adherence to Islamic principles. He promoted political activism, urging his students to publish political newspapers, while he himself gave speeches and headed a secret society engaged in reformist activities. Several of his followers later became the leaders of Egyptian political and intellectual life. Meanwhile, al-Afghani's fiery speeches against the British soon brought him another expulsion, and he returned to India. Here he did much of his important writing, which consisted mainly of collecting and publishing his speeches. His most famous work, The Refutation of the Materialists, includes a defense of Islam against attacks made by Europeans.
Al-Afghānī is a significant figure in the development of what we know as Islamism today. John Voll writes, "Al-Afghani advocated a synthesis of Islam and modern science on the premise that there is no incompatibility between science, knowledge, and the foundations of the Islamic faith. ... The thinking of 'Abduh and al-Afghani provided the basis for Islamic modernism, the effort to combine a modern, Western-style scientific rationalism with an Islamic faith." ("Fundamentalism in the Sunni Arab World" in Martin Marty and Scott Appleby, eds. Fundamentalisms Observed 1991)

Oppenheim understood the revolutionary anticolonial potential in a political Islam. But it didn't turn out to be very helpful to Kaiser Bill's cause.

Most of the figures involved in the propaganda operations weren't nearly so exotic as Von Oppenheim. But newspaperman George Creel (1876-1953), Woodrow Wilson's propaganda chief as head of the U.S. Committee on Public Information was an interesting character in his own right. One of his initiatives was the "Four-Minute Men" program that recruited volunteers to give short speeches in public settings pumping up the war effort.

George Creel (1876-1953), head of Woodrow Wilson wartime propaganda office

Intellectuals on all sides famously rallied to the flag when the war began August 1914 after the unfortunate experience that befell Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo that June. In Britain, H.G. Wells and Arthur Conan Doyle were among those who agreed to produce work funded on the QT by the British government. Even for fictional stories by famous writers intended primarily for home consumption, it was considered advantageous to not advertise the government funding of fiction contributions by writers.

This inspired me to go back and re-read Doyle's Sherlock Holmes story His Last Bow: An Epilogue of Sherlock Holmes, which was unusual in being narrated in the third person rather than by Watson, who also appears in the story. In it, Holmes and Watson nail a Prussian spy in early August 1914, just as the war is about to begin, "the most terrible August in the history of the world. One might have thought already that God's curse hung heavy over a degenerate world, for there was an awesome hush and a feeling of vague expectancy in the sultry and stagnant air."

Holmes is distinguished as an Irish-American helping the Prussian Von Bork. Von Bork explains to him how he chose the combination to open his safe:

"So it's not quite as simple as you thought. It was four years ago that I had it made, and what do you think I chose for the word and figures?"

"It's beyond me."

"Well, I chose August for the word, and 1914 for the figures, and here we are."

The American's face showed his surprise and admiration.

"My, but that was smart! You had it down to a fine thing."

"Yes, a few of us even then could have guessed the date. Here it is, and I'm shutting down to-morrow morning."
That was Von Bork, not Holmes, who guessed the date four years before.

At the end, Holmes resorts to uncharacteristically flowery language as he says to Watson:

"Good old Watson! You are the one fixed point in a changing age. There's an east wind coming all the same, such a wind as never blew on England yet. It will be cold and bitter, Watson, and a good many of us may wither before its blast. But it's God's own wind none the less, and a cleaner, better, stronger land will lie in the sunshine when the storm has cleared. ..."
I don't know for sure if that particular story was hired by British propaganda office. But it's lower quality compared to other Holmes short stories is a clue that it was. As Holmes himself would surely have observed. (And what was up with having a third-party narration instead of Watson telling the story? Yeesh!)

This 1915 British poster used a bit of shame as well as an appeal to protect one's family to promote enlistment in the armed forces:

Bremm's book is interesting in describing the various marketing strategies the four nations used for their wartime propaganda. But he doesn't have much to say about how effective the official propaganda operations were, or even what considerations one would need to keep in mind in evaluating its effectiveness.

He does note that military censorship kept a lot of failure of the national armies from the homefront public. But he also doesn't give much insight into whether that made sense as a propaganda approach. It was no doubt helpful in concealing the incompetence of various military leaders from their publics. But it also meant that the folks back home were getting a cynical, sanitized and often false picture of how the war was actually going.

That is especially relevant in the eyebrow-raising defense he makes of the stab-in-the-back myth (Dolchstoßlegende) that became a staple of rightwing propaganda in Germany after the war.

I'll discuss that aspect in Part 2.

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