German Atrocities, 1914—a history of denial

Published in 20th-century / Contemporary History, Issue 2 (Summer 2002), Reviews, Volume 10

John Horne & Alan Kramer
(Yale University Press, £27.50)
ISBN 0521582172

Conceiving Revolution—Irish Nationalist propaganda during the First World War
Ben Novick(Four Courts Press, E24.95)
ISBN 1851826203

The justification of war can be a bitter and acrimonious matter capable of driving regimes to desperate ends to maintain the moral high ground. One state’s victory is often another people’s atrocity and so it was with the First World War. Ninety years after one of the most traumatising events in modern history, which left nine million dead, the dust is finally starting to settle. Layers of prejudice are unravelling as war-time mentalities are gradually dismantled. The release of new records offer new perspectives. As Europe draws together the old national hatreds disintegrate. Historical orthodoxies are challenged under the weight of new evidence. The official versions of history are now scrutinised as much for what they say as for what they omit to say. Most significantly, we are starting to understand the power of propaganda and its use and abuse in all national and international conflicts during the last century.
These two well-tuned, scholarly studies look at the bitter struggle for hearts and minds that was set in motion as the world went to war in 1914. They analyse the politics of propaganda and how the control of information and manipulation of memory distorted (and still distorts) understandings of events and the popular interpretations of crucial aspects of the first World War. Both are ground-breaking contributions to an emerging debate into one of the most gruesome arenas of modern times: the culture of atrocities. In atrocity culture all is not always what it seems. ‘Facts’ are deliberately distorted. Too often ‘truth’ is derived from uncritical and sensationalising journalism. The suppression of both contrary positions and unwelcome certainties enmeshed within the fabrication of lies, help foster deceit and myth. The dark heart of atrocity culture is imprisoned within a vicious psychological engagement of accusation met by counter-accusation.
John Horne and Alan Kramer, both eminent historians attached to the department of history at Trinity College Dublin, have thrown themselves into the vortex of the debate in an effort to divine what happened in Belgium in the first months of 1914. The basic thesis of German Atrocities is to work out who did what to whom. Horne and Kramer’s brief is to root out the ‘beliefs, myth and cultural assumptions’ and discover, like any historian worth their weight, what really happened.
The book opens with the disturbing narrative of the escalation of violence in August 1914 after the German invasion. The Schlieffen Plan involved a million soldiers mobilised to enter Paris from the north. As the German army advanced through ‘neutral’ Belgium to the French frontier, reports emerged of a series of horrendous engagements that shocked the world: Liege, Dinant, the destruction of the University Library of Louvain, the battle of the Ardennes. Lurid atrocity tales described the conduct of German soldiers. Rumours escalated. Graphic horror stories depicted apocalyptic images: the mass rape of nuns, the abuse of young girls, mutilations and the severed hands of children.
The accusations that German soldiers were committing brutal ‘atrocities’ against innocent civilians were met by German counter-charges against the Belgians and French of atrocities committed by francs-tireurs [free-shooters] or irregulars, who mounted a guerilla war against Germany’s occupying forces.
By September 1914 the moral battle lines were drawn and by the spring of 1915 a propaganda engagement raged. Politicians, churchmen and intellectuals all fought to assert their version of the ‘truth’. Atrocity accusations became a central part of war culture. While on one side there was a need to dehumanise the enemy and expose him as ‘demonic’, atrocities were also an important means of justifying military intervention. Britain itself, after all, had entered the war to defend the rights of small nations.
The culture of atrocity reports was rooted in the nineteenth-century anti-slavery movement. The exposure of abuses and atrocities helped Britain build up her global naval supremacy and gradually rid the world of the slave trade, only for it to be reinvented in a new form. Early in the twentieth century, Leopold II, King of the Belgians, had been humiliated and disgraced when a series of official reports exposed his treatment of tribal culture in his private fiefdom, the Congo Free State. In high circles of government, atrocity reports became useful political weapons and remain vital sources in narrating the long struggle for human rights.
Realising the propaganda potential of German brutality, Britain moved swiftly and prime minister, Herbert Asquith asked the former chief secretary to Ireland and British Ambassador in Washington, James Bryce, to head up a commission and investigate alleged German outrages. The Bryce report (as it is generally referred to) revealed a catalogue of crime and used overtly sexual and sadistic language to give the report added sensational appeal. This Blue Book was widely distributed by Britain’s secret propaganda organisation, Wellington House. Over a million copies circulated throughout the world and the report became a powerful instrument in bringing wavering countries in on the side of the allies. Germany, France and Belgium all followed with their own official versions of events as the tribunal of world opinion tried to understand the abyss of conflict.
Bryce was attacked at the time for using distorted witness evidence and for failing to cross-check facts as his training as both lawyer and historian should have demanded. Trevor Wilson remains one contemporary historian who questions some of the approaches of the report. It is also the case that the original evidence, including both the testimonies and the captured diaries containing open German confessions of their crimes, have disappeared, while the image of the severed hands was almost certainly a result of ‘witness memory distortion’.
While Horne and Kramer do much to restore Bryce’s reputation their work also reveals that there is no real evidence suggesting organised resistance to the Germans: most stories about the francs-tireurs were nothing more than imaginary anecdotes. In 1919, articles 227-232 of the treaty of Versailles were justified in convicting Germany of breaches of international law. The underlying conclusions of this pioneering work reach far beyond a reconfirmation of German atrocities. The analysis articulates how deep the roots of myth can extend and how hard it can be to demolish the far-extended power of the lie. The most interesting propaganda deceit circulated shows that ‘gallant little Belgium’ was anything but gallant and their civilian population did little to resist.
Ben Novick’s Conceiving Revolution looks at a completely different aspect of First World War propaganda: as part of the advanced nationalist armoury. In a long introductory chapter, Novick discusses propaganda theory and important recent developments, in particular the ground-breaking work by Garth Jowett and Victoria O’Donnell in Propaganda and Persuasion which outlines a methodology whereby propaganda may be evaluated. This is an area of study that has for too long remained a missing dimension of Irish history and as a result has impeded deeper understanding of the complex intellectual traditions, progressive outlooks and propagandist illusions underpinning the Easter Rising of 1916 and the millennial vision of advanced nationalism.
Novick’s approach is thematic. Initial chapters are dedicated to the thorny and embittered question of recruitment leading on to the use of history in atrocity propaganda and how Sinn Féin used the war to undermine the British presence in Ireland. Many subversive newspapers which were closed down under the Defence of the Realm Act are used in evidence. These are the ‘seditious’ publications containing the journalism of the 1916 leaders: James Connolly’s Irish Worker and Worker’s Republic; the overtly revolutionary Irish Freedom of Sean MacDermott, Bulmer Hobson and P.S. O’Hegarty—the mouthpiece of the IRB.
The most innovative chapter entitled ‘Youth, sex and Charlie Chaplin: “moral tone” and the Irish revolution’ scrutinises the centrality of moral idealism within Irish revolutionary discourse and the construction of a new national identity. The prevailing image of Britain as an ‘impure sink of perversion’ contrasted with images of ‘manliness’ and ‘virtue’ promoted by the leadership of the Irish Volunteers. The vision of the new Ireland was rooted in the Gaelic revival until the movement gradually turned militant through the activities of Na Fianna Éireann and the philosophy of chivalry and armed resistance espoused in its handbook. Moral rectitude was also vital in securing the bond between the new revolutionary forces and the Catholic church.
Novick finally faces general themes of ‘humour’ and ‘aggression’ as a means of exploring what he defines as the ‘brutalisation of discourse’. Here the angry tempo of propaganda is mapped as the pitiful tragedy of war drifted on leading to the democratic election of a revolutionary government in Ireland in the general election of 1918.
Together these books help open a new vein of understanding in contemporary history. They are destined to sit beside pioneering works on the First World War inspired by David Fitzpatrick’s Politics and Irish Life (1977) and more recent contributions by Terence Denman and Thomas Dooley. Above all they will help future generations of historians unravel the propaganda of the deed from the propaganda of fact.

Angus Mitchell

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