WWI


Top Ten Posts for February, 2008 

Here are the Top Ten April posts on Quadrivium:

  1. Faith and Reason: A two part essay dealing with a proper definition of faith as well as its relationship to reason. Part 1, Part 2.
  2. An Evaluation of the Bundle Theory of Substance: An analysis of a popular theory of substance advocated by the famous skeptic/empiricist David Hume
  3. The Ethical Quagmire of Designer Babies: A post that investigates the murky waters of bioethics.
  4. An Evaluation of Descartes’ Claim that the Mind is More Easily Known Than the Body: A post that examines the contents of its formidable title.  (Note: this is not an argument against substance dualism, just an evalution of one of Descartes’ arguments for it).
  5. The Battle for the Mind: German and British Propaganda In the First World War: A post examing the beginnings of modern war propaganda and how it is used to direct the populace.
  6. What is Christian Art?: Is there such a thing as “Christian” art and how does one recognize it?
  7. Much Ado About Nothing: Nihilism and Modernist Literature: A four part essay that examines nihilistic themes in the works of three Modernist authors.  Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4.
  8. The Nature of Truth: A two part essay that examines the meaning of truth and its underlying principles. Part 1, Part 2.
  9. There’s Hope For Porn Stars! (sort of): This post analyzes the controversial techniques of a ministry to porn stars along with the misleading statement, “Jesus Loves Porn Stars”.
  10. Two-Way Tie for Tenth: The Suffocating Soul: A two-part book review and commentary on the various ‘corsets’ and ‘tight slippers’ that suffocate our souls.  Part 1, Part 2. And Is Fantasy Escapism?:Is fantasy literature (LOTR, Narnia, etc.) an attempt to escape reality, or does it communicate reality better than any other genre?

* Since I have been unable to come up with some interesting posts here lately, here is a copy of a paper that I delivered at the UNCG Honor’s Symposium in 2007.

In the First World War humanity was horrified at the advent of trench warfare, u-boats, tanks, and casualties on an unprecedented scale as nations rapidly discovered new and more brutally effective ways to slaughter one another’s citizens.  However, war-fueled innovation extended beyond the bomb-blasted battlefields of the Eastern and Western fronts; it began in the home front, as the concept and practice of war propaganda flourished.

            Governments engaged in the Great War learned very quickly that modern warfare would require the effective use of propaganda to sway public opinion.  It was no longer sufficient for a nation’s military to be the only force in conflict now the entire populace – both civilian and soldier – would combine into a national fighting force.  “Of the numerous lessons to be drawn from the First World War, one of the most significant was that public opinion could no longer be ignored as a determining factor in the formulation of public policies” (Sanders & Taylor 1).  National morale would depend on how swiftly recruits signed up and how much comfort and peace of mind citizens would be willing to sacrifice.

            In this paper, I will examine World War One propaganda as it was practiced by the British and German governments.  Each of these nations was required to increase its propaganda effort in order to continue fighting in a war that became increasingly detrimental to public morale.  Examining the propaganda techniques of both countries will reveal a great deal about their respective cultures: how much they differed and how much they shared in common.

            Even before their declaration of war on August 1, 1914, the Germans had already begun work on their own semi-official propaganda machinery, which was loosely spread throughout the various branches of German government (Welch, 22).  Early in the war German journalist Matthias Erzberger established the Zentralstelle für Auslandsdienst (Central Office for Foreign Services), which concerned itself with distributing propaganda to neutral nations (especially after the invasion of Belgium).  The German government also heavily employed the Wolff Telegraph Bureau as a means of international propaganda.  After the British cut Germany’s undersea telegraph cables, the Germans relied upon their wireless Nauen station (the most powerful transmitting station in the world) to continue a constant feed of pro-German news reports to the world (Welch, 22-23).

            An interesting German propaganda technique was the use of mobile cinemas.  These transportable film machines would be sent to the German front line to provide entertainment to the weary German troops.  Scattered throughout the featured films, German propagandists had inserted short newsreels that would depict recent events in a decidedly pro-German light. 

            Posters and postcards also played and important role throughout the war.  A comparison of German and British posters clearly reveals the differences between German and British culture.  While British posters relied heavily on artistic flourishes and effective slogans, German posters were much more matter-of-fact.  Indeed, German war posters were often nothing more than large, illustrated graphs which detailed the resources of Germany in comparison to other nations.  One such poster that contrasted Germany’s combined national income with Great Britain’s features a smiling, well-fed German citizen holding a much larger wallet than the sour-faced, emaciated Briton that he is compared to (Welch, 83).

German visual media excelled in adapting national mythology to the war.  This was a decided advantage in propaganda over the British.  Although Great Britain was a nation with a strong literary tradition, it lacked an epic cultural mythology like Germany’s.  German mythology in the Nordic tradition was perfectly suited for militaristic aims.  It should come as no surprise, then, that many German war posters contained images of dragons, Valkyries, and sword-wielding, Siegfried-like heroes.  Portions of the Hindenburg Line were even given such names as Siegfried and Wotan (the father of the gods in German mythology).

Germany placed far less emphasis upon recruiting in its propaganda than did the allies.  The German military was fairly large at the beginning of the war, and since the German government had effectively portrayed their struggle as defensive, the German populace was swept up in a nationalistic fervor.  Indeed, the primary manifestation of German home-front propaganda lay more in what was censored than what was said.  German media was closely scrutinized by the government so that most of what the civilian population imbibed was positive.  Defeats and setbacks were rarely revealed.

            British propaganda has been described as “an impressive exercise in improvisation” (Sanders & Taylor, 1).  The origins of Great Britain’s propaganda machine are little known, but an almost unanimous consensus exists among historians that, prior to the war, the British had no official strategy for propaganda.  However, as the war progressed, German propaganda was eventually surpassed by the effort of the British.  The Germans excelled in quantity (they were notorious for inundating neutral nations with their propaganda), but the British excelled in quality.  The British government learned, and learned quickly, the best way to sway public opinion, at home and abroad, eventually organizing an official war propaganda office titled M17.

            Perhaps the strong British literary tradition contributed to the quality of British propaganda.  A large part of what makes great literature great is the ability to use the right words to convey a precise, effective meaning.  British propaganda excelled at this.  Even the simple poster which pictures two small children asking their befuddled father, “Daddy, what did you do in the Great War?” made a powerful impact on the British social conscience.  British newspapers, cartoons, and visual media were very successful in producing their desired effect.

            And what was this effect?  One word: recruitment.  Upon entering the war, Britain’s volunteer army was woefully small compared to the immense German war machine.  This required a massive number of recruits on a short notice.  Initially, recruitment did not pose a problem for the British.  Recruitment centers were literally overrun with volunteers.  However, as the war (which had been predicted to be a short conflict) progressed and casualties mounted, recruitment slowed to a trickle.  This is when propaganda began to play its crucial role.

            Much of British propaganda appealed to a sense of national honor.  Posters and pamphlets aimed to produce guilt among the men who had not volunteered for service.  From the start, however, Great Britain was forced to use its most powerful and persuasive propaganda weapon: the demonization of the enemy.  Germany also employed these tactics, but they were nothing in comparison to the flood of atrocity stories and cultural animosity that Great Britain (and later the USA) would produce.

            Early in the twentieth century the political scientist, Howard Lassell, stated, “So great are the psychological resistances to war in most nations that every war must appear to be a war of defense against a menacing, murderous aggressor.  There must be no ambiguity about whom the public is to hate” (47).  The anti-German propaganda produced by Great Britain focused the anger and anxiety of the populace into a hatred of the savage and barbaric “Huns.”  Much of this was accomplished through atrocity stories.  As Aaron Delwiche has observed, “The atrocity story implies that war is only brutal when practiced by the enemy” (Delwiche).  It is easier to kill a monster than a man.

            By far, the most powerful assortment of atrocity stories produced during the war was The Report of the Committee on Alleged German Outrages, better known as “The Bryce Report” (named after James Bryce, the head of the committee).  Contained within the pages of this officially sanctioned report were records of nearly every atrocity that it was possible for a German soldier to commit against the populace of Belgium.  The most shocking accounts were those that described the killing or torture of women and children.  While it is certain that such atrocities occurred during the war, the tendency of the report to dwell on the more sensational eyewitness accounts let to its eventually being discredited.  Translated into 30 languages by 1915, the Bryce Report stoked the righteous indignation of the allied populace and dramatically increased recruitment for the cause of defeating Germany.

            Eventually, as the war neared its conclusion, British and German propaganda was overshadowed by the enormous amount generated by the United States.  Yet, the damage had been done.  The emergence of propaganda in World War One set the standard for wars to follow, and sanctioned the deception of civilians and the demonization of the enemy.  In the end, the point is not really the differences between German and British propaganda, but in their similarities.  Both nations were driven by a philosophy that marked an important moment in cultural history: the opening of a vast gap between the “official truth” and the undisclosed reality of war.

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Sources Cited

Delwiche, Aaron. “Of Fraud and Force Fast Woven: Domestic Propaganda during the First World War”, taken from < http://www.firstworldwar.com/features/propaganda.htm&gt; on March 3, 2007.

Fussell, Paul. The Great War and Modern Memory. New York: Oxford, 1975.

Lasswell, Harold. Propaganda Techniques in World War I. London: M.I.T. Press,1927.

M. L. Sanders and Philip M. Taylor. British Propaganda during the First World War. London: Macmillan, 1982.

 Welch, David. Germany, Propaganda, and Total War. New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 2000.

William Faulkner(Continued from Part 1 and Part 2.  Read more in Part 4)

The Sound and the Fury also foreshadows its theme by means of a literary reference it its title; in this case, Macbeth’s desperate testimony to the futility of life.  Within this novel, William Faulkner expresses the dissolution of value for modern man and his descent into existential nihilism.  By adopting the unique (and sometimes confusing) perspective of the mentally-handicapped Benjy, Faulkner explores life as “a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”

Time is a key motif within The Sound and the Fury.  Benjy has no sense of it, Quentin is obsessed with it, and Mr. Compson seeks to explain it out of existence.  Indeed, the nature and perception of time is probably the most important key to understanding the nihilistic concepts that permeate the book.  Until the twentieth century (which brought Einstein’s relativity theory), Newtonian time was the great constant: linear, immutable, and persistent as it flowed like a river from past, present, to future.

Mr. Compson is the perfect representation of the modern undermining of traditional thought.  At the start of “Quentin’s Section” of the book, we are presented with Quentin’s memory of his father glibly explaining “the position of mechanical hands on an arbitrary dial.” (Faulkner 77)  In essence, Mr. Compson is stating that what we call “time” is nothing but human convention, a thing that we ourselves have invented measurement for and in which we anchor our daily existence.  One can hear in his words the echo of the Logical Positivist’s of the day, as they dismiss God, morality, and all metaphysical inquiry as nothing more than ludicrous linguistics.

Quentin, the recipient of Mr. Compson’s doleful pontifications, stands in sharp contrast to his father.  He represents the traditional values which have crumbled due to the influence of modern ideology.  Quentin is quite obviously obsessed with time; he is a traditional moralist and must have an absolute standard to sustain his reality.  However, he perceives that the world in which he lives does not conform to his ideals and (to his horror) neither does he, himself.  In the end, Quentin smashes his watch in the morning and drowns himself in the afternoon.  He believes that his view of reality is not feasible, but chooses to die rather than face a world that has failed to conform to his wishes.

Benjy’s character represents a chaotic fusion of the two aforementioned characters.  He is the modern man who must face reality after the traditional views of it have been destroyed (Quentin’s suicide) and the modern views of it have been found wanting (Mr. Compson’s drinking himself to death).  Benjy is neither obsessed with time, nor does he attempt to explain it away; he is simply oblivious to it.  His section is a confused string of random memories and experiences without any consistent order or logical coherence.  What does Benjy do?  He moans.  He moans in “utter horror; shock; agony eyeless, tongueless; just sound.” (320)  He is a man drowning in the despair of nihilism, unable to assign any transcendent meaning to his suffering but feeling the harsh and visceral reality of it nonetheless.

Faulkner’s answers are elusive.  Indeed, the only hint at a resolution is found in the final section of the book when Dilsey takes Benjy and Luster to church.  There, while listening to the passionate Easter sermon of a visiting minister, Dilsey has a somewhat mystical experience and finds comfort in her troubles.  Faulkner, by his reference to the Resurrection of Christ, is telling that a jettisoning of the past age and its truths is not the answer, but rather a realization of something worth keeping: namely, hope in redemption and new life.

All quotations taken from:  Faulkner, William. The Sound and the Fury. New York: Vintage. 1990

Ernest Hemingway(Continued from an Part 1.  Read more in Part 3, and Part 4)

The Sun Also Rises is a novel about those most impacted by the Great War: the individuals who made up the aptly named “lost generation”.  World War I took nearly 9 million lives, but it ruined the lives of many more who survived.  Hemingway’s story of Jake and his post-war companions presents more than just an interesting account of Parisian social life and Spanish bull fighting; it demonstrates the incredible toll that the war took upon those who were most intimately involved in it.  For them, the effects of the war never ended.

Hemingway gives a wink and nod in his title to anyone familiar with the Old Testament book of Ecclesiastes.  Within its ancient pages we find a story of existential angst as presented through the eyes of a Jewish king who was repeatedly frustrated in his attempts to find meaning in life.  Ecclesiastes’ theme “vanity of vanities” perfectly elucidates Hemingway’s novel.  The characters in his book fly from one diversion to the next, but never to anything substantial.

Jake and Brett represent the two paths down which the worldview of nihilism can lead and the diverging experiences of Europe and America after the war.  Jake’s impotence is an important symbol within The Sun Also Rises.  It represents the loss of ideological life that resulted from World War I.  In his outward appearance Jake looks perfectly healthy, but he has lost something vital: the ability to consummate passion and impart life.  This is a strong comparison to post-war Europe: it had survived the Great War, but it had come out of it vitally wounded.  No one could pretend any longer that things were alright with the world.  A society that had produced such atrocities was fundamentally broken.  “Enlightened” Europe had entered the war ideologically robust; it had emerged sterile.

Brett is the antithesis of Jake and the “Americanized” nihilist of the novel.  This may come as a surprise to some readers due to the fact that Brett seems to be the most vivacious and care-free character of the book.  However, a closer reading will reveal that this is nothing more than a veneer to cover the inward angst that she is experiencing.  “I’ve got to do something,” she tells Jake as he walks her to Romero, “I’ve got to do something I really want to do.  I’ve lost my self-respect.” (187)  A few sentences later she bemoans the fact that she “can’t stay tight all the time”. (187)  Alcohol is her panacea to a painful existence.

Brett is the quintessential nihilist-turned-hedonist.  Traditional values are shattered, nihilism ensues, and hedonism is embraced as the existential life-raft to keep from going under.  Thus Brett becomes an excellent picture of the “booming twenties”: an era of music, art, excitement, and despair. 

It is interesting to note that Hemingway does not seem to extend any hope at the end of his novel.  Brett remains a devoted pleasure seeker and Jake seems to adopt the same artificial and shallow set of values that “the Count” (67) has embraced.  However, this is consistent with the cyclical emphasis of the novel: “The sun also arises, and the sun goes down, and hastens to his place where he arose.” (Ecclesiastes 1:5)

 All quotations taken from:   Hemingway, Ernest. The Sun Also Rises. New York: Scribner, 2003

NietzscheThe Arts reflect the spirit of the age and literature is no exception.  Nihilism, a worldview that rejects ultimate meaning and purpose in life, heavily influenced the literature of the early 20th century, in which this philosophy was illustrated and addressed.  The influence of nihilism is particularly evident in The Sun Also Rises, The Sound and the Fury, and “The Wasteland”.

The early 20th century was ripe for the advent of nihilism.  Indeed, its arrival had been predicted by one of the most influential philosophers of the previous century, Friedrich Nietzsche.  “What I am now going to relate is the history of the next two centuries,” he wrote in his notes which would be published in The Will to Power, “I shall describe what will happen, what must necessarily happen: the triumph of nihilism.”  The nihilism that Nietzsche viewed upon the horizon was the inevitable consequence of the undermining of traditional Western thought that was underway in his own day.

Darwinian evolution, the psychoanalytical theories of Freud, the First World War, and the consequent decline of the Christian faith in the Western world were the primary contributors to 20th century nihilism.  Darwin’s theory left mankind bereft of his own unique status in the natural order. Freud transformed man into a psychological marionette whose invisible puppeteers were the various neuroses that he had developed from repressing (largely sexual) desires.  World War I with its incredible death toll and socio/political upheaval left the modern world wondering what had happened to the utopian vision inspired by the industrial revolution.  And looming over everything like a great, gray thundercloud was the solemn declaration of Nietzsche, “God is dead”.

Nietzsche’s declaration seems to capture the spirit of the age better than any other.  When the ultimate Absolute is stripped away, where does humanity get its existential bearings?  What remains for man when objective beauty, truth, morality, and immortality have vanished?  To quote Nietzsche once again:

“What were we doing when we unchained this earth from its sun? Whither is it moving now? Whither are we moving? Away from all suns? Are we not plunging continually? Backward, sideward, forward, in all directions? Is there still any up or down? Are we not straying, as through an infinite nothing? Do we not feel the breath of empty space?” (The Parable of the Madman)

WWI Soldiers

While these questions occupied the minds of many philosophers in the early twentieth century, the First World War was the catalyst that caused their consideration outside of the ivory tower of academia.  The horrible events that took place between 1914 and 1918 shattered the illusion that the civilized world was morally progressing as millions of men were slaughtered in a mechanized massacre that proved to be more pointless with each death.  Western civilization was stripped of its ideological finery and compelled to grope its way through the “infinite nothing” that had been predicted by Nietzsche’s madman.  How could this have happened?  What will become of mankind?  These were the questions that modernist authors attempted to address in the years that followed the war.     

(Part 2, Part 3, Part 4)