Ross F. Collins, ed. World War I: Primary Documents on Events from 1914 to 1919. Westport: Greenwood Press, 2008. xii + 411 pp. $65.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-313-32082-8.
Reviewed by Scott Stephenson (Department of Military History, U.S. Army Command and General Staff College.)
Published on H-German (June, 2008)
Worth Another Look
The title of this book is more than a little deceiving. From what one reads on the cover, one might reasonably expect to find a collection of important documents about the major belligerents; documents from the ministries, military headquarters, and press agencies; the "scrap of paper" guaranteeing Belgian neutrality juxtaposed with a print-out of the Zimmermann Telegram; the text of Wilson's Fourteen Points. Instead, what one finds is an anthology of magazine and newspaper excerpts collected from a single country--the United States.
Having picked up the book and discovered this, a student of German history is likely to put it down quickly, shaking her head in dismay at the misleading nature of the book's title. However, those interested in German-American relations during the "Great War" or who are curious about German Americans at this key point in United States history, may be surprised to find something worthwhile. For example, if one is interested in discovering why Hohenzollern Germany lost so badly to the Allies in the propaganda struggle to influence American public opinion, or wonders how Americans responded to their "hyphenated" countrymen of German ancestry, this book offers some genuine insights. The author has done a superb job of collecting representative articles and providing explanatory annotation that puts the period pieces in context. He supports his primary object--providing a source text in journalism history--by including a short series of study questions at the end of each chapter.
Collins reminds us that, when the war began in 1914, print media was the only mass medium. For that reason, journals and newspapers of the period had a uniquely powerful role in both driving and reflecting the attitudes of the American public. And, when it came to shaping those attitudes, Germany fell behind the Allies almost before the Kaiser's legions crossed the Belgian and French borders. To start with, on August 5, 1914, Britain cut Germany's transatlantic cable, thus ensuring that the Allied view would enjoy nearly exclusive access to U.S. print media.
Of course, by invading neutral Belgium, Germany did nothing to help its own efforts to justify itself. In the first year of the war, many American editors chose to adopt a neutral position, but of the rest, the ones favoring the Triple Entente outnumbered Germany's supporters by five to one. When a German U-Boot sank the Lusitania, in May 1915, Germany lost virtually any chance of gaining widespread sympathy from Americans. The German government responded as best it could, highlighting, for example, the British suppression of the Irish independence movement. A statement from Undersecretary for Foreign Affairs Alfred Zimmermann, who was later responsible for a fateful telegram to Mexico, appeared in a New York Times supplement in 1916: "The same riotish [sic] militarism has wielded its cruel sway in Egypt and the same militarism killed the helpless women and children of the Boers in South Africa" (cited on p. 155). This was a salvo in a losing fight. Between 1915 and the U.S. entry into the war, the American press lost most of what remained of its objectivity. Collins captures the point by relying heavily on editorials, letters, and opinion pieces that demonstrate the shift in popular opinion.
Collins has done a particularly useful and even-handed job in providing well-researched explanatory text that suggests the Allied propaganda machine still dominates our memory of the war. He reminds us, for example, that, along with a hundred U.S. citizens, the Lusitania was carrying a hold full of munitions destined for Allied guns. In the case of another public relations disaster for the German empire, the execution of Edith Cavell, Collins suggests the Germans were aware for some time that the English nurse was helping Allied soldiers escape captivity and had made a public warning that gave her time to either desist or escape. She chose a martyr's fate, instead. On the other hand, once the Germans had condemned Cavell to death, they ignored neutral appeals to spare her life. As the war went on, and Great Britain heaped lurid atrocity stories onto German public relations blunders, many Americans began to associate German Kultur with bloody-minded, Prussian militarism. This trend sometimes resulted in anti-German rhetoric from sources that might surprise us today. The famous African-American leader, W.E.B. Dubois, for example, cited the German massacre of the Hereros in Southwest Africa as reason for his followers to fear a German victory.
If the German Empire faced an uphill battle against American public opinion, so too, did German Americans. Nevertheless, until the United States entered the war in April 1917, public leaders of German ancestry, like George Sylvester Viereck, argued for a more evenhanded view of the belligerents. In response, during the election of 1916, Wilson's Democrats accused the Republicans of being pro-German extremists. Although the charge was laughable, Collins suggests it might have had a decisive impact on a very close election. After America entered the war, anti-German sentiment extended even to the teaching of German language in schools. Patriotic zealots condemned the Muttersprache of many U.S. citizens as traitorous language (cited on p. 197). The pacifism of German-American Mennonites masked, according to some overheated editorials, cowardice and sympathy for the kaiser. There was even worse to come. By 1918, the North American Review would announce: "Our duty is to kill Germans. To the killing of Germans we must bend all our energies. We must think in terms of German dead, killed by rifles in American hands, by bombs thrown by American youths, by shells fired by American gunners…. We are endeavoring to arouse the millions of easy going, complacent Americans, unctuously flattering themselves they are good Christians because they feel no hate, to whom the war has as yet no meaning, to a realization of what this war means, not only to them but also to their men; that it is the lives of their men against the lives of German" (cited on p. 242). Passages like this remind the reader that "spin," disinformation, and the demonizing of one's enemy are not techniques invented in our own times.
Those whose interests lie outside U.S. history are likely to put this book aside, irked by its deceptive title. A second look is warranted, however, especially if one is curious about the propaganda campaign that accompanied the Great War, or the challenges faced by German Americans as their adopted country was drawn into the worldwide war.
. The views expressed in this review are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the U.S. Army, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government
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Scott Stephenson. Review of Collins, Ross F., ed., World War I: Primary Documents on Events from 1914 to 1919.
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