You’ve surely seen photos – taken in a studio – of relatives of yours posing in their WWI uniforms. Or possibly photos of groups of men in training or playing games. Characteristic of such photos are their presentation of military camaraderie and pride, joy and earnest, loyalty and a sense of duty.
Have you ever wondered whether such photos document the war we know as the First World War or the Great War? Do such photos show you to what extent the war completely upturned the lives of your ancestors?
The First World War turned out to be the greatest catastrophe of the 20th century, drastically changing the world. Any analysis of the propaganda used during the war shows how people were manipulated, how the media were politically instrumentalised and how a negative image of the enemy and his wrongdoings was constructed and disseminated.
Looking at East Belgium as a border region, we note that memories of the First World War differ greatly. For the Flemish, Walloon and Brussels populations, and for a number of other European nations, the First World War remains the “Great War”. After German troops marched into neutral Belgium in 1914, the invaders started committing atrocities, like the shooting of 6,000 civilians. They burnt down villages and towns, deported thousands of Belgians to work as forced labour in Germany, and made the Belgian municipalities pay for the costs of occupation. They let the population hunger. Moreover, vast swathes of Belgium were frontline areas for four years and were almost completely destroyed. Such experiences greatly influenced the communicative memory of the Great War in all parts of Belgium other than what is now East Belgium, where the German-speaking community has a completely different recollection of events. For almost a century before the war started, they had belonged to first the Kingdom of Prussia, then to the German Reich. The people there felt themselves as German citizens. Even the Walloons living in and around Malmedy described themselves for the most part as patriotic Prussian Walloons.
The military camp of Elsenborn together with the whole German-Belgian border region were full of soldiers in August 1914, among them soldiers from Eupen and Malmedy. Prior to 1914, a number of railway lines had been built, linking the region to Germany for strategic purposes. These were now used to transport thousands of soldiers and tonnes of supplies. The war was noticeable everywhere, with troops marching through the region or being billeted there, and military hospitals abounding. Even the artillery firing at the defences of Liege could be heard in neighbouring counties at the beginning of the war.
Propaganda was ever-present, with the German Kaiser and politicians upholding German unity in the local press. The military successes of the German army were highlighted, while its opponents were ridiculed or characterised as harmless or conniving. Anybody witnessing a Belgian atrocity was called upon to report it to the German authorities in Malmedy and to provide a detailed report.
From 1914 onwards, Germans were called upon to conclude war insurance policies or to subscribe to war loans. The Patriotic Women’s Association, VFV, collected “love gifts” for soldiers at the front. Sent by rail, these were backed by reports of their results in the local press. “It is the duty of every German to hand in all money in his possession to public banks or post offices, which will in turn pass it on to the German Reichsbank”, demanded a further call.
The war was felt even more as increasing numbers of young men were conscripted into the German army. The press and the authorities were full of calls to report people who had volunteered for military service, but also informed the population of where lists of those killed at the front were to be found or that conscripts were exempted from paying tax. The Kaiser announced that deserters and emigrants would be granted clemency if they reported for military duty. With the lists of those killed in action getting longer and longer, with more and more newspaper announcements of soldiers killed, the local press became a mirror of the war. Ending in 1918, the Great War cost 17 million lives, including those of 766 soldiers from Eupen and 1082 from Malmedy, a total of 1,848 soldiers.
In 1916, the Hindenburg Programme was adopted, subjecting the whole German economy to war needs. As harvests had been exceptionally poor in 1916 and 1917, the effects of the war were now felt by the whole population, including people in rural areas. Rationing was introduced, as everyone had to contribute to winning the war. Even schoolchildren were sent out to the fields to harvest potatoes or turnips or into the woods to collect beechnuts, mushrooms, berries, etc.
The front was increasingly present at home: while the soldiers fought in the trenches, women and children at home went out to work and scrimped and saved so that the soldiers at the front would have enough. Every aspect of life was subjected to success at the front. The army postal service developed into a practical and very important link between the home front and the trenches.
But there were no insights into the sufferings and hopes of the neighbouring populations in Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands. Not just during the war but afterwards as well, each population looked solely at what it had been through.
The collective memory of the First World War has fundamentally changed in East Belgium over the last few decades. One possible reason is 11 November, the Belgian public holiday commemorating the end of the Great War. The date reflects the two hearts beating within East Belgian breasts. On the one hand, Armistice Day is a public holiday in Belgium, France and Luxembourg, but obviously not in Germany. Remembering the victims of the First World War, the day is increasingly celebrated in East Belgium from a Belgian perspective. However, on the other side of the border in the Rhineland, 11 November is the first day of the German Carnival season, and many East Belgians flock to Cologne to celebrate, or engage in Carnival events at home. This obviously blurs the meaning of this official public holiday. Or to put it a different way: while their ancestors lost this war, their East Belgian descendants celebrate the day as the start of Carnival in a much more high-spirited manner than their Belgian counterparts.
Though there are thousands of pictures portraying the First World War, where are the pictures of the former enemies, the French, English, Russian or Belgian soldiers, in the private photo albums. As you see, media and groups are easily manipulated to achieve a presumably higher goal. Just imagine that you and your fellow schoolfriends get called up. Would we be just as naive as the young men, women and families a century ago? Or would we be more enlightened? How can we differentiate between propaganda and real news? How can we protect ourselves against propaganda?
Further reading (in German):
Philippe Beck, et. al.: Vom Europäischen Krieg zum Weltkrieg. Militär und Kriegserfahrung während 130 Jahren, in Carlo Lejeune (Ed.): Grenzerfahrungen. Eine Geschichte der Deutschsprachigen Gemeinschaft Belgiens. Code Civil, beschleunigte Moderne, Dynamiken des Beharrens(1794-1919). Eupen 2016, p. 50-76.
Bernhard Liemann: “Ein besonderes Schauspiel wurde uns geboten.” Zivile Kriegserfahrung in der deutsch-belgischen Grenzregion 1914, in Peter M. Quadflieg, Christoph Rass (Ed.): Kriegserfahrung im Grenzland. Perspektiven auf das 20. Jahrhundert zwischen Maas und Rhein, Aachen 2014 (Aachener Studien zur Wirtschafts- und Sozialgeschichte, Band 7), p. 37-63.