Tuesday, December 16, 2014

WW1 and the Propaganda War in American Books

In September I was invited by Museum Curator Bram Beelaert to travel to Antwerp and attend the opening of the excellent exhibit of Flemish Americans during WW1 of "Far From the War"  at the Red Star Line Museum. This is an exhibit with fascinating stories of both Flemish Americans in the U.S. as well as of Flemish Americans who fought in Flanders. I strongly recommend a visit.

One of the features that we discussed but never managed to complete was the volume of books in English that made the case for the war to Americans before, during and after the U.S. entry into the war in 1917. These books were by Belgians, Britons, Germans, and (in a few cases) Americans. The below is only a sampling. But because they are all in my possession the messages they share are easily transmitted.

Below I have included the cover scans and a brief description in chronological order.

As one might expect, before the war, knowledge of Belgium, Flanders and the Flemish in America was either limited or focused on scholarly subjects. Esther Singletons excellent work, The Art of the Belgian Galleries, was first published in 1909 by the L.G. Page & Company of Boston. Yet, because of American fascination with the war, by November, 1914 this book was already on its third printing. And well that it did. Books like this did a great deal to fix in neutral minds the cultural depths of the Flemish.

Before the first German marched across the Belgian frontier on August 3, 1914, the English language image of Belgium was positive, if somewhat paternalistic. This 1911 book, Our Little Belgian Cousins,  published by the L.C. Page & Company of Boston begins with an incredibly condescending note:

"Our little Belgian cousins are very human people, and the Flemish and Walloons, and those that speak Dutch, and those that speak French are one and all delightful friends, and little American cousins should take pleasure in knowing intimately these hard-working but pleasure-loving folk."

As you might be able to surmise, the target audience was American children. Still, the image was positive (if limited and somewhat warped) before the First World War began.

Whatever indecision Americans may have had in the first weeks of the war were quickly dispelled by eyewitness accounts of American diplomats and journalists of German barbarities. One journalist (for the New York World newspaper) turned author was E. Alexander Powell. His Fighting in Flanders is real-time and amazingly fresh.

Recording events up to and including German soldiers marching into Antwerp October 9th, it is packed with names, dates, and photographs. Grossett & Dunlap in New York printed this in November, 1914, which suggests that editors and staff cleared other projects off their desks and moved with amazing speed.

It might seem difficult to manufacture a tawdry romance novel out of what is widely referred to as "The Rape of Belgium", in 1914, but one enterprising Dutch woman, Jo Van Ammers Kueller, managed to do so with the deceptive title A Young Lion of Flanders. This same author would go on to pen pro-German novels during and after World War II.

Likely translated (from the Dutch) and published (shockingly) in the U.K. sometime in 1915, the tale centers on a young Flemish woman who marries a German officer and is torn between her love for him and for her brothers - one killed and the other  (the "Young Lion of Flanders") imprisoned for non-violent acts of defiance. It ends with the German officer giving up his wife in Brussels in exchange for duty to his country. Yet it is hard to imagine this book producing anything more than twisted fantasies in lonely housewives or teenage girls.

Less ambiguous in its message but also targeted toward an impressionable audience (boys), Boy Scouts in Belgium: or, Under Fire in Flanders, imagines the adventures of three New York boy scouts supporting rights against might in war-torn Belgium.

Published in 1915 by M.A. Donohue & Company of Chicago, it integrates subtle history lessons and strangely unhistorical explanations for the world:

"Why do they call the country 'Flanders'?" asked Jimmie. 
"'Flanders,'" replied the other, "is a name derived from an old nickname or apellation for the people who inhabited that section [of the country]. For a long time the people who lived there were known as 'Fleed-men,' or men who had escaped from other countries. The name gradually was turned into the present form of 'Flemish,'  and the country [came to be known] as Flanders...Many a battle has been fought at different times on Flemish territory." 

The author periodically inserted some mild rebukes of German behavior - such as this one:

"It seems too bad to have good folks like those [the Flemish] shot up by the Germans."

But in the end, the American author, through the words of young Jimmie, hews to the official U.S. neutralist stance of that time:

"I like 'em all. Both the French and Germans were fine!"

Belgians to the Front is another's boys book with a fantasy experience of boy scouts slipping between the front lines and amidst battles with neither injuries nor unpleasant experiences to report. The author, "Colonel" James Fiske, authored a series of 'juvenile fiction' books from the allied point of view - all with the same cover (see his "Under Fire for Servia").

In this book (also published in Chicago, in 1915), a pair of Brusselaer boy scouts - Paul Latour and Arthur Waller, inspired by their Flemish scout master, Armand Van Verde - in the opening days of the war do what they can to thwart the German invasion. They successfully deliver intelligence that saves a French army from entrapment, relieves Liege, and garners the boys an award from Belgian King Albert himself - in Brussels.

Judging by the tenor and timeline of the story, this tale was almost certainly submitted for publication in the first month of the war. By the time this book was published in 1915, King Albert was in the Westhoek, on the Flemish coast, far from Brussels. Liege had long ago fallen (Liege fell on August 7, 1914 - 3 days after the Germans first marched across the border). But the inspiration of young boys in (boy scout) uniform doing everything short of shooting in defense of their country was nonetheless inspiring.

The United States entered the First World War on the side of the Allies on April 6, 1917. One key factor in uniting Americans of disparate ethnic origins of course was the belief in the righteousness of the underdog - in this case Belgium versus Germany. The same month that the United States declared war on Germany, heiress Charlotte Kellogg's Women of Belgium: Turning Tragedy to Triumph was published in New York by Funk & Wagnalls Company.

As the only woman on Herbert Hoover's "Commission for the Relief of Belgium" - and as someone who had visited Belgium and saw for herself a country where 1.5 million (out of a population of just over 4 million) survived in great part through access to the CRB soup kitchens, Kellogg was a credible voice for the Allied side. Moreover, since she detailed in a dispassionate manner the sufferings - as well as successes brought about by Herbert Hoover's led aid program - her argument for the injustices endured by Belgian civilians at the hands of the Imperial German Army were that much stronger. Writing as she did, before war was actually declared by the U.S., gave her narrative and photos a purity absent from war correspondents and novelists.

Americans were further inspired as they entered the war by tales of derring-do by Belgian combatants against overwhelming odds. So the 1918 publication of Brave Belgians, an English translation of a 1916 French popular piece by Baron C. Buffin,  fit the bill. Although roughly 360 of the 375 pages dealt with the events in the opening months of the War, between August and October, 1914 (and the remaining pages were given over to the reprinting of a 1915 wartime speech), the details reinforced the image America had joined the war for: tough but decent Belgians fighting against a bully jugernaut characterized by the German pickelgruber (spiked helmet).

The United States' participation in the First World War was brief. Although officially the U.S. joined the Allies in April, 1917, only three US regiments were in the front lines by November, 1917. During the great German offensive of March-April, 1918 only 500 Americans were involved (in a campaign which cost more than 600,000 German and British casualties).

But by the summer of 1918, 10,000 Americans in uniform were arriving in Europe each day, so that by August 6th, 270,000 Americans participated in the Aisne-Marne Offensive. Still, U.S. combat deaths of less than 70,000 (and influenza deaths of another 43,000) meant that the United States emerged from the war relatively unscathed. The U.S. casualty rate in fact was not too dissimilar from Belgium - a country with less than 5% of the U.S. population.

However, for many Americans, there was more than casualty lists that united Belgium and the United States. Like Belgium, the U.S. viewed its entrance as a direct result of Germany violating international law. The above book, America At War: A Handbook of Patriotic Education References, edited by the first professionally-trained (in Freiburg, Germany!) American historian, Albert Bushnell Hart, also a Harvard alumnus, attempted to academically state the case for the U.S.' involvement. Much of that argument 9as outlined in Hart's bibliographic book) hinged upon Germany's violation of Belgian neutrality and the atrocities perpetrated by Germany in Belgium during the war.

Since the German percent of the U.S. population then (as now) was the largest single ethnic identity, to some extent this pocket-sized booklet was meant (as the Preface exclaimed) to offset the "uncontroverted falsehood[s] put into circulation by... German propaganda" with "the ideas, which make for democracy, humanity, justice and truth." In other words, to parrott official U.S. justification for entering a European war and ignoring George Washington's famous advice of avoiding European entanglements.

Propaganda it may be, but this impressive work includes some wonderful gems (I never knew that there had been a hit 1915 play in the U.S. was called "A Belgian Christmas"). Near the book's end is the full text of the June, 1917 speech by U.S. President Woodrow Wilson to the Belgian War Mission. Entitled "A Promise to Belgium" it unequivocably states that the U.S. will seek - despite his own forcefully expounded "Fourteen Points" guaranteeing national self-determination - to restore Belgium to its full, pre-war, unitary status. This declaration of course meant that Wilson decided to ignore calls by some Flemings and Walloons (cf Jules Destree) for dissolution of the Belgian state.

"In its meeting held in Brussels on the 30th October 1918 the Council of Flanders appointed a Flemish Committee for the purpose of centralizing the activist work, keeping up the activist ideal and promoting its realization in the forthcoming peace negotiations. The subjoined correspondence shows what efforts this Flemish Committee has made to acquit itself of the task."

So begins this fascinating, documentary piece, entitled Pro-Flandria Servanda, Flanders' Right & Claim for Autonomy. Published by the solid Hague firm Martinus Nijhoff in 1920, this wonderfully bound book argues systematically for (in effect) a confederal state.

Written in flawless (I am tempted to say, "masterfully elegant") English, it shares, Snowden-like, the correspondence between the Holland-based Committee of three (M'sieurs Alfons Depla, Willem De Vreese, and Leo Meert) and the White House in the months leading up to Versailles. Packed with wonderful facts bolstering their case, it includes an irredentist map that carved out most of the French department Nord. The history of the Flemish people it maps out is targeted to an American reader.

For many Americans, President Woodrow Wilson included, such issues were frivolous. "Belgium" (not Flanders) resonated and was easily linked back to the casus belli of the conflict. For Wilson (and indeed virtually every American) Belgium redeemed fit best with the war promises made. So to "Belgium" - or its image -  Americans returned.

Colin H. Livingstone, President of the Boy Scouts of America and based in Washington, DC. introduced the 1921 Young Heroes of Britain and Belgium  to readers as "true little histories of real little men and women". While author Kathleen Burke may have found inspiration in some 'true little histories', the improbable dialogue, imprecise dates, and absence of supporting details renders the stories as tales, not histories. Whether the characters Piere Van Zeel or Marie Jeanne of Bruges really existed (and I doubt it), each story neatly made a morality play. None of these tales referenced the starvation, carnage, or other unintended consequences of war.

Naturally, these vignettes were intended to be uplifting. Moreover, the target audience was young men and women (although not younger than teens). Still, from the perspective of an image of Belgium (and Flanders), the image thre author presented was unsullied and unitary.

The penultimate product of the First World War for Americans interested in Belgium is Henry G. Bayer's 1924 The Belgians: First Settlers in New York and in the Middle States. Bayer banked on the continued fascination of Americans (and himself) in the connection between Belgium and the United States. Fortunately for all of us, this largely-forgotten work pioneered the study of the contribution of Flemings to the discovery and settlement of America.

Utilizing primary document sources, this former wartime American diplomat extracted from the prevailing narrative of Nieuw Nederland the fact that Flemings (and Walloons) had largely been counted as "Dutch" by historians of colonial America. Bayer, who had spent time in Belgium, credited the Flemish with less than sbsequent scholarship has uncovered, but this may be seen as a legacy of the notorious anti-Fleming (and former U.S. diplomat) William Griffis, who claimed descent from Walloon Huguenots (and carried on the wars of the Reformation with his pen).

Regardless of the few flaws in Bayer's opus maximus, The Belgians formed the bedrock of all subsequent research into the Flemish experience in North America. Just as the First World War was the defining experience that created the Flemish-American community, so did Bayer's work lay the foundations for its historical consciousness as well.

 Copyright 2014 by David Baeckelandt. All rights reserved. No reproduction permitted in any way, shape or form without my express, written permission. This means you especially Dean Amory!


  1. Zalige Kerst en gelukkig nieuwjaar! Dean Amory

  2. As a Flemish book collector, I thank you for the research you've done.