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Problems Problems
From: Problems: Articles
Date: January, 2013
By: Eamon Dyas

First World War Anti-German Propaganda

Pan-Germanism propaganda – a British perspective

War propaganda is a peculiar art. Aside from its purpose of demoralising the enemy through the dissemination of false and misleading information among its people and armed forces it has two domestic purposes. Firstly, it must be capable of convincing its own people that the effort in sustaining a war is worth the sacrifice; and secondly, it must serve to debilitate an alternative account of events that might serve an enemy’s purpose. Censorship is an important component in all of this but while it can impede its transmission it cannot prevent the emergence of a domestically generated questioning of the core purpose of the propaganda. That is why the propaganda must be credible in furnishing an explanation of the enemy’s behaviour on a number of levels. On a popular level Britain’s explanation of Germany’s behaviour was based on a rather crude depiction of it as emanating from a basic flaw in that nation’s culture and history which made it prone to the development of a militarism that rode roughshod over the rights of other nations. In contrast to this the British represented themselves as the bastion of civilised behaviour destined to stand up to and eventually defeat this evil juggernaut. However, alongside this there developed a more sophisticated explanation which emerged from a rather crude beginning in the aftermath of the Boer War into a cultivated tool in the hands of French propagandists in the aftermath of the first Moroccan crisis of 1906. We see this in the changes undergone by the Entente propaganda explanation of Pan-Germanism during the period up to the start of the First World War.

The concept of Pan-Germanism could be said to have originated with the writings of Friedrich List in the 1840s. He advocated a number of measures all designed to encourage the emergence of a sense of national feeling among the 39 German states and principalities then in existence. The measures included the development of a state-subsidised rail and shipping network across the region, the creation of a German navy, a protective tariff system to aid the nascent industrial economy and the inclusion of Holland within the German customs union (Zollverein) then in the process of evolving. When List shot himself in 1846 his writings were largely uninfluential and the project of a unified Germany remained incomplete until Bismarck’s final push for German unification in 1871. However, despite the fact that Bismarck’s achievement in 1871 was viewed as the end line for any practical German national ambitions - he had dismissed any idea of the new Germany accommodating Austria as being impractical. Nonetheless, the idea of a broader unity continued to have some support among the German-speaking peoples and this came to be known as the Pan-Germanic movement.

The idea of Pan-Germanism first began to assume an organisational character when the German colonist, Dr. Karl (or Carl) Peters became involved. Peters had lived in England between 1880 and 1883 and, while living inLondon, observed the relationship between the country and its colonies at first hand. His experience there convinced him that Germany, if it was to become a European power, had to learn from England and possess its own colonies in Africa. After returning to Germany in 1883 he helped establish the Society for German Colonisation. But Peters was also concerned about the German sense of identity and as a result he organised a General German Congress in Berlin in 1886. From this there emerged the German League under which umbrella various ‘national’ German organisations were amalgamated. However, because the League was held together mostly through Peters’ own personality, when he left for Africa a couple of years later, it began to fall apart through internal differences and was consequently dissolved. The cause of the League had not been helped by Bismarck’s antipathy towards Peters and his African ambitions and after Bismarck’s fall in 1890 efforts began to re-establish the German League. As a result the League was successfully reconstituted in 1891 but after a year in which it flourished it began to go downhill once again.

The development of anti-semitism within the organisation alienated many of the Jewish and socialist elements and its central Prussian-German message failed to find a resonance among the populations of Saxony and Bavaria. Consequently, from an initial membership of 21,000 it quickly fell to 5,000 and its second dissolution looked on the cards. The fortunes of the League were revived however by the efforts of the Reichstag Deputy for Leipzig, Professor Hasse, who after being elected its President immediately began to reorganise the entire management and organisational structure. Also, under his presidency, in 1894, the League began its own journal, the Alldeutsch Blätter (or Pan-German Music), under the editorship of Dr. Lehr. Between the two men the fortunes of the organisation were turned around and, again in 1894, its name was changed to the “Pan-German League.” By 1898 the membership was 15,179 and in 1903, 20,504. The League never attained the status of a mass organisation and any influence it had was through the nature of its membership which was dominated by academics. But neither was it a homogeneous organisation in terms of possessing a detailed plan of action and, although it included within its ranks elements which believed in a militant pursuit of a Greater Germany, its main component reflected a more pacific advocacy of a Customs Union with those countries bordering Germany or which had a significant German population. There were even some who continued to look to England as a partner in the proposed project. Once such expression was outlined in a book by Otto Doerfer entitled “Germany’s Mission as a World-Power” published in 1901. According to a review in the Manchester Guardian:

“This mission is, according to the author, to Germanise the whole of Europe with the assistance of England.” (Manchester Guardian, 24 November 1901, p.4).


Doerfer believed that there was no need for Germany to develop its sea power in competition with England but instead should concentrate on controlling the great river waterways of northern and central Europe – a task made all the more urgent as the Austrian Hapsburgs were not capable of, or indeed interested in, Germanising the Lower Danube.

“It is scarcely credible, but it is true, that so great a Power as Germany has but one river under its rule along the whole of its course – the Weser. The Rhine, the Danube, the Vistula, the Oder, are all more or less in foreign hands. The Hapsburgs are no longer strong enough to carry out their mission of Germanising the territories on the Lower Danube.” (ibid.).


England was seen as part of this mission as she “also belongs to the great German race, and has the same interests and adversaries as Germany.” And for this reason it was important that Germany undertook her mission through a close alliance with England.

This of course was very much a minority position. In the aftermath of British behaviour towards German mercantile ships during the Boer War, the prevalent position was one which viewed Britain as a potential opponent rather than a partner. Also, although certain elements of German Government policy overlapped with aspects of the Pan-German League agenda it had no direct influence on the Government. Nonetheless, from the point of view of Germany’s enemies the mere existence of the Pan-German League was sufficient for them to construct a mythology around it.

One of the first to undertake this task with any earnestness was the journalist Austin Harrison. Harrison was the son of the Positivist Frederic Harrison and became a journalist as a young man. His first job was with The Times as an assistant to George Saunders at the Berlin office of the paper in the 1890s and he went on to work in the Berlin office of Reuters. He subsequently held senior positions on the Observer and the Daily Mail before becoming the editor and then proprietor of the English Review. Harrison’s anti-German position began to manifest itself early in his career as a journalist and in 1904 he published his first book on Germany. This was published anonymously under the title The Pan-Germanic Doctrine, and it represents one of the earliest explorations of the Pan-Germanist movement. The book is a well-researched, albeit anti-German, investigation into the Pan-German League. Despite this, the fact that it was written prior to the Anglo-French entente means that it is free from the more overtly propaganda slants which typify accounts of Germany after that event and provides some interesting insights into the situation and predicament of Germany at that time. Although he goes on to use his sources in ways which exaggerate the Pan-German League and regularly conflates the policy of the League with that of the German Government he does interject this with a more honest, although somewhat begrudging, account of the relationship between the two.

“Pan-Germans are inconvenient to the German Government at this juncture; they are mocked at, treated as illusionists, sciolists (superficially knowledgeable - ED), beer politicians, and dabblers in ‘metapolitics,’ to use a word of Stein’s. But the line that divides responsible politicians from rational Pan-Germans is often only proportional. The Pan-Germans anticipate, see Germany through a telescope. The Government uses opera-glasses, sees only the present, the actual, the tangibly possible. Some day the focus may be adjusted for both sights.” (The Pan-Germanic Doctrine: being a study of German political aims and aspirations, [by Austin Harrison]. Published by Harler & Brothers, London and New York, 1904, p.5).


And again,

“Of course, officially, the German Government has nothing whatever to do with it. The Pan-German party does not go to the polls as such; it has no fixed Parliamentary representation in Germany, and its members are members of various parties in the Reichstag. Confined to its own strict limits, it is a singularly small party, absurdly small for the noise it makes; and many Germans who are really Pan-Germans object to its nomenclature just as many Germans who vote for the social democracy resent being enrolled as socialists. On the other hand, there is no other definition for the new Imperialists following, the foremost representative of which is the German Emperor, who, in a rational sense, is almost the foremost exponent of Pan-Germanism. But let there be no misunderstanding. The two things must be kept separate. If the Colonial movement, the Navy agitations, the ‘Thrasonic’ verbiage of the host of the Colonial, Imperialist, National, Fleet, and economic professors are all closely associated with the Pan-German movement, it is only right to preface anything that may be said here, either about them or about Pan-Germanism, with the admonition that Pan-Germanism, as expounded by the League, and German forward policy are not one and the same thing. For this reason German politics will be avoided. The German Government will not be described as benevolently Pan-German.” (ibid, p.11).


However, Harrison envelopes his facts with opinion through the strategic use of inevitability, innuendo and implication which he scatters throughout the book. He thus ensures that it is opinion which leaves the lasting taste in the mind – even though he pays homage to the fact that the more toxic policies of the Pan-German League are not shared by the German Government we are left in no doubt that we are supposed to know that they are. And even if they are not shared at the present time they will be in the future. This is the perennial tool of the journalist-historian and by such means the ongoing policy of the German Government becomes indistinguishable from that of the Pan-German League.

This is not to say that certain aspects of the agenda of the Pan-German League were not shared by the German Government, but the Government always set the larger agenda and, because it was not ideologically driven in the same way as the League, it always adopted a politically expedient attitude towards the world in which it found itself.
Consequently, the most obvious point of departure between the League and the Government was in the realm of ideology. The core ideologically-based sentiment behind the League was the idea of the Deutschtum. Harrison says there is no English equivalent for the term but that it approximates to “Germanism,” or everything connected with Germany and things German and it embraces High and Low Germanic peoples in countries outside of Germany itself. The German Government consistently portrayed a sympathetic attitude towards what was called the Deutschtum – it would be surprising if any national government did not betray some sympathy towards its diaspora and culture. But, there was a world of difference between the position which the League allocated to the Deutschtum in terms of destiny and the position allocated to it by the Government.

While the Deutschtum was the core ideological sentiment behind the League the core economic one was the idea of the Zollverein, or Customs Union. The original Zollverein was the basis for the unification of the various German states which had been achieved, and, in the eyes of the League, it now became a means by which other neighbouring states could become part of the Greater Germany. The German Government did foresee some useful purpose in the expansion of the Zollverein but it viewed it purely in terms of the economic advantages it offered rather than as a tool for political advance. Although it acknowledged that any such expansion of the Zollverein might lead to the political alliance of a particular country or region with Germany it also recognised that this was not inevitable – the case of Luxembourg being often cited of an example where this did not happen (Luxembourg had joined the Zollverein in 1842 without any subsequent political implications).

Harrison invests a lot of effort in explaining the economic predicament of Germany at this time. However, he does this not from any sense of sympathy for Germany’s position but because it represents the area which showed most promise in providing his readers with a logical explanation of the German State’s inevitable drive for territorial expansion. Because he found it more difficult to equate the State’s relationship with the Deutschtum with the more aggressive ideological relationship held by the League, the economic argument provided a more convincing one. Harrison examines the relationships between Germany and its surrounding neighbours, Holland, Denmark, Sweden, Switzerland, and to a certain extent, Belgium, and concludes that the essential element in all of this is the economic one. In the process of outlining the arguments he provides some useful sources and insights from German sources which are critical to a real understanding of the German Government’s attitude and predicament at the time. In this sense, and leaving aside the expressions of Germanophobia, his book provides a valuable contribution to any understanding of the First World War.

However, a counterposing of Harrison’s 1904 book with one that was published within a couple of months of the start of the First World War in 1914 provides an even more valuable insight. The Kaiser’s War, which also includes an introduction by his father, Frederic Harrison, jettisons any pretence at objectivity and reason in spectacular fashion.

The preface to the book states that six of the chapters were originally published in the English Review which Austin Harrison was editing at this time. This means that they had been published in the immediate lead-in to the war. He seeks to disabuse the “Not a few people in this country”, who “are still harbouring the delusion that the war is the act of a small sect, called the Military Party, in Germany which, as a nation, was forced into hostilities in obedience to the Higher Command. Till the Kaiser declared war it is the fact that half our present Government, the majority of Liberals and vast numbers of Englishmen engrossed in games, party politics, and in their own private businesses, did more or less sincerely believe in the pacific attitude and policy of Germans, based largely on the great success achieved by learned and material Germany – a success which, in truth, has been the outstanding phenomenon of this century.” (p.2). Then, early on in the book, after explaining how all the achievements of German culture and science had seduced the British into a state of torpor, how British society had become intoxicated by German achievement into a presumption of civilised pacifism on its part he goes on to explain that this was “Part of the gigantic German bluff” concealing the “Jackboot of militarism.”

But also, the economic reasoning behind German motivation was also a deflection from the real impulses which dictated her actions. Harrison explains this, not by reference to the arguments he had himself advanced in his book of ten years earlier, but by reference to the publications of Norman Angell.

“To this must be added the Norman Angell theory. For some years past it has been noticed that diplomacy had lost its old-time status, that finance – capitalistic industry, enterprise, interest and industrialism – had assumed the position formerly held by diplomatists. So intricately and indissolubly connected had the network of Trade, Capitalism, Revenue, and Credit become internationally, that language, the Flag, Governments, statesmen, and policy seemed no longer to represent the power of nationality growing more and more democratic, material, cynical, and ‘civilized,’ as the result of the great facilities for travel, communication, and knowledge of other peoples opened up under the driving power of the new philosophy of economics, which, in all its aspects and interests, was selfish and material. This Mr. Norman Angell explained rightly enough.

Where he went wrong was in his own illusion of the illusion.

He saw only money, interest, materialism, credit – he forgot the will of man. He looked on the world with the vision of the bucket-shop. It never occurred to him to consider that as materialism breeds materialism and no rich man has ever yet been known to say that he was rich enough, so also has no people. He forgot Germany, the German Army, the Kaiser, the German intention. With the habitual one-sidedness of the theorist, he left out of his accounts the human side of man in his admiration for the machine – ideology; the truth which all history has shown again and again that the world is controlled and moved ultimately by ideas and not by matter.

Side by side with the growth of industry, there has gone Militarism, the European heritage of Bismarck. This is where the broker philosophy of Mr. Norman Angell failed. He thought that wealth was stronger than man, that matter was greater then the spirit. And a great many people agreed with him. They, too, believed that Plutocracy was a bigger thing than mind. And, theoretically, the premise looked plausible, if only for the reason that war in Europe threatened to bring ruin to the very Captains of Industry who swayed its governance. Then, too, the European system of Alliances seemed to provide a sure guarantee of continued peace. The idea of war appeared incredible. Men never stopped to consider the psychology of capital, to reflect on the methods of capitalism as ruthless in their economic incidence as the murderous work of armies. On paper no Power seemed more dependent upon material prosperity, upon business and credit, than Germany with her Ballins and Banks, her world-penetrating ramifications of commercial interests, her inter-dependence upon the arteries of sea-borne trade and exports, under the personality of the Kaiser surrounded by the great Jewish creators of wealth whom he had publicaly made his personal friends. (The Kaiser’s War, by Austin Harrison with an introduction by Frederic Harrison. Published by George Allen & Unwin Ltd., London, November 1914, pp.25-27).


In his book of ten years earlier Harrison had provided a somewhat objective account of how the economic requirements of Germany in terms of its need for access to the North Sea had created an incentive to develop closer relationships with Holland and Denmark. He also admitted that Germany had no intention of using force in order to establish that relationship and that these countries were already, of their own volition, moving towards such an arrangement, as it was also in their economic and political interests to do so. That exploration of German behaviour had, by 1914, become too rational and its repetition would only provide an opportunity for the diffusion of emotion rather than the propaganda needs of a country now at war with Germany and so it had to be discredited. Instead, Harrison once more offered up an explanation based on the ideology of the Pan-Germanic movement.

“In the sententious imagination of the Pan-German the idea of the German mission became such an obsession that he came to look on Europe as a great battlefield preserved by God for the display of German feats of arms as a kind of apotheosis in the cause of humanity. The German invasion was to be a Holy War, a Lutheran manifestation. A planetary hegemony – why not? Old Europe groaning under what it termed the burden of armaments was in need of a masculine broom, a final sweeping which would liberate and consolidate her. Only the German mind could hope to carry out so grandiose a scheme, only German might was fitted to do so. Pan-Germans expressed regret that Englishmen should be forced to lose their Empire, but after all they would be able to attend race meetings and play golf in the German State, which, they understood, were the main things Englishmen cared about. The point was that Englishmen could not play sea-dog in the manger indefinitely and so arbitrarily defeat history.

All historians worthy of the name were Germans; it was unscientific of Englishmen to presume upon German good nature too long. A people which did not play their own Shakespeare was clearly unworthy to possess him. Moreover they didn’t, for Schlegel’s translations were better than the original. The worst of it was that not until the British Navy was defeated could German world-power come into its lawful rights and rescue what was worth preserving of old English culture. Still there was no cause for apprehension. It would soon be over on the ‘Great Day.’ Krupp would see to that. A decisive battle off Harwich, say, and Britain would fall. Once the Kaiser had hoisted his standard over the Tower of London the English woman would quickly fall in love with the Prussian Garde-du-Corps, and there would be an end to the Suffragette ‘nonsense.’ The English Army – and here the Pan-German invariably smiled – well, was it a serious proposition at any time? ‘Bobs’ might be a soldier, but no other Englishman would be – except for money. Against the trained soldiers of a national Army a couple of hundred thousand khaki mercenaries would avail little. The notion was preposterous. Englishmen must know then that the war when it came would not be a mere campaign to avenge a wrong; it would be a movement of racial expansion and conquest conducted to its logical end by the finest soldiers and by the most scientific brains that ever marched forth to battle in history.” (ibid, pp.144-146).


And so it was that the German nation went to war, not because it needed to protect itself against the strangulation tactics of its enemies, but because of the existence of a national compulsion of “racial expansion and conquest conducted to its logical end by the finest soldiers and by the most scientific brains that ever marched forth to battle in history". And so it was not only for the German State but for the German people themselves that, “War had become the truth and fate of the German people. No nation ever went into war with a clearer sense of its national responsibility. No ruler ever declared war with a fuller weight of support behind him, with fuller intention to destroy, with more calculated racial deliberation.” (ibid, pp.41-42).

Furthermore, the racial impulse that now energized the Pan-German march to war had its basis in pre-unification Germany.