On March 26, 2019, historians Marie-Eve Chagnon and Guillaume Marceau of the collective “Les échos de l’Histoire” spoke with guests at the Chateau Ramezay in Montreal about Propaganda during the Great War. These two experts analyzed the historiography surrounding the issue of atrocities in Belgium and the Manifesto of 93, a German document published in October 1914, and examined the importance given to the Canadian side in concept of atrocities in propaganda.
Marie-Eve Chagnon is an independent researcher. She completed her Ph.D. at Concordia University in Montreal in April 2012 and was a Postdoctoral Researcher at the Canadian Center for German and European Studies at the Université de Montréal from 2012-2014. Her research focuses on the history of international scientific relations and more specifically on the impact of the First World War on the German and French scientific communities. Her current research analyzes the role played by the American scientific community in the process of reconciliation after the First World War. Since 2019, she co-founded the Echoes of History with Guillaume Marceau.
Guillaume Marceau is a lecturer, independent researcher and lecturer (Concordia, UQÀM, UQO, UdeM). He completed a Master’s degree in History at UQÀM in 2007. His research focuses on the world wars of the 20th century and more specifically on the relationship of liberal democracies with the phenomenon of propaganda between 1914 and 1950. His current work analyzes the issues of cultural myths in international relations and the impact of globalization on the national historical memory. Since 2019, he has co-founded Echoes of History with Marie-Eve Chagnon, PhD.
As the Canadian War Museum notes, “All combatant nations use propaganda in wartime to encourage citizens to make sacrifices and contributions to hasten victory or endure defeat. Governments and private organizations produce or commission posters and other items to support recruitment, promote military production, inform citizens about proper conduct, and assure people that their governments are taking appropriate action.”
As R.H. Thomson writes in They Fought in Colour, “So why did they do it? Why did all those young Canadians head off to war? Some did it because they believed the jingoistic slogans of the day. “For King and Country” was the favourite, especially for those newly arrived from Britain who had just started a new home on our side of the Atlantic. Others did it because they needed a job — and this one paid relatively well, plus there was the promise of “room and board.” Still others did it because their pals were doing it. They all did it because when the call went out in August 1914, everyone believed the war would be wrapped up and won by Christmas and they’d all be home for the holidays. But no, that’s not what happened.” (p. 262)
Recruitment and morale were important themes throughout the propaganda efforts of the First World War. Watch as Guillaume Marceau speaks at length about the ways different events are presented and remembered by various groups during the First World War. In this case, he looks at the sinking of the Lusitania in 1915.
This wartime recruitment poster (CWM 19670086-007) demonstrates how the British transformed the sinking of the passenger ship Lusitania by a German U-Boat on 7 May 1915 into a wide spread propaganda campaign.
Here, we see the German postcard of the sinking of the Lusitania that Guillaume Marceau referred to in his lecture above:
Not only was propaganda a tool for recruitment, food and factory production, and donations, but during the First World War in particular, atrocity propaganda was widespread. Exaggeration and invention of atrocities often becomes the main staple of the propaganda efforts, and during the early stages of the war it played a major role in creating the waves of patriotism that characterized 1914/1915.
Marie-Eve Chagnon spoke about the wartime events taking place in Belgium, and the different ways that these actions were reported on and reacted to in Germany versus Britain, in particular the form of spontaneous propaganda, rather than official state-issued news and posters.
Belgium, a neutral state, was forced into the First World War by a German ultimatum. What is referred to as “the Rape of Belgium” was the German mistreatment of civilians during the invasion and subsequent occupation of Belgium during the First World War. British and Allied media reported widely on the atrocities taking place at the hands of German soldiers.
But in response, German intellectuals produced the ‘Manifesto 93’ of October 1914. This was a proclamation endorsed by 93 prominent German scientists, scholars and artists, declaring their unequivocal support of German military actions in the early periods of the war. It begins, “As representatives of German Science and Art, we hereby protest to the civilized world against the lies and calumnies with which our enemies are endeavoring to stain the honour of Germany in her hard struggle for existence — in a struggle that has been forced on her.”
While the events that took place in Belgium were clearly reported differently on both sides, after the war it is more the traumatic experience of the soldiers in the trenches that take precedence over our collective memories of the war, according to Marie-Eve Chagnon. It is not until the 1990s with the renewed interest in addressing war crimes in the Balkans and violence in the Canadian residential school system that there is again interest in looking at the controversial issue of the atrocities of 1914.
Discussion questions and activities:
– Peruse the collection of propaganda posters of the Canadian War Museum. Do you see any common themes emerge? Choose one poster that speaks strongly to you and analyze the words and images. Who is this poster trying to influence? Why would the designer have chosen those particular words or images? Do you think this would have been an influential poster during the First World War? Why or why not?
– As discussed in our previous First World War Centennial Speaker Series, photography of the First World War was another important way of controlling and disseminating information from the war front to the home front. Look through the selection of images online at the Vimy Foundation’s First World War in Colour collection. What messages were the photographers trying to convey to people back in Canada with these images? Do you think they would have been successful in motivating peoples’ emotions?
– Using newspaper archive sources like Google, can you find news articles from May and June 1915 about the sinking of the Lusitania? Are there particular images or words used by the newspapers to emphasize the wartime atrocity?
– Overall, do you think that propaganda changed the course of the war? If so, why and how? If not, why not?
– Do you think propaganda can be found in our society today? Although propaganda takes many forms, it can recognized by its use of techniques that activate strong emotions, simplify ideas, respond to audience needs, and attack opponents. Consider social media, news media, and other sources. Brainstorm with your classmates some recent examples of propaganda.
Thank you to our supporters of the First World War Centennial Speaker Series: The Government of Canada and the R. Howard Webster Foundation.