You Want Propaganda? Now This Is a Story About Propaganda


Mr. Fleming's latest book is The Illusion of Victory: America in World War I (Basic Books, 2003). He is a member of the board of directors of HNN.

If you like the service HNN provides, please consider making a donation.

As the media becomes more and more pervasive in daily life, one of the fastest growing historical fields is the study of how certain nations or groups or individuals have manipulated the news for their own purposes. There are few better examples than the British and American demonization of Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany before and during World War I.

Wilhelm II was a juicy target. Before the war, Lord Northcliffe, the conservative British press lord, had regularly abused him as a warmonger and a menace. A grandson of Queen Victoria, the Kaiser had a prickly relationship with his British royal cousins and a tendency to shoot off his mouth about Germany's martial prowess and its right to a "place in the sun." He was also fond of discoursing on the danger of "the yellow peril" -- the growing power of Japan -- and the superiority of white northern European Protestants. One pundit dubbed him a German version of Theodore Roosevelt.

Prone to nervous breakdowns -- he suffered three in the five years preceding the war -- the Kaiser was extravagantly fond of gorgeous military uniforms, perhaps an attempt to achieve masculinity in spite of a withered arm. At his desk, he sat in a saddle because it made him feel like a warrior. His gaunt face, which featured haughtily curled mustaches, made him a hostile cartoonist's dream.

Soon the Kaiser, who had little more control over his armies than King George V of England had over the British Expeditionary Force, was being blamed for rapes and murders in Belgium and called a megalomaniac with a hunger to rule the world. From here it was only a short step to calling him "the Mad Dog of Europe" and "The Beast of Berlin." The British hired a Dutch cartoonist, Louis Raemakers, to portray the Kaiser as a cross between a Cro-Magnon primitive and a slavering crocodile. Raemakers' handlers made sure he was hailed as a great artist and distributed books of his caricatures in the United States, one of them with an introduction by Prime Minister Herbert Asquith. When the artist visited the United States, Woodrow Wilson invited him to the White House.

In the wake of this tidal wave of hate, it was hardly surprising to discover that by March 1917, the Rev. Newell Dwight Hillis, pastor of the Plymouth Congregational Church in Brooklyn, was telling his well-heeled flock that he was prepared to forgive the Germans "just as soon as they are all shot." Then, to fill his cup of happiness to the brim, he wanted to see "the sight of the Kaiser....hanging by a rope."

Totally forgotten was the special supplement devoted to the Kaiser in the New York Times on June 8, 1913, on the 25th anniversary of his coronation. On its front page, along with a handsome portrait of the monarch in a Navy uniform, was an effusive salute to him from the paper's editors. The banner headline at the top read: KAISER, 25 YEARS A RULER, HAILED AS CHIEF PEACEMAKER. The accompanying story called him "the greatest factor for peace that our time can show" -- and credited Wilhelm with frequently rescuing Europe from the brink of war.

Along with the Times's unstinting praise came effusive tributes from prominent Americans, including Theodore Roosevelt, his White House successor William Howard Taft, Columbia University president Nicholas Murray Butler and steel tycoon Andrew Carnegie, whose full page commentary concluded that all the citizens of the civilized world were the Kaiser's "admiring loving debtors" for his service to the cause of peace.

When America entered the war, Hollywood decided to make the Kaiser one of their prime targets. Their opening assault was My Four Years in Germany, a film based on the book by former Berlin ambassador James W. Gerard. In the first reel, a card announced: "FACT NOT FICTION." The Kaiser was portrayed as a man with the IQ of a paranoid six year old. He rode a hobby horse as he made plans to invade Belgium. The German general staff was introduced with a series of superimposed images comparing each man to an animal.

Even worse was The Kaiser, The Beast of Berlin, which opened on Broadway in the spring of 1918. The content more than justified the title. The man whom the New York Times had acclaimed as the Prince of Peace in 1913 was portrayed as gloating over slaughtered Belgian civilians and torpedoed ships. To add to the fun, audiences were told that they could "hiss the Kaiser" every time his mustachioed face appeared on the screen. Moving Picture World praised the film: "The scenes are said to be historically accurate and picture a strong dramatic series of events in a commendable way."

At the end of the war, the Kaiser abdicated and sought asylum in the Netherlands. There was talk of trying him and his sons as war criminals but nothing came of it. He spent the next twenty years in Amerongen Castle, near the town of Maarn, entertaining guests and keeping in good physical condition by sawing wood. He died in 1941, distressed by Germany's plunge into another war.

On July 15, 1959, on the 100th anniversary of the Kaiser's birth, the British Broadcasting Company released a film about the fallen monarch. Five days before it was broadcast, its producer, Christopher Sykes, published an article about it in the Radio Times. He admitted that in his boyhood, even the mention of the Kaiser sent "tremors of appalled horror through my nerves." This was not unusual for any Briton who grew up during the era of the Great War. The myth of the wicked Kaiser had been propagated so relentlessly by British historians and newspapermen, even otherwise intelligent statesman reacted with revulsion when they heard Wilhelm's name.

The film was remarkable as much for what it did not say as for what it said. There was no attempt to explain how the myth of the wicked Kaiser came into being. The largely covert British propaganda machine of World War I remained covert. The myth was merely stated as a fact which endured for at least ten years after World War I. Meanwhile, a parade of distinguished Britons such as Sir Harold Nicholson exonerated the Kaiser from the charge of starting the war. His responsibility was described as "small" compared to leaders in Russia and Austria-Hungary. The VIPs described meetings with the Kaiser before the war and in his postwar years of exile in Holland. Everyone burbled about his amiability and sincerity. There was much talk about his love of England and his devotion to his grandmother, Queen Victoria. The film closed with discussions of Wilhelm's old age and death, with flattering comments on the way he displayed no bitterness toward those who had slandered him so viciously.

Some pundits speculated that the explanation for the film was the Cold War. A section of the British press continued to slander the Germans at every opportunity. Not a few Germans suspected these attacks reflected British government policy. The BBC film may have been sponsored by London to strengthen the British-American alliance with Germany against Soviet communism. Whatever the motive, the film achieved at least an approximation of the historical truth. One commentator said it also demonstrated what little reliance can be placed on contemporary opinion.