WOLFSONIAN ARTIST PROFILE: LOUIS RAEMAEKERS (1869-1956)
This past Tuesday evening I drove out to the Modesto Maidique Campus at Florida International University to deliver a Powerpoint presentation to Professor Sean Hermanson’s Truth and Propaganda class. Utilizing posters and rare library materials from The Wolfsonian collection, I took as my subject the impact of propaganda on the outcome of the First World War.
“THE ADORATION OF THE MAGI” [GERMAN KAISER WILHELM II,
AUSTRO-HUNGARIAN EMPEROR FRANZ JOSEPH, OTTOMAN SULTAN MEHMED V]
Although the nations involved in that terrible conflict fought that bloody war with men, munitions, war machines and manufactures, their leaders recognized that without mobilizing morale on the home front, these material things alone would not guarantee final victory. Consequently, the German government established a Propaganda Agency to “shield” the public from unpleasant reports and to promote “right thinking,” and in response, the British government instituted their own War Propaganda Bureau. While these hidden persuaders dedicated themselves to the tasks of maintaining the morale of their soldiers and citizenry, individual artists were sometimes equally important in winning their “hearts and minds” and shaping world opinion. Today’s post will feature the work of one such artist-activist well-represented in the Wolfsonian library collection: Louis Raemaekers.
THE WAR AIM
Raemaekers was perhaps the most popular and prolific producer of propaganda cartoons during the First World War. Born in Roermond, the Netherlands to a German mother and Dutch country editor, as Raemaekers matured he first began to focus his artistic talents on painting pastoral landscapes. By 1906, however, he was also providing illustrations and caricatures for the Dutch weekly, Algemeen Handelsblad. Following the outbreak of war in August 1914, war refugees began streaming into Holland bringing with them tales of German brutality that Raemaekers at first found difficult to believe. Raemaekers decided to investigate on his own the reports of German army atrocities in neighboring Belgium, whose declarations of neutrality did not prevent the German army from during their initial campaign to sweep into France and capture the capital. What Raemaekers witnessed during his furtive forays across the border so outraged him that he began regularly to publish anti-German cartoons in the Dutch newspaper Telegraaf whose editor was equally appalled by Dutch indifference to the fate of their neutral neighbor.
WE KEEP BELGIUM ONLY AS A PAWN ; THE GRAVE OF BELGIUM
The German government had imposed strict censorship over the circulation of information in and out of the occupied territories and was infuriated by the furor caused by Raemaekers’ fiery cartoons. Raemaekers’ cartoons were picked up and reprinted in many of the leading newspapers on the continent and the British Isles and soon captured the conscience of Europe. Fearing that Raemaekers’ “inflammatory” cartoons were whipping up anti-German sentiment across the globe, the Kaiser’s government pressured Dutch authorities into arresting and putting Raemaekers on trial for violating Dutch neutrality, but the artist was acquitted of any wrong-doing by the jury. Determined to silence the popular polemicist by any means, the German government placed a 12,000 Guilders price on his head, dead or alive!
Fearing possible assassination by German agents, the cartoonist signed a long-term contract with a foreign newspaper and made plans to relocate his family to England in late December, 1915. According to the British press, Raemaekers’ wife received anonymous postcards warning her that their ship would most certainly be torpedoed in the North Sea, but the family landed safely in England. The cartoonist’s new English editors made the Dutchman feel most welcome and helped arrange an exhibition of 150 of his drawings in a London gallery. Publicized by The Times, the exhibition in the capital drew large crowds for a full five months and afterwards toured several other great cities in the British Isles before being shipped off and exhibited in Paris. Recognizing the propaganda value of Raemaekers’ illustrations, the British War Propaganda Bureau also courted the cartoonist and negotiated the reprinting of many of his images in cheap, widely circulating pamphlets, war relief posters, postcards, and other publications.
MY SON, GO AND FIGHT FOR YOUR MOTHERLAND
In an effort to draw Americans out of neutrality and into the war, in July, 1917, British authorities arranged a lecture tour for Raemaekers in the United States. During that visit, the artist signed a contract for syndication with the Hearst Press and by October more than 2,000 newspapers and magazines on both sides of the Atlantic were publishing his cartoons with a circulation of over 300,000,000.
MURDER ON THE HIGH SEAS ; THE LUSITANIA: HEROD’S NIGHTMARE
Between August 1914 and the signing of the armistice in 1918 Raemaekers had produced more than 1,000 cartoons critical of the German aggressors. Hundreds of his original cartoons were republished during and soon after the war in a couple of hefty volumes available in our own library collection: The century edition de luxe of Raemaekers’ war cartoons edited by J. Murray Allison with a foreword by Theodore Roosevelt (1917) and The Great War victory album (1919).
THANK GOD FOR MERRY ENGLAND ; FRANCE’S DAY, 1919
After the war, Raemaekers returned to producing more conventional cartoons, drawing more than 1,000 Flippie Flink illustrations for the Dutch Telegraf. Although he remained politically active and was critical of Italian fascism and German Nazism in the 1930s, he retired in 1941 and quietly returned to the Netherlands to live out the last years of his life.