THERE IS NO SUCH THING AS A CIVIL WAR: PARALLEL PERPSECTIVES ON CONFLICT AND PROPAGANDA FROM THE WOLFSONIAN LIBRARY COLLECTION

Wars, and most especially civil wars, are bloody affairs that can bring out the worst elements of human nature. The news seeping out of Syria over the last few days appears to confirm such cynicism, as the town of Maaloula—(with its ancient Christian holy sites)—has changed hands several times in the bloody fighting between the forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad and rebel groups. In an atmosphere charged with fear and distrust, it becomes difficult to distinguish the “good guys” from the “bad guys,” or even news from propaganda. Naturally, each side claims to have God on their side and charges the enemy with the deliberate and wanton destruction of sacred sites and of perpetrating atrocities against non-combatant or helpless prisoners.

Maaloula

A New York Times report included video footage filmed by some of the rebel fighters showing themselves politely talking with nuns in Maaloula and instructing fighters not to harm civilians or churches as they toured an ancient monastery that appeared mostly untouched by the conflict. The Mother Superior in charge of the oldest monastery in Maaloula, Mar Taqla, confirmed by phone that the 53 nuns and orphans there had not been harmed, although some windows had been shattered. Another nun described some of the fighters as local men who promised to protect the monastery.

The government has long characterized the rebels as al-Qaeda-linked jihadists and terrorists and has now even accused the nuns of spreading propaganda. Other Syrian Christians have taken the rebels to task. Mother Agnes Mariam el-Salib spoke to the press about a “brutal killing spree” of more than 500 civilians by Islamic extremist Jabhat al-Nusra fighters in Latakia last August, which, she complained, hardly made the news while the international press seemed obsessively focused on the chemical weapons attack. Of course, restrictions imposed by Syrian authorities on independent media have made it difficult to verify any and all of these atrocity stories.

Sadly, I was reminded this week that there is nothing new in any of this, as I prepared for a second visit of Miami Ad School students studying war and commercial propaganda. Pulling rare books, postcards, and leaflets produced during the First World War, the Spanish Civil War, and the Second World War, I was struck by just how resonant that historical propaganda was with the claims and counterclaims being made in the context of Syria’s conflict.

Even during the “Great War,” when the majority of combatants (with the notable exception of the Ottoman allies of the Central Powers) shared the same religion, much of the propaganda was designed to imply that God was on one side only, and that enemy leaders were religious hypocrites and blasphemers. Cartoonist Louis Raemaekers (1869-1956), for example, published hundreds of pointed cartoons illustrating German atrocities in Belgium and France and placing the blame squarely on the shoulders of the German Kaiser Wilhelm II.

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THE BOMBING OF PARIS CHURCHES AND MATERNITY WARDS”

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“THE WORLD CONQUEROR’S LATEST ATTITUDE”

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“MY AVOWED AND UNCONDITIONAL ALLY”

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“PILATE”

In addition to accusing the German leader of being a religious hypocrite, other of Raemaekers’ influential cartoons took the Prussian militarists to task for introducing chemical warfare into the already horrific conditions of trench warfare.

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“THE GAS FIEND”

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“GASSED”

Other of Raemaekers’ cartoons condemned the Germans for their alleged mistreatment of enemy prisoners.

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“GERMAN CHIVALRY TO WOUNDED OFFICERS”

If officers were taunted and abused, other of his propaganda cartoons implied that the enlisted men held prisoner by the Germans were inadequately supplied with food and clothing as they appear underfed and malnourished.

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“WELSH PRISONERS”

Conditions at the prison camp established by the Germans at Wittenberg in 1914 were allegedly so bad that German doctors abandoned the wounded patients as a typhus epidemic spread, with devastating effects on the overcrowded and wounded prisoners.

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“BRITISH DOCTORS ARRIVE AT WITTENBERG”

In sharp contrast to these abuses, Raemaekers depicted the English as scrupulous in their care of German prisoners even under the most trying of circumstances, as when German U-boats sank British hospital ships.

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“RESCUING WOUNDED GERMANS FROM AN ENGLISH HOSPITAL SHIP”

Another cartoon depicts a group of demoralized German soldiers surrendering to a single “Yank,” whose only hold over them is his threat to send them back to their own lines!

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Of course, the Germans issued their own propaganda to counter such claims, including a book published in German, French, and English with pictures and photographic images attesting to their proper treatment of war prisoners.

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The British followed suit with one of their own.

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Another propaganda tactic employed during the First World War was to publish children’s books damning the enemy with illustrations of their destruction of cathedrals and other sacred sites, as in this French book using before and after flipping pages.

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Charges of sacrilege and religious hypocrisy did not end with the Great War, but rather increased with the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War in 1936. Francisco Franco’s Fascist forces used propaganda to claim that they were fighting on the side of righteousness, while attacking the left-leaning Republican coalition as fiendish Marxists and atheists intent on defiling nuns and murdering civilians in cold blood. In propaganda leaflets dropped and distributed behind enemy lines, the Fascists used irrefutable photographic evidence to prove their claims—though some photographs show clear signs of “doctoring.” Others leave the viewer wondering if they can believe the captions claiming that the “reds” were to blame for the destruction of historical sites, violations, and murders so graphically pictured.

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The Fascists also accused the Republicans of being Godless Communists intent on confiscating Church lands, looting monastic properties, and destroying and erasing Spain’s Catholic heritage. The artist Chas Laborde (1886-1941), who happened to be in Spain when the war broke out, witnessed one incendiary event that speaks to the ambiguity of responsibility and “fog of war.” When some militiamen loyal to the Republic were escorting Catholic nuns out of their convent in Bilbao, they were shot at by Fascist snipers hiding behind the chapel walls; the volunteers retaliated by torching the edifice.

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As Assad’s troops and rebel forces continue to battle for control of Maaloula, the accusations and counter accusations as to who bears the blame for the destruction of the town’s sacred and historical sites sounds shockingly similar to these earlier events.

Even as the Fascists tried to paint the “reds” as anti-Christian, the Republicans countered with propaganda postcards and leaflets of their own designed to vilify Franco, establish their own Christian credentials, and to contrast Franco’s fine words from his foul deeds.

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A series of leaflets pointed out the irony of his claims to being the defender of the Catholic faith even as he depended on Moorish colonial troops to attack working class Spaniards; similarly his claims to being the defender of Spanish nationalism were ridiculed by picturing him literally propped up by (and selling the country out to) Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany.

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During the civil war, both sides also accused the enemy of mistreating and even slaughtering prisoners of war in their propaganda and counter-propaganda campaigns.

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Although it has never been conclusively determined whether chemical weapons were used in the course of the bitter civil war, Fascist propaganda produced by Franco’s forces for indoctrinating young children pictured a boy and girl in military uniforms spraying enemy children with insecticide!

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MITCHELL WOLFSON, JR. PROMISED GIFT

Only months after Franco’s forces defeated the Republicans in Spain in April 1939 (and inaugurated a “white terror” purge and slaughter of loyalist sympathizers), the German invasion of Poland triggered the European phase of the Second World War. Germany’s Minister of Propaganda proved that a war of words could prove to be as important to creating division in and softening up neighboring countries as the military invasions that followed.

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A SATIRE OF JOSEPH GOEBBELS FROM OCCUPIED NETHERLANDS

Just as in the First World War, the protagonists of the sequel sought to use religious imagery to characterize the conflict as a struggle between the forces of good and evil.

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U.S. propaganda designed for foreign consumption made similar arguments, as with the depiction by American artist Thomas Hart Benton (1889-1975) of Nazi armies crucifying Christ another time.

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MITCHELL WOLFSON, JR. LONG-TERM LOAN

British war posters advised the public to carry gas masks with them, as they could expect no fair warning from such a ruthless dictator as Adolf Hitler.

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While the Nazis did not resort to gas attacks against the English civilian population during the Battle for Britain, Hitler showed no such restraint in his own personal war against the Jews.

Though it would have been difficult for the Nazis to claim the moral high ground, they did try to sap the morale of Allied troops by dropping a series of “Photos don’t lie” leaflets over enemy lines. The photographic illustrations invariably showed Allied P.O.W.s being well-treated in prison camps, happy to be out of harm’s way, and urged others troops to end their fight.

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“WHY IS RONALD SMILING?”

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“THESE MEN HAVE A DIFFERENT OPINION”

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“FIGHTING LIKE THIS IS MORE FUN”

In their campaign to keep Italians from defecting to invading “liberators,” die-hard Italian Fascists also adopted the strategy of portraying enemy leaders as untrustworthy religious hypocrites offering fair words and false promises.

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Fascist propagandists designing posters and postcards from Mussolini’s last ditch Republic of Salò, played on racial fears by almost always depicting American troops as Black barbarians deliberately bent on destroying and looting churches.

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Once more, it appears that so many of the standard propaganda strategies used in these earlier conflicts are being invoked again. It should, then, come as no surprise that we are bombarded with claims of gas attacks, atrocities perpetrated against civilians, the mistreatment of prisoners, and the desecration of holy sites by those calling for, and for those crying out against, possible intervention in the bloody civil war that continues to rage in Syria.

~ by "The Chief" on September 15, 2013.

One Response to “THERE IS NO SUCH THING AS A CIVIL WAR: PARALLEL PERPSECTIVES ON CONFLICT AND PROPAGANDA FROM THE WOLFSONIAN LIBRARY COLLECTION”

  1. Hi Chief,

    Interesting post. I was just wondering if you knew the name of the French children’s book with pictures of monuments before and after?

    The title is: Au lendemain de la victoire, which translates to: In the aftermath of victory.
    –the Chief

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