War, as they say, is hell, and the First World War certainly ranks among the bloodiest, most vile conflicts in human history. In addition to the tens of millions of dead soldiers and civilians killed by then-new inventions such as the machine gun and chemical weapons, World War I was also noted for advances in the field of war propaganda.
One of the most effective propaganda campaigns waged during the war involved alleged German atrocities in Belgium and France. Let there be no doubt: innocent civilians were shot in cold blood and women were raped by German soldiers, and widespread looting was the calling card of some German units. Yet the German forces were hardly unique in this respect, nor were they any more prone to savagery than any other army of the time.
The Allies effectively sensationalized criminal behavior by German soldiers, and one of the most notorious books in this genre of war propaganda was the 1917 book German Atrocities: Their Nature and Philosophy, by Newell Dwight Hillis, a Congregationalist writer from Brooklyn. Hillis never initially spent time overseas, instead gathering information from "friends who escaped from Belgium... bringing stories of German frightfulness that filled all hearers with horror." He later traveled to France with a New York banker named Lawrence Chamberlain as "guests of the British and French governments."
What is especially interesting about this hysterical collection of salacious war rumors and outright lies is that Hillis freely admitted that his decision to write this dubious text was based upon his belief that this was "vital to the success of the second and all subsequent Liberty Loans, and for the full awakening of the American people." Thus, here we have an example not of direct government propaganda as much as hyped war atrocities for the benefit of New York bankers making hefty commissions selling war bonds.
Below is a typical excerpt from the Hillis book: no documentation, sensationalized speculation, and the ultimate in creating barbaric stereotypes about an enemy. I sure am glad that we Americans have evolved away from this disturbing behavior of demonizing our enemies (irony alert).
THE FOUL CRIME AGAINST WOMEN
Many Americans have looked with horror upon the photograph of the mutilated bodies of women. Sacred forever the bosom of his mother, and not less sacred the body of every woman. Not content with mutilating the bodies of Allied officers, of Belgian boys, they lifted the knife upon the loveliness of woman. The explanation was first given by the Germans themselves. When the Hun joins the army, he must pass his medical examination. A few drops of blood are taken from the left arm, and the Wassermann blood culture is developed. If free from disease, the soldier receives a card giving him access to the camp women, who are kept in the rear for the convenience of the German soldier. If, however, the Wassermann test shows that the German has syphilis, the soldier bids him report to the commanding officer.
Left: Title page of "German Atrocities: Their Nature and Philosophy"
The captain tells him plainly that he must stay away from the camp women upon peril of his life, and that if lie uses one of their girls he will be shot like a dog. Having syphilis himself, the German will hand it on to the camp girl, and she in turn will contaminate all the other soldiers, and that means that the Kaiser would soon have no army. Therefore, the soldier that has this foul disease must stay away from the camp women on peril of his life. Under this restriction the syphilitic soldier has but one chance, namely, to capture a Belgian or French girl ; but using this girl means contaminating her, and she in turn will contaminate the next German using her.
To save his own life, therefore, when the syphilitic German has used a French or Belgian girl, he cuts off her breast as a warning to the next German soldier. The girl's life weighs less than nothing against lust or the possibility of losing his life by being charged with the contamination of his brother German.