Michigan War Studies Review
Reviews, surveys, original essays, and commentary in the field of military studies.
2011-031
2 August 2011
Review by Michael S. Neiberg, US Army War College
German Soldier Newspapers of the First World War
By Robert L. Nelson
New York: Cambridge Univ. Press, 2011. Pp. xii, 268. ISBN 978–0–521–19291–0.
Descriptors: Volume 2011, 20th Century, World War I Print Version

The German Army produced far more soldier newspapers than all other armies of World War I combined. If Robert Nelson (Univ. of Windsor) is correct, such publications were a more common and important feature of daily life for German soldiers than for their Russian, British, and French counterparts. He has undertaken a detailed analysis of these newspapers and, mostly using secondary sources, offers some comparisons to those of Germany's enemies. He draws several bold conclusions along the way in a book that still reads too much like the dissertation it once was (Cambridge 2003), but which also yields deep insights into soldier culture, the meanings of the war as interpreted by the soldiers themselves, and the relationship of the German fighting front to the home front.

German soldier newspapers necessarily differed from those of Britain and France (Russian papers receive far less attention here) for both historical and strategic reasons. As a relatively young country, Nelson argues, Germany lacked the common cultural vocabulary based largely on theater and sports that unified British and French culture. He contends, not always convincingly, that German papers transmitted a national ethos, based on middle-class values, to its mostly working-class and rural soldiers. Lacking a distinctive cultural lexicon, the Germans could not use humor, as the British newspapers did, because they could not all grasp the cultural references of the jokes. Nor could German papers emulate the French in adopting a discourse of defending and liberating a conquered homeland. This particular argument is forced and less persuasive than those Nelson makes later in the book.

More compelling is the claim that German soldier newspapers had to help their readers solve a dilemma the British and French did not face. German soldiers, although convinced they were fighting a defensive war to protect their country, were nevertheless actually occupying others' territory. To mitigate this contradiction, German papers touted two virtues—comradeship and manliness—to sustain the idea of Germany as aggrieved victim despite its invasion of other nations. Allied newspapers, of course, had no equivalent need to rationalize the war.

Thus, a sense of comradeship bonded German soldiers, who often lacked a genuine sense of their collective "Germanness," and linked them to their countrymen on the home front. The gendered nature of the newspapers idealized soldiers as chivalrous knights protecting the innocent; those left behind were portrayed as stoic and manly, thereby sharing the comradeship of the men at the front. The gendered imagery that connected the home and fighting fronts was also sufficiently flexible to allow for multiple interpretations.

Nelson's most important contribution is his discrimination between the sorts of newspaper circulated on the eastern and western fronts. German soldiers depicted their enemies on the western front in relatively positive terms: the British and French were worthy adversaries misguided by their politicians into fighting an unnecessary war against Germany. Contact with the French and Belgian people, Nelson argues, did not inspire hatred in the hearts of German soldiers, who in fact came to admire parts of French and Belgian culture: they often tried to learn French and, of course, sought out sexual liaisons and even long-term relationships with local women. This contention runs counter to the findings of several scholars of "war culture," who stress the intense hatred among Europeans in 1914–18.[1]

The one clear exception was German anger over the British and French use of African and Asian soldiers. To most Germans, this showed a barbaric side of their western enemies (reinforced, of course, by their alliance with the Russians) that justified prosecution of a "defensive" war on French and Belgian soil. In the most racist versions of this discourse, the newspapers depicted non-whites either as cannibals or likely to inflict barbarities on German women and children should the Allies win the war. Such fears notwithstanding, Germans could still identify with French and British soldiers as fellow warriors within a common European and Christian culture.

Following the lead of Vejas Liulevicius,[2] Dennis Showalter,[3] and others, Nelson argues that the east was a far different place in the minds of Germans. Except for the Lithuanians and Baltic Germans, they saw precious little to admire among eastern populations. Racism naturally played a role, but equally important cultural and linguistic barriers divided the two sides. Nelson argues that, while the Germans were not strongly disposed to see the Slavs and others in the east as biologically inferior, they clearly believed themselves superior to Russians and Ukrainians in ways that did not apply to the French, British, or Belgians. Hence, few Germans bothered to learn eastern languages or customs, and even fewer, Nelson maintains, saw Russian or Slavic women as suitable for even passing sexual encounters.

Nelson, like Liulevicius, detects Second Reich antecedents for Third Reich eastern policies, though he stops well short of calling them deterministic. In 1914–18, Germans saw the east as a vast, undeveloped region populated by a backward people unable to capitalize on its resources. There was talk of replacing the natives with German settlers who would improve and develop the land. Although it was still a long, long road from Brest-Litovsk to Auschwitz, Nelson rejects the facile notion that National Socialism marked a clear break with the past.

Given this argument, the discussion here of attitudes toward the Jews of the east is instructive. Alongside German anti-Semitism stood more complex and even admiring views. Since Yiddish was closely related to German, the two groups could communicate. Yiddish theater was a source of entertainment for German soldiers, who could not have understood a play or show in Russian or Ukrainian. The hatred of eastern Jews for the Tsar and Russia more generally also gave each group a political motivation to think sympathetically about the other. Thus, Nelson warns, if the horrors of the Second World War have clear precedents in the First, we must be not take them too far.

In short, German Soldier Newspapers is a model of how a dissertation addressing a small subject may offer a window into a larger one. It is not concerned with the mechanics of newspaper publication, nor does it delve excessively into the details of the articles themselves. Instead, it draws on them to buttress broader thematic arguments and to speculate about the historical value of the newspapers. In this, Nelson's well-researched (and well-illustrated) book follows the lead of excellent works by Scott Stephenson and Alexander Watson[4] on aspects of the German Army of World War I. Though it betrays signs of its origin as a dissertation,[5] the book's many strengths are ample compensation.

With this study, Nelson enters fully into the debates on the nature and character of the German Army at war from 1914 to 1918. Students of soldier culture, the First World War, and the traits of societies in wartime will find much in it to pique their interest.

[1] See, e.g., Stéphane Audoin-Rouzeau and Annette Becker, 14-18: Understanding the Great War, trans. C. Temerson (NY: Hill and Wang, 2002).

[2] War Land on the Eastern Front: Culture, National Identity, and German Occupation in World War I (Cambridge: CUP, 2000) and The German Myth of the East: 1800 to the Present (Oxford: OUP, 2009).

[3] Tannenberg: Clash of Empires, 1914 (1991; rpt. Washington: Brassey's, 2004).

[4] Respectively, The Final Battle: Soldiers of the Western Front and the German Revolution of 1918 (Cambridge: CUP, 2009), with my review at MiWSR 2010.02.07, and Enduring the Great War: Combat, Morale and Collapse in the German and British Armies, 1914–1918 (Cambridge: CUP, 2008), reviewed by Nelson at MiWSR 2010.02.06, both originally dissertations.

[5] Esp. in the excessive review and citation of secondary literature. To add another minor criticism, the book would have benefited from a more thorough examination of the regional differences among German newspapers, touched on only lightly.

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