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War of Words

What follows is an online version of an exhibition previously on display in the Upper Library from April to September 2015. The exhibition was curated by Isabel Rimmer.

All images are copyright The Queen’s College and may not be reproduced without permission.

Introduction to the exhibition

World War One was not only fought by soldiers in trenches. Academics, businessmen, artists and journalists were quick to use their skills and influence to garner support and drum up public morale. Battles on the field raged alongside a war of words. Although British propaganda from the period has become iconic, this exhibition – drawing on a unique aspect of the Library’s WWI collection – focuses on the war from a German perspective.

There are multiple perspectives about how Germans viewed the war. Opinion was divided and many changed their minds as the war progressed. As Henry Davis wrote in 1915: “It would be impossible to find any one pamphlet which could fairly be quoted as representing the German attitude towards the present war.”

This exhibition attempts to portray this diversity by tracing the opinions of seven German figures, each linked to an item from our collection. Their works are summarised and then their views are explored through three main themes: Kultur, ideology and imagery.

Jurist ; Pacifist ; Internationalist

Nippold, Otfried, 1864-1938
The awakening of the German people
London, 1918
Queen’s II.e.600/4

This pamphlet critically examines how Germany justified the war to its citizens. It also explores the impact of the war on German citizens.

The pamphlet’s title refers to the indoctrination of German citizens by war-makers: “the German people have slumbered and dreamed a fair dream… it dreams of victories and of glory and of the respect which it has instilled into the whole world by its deeds of heroism and by its spirit of sacrifice; it dreams of the position of power which the future Germany will enjoy in the circle of the nations, and it dreams of peace… Every day the newspapers tell the German people of new victories.”

In the dream, Germany is waging a righteous defensive war by countering encirclement by its enemies – but Nippold does not subscribe to this belief. The pamphlet was written as the war was coming to an end, and the author recognises that victory for Germany is now impossible. He describes how German citizens are losing their faith in the war, especially those who align themselves with socialism. This he finds ironic since he believes a key war aim of Germany was for the ruling classes to suppress the demand for social democracy.

The awakening of the German people II.e.600/4
German Ambassador to London 1912-14

Lichnowsky, Karl Max, Fürst von, 1860-1928
My mission to London, 1912-1914
London ; New York, 1918
Queen’s II.e.598/3

The pamphlet was originally written by Prince Lichnowsky in August 1916. It was meant only for his family archives and a few close friends but was leaked. By March 1918 it had become a public sensation across Europe – much to Germany’s chagrin.

Lichnowsky critically examines Germany’s foreign policy and details the events leading up to the war.  Significantly, he reveals that Britain worked hard to improve relations with Germany – contrary to the vilified image of Britain popular at the time. At the same time, he is disparaging of the Triple Alliance (between Germany, Austro-Hungary and Italy) and blames it for diverting Germany from its own agenda.

The pamphlet’s greatest disclosure was that Germany actively worked to bring about conflict. Lichnowsky lists several reasons why Germany was to blame for the war. “Such was the end of my London mission. It was wrecked not by the wiles of the British, but by the wiles of our policy.”

My mission to London II.e.598/3
Pacifist ; Writer

Fernau, Hermann
Because I am a German
London, 1916
Queen’s II.e.283

This book examines the arguments of a pamphlet called J’accuse.  Written in 1915, J’accuse blames Germany for starting the war. The pamphlet’s author was initially anonymous (it simply read ‘by a German’) but was later ascribed to Richard Grelling (known for establishing the German Peace Society).

J’accuse was read all across Europe but was banned in Germany. Fernau disputes this censorship, saying it goes against German culture. He argues citizens should read it and judge for themselves: “I do not believe that love of one’s country and subjection of one’s reasoning faculties are the same thing.” Yet he explicitly notes how German public opinion is being limited to pro-Government views.

Fernau does not agree with the first part of J’accuse which argues war stemmed from problems internal to Germany. Fernau believes the arguments are tainted by the author’s obvious dislike of kingship, militarism and Junkerdom (Prussian rulership) and points out that political figures in other countries were also pushing for war. However, he agrees with J’accuse that concrete evidence is needed to justify the suspicion that Germany wanted war. This book shows how Germans could feel nationalist sentiment but refuse to buy into government censorship.

Because I am a German II.e.283
Deputy Chief of Staff of the German Army

Freytag-Loringhoven, Hugo Friedrich Philipp Johann, Freiherr von, 1855-1924.
Deductions from the world war
London, 1918
Queen’s II.e.288

Towards the end of the war, many Germans were calling for disarmament.  This book is therefore unusual in that it continues to champion German militarism – despite Germany’s impending defeat.  The translator writes in his introduction that the book serves as “a warning of the plans which are being made in Berlin for the cold and reasoned application of the lessons of the war and the development of a still more scientific military system, a still more perfect war machine, than existed in 1914.”

Freytag-Loringhoven describes his vision of future conflicts. He believes wars of movement will replace wars of entrenchment – thus foreshadowing the development of Blitzkrieg. He also notes that civilians are becoming involved in war (mainly through the war’s economic impacts). Machinery and machine guns are predicted to play a greater role in the future.

The book goes on to outline the reasons for Germany’s defeat. The fact that the Allies were able to work together (giving them superior numbers) put Germany at a disadvantage. However, Britain’s control of the seas is singled out as Germany’s main downfall. Naval blockades were highly effective in disrupting German supplies and they were a major factor in Germany’s decision to adopt submarine warfare.  Yet Freytag-Loringhoven is certain that with adequate preparation Germany will be victorious in its next war and even titles one of his chapters ‘Still Ready for War’.

Deductions from the World War II.e.288
Journalist ; Editor

Spielmann, Isidore, Sir, 1854-1925.
Germany's impending doom : another open letter to Herr Maximilian Harden (2nd edition)
?, 1918
Queen’s II.e.601/6

Maximilian Harden is mentioned in several items in our collection. Kahn describes Harden as “one of the ablest and most influential of German publicists” and Spielmann chooses to address his pamphlets to him. We learn from Spielmann and Kahn that Harden always believed that Germany schemed to bring about the war. At first, Harden argues patriotically that Germany was right to fight for more power. However, as the war progresses, he changes his mind. Kahn uses him as an example of a German who has seen “a new light.”

Spielmann wrote two pamphlets to Harden, both of which denounce Germany’s attitudes and actions.  In his first pamphlet, Spielmann compliments Harden for being one of Germany’s few remaining independent editors. Yet we learn from Spielmann’s second pamphlet that Harden’s paper Die Zunkunft was being suppressed by the state. We also discover that Harden’s new critical take on the war is being poorly received:  “It is often said here and in France that yours is a ‘voice crying in the wilderness’ – that few of your people give ear to it ; and that they are seemingly indifferent to your crushing indictment of your Government and its methods.”

Germany's impending doom II.e.601/6
Banker ; Phil anthropist ; Patron of the Arts

Kahn, Otto H., 1867-1934.
The poison growth of Prussianism
Milwaukee, Wisconsin, 1918
Queen’s II.e.607/1

This pamphlet is a transcript of an address by Otto Kahn.  It aims to convince Americans of German descent that their duty is to stand up for liberty – and hence against Germany.

The full title of the pamphlet includes the quotation “oh, land of now, oh, land of then” which exemplifies Kahn’s key theme: that the old Germany does not resemble the Germany of today. “I loved the old Germany and the conclusions which I am about to state I have reached in grief and bitter disappointment.”

He ascribes these changes – the ‘poisoning’ – not to Germans in general but to their Prussian rulers. He claims that the Prussian caste has destroyed German morality through their “mania for world dominion and a veritable lunacy of power worship.” As a result, he derides Germany’s claims of fighting a defensive war.

Kahn deliberately contrasts the concept of American liberty with the autocracy of Prussianism.  Consequently, Kahn urges Americans of German descent to “not permit the blood in our veins to drown the conscience in our breast. We will heed the call of honor beyond the call of race.”

The poison growth of Prussianism II.e.607/1
Academic ; Psychologist

Wundt, Wilhelm Max, 1832-1920
Concerning true war
London, 1915
Queen’s II.e.335/12

This is an example of how a leading German academic backed Prussian militarism. It also explains how Germany justified the war and illustrates the degree of animosity felt towards England.

In the preface of the English translation, Henry Davis writes that many German academics saw their country as a Great Power. However, such academics also felt their country’s development was being blocked by other nations. This is demonstrated when Wundt describes the inevitably of war thanks to the rivalry in armaments between the other European Powers. Yet while other countries armed for war, Wundt proclaims that Germany armed itself “merely a necessary means of protection.”

England is explicitly blamed for starting the war. Wundt then lists ways in which the Allies are fighting unfairly. This includes: searching neutral ships for German citizens, boycotting firms with German partners and using Dum-Dum bullets (which were made illegal in warfare in 1899).

Concerning true war II.e.335/12

The start of the Great War was greeted with enthusiasm by many citizens across Europe. People had developed a greater sense of nationalism and patriotism – sentiments governments actively encouraged through their education systems and the mass press. Germany had developed a reputation for intellectual excellence and industrial growth before the war (Kahn, below)  and Germans were encouraged to believe they were part of a superior civilisation, a concept expressed as Kultur.

As a result, thes of invulnerability and moral integrity pervaded German propaganda. Other nations were seen as fighting for selfish reasons or out of jealousy while Germany fought to defend its existence and way of life (Wundt ; Freytag-Loringhoven, below). Not all pro-war Germans agreed with this narrative of defence, however. Harden’s writing confirms the Allied view that Kultur and aggressive militarism became one and the same (Spielmann, below).
Although British academics acknowledged a considerable debt to German scholarship, they lamented the German intellectuals’ support for the Kaiser’s use of Kultur as a justification of war. One of our past college chaplains, Daniel Inman, has researched the relationship between German and English theologians during the war. He describes how the Oxford faculty wrestled with the outbreak of war and were surprisingly critical of the strident nationalism apparent in British public opinion. However, as the war progressed, Oxford’s liberal theologians increasingly came under criticism for their indebtedness to German theology. Many Germans also lamented the way in which the war restricted their intellectual freedom and critical debate (Fernau, below).

“The things which made Germany great are not dead, and the world cannot afford to allow them to die. They belong to the immortal possessions of the human race.” (Kahn)

“France’s desire for revenge, England’s envy and jealousy and Russia’s dream of power through Panslavism worked together in an unhealthy mix of national instincts” (Wundt)

“In the case of the Central Powers, that lofty moral strength, arising from the sense of righteous self-defence in a war which had been thrust upon them, showed its superiority to the zeal which a commercial and predatory war could kindle in our enemies” (Freytag-Loringhoven)

“Let us renounce those miserable efforts to excuse the actions of Germany in declaring war. It is not against our will that we have thrown ourselves into this gigantic adventure. The war has not been imposed upon us by others and by surprise. We have willed the war. It was our duty to will it. We decline to appear before the tribunal of united Europe. We reject its jurisdiction. One principle alone counts and no other - one principle which contains and sums up all the others - might.” (Speilmann)

 "And is it not the fact that German scholar-ship has declared its solidarity with all these actions and has thus robbed itself of the glory which it enjoyed throughout the whole world?" (Nippold)

“If, in the land of Kant and Fichte, a Government now declares that it must draw the sword in defence of these treasures of Culture, and yet at the same time enforces silence upon any critics who are not of one mind with itself, this proceeding ought to cause us Germans the utmost shame and anxiety.” (Fernau)


The Great War was framed as a clash of cultures: Liberal Democracy vs. Prussian Authoritarian Militarism (Kahn ; Lichnowsky, below). (This overlooked the fact Russia was an autocracy at the start of the war). When America finally became involved in the war President Wilson explicitly stated: “the world must be made safe for democracy.”

For some, the war was an attempt to consolidate the power of Prussian rulers. The German aristocracy feared a growing demand for democracy – brought about by the social changes of industrialisation – and sought to unite German citizens with a common cause (Nippold, below). Patriotism was initially effective in bringing together the country. However, by the end of the war Germany’s opponents were all democratic nations – a fact which made it increasingly difficult for German liberals and social democrats (especially those in the Reichstag) to justify Germany’s position and actions.

Not everyone underwent a change of heart, however. German militarism endured and was strongly felt in certain circles (Freytag-Loringhoven, below). Despite the devastation of the war, some continued to believe that military might was the only way to secure a nation’s future.

“the taint of Germany is not in the blood but in the system of rulership”  (Kahn)

“I realised too late that there was no room for me in a system that for years had lived on routine and tradition alone, and that only tolerated representatives who reported what their superiors wished to read. Absence of prejudice and an independent judgment are resented.” (Lichnowsky)

"By a victorious war it was hoped that the social democrats would be again chained to the Hohenzollern state, that thus at a blow the democratic ‘danger’ would be removed, and that they would once more have unhampered ‘power’ in their own hands.” (Nippon)

“it was not the fine phrases about international bliss and brotherhood uttered on every occasion at public meetings which preserved us from war, but the might of our sword, which was only fully revealed at the outbreak of war. And it will only be by this might that we shall be able to safeguard our peace in the future.” (Freytag-Loringhoven)


German propaganda stressed the strength, discipline and superiority of its soldiers. Posters tried to create a sense of an ancient German heritage and it was common to depict soldiers as warrior-knights. Even the font used in propaganda was carefully chosen. Although a simplified font style called Plakatstil had become popular at the time, blackletter (an early, ornate and bold type ; also known as Gothic script) was frequently used in propaganda. Blackletter symbolised German Protestantism and nationalism and had its roots tracing back to the sixteenth century.

Ironically, both sides drew on similar imagery. A squid or octopus was commonly depicted encircling the globe or nations with its tentacles, reflecting the belief that the enemy was mercilessly extending control.


Another interesting example involves the children’s book Struwwelpeter (or ‘Shock-Headed Peter’) by Heinrich Hoffman. Written in 1845, the book became popular throughout Europe. It is a collection of cautionary tales in which children who misbehave face terrible consequences. In one story, the eponymous Peter refuses to brush his hair or cut his nails – making him highly unpopular.

The ‘Story of Fidgety Philip’ was used in propaganda by bothsides. In the original story, Philip fidgets at the dinner table despite being reprimanded by his parents. Eventually, his fidgeting causes him to fall backwards off his chair… taking the tablecloth and everything else with him.

In the English parody, fidgety Philip becomes fidgety Will (after Kaiser Wilhelm) whose restlessness destroys his country’s prosperity – as represented by the bottle and dish on the table. In the German version, fidgety Philip symbolises Italy and Italy’s indecision in choosing who to ally with.