In the United Kingdom, it is a season of hatred for Germans. The riots which broke out after the sinking of the Lusitania have abated, but revulsion at German behavior has only grown stronger with the passing months. A steady stream of casualty lists from the front, deliberate destruction of civilian targets, air raids, poison gas attacks, and a burgeoning U-boat campaign have lent weight to every accusation leveled against Germany in the occupied territories of the Western Front.
These facts are bad enough without embellishment, but the War Propaganda Bureau has not been idle, turning every rumor into another inflammatory meme. A fanciful report of a British soldier being crucified by a German becomes a poster; Zeppelin crews are denounced as ‘baby killers’ in the press; genuine outrages are amplified, while imaginary ones are credibly repeated. Charles Masterman, the Liberal politician and journalist at the head of the WPB, has the nation’s presses working overtime to distribute these propaganda materials to the entire world.
Today, those presses issue a new report from a committee led by the respected historian James Bryce in thirty languages. Like the French Yellow Book, a compendium of prewar diplomatic correspondence that later turns out to be riddled with creative editing and fabrication, Report of the Committee on Alleged German Outrages is a wildly-popular wartime document that will greatly discredit its authors after the war ends and its shortcomings emerge.
A disambiguation is in order. From the first moments of the German invasion, Belgians reported for service in civilian clothing and bearing their home arms, such as shotguns and pistols. Wounded or captured, these reservists were treated unmercifully by German soldiers, who had been propagandized to expect weak resistance. Mindful to the point of obsession with the francs-tireurs who practiced guerrilla warfare against them in 1871, the Imperial German Army also had a harsh policy against civilian resistance — one which only grew harsher in the tense atmosphere of those early weeks of war.
And like any war zone, the mere presence of so many armed men in occupied towns and villages made accidental shooting and ‘friendly fire’ incidents inevitable, with the results blamed on nonexistent resistance fighters. More than six thousand Belgians are killed by German action during the course of the war; firing squads kill spies, both proven and merely suspected; tens of thousands are forced to work for the occupation, while others are forcibly deported. Of the 150 regiments employed in the conquest of virtually all of Belgium, 130 are implicated in reprisal acts against civilians. Many of these involve using them as humans shields, especially while crossing sniper zones like bridges. Catholic priests were especial targets for this behavior.
A foolish doubt in the reality of accidental and friendly fire in modern battle zones, and indulgence in German propaganda recounting imaginary crimes committed against soldiers by civilians, are common themes among denialists today. We may judge the German side of this information battle by recalling that the University and Library of Louvain were burned without provocation in August, but official German denials nevertheless continue until the war’s end. Furthermore, German public communication in May of 1915 still demands that some or all of Belgium remain German, highlighting accusations of aggressive expansionism. We may judge the denial that German soldiers are capable of accidental shootings by how often these things happen in the real world; the existence of even one Belgian ‘resistance fighter’ has never been documented.
This did not have to happen. Bryce has been as affected by the surge of news about German ‘barbarism’ as anyone else in England. Perhaps fearing that any admission of uncertainty will only feed enemy propaganda, Bryce has carefully avoided verifying any allegations, merely repeating them. He has not inflated them himself, or added nationalistic flourishes, but he has not warned the reader against such impulses, either. A lawyer by training, Bryce is intimately familiar with the nascent science of public opinion by way of his highly-praised academic work on American democracy, and worries that a loss of public confidence in the rightness of Britain’s cause will lead to national defeat.
So as we acknowledge that Mr. Bryce has not expressed his doubts in the tales of mass rape, rumors of torture and maiming, and other novel abuses, let us not lose sight of the real fact that Belgium has suffered terribly for being in the Kaiser’s way. Ultimately, the tragedy of Great War propaganda is that it feeds doubt in the very concrete war crimes that are being committed in this conflict, such as the genocide of Armenians. To this day, Turkish national apologetics tout the WPB as ‘proof’ their country did not systematically destroy 1.5 million people because Masterman also produced reports detailing the horrors inflicted on Ottoman Christians.
We say that truth is the first casualty in wartime, but we seldom acknowledge that truth is also the last casualty of any given conflict.