I have a deep fascination with the autobiographical literature and poetry written by young veterans of the Great War, or World War One. I’m not sure why World War One produced so many brilliant writers, artists, poets et al. My thought is this: all of these men came from a world of such innocence that they had no context in which to make a rational judgment on what the newspapers were all describing as the beastly Hun attacking France and chewing up poor little Belgium.
Poets like Alan Seeger [1886-1916], who wanted to die in a noble cause, died for France and for the starving Belgians who were overrun by the Germans in the Great War. Yet when those two countries are looked at in the context of the time, it isn’t so easy to pin the monster’s face on Germany. Before World War One, if you were a wealthy American and contracted a serious illness, you didn’t go to New York, or France, you went to Germany.
The best physicians were German, the finest medical schools in the world were in Germany. The educated classes in this country often sent their children to spend a year or so in—yes, Germany. Young Franklin Roosevelt spent time in Germany, had a German governess and spoke both German and French.
When the German Army attacked through Belgium to get to France, did some German soldiers commit atrocities? Yes, they did. Shoot Belgium civilians without provocation? Yes, they did. Burn down institutions long associated with western civilization? Yes, they did; the most infamous being the atrocities in the Belgium city of Louvain which included the burning of the University and the world famous library of Louvain, a town in which the Germans also shot hundreds of Belgium civilians.
This piece from the history site reports that “the Germans would kill some 5,521 civilians in Belgium (and 896 in France)” during World War One. I’m sure this is correct although no source is given for either figure. (The piece is here:
But did the Germans skewer Belgian babies then go marching along with these screaming Belgian babies on their bayonets? No, they didn’t. However, bayoneting Belgium babies has one hell of a propaganda ring and people believed it then and believe it now. But no one has ever been able to prove it.
Perhaps the biggest cause célèbre of the First War, one that still endures today, is the execution by the Germans of the British nurse, Edith Cavell. When the Germans shot Cavell, they created one of the great martyrs of World War One. Cavell was the head matron of the Berkendael Medical Institute in Brussels. After the city and most of Belgium were occupied by the Germans, Cavell joined the Red Cross and the Berkendael Medical Institute was taken over by the International Red Cross and wounded soldiers from all belligerent powers were treated there.
In standard circumstances under international law, Cavell could have been interned since she was British and the British and the Germans were belligerents. But she had joined the Red Cross and under international law enjoyed the status of a protected person so she wasn’t interned. She immediately set to work helping Allied POWs, as well as Allied soldiers who had recovered from their wounds, escape to the Netherlands, then neutral, so the lads could have another go at the Hun.
Such activity was specifically prohibited, as you might imagine, and the Germans made it plain that it was prohibited. Cavell wasn’t exactly secretive about what she was doing and after a spell the Germans found her out and arrested her. She admitted helping over two hundred Allied soldiers escape so they could fight the Germans again. Personally, I think that was a stupid thing to say. So the Germans convicted her and shot her on 12 October 1915.
They were accused of violating the laws of mankind, the tenets of the Old Testament and New, the ancient rules and customs of western civilization, probably Roberts Rules of Order and Lord knows what else. Was it beastly to shoot Edith Cavell. Yes, it was. It was a horrible act carried out by the German Army. But as a protected person under international law, Edith Cavell was prohibited from doing what she was doing, that is, helping Allied POWs escape the Germans.
Under international law were the Germans entitled to shoot her? Yes, they were. Edith Cavell was guilty as charged and in violation of the rules of conduct for a protected person, a status which the Germans respected which is why she wasn’t interned.
Was this what ignited Alan Seeger’s desire to die in combat against the Germans? To want death? Probably not since he joined the French Foreign Legion in late August 1914 just as the war broke out. It was easy to do. He was living in Paris. But no doubt it reinforced his beliefs about the Germans whom he seemed to regard as the spawn of the devil.
To his mother he wrote in June 1915:
“Everybody should take part in this struggle which is to have so decisive an effect, not only on the nations engaged but on all humanity. There should be no neutrals, but everyone should bear some part of the burden.”
He tells her that she should be proud if he dies.
“There would be nothing to regret, for I could not have done otherwise than what I did, and I think I could not have done better. Death is nothing terrible after all. It may mean something even more wonderful than life.”
I don’t this letter by Seeger sounds like a grown man writing profound and noble sentiments. I think it sounds puerile and self-delusional. He sounds like a fanatic who long ago lost his powers or reason. And Seeger was a well-educated young man: fancy prep school then Harvard. He wasn’t a hayseed.
We look at Imperial Germany and World War One through the lens of the atrocities committed by the Germans in World War Two, including the Holocaust, which truly is a crime against humanity unique in history. But the Germans in World War One didn’t behave any better or worse than the French or the British or the Americans for that matter.
Perhaps it was this: Seeger was one of the sort of intellectuals and artists in Paris— the City of Light. The dirty, boot licking, arrogant and ignorant, uncultured Hun was attacking Paris! All Americans who love truth and beauty, getting drunk on the Rive Gauche, languorous afternoons of love making in a garret on the Boulevard Saint-Germain and living it up while either writing or pretending to write, all must immediately interpose themselves between Paris and the Hun. But Seeger and others who wrote such beautiful poetry of self-sacrifice hardly seemed to know anything about Germany or had even been to Germany.
The Germans were hardly dirty. They had the best sanitary arrangements in all of Western Europe. Their public schools were better. Public health services were better. So were their railways and hospitals. Almost everything in Germany was better. Germany had the highest literacy rate in the world. Many of the best scientists, engineers, chemists and physicians were German, not to mention writers, actors, artists and musicians.
So Germany, as France, had produced an immense body of literature, poetry, music, art, theology, philosophy and made the largest contribution of any country of the era to scientific and medical literature. Long before other countries even though about such a thing, the Germans had social security programs including what we would call workers compensation for job related injuries. They began this in the 1880s.
France was wonderful for young men like Seeger. He could live well on a few American dollars which I’m sure his well-to-do family sent him. No doubt he read, drank, argued, debated, got laid, by either sex or both—it isn’t actually clear. The homoeroticism of several of his poems is explored by writer Callum James on his blog here:
Being partial to my own gender, I hardly care. Seeger was having a blast and I wish I could have done the same. He was living the life of a Bohemian in Paris and who wouldn’t want to do that? And Lord knows, anyone who has been to Berlin and Paris would pick Paris as a far more fun place than Berlin– then and now. Yet the Germans weren’t the avenging Huns young Alan Seeger and other American romantics thought.
Think of poor little Belgium and how the Germans treated them. Not very well and the Germans disregarded Belgium’s neutrality, something they themselves had agreed to honor in an international treaty they later referred to as a ‘scrap of paper.’ But let us pause for just a moment and think about the Belgian Congo, not something one pauses to think about very often, if ever. But let’s think of it in terms of relative beastliness.
Through various diplomatic and other means, Leopold II, King of the Belgians from 1865 to 1908, set up a privately owned empire called The Congo Free State which was controlled by a corporation whose only shareholder and CEO was Leopold II.
The atrocities committed in Leopold’s Congo Free State and detailed in King Leopold’s Ghost by Adam Hochschild, are shocking even by today’s standards. More than eight million Congolese were killed (many estimates are higher) through forced labor, massacre, starvation and disease while extracting a huge fortune for King Leopold II from that dark and fearful place. I could barely read the first few chapters of the book. I had to stop. The eight million Africans murdered in the Congo by agents of King Leopold, was a number greater than the number of Allied troops killed in all of World War One.
When the King Albert came to throne in 1909 he was young and dashing with a beautiful wife. He made a tour of the Congo and said conditions needed to be improved. Nice. The Belgian government had actually taken the Congo from Leopold II as he was dying. On 17 December 1909, Leopold II died I wonder where the money all went. Did King Albert get to keep some? What do you think? Of course he did. Do the descendants of Leopold II and Albert who sit upon the throne of Belgium to this day, still have a bit of this blood money tucked away? Be realistic. I’m sure they do.
And yet there can be no doubt the young, idealistic poet Alan Seeger admired King Albert of the Belgians. Everyone did. He was an international symbol of resistance to the Germans, the beastly Huns, although Albert was himself from the German Royal House of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha. (The same Royal House who had produced Queen Victoria’s husband, Albert the Prince Consort) .
And what did Albert do? Something really, really stupid. He resisted the Germans, knowing they would cut through his country and his army like a hot knife through butter and that there would be massive casualties and destruction. And there was. And for what point exactly? Seems King Albert wanted to make the point that obeying international law was important. But was it really worth losing 1.6% of the population of his country to make that point?
Belgium had a prewar population of 7.4 million. 58,637 Belgian soldiers died. 62,000 Belgian civilians died. That’s 120,637 Belgians dead. Along with 44,688 wounded and disabled. That’s one hell of a price to pay to make a moral point of dubious value since France and Great Britain were also violating international treaties right and left—treaties they, too, had signed. If you could ask the Belgians who were killed if they were glad to die to make a rhetorical point do you think they would say, ‘yes, it sure was’. Hardly.
And I wonder if Alan Seeger knew, or wanted to know, about Devil’s Island, the notorious series of French prisons on three islands off the coast of French Guiana. The 1973 movie, Papillon, with Dustin Hoffman and Steve McQueen, is loosely based on a memoir the same name written by an escaped prisoner, Henri Charrière. Although much of the autobiographical account of his imprisonment on Devil’s Island is thought to have happened to other convicts and not to him, it hardly matters. This was the most brutal and notorious prison in the world. The Germans had nothing like it. Between 1852 and 1946–almost one hundred years, over 80,000 men were sent there, almost none to return.
The most famous prisoner was a French military officer, a Jewish French military officer, who was tried and convicted in 1893/94 of passing military secrets to the German embassy in Paris. The evidence was manufactured. Dozens of people perjured themselves. It was a travesty and the Dreyfus Affair, as it is known in history, became the face of anti-Semitism in Europe. Dreyfus was an honorable man who was completely innocent. The real reason behind his conviction? He was a Jewish officer in the French Army, which was almost 100% Catholic.
On Devil’s Island he was placed in solitary confinement. After protests in France, including the famous open letter, ‘J’accuse’ (I accuse), from French writer Emile Zola to the President of France, accusing him and the French military of the most base form of anti-Semitism— the case was reopened. Dreyfus was brought back from Devil’s Island in 1899 and eventually cleared of all charges against him.
And compared to Devil’s Island and the Dreyfus affair the Germans were beastly, inhuman Huns? No they weren’t. Did Seeger know any of this? I’m certain. How could he have not? And if Seeger had lived another year rather than being slain in 1916, he would have seen his own country, the good old USA, pass a law as restrictive of free speech as promulgated by any dictatorship, The Sedition Act of 1918.
This Act of the U.S. Congress, eagerly signed by President Woodrow Wilson on 16 May 1918, expressively prohibited citizens of the United States: (and the following are excerpts from the law itself):
…(to) say or do anything…to an investor…with intent to obstruct the sale by the United States of bonds or other securities… (When you want to understand history just follow the money)
…and whoever, when the United States is at war, shall willfully utter, print, write or publish any disloyal, profane, scurrilous, or abusive language about the form of government of the United States or the Constitution…or the military or naval forces of the United States, or the flag…or shall willfully utter, print, write, or publish any language intended to incite, provoke, or encourage resistance to the United States…or shall willfully by utterance, writing, printing, publication, or language spoken, urge…any curtailment of production in this country of any thing…necessary…to the prosecution of the war…and whoever shall willfully advocate…the doing of any of the acts or things in this section enumerated… shall be punished by a fine of not more than $10,000 or the imprisonment for not more than twenty years, or both….
Freedom of speech was outlawed in the United States by the Congress at the behest of Woodrow Wilson. Outrageous and unconstitutional from a President well thought of. (Reintroduced segregation into the Federal Civil Service among his other achievements). Basically in the United States of America, all you could talk about was the weather. Part of the reason for this act, which broadened the range of the Espionage Act of 1917, was the large German population in the United States who opposed going to war— as well as lots of other people who didn’t want to go to war including most intellectuals, the Irish, most of whom had been held in peonage by the British for centuries, the Dutch…a lot of people.
Alan Seeger was a good poet but a foolish young man who threw away his life because propaganda convinced him he was fighting on the side of the angels. He wasn’t. This is his famous poem, a death wish/suicide note if I have ever seen one. A biography of Alan Seeger along with a collection of his poetry is on the Poetry Foundation’s website here:
I Have a Rendezvous with Death
by Alan Seeger
I have a rendezvous with Death
At some disputed barricade,
When Spring comes back with rustling shade
And apple-blossoms fill the air—
I have a rendezvous with Death
When Spring brings back blue days and fair.
It may be he shall take my hand
And lead me into his dark land
And close my eyes and quench my breath—
It may be I shall pass him still.
I have a rendezvous with Death
On some scarred slope of battered hill,
When Spring comes round again this year
And the first meadow-flowers appear.
God knows ’twere better to be deep
Pillowed in silk and scented down,
Where Love throbs out in blissful sleep,
Pulse nigh to pulse, and breath to breath,
Where hushed awakenings are dear …
But I’ve a rendezvous with Death
At midnight in some flaming town,
When Spring trips north again this year,
And I to my pledged word am true,
I shall not fail that rendezvous.
Source: A Treasury of War Poetry (1917)