Thursday, September 27, 2018

All Quiet on the Western Front

This is a prequel of sorts to James Hayward's “Myths and Legends of the Second World War”. The book discusses various urban legends, propaganda lies and misconceptions arising in Britain during World War I. Some may have altered the course of the war.

Thus, the author discusses the so-called rape of Belgium. While the German military did carry out systematic atrocities in occupied Belgium, these were equally systematically exaggerated by British war propaganda. One purpose was to “sell” the war effort to an American audience. The entry of the United States into the war decisively tipped the scales in Allied favor. It's interesting to note that the Germans accused the *Belgians* of pretty much the same atrocities as the British attributed to the Germans! According to German war propaganda, the Belgian resistance movement constantly broke the rules of war by brutal sneak attacks on German troops. Weirdly, the Germans didn't deny their harsh reprisals – apparently, they somehow hoped that publishing them would break the Belgian-Allied will to resistance (and somehow persuade neutral nations that Germany was simply following the rules of engagement). Naturally, the end result was the exact opposite…

More sinisterly, there was the bizarre propaganda lie about the German “corpse rendering factory”, according to which the bodies of dead German soldiers were turned into soap, fertilizer and nitroglycerine at a secretive facility somewhere in the Reich. It's possible that this lie was originally intended for Chinese consumption, since the Chinese would consider such practices extraordinarily horrid due to their ancestor worship (China didn't join the Allies until at a late stage in the war). However, the lie seems to have had its greatest effect in Europe and the United States. It's long-term consequences are hard to estimate – did the British disbelieve initial reports about the Holocaust during World War II after recalling the lies about the German “Kadaver” factory in World War I? The author doesn't mention it, but there is an old lie about the Nazis turning dead Jews into, you guessed it, soap…

Other myths and legends discussed by the author border the entertaining and the farcical, such as Noel Pemberton Billing's attacks on a supposed “homosexual conspiracy” made in Germany threatening the lifeblood of the British nation. Still others are more on the supernatural or paranormal side, such as the Comrade in White, often identified with Jesus Christ. There are intriguing similarities between these stories and those of near-death experiences (which I happen to believe are in some sense “real”). Of course, demons also intervened in the trenches, naturally helping the Germans. Here again, there seems to be interesting similarities with Men in Black and similar phenomena. Needless to say, the author is a hard-line skeptic and rejects all these manifestations as so much bunk. The Angels of Mons, the most well known World War I legend, is extensively discussed in one section.

Finally, Hayward discusses various misconceptions about the conduct of the war itself. Interestingly, he exonerates the British military from most accusations – in his book on World War II, by contrast, it seems as if Old Blighty can never do anything right (reading that book, I sometimes wondered which side Hayward is really on…).

In the end, three stars. The OK rating.

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