Over the next few months, interns and volunteers on the Reflections project will write a few blog posts to discuss their experience working on the project and some of the research materials they have uncovered. This time volunteer Susan Killick and the German War Cartoon exhibition in aid of the French Cross.
In June 1916, less than two weeks before the Somme offensive, a remarkable exhibition was held in Newcastle. It is perhaps surprising that, in the middle of the bloodiest conflict the world had ever seen, it was decided to show a series of German war cartoons, not OF the Germans but BY the Germans.
The idea behind this unusual show was to teach the British public more about the German character. A “patriotic public” was invited to regard the exhibition as a source of further enlightenment “touching the enemy and the war”. In introducing the exhibition, the Lord Mayor of Newcastle said it was up to the audience to judge what was passing through the German mind, but if he were to judge Germany from the show, he would say it was suffering from a swelled head and , to general laughter, “there had been one or two operations and more were necessary, but the swelling was going down.”
While the wit may be a little heavy and the cartoons not to modern taste, most of them were actually of a high artistic merit, drawn as they were from what was the leading German satirical magazine of the period “Simplicissimus. Before the war, , a left-wing monthly, had enjoyed a great degree of freedom, depicting the foibles of exalted personages and even of the Kaiser himself. But in the lead-up to the war, it swung to more orthodox views and, after the outbreak, like the press in all belligerent countries, it was subject to strict censorship. These developments are reflected in the exhibition, which was opened on June 19th at a venue at 91 Grey Street, now Carluccio’s restaurant, by the French Consul, Baron de Belarbe. The battle to hold the fort at Verdun was still raging and the French had suffered horrendous losses. It was hoped that the show would raise a large amount of money for the French Red Cross, and the Consul thanked the people of Newcastle for their past generosity.
The entry price to the exhibition was 6d, with soldiers and sailors going in free. The very informative programme, costing one shilling, gave a rundown of each country’s characteristics as seen in the cartoons. England, for example is depicted as rich, indolent, selfish and hypocritical and incapable of the self-sacrifice needed to defend its ill-gotten gains. This was summed up in the famous cartoon, published in 1915 of the Devil roasting John Bull on a spoon and blowing on his proffered offer of a bag of money under the big black caption “Gott strafe England” or “God punish England”. The United States is depicted as a weak poodle, with President Wilson in bedroom slippers asking whether he should not be an English Viceroy for America.
Germany of course is the powerful, enlightened and heroic champion of civilization (Kultur), maligned by the perfidious and cynical English. One of the cartoons shows women and children boarding a ship with one English officer saying to another “Isn’t it madness to take women and children on board a munition ship?” To which the other officer replies: “On the contrary, if the ship goes to the devil, the whole world will rage against Germany.” The ship of course was the Lusitania.
The exhibition was well reported in all the local papers. The Daily Chronicle devoted a whole half column to the opening on its front page with a lengthy review on page two. Among other entertainments briefly listed on the same day: the Tyne Theatre had two daily showings of the most famous film of the period, D.W. Griffith’s “Birth of a Nation” and Fred Kano’s company were performing in a show called “Knick Knacks”.