restricted access Film Propaganda and Kultur: The German Dilemma, 1914-1917
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Film Propaganda and Kultur:
The German Dilemma, 1914-1917

Germany’s use of film propaganda to dissuade Americans from entering World War I, along with British intervention, reframes our historical understanding of the role of the United States in the “Great War” (1914-1918). The war has often been conceptualized as “European,” at least during its initial phases, with the United States entering as an economic player only, until its declaration of war against Germany late in the game--in 1917--and its mobilization of troops in large numbers to the European battlefields only during the war’s final year. The facts, however, reveal that the United States participated in the political and cultural history of World War I from the very beginning. Just before the official declaration of war on August 4, 1914, Britain sent a communications vessel to dredge up the five transatlantic telegraph cables linking Germany and the United States. By severing these lines, the British ensured that all direct news and information from Europe would first have to pass through British hands. In response, the German government dispatched several distinguished officials in late September to open the German Information Service in New York City, under the leadership of Dr. Bernhard Dernburg, former Secretary of the German Colonial Office, and Dr. Heinrich Albert, as commercial attaché and financial administrator. Their objective was to defend Germany’s perspective on the war against the view sensationalized by the British.

These two responses demonstrate that both countries believed American support to be crucial. In 1914, no other neutral nation was as wealthy and flush with resources as was the United States.1 The battle for the “American mind” was thus one for American money and munitions, as well. While Great Britain embarked upon its own campaign to direct the fury of the United States on Germany, the German government and pro-German Americans tried to redirect American public opinion. Despite their best efforts, however, the Germans faced serious obstacles to this endeavour on both sides of the Atlantic. The most critical issues were the language barrier and a staggering cultural misperception about how best to influence public opinion in a democratic country. Germany’s officials and agents were raised in an authoritarian system of hierarchy, discipline, rigor, and, at least in public disposition, logic. They were not raised in the system of film culture that D. W. Griffith notoriously elaborated, with The Birth of a Nation, in 1915, for inspiring exactly the kind of factional zeal that the Germans needed. Indeed, in many ways the failure of German propaganda can be attributed to their heavy-handed and ponderous approach in attempting to represent the German perspective before the court of American public opinion.

Early cinema and motion photography offered visual representations of events and the everyday drama of both the military and home fronts that could resonate deeply with an audience. In fact, film had already been used successfully in neutral European countries. In February 1915, the former Hamburg-Amerika Line publicity agent, Matthew Claussen, approached Heinrich Albert with the idea of creating a production company in the United States to import and show war and propaganda films from Germany. Claussen had previously worked with the German Information Service and had helped to establish a daily information sheet for distribution to newspapers, but he saw early on the potential for moving pictures or “photoplays” to persuade and educate an audience. While such films had been used effectively in neutral [End Page 4] countries by German representatives, Claussen believed that American audiences were even more susceptible to the seductive qualities of visual media, unlike the careful readers in Europe, whose near-universal literacy enabled them to interpret pamphlets and reports in a critical fashion, or at least with a healthy measure of skepticism, regardless of the perspective advocated. Claussen believed that Americans made quick decisions based on an emotional reaction to news or war reports, rather than a logical consideration of facts and interpretations. For him, this cultural and cognitive weakness meant that modern film was an ideal instrument for influencing public opinion through a series of rapid impressions. Claussen argued that “moving-picture theatre exerts a great...


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