Using photos and posters, Peter Collar contextualises Germany’s explosion of racist propaganda against the use of non-European troops by France after the fall out of WWI.
Germany in late 1918 was in turmoil after four long years of war. These had brought heavy casualties at the front and increasing deprivation and hunger at home as a result of the Allied blockade. Social tensions were mounting. Until late in the war the prospect of ultimate victory had always been promised by the military elite to a largely subservient population. Now Germany’s true position had been exposed and with this came a whole range of emotions – despair over the future, anger at being deceived and trauma over the loss of life for nothing.
On the far Right, reaction to the defeat was expressed by blaming the home front and the influence of the Left. There was universal dismay at the terms of the Armistice but always hope that these would be mitigated when a negotiated Peace Treaty was signed. Dismay turned to fury, especially on the Right, when Allied terms were presented to the new republican Reich government and it was made known that these would not be negotiable – disarmament, confiscation of German colonies, the return of Alsace to France, transfer of other territory to Belgium and Poland, and massive reparations. To ensure that these would be paid, the Rhineland would be occupied by the Allies for up to 15 years.
Widespread protest against the imposition of the Versailles Treaty erupted across Germany but it was to no avail. From the German perspective there could not possibly be a return to hostilities. The nation was defenceless. The one weapon that remained and could be safely employed was propaganda. It would express defiance and through its use the outside world could be persuaded of the injustice done to the German nation. Hopefully, it was thought, this would lead to revision of the Treaty. The occupation of the Rhineland, especially by the traditional enemy, France, was particularly galling but worse was to come when the French employed colonial native troops – mainly from Africa – in their armies of occupation. To a proud European power accustomed to ruling colonial subjects, who were regarded as belonging to a lower level of civilisation, this represented the ultimate humiliation.
So, linked to the general protest and propaganda against the terms of the Versailles Treaty emerged a vicious and vitriolic campaign against the use of colonial troops – the so-called Schwarze Schmach, or Black Humiliation (which I believe better reflects the feelings of those who coined the phrase). However, this was hardly the most significant problem being faced in the Rhineland. France had a long-standing interest in extending her eastern frontier to the Rhine for reasons of security and this made the Rhineland province of the Pfalz – geographically distant from its mother state Bavaria – of great strategic interest. Unable to annex the Pfalz through opposition from her Allies at the end of hostilities, France now attempted to woo the population of the Pfalz, or Palatinate, away from the German Reich, actively encouraging a nascent separatist movement. To counter this threat the Bavarian government set up an organisation, the so-called Pfalzzentrale, which was to play a major part in the propaganda war that broke out in 1919.
In the years immediately following the war propaganda came from a number of sources, official and private. In the years before public broadcasts it took the form of pamphlets, posters, press articles and reports, protest meetings, films, theatre plays and novels. Some was relatively restrained and attempted to be factual. Much of that relating to the Schwarze Schmach was horrendously overblown, lurid and crude in the extreme, depicting colonial troops as wild, brutal savages with uncontrollable sexual appetites. In the eyes of the propagandists they were riddled with a variety of tropical diseases and, for good measure, syphilis. Colonial troops were portrayed as a grave danger to white European civilisation following the birth of a number of children of mixed race – a theme that continued into the Nazi era with tragic consequences.
Propaganda against colonial troops was sanctioned and supported by the Reich Interior Ministry in Berlin although its material was generally at the less lurid end of the spectrum. It went to some lengths to conceal its involvement, operating through press offices and an agency set up to maintain German culture in the occupied Rhineland. The Bavarian state government was less inhibited but even so had to intervene and rein in one organisation on account of ‘the exaggerations contained in its material’.
A remarkable aspect of the campaign, which had a big – though fairly short-lived – impact in Europe and America, is that it was largely driven by a few energetic individuals. Among these, leading the Bavarian Pfalzzentrale, was August Ritter von Eberlein, a decorated war hero, who, however, was also being pursued by the French authorities for alleged war crimes. Equally colourful was Heinrich Distler, a Munich businessman with a chequered past, who set up a private propaganda organisation in order to make money and was prepared to go to any lengths to do so. In complete contrast, Otto Hartwich, Dean of Bremen Cathedral, and a conservative of the old monarchist school, was an honourable man, who later had difficulties during the Third Reich after speaking out against anti-Semitism. Hartwich campaigned hard against the Schwarze Schmach, among other issues. His propaganda certainly reflected European racial attitudes of the time but was far from extreme in its content. Though these – and other – propagandists were from widely differing backgrounds they had a common hatred of the Versailles terms, almost to the point of fanaticism. Although the campaign probably originated in the Reich press office and some degree of coordination was attempted, a bandwagon effect rapidly developed in which individuals felt free to say whatever they liked. With the exception of the Independent Left, protest came from across the political spectrum though the most extreme ranting undoubtedly came from the far Right. Several leading propagandists, including Eberlein, later associated themselves with the Nazi party.
Women were no less involved in the protest against the use of colonial troops than their male counterparts. Women’s organisations, such as the Bund Deutscher Frauenvereine, had developed before World War I, but the war itself, in which women had left the home and played a supportive role in welfare and social matters, led to an increase in female influence in society. Newly enfranchised under the Weimar constitution women would now make their voices heard. But at the same time propagandists were not slow to realize the potential for portraying women as the helpless, pure and innocent victims of the savagery of wild, sexually uninhibited colonial troops. In fact, French colonial troops were far less numerous than their white counterparts and on the whole, better behaved. Did this stop the propagandists? Of course not.
The more moderate female campaigning came from a group of women’s organisations encompassing a wide range of religious, political, social and professional interests. These collaborated under the umbrella of the so-called Rheinische Frauenliga, an agency set up by the Reich government, led by Margarete Gärtner. Far more extreme were the speeches of a renegade American journalist, Ray Beveridge, who whipped up audiences with her dramatic outbursts and who often shared the stage with Eberlein.
The campaign against the Schwarze Schmach declined after 1920-21. The Bavarian government continued to support it at a reduced level until the French withdrawal from the Pfalz in 1930, though after 1925 there were relatively few colonial troops present. For the Pfalzzentrale the Ruhr crisis, passive resistance and the resurgence of Rhineland separatism were far more important. The Reich Foreign Ministry, also, was increasingly concerned about the irritation being caused to the French and the consequent damage to German interests internationally. It attempted to rein in certain activities.
It might be remarked that the crude and inflammatory propaganda associated with the Schwarze Schmach hardly corresponded to the high ideals of the Weimar republic. Liberal thinkers had proposed an enlightened approach in putting Germany’s case forward but essentially they were ignored. The reasons are not difficult to find. The Weimar republic was forward looking but was far from universally popular and was loathed by the extreme Right, which did everything it could to undermine it. Bavaria had endured anarchy under a communist government for weeks in 1919 and was then governed by social democrats before a succession of right-wing administrations took over. Bitter enmity between Bavaria and a Reich based on the Weimar constitution was thereafter never far away. There were also divisions within the Reich government. Furthermore its civil service had been left largely unreformed because the new republican government desperately needed continuity in the administration if the country were to be kept running in the tumultuous days of 1918-19. Both the Bavarian and the Reich civil service were steeped in the old monarchist traditions and resented change. In short, the disjointed and negative propaganda that emanated from Germany in the early 1920s reflected a deeply divided society, and has to change the way we view, and study, the rise of the Nazi party. ■
Peter Collar holds a PhD in German History from the University of London and is the author of the new book The Propaganda War in the Rhineland: Weimar Germany, Race and Occupation after World War I.
The top image was taken in the Ruhr in 1923, and used originally to demonstrate the brutality of French troops towards those who were not submissive. Source: BArch, Bild 183-R09876 / unknown.