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"Facts . . . Are the Only Arsenal": Information and the War Cyclopedia in World War I

When the United States entered World War I in 1917, many Americans viciously attacked the loyalty of German Americans, attacks that were in some ways supported by the federal government. President Woodrow Wilson sponsored a campaign to reverse the German influence on American academia, and an effort to erase favorable depictions of Germany from the nation’s textbooks resulted in the War Cyclopedia,written by a number of distinguished historians. In this 325-page reference handbook, “the attempt to portray propaganda as scholarship reached its fullest expression,” writes historian Carol Gruber. The Committee on Public Information (CPI), the government’s official propaganda agency during the first world war, printed more than eight hundred thousand copies for use in American schools.

Alien Groups in America. “The men who speak alien sympathies are . . . the spokesmen of small groups whom it is high time that the Nation should call to a reckoning . . . For us there is but one choice. We have made it. Woe be to that man or group of men that seeks to stand in our way in this day of high resolution, when every principle we hold dearest is to be vindicated and made secure for the salvation of the nations. We are ready to plead at the bar of history, and our flag shall wear a new luster. Once more we shall make good with our lives and fortunes the great faith to which we were born, and a new glory shall shine in the face of our people. . . . You can not dedicate yourself to America unless you become in every respect . . . Americans. You can not become Americans if you think of yourselves in groups. America does not think in groups.”

(President [Woodrow] Wilson, May 10, 1915.)

“Frightfulness.” The name given to the German method of warfare whereby they make war terrible in the hope of winning victory through fear. The German word is Schrecklichkeit. As applied by the German military caste it does not mean the occasional and incidental horrors attached to warfare, but deliberate, systematic, and calculated terror conceived and ordered for the purpose of striking mortal fear into the hearts of foemen. It seems to have been first applied by the Germans in Belgium in the early days of the war when the German army lay between the French and English on the south and the Belgian forces on the north with a hostile population intermingled. Out of all the confused and contradictory stories of those days has come the clear proof that the German military authorities, unwilling to face like men the dangers of the situation they had themselves created, with studied design shot and hanged hundreds of Belgians, those innocent of all offense as well as those who had threatened or injured German soldiers. Towns were leveled to the ground, wide districts were laid waste, on the plea that German soldiers were being shot by snipers. An example will illustrate: “In the night of August 18–19 [1914] the village of Saint-Maurice was punished for having fired on German soldiers by being burnt to the ground by the German troops. . . . The village was surrounded, men posted about a yard from one another, so that no one could get out. Then the Uhlans set fire to it, house by house. Neither man, woman, nor child could escape; only the greater part of the live stock was carried off, as that could be used. Anyone who ventured to come out was shot down. All the inhabitants left in the village were burnt with the houses.” (From the diary of Private Karl Scheufele, of the Third Bavarian Regiment of Landwehr Infantry.) See Family Honor; Forbidden Methods of Warfare, German View; German War Code; German War Practices; “Kriegs-Raison”; “Notwendigkeit”; War, German Ruthlessness.

German Colonies. Germany’s colonial possessions, before she was shorn of them by the war, had an area of more than 1,000,000 square miles. In Africa she had the Kamerun in West Africa, with an area of 191,000 square miles and a population of 4,500,000, German East Africa of above 400,000 square miles and a population of 6,850,000 and German Southwest Africa of 320,000 square miles and a population of 200,000. Her colonial policy everywhere has been expensive to her and unsuccessful. It has been repressive and cruel. Her civil and military officials in charge of the destinies of her colonists have been martinets, the natural product of her militarist system of government at home. Even German emigrants have preferred to settle in the British colonies. In one year, 1904, Germany’s expenditures on her colonies amounted to upward of $31,000,000 while her trade with them reached a total value of about a third of this sum. See Caroline Islands; German East Africa; German Southwest Africa; Kaiser Wilhelmsland; Kamerun; Samoa; Togo.

German Constitution. The constitution of the Empire can not be amended without the consent of one man, William II. Reichstag committees may discuss and propose amendments to their hearts' content. After they have obtained the consent of the Reichstag a rocky road opens out broadly ahead of them. For they must have the approval of the Bundesrat, which is appointed by the reigning princes of Germany, and is obliged to vote as they direct. No amendment can pass the Bundesrat if 14 votes out of the 61 are cast against it. Of these 61, Prussia controls 20. The Prussian votes are cast as the King of Prussia directs. If every individual in Germany except this one, and including the other kings and dukes, wanted a change in the constitution they could not get it, except by revolution, if William II said “No!” See Autocracy; Bundesrat; Kaiserism; Landtag; Reichstag.

Pillage. Article XLVII of the Hague Regulations reads, “Pillage is formally forbidden,” and even the German War Book declares that “it is not plundering but downright burglary if a man pilfers things out of uninhabited houses.” There are many well-supported instances, however, of such “downright burglary” even by German commanders. Prof. Vernon Kellogg, who spent several months at the “great headquarters” of the German army in the west in connection with work of the Commission for Relief in Belgium, writes: “Where the villagers and peasants had tried to save something that could be buried or concealed the searching out of these pitiful hiding places became a great game with the German soldiers. One ingenious Frenchman had secreted a few choice battles of wine in a famous tomb on heights about the Meuse. But these bottles found their way to special tables at the ‘great headquarters.’” Worse still was the wholesale looting of safes and strong boxes and the carting off by German officers of pictures, pianos, sewing machines and furniture, not only from Belgium and northern France but from Poland as well. See Belgium, Economic Destruction; Family Honor and Rights; German War Practices.

“Place in the Sun.” A phrase used by William II on June 18, 1901, at Hamburg, in referring to Germany’s acquisition of the Chinese harbor at Kiaochow and other valuable commercial concessions in China. “In spite of the fact that we have no such fleet as we should have, we have conquered for ourselves a place in the sun. It will now be my place to see to it that this place in the sun shall remain our undisputed possession, in order that the sun’s rays may fall fruitfully upon our activity and trade in foreign parts.” This expression “a place in the sun” was speedily taken up as a slogan by the Pan-German party, which advocated a bigger navy, more colonies, and an aggressive policy of colonial expansion. “It is only by relying on our good German sword that we can hope to conquer that place in the sun which rightly belongs to us, and which no one will yield to us voluntarily. . . . Till the world comes to an end, the ultimate decision must rest with the sword.” (Extract from the Crown Prince’s introduction to Germany in Arms, issued in 1913.) The Kaiser had said in 1900: “I shall carry through to its completion the work of reorganizing my navy in order that it may stand justified at the side of my army, and that through it the German Empire may also be in a position to win outwardly the place which she has not yet attained.” See “Hun”; “Kultur”; Pan-Germanism; “Mittel-Europa.”

Source: Committee on Public Information, War Cyclopedia—A Handbook for Ready Reference on the Great War, issued by the Secretary of State, the Secretary of War, the Secretary of the Navy, George Creel (Washington, D.C.: GPO, 1918), 11, 104–105, 110, 214–215.

See Also:“Orgies of Ruthlessness”: Bishop Quayle on German Atrocities During World War I
“The Failure of German-Americanism”: Reinhold Niebuhr Blames German Immigrants for Their Problems During WWI