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Casting Teutonic Types from the Nineteenth Century to World War I: German Ethnic Stereotypes in Print, on Stage, and Screen

Peter Conolly-Smith

Backlash on Screen: The Battle Cry of Peace

While its outlook helped define the Journal as a forward-looking publication more in tune with the trends of modernity than the rival Staats-Zeitung — aside from featuring comic strips, the Hearst-owned newspaper also endorsed mass culture in its every other articulation, from the music of Tin Pan Alley to film — still, there was a potential danger in its strategic embrace of all things popular. Should the culture turn on Germans as it had in the past, should their standing in America receive another setback as it had following their engagement in working-class politics during the Gilded Age, and should their stereotype once again be imbued with vicious characteristics in result, the newspaper that so wholeheartedly embraced the caricature would be left with little choice but to accept it in a new, less favorable form. Remote as the likelihood of this may have seemed in prewar America, it is precisely what happened with the onset of the European War in 1914.

Although the United States remained neutral for the first two and a half years of the war, its mass culture had galvanized American public opinion into a decidedly anti-German attitude long before 1917. True, President Woodrow Wilson famously appealed to the American public to display neutrality in "word and deed," and even prevailed upon the motion picture industry, which made good money showing both documentary and fictional war films, to follow suit. Obligingly, the National Board of Censors asked "picture patrons . . . not to demonstrate in favor of either side when war scenes were shown," and further suggested that producers during the years of neutrality "treat . . . in a restrained manner . . . scenes which tend to arouse race [i.e., ethnic] hatred" (Isenberg 98). Such well-meaning directives did not prevent the American film industry from turning out a number of unashamedly anti-German films prior to America's entry into the war, however, all of which made flagrant use of a German stereotype more vicious than anything previously seen in American culture. While these films elicited much comment, they drew no official censure and made huge profits at the box office, leaving those in the immigrant community who had embraced the German caricature — and film — in a potentially awkward position.

The first in the American cycle of anti-German films was The Battle Cry of Peace, produced and directed by J. Stuart Blackton and released in August of 1915. Already, the recent sinking of the Lusitania had caused a wave of anti-German hysteria to wash over the nation. A fierce public debate raged over the degree of the United States' level of preparedness, should war come to its shores, with well-known hawks such as Theodore Roosevelt and newly-appointed pro-British Secretary of State Robert Lansing urging President Wilson to strengthen America's defenses. The Battle Cry of Peace thus came "into the field at a moment when every American is faced with the realization [that] this country is in a general state of what is termed 'unpreparedness'," the trade journal Variety wrote. As such, "it is a film that will come in for nation-wide discussion." There could be little doubt as to the film's stance on the issue. Blackton's was "an animated, arresting, and sometimes lurid argument for the immediate and radical improvement of our national defenses," the New York Times noted in its review, "designed to make many a person in each audience resolve to join the National Guard . . . and to write to his Congressman by the next mail." [8]

In making its argument, The Battle Cry of Peace echoed the ongoing national debate between those urging pacifism and isolation and those arguing for preparedness. The film's main characters are members of two families, the Harrisons and the Vandergriffs. John, one of the Harrison sons, who later dies defending his sweetheart, is in love with Virginia, one of the Vandergriff daughters, whose father is a prominent peace advocate. In a key scene, John tries to persuade Mr. Vandergriff to abandon his pacifist stance and join a preparedness drive, but the old man refuses. In illustration of his folly, and picking up on another contemporary national preoccupation — German espionage [9] — Mr. Vandergriff has foolishly taken into his confidence a certain Mr. Emanon, who is later exposed as the mastermind of a network of enemy spies, among them Virginia's own governess. If the notion of their private residence having been infiltrated by foreign spies was not enough to discredit the film's pacifists, the fact that Vandergriff's later peace rally is bombarded by an advancing enemy fleet helped drive the point home. As Vandergriff releases a flock of doves, a shell comes crashing through the wall behind him. There was, the Times noted dryly, "nothing in the least bit subtle" about the film, which "generally advance[d its] argument by bludgeon strokes."

As important to its argument as its nod to contemporary concerns regarding preparedness and espionage was the film's portrayal of the enemy. Following the naval attack, "[New York] city capitulates and the invader is on our shores," Variety wrote. "They swarm our streets and their hosts are innumerable." In keeping with the official policy of neutrality, the invaders remained unidentified by name. Nevertheless, their "battle dress was suspiciously Teutonic, right down to the spiked helmets," according to film historian Michael Isenberg, their "demeanor match[ing] the atrocity stories which had recently emerged from Belgium and Northern France" (Isenberg 102). "Avowedly the invading force is of no particular nationality and the leading spy is called 'Emanon,' which you may spell backward if you wish," the Times commented. "But it is difficult to escape the impression that you are expected to recognize the nationality. They are certainly not Portuguese." Spelling things out more clearly still, Variety wrote, "There can be no doubt in the minds of anyone who witnesses the screen presentation that Germany is pointed at. This is quite apparent in the general type of men who have been selected to represent the invading forces." These men sported Kaiser Wilhelm-like mustaches and, "although essentially comic opera soldiers," according to Kevin Brownlow, "set the style for the American film presentation of the Hun for the duration [of the war]" (36) — a comment that indicates just how deftly a formerly humorous, "comic opera" caricature could take on vicious dimensions.

With Germans portrayed as "generally frightful, sadists, and rapists to a man," as Clyde Jeavons has described Battle Cry's supposedly anonymous invaders, one might have expected the German-American press to take offense (28). The conservative Staats-Zeitung, however, its disapproval of the medium of film as the "much-reviled, lowliest of all the arts" as well-established as its disdain for German ethnic caricatures, deigned not to comment on The Battle Cry of Peace at all, as if to ignore the film might diminish its punch. [10] More outspoken voices in the conservative camp of the German ethnic press, such as that of George Sylvester Viereck, New York-based publisher of the flagrantly pro-German weekly Fatherland, condemned the film's politics. The Battle Cry of Peace, Viereck editorialized, was an "atrocity," bankrolled by a "secret British propaganda fund" and "produced by . . . the munitions makers and the [pro-British J. P.] Morgan crowd to popularize the idea of having Congress vote millions to be swallowed up by the manufacturers of shells and shrapnel" — an assessment that was in fact not too far off the mark: machine gun manufacturer Hudson Maxim's involvement with The Battle Cry of Peace was well known (he appeared as himself in the opening reel) and the film was indeed "supported and probably financed by advocates of immediate intervention on the side of the British," according to a later historian (Nasaw, Going Out 207). [11]

Most interesting was the response of Hearst's German Journal, whom The Battle Cry of Peace placed in a doubly uncomfortable position. Not only did the film's negative typecasting reflect poorly on the newspaper's own dissemination of the German ethnic caricature, its anti-German message also ran counter to the Journal's politics. In line with all publications owned by the famously anti-British Hearst (only more so, given its ethnic target audience) the Journal was openly pro-German in its perspective on the European War, a stance also shared by the Staats-Zeitung, Viereck's Fatherland, and most other German ethnic publications in America. [12] Although unpopular, such views were technically permissible during America's period of neutrality, and were abandoned only after America's entry into the war. What distinguished the Journal's position from those of its rivals in the realm of the German ethnic press was the newspaper's simultaneous embrace of mass culture in general and both film and German ethnic stereotypes in particular. This odd combination of predilections left the politically pro-German Journal facing the issue of whether to promote an anti-German film so successful — The Battle Cry of Peace was seen by fifty million people — that it could not easily be dismissed (Brownlow 33).

Caught in this bind, the Journal was forced to choose between its cultural and its political inclinations and, interestingly, favored the former. Thus The Battle Cry of Peace was deemed "a sensational photoplay, by far the most tremendous film" ever shown at New York's Vitagraph Theater. Emphasizing the film's entertainment value over its politics — "the images of destruction are so intensely realistic, that the audience shudders in terror" — the Journal discreetly sidestepped altogether the issue of the invaders' apparent identity. In its only nod to the film's overall orientation — again in keeping with the politics of Hearst, who was as well-known for his anti-Japanese sentiments as he was for his pro-Germanism — the Journal stated merely that the film's "creator seems not to recognize the danger posed to our Pacific coastline by Japan's insatiable greed for land; he instead moves the location of his drama to New York," which is threatened (improbably, the newspaper suggested) by a "strong" but otherwise unidentified "foreign power." Aside from this one criticism, the Journal concluded that the film was a "shining" example of motion picture art, with not a single word wasted on its anti-German stereotypes. [13]

It was a disingenuous review, intentionally ignoring the film's most outstanding and memorable feature — its ethnic typecasting — in order to avoid drawing attention to the undeniable truth that the Journal itself traded in the same type of imagery, if with less vicious intent. Of all the contemporary reviews, the Hearst-owned newspaper's was the only one to ignore this central aspect of The Battle Cry of Peace; and of all German-language newspapers, it was the only one to recommend patronage of the film. This overall strategy — lauding anti-German films for their spectacle and entertainment value while ignoring, and later rationalizing, their negative ethnic stereotypes — would be the one the Journal was to pursue throughout the remaining period of American neutrality, with long term consequences that would ultimately contribute to the community's demise.

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Peter Conolly-Smith is Assistant Professor of History at Queens College of the City University of New York.

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