By John Adcock
When Germany invaded Belgium, as a prelude to attacking France in 1914 in what was later to become known as World War I, the British government under Asquith was the first major power to set up a war propaganda bureau under Charles F. G. Masterman. The objectives of the bureau were to keep up the morale of the citizens, fight against isolationism on the home-front, mobilize hatred of the enemy, encourage the allies in France, and bring the neutral powers, particularly America, into the war. To ensure that all these objectives were met Masterman decided to keep his department hidden from the public. At the beginning the bureau sheltered under cover of the offices of an obscure government department called the National Health Insurance Committee located in a building called Wellington House at 8, Buckingham Gate. Here they produced books, pamphlets, government publications and speeches with the aid of historian Arnold Toynbee and numerous authors, illustrators, cartoonists, photographers and newspaper men.
In 1917 Wellington House was consolidated with the Department of Information under thriller writer Colonel John Buchan, author of The Thirty-Nine Steps, and the future Governor-general of Canada. Wellington House continued as the publishing arm of the Department soon adding other departments in political intelligence, cinema, and news. John Buchan was in turn succeeded by Lord Beaverbrook. Masterman set to work on propaganda aimed at gaining neutral countries support for the war, particularly American support. Masterman found his greatest ally in the form of a remarkable Dutch cartoonist named Louis Raemaekers, and the Kaiser’s invasion of “brave little Belgium” was the ideal subject for their mutual propaganda efforts.
Louis Raemaekers was born in Roermond, in the province of Limburg in the southern Netherlands, in 1869. His father was Josephus Christianus Hubertus Raemaekers, a book printer and publisher, his mother was Margaretha Amalia Michels. Raemaekers studied in the capital, Amsterdam, from 1890 to 1893. After a short period as a teacher in night classes he moved to Brussels, capital of Belgium, in 1894 where he continued teaching and studying until 1895. He then returned to the Netherlands where he lived and worked until 1916. On 10 July 1902 he married Johanna Petronella van Mansvelt and together they had three children.
Raemaekers described the beginnings of his Anti-German cartoons to the New York Times on 1 September 1917 (Dates following asterisks have been inserted by me to provide chronology for the Raemaekers article quotes):
“About nine years ago I made some little children’s books (*1905-10). Little books with poems I wrote myself about Pierrot boys, five, six, and seven years old, with Pierrot fathers and Pierrot mammas, which I illustrated myself. The Amsterdam daily newspaper Het Handelsblad asked me to draw a cartoon for them (*1906-09), because they thought the lines in the children’s illustrations were good. Of course, they knew too, that I was a landscape painter. They wanted one cartoon a week. At first they tried to make the subject of the weekly cartoons themselves. It was hopeless. Three or four of the editors would suggest ideas; then they would try and combine them all in one. Ah, hopeless! I made my own subject. Then it was all right. But I wanted to draw interpretations of international politics. They wanted the gasworks and the village pump or some other communal or national subject...
“And trouble came when I tried to show how dangerous for the world was the Pan-Germanism which I found in my studies to be increasing every day. It got me in trouble with the editors. I had been living at Roermond, in the Netherlands (‘Holland’), which is only six miles from the German frontier, and knew many German families and had many German friends. Because of this and the fact that my father was an editor, which stimulated my passion for the study of international politics, I gained more information and knew more than most of our people about the threatening Pan-Germanic movement.
“Germans never made any secret of it -- they came right out and said they must have the old German Empire, Holland, part of France, Denmark, and more. I saw all of this. And I also saw the castle full of German spies on the seashore at Noordwijk, where an old uncle was supposed to be living. The old uncle had about twenty or thirty different nephews coming and going all the time, who in looks were counterparts of German officers. In Holland they thought I was a fool to distrust the old uncle with such a queer family of nephews, and said I saw ghosts in the sunshine.
“I stayed with the Handelsblad only two years. They finally wanted one cartoon a fortnight. Then I went with the Amsterdam daily newspaper De Telegraaf (*1909), whose editor said I would be absolutely free to make the pictures I wanted. At first they wanted one every week, then two a week, then said to make as many as I could. When the war came on (*1914) the editors of the Telegraaf were fearful that the cartoons would make trouble. But the subscribers called out for them. The people wanted the interpretation of the German idea which I was giving; they were longing for it.
“In a months time the editors gave in to the people and the cartoons went on. In that first month of the war the newspapers were very careful. If they published a cartoon against the Germans one week, during the next would appear one against the English, then against the Russians, until all the scores had been evened up. Now the cartoons are anti-German. Holland, the country, is strictly neutral, but there is no restriction on the opinions of individual cartoonists. When I thought I could do the most in England I went to London (*1916-18, first stay) to try to show the people what the war really was.”
Raemaekers left a lot out of this encapsulated account. The Netherlands had not been attacked by the Germans but was swamped with Belgian fugitives in the first months of the war, forcing the neutral Netherlands to close its borders. Neighboring Belgium was occupied for four years by the German army. Hergé, author of Tintin, was seven years old and living in his birthplace at Etterbeek, near Brussels, when the Germans occupied the city, housing their troops in the Belgian army barracks of Etterbeek.
The Christian Science Monitor described Raemaekers’ early career on 25 May 1918: “From the outset his works revealed something more than the humorous or ironical power of the caricaturist; they showed that behind the mere pictorial comment on the war was a man who thought and wrought with a deep and uncompromising conviction as to right and wrong. The leading newspapers, first of Holland, then of the continent and England, reproduced his sketches. Quick to recognize the significance of his work, the German authorities did all in their power to repress it, and failing in this, used every form of intrigue at hand to silence him. They charged him with endangering Dutch neutrality; they put a price on his head, and he was continually threatened with the vengeance of the central powers. Then Raemaekers moved with his family to a suburb of London.”
Before that, Raemaekers’ drawings were published in seven volumes titled ‘Het toppunt der beschaving’ (the apex of civilization,) which led to the German envoy’s demanding that action be taken against Raemaekers and De Telegraaf. He was reprimanded but no further actions were taken against him. Coningsby Dawson gives a first-hand glimpse of Raemaekers, whom he met in Bath, in Living Bayonets (p.70). Newspapers had declared that the Kaiser had put a price (reportedly 12,000 marks) on the cartoonist’s head. “Traps have been laid for his capture from time to time. Submarines have been dispatched with orders to take him alive. He knows what awaits him if such plans should meet with success -- a lingering tortured death; consequently he travels armed and has promised his wife to blow his brains out the moment he is captured.”
The story may or may not have been true, but it was milked for all it was worth by Wellington House. Propaganda is very useful in dehumanizing your enemy in wartime but, in the long run, highly destructive to the historical record.
In 1915 Raemaekers’ cartoons were being reprinted in France in Le Journal and l’Illustration, and in England in Harmsworth’s Daily Mail and also the Daily Chronicle. His first exhibition of cartoons was put on in London by the Fine Art Society and in February 1916 the Republic of France awarded him its decoration of Chevalier de la Légion d’Honneur. Raemaekers, gone into exile in London in 1916, was taken under the wing of British intelligence, first under Charles Masterman, then John Buchan. Exhibitions of his original works were arranged and book collections distributed in 18 countries. His works appeared in picture booklets, postcards, posters and photographic slides. British and Canadian cigarette manufacturers included his portraits and cartoons on cigarette cards inserted into the packages.
In 1915 Wellington House compiled the Bryce Report on the ‘Belgian atrocities’ which was compiled by Arnold Toynbee and published in thirty languages. A Belgian inquiry into German atrocities in 1922 failed to corroborate one single allegation in Lord Bryce’s report. Belgium decided to omit the word “atrocities” from their report altogether. The worst of these tales, of babies twirled on bayonets, women with their breasts cut off, and grandfathers crucified on barn doors, were the inventions of Wellington House and widely disseminated through newspaper cartoons and advertisements.
The wildest horrors presented by the cartoonists seemed to have no basis in reality. Poet Robert Graves (Goodbye to All That) said the worst atrocities of the war were committed by Canadians and Australians seeking revenge and inspired to hatred by the invented horrors of the newspaper cartoonists. The famous American cartoonist John T. McCutcheon witnessed some horrible sights in Belgium in 1914 but publicly denied that any atrocities took place. When McCutcheon returned in 1915 the French were not pleased and it took a diplomatic letter from Theodore Roosevelt to gain his re-entry.
The Bryce Report was often cited by Raemaekers as the source of his “powerful and repellent” cartoons. Raemaekers made working visits to the war front in Belgium and France in 1916, 1917, and 1918 but he was never an eyewitness to the atrocities depicted in his cartoons. He told his newspaper audience that he had “seen photographs, so many, that if they were piled on that table over there they would reach the ceiling.”
The Canadian novelist Sir Gilbert Parker was in charge of intelligence in Canada and his main job was to disseminate propaganda at home and in the United States. Many (not all) Canadian newspapers began daily publishing of violent and unsubstantiated atrocity cartoons and advertisements. Montreal’s popular Arthur G. Racey was the chief propaganda cartoonist in Canada, appearing coast to coast in newspapers and magazines. Even Arch Dale’s children’s comic, the Doo Dads, carried the propaganda war to the children’s page with the introduction of the beastly Hun Dads; Doo Dads in spiked Hun helmets. Full newspaper pages were devoted to repellent illustrations of Neanderthal-like Huns with dripping daggers standing over women holding their tattered garments up to their breasts while churches burned in the background. The Germans took note and made use of similar images to inspire hatred against the Bolsheviks and Jews in World War II. British and Canadian propaganda, aided by Parker’s interventionist American contacts began to dominate the news in America.
Raemaekers toured the United States on behalf of the Allies from July to December 1917, lecturing and giving numerous interviews to newspapers. Woodrow Wilson’s man, George Creel, Director of the American propaganda effort, the Bureau of Cartoons, wrote a glowing, and not entirely truthful, account of the cartoonist for the Century magazine, titled “The Miracle of Raemaekers.” Creel had worked as a joke and verse writer for the comic journals Puck, Judge, Truth and Life. He wrote gags for the New York American comic supplements. He supplied jokes for “The Katzenjammer Kids,” “Buster Brown” and “Foxy Grandpa.” Many American cartoonists were involved in agitating for entry into the war. The United States finally did declare war on Germany on 6 April 1917.
A New York Tribune reporter said that Raemaekers appeared “not as a newspaper cartoonist, not entirely as a hard, vengeful fighter, but as prophet as well -- a Peter the Hermit of crayon and drawing-ink.” His nervous artist’s hands “belong to a man, insignificant in stature, mild of face, rather shy in manner, and yet a fighter for all that men hope to preserve -- a hard, bitter, unrelenting warrior from his little feet, in their grey spats, to shining hair of his round head.” He told the reporter “There is only one way to reach the modern German. Beat him over the head. He understands nothing else.”
Raemaekers’ style was influenced by Swiss artist Théophile Steinlen and French artist Jean Louis Forain. He made sketches, water-colors and photographs; some of them were later printed and sold to the public. His visits to the front added veracity to his drawings of war-torn Belgium and its captive people. Soldiers en route to the front were supplied with booklets of Raemaekers’ propaganda cartoons to stir up hatred of the enemy.
With the end of the war on 11 November 1918 Raemaekers chose living and working in the south of France. He was in London in February 1920, where he was enlisted by the “wets” to design a group of anti-prohibition cartoons to be reproduced on “every billboard in England, Scotland, and Wales.” Soon after he was living & working in Brussels, Belgium, drawing for the daily newspaper Le Soir. In 1939 he returned to London but one year later was in the United States where he worked on his (unpublished) memoirs in Mamaroneck, New York. He gave up drawing in 1941 and moved back to Belgium in 1945. He moved one last time in 1953, to his native country, the Netherlands. Louis Raemaekers died at Scheveningen, The Hague’s seafront, on 26 July 1956.
In the summer of 1956 The New York Times obituary took notice of the passing of this by then mostly forgotten Dutchman: “...Louis Raemaekers, the biting anti-German cartoonist of the 1914-18 War, died on 26 July 1956 at Scheveningen, at the age of 87. It has been said of Raemaekers that he was the one private individual who exercised a real and great influence on the course of the 1914-18 War. There were a dozen or so people (emperors, kings, statesmen, and commanders-in-chief) who obviously, and notoriously, shaped policies and guided events. Outside that circle of the great, Louis Raemaekers stands conspicuous as the one man who, without any assistance of title or office, indubitably swayed the destinies of peoples...”
-- 1905 children’s books / ‘Guitenstreken van Pim, Piet en Puckie’ (Pranks of Pim, Piet and Puckie), which resulted in a series of four (books 1 and 2 in 1905, books 3 and 4 in 1910). Art and verse by Louis Raemaekers.
-- 1943 memoirs / Louis Raemaekers’ written memoirs are on file [Mamaroneck, N.Y., 1943, unpublished].
-- legacy / The largest part of Raemaekers’ works and letters is now in the Hoover Institute of Stanford University in California.
-- Raemaekers cartoons HERE
-- My thanks to Huib van Opstal and Warren Bernard