A few days ago I chanced on a book that has been lurking on my shelves for about 40 years. Appropriately enough for this year in which the government seems determined to ‘celebrate’ the outbreak of the First World War, it is a delightful anti-German satire published in 1915. Malice in Kulturland is based on Lewis Carroll’s book and the Kaiser appears in many guises, as the jabberwock, for example, with ‘Kultur’ engraved on its tail.
There’s also a News Wolff (Germany made great use of the Wolff Telegraph Bureau) directing propaganda and the gardeners are soldiers trying to paint blood-red roses white. In the Tenniel-inspired illustration these ‘gardeners’ bear billboards with German propaganda headlines: ‘French destroy Rheims cathedral’ and, a nice one, ‘British troops killed by kindness.’
This reminded me that atrocity propaganda was a weapon used on both sides, and was probably started by the British with horror stories of the German invasion of Belgium (‘Belgian child’s hands cut off by Germans’). And just as the propaganda was on both sides, so was the satire on the other side’s efforts. Rather surprisingly Gustav Meyrink, better known for his tales of the occult, made a foray into current affairs; less surprisingly, his attack on British atrocity propaganda is in the grotesque satirical style of his early Simplicissimus stories. In ‘How Dr Job Paupersum Gave his Daughter Red Roses’ Paupersum is an impoverished scientist, his latest discovery being that the deformities in a Tyrolean village are caused by a virus in the local water. An impresario, hearing this, suggests Paupersum drink the water — as a freak he could make money being exhibited all over the world. As an example of the kind of show he puts on, the impresario describes an old man without arms and legs whom he is going to exhibit to the Queen of Italy as ‘a Belgian infant mutilated by German generals,’ adding that he will say the infant looks so old ‘because he aged rapidly out of horror at having to watch his mother eaten alive by a Prussian uhlan.’ Not too much of an exaggeration of some of the British propaganda stories.
But Meyrink also looked at the War in more occult terms, of course. The story ‘Cricket Magic’ suggests the War was caused by a combination of the arrogance of a Western traveller in Tibet and the powers of a ‘dugpa’, that is ‘a priest of the devil, a being that can no longer be described as human, that can bind and loose.’ However one takes the message of the war being caused by occult forces — which Meyrink seems to have believed — the reflection of the battlefields of Europe in the carnage among the thousands of insects the dugpa has called up is certainly horrific.
Despite this, and the apocalyptic vision of mechanised warfare in the story ‘The Four Moon Brethren’, Meyrink was, on a spiritual level, capable of taking a positive view of the War. In notes written during the conflict he said:
‘Anyone who is sensitive and open to spiritual development could, during the time of the great war, feel powerful new forces flowing into them. They came from the many dying soldiers; just as the buds on a tree start to sprout vigorously when the gardener prunes the branches. — The world of living beings is a large tree; most are only conscious of themselves as a single leaf, but a few make the leap into the wider consciousness of the tree and it is those who do not die… Thus we, who drew in new forces during the time of the great war, are heir to the life of those dead warriors.’
I doubt whether that is the positive message Cameron et al will urge us to take from the Great War.
‘How Dr Job Paupersum gave his Daughter Red Roses’, ‘Cricket Magic’ and ‘The Four Moon Brethren’ are all in The Dedalus Meyrink Reader.