The German Corpse Factory
A Study in First World War Propaganda
Helion, Warwick, United Kingdom, 2019, 327 pages
Book Review published on: August 6, 2021
Author Stephan Badsey’s The German Corpse Factory: A Study in First World War Propaganda tells the tale of a bit of old-fashioned, deliberately deceitful, and sledgehammer-crude propaganda. It revolves around a British storyline late in the war that accused the German army of setting up special facilities near the front that would take the bodies of Soldaten (soldiers) killed in combat and render their fats into nitroglycerine, lubricants, candles, and other militarily useful materials. This World War I version of Soylent Green was, of course, based on lies and misrepresentations.
But before the book discusses the specific incident of the corpse factory, it gives the reader an overview of the state of the military and its relationship to the media, not just in Great Britain but also in Germany, France, and the United States. By World War I, most armies practiced a two-edged engagement with the media. On the one hand, journalists were allowed to travel with units and to report from the front; on the other hand, censorship restrictions were codified in law, regardless of the role freedom of speech played in European and American societies.
In Great Britain, the Defense of the Realm Act (DORA) provided the government with the authority to requisition buildings and take other actions that would not have been possible in peacetime, including censorship and criminalization of speech. However, DORA was rarely invoked, especially at the beginning of the war, because the newspapers rarely knowingly violated it. Newspapers were the primary way the average person learned what was going on but their owners, if they were not prowar, were certainly patriotic. Later in the war, the British government established a Ministry of Information to handle censorship, propaganda (at least in part), counterpropaganda, and public information, but several of the key people in the ministry were newspaper people and became associated, rightly or wrongly, with propaganda.
As a result, the media itself was perceived to be part of the propaganda effort instead of an impartial source of news. An unfortunate aspect of this was the people’s growing disinterest in “atrocity stories” in the newspapers, a skepticism that would continue into World War II when the horrors of the Holocaust were not printed in British papers until the end.
The most telling part of the book is the concern that British communicators had for how the British people perceived the war. Many in the British leadership were confident that it was the Royal Navy that would win the war with its blockade of Germany, not the constant bloodletting on the western front. It was felt that a long blockade that starved German women and children would be harder to “sell” than the image of the heroic Tommy bravely facing the Hun across the trenches.
Atrocity propaganda also had two edges. On the one hand, it could serve to keep the worker on the home front and the soldier on the frontlines motivated and united in the face of “evil,” but it also tied the hands of the politicians who might want to negotiate their way out of war.
After all, how can one negotiate with evil?
Book Review written by: James D. Crabtree, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas