The First World War was an unprecedented moment of mass mobility. Soldiers and civilians were forced to leave their homes and found themselves in new places separated from what they defined as their own culture, their nation, and their religion. In that alienating context, language remained one of the strongest and most vital elements of their cultural identity. For many of them, dragged into multilingual armies or refugee and POW camps, language also proved to be a serious obstacle when encountering foreign people. At the same time, all belligerent parties recognised the power of language, since the efficiency of their propaganda activities among neutrals and colonials was strongly related to their ability to speak the native language of the target. This resulted in large-scale translation projects across the world.

The German Revolutionary Programme illustrates effectively the use of language as a propaganda tool to recruit anti-colonial and nationalist revolutionaries. In the POW camps of Zossen, Göttingen and Wünsdorf, German officials carefully used the languages of the colonial soldiers to monitor, influence, and recruit them as agents and incite them against the enemies of the Central Powers. In these camps, Algerian, Tunisian, Indian, Irish, and Flemish prisoners were allowed to read newspapers in their native languages. German officials also targeted them with newly created propaganda newspapers, such as El-Jihad. This paper included pro-German war news and anti-colonial articles and was published in multiple languages such as Arabic, Hindi, and Russian. Similar methods were used in the German-sponsored nationalist committees of Lithuanian intellectuals and in the recruitment of Irish revolutionaries.

At the same time, German officials were eager to use the language skills of colonial and nationalist intellectuals, such as the Tunisian theologian Salih al-Sharif al-Tunisi and the anti-Belgian Flemish poet René De Clercq. Both served as translators and authors of German propaganda pamphlets targeted respectively at Muslim and Flemish soldiers and intellectuals. This propaganda aimed to convince these audiences of the vital German support for their cause. This strategy could be very attractive, as it offered revolutionary intellectuals and oppressed European minorities a platform on which to express their own culture in their own language, such as in the journal Der Neue Orient . As a part of their counter-propaganda policies, both Great Britain and France consulted their own ‘loyal’ Arabic, Hindi, and Malaysian translators to spread pro-British and pro-French propaganda among their colonial subjects all over the world. Language also played a crucial role in cultural propaganda policies that aimed at strengthening ties between people from diverse nations who were supposedly racially and culturally related. Racialised world-views strongly underpinned interpretations of the war, when the conflict was portrayed as a cultural clash between Latin ‘civilisation’ and German Kultur, or between the Russian and the German races.

Language played a pivotal role in the belligerent construction of transnational racial loyalties, which strongly conflicted with patriotic duties. For example, French cultural propaganda agents tended to promote the idea of a ‘Latin’ or ‘Romanic’ brotherhood alongside Italian and Spanish intellectuals. The German Flamenpolitik aimed at bringing the Flemish, Dutch, Germans, and South African Boers closer together. For, as speakers of a Germanic language, they all belonged to the same ‘stam’ or race, as the Flemish poet René De Clercq writes in his poem 'Song of the Greater Netherlands'. Of all belligerent parties, German officials aimed at reciprocal literary exchanges, including the translation of foreign literature into German, as is visible in the Gedichte of the Dutch poet Albert Verwey. French officials preferred instead to focus on the translation of French war literature into foreign languages.

In neutral countries such as the Dutch empire, bilingual Switzerland, and Denmark, a language choice was hardly interpreted as neutral. Cultural and linguistic preferences in everyday life, book publishing, and in the press became highly contentious. The belligerent parties recognised the importance of book translation and publishing as a major means of propaganda. Pamphlets, leaflets, and all kinds of books were translated and sent to neutral countries. The intensive work of belligerent propagandists also included the dissemination of translated works, often in cooperation with local, native-speaking intellectuals, publishers, and booksellers. Publishing, selling, reading, and reviewing German, English, or French books, even if they did not deal with the war, were considered to be political acts. Language served as a means of establishing one’s position on the book market but the use of a particular foreign language could, at the same time, be seen as proof of an allegiance to one of the warring sides.

Language has been used very effectively in this respect. As the sources show, both in neutral and colonial contexts, language proved to be a vital, but also highly charged, medium of cultural encounters.

Martyna Kliks & Tessa Lobbes