Libraries, propaganda and WWI

How Germany tried to influence US opinion through American libraries, before the US entered WWI.

Mike Selby

On July 24, 1915, Heinrich Albert (an employee at the German embassy in Manhattan), caught the last subway of the evening, where he promptly fell asleep. Jolted awake when the train arrived at his station, he barely made it to the platform before the doors slid shut. It was only when the subway began to pull away did he realize he had left his briefcase behind.

The contents of his briefcase revealed that Albert was no mere employee, but in fact an intelligence operative for Germany. He was in charge of a $38 million propaganda campaign launched against one of the least likely of targets — the American public library.

Since the First World War is so entrenched in Canada’s identity and collective consciousness, it is hard to imagine that the United States remained neutral during the first three years of the war. Viewed as a European conflict, President Woodrow Wilson reminded all Americans to “remain impartial in thought as well as in action.” As libraries already had a “mission of neutrality” — to provide information and resources in an unbiased and objective way — following the president’s dictates would be easy.

Even so, library directors cautioned their staff to “avoid partisan discussion concerning the war, in order that the public may not confuse a personal opinion with the neutrality of the institution with which we are connected.”

At the immediate outset of the war, public libraries were bombarded with demands for German books. One of the most requested titles was Friedrich von Bernhardi’s ‘Germany and the Next War.’ A bizarre book about racial superiority, Nietzsche’s super-humans, and a plan for world domination, no library could keep enough copies of it on the shelf. No new copies were quick in coming either. Foreign-language materials usually came from either Germany or Italy, but the British embargo halted these countries’ book trade.

And this is where our sleepy intelligence officer steps in.  Posing as a financial officer at the German embassy, Albert set up the German Information Services, a secret office created to bombard American libraries with wartime propaganda.  After enlisting the help from public library trustees throughout the states, Albert began to disseminate pro-German/anti-England books to public libraries. These included Ferdinand Tonnies’ ‘Warlike England as Seen By Herself,’ James Bennett’s ‘Germany’s Just Cause,’ Rudolph Cronau’s ‘England: A Destroyer of Nations,’ the anonymous ‘The Present Crisis in Europe.’

Albert also paid large sums of money to have pamphlets written by various professors from Harvard, Stanford, and Columbia. While their opinions were clearly one-sided, none of them knew they were receiving money from the German War Department. Neither did any of the public libraries that catalogued and shelved the hundreds of thousands of books and materials Albert sent their way.

Roger Casement’s ‘The Crime Against Ireland and How The War May Right It,’ Albert Beveridge’s ‘What is Back of the War,’,’ and John Burgess’s ‘The European War of 1914’ also found their way via Albert to libraries in every state. Public libraries in the South were bombarded by the strange book ‘Employment, Contrary to International Law, of Colored Troops upon the European Arena of War, by England and France’ — a less than subtle title if there ever was one.

But then Albert left his briefcase on the subway, which quickly made its way to the FBI. In turn, the FBI leaked its entire contents to the press. The New York World headline of August 15, 1915, read ‘How Germany has Worked in the U.S. to Shape Opinion.’

This was quickly followed by journalist Frederick W. Wiles’ book ‘The German-American Plot: The Campaign to Capture the Sympathy and Support of the United States.’

England reacted to this news with a comprehensive and refined counter-attack; a far more subtle infiltration of America’s public libraries. To do so, they would need someone not only loyal to the Crown but someone who also possessed extensive knowledge of the American temperament. You guessed it: A Canadian.

Next week!

Mike Selby is Reference Librarian at the Cranbrook Public Library