Libraries, propaganda, the Great War: Part II

Booknotes looks at German infiltration of American libraries during World War I

Mike Selby

It was in July of 1915 when a German embassy worker left his briefcase in a New York subway car, exposing his country’s 38 million dollar intelligence operation to bombard American public libraries with wartime propaganda. Since the U.S. had declared their neutrality during the outbreak of the First World War, Germany sought to persuade Americans through their reading habits. The clandestine placing pro-German / anti-England publications in public libraries throughout the United States was successful until the briefcase incident; no one in America was pleased with Germany’s (now awkward) attempt to influence them.

No one is England was pleased either. Realizing a propaganda counter-attack was needed, the British Prime Minister helped create a secret publishing firm hidden in Wellington House—a government building in charge of social security payments. Although the goal was to the same as Germany’s, the dissemination of pro-England material in American public libraries, the British needed their campaign to far more delicate and understated. They also employed a secret weapon which had not occurred to their German counterparts: A Canadian.

Those involved with the Wellington House operation knew that no one was more loyal to the Crown or knew the American temperament better than the Canadians, so they enlisted the help of Canadian novelist Gilbert Parker. His novels ‘The Trail of the Sword’ and ‘The Battle of the Strong’ had been bestsellers in the States, and Parker had frequently toured there. Eager to help, Parker was immediately put in charge of Wellington House. His advice was invaluable.

“Democracy” Parker counselled, was the one thing Americans values above all else, so their publications needed to stress this. For example, enemy forces need to be described not as despotic or tyrannical, but “antidemocratic.”  He also told them that since “there is a common belief in the United States that England is using the war to profit its dominions and colonies,” the publications they print must state the conflict is between “France and her Allies.”   Parker also felt books by British authors would be well received by libraries in the Eastern and Southern States.  The Midwest, he cautioned, has a large German-American population. Books sent to libraries there need to be by Belgian or French authors.

Helping Parker write pro-England propaganda was a who’s who of early 20th century writers: Hope Hawkins (The Prisoner of Zenda), Arthur Conan Doyle (Sherlock Holmes), Emile Durkheim (Sociology & Its Scientific Domain), Ford Madox Ford (The Inheritors), Gilbert Murray (History of Ancient Greek Literature), Arnold Toynbee (A Study of History), Owen Wister (The Virginian), and H.G. Wells (War of the Worlds).

Now Parker would either take an existing publication, like George H. Doran’s popular ‘J’accuse,’ or a new one like his own ‘The World in the Crucible: An Account of the Origins and Conduct of the Great War,’ and have it translated into French. It would then be re-translated into English, printed in Switzerland, and then stamped with “Paris Chamber of Commerce” in black ink. These were then sent to an operative in the U.S., who would mark them as bookstore remainders, and then use a library jobber to sell them to public libraries.  What acquisition librarians saw was an English translation of a French book published in Switzerland (the most neutral country ever), handed out or promoted by the Paris Chamber of Commerce, and now offered at a hefty discount.  Tens of thousands of Wellington House publications found there way onto the shelves of public libraries this way.

A less clandestine but no less effective method was to have one of the more popular writers, like  Arthur Conan Doyle, simply autograph a box of a books (like Doyle’s ‘The German War’) and ship it to a pubic library. The box would also come with a handwritten card to the librarian, stating “a gift, with compliments from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.”  A gift like this was difficult at best to return or discard.

Parker and Wellington House continued to secretly place pro-England materials this way up until April of 1917, when the United States finally joined the Allies and declared war on Germany.  The battle for the American Public Library waged by the German Information Service and later by England’s Wellington House was over.

It is unknown whether either side’s campaign resulted in an ounce of persuasion.

Knowledge of England’s propaganda operation was as welcome as the German one had been.  A library patron in Oregon felt the Wellington House publications snuck into his library could “only have a tendency to incite race hatred…they neither have historical nor educational value.”

Mike Selby is Reference Librarian at the Cranbrook Public Library