Courting the Empire: Intimacy and Nation in Wartime Postcard Propaganda

     From the years of 1914 to 1918, print media devoted a significant effort toward goal of raising and sustaining national support for the war effort through the accessible and easily distributed medium of postcards. During the First World War, subjects of national identity and commitment to conflict were brought to the forefront in propaganda through reoccurring themes of personal intimacy, gender, and sexuality. Within this selection of previously undigitized wartime postcards, the personal connection between distant servicemen and their romantic partners on the Home Front is a reoccurring image with a distinct purpose. Through the interpretation of this selection of wartime postcards we may gain understanding of defining themes of gender and national identity within political media of the First World War.

A regularly utilized platform for political commentary in modern print media, the female body plays a major role in this selection of wartime postcards. Often functioning as symbols of nation and responsibility to the Home Front, these pieces are more than politicized depictions of couples separated by war – a concept further explored in Gendered Nationalism and the Female Body in Wartime Postcard Media. Regularly shown awaiting the return of their absent partner, three of the five women in this selection of postcards are seen seated reading letters from the Front – one in five seen reading while standing. Each piece in this selection depicts women loyally awaiting the return of enlisted soldiers – creating print media aiming to both strengthen national support on the Home Front and reinforce commitment to the conflict through the image of isolated women and absent male figures.

Perhaps the most evident symbol within this selection of wartime postcards is that of the absent male figure. In three of these five examples, the soldier – either of the intended sender or recipient of the postcard– is entirely absent from view; only one of the five pieces features the visage of a faraway figure in combat. The fifth postcard shown exists as the only piece in the selection featuring a male figure; displaying two partners embracing, heralding love over international conflict. Alternately, the male figure within this image could also be read as absent; representative of couples disconnected by war and only connected through memory. The overwhelming symbolic absence of male figures within this selection of wartime postcards represents a harrowing reality of the First World War which separated countless partners and families through the millions of casualties inflicted by war.

Although disconnected from the primary theme of intimacy, nationhood, and separated lovers, attention should be paid to the overwhelming motif of nature and the outdoors, shown in five of the five pieces in varying formats. Within the first three postcards shown, a return to nature plays a major role in the scenes presented through the use of painted backdrops. Creating seemingly natural environments within photography studios, the rural scenes shown serve a particular function within the context of the First World War. During a conflict which redefined the art of war through emergent military technologies, the rural scenes depicted within postcards one through three act as a peaceful departure from the changing realities of war. Pieces one and three within this selection use the image of a mill as a focal point – maintaining thematic continuity while placing a strong emphasis on this traditional symbol of energy and progress. The fourth and fifth postcards in this series feature rural imagery in more subtle ways than the first three pieces – the fourth postcard shown depicting a woman reading indoors seated before a painting of a natural landscape, transforming into the image of her partner at war, while in the fifth postcard uses a subtle natural motif as a faded backdrop against the focal image of embraced lovers. Although functioning primarily as an environmental motif, the use of rural scenes within this selection of wartime print media serve a significant political function – bolstering national progress in the context of the First World War.

Utilizing the visage of sentimentality veiled in politicized purpose, seemingly saccharine pieces of print media often propagated gendered ideas of commitment, nationalism, and wartime youth culture in the European theatre. Ranging from messages of hopeful affection to powerful images national perseverance, this compilation of previously undigitized works exist as valuable tools while facing the task of understanding the functionality of gendered political print during the First World War.

Erinnerung, I.

Rural Scene, German or Austrian. Approximate Date: 1914-1918. Reads: “Remember – My heart only has one wish, for you to return a hero. My heart is already dreaming day and night. Have good fortune from this point forward.”Erinnerung I and II pay close attention to rural landscapes through the use of a painted backdrop – focusing on the subject of a water mill, symbolic of progress. Seated with a bouquet of flowers, a young woman in traditional germanic dress awaits the return of her partner away at war – expressing her support and hope for his success on the battlefield. As pinning floral arrangement to the lapel of a soldier on his way to the Front became customary during the First World War, the image of a bouquet is a powerful symbol in the context of the conflict. Expressing both hope and a national responsibility to her significant other, this postcard follows the combined theme of heroism and masculinity in a period which redefined concepts of individual heroism. 

Rural Scene, German or Austrian. Approximate Date: 1914-1918 “Reminder! I know that our hearts understand you are dear, and my true love will never die.”Featuring the same young woman seen in Erinnerung I, this piece shows an evident transition from the previous piece in the series. Standing rather than seated, the young woman is seen reading a letter presumably from her partner away at war. The second piece in this series of images, the content of this postcard suggests a wearying view of the conflict as the young woman accepts the possible fate both their relationship and her partner in the dangers of war – all while expressing her undying commitment and support. 

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Woman Seated and Reading with Floral Bouquet. German or Austrian. Approximate Date, 1914-18, reading “With the heart I seek you. With the clouds above me. Hurries my longing heart to you.”.Continues the theme of hopeful commitment to the war effort, this piece is framed through the perspective of a woman awaiting her partner at war. As previously stated; the bouquet held by the woman shown holds specific significance in the context of the First World War outside of traditional symbols of femininity – also functioning as decorative pieces pinned to the uniforms of soldiers on their way to the battlefield. 

German or Austrian. Approximate Date. 1914-1918, reading, “How tenderly your love letter is sent from the field to me. For stunningly beautiful I found the lines of your hand.”.Transitioning from the image of a woman who has just finished reading a letter into the image of her partner at the Front, the message provided by this postcard expresses an appreciation toward their correspondence and commitment to both the conflict and their personal relationship. Following the popular motif of the visually represented yet absent male figure, this image creates a bond between both the individuals shown and the Home Front in relation to the battlefield. 

“This is the true alliance”: French, Dated 1915.The fifth postcard in the selection acts as the strongest example of gender and sexuality as presented and politicized by wartime media. The characteristic of this image which most powerfully bonds concepts of nation and sexuality are the words and languages presented – a French produced postcard reading “this is the true alliance” in both English and French focuses on the image of two embraced lovers; first suggesting that love between partners conquers all else to modern viewers. In context, the use of both English and French, two powers bonded through the Triple Entente of France, Russia and Great Britain, shed light on the true message of the piece – favoring the “true alliance” of the Allies above that of the Central Powers of Germany, Austria-Hungary, The Ottoman Empire, and Bulgaria. Utilizing semi-erotic imagery as a platform to reassert national bonds, this piece exemplifies the use of sexuality in wartime postcard media.Although this this piece shares common themes with the rest of the selection of wartime political postcards, it deviates in two major ways. Unlike pieces 1 through 4 which all feature an absent male figure and women either seated or reading in positions lacking agency, this piece shows two actively engaging individuals. As women are highly representative of the Home Front in this selection of wartime postcards, this image could also be read as creating a physical bond between symbols of the Home Front and men in uniform. 

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