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  • Elisabeth Piller

This paper reassesses American opinions and sentiments during the period of neutrality in light of the one endeavor that involved millions of Americans in the European conflict long before official U.S. belligerency: war relief. Tracing some of the “humanitarian narratives” employed in the relief campaigns for the Central Powers, the Allies, and neutral Belgium, humanitarian involvement, it will be argued, not only expressed prevalent ethnic, cultural, and political affinities, but shaped American attitudes toward the different belligerents. Contrary to contemporary claims, humanitarian pursuits were never even remotely impartial, but drew Americans onto the different sides of the war like few other endeavors. Indeed, relief work must be taken serious as a force of “cultural mobilization” (Horne), which affected American “visions of the war and its outcome.” By involving Americans actively on the different sides of the European war, it helped forge discrete moral and emotional alliances across the Atlantic. In trying to understand the complicated and acrimonious process by which Americans moved from peace to war, their relief work thus deserves attention.

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1 One of the best, unfortunately still unpublished, works is Branden Little, “Band of Crusaders: American Humanitarians, the Great War, and the Remaking of the World” (PhD diss., University of California, Berkeley, 2009).

2 Irwin, Julia, Making the World Safe. The American Red Cross and A Nation's Humanitarian Awakening (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013).

3 Irwin, Julia, “Sauvons les Bébés: Child Health and U.S. Humanitarian Aid in the First World War Era,” Bulletin of the History of Medicine 86 (Spring 2012): 3765; Thomas D. Westerman, “Rough and Ready Relief: American Identity, Humanitarian Experience and the Commission for Relief in Belgium, 1914–1917” (PhD diss., University of Connecticut, 2014); Watenpaugh, Keith David, Bread from Stones. The Middle East and the Making of Modern Humanitarianism (Oakland: University of California Press, 2015), esp. 91–123; Patenaude, Bertrand, The Big Show in Bololand. The American Relief Expedition to Soviet Russia in the Famine of 1921 (Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press, 2002); Steuer, Kenneth, Pursuit of an “Unparalleled Opportunity”: The American YMCA and Prisoner-of-War Diplomacy among the Central Power Nations during World War I, 1914–1923 (New York: Columbia University Press, 2009).

4 For briefer remarks on this issue, emphasizing that relief drew Americans on the Allied side prior to 1917, see Julia Irwin's instructive comments in “Interchange: World War I,” The Journal of American History (Sept. 2015): 463–99, 470–72, and Little, Branden, “An Explosion of New Endeavors: Global Humanitarian Responses to Industrialized Warfare in the First World War Era,” First World War Studies 5:1 (2014): 116, 5.

5 There are some notable exceptions: Jansen, for example, investigates the domestic support structures for American volunteers abroad, while Little in a short but seminal essay has recently explored the “homefront networks” of Belgian relief; see Jansen, Axel, Individuelle Bewährung im Krieg: Amerikaner in Europa, 1914–1917 (Frankfurt: Campus, 2003), for example, chap. 4; Little, Branden, “The Humanitarian Mobilization of American Cities for Belgian Relief, 1914–1918,” Cahiers Bruxellois—Brusselse Cahiers 46 (2014): 121–38; Recent studies on American neutrality and World War I have also made it a point to mention the impact of different relief campaigns: Neiberg, Michael, The Path to War. How the First World War Created Modern America (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016): 112–13; a briefer outline in Keene, Jennifer, “Americans Respond. Perspectives on the Global War, 1914–1917,” Geschichte und Gesellschaft 40:2 (2014): 266–86.

6 A general introduction to the history of humanitarianism can be found in Barnett, Michael, Empire of Humanity. A History of Humanitarianism (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2011). An interesting recent example is Framke, Maria, “Political Humanitarianism in the 1930s: Indian Aid for Republican Spain,” European Review of History 23:1–2 (2016): 6381.

7 Michael Neiberg has recently demanded that “as we approach the centenary of American entry in the First World War, we need new research into the entire period from 1914 to 1917” to explain how Americans moved from peace to war; see Neiberg, Michael, “Blinking Eyes Began to Open: Legacies from America's Road to the Great War, 1914–1917,” Diplomatic History 38:4 (2014): 801–12, 812.

8 A survey of American publishers in late 1914 showed that of 367, 105 favored the Entente, 20 the Central Powers, and 242 considered themselves neutral; however, 189 considered their readers to be in favor of the Allies; 140 believed their readers were divided on this question; and only 38 described their readership as pro-German; “American Sympathies in the War” Literary Digest, Nov. 14, 1914.

9 See Trommler, Frank, “The Lusitania Effect: America's Mobilization against Germany in World War I,” German Studies Review 32 (May 2009): 241–66.

10 Doenecke, Justus, “Neutrality Policy and the Decision for War” in A Companion to Woodrow Wilson, ed. Kennedy, Ross (New York: Wiley-Blackwell), 243–69, 243.

11 (Hilfsfond) Versammlung, Aug 5, 1914, Box 1, Minute Book, MS. Coll 38 Hilfsfond Records, Horner Memorial Library, Philadelphia.

12 Brief history on these and many other groups in Some of America's Contributions to European War Relief : A Brief Account of the Personnel and Aims of the National Allied Relief Committee et al. (New York: Herald Square Press, 1916).

13 Quoted from Hoover, Herbert, An American Epic, The Relief of Belgium and Northern France, 1914–1930, Vol. I (Chicago: Regnery, 1959), 443; While the CRB was not as exclusively or predominantly American-financed as most Americans imagined it to be (most funds came from French, Belgian, and British loans), it still occupied a special place in U.S. imagination. On the CRB: Nash, George H., The Life of Herbert Hoover. The Humanitarian, 1914–1917 (New York: Norton, 1988).

14 Westerman, “Rough and Ready Relief,” 1.

15 An excellent overview of these initiatives is provided by the special issue on “Humanitarianism in the Era of the First World War,” First World War Studies 5 (2014).

16 On the power of imagery in mobilizing sentiment, see Fehrenbach, Heide and Rodogno, Davide, Humanitarian Photography. A History (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2015).

17 Briefly on the importance of progressive thought to international relief, Irwin, Making the World Safe, 7–8.

18 Jansen, Individuelle Bewährung im Krieg, passim.

19 Westerman, “Rough and Ready Relief,” 4; One fundraising leaflet appealed “let us also make the result stand as another shining example of America's ever ready humanitarian sympathy for all sufferers—an inheritance handed down to use by the founder of our Republic, whom we must not dishonor by our neglect to discharge this duty” Leaflet: Our Aim At least A Million Dollars for the Relief of Sufferers from the War in Europe. The Allies Bazaar. Grand Central Palace, NY, June 3–14, 1916, Belgian National Archives (AGR), Brussels, T521 Belgian Consulates and Embassy in USA, Folder 156: Allied Bazaar New York; for a British appeal to such American notions, see May Sinclair, “America's Part in the War” in Need of Belgium, ed. The Commission for Relief in Belgium (New York, 1915), 4–7.

20 Wilson, Woodrow, “Message on Neutrality,” Aug. 19, 1914, Link, Arthur S., ed., The Papers of Woodrow Wilson, 69 vols. (Princton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1966–1994), 30:393–94.

21 “German Day Abandoned on Wilson Appeal,” Chicago Daily Tribune, Aug. 20, 1914, quoted in Wüstenbecker, Katja, Deutsch-Amerikaner im Ersten Weltkrieg: US-Politik und nationale Identitäten im Mittleren Westen (Stuttgart: Steiner, 2007), 68; a different example of this rhetoric of “impartial” relief, this time from Harvard President Lowell, in Jansen, Individuelle Bewährung im Krieg, 262.

22 The American Red Cross's attempts to provide aid to both sides was soon undercut by the realities of the British sea blockade; see Irwin, Making the World Safe, 63–64.

23 See Piller, Elisabeth, “To Aid the Fatherland. German-Americans, Transatlantic Relief Work and American Neutrality, 1914–17,” Immigrants & Minorities 35:3 (2017): 196215.

24 Singer, Michael, Jahrbuch der Deutschamerikaner für das Jahr 1918. (Chicago: German Yearbook Publishing Co., 1917), 215.

25 Mitchell, Percy, The American Relief Clearing House. Its Work in the Great War (Paris: Herbert Clarke, 1922), 2.

26 Jansen, Individuelle Bewährung im Krieg, 40.

27 Tracy B. Kittredge, The History of the Commission for Relief in Belgium, 1914–1917 (n.a., 1918), 2.

28 Johnson to Gosse, Dec. 29, 1914, reprinted in Sixty American Opinions On the War (London: Fisher Unwin, 1915), 93.

29 On Viereck, see Johnson, Niel M., George Sylvester Viereck: German-American Propagandist (DeKalb: University of Illinois Press, 1972).

30 McCune, Mary, The Whole Wide World Without Limits. International Relief, Gender Politics and American Jewish Women, 1893–1930 (Detroit, MI: Wayne State University Press, 2005), 54.

31 “American ‘Generosity’ to War Sufferers,” Literary Digest, Aug. 19, 1916, 413–14.

32 As a consequence, the Red Cross delivered shipments worth $1,150,070 to the Allied nations and shipments worth $358,449 to the Central Powers; Herbert Hoover, American Epic, Vol. II (Chicago: Regnery, 1960), 190–91.

33 Jansen, Individuelle Bewährung im Krieg, 222.

34 On this matter, see the introduction in Richard Ashby Wilson and Richard Brown, eds., Humanitarianism and Suffering. The Mobilization of Empathy (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009).

35 Wilson and Brown assert that “for humanitarian sympathies to be elicited, it seems imperative that the narrative of suffering strongly testify to the innocence of the sufferer. Few feel an obligation to assist those who appear to have actively provoked, exacerbated, or seemingly deserve their own torment”; Wilson and Brown, Humanitarianism, 23.

36 See the statements by German American leaders in Child, Clifton James, The German-Americans in Politics 1914–1917 (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1939), 27.

37 Mitchell, The American Relief Clearing House, 26.

38 Horne, John, “Demobilizing the Mind. France and the Legacy of the Great War, 1919–1939,” French History & Civilization 2 (2009): 101–19, 102–3.

39 Gay, George and Fisher, H. H., Public Relations of the Commission for Relief in Belgium. Documents (Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press, 1929), 2:246.

40 Little, “The Humanitarian Mobilization of American Cities for Belgian Relief,” 135.

41 Gullace, Nicoletta, “Sexual Violence and Family Honor: British Propaganda and International Law during the First World War,” American Historical Review 102 (June 1997): 714–47, 717; also Horne, John and Kramer, Alan, German Atrocities, 1914: A History of Denial (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2001), 4.

42 See Chicago Allied Bazaar Committee, Letters Written by the Fatherless Children of France to their American Godparents (Chicago, 1917); see also the letters of gratitude published in Boston Bazaar Daily, 1916, for example, p. 23; a large number of these sacks are held at the Hoover Institution; on some held at the Kansas Historical Society, see (accessed June 10, 2017).

43 See the description of Boston women wrapping special Christmas packages for wounded French soldiers overseas, in Boston Bazaar Daily, 1916, 20; there is need for more research on emotional communities and modern humanitarianism; on the concept of emotional communities, see Rosenwein., Barbara Emotional Communities in the Early Middle Ages (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2006).

44 Lasswell, Harold D., Propaganda Technique in the World War (New York: Peter Smith, 1938), 160.

45 Lasswell, Propaganda Technique in the World War, 138.

46 A good overview of the different bazaars held in New York City in 1916 in Wilson, J. Ross, New York and the First World War: Shaping an American City (New York: Routledge, 2016), 81ff.

47 Booklet “Allied Bazaar Given for the Benefit of the Sick, Wounded and Starving Dependents in the Countries of the Entente Allies (Jan 11–20, 1917),” AGR, T521 Belgian Consulates and Embassy in USA, Folder 154: Bazaar in Chicago.

48 Ibid.

49 During the Philadelphia bazaar, for example, 16,000 such nails were driven into a large iron cross; ”German Bazaar Ends Tonight After Week of Great Success,” Evening Public Ledger, May 1, 1916, 2; on the practices in Austria-Hungary, see Kathryn E. Densford, “The Wehrmann in Eisen. Nail Statues as Barometers of Habsburg Social Order During the First World War,” European Review of History 24:2 (Oct. 2017): 305–24.”

50 Belgian Ambassador Havenith to Belgian Foreign Minister (Baron Beyens), Oct. 12, 1916, AGR, T521 Belgian Consulates and Embassy in USA, Folder 152.

51 See, for example, the elated letter detailing the new unity and purpose among German Americans due to relief work, letter by L. [a German American woman] to family in Germany, Sept. 6, 1914, reprinted in Karl Jünger, Deutsch-Amerika Mobil (Leipzig: Behr, 1915), 164–66.

52 “The Allied Bazaar,” New York Evening Post, June 13, 1916, 10.

53 “American Names for Prussian Cities,” New York Times, July 20, 1916.

54 Gay and Fisher, Public Relations, 236.

55 The fact that reports were frequently exaggerated is stressed by Proctor, Tammy M., “An American Enterprise? British Participation in US Food Relief Programmes (1914–1923),” First World War Studies 5:1 (2014): 2942, 32.

56 Leeman, Jean, Martyr: A Tragedy of Belgium (The Belgian Women's War Relief Committee: San Francisco, 1916).

57 “War in the trenches is cheerful beside Belgium. In Belgium a bread-line with a background of the ruins of Louvain is only one of hundreds of haunting pictures. … There is something in the very atmosphere of Belgium which is ghostly and which speaks of the repression of a civilized people under military restraint and unable to move from one town to another. The people are praying for a day of deliverance”; Frederick Palmer, New York Times, Jan. 7, 1915, from “At Grips with Famines,” Literary Digest, Jan. 30, 1915, 206.

58 How pervasive this was is perhaps best shown by an incident in October 1917, when a Cincinnati pacifist was “tied to a tree, stripped, and whipped ‘in the name of the women and children of Belgium’”; see Don Heinrich Tolzmann, “The Survival of an Ethnic Community: The Cincinnati Germans, 1918 through 1932” (PhD diss., University of Cincinnati, 1983), 131.

59 Quoted from Literary Digest, May 15, 1915, 1134; also: “The Bryce Report on German Atrocities,” Literary Digest, May 29, 1915, 1257–58.

60 One of the remarkably few studies on East Prussia, Watson, Alexander, “‘Unheard-of Brutality’: Russian Atrocities against Civilians in East Prussia, 1914–1915,” Journal of Modern History 86 (Dec. 2014): 780825.

61 The official appeal sent out by the East Prussian Relief Fund in the United States wedded philanthropy with a salient political agenda noting that “not one hundredth of what happened to East Prussia has come to the attention of the American public [while] its ear has been filled with exaggerated stories from other countries.” “Appeals for East Prussia,” New York Times, July 2, 1916.

62 On German American interpretations, “The Case of Belgium,” The Fatherland (Nov. 1914): 3–4; “Belgium's Breach of Neutrality,” The Fatherland (Dec. 1914): 10–11; “Who First Violated Belgium's Neutrality?,” The Literary Digest, Jan. 2, 1915, 4–5.

63 In the Boston Bazaar Daily, William Roscoe Thayer described the idea that Germany and Austria “had the war forced upon them” as a “Teutonic pretext”; see Boston Bazaar Daily, 1916, 54.

64 George A. Gordon, “An Appeal to Humanity” Boston Bazaar Daily, 1916, 58.

65 See Raymond Poincare's Foreword in Mitchell, The American Relief Clearing House.

66 See also Little, Branden, “Humanitarian Relief in Europe and the Analogue of War, 1914–1918” in Finding Common Ground: New Directions in First World War Studies, eds. Keene, Jennifer and Neiberg, Michael (Leiden: Brill, 2010): 139–58, 150–51.

67 Little, “The Humanitarian Mobilization of American Cities for Belgian Relief,” 135.

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