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HunThe “Hun” and the First World War

Just as Allied propagandists gravitated towards comforting nicknames for their troops (i.e. American “Doughboys” and British “Tommies), they needed a terrifying moniker for their enemy. Rapidly the term “Hun” became synonymous for German in the Allied press—a name designed to elicit a sense of peril and monstrous barbarism.

The true Huns were a nomadic people from east of the Volga River who migrated to Europe in 370 AD. Their most famous leader, Attila, absorbed many Germanic people into his empire at the height of his power. Allied propagandists used this allusion to characterize Germans as barbarians and savages with no respect for European civilization or humanitarian values. The imagery was often used in conjunction with war atrocities, such as the sinking of the Lusitania.

The term “Hun” was used to great effect in many poster campaigns during the conflict. For instance, in the Second Liberty Loan campaign, the United States ran several thematically similar posters that stressed it was “YOUR DUTY” to buy bonds. It was this campaign that, at least in the United States, the enemy was first characterized as the savage “Hun”—the first poster showing just a bloody handprint. In that drive nearly 9.5 million Americans bought bonds, subscribing $1.5 billion more than in the last campaign. The bloody handprint motif was copied in French posters.

There was also reference to the enemy “Hun” in the fledgling film industry. By 1914, 20,000,000 people a week were going to the cinema in Britain. Film cartoons like Lancelot Speed depicted idealized clashes between noble Tommies and horrible Huns. Others like an official film entitled Once a German, Always a German, Bonzo the bulldog defeated a “nasty little ogre” called German Frightfulness.

hunorhomeIn Germany, many were surprised by their portrayal. The Kaiser himself was shocked at the extent to which he was being demonized—particularly the references to his “Hunnish” barbarity. However, to some extent he is to blame for the reference. In a notorious speech given to German troops departing for China in 1900 during the Boxer Rebellion, he told troops,

Should you encounter the enemy, he will be defeated! No quarter will be given! Prisoners will not be taken! Whoever falls into your hands is forfeited. Just as a thousand years ago the Huns under their King Attila made a name for themselves, one that even today makes them seem mighty in history and legend, may the name German be affirmed by you in such a way in China that no Chinese will ever again dare to look cross-eyed at a German.

The Kaiser’s speech was widely reported in the European press. Although there is no racial kinship between the Germans and the Huns, the “Hun” imagery never faded and was an evocative and persuasive tool in the propaganda war.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Darracott, Joseph, ed. The First World War in Posters. New York: Dover Publications, 1974.

Dunlap, Thomas, trans. “Wilhelm II: ‘Hun Speech’ (1900).” German History in Documents and Images. http://germanhistorydocs.ghidc.org/sub_document.cfm?document_id=755.

Jones, Barbara and Bill Howell. Popular Arts of the First World War. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1972.

Preston, Diana. Lusitania: An Epic Tragedy. New York: Walker & Company, 2002.

Rawls, Walton. Wake Up America! World War I and the American Poster. New York: Abbeville Press, 1988.

IN THE COLLECTION

Posters:

35B “Tell That to the Marines,” by James Montgomery Flagg, Marine Recruitment; Hun reference is located on the newspaper cover on the ground and reads “Huns Kill Women and Children!”

89A “The Hun—His Mark” by J. Allen St. John, Second Liberty Loan poster

98A “Halt the Hun!” by Henry Patrick Raleigh, Third Liberty Loan poster

110A “Hun or Home?” by Henry Patrick Raleigh, Fourth Liberty Loan poster

110B “Beat Back the Hun” by Fred Strothmann, Fourth Liberty Loan poster

Books:

Darracott, Joseph, ed. The First World War in Posters. New York: Dover Publications, 1974.

Jones, Barbara and Bill Howell. Popular Arts of the First World War. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1972.

Preston, Diana. Lusitania: An Epic Tragedy. New York: Walker & Company, 2002.

Rawls, Walton. Wake Up America! World War I and the American Poster. New York: Abbeville Press, 1988.

Arts of the Great War Collection