Louis Raemaekers and His War Cartoons

By Lewis R. Freeman

[The Outlook, March 15, 1916]

"It will be a pity," wrote an English journalist after visiting an exhibition of Louis Raemaekers's war cartoons in London, "if neutral nations should not have the benefit of seeing the shafts that have penetrated the hide of even German self-satisfaction. Ridicule is a powerful weapon, and may reach much further than even the biggest of big guns."

The report that arrangements are being made for the exhibition in New York of a number of the most notable war cartoons of this now famous Dutch artist awakens the hope that the United States, the one neutral that most needs their galvanic influence, may yet be prodded out of a self-centered aloofness that has never once failed to shock and dismay every American returning home from Europe since the outbreak of the war.

"Your country's lack of interest, lack of sympathy, lack of understanding, of the war were, to me, almost tragic," a Frenchman who had been on duty at the Pan-American Exposition recently said to the writer in Paris, "and I suppose the lack of interest and sympathy—and a lack of responsibility as well—are directly due to the lack of understanding. I wonder if you ever will understand?"

It is, indeed, understanding that we need, and, this being the case, perhaps nothing could be better for us at this time than a chance to study Raemaekers's cartoons. They it was, scarcely less than the swarms of Belgian refugees and the mounting casualty lists, that brought England to a broader understanding of the meaning of the war, and they it may be that will avert the tragedy of a continuance of the mental aloofness and careless irresponsibility which, save for our easy charities to Belgium and Servia, have characterized the attitude of America as a nation from the very outbreak of the great European struggle.

At the beginning of the war Louis Raemaekers was an illustrator of books, and up to that time was known, even in his own country, only as a very clever artist. The warmth of his sympathy for Belgium and his flaming indignation at the way the cant of Kultur had been invoked by the Germans to condone what had happened there drew him at once into the campaign which Schroeder, of the Amsterdam "Telegraaf," inaugurated against the weak-kneed and guilder-seeking neutrality of Holland. The following extract from an editorial in the "Telegraaf" explains something of the nature of the dragon which these two Dutch knights set out to slay:

"We shall not cease to combat a Government (and an accessory press) which, under the mask of a dignified neutrality, provides Germany, by an indefensible export policy, with the most necessary provisions, thereby placing her in a state to continue the conflict, and committing treason, not only to its own Fatherland, but also to the cause of humanity, which, by a powerful, morally elevated Government, would be served in a wholly different way."

Raemaekers's quick wit, ready sympathy, and keen human insight, together with his fluent draughtsmanship, gave him an ideal accouterment for his "quarrel just," and before a year of the war was over he was being acclaimed as the first cartoonist of his time. Germany, aghast at the impression his facile drawings were making upon neutral opinion, first tried to buy his inactivity, then to palsy his pencil hand by threats, and finally put the price of 12,000 marks upon his head, which rather cheap appraisal of the harm Raemaekers was doing the Teutonic cause still stands.

But, despite the notice attracted to Raemaekers in Holland by the undaunted way in which he had torn the mask from the face of Kaiserism for the benefit of his own people, the flood tide of his fame was not reached until the fall of 1915, when he opened a modest exhibition of his work in London. The metropolis welcomed him, kindly but quietly, as "the man whom the Huns fear most." Then it went to see his cartoons, paused, gulped once or twice, and finally, with twitching fingers and compressed lips, went home to think. At the end of a week it arose and, with very un-British unreserve, thunderously hailed the visitor as "the man who was teaching England to understand the war."

I will never forget the look of mingled horror and enlightenment in the face of the editor of one of London's most prominent weeklies whom he met in a New Bond Street gallery on the opening day of the Raemaekers exhibition, "By heavens, sir," he said, huskily, "I never knew what the war meant before—never knew where the line was drawn, what we were fighting for. It has taken these drawings to teach me, and I am going to make it my duty to see that the lesson is passed on to every Englishman in these islands." The following Saturday his paper contained an announcement that it had been arranged that Raemaekers would henceforward draw an original cartoon for each issue for the duration of the war, while this extract from an editorial will give some idea of the way the lesson of the great Dutchman's cartoons was sinking home to every man that saw them:

"These pictures, with their haunting sense of beauty and their biting satire, might almost have been drawn by the finger of the Accusing Angel. As the spectator gazes upon them the full weight of the horrible cruelty and senseless futility of war overwhelms the soul, and, sinking helplessly beneath it, he feels, inclined to assume the same attitude of despair as is shown in the cartoon entitled 'Christendom after Twenty Centuries.' Never, so long as these pictures endure, will the punishment of Germany cease for her crimes against Belgium first and foremost, but also for her studied brutality against women and children.... The great achievement of the genius of this Dutch artist lies in his power to demonstrate to his fellow creatures war in its entirety, and not only one small part of it. The great majority will leave this exhibition with an entirely new sense of the hackneyed Teuton phrase: Krieg ist Krieg. They will come away saddened and depressed, and yet with a new determination to do whatever lies within their power to prevent any return of even the temporary triumph of Prussian militarism and all that it stands for and represents. That is a great gain. Only when the general or popular conscience is touched can we hope for the certainty of peace, which will be a peace in very truth, and not a mere truce to enable Prussia to rearm herself and to renew that manhood which she has wasted so prodigally."

But while there is no doubt that the general effect of the Raemaekers cartoons in helping to make Great Britain understand what it is fighting for and against has been to stiffen the British resolve, one could not make a greater mistake than to imagine that the great Dutchman is a militarist. He hates war and all that goes in its train; indeed, as some one wrote in England, "no man living among these surging seas of blood and tears comes nearer to the role of Peacemaker than he." But the peace that he works for is not a matter of arrangement between diplomatists and politicians, of belligerent and friendly nations; it is the peace which the intelligence and soul of the Western world shall insist on in the years to come.

In one of Raemaekers's cartoons, entitled "The Hostages," a wide-eyed Belgian child asks the question, "Father, what have we done?" And "What have we done?" is the question that will arise in the mind of every person who sees these cartoons. Then, in natural sequence, will arise the question, "What must we do to prevent forever the possibility of a recurrence of this horror?" "Crush militarism—Prussianism," Britain answered, and forthwith began to gird for the mighty task. America will doubtless answer in somewhat different words, but if the lesson of the Raemaekers cartoons sinks home on this side of the water their import will be the same. Then, and not till then, will there be a foundation upon which to build for future peace.

So far, Raemaekers's greatest achievement has been the bringing of the true meaning of the war home to England. Can he do as much for America? We can only hope and wait. Aloof and self-centered, we have hardly yet even groped for the light toward which England had been struggling for a year when Raemaekers appeared with his torch. Possibly in our own case the Dutchman's gall-tipped pencil could be better employed as a prod than as a torch. But one thing is certain—unless we develop a "will for the truth," a National conscience in international affairs, and a willingness to shoulder our own obligations, come what may, it is not likely that we will be either led or driven very far out of the slough of aloofness in which we have allowed ourselves to flounder ever since the outbreak of the war.

© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013

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