Magazine article History Today

The Man with the Poison Pen

Magazine article History Today

The Man with the Poison Pen

Article excerpt

NOT ALL CARTOONS ARE FUNNY. They can also be witty, satirical, grotesque, obscene and vicious without being comic. And in the case of political cartoons in wartime they are often deliberately designed to inflame public opinion against an enemy--a powerful weapon in the armoury of propaganda departments on both sides of a conflict. This was particularly true during the First World War and one of the most famous artists specializing in so-called 'hate' cartoons during this period was the Dutchman Louis Raemaekers (1869-1956). Raemaekers' work was so provocative that Kaiser Wilhelm offered to pay 12,000 Dutch guilders to whoever captured him (dead or alive). He was even prosecuted by his own government for jeopardizing Holland's neutrality and British prime minister Lloyd George was so impressed by his drawings that he sent him to the US to convince the Americans to enter the war.

Louis Raemaekers was born on April 6th, 1869, in Roermond, in the province of Limburg in the south of Holland and close to the borders with Belgium and Germany. He was the son of Josephus Christianus Hubertus Raemaekers, a local Dutch printer and publisher; his mother, Margaretha Amalia Michels was German. After studying fine art in Amsterdam (under W.B.G. Molkenboer and later J.R. de Kruyff), in the Brussels studio of Ernest Blanc-Garin and in Paris, he began work as an art teacher whilst also painting pastoral landscapes and illustrating children's books.

From 1906 to 1909 he produced weekly drawings for the Algemeen Handelsblad (Amsterdam) in a style influenced at first by Alexandre Steinlen and the French artist/cartoonist Jean-Louis Forain, and later moved to De Telegraaf. In 1912, having already published a collection of drawings of politicians ('The Gentlemen in The Hague', 1910), he began to concentrate on political cartoons and caricature, usually drawn in charcoal and often containing a religious element (he was a devout Catholic).

When war broke out in August 1914, Raemaekers was deeply affected by reports of German atrocities committed during the opening campaigns. It was alleged that Belgian civilians were being deliberately terrorized in order to deter any resistance, so that the German Army could speed through to France and defeat the western Allies before Russia could invade from the east. So incensed was Raemaekers by these tales of rape, pillage and wanton destruction that he began to draw the first of nearly 1,000 gruesome wartime cartoons attacking the Central Powers. Interviewed in 1917 he said:

   It has been my one aim since the breaking out
   of the war to accentuate the brutish character
   of the Germans. The brute is in them and I
   have tried to bring it out, but try as hard as I
   can I cannot depict it strong enough. I cannot
   make my pictures as brutish as the actual truth.

In one particularly gory colour cartoon from 1916, 'The Zeppelin Raider', the Kaiser is shown wiping the blood from the blade of a knife with which he has just slit the throats of four young children sleeping in a single bed. Commenting on this drawing, the popular novelist Henry de Vere Stacpoole (author of The Blue Lagoon) said:

   Had these bloody cartoons of Raemaekers'
   been published in the spring of 1914 the artist
   would have been considered a maniac. But in
   the spring of 1916 we know him to be a man
   portraying the truth, giving us the doings of the
   German emperor and his satellites in coloured
   pictures, and a very mild interpretation of them
   at that. … 
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