Documents are the raw materials of history. They may be textual, such as books, newspapers, letters, and diaries; visual, such as photographs, posters, and movies; or material, such as clothing and cathedrals. Documents are the sources from which historians attempt to reconstruct what happened in the past.
The British Empire Union produced this poster in 1918. Even to a viewer not familiar with that organization’s specific goals, its name suggests a concern with preserving the power and integrity of the British Empire.
The features of the German are ridiculously distorted. He is over-weight, with an ill-fitting jacket and a jolly grin despite the sinking ship and burning buildings in the margins. The poster urges people to join the British Empire Union to keep German influence out of Britain. So clearly it portrays Germans in the worst possible light.
By juxtaposing a German soldier in uniform with the same figure in civilian clothes, the poster suggests that, after the war, the same people responsible for unforgivable wartime crimes such as bayoneting babies, shooting nurses, and ravishing women (detailed across the top) will attempt to resume normal relations as though nothing had happened. The British Empire Union’s attitude reveals the depths of wartime anti-German feeling, but it also betrays an anxiety about a possible postwar resurgence of German power.
Because historians are rarely eyewitnesses to the events they are trying to comprehend, they rely on primary sources that date from the period in question. The documents in this book are all primary sources, produced by people who experienced World War I. In relying on another person’s pair of eyes, on somebody else’s observations and arguments, we cannot take for granted what his or her document seems to say. History involves asking a series of questions about the source and drawing reasonable conclusions from our answers. When and where was the document produced? For what purpose? What assumptions does it reveal? Only after considering these issues can we begin to interpret the meaning of the individuals and the significance of the events that arouse our curiosity.
Protestors claimed that the Wilson administration was squelching criticism of its policies through its censorship of the press and restriction of meetings. By making their point outside the White House, a symbol of the President’s democratic principles, they force the viewer to consider Wilson’s actual protection of the American ideal of freedom of speech.
Anti-government protestors dress up as Pilgrims in order to associate themselves with the long tradition of conscience stretching back to the arrival of the Mayflower. They are trying to show that they are closer to the original Americans than the President and his supporters, and they are using American history as a weapon in their struggle against the White House.