Die Fräulein

Careless talk lets vital secrets out.

You never know who’s listening

To what you talk about.


The war forced Germany, France, and Britain, three countries intimately connected by bonds of family, culture, and language, into a messy divorce.

As Queen Victoria’s husband, Prince Albert, had been German, many of their children married into European royal families, taking their Germanophilia with them. In 1917, George V of Britain changed the family name from Saxe-Coburg-Gotha to Windsor—a decision in which he lagged behind commoners in France, Australia, and the United States. In Australia, the town of Germanton had already become “Holbrook,” and German Creek “Empire Vale.” The German shepherd dog reemerged as an Alsatian. Schmidts became Smiths and Brauns were transformed into Browns, although Hollywood character actor Gustav von Seyffertitz may have overreacted when he took the name “G. Butler Clonebaugh.”

Britons lamented the disappearance of German sausage; a postcard circulated showing a large frankfurter wrapped with a black bow of mourning. In the United States, pretzels no longer appeared in bars. In a tradition revived in 2003 with “freedom fries,” Americans rebaptised sauerkraut “liberty cabbage.”

The wurst is over

Professional terminology was thrown into chaos. How was one to forget that the leading news service was Reuters and a major banking family Rothschild? Baedeker produced the most reliable travel guides; X-rays were Roentgen rays; the test for syphilis was named for its inventor, Wasserman, and its treatment for its discoverer, Ehrlich. In botany, the fuchsia bore the name of its discoverer, Leonhart Fuchs, and the classic blue iris was actually Iris germanica. In music, Mozart’s opus numbers were preceded by the letterK for the man who catalogued them, Ludwig von Köchel. The works of Johann Sebastian Bach could not be discussed without reference to the Bach-Werke-Verzeichnis, or catalogue of Bach’s works.

In the short term, concert halls just dropped Bach, Beethoven, and Schubert from their programs, but a long history of German interest in music from all nations could not be erased. British composer Edward Elgar, for example, owed his reputation to an early vogue for his work among German audiences. He toured Germany, where he was lionized. Elgar never renounced that support, unlike France’s Camille Saint-Saëns, who, in Le Figaro of November 14, 1914, disowned it.

I haven’t forgotten that German artists often interpreted my work, that German theatres presented my opera Samson, that I accepted German decorations. Of all that, I’m aware. But so what? From now on, a river of blood and mud will separate us. I have no sympathy for people who treat as “scraps of paper” the treaties they have signed, who carry off to Leipzig the priceless treasures France and England have entrusted, who massacre women and children, who offensively advertise their intention to seize three- quarters of Europe. Some years ago I wrote, “Once I loved Germany; now I fear it.” Today we hate it, we execrate it, and with good reason.

While France made the same cosmetic adjustments to the language as other nations, a second problem was more deep-rooted. Just as Anglo-Saxon families favored French maids and cooks, the French traditionally hired governesses and nannies from Germany. Countless German ladies, middle-aged, unmarried, and plain, joined French families as fräuleins. The type was so familiar that Abel Hermant could nail her in a thumbnail sketch.

She’s an alert young woman, a bit short and plump, strapped into a corset, and dressed in the latest style, simple, but with a hint of poor taste; a bit old fashioned. On her head is that nameless thing known in most languages as a hat. Very blonde, naturally. A nasty look in a bland face. A cunning look, as if of a conqueror. When she walks, she doesn’t advance—she captures terrain.

Exposé of supposed German espionage

As soon as war broke out, the satirical magazines decided, with little or no evidence, that all fräuleins were either propagandists for the Teutonic way of life, brainwashing their charges, or outright spies, or possibly both. La Baïonnette ran a striking cover by Fabien Fabiano of a mild-looking fräulein with her ear to a door.

Fräulein Spy

In a cartoon, another is asked by a friend, “So you’re a governess in Paris? Who do you work for?” She replies, “The Wilhelmstrasse.” An elaborate double-page spread shows a German nanny ordering a terrified French child to grovel before a beefy Wagnerian heroine in long braids and a crown, while behind her a confederate is sweeping out the treasures of European fantasy—Puss in boots, Pierrot, Don Quixote, Santa Claus.

Evidence of spying among fräuleins was sparse, but propagandists made up for that in speculation, as they had done in fabricating stories of atrocities in Belgium. These claimed Germans systematically cut off the hands of children, while their officers indulged in drunken mass rapes. There was no reliable evidence of either. “The invasion of Belgium,” noted one historian, “with its very real suffering, was nevertheless represented in a highly stylized way that dwelt on perverse sexual acts, lurid mutilations, and graphic accounts of child abuse of often dubious veracity.”

These tales appeared even in such staid technical journals as the Annales des Maladies Vénériennes—The Annals of Sexually Transmitted Diseases. One described Belgian girls kept in stalls like domestic animals for the pleasure of “a squad of hussars.” In another, officers supposedly chose the fifty prettiest girls of a town and locked them in a barn with fifty soldiers. Any who didn’t submit were eviscerated. An even more fantastic report in the Chronique Médicale claimed that a German officer took over a church, herded in all the available women, barred the door and celebrated a profane mass, drinking champagne from the sacred vessels. After this, he orchestrated an orgy. Any woman who resisted had her throat cut or was crucified, following which the Germans locked the door on their victims and set the church on fire.

Well-meaning journalists were often taken in, particularly since propagandists were skillful at setting the scene. Marie Louise Mack, an Australian amateur, bluffed her way into occupied Belgium in 1914 and described what she saw in her book A Woman’s Experiences in the Great War. Though she encountered nothing more terrible than German rudeness and officiousness, her imagination made up for it.

I had been used to think of the German race as tinged with a certain golden glamour, because to it belonged the man who wrote the Fifth Symphony; the man who wrote the divine first part of Faust. Oh, Beethoven, Goethe, Heine! Not even out of respect for your undying genius can I hide the truth about the Germans any longer.

What I have seen, I must believe!

They took me to the church. On the high altar stand empty champagne bottles, empty rum bottles, a broken bottle of Bordeaux, and five bottles of beer. In the confessionals stand empty champagne bottles, empty brandy bottles, empty beer bottles. Stacks of bottles are under the pews, or on the seats themselves.

The sacred marble floors are covered everywhere with piles of straw, and bottles, and heaps of refuse and filth, and horse-dung. The Madonna’s head has been cut right off. They have set fire to the beautiful wood-carving of our Saviour, and burnt the sacred figure all up one side, and on the face and breast.

A dead pig lies in the little chapel to the right, a dead white pig with a pink snout.

And now we come to the Gate of Shame.

It is the door of a small praying-room. Still pinned outside, on the door, is a piece of white paper, with this message in German, “This room is private. Keep away.” Inside are women’s garments, a pile of them tossed hastily on the floor, torn perhaps from the wearers.

“Perhaps” is the operative word. Was the room anything more than a place where clothes were kept for distribution to refugees? Could the Germans really have emptied all those bottles themselves? And why store them in a church? No matter. As the propaganda theorist Harold Lasswell explained, “a handy rule for arousing hate is ‘If at first they do not enrage, use an atrocity.’ It has been employed with unvarying success in every conflict known to man.”

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