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How A German Medallion Became A British Propaganda Tool

Shortly after 2.10pm on Friday 7 May 1915, in fine clear weather off the Old Head of Kinsale, Ireland, the Cunard liner Lusitania was hit by a torpedo. It was struck without warning and sank in under twenty minutes. Of the nearly 2,000 passengers on board, 1,201 men, women and children were lost, including 128 American citizens. The German submarine which fired the torpedo, U20, circled the sinking ship and then fled the scene, reaching its base at Wilhelmshaven on 13 May.

The sinking of the Lusitania, like the invasion of Belgium, was regarded by the Allies as a crime symbolising the degree of ‘frightfulness’ Germany was prepared to perpetuate in her pursuit of victory. The event inspired an abundance of anti-German propaganda, including tracts, pictures and posters. It placed a damaging strain on US-German relations and provoked, if not the decisive turning point in the then neutral USA’s attitude to the war, at least a powerful emotional commitment to the Allied cause. Washington’s protests resulted in German abandonment of unrestricted submarine warfare in September 1915, although almost two years passed before America entered the war. However, it was ultimately Germany’s decision to renew unrestricted submarine warfare in early 1917 that was to be a key factor in America joining on the Allied side.

It is difficult to appreciate the strength of feeling the loss of the Lusitania generated amongst those already committed to the fight. The sinking stimulated comment, debate and a great deal of writing. But it was a privately produced medallion, the work of a German medallist, that was to provide British Intelligence with the basis for an impressively successful anti-German propaganda campaign.

Karl Goetz (1875-1950), a Munich-based medallist, regarded the event as stemming directly from the bewildering irresponsibility of the British Government and the Cunard Steamship Company in allowing the return of the liner from New York to Liverpool at a time of intense U-boat activity. Goetz was obviously satisfied that every effort had been made by the German authorities in the USA to emphasise the risks involved. These risks could have only increased given the doubtful status of the vessel. The Lusitania had been entered in the Admiralty fleet register as an armed auxiliary cruiser, and whether or not the hull of the vessel was a legitimate military target, the liner was carrying rifle cartridges and shrapnel shell cases. Moreover, unrestricted submarine warfare was, since February 1915, the Germans formally announced countermeasure to the British naval blockade of Germany.

Content with the justice of Germany’s cause, Goetz cast a satirical medallion, which mocked the Allied obsession with ‘business’ and derided the supposed impartiality of the USA . However, he made a serious mistake within its detailed contents. He got the date of the sinking wrong – the medallion carried the date ‘5. MAI 1915’.

The German first issue ‘Lusitania Medallion’

A description of Goetz’s original medallion underlines the capacity of such pieces to convey a powerful political message. Goetz’s standpoint is clear – he assumes the correctness of Germany and castigates the duplicitous indignation of the Allies.

The circular coated iron piece is 56.5 mm in diameter and varies in thickness between 2 and 3 mm depending on the model used in making the cast (Figure 2). It depicts on its obverse the stricken liner sinking, its stern submerged to left while its bow, laden with armaments, rises clear out of the water – an image contradicting eye-witness accounts which stated that the ship went down bow first. The bow is depicted as being ram-shaped, a reference to the configuration of warships of the period and possibly a reminder that the British Admiralty had ordered merchant vessels to attempt to ram German submarines. Smoke billows from the vessel’s four funnels. The obverse text, ‘DER GROSS-DAMPFER LUSITANIA DURCH EIN DEUTSCHES TAUCHBOOT VERSENKT 5. MAI 1915’, translates to ‘The liner Lusitania sunk by a German submarine 5 May 1915’.

The reverse design shows Death, in the form of a skeleton, behind the ticket office counter of the Cunard Line in New York, issuing tickets to a crush of passengers (Figure 3). Above the window are the words ‘CUNA LINIE’. Arranged vertically and below the counter are the words ‘FAHRKARTEN AUSGABE’ (‘ticket office’). At the extreme left of the crowd a man reads a newspaper bearing the headline ‘U BOOT GEFAHR’ (‘U-boat danger’) and standing next to him is a top-hatted and bearded figure, a representation of the German Ambassador to the USA Count Johann-Heinrich von Bernstorff, raising a warning finger. The significance of this reference is that on 1 May 1915, the day Lusitania sailed from New York, a German-sponsored announcement appeared next to the Cunard advertisement in all New York papers reminding passengers that Germany was at war with Britain and her allies and that the war zone included the waters around the British Isles, and that vessels flying the flag of Great Britain, or any of her allies, were liable to destruction in British waters. The reverse text along the upper edge, ‘GESCHÄFT ÜBER ALLES’, translates to ‘Business above all’. The initials of the designer, ‘KG’, can be seen in the space along the bottom.

It is probable that the coin, currency and medal dealer Schulman, based in neutral Amsterdam, helped spread awareness of Goetz’s medallion outside Germany. His catalogues contained photographs, and actual specimens were clearly obtained by British Intelligence in time for their use in the propaganda campaign of mid-1916. The exact number of medallions produced by Goetz is not known, but numbers apart it was not so much the satirical tone and imagery of the piece itself as its very existence and especially the chronological error which served to frustrate Goetz’s aims. British Intelligence seized upon the medallion to give a new lease of life to the propaganda impact of the original sinking, and the date mistake made easier their efforts to exploit it for their own purposes. Goetz’s intentions were obscured by claims that the piece was nothing more than a perverse celebration of a singular atrocity.

Some 300,000 British copies of Goetz’s original medallion were made on the instructions of Captain Reginald Hall RN, Director of Naval Intelligence. The logic behind the duplication was straightforward. The date error could be used to imply ‘advance planning’ and that the fate of the Lusitania was sealed before her departure from New York, her sinking being premeditated and pre-arranged – although obviously some unspecified circumstance had prevented its accomplishment on the ordained date. Goetz’s piece was thus placed on a par with a German ‘commemorative’ medallion struck in anticipation of the capture of Paris in September 1914, ‘Einzug D. Deutschen truppen in Paris’ (Art.IWM MED 734) – a work which was hastily suppressed after the Battle of the Marne.

The British were happy to further mislead public opinion about the status of Goetz’s medallion. They blurred the traditional distinction between ‘medal’ as an official award in respect of some act of gallantry or special service and ‘medallion’, regarded as an unofficial work of art produced for sale and profit. They also contrived to represent Goetz’s satirical censure of the British as if it were patriotic German celebration by focussing attention on the caption-like text and its date, rather than on the slogan-like text incorporated in the designs. British propaganda thus originated the myth that Goetz’s ‘Lusitania Medallion’ was an official commemorative of the sinking and in the process implied national approval for the act itself.

The widespread distribution of the British copies, with accompanying propagandist literature, undoubtedly prolonged the effect of the original sinking in influencing neutral opinion against Germany. It helped also to deflect attention from the contentious issue of the British naval blockade of Germany and its allies, the interception and searching of neutral vessels on the high seas, as well as from other British actions that were harming her standing in neutral (and especially American) eyes – the brutal suppression of the Dublin ‘Easter Rising’ in 1916 and the summary execution of its leaders being a case in point. Although Goetz in a subsequent satirical medallion endeavoured to undo some of the damage by ridiculing British propaganda efforts, the success of Captain Hall’s project was difficult to deny. In January 1917 the Bavarian War Office ordered that the manufacture of the original medallion be forbidden and that all available pieces should be confiscated.

The British ‘Lusitania Medallion’

The British ‘copy’ of Goetz’s first issue ‘Lusitania Medallion’ may be identified as follows:

1. The date in the obverse text reads ‘5. MAY 1915’ and not ‘5. MAI 1915’.

2. The copy has a much cruder finish and there is significant loss of detail.

3. The reverse text lacks the clearly defined umlauts over the ‘A’ of ‘GESCHAFT’ and the ‘V’ (‘U’) of ‘VBER’.

4. The text on the copy tends to be slightly larger and certainly more crudely formed than that of the original.

The British replicas (Figure 4) were sold at a shilling each, in an attractive cardboard presentation box with a hinged lid. The proceeds were directed to St Dunstan’s Blinded Soldiers and Sailors Hostels and the Red Cross. The outside of the lid is decorated with an illustration of the liner steaming from left to right, below which are six lines of text – ‘R.M.S. LUSITANIA: CUNARD LINE. 32000 TONS: SUNK ON HER RETURN JOURNEY FROM THE UNITED STATES BY A GERMAN SUBMARINE MAY 7TH. 1915’. The inside of the lid bears sixteen lines of overtly propagandistic text hammering home the disturbing ambiguities offered by the German original and stating that the piece ‘is proof positive that such crimes (viz the sinking) are not merely regarded favourably, but are given every encouragement in the land of Kultur…’. Accompanying the medallion and presentation box in many instances was an ‘explanatory’ illustrated leaflet. Again much stress was placed on the idea that the original medallion sought to celebrate the sinking in terms of a naval victory. The document’s last sentence reads: ‘The picture (reverse design) seeks apparently to propound the theory that if a murderer warns his victims of his intention the guilt of the crime will rest with the victim not the murderer’.

Goetz’s corrected work: The German second issue ‘Lusitania Medallion’

It would appear that once the damaging date error had been realised Goetz quickly rectified his mistake and issued a second version. This second issue may be identified by:

1. The altered date in the obverse exergue which now reads ‘7.MAI 1915’.

2. The dimension of the flan, or blank disk onto which the medal is struck, which tends to be thinner than that of the original.

It is not known how many second issue pieces were produced.

Undoing the damage: Goetz’s satire on the British propaganda campaign

The production of a corrected version of the original ‘Lusitania Medallion’ failed to counteract the success of the British anti-German propaganda campaign and perhaps a note of exasperation may be detected in a work produced by Goetz during late 1916 entitled ‘Difficile est Satiram non Scribere ’ (‘It is difficult not to write a satire’. Cast in bronze, 58mm in diameter, the medallion swipes a despairing blow against British anti-German propaganda directed towards neutral countries, especially in Norway and Sweden. It is probable that Goetz was inspired to his theme and imagery by press reports of Lord Arthur Balfour’s address at the Guildhall in London on the occasion of the Lord Mayor’s Banquet on 9 November 1916. Balfour’s speech included a bitter attack on the German Navy’s war against commerce and their so-called ‘Prize Code’, and contrasted virtuous German utterances at The Hague Conference in 1909 with German behaviour on the high seas – namely the sinking of the Norwegian vessel Reban. He concluded with the observation: ‘What are we to say of a nation which makes such a speech from the mouth of its chosen representatives at an assembly of the nations considering international law at The Hague, and in a few years afterwards strikes a medal for the sinking of the Lusitania?’

The obverse design depicts a full-length caricature of Balfour dramatically leaning forward over his lectern to display a ‘Lusitania Medallion’, held in his left hand, to three frock-coated gentlemen. Two of his audience peer inquisitively (one uses a magnifying glass) at the offending object, the third, in the background stands with his arms raised high in alarm and indignation at the impropriety of the barbaric German ‘celebration’. This man directly faces a bearded figure holding a sketch pad and pencil. The artist is a self-portrait of Goetz and the presence of the morally-outraged individual suggests that the anti-German feeling generated by British misrepresentation of his original medallion was perceived by the artist as a personal attack on his work. The principal text arranged around the edge of the piece, ‘DIFFICILE EST SATIRAM NON SCRIBERE’, is a line from the Roman poet Juvenal translated as ‘It is difficult not to write a satire’. Four lines of text in the obverse add mocking weight to the design: ‘DIE. LUSITANIA. MUNZE GIBT. LORD. BALFOUR. STOFF. Z. REDEN 9. XI. 1916’, translated as ‘The Lusitania medallion gives Lord Balfour material for a speech on 9 November 1916’.

The reverse design features the stylised ‘kilted British soldier’ Goetz often employed to personify perfidious Albion. The lanky figure in glengarry bonnet and holding the obligatory set of bagpipes displays a poster bearing the text, contracted and abbreviated, ‘ENGL FLUG BLATT EIN DEUTSCHER SEE SIEG LUSITANIA MEDAILLE 1916’, translated as ‘English bulletin A German naval victory Lusitania Medal’. The principal text around the edge of the reverse, ‘ENGLISCHE HETZ ARBEIT IN SCHWEDEN’, translates to ‘English intrigues in Sweden’.

The furore caused by Goetz’s original work, carefully fostered by the British propaganda campaign, has tended to obscure the fact that other contemporary medallists were similarly inspired to commemorate, in their own particular fashion, the Lusitania’s fate. But the propaganda campaign so skilfully built by the British around Goetz’s ‘Lusitania Medallion’ has ensured for this medallion a prominence unequalled by any other example of the art.