The German Corpse Factories of World War I

Propaganda cartoon depicting the Kaiser, saying to a new recruit: "And don't forget that your Kaiser will find a use for you—alive or dead."

Propaganda cartoon depicting the Kaiser, saying to a new recruit: “And don’t forget that your Kaiser will find a use for you—alive or dead.”

Propaganda and warfare has always gone hand in hand. Dehumanizing the enemy makes the taboo act of taking another human life much more palatable to a soldier in the field, and it makes the general population feel more threatened by a foe and more apt to put up with the rigors of a wartime economy. How plausible these stories were never seemed to matter. For example, Communist governments in East Europe during the Cold War spread the rumor that US forces had infested farmland with a devastating pest.

But perhaps the strangest and most gruesome bit of propaganda came out of World War I. Hatred of the Germans, who were to most on the side of the Allies seen as the main villain and cause of the war, ran deep. It seemed that the hated Huns were capable of anything, that they were monsters rather than human. Near the end of the war, a story began to circulate about the lengths to which the Germans would go to support their aggression; namely, they were willing to use their own dead to fuel their war machine.

 

Gruesome factories

The story first broke in two English papers, the Times and the Daily Mail, on April 17, 1917. The lurid tale was a translation from a French-language Belgian newspaper revealing in gruesome detail an eye witness report of what was called a Corpse Utilization Plant.

According to the witness, the facility lay near a rail-line south-west of Coblentz, deep in the forest. It was surrounded by an electric fence, and encircled by the rail line. Trains would arrive from the front, stuffed to the brim with the stripped bodies of the dead, who were bundled in threes or fours with iron wire. Workers, who lived on site, would unload the bundles and then push them to an overhead chain, which had large hooks hanging from it. The hooks would catch the bundles and transported them into a disinfecting bath, through a drying chamber, and then are dropped into a big cauldron to be treated with steam and stirred by machinery for eight hours. The resulting stew would be used for a variety of products including the production of tallow, oils, and soap.

 

Deliberate mistranslation. Lasting consequences.

Dead bodies were indeed used during the Great War, but they were not human corpses. The story seems to have been based on a real account by Karl Rosner of smelling a “carcass utilization establishment” (Kadaververwertungsanstalt) from a distance near Reims, France. English papers mistranslated the German word as “Corpse Exploitation Establishment.”

The mistranslation, likely deliberate, confused the German word Kadaver for the English word cadaver. While the two words read alike, they mean two entirely different things. Kadaver refers to animal carcasses, not human corpses. The German word referring to human corpses is “Leiche.”

Rosner was likely reporting on a glue plant near the front. Horses were often boiled down to produce glue.

This deliberate mistranslation was par for the course when it came to propaganda of the day. Both sides portrayed each other as monstrous and portrayed themselves as the valiant defenders of humanity. However, few stories had the lasting impact of the Corpse Factory Story. The story lingered for another ten years after the war, before being finally officially debunked by the British Parliament in 1925.

The deceptions of the first World War were remembered when the second roared to life in 1939. The people who had been tricked by the story resolved not to be tricked again. So when stories of death camps and the mass killing of Jews began to circulate, many scoffed, believing them to be just another example of propaganda at work. This skepticism lead Allied powers to take the stories less seriously, until the true horror of the Holocaust was revealed in the closing days of the war.

 

Sources:

“Cadavers Not Human.” The New York Times. April 20, 1917. Retrieved from: http://query.nytimes.com/mem/archive-free/pdf?res=9A0CE3DA153AE433A25753C2A9629C946696D6CF

“Huns and Their Dead.” Evening Post, Volume XCIII, Issue 128, Page 2. Retrieved from: http://paperspast.natlib.govt.nz/cgi-bin/paperspast?a=d&cl=search&d=EP19170530.2.13&srpos=3&e=——-10–1—-0Kadaververwertungsanstalt+–

Neander, Joachim. Marlin, Randal. “Media and Propaganda: The Northcliffe Press and the Corpse Factory Story of World War I.” Global Media Journal–Canadian Edition. 2010. Volume 3, Issue 2, pp. 67-82. Retrieved from: http://www.gmj.uottawa.ca/1002/v3i2_neander%20and%20marlin.pdf