An article by Robert Fisk in today’s Independent gives a good account of Alan Kramer’s Dynamic of Destruction: Culture and Mass Killing in the First World War, about German atrocities in Belgium and elsewhere.
Kramer is one of several recent historians who have re-examined the atrocity stories from the first days of the war (Larry Zuckerman’s The Rape of Belgium is another.) The consensus is that the atrocities were real and terrible. Yet for many years it was assumed that the stories were the products of propagandists eager to whip up public support for the war. “The Atrocity Myth” itself became one of the great myths of the war.
Is this because the truth about what happened in Belgium was an inconvenient one to politicians trying to re-establish normal relations with Germany? Did the discounting of atrocity stories take off mostly during the appeasement years? Or was it just a natural reaction when people realised that many of the most popular stories were inaccurate or exaggerated? The “Crucified Canadian”, for example, seems to be a purely mythical figure.
Tracing the history of the debunking of atrocity stories would be an interesting subject for research. Arthur Ponsonby’s Falsehood in Wartime would be a good place to start.