The «Hun speech» as an early example of political propaganda

Kaiser Wilhelm II during his speech on July 27th 1900 in Bremerhaven

In the middle of the siege of the Legation Quarter in Peking during the Boxer Rebellion in the late phase of the Chinese Qing-Dynasty, Kaiser William II (1859-1941) on July 27th, 1900 bid farewell in Bremerhaven to the German East Asian Expedition Corps, consisting of some 19,000 volunteers.

During what became known as «Hun speech», a defaming term coined by the openly anti-German British press that likely wanted to distract the public’s attention from the Empire’s atrocities in Sudan and South Africa, Wilhelm II allegedly ordered the departing Germans to be merciless in battle, making a comparison with Attila, King of the Huns.

In the official version approved by the Court this reference doesn’t appear. As there are at least two published versions in circulation, it’s impossible to know with certainty the exact content. Nevertheless, up to this day this supposed reference remains in use to equate Germans and Huns.

This wicked agitation, portraying German (colonial) history as extremely cruel and inhuman, reached its peak during World War I, a conflict for which reportedly warhorse Wilhelm II and his blood-thirsty subjects were solely responsible for.

Since I started studying Sinology in 1985, I had been wondering how it was possible that the Kaiser would have stated something so dull that would make him a perfect target for all enemies of Germany, especially those on the other side of the English Channel.

Recently, while doing research for other articles, by coincidence I found a source that became the basis for today’s posting. It would go beyond the scope analyzing everything Wilhelm II said on the occasion.

Therefore I will restrict myself to the passages I consider most relevant, which mention the background of the mood in Germany and his supposed call for reckless behavior against the insurgent Chinese.

“A great task awaits you: you are to revenge the grievous injustice that has been done. The Chinese have overturned the law of nations; they have mocked the sacredness of the envoy (referring to the murder of German diplomat Clemens von Ketteler on June 20th, 1900 in Peking) the duties of hospitality in a way unheard of in world history. It is all the more outrageous that this crime has been committed by a nation that takes pride in its ancient culture (indirectly expressing admiration for the country the expedition is being sent to.). Show the old Prussian virtue. Present yourselves as Christians in the cheerful endurance of suffering. May honor and glory follow your banners and arms (and therefore Germany as a whole, whose reputation they shall not tarnish). Give the whole world an example of manliness and discipline (telling his troops to behave in the best possible way).

Should you encounter the enemy, he will be defeated! You know full well that you are to fight against a cunning, brave, well-armed, and cruel enemy. When you encounter him, know this: no quarter will be given (It’s implicit that he means that the Germans can’t expect any mercy for themselves (!). In a faithful English translation with no second intentions, the two quite relevant words “to you” should have been added.) Prisoners will not be taken! Whoever falls into your hands is forfeited.

Just as a thousand years ago the Huns (As Chinese also belong to the Mongoloid race, it would have been more logical to compare them to the Huns and not vice versa. Why wouldn’t he mention Arminius, Otto the Great or Charlemagne instead?) under their Attila made a name for themselves, one that even today makes them seem mighty in history and legend, may the name German be affirmed by you in such a way in China that no Chinese will ever again dare to look cross-eyed at a German. (That a cultured monarch, constantly accused of «jingoism» und Teutomania», encourages German soldiers to imitate a horde of Mongols seems highly unlikely.)

Such a degradation can be seen as an interesting example of the alteration, (re)interpretation and instrumentalization of sensitive political speeches long before social media gained the importance they have today and its devastating long-term propaganda effect.

In both world wars the condescending general association of Germany with medieval brutality resulted in excesses against soldiers and civilians few people are nowadays aware of. Instead, it should be a tragic reminder of what humans are capable of when indoctrinated for the “right’ cause.


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