Brow Beat

The World War I Propaganda Flyer in This Week’s Watchmen Was Real

Steven G. Norfleet, dressed in a World War I uniform, catches a propaganda flyer in the air as he marches in a still from Watchmen.
Some good points here!
HBO

Sunday night’s episode of Watchmen opened with a trademark comic book plotline: an origin story. This time, though, the focus was not on the childhood trauma of a masked crimefighter or supervillain, but instead a simple sheet of paper. In last week’s pilot, a young boy (Danny Boyd, Jr.) escapes the horror of the Tulsa Massacre Superman-style, bearing a hastily-scrawled note from his father reading “WATCH OVER THIS BOY.” Eagle-eyed viewers noticed that the reverse side of the note had printed material on it; on Sunday, we got a brief history of the printing on the other side, from the moment a German officer dictated its text to an English-speaking typist toward the end of World War I to its arrival in Tulsa. It turns out the text is an actual German propaganda flyer, part of a concerted effort to demoralize soldiers in the United States’ black regiments by reminding them that they were second-class citizens at home. In fact, the note on Watchmen is a combination of two different pieces of German propaganda: the text, as heard in the voiceover, comes from one flyer, but the prop seen on the show borrows its layout and some of its text from a completely different but equally real German flyer. Like all the most effective propaganda, it’s based in truth—and it may have played a role in the real Tulsa Massacre.

World War I was the first war to feature extensive propaganda operations on both sides, and although the Central Powers were slower to systematize, coordinate, and fund their operations than the Allies, they built a U.S.-based operation that combined spycraft, propaganda, and sabotage in an effort to keep the United States from entering the war and stall and disrupt munitions shipments to Europe. It was not hard to see that our country had a white supremacy problem, and the Germans did what they could to shove a wedge into the crack. To be clear, the embrace of racial egalitarianism seen in the Watchmen flyer was transactional: Germany was equally willing to appeal to the concerns of American and European white supremacists. In the summer of 1915, for instance, the German Foreign Office published Employment, Contrary to International Law, of Colored Troops Upon the European Arena of War by England and France, a booklet arguing that non-white soldiers were bringing barbaric customs from their places of ancestry, accompanied by a catalog of supposed atrocities they had committed. It was a different story when appealing to black Americans, naturally: Rumors abounded that German agents were telling southern blacks on the one hand that the Germans would make them equal citizens after defeating the U.S., and on the other hand that Germans were torturing black prisoners to death: either way, better not to fight. It’s hard to tell how much of this was the eternal paranoia among southern whites that the bill for their depravity would someday come due, but it’s undeniable that when black American combat troops made it to Europe, German propaganda was there to greet them. Here’s the flyer whose text was used in Watchmen, from a photograph in the National Archives:

A world war I propaganda flyer--the text is transcribed below.
National Archives

And here’s its full text:

To the colored soldiers of the U.S. Army.

Hallo boys, what are you doing over here? Fighting the Germans? Why? Have they ever done you any harm? Of course, some white folks and the lying English-American press told you that the Germans ought to be wiped out for the sake of humanity and democracy. What is Democracy? Personal Freedom, all citizens enjoying the same rights socially and before the law! Do you enjoy the same rights as white people do in America. the land of Freedom and Democracy? Or aren’t you rather treated over there as second class citizens? Can you go into a rest urant where white people dine, can you get a seat in a theater where white people sit, can you get a Pullman seat or berth in a rail roadcar or can you even ride, in the South, in the same street car with white people? And how about the law? Is lynching and the most horrible cruelties connected therewith a lawful proceeding in a democratic country?

Now, all this is entirely different in Germany, where they do like colored people, where they treat them as Gentlemen and not as second class citizens. They enjoy exactly the same social privileges as every white man, and quite a number of colored people have mighty fine positions in business in Berlin and other big German cities.

Why then fight the Germans only for the benefit of the Wall-street robbers to protect the millions they have lent to the English, French, and Italians? You have been made the tool of the egotistic and rapacious rich in England and America. and there is nothing in the whole game for you but broken bones, horrible wounds, spoiled health or—death. No satisfaction whatsoever will you get out of this unjust war. You have never seen Germany, so you are fools if you allow people to teach you to hate it. Come over to see for yourself. Let those do the fighting who make profit out of this war; don’t allow them to use you as cannon food. To carry the gun in their defence is not an honor but a shame. Throw it away and come over to the German lines. You will find friends who will help you along.

Although subsequent events would soon put the lie to the flyers’ portrait of Germany as a land of racial harmony, it’s hard to argue with its description of the way the United States treated its black citizens. Although white newspapers and magazines didn’t cover it, it made a big impression with its intended audience. W.E.B. Du Bois reproduced the full text in an article in The Crisis about the loyalty and heroism of black U.S. troops, despite provocation from the Germans and mistreatment from their own countrymen. The Tuskegee faction of the black community also took notice: The flyer appears in full in both William Allison Sweeney’s History of the American Negro in the Great World War and Scott’s Official History of the American Negro in the World War by Emmett J. Scott, both published in 1919. And it appears in full in one of the very few war memoirs by black authors, Addie W. Hunton and Kathryn M. Johnson’s Two Colored Women With the American Expeditionary Forces. White readers might only have encountered a brief excerpt of the least telling parts of the flyer in Harper’s, where it was used as an example of German stupidity rather than American cruelty: The author mentions it mostly to tell a story about the Germans dropping the flyer on baffled French troops by mistake. But in the black community, people knew about it.

But the flyer depicted on screen in Watchmen doesn’t match the one in the voiceover. Here’s the clearest picture of the text in this week’s episode:

A black soldier holding a WWI leaflet.
HBO

If you zoom in, you can make out some of the text, including “You will find friends to help you along,” but the layout is taken from a different flyer with a sharper layout than the original, probably to emphasize the headline. That layout, too, is from a real flyer that was dropped on American troops:

A world war I propaganda flyer; the text is transcribed below.
Europeana Collections

But the text of this flyer was not about black soldiers’ legitimate grievances with their country. It was part of a different genre of propaganda all sides of the conflict engaged in: Descriptions of the happy, luxurious, and above all safe life awaiting troops in P.O.W. camps, if they’d only desert or surrender. Here’s the full text, complete with typos. It’s essentially an appeal to cowardice, wrapped in an entirely unsuccessful attempt at colloquial English:

COLOURED SOLDIERS

OF THE STATES!

They told you at home that Germans kill their prisoners. Well, that’s

LIE Nr. 1

and it’s about the biggest lie ever invented. How in the name of common sense can you believe it, Boys?

There are about three million prisoners of war in Germany now! They ain’t dead ones either! You can bet your life they’re mighty glad to be out of the trenches and so are their folks at home.

They told you that the prisoners are being illtreated by the Germans. That’s

LIE Nr. 2

but it’s a darned good second! There never was any illtreatment of prisoners, neither in the German lines nor in the camps, and that’s a fact!

You’d soon be wise about it, should you be taken prisoner! You’d be sent to a camp in

Southern Germany.

Why Southern? Because the climate is milder down there. You’d find a job of the kind you like and you’d be paid for your work.

They told you at home that the Germans are starving their prisoners, didn’t they? That’s

LIE Nr. 3

and it ain’t a very clever one. You’ll find enough to eat over here and a nicely heated room too! Don’t you worry, boys! You would’nt have to live in a damp hole as you do now! When the war is over you’d return to your folks alive and that certainly is worth something! Ain’t it? Don’t let yourself be bluffed into death, boys! You are risking your own skin all the time! Don’t forget, you’ve but one life to loose and that’s a very precious one!

That is not quite as resonant with the themes of Watchmen as the flyer about American racism! But why did this flyer end up in Watchmen to begin with? Like most things to do with the Tulsa Massacre on the show, the answer it that it’s in The Burning, Tim Madigan’s 2003 history of the disaster. Showrunner Damon Lindelof has spoken in interviews about the way that book shaped Watchmen, and it will surprise no one that Madigan reproduced the complete text of the first flyer in his book. At the intersection between World War I and the Tulsa Massacre stood O.B. Mann, a black war hero and prosperous local grocer who, according to one witness, accidentally fired the massacre’s first shot when a white man tried to wrestle his rifle away from him the night before the main riot. “This boy had come back from France with exaggerated ideas about equality and thinking he can whip the world,” another local black businessman said about Mann after the massacre, and Madigan explicitly draws a line between that German propaganda flyer and the Tulsa Massacre in this passage, which clearly inspired the first scenes of the pilot:

…none of them had seen what O.B. Mann had seen in Europe. None of them had watched those insulting German leaflets drop at his feat while Negro soldiers all around were cut down by bullets and choking from the gas. That night in the office of the Star, the Greenwood elders were preaching calm, patience, until they could determine the scope of the threat to [Dick] Rowland. But the patience of O.B. Mann had expired long ago. With each minute of inaction, Mann’s rage multiplied.

Mann angrily left the Star and strode north through the crowd to the Dreamland Theater. There he pushed open the front doors without buying a ticket. Movie-watchers were distracted from the screen by the outline of his thick, tall body moving quickly down the aisle in the darkness. He climbed onto the stage, where his frame was caught in the projection lights, a massive shadow outlined on the screen behind him. A few muttered complaints drifted up toward him, but only a few, because the audience soon realized who was behind the intrusion.

“Turn up these lights!” O.B. Mann yelled. “The movie’s over, ’cause I got news! The whites are getting ready to hang a Negro boy downtown and I say Tulsa niggers ain’t about to let that happen. We’re going to go down to stop it, and if you want to join us, come on!”

With that, Mann leaped from the stage and raced up the aisle towards the doors. The Dreamland Theater, full that night as always, emptied within five minutes, the audience pouring out into the mounting chaos of the street.

In the show, this incident is moved to the next day and O.B. and his wife seem to be in charge of the theater, which is empty because of the riot outdoors. That day, the real O.B. Mann led a group of black fighters in the defense of Mount Zion Baptist Church, killing several white men; when the church was set on fire, he escaped alive against all odds and fled Tulsa. Six months later, by which point the town had committed itself to forgetting the massacre ever happened, he returned, dying of natural causes in the 1940s. Steven G. Norfleet’s character is named “O.B. Williams,” a conflation of Mann and the man who owned the Dreamland Theater, John Williams; Alexis Louder, who plays his wife, is billed as “Ruth Williams,” although John Williams’ wife was named Loula and Mann was unmarried. But besides changing the names, the only person in Watchmen’s version of World War I and Tulsa Massacre that doesn’t have any historical counterpart at all is Will Reeves, the kid who escapes one of the United States’ worst white supremacist massacres alive and more or less unharmed, thanks to his parents’ courage and heroism. That stuff only happens in comic books.