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Christine is purportedly a compilation of letters from a "gifted young English girl studying in Germany just before the outbreak of the war" (Charms 188) to her mother in Britain. Written by Elizabeth von Arnim and presented under her anonymous pen-name Alice Cholmondeley, the work dated from May 28, 1914 to August 4, 1914, the letters were published in 1917. "Christine" explained her experience with German pre-war culture; however, Christine did not exist. She was a fictional character that some claim was Arnim's attempt at anti-German propaganda. These detailed letters helped to convey a picture to British citizens of the supposed state of mind of the German public during the chaotic days leading up to World War I.
The character of Christine was introduced to the British and American public as an eyewitness to the events that explain the German mindset leading into the war, which makes her character more believable. She addresses her mother in her letters with heartfelt sentiments that encourage the average reader to sympathize with her case. For example, she uses phrases like "Precious" and "Beloved" to refer to her mother.
Christine speaks in terms of how the German men, women, children, and babies all conform to the aims of the nation leading into World War I. She discusses the intensity of the German people as they begin to develop bloodlust at the prospect of gaining wealth through warfare with France and Russia. "… [The] Germans have gone mad… [The streets] seem full of drunken people, shouting up and down with red faces all swollen with excitement." Christine also complains of the mindless marching and the callousness of the Germans as she describes them as slaves—"abject, greedy, and pitiful." An article appearing in Nation stated if this book was true in nature, then it would "wipe out distinction between attitude of German people and the German government," ("Did the German" 1917). This is to say it would leave little doubt in the minds of the American people that the German people and their government had different views. The review would receive proper appreciation once the definite authorship was confirmed by the publishers, ("Did the German" 1917). The Christine piece was believed by many, because it offered an explanation and appeared to be written by what appears to be a woman without an agenda. The book also, would help the American effort to rally the American people and gain support for the war. Christine provided the audience with new details to plug into the stereotype of the German people.
Arnim also went to great lengths to keep the public from knowing her true identity. "The adopted pseudonym, her subsequent fierce repudiation of authorship, even among intimate friends, may well be due to her realization that any suspected connection with herself might result in the most unhappy consequences…" (Charms 189).
Leslie De Charms addresses the success of the Christine book in her biography saying "… Christine would not only be widely read at home, but would be heard of across the Channel and praised or abused according to the political sympathies of readers" (Charms 189).
Many book reviewers questioned if the author was a young English woman traveling to Germany for violin lessons, The Dial of Chicago stated, "the doubt as to the legitimacy of the letter comes when one reads the initial one…. the fluency of the style, seem to indicate that 'Christine' is a clever, but fabricated narrative" (Dial Sept 13 1917). Another review from The New Republic, published "were 'Christine' genuine, it would be impressive," ("Bit o' Hate" October 6 1917). The style of writing in the first letter forces the reader to question the intended audience. Throughout the first letter 'Christine' sets up the scene explaining her background; something one would not expect an individual to do when writing home to her mother for the first time; especially if she is writing in a hurry before she unpacks.
Also, while Arnim might have gone to great lengths to keep her identity secret, some individuals had suspicions she was the one writing the letters, "in style and feeling 'Christine' reminds one strongly of 'Fraulein Schmidt and Mr. Anstruther' and other works of the Baroness von Arnim". (Athenaeum London, Book Review Digest 1917).
Another aspect that made Christine unbelievable was the level of awareness for individuals in each German social class. "The letters thus show four different classes of people--the middle-class inhabitants of the boarding house; the well-to-do country folk, the artistic set, and the aristocratic Junker set; each one of these different sets, its opinions and manners and point of view, we see through the medium of these letters", (NY Times Aug 5 1917). This is somewhat of an unbelievable feat when one considers these were letters written by a girl who grew up poor, and the letters were written for her mother. Another review of Christine by the Boston Transcript had this to say about the book, "it is not often that a collection of letters intended for no eyes but those of a beloved mother turns out to an amazingly accurate revelation of the real, hidden nature of a great people," (Boston Transcript Book Review Digest 1917).
The Christine letters
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First letter - May 28, 1914
Christine explains that she has made it to Berlin safely. She explains that even before she unpacks she is writing her mother to tell her how she is doing. Christine compares herself to a "young man starting his career" (Chomondeley 1). She goes on to say that it will only be a year or less before she comes back home. Christine explains that she knows her mother and that she will have to be brave. Christine then expresses her wishes that her mother could come to Berlin with her, but because of financial reasons they are limited. Her intentions of taking care of her mother are clear, and explains that it is now her turn to provide for the two of them. Christine asks that her mother gardens because it will help pass the time, and it will make her happy. She also goes on to say that they will have the "little house they dreamed about in London" (Chomondeley 2-3). This is the first time that we learn that Christine's mother is a widow. This is also the first time that we meet Frau Berg. The letter indicates that the house where she will be living is even cleaner than her house back in London. Thanks to the German that she learned in her youth, she understands much of what is being spoken to her, but still has limited vocabulary that she uses herself. In Christine the Germanic words she uses are as follows: • Nicht Wahr- not really (Chomondeley 5) • Wundervoll- wonderful (Chomondeley 5) • Natürlich-naturally (Chomondeley 5) • Herrlich-respectable (Chomondeley 5) • Ich gratuliere- I congratulate(Chomondeley 5) • Doch- surely, yes (Chomondeley 5) She closes the letter explaining how excited and happy she is to be in Germany. She also intends to write her mother later on in the evening.
According to U.S. Senator Hiram Johnson, "The first casualty when war comes is truth" (Ferri, 1987). Since the beginning of World War I, propaganda has played an important role in exploiting the opposition. The credibility of propaganda can be determined by analyzing the source and comparing it with documents that are factual. In particular, British propaganda in World War I used Christine, a series of letters written by Elizabeth von Arnim, pen name Alice Cholmondeley, to promote Anti-German sentiment propaganda. When comparing the Christine letters to authentic war time letters, they were found to be fabricated.
Christine as propaganda
Christine, while playing on the existing prejudices against the Germans, was also a small part of a larger British plan to induce the United States into entering the Great War. Other sections of this British plan included the Bryce Commission (also known as the Committee on Alleged German Outrages), the propaganda surrounding Edith Cavell and Gilbert Parker, and the Zimmermann Telegram.
World War I began in the summer of 1914, and the original combatants were Austria and Germany versus Serbia, Russia, France, and England. The original plan of the Germans, the Schlieffen Plan, called for the German troops to march through Belgium to penetrate the French border and capture Paris, and collapse the French government within three to four weeks. The previously neutral Belgium fought back against the German soldiers as they were marching through the country, leading to the failure of the Schlieffen Plan and violent attacks against the Belgian people. The atrocities in Belgium led to British involvement and eventually the British government sought assistance from the United States who had been skeptical about entering European wars up to that point. Christine was published in 1917, the same year the British convinced the United States to enter the war.
The novel utilized the rhetorical framework laid out by Aristotle that focused on pathos, ethos, and logos as a means to persuade the audience. Von Arnim mostly appeals to Pathos in the letters, which focuses on and plays on the emotions of the audience. Then novel’s introduction begins with a sentimental summary of the supposed origin of the letters:
“My daughter Christine, who wrote me these letters, died at a hospital in Stuttgart on the morning of August 8th, 1914, of acute double pneumonia. I have kept the letters private for nearly three years, because, apart from the love in them that made them sacred things in days when we each still hoarded what we had of good, they seemed to me, who did not know the Germans and though of them, as most people in England for a long while thought, without any bitterness and with a great inclination to explain away and excuse, too extreme and sweeping in their judgments.” (von Arnim, foreword)
Even the foreword to the novel creates an emotional impact on the reader and an attachment to the main character, whom they have not yet met. Most of the novel consists of similar quotations that play on the maternal instincts of mothers and the hopes and expectations of young families during the war time era. The character Christine’s eyewitness accounts of the German people is an example of logos, which lends a sense of validity to the narration. Both the portrayal of the heroine as young, innocent, studious, and independent as well as the descriptive and observant writing style give an example of the use of ethos by von Arnim.
The letters also follow the rhetorical framework of Ronald Reid, particularly the use of ethnocentrism, which is the creation of an “us” by way of constructing a definitive “them.” Christine's depiction of the German people, which parallels the prejudices previously mentioned, creates a definitive “us” by separating her from the Germans’ reactions to the outbreak of the war and defining herself as a foreigner. Her depiction of the German people creates juxtaposition with her quiet and mature nature from her British upbringing and portrays them as a wholly barbaric people.
After publication, the letters were widely accepted as true by the British and U.S. audiences. Despite the fact that it was widely known to be fiction, it was reviewed by many sources as being a truthful depiction of the German people. The portrayals in the novel mirrored the pre-existing prejudices held by the British and U.S. citizens against the Germans. A lot of British propaganda portrayed them as being barbarians and heathens, which was largely contributed to by the violence against Belgium during the Shlieffen Plan. These stereotypes made it easier for the public to consider the novel to be more fact than fiction. One article("Germany Vividly Portrayed in Fiction") from the New York Times describes the letters as “a book that is true in essentials though it wears the garb of fiction- so real is it that one is tempted to doubt whether it is fiction at all.”
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- "To-day's most eagerly discussed novel Christine by Alice Cholmondeley" [Review of the book Christine]. New York Times, Aug. 25, 1917. Retrieved from ProQuest Historical Newspapers The New York Times (1851–2005)
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