World War I -- Life Histories/Section 001/Edwin Björkman

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The life and works of Edwin Björkman

Edwin Björkman
A photograph of Edwin Björkman (1855- 1954)
Known forEmployee for the Committee on Public Information, the British Ministry of Information; Director of the NC Federal Writers' Project

Overview[edit]

This page details the life of Edwin Björkman, a Swedish writer and government employee for the U.S. and the U.K. during World War I.

Björkman helped shape literary culture through his plays, as well as his political commentaries about the war and its impression on immigrants. His direct war efforts involved the distribution of information and anti-German sentiment through work at the British Department of Information and the Scandinavian Bureau of the American Committee on Public Information.

His time with the New York Sun Times in 1891 was likely the impetus for both governments to recruit Björkman for appealing through writing to immigrants during wartime. Following his war "service," Björkman relocated to Asheville, NC, where he led the NC Chapter of the Federal Writer's Project.

Wartime Professions[edit]

Björkman’s participation in the Great War was epitomized by his roles in providing information— with "the Committee on Public Information" in the U.S. and the British Department of Information in Sweden.[1] His specific duties to each organization are only vaguely documented but can be characterized by his proactive communication. Björkman distributed printed, propagandized material and more directly persuaded Swedish citizens to support the allied cause.[2]

George Creel wrote to Björkman that he had "given [him] a very complete understanding of our desires in the matter of rallying the Swedish people in the United States to the cause in which we all believe, and [he] are to use this letters your authority in approach to any group or individual." Such a statement reveals a great deal of confidence in Björkman’s abilities, as well as his loyalty to the allied cause.[3]

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Photographs- left to right, 1) a letter from George Creel, chairman of the Committee on Public Information; and 2) a correspondence from the British Ministry of Information. All of the above are part of the Southern Historical Collection at Wilson Library.

The Committee on Public Information[edit]

George Creel, Chairman of the Committee on Public Information 1917-19[4]

The Committee on Public Information- directed by George Creel, a prominent influence on the home front- was established in 1918. The entity is responsible for a collection of advertising and marketing efforts, namely campaigns encouraging the conservation of fundamental foods and resources, as well as the procurement of war bonds.[5]

Aiming to rally American citizens at home, the CPI turned to strong pathetic appeals to contextualize the obstacles the U.S. faced at war, and how citizens refraining from military involvement could contribute their part to a larger Allied victory.[6]

Within the CPI, Creel published annual reports citing the group’s progress and his sentiments and appraisal of war conservation and production. Additionally, the CPI recruited and employed individuals— like Edwin Björkman— to encourage American and allied support in their native tongues.[7]

The Scandinavian Bureau of the Committee on Public Information[edit]

One of the 26 original divisions of the Committee on Public Information, the Scandinavian Bureau crafted messages of American patriotism to immigrants.[8] The service primarily served the Swedish, Norwegian, Danish, Finnish, and later the Dutch. Another notable Scandinavian involvements in WWI is the creation of the John Ericsson league, which rewarded patriotism among Swedish-born American citizens.[9] The Scandinavian Bureau’s chosen form of communication was largely weekly bulletins, outlining policy.

British Ministry of Information[edit]

Unlike the clearly-delegated structure of the American Committee on Public Information, British distribution of propaganda and anti-German media in 1914 was less explicitly organized.[10] The Department of Information was created in 1917, followed shortly by the Ministry of Information in 1918.[11] Björkman served as a representative for the British Ministry of Information in Sweden, with whom he shared sporadic contact and checks for his services through the form of letters.

The Lord Beaverbrook was instated as the first Minister of Information, his term running from February 10, 1918 to November 4, 1918.[12] By December of 1918, the ministry was dissolved, only to be reinvigorated for World War II efforts. Eight months later, the U.S. Committee on Public Information similarly disappeared.[13]

Recognition for Government Work[edit]

George Creel, chairman of the 26-divsion Committee on Public Information, applauded Björkman’s sacrifice to the CPI in a letter on Jan. 16, 1918.[14] Creel had instructed the Swedish Björkman to rally public sentiment among the Swedish community— as well as the Norwegian, Danish, and Finnish.

Overseas, Björkman was eventually knighted by the Danish government for his influence and aid during the Great War.[15]

Sweden during Wartime[edit]

The Swedish Stance on War[edit]

Officially, Sweden intended to maintain neutrality and isolate itself from major powers’ reach during World War I. But this policy was at times questioned by allegations that the government projected a pro-German bias in news reports. Thus, to combat partisanship on the home front, Sweden scrupulously censored telegrams, justifying itself by “defensive” measures.[16]

Sofi Qvanström writes that “in Sweden, the First World War was indeed an imagined war, experienced indirectly, as a passive neutral bystander.” By pure nature of alliances, it is true that Sweden was on the fringe of war efforts at most. But Qvanström confirms that “the subject of neutrality and its content, how it should be interpreted and whether it should last, was a matter of constant debate, doubt and anxiety."[17]

Hjalmar Hammarskjöld, former prime minister of Sweden[18]

Prime minister Hjalmar Hammarskjold explained that maintaining neutrality would demonstrate that Sweden was not an opportunistic nation, looking to take advantage of the powers at play. Perhaps because of this grand political plan for Sweden and its war policy, Hammarskjold ultimately resigned.[19]

Björkman's Take on Swedish Opinion

Writing for the Morning Post, Björkman analyzed Scandinavian countries’ potential reactions to the Great War.[20] He outlines a long-lasting relationship between Sweden and Germany, demonstrated by Swedish books’ immediate translation into German. Still, Björkman identifies hope for the American and British cause.

“The Swedes have found it extremely hard to become enthusiastic about the Germans, whose arrogance, smug self-complacency, and unfailing tactlessness are constantly grating on them,” Björkman wrote.[21]

He wonders whether Russia is a factor even more important than Germany in deciding Swedish alliances. “The key to the situation is that Sweden does not love Germany so much as she fears, and for that reason hates, Russia,” he wrote.[22]

Journalists Abroad During Wartime

Few journalists escaped public critique, or at least response to their wartime work. Particularly amidst Swedish journalists writing abroad, like Björkman and David Edstrom, the task of maintaining a positive reputation in their homeland was crucial. In a heap of letters, Edstrom sought advice from the more seasoned journalist Björkman on how to temper Swedish responses to his article [23]. While Björkman assured Edstrom his reputation was in no immediate danger in the U.S., the anxious writer continued his correspondence with Björkman. At times in Edstrom’s correspondences, he seems obsessed rather than acquainted with the literary giant, as his letters to Bjökrman became frequent and emotionally-charged. [24]

Literary Career[edit]

Journalistic Career[edit]

From Björkman’s earliest days, he embodied the widely-talented “renaissance man.” He received his education at the South-End Higher Latin School in his birthplace of Stockholm, Sweden. With this formal training, Björkman made forays into the fields of acting, screenwriting, and — perhaps most prominently during World War I— journalism.[25]

Björkman originally published for a narrower audience, appearing in Swedish-language papers like the Swedish Minnesota Posten. But as these newspapers struggled, he expanded his career opportunities by beginning to report in English, in addition to Swedish.[26] As a result, Björkman’s journalistic career peaked— particularly around the time of his 1891 move to New York City and tenure with the "New York Sun Times".

Writing, especially during wartime, provokes a discussion. And Björkman was no stranger to public critiques, or even calls for advice from Swedish-American citizens and authors.[27]

Artistic Works[edit]

Parallel to his war-time efforts, Björkman developed an impressive literary career. His ascension into an exclusive literary community afforded him useful professional connections, as well as knowledge of private literary happenings. For instance, Björkman’s agent attached an early copy of poet Robert Frost’s work "An Old Man's Winter Night"to a correspondence— joking that Björkman would appreciate such literary “gossip."[28] From a financial standpoint, Björkman also accrued royalties from his screenplay “Karen”— of which he was extremely enthusiastic about to professional acquaintances.[29]

Agent björkman.jpg Robert Frostpoem.jpg Upton Sinclair.jpg

Photographs- left to right, 1) one receipt for royalties from "Karen;" 2) a poem by Robert Frost attached to a letter to Björkman from his literary agent; and 3) a personal letter from author Upton Sinclair. All of the above are part of the Southern Historical Collection at Wilson Library.

"A Guide to the Old North State"[30]

The Federal Writer's Project[edit]

Following his careers in government service and journalism, Björkman became director of the North Carolina Chapter of The Federal Writers’ Project, as well as the editor of the Asheville Times. The Writers’ Project— later renamed the “Writers’ Program” in June of 1939— was a New Deal program that operated from 1935 to 1942.[31] An effort of the Works Progress Administration, the Project hired authors, librarians, and journalists to work on documenting states’ cultures during the Great Depression.[32]

The North Carolina Chapter had three official objectives: 1) employee the unemployed; 2) enhance workers’ skill sets; and 3) preserve the state’s culture. Through archival research and a large collection of interviews, the Project writers created the “Guide to the Old North State,” published in 1939.[33] The book includes a chronology of North Carolina and a feature of 13 towns in North Carolina. A long-term goal was to produce a “North Carolina Encyclopedia” or “North Carolina Factbook,” but this was never achieved.[34]

The program changed as it was publicly critiqued, and as new political circumstances arose. In response to critiques of too much government funding for the Writers’ Program, the federal government required states to identify sponsors to cover a quarter of program costs.[35] The focus of the writers was profoundly influenced by war— and during World War II, content revolved around servicemen’s guides and war efforts.

Björkman’s Asheville office— the state headquarters— closed its doors in 1941.[36]

References[edit]

Björkman, edwin august. In 1979. Dictionary of north carolina biography., 163. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Federal writers' project. In . Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press.

The great war in stereoviews: Divisions of the committee on public information. [cited February 17, 2015 2015]. Available from http://greatwarin3d.org/CPIDivs.htm.

March 29, 1917: Swedish prime minister resigns over policy WWI. History.

Alice Kauser Dramatists' Agent and Plays, "Statement" (Statement of Royalities, Edwin Björkman Papers, 1855-1954, #3070, Southern Historical Collection, Alice Kauser Dramatists' Agent and Plays, 1918) (accessed February 11, 2015).

Badsey, Stephen. 2011. Mass politics and the western front. BBC News, March 3, 2011.

Björkman, Edwin. Scandinavia and the war. Morning Post.

———. Scandinavia and the war. Oxford Pamphlets ed. London, England: Oxford University.

Creel, George. 1919. Complete report of the chairman of the committee on public information. New York, NY: United States Committee on Public Information, , http://books.google.com/books?id=rnoMlRbtyNcC&printsec=frontcover&source=gbs_ge_summary_r&cad=0#v=onepage&q&f=false.

———. 1918. Committee on public information. My dear Mr. Björkman. January 16. Committee on Public Information, Washington D.C.

Eayre, Ellen Knowles. 1916. . October 9. Henry Holt and Company, Publishers, New York, NY.

Edström, David. 1918. . March 18. National Arts Club, New York, NY.

Fox, Jo. The legacy of world war one propaganda. British Library.

Hill, Michael. Federal writers' project. in The University of North Carolina Press [database online]. Chapel Hill, NC, 2006 [cited 2/22 2015]. Available from https://escapeofaurelie.files.wordpress.com/2014/11/london-baby-friends.jpg.

Qvarnström, Sofi. Sweden. In International encyclopedia of the first world war.International Encyclopedia of the First World War.

The Federal Writers' Project of the Federal Works Agency Work Projects Administration for the State of North Carolina. 1939. North carolina: A guide to the old north stateThe North Carolina Department of Conservation and Development.

———. 1939. North carolina: A guie to the old north state. Vol. 2015The North Carolina Department of Conservation and Development, https://archive.org/stream/northcarolinagui00fede/northcarolinagui00fede_djvu.txt (accessed February 29, 2015).

  1. Björkman, edwin august. In 1979. Dictionary of north carolina biography., 163. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
  2. Qvarnström, Sofi. Sweden. In International encyclopedia of the first world war.International Encyclopedia of the First World War.
  3. ———. 1918. Committee on public information. My dear Mr. Björkman. January 16. Committee on Public Information, Washington D.C.
  4. George creel, 1876 -, chairman of the committee on public information, 1917-19. 2004. (October 21).
  5. Creel, George. 1919. Complete report of the chairman of the committee on public information. New York, NY: United States Committee on Public Information, , http://books.google.com/books?id=rnoMlRbtyNcC&printsec=frontcover&source=gbs_ge_summary_r&cad=0#v=onepage&q&f=false.
  6. Ibid.
  7. Ibid.
  8. The great war in stereoviews: Divisions of the committee on public information. [cited February 17, 2015 2015]. Available from http://greatwarin3d.org/CPIDivs.htm.
  9. Björkman, edwin august. In 1979. Dictionary of north carolina biography., 163. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
  10. Badsey, Stephen. 2011. Mass politics and the western front. BBC News, March 3, 2011.
  11. Ibid.
  12. Fox, Jo. The legacy of world war one propaganda. British Library.
  13. Ibid.
  14. Creel, George. 1918. Committee on public information. My dear Mr. Björkman. January 16. Committee on Public Information, Washington D.C.
  15. Ibid.
  16. March 29, 1917: Swedish prime minister resigns over policy WWI. History.
  17. Qvarnström, Sofi. Sweden. In International encyclopedia of the first world war.International Encyclopedia of the First World War.
  18. Hjalmar hammarskjöld, prime minister of sweden1936. Wikipedia.
  19. March 29, 1917: Swedish prime minister resigns over policy WWI. History.
  20. Björkman, Edwin. Scandinavia and the war. Morning Post.
  21. Ibid.
  22. Ibid.
  23. Edström, David. 1918. . March 18. National Arts Club, New York, NY.
  24. Ibid.
  25. Björkman, edwin august. In 1979. Dictionary of north carolina biography., 163. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
  26. Ibid.
  27. Edström, David. 1918. . March 18. National Arts Club, New York, NY.
  28. Eayre, Ellen Knowles. 1916. . October 9. Henry Holt and Company, Publishers, New York, NY.
  29. Alice Kauser Dramatists' Agent and Plays, "Statement" (Statement of Royalities, Edwin Björkman Papers, 1855-1954, #3070, Southern Historical Collection, Alice Kauser Dramatists' Agent and Plays, 1918) (accessed February 11, 2015).
  30. Federal Writers' Project of the Federal Works Agency. 1939. North carolina: A guide to the old north state. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
  31. Hill, Michael. Federal writers' project. in The University of North Carolina Press [database online]. Chapel Hill, NC, 2006 [cited 2/22 2015]. Available from http://ncpedia.org/federal-writers-project.
  32. Ibid.
  33. Ibid.
  34. The Federal Writers' Project of the Federal Works Agency Work Projects Administration for the State of North Carolina. 1939. North carolina: A guide to the old north stateThe North Carolina Department of Conservation and Development.
  35. Hill, Michael. Federal writers' project. in The University of North Carolina Press [database online]. Chapel Hill, NC, 2006 [cited 2/22 2015]. Available from http://ncpedia.org/federal-writers-project.
  36. Ibid.