Edith Cavell a British nurse during the First World War (1914-1918) was executed by the Germans in October 1915 in Brussels her place of residence at that time. Although she was unknown before her execution she became a useful symbol for the 'culturally mobilized' allies (and some neutral countries) in justifying the Great War. By depicting her as a young and innocent girl journalists and artists (amongst others) underlined the brutality of the act which according to them resulted from the 'immoral' German Kultur. At the same time Cavell was portrayed as a mature and determined woman who symbolized the courageous and enlightened western civilization (and the British nation in particular). In the post-war years Cavell's role in British society gradually changed. In remembering her the British still referred to her as a brave and mature woman but she ceased to be a symbol for women's contribution to the war effort. Contrary to this return to a more traditional vision of society some culturally demobilized groups emphasized her groundbreaking role as a pacifist or internationalist. Despite the international attempts at reconciliation after the Treaty of Locarno (1925) Cavell's execution remained a controversial subject as Herbert Wilcox's film dawn produced in 1928 also demonstrated. The most important shift in interpreting the First World War was the more humanized representation of the former enemy. Nonetheless the former allies still saw Cavell as a martyr and a heroine. 'The spirit of Locarno' was not able to conceal the practically irreconcilable cultural gap between the winners and the losers.

Netherlands Institute for Sound and Vision
Tijdschrift voor Mediageschiedenis

Knijff, Christjan. (2007). Edith Cavell. De problematische representatie van een oorlogsheldin. Tijdschrift voor Mediageschiedenis, 10(1), 23–52. doi:10.18146/tmg.552