Atrocity propaganda is the spreading of information about the crimes committed by an enemy, which can be factual, but often includes or features deliberate fabrications or exaggerations. This can involve photographs, videos, illustrations, interviews, and other forms of information presentation or reporting.
The inherently violent nature of war means that exaggeration and invention of atrocities often becomes the main staple of propaganda. Patriotism is often not enough to make people hate the enemy, and propaganda is also necessary. "So great are the psychological resistances to war in modern nations", wrote Harold Lasswell, "that every war must appear to be a war of defense against a menacing, murderous aggressor. There must be no ambiguity about who [sic] the public is to hate." Human testimony is deemed unreliable even in ordinary circumstances, but in wartime, it can be further muddled by bias, sentiment, and misguided patriotism, becoming of no value whatsoever in establishing the truth.
According to Paul Linebarger, atrocity propaganda leads to real atrocities, as it incites the enemy into committing more atrocities, and, by heating up passions, it increases the chances of one's own side committing atrocities, in revenge for the ones reported in propaganda. Atrocity propaganda might also lead the public to mistrust reports of actual atrocities. In January 1944, Arthur Koestler wrote of his frustration at trying to communicate what he had witnessed in Nazi-occupied Europe: the legacy of anti-German stories during World War I, many of which were debunked in the postwar years, meant that these reports were received with considerable amounts of skepticism.
Like propaganda, atrocity rumors detailing exaggerated or invented crimes perpetrated by enemies are also circulated to vilify the opposing side. The application of atrocity propaganda is not limited to times of conflict but can be implemented to sway public opinion and create a Casus belli to declare war.
The term atrocity story (also referred to as atrocity tale) as defined by the American sociologists David G. Bromley and Anson D. Shupe refers to the symbolic presentation of action or events (real or imaginary) in such a context that they are made flagrantly to violate the (presumably) shared premises upon which a given set of social relationships should be conducted. The recounting of such tales is intended as a means of reaffirming normative boundaries. By sharing the reporter's disapproval or horror, an audience reasserts normative prescription and clearly locates the violator beyond the limits of public morality. The term was coined in 1979 by Bromley, Shupe, and Joseph Ventimiglia.
Bromley and others define an atrocity as an event that is perceived as a flagrant violation of a fundamental value. It contains the following three elements:
- moral outrage or indignation;
- authorization of punitive measures;
- mobilization of control efforts against the apparent perpetrators.
The veracity of the story is considered irrelevant.
The term was coined by Stimson and Webb in discussing the ways in which patients talk about doctors. It has also been applied in health care contexts to examine the way in which such stories are used to assert and defend the character of an occupation against illegitimate claims to its work or social standing.
By establishing a baseline lie and painting the enemy as a monster, atrocity propaganda serves as an intelligence function, since it wastes the time and resources of the enemy's counterintelligence services to defend itself. Atrocity propaganda can either be white, gray, or black. Atrocity propaganda is often white, as it makes no attempt to hide its source and is overt in nature. The propagandists' goal is to influence perceptions, attitudes, opinions, and policies; often targeting officials at all levels of government. Atrocity propaganda is violent, gloomy, and portrays doom to help rile up and get the public excited. It dehumanizes the enemy, making them easier to kill. Wars have become more serious, and less gentlemanly; the enemy must now be taken into account not merely as a man, but as a fanatic. So, "falsehood is a recognized and extremely useful weapon in warfare, and every country uses it quite deliberately to deceive its own people, attract neutrals, and to mislead the enemy." Harold Lasswell saw it as a handy rule for arousing hate, and that "if at first they do not enrage, use an atrocity. It has been employed with unvarying success in every conflict known to man."
The extent and devastation of World War I required nations to keep morale high. Propaganda was used here to mobilize hatred against the enemy, convince the population of the justness of one's own cause, enlist the active support and cooperation of neutral countries, and strengthen the support of one's allies. The goal was to make the enemy appear savage, barbaric, and inhumane.
Atrocity propaganda in history
Before the 20th century
In a sermon at Clermont during the Crusades, Urban II justified the war against Islam by claiming that the enemy "had ravaged the churches of God in the Eastern provinces, circumcised Christian men, violated women, and carried out the most unspeakable torture before killing them." Urban II's sermon succeeded in mobilizing popular enthusiasm in support of the People's Crusade.
Lurid tales purporting to unveil Jewish atrocities against Christians were widespread during the Middle Ages. The charge against Jews of kidnapping and murdering Christian children to consume their blood during Passover became known as blood libel.
In the 17th century, the English press fabricated graphic descriptions of atrocities allegedly committed by Irish Catholics against English Protestants, including the torture of civilians and the raping of women. The English public reacted to these stories with calls for stern reprisals. During the Irish rebellion of 1641, lurid reports of atrocities, including of pregnant women who had been ripped open and had their babies pulled out, provided Oliver Cromwell with justification for his subsequent slaughter of defeated Irish rebels.
In 1782, Benjamin Franklin wrote and published an article purporting to reveal a letter between a British agent and the governor of Canada, listing atrocities supposedly perpetrated by Native American allies of Britain against colonists, including detailed accounts of the scalping of women and children. The account was a fabrication, published in the expectation that it would be reprinted by British newspapers and therefore sway British public opinion in favor of peace with the United States.
After the 1857 Sepoy Mutiny, stories began to circulate in the British and colonial press of atrocities, especially rapes of European women, in places like Cawnpore; a subsequent official inquiry found no evidence for any of the claims.
In the lead up to the Spanish–American War, Pulitzer and Hearst published stories of Spanish atrocities against Cubans. While occasionally true, the majority of these stories were fabrications meant to boost sales.
World War I
Atrocity propaganda was widespread during World War I, when it was used by all belligerents, playing a major role in creating the wave of patriotism that characterised the early stages of the war. British propaganda is regarded as having made the most extensive use of fictitious atrocities to promote the war effort.
One such story was that German soldiers were deliberately mutilating Belgian babies by cutting off their hands, in some versions even eating them. Eyewitness accounts told of having seen a similarly mutilated baby. As Arthur Ponsonby later pointed out, in reality a baby would be very unlikely to survive similar wounds without immediate medical attention.
Another atrocity story involved a Canadian soldier, who had supposedly been crucified with bayonets by the Germans (see The Crucified Soldier). Many Canadians claimed to have witnessed the event, yet they all provided different version of how it had happened. The Canadian high command investigated the matter, concluding that it was untrue.
Other reports circulated of Belgian women, often nuns, who had their breasts cut off by the Germans. A story about German corpse factories, where bodies of German soldiers were supposedly turned into glycerine for weapons, or food for hogs and poultry, was published in a Times article on April 17, 1917. In the postwar years, investigations in Britain and France revealed that these stories were false.
In 1915, the British government asked Viscount Bryce, one of the best-known contemporary historians, to head the Committee on Alleged German Outrages which was to investigate the allegations of atrocities. The report purported to prove many of the claims, and was widely published in the United States, where it contributed to convince the American public to enter the war. Few at the time criticised the accuracy of the report. After the war, historians who sought to examine the documentation for the report were told that the files had mysteriously disappeared. Surviving correspondence between the members of the committee revealed they actually had severe doubts about the credibility of the tales they investigated.
World War II
During World War II, atrocity propaganda was not used on the same scale as in World War I, as by then it had long been discredited by its use during the previous conflict. There were exceptions in some propaganda films, such as Hitler's Children, Women in Bondage, and Enemy of Women, which portrayed the Germans (as opposed to just Nazis) as enemies of civilization, abusing women and the innocent. Hitler's Children is now spoken of as "lurid", while Women in Bondage is described as a low-budget exploitation film; the latter carries a disclaimer that "everything in the film is true", but facts are often distorted or sensationalized.
However, the Germans often claimed that - largely accurate - descriptions of German atrocities were just "atrocity propaganda" and a few Western leaders were thus hesitant to believe early reports of Nazi atrocities, especially the existence of concentration camps, death camps and the many massacres perpetrated by German troops and SS Einsatzgruppen during the war. Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt knew from radio intercepts via Bletchley Park that such massacres were widespread in eastern Europe as the war progressed, especially in Poland. Moreover, the existence of concentration camps like Dachau was well known both in Germany and throughout the world as a result of German propaganda itself, as well as many exposures by escapees and others from 1933 onwards. Their discovery towards the end of the war shocked many in the west, especially of Bergen-Belsen and Dachau by allied soldiers, but the atrocities carried out there were amply supported by the facts on the ground. The Nuremberg trials in 1945/6 confirmed the extent of genocide, Nazi medical experimentation, massacres and torture on a very wide scale. Later Nuremburg trials produced abundant evidence of atrocities carried out on prisoners and captives.
Newspapers such as the New York Times ran stories denouncing the "ghastly, deliberate crippling of children" and noting that while the stories had been met with skepticism by the public, they had been proven by the "incontrovertible testimony" of a UN official testifying the existence of booby-trap toys in the shape of harmonicas, radios, or birds.
The story likely originated from the PFM-1 mine, which was made from brightly colored plastic and had been indirectly copied from the American BLU-43 Dragontooth design. The Mine Action Coordination Center of Afghanistan reported that the allegations "gained a life for obvious journalist reasons", but otherwise had no basis in reality.
In November 1991, a Serbian photographer claimed to have seen the corpses of 41 children, which had allegedly been killed by Croatian soldiers. The story was published by media outlets worldwide, but the photographer later admitted to fabricating his account. The story of this atrocity was blamed for inciting a desire for vengeance in Serbian rebels, who summarily executed Croatian fighters who were captured near the alleged crime scene the day after the forged report was published.
Iraq invaded Kuwait in August 1990. On October 10, 1990, a young Kuwaiti girl known only as "Nayirah" appeared in front of a congressional committee and testified that she witnessed the mass murdering of infants, when Iraqi soldiers had snatched them out of hospital incubators and threw them on the floor to die. Her testimony became a lead item in newspapers, radio and TV all over the US. The story was eventually exposed as a fabrication in December 1992, in a CBC-TV program called To Sell a War. Nayirah was revealed to be the daughter of Kuwait's ambassador to the United States, and had not actually seen the "atrocities" she described take place; the PR firm Hill & Knowlton, which had been hired by the Kuwaiti government to devise a PR campaign to increase American public support for a war against Iraq, had heavily promoted her testimony.
In their study of 190 newspaper articles about former members of the Unification Church between 1974 and 1977, Bromley and others found that 188 contained atrocity stories and were largely hostile to the church. The most frequent atrocities were:
- Psychological violation of personal freedom and autonomy;
- Economic violations: reports that the church forced member to sell their private property and to give it to the church;
- Severing of the parent-child relation. This grew out of the hostility of families who had been rejected by members of the church;
- Political and legal atrocities, because the church was run by a foreigner.
According to the American sociologist Kurtz, there was an element of truth to many of these stories, but these things happen in many organizations and the coverage of the church was very negative.
In the runup to the 2003 Invasion of Iraq, press stories appeared in the United Kingdom and United States of a plastic shredder or wood chipper into which Saddam and Qusay Hussein fed opponents of their Baathist rule. These stories attracted worldwide attention and boosted support for military action, in stories with titles such as "See men shredded, then say you don't back war". A year later, it was determined there was no evidence to support the existence of such a machine.
In 2004, former Marine Staff Sgt. Jimmy Massey claimed that he and other Marines intentionally killed dozens of innocent Iraqi civilians, including a 4-year-old girl. His allegations were published by news organizations worldwide, but none of the five journalists -embedded with the troops and approved by the Pentagon- who covered his battalion said they saw reckless or indiscriminate shooting of civilians. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch dismissed his claim as "either demonstrably false or exaggerated".
In July 2003 an Iraqi woman, Jumana Hanna, testified that she had been subjected to inhumane treatment by Baathist policemen during two years of imprisonment, including being subjected to electric shocks and raped repeatedly. The story appeared on the front page of The Washington Post, and was presented to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee by then-Deputy Defense Secretary Paul D. Wolfowitz. In January 2005, articles in Esquire and The Washington Post concluded that none of her allegations could be verified, and that her accounts contained grave inconsistencies. Her husband, who she claimed had been executed in the same prison where she was tortured, was in fact still alive.
During the 2010 South Kyrgyzstan ethnic clashes, a rumor spread among ethnic Kyrgyz that Uzbek men had broken into a local women's dormitory and raped several Kyrgyz women. Local police never provided any confirmation that such an assault occurred.
During the Arab Spring, Libyan media was reporting atrocities by Muammar Gaddafi loyalists, who were ordered to perform mass "Viagra-fueled rapes" (see 2011 Libyan rape allegations). A later investigation by Amnesty International has failed to find evidence for these allegations, and in many cases has discredited them, as the rebels were found to have deliberately lied about the claims.
In July 2014, the Russian public broadcaster Channel 1 aired a report claiming that Ukrainian soldiers in Sloviansk had crucified a three-year-old boy to a board, and later dragged his mother with a tank, causing her death. The account of the only witness interviewed for the report was not corroborated by anyone else, and other media have been unable to confirm the story, despite claims in the testimony that many of the city's inhabitants had been forced to watch the killings. A reporter for Novaya Gazeta similarly failed to find any other witnesses in the city.
- Atrocity story
- Deviancy amplification spiral
- Falsehood in War-Time
- False flag
- Day-care sex-abuse hysteria
- Holocaust denial
- Media coverage of North Korea
- Moral panic
- The Politics of Religious Apostasy
- Yellow journalism
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- Bruendel, Steffen: Othering/Atrocity Propaganda, in: 1914-1918-online. International Encyclopedia of the First World War.
- Lies, damn lies, and reports of battlefield atrocities - The Independent
- Atrocity propaganda - The British Library