Propaganda in World War I
World War I was the first war in which mass media and propaganda played a significant role in keeping the people at home informed about what was occurring on the battlefields.  This was also the first war in which the government systematically produced propaganda as a way to target the public and alter their opinion. According to Eberhard Demm and Christopher H. Sterling:
- Propaganda could be used to arouse hatred of the foe, warn of the consequences of defeat, and idealize one's own war aims in order to mobilize a nation, maintain its morale, and make it fight to the end. It could explain setbacks by blaming scapegoats such as war profiteers, hoarders, defeatists, dissenters, pacifists, left-wing socialists, spies, shirkers, strikers, and sometimes enemy aliens so that the public would not question the war itself or the existing social and political system.
Media and censorship
The media was expected to take sides, not to remain neutral, in World War I. When Wilhelm II declared a state of war in Germany on July 31, the commanders of the army corps (German: Stellvertretende Generalkommandos) took control of the administration, including implementing a policy of press censorship, which was carried out under Walter Nicolai.
Censorship regulations were put in place in Berlin, with the War Press Office fully controlled by the Army High Command. Journalists were allowed to report from the front only if they were experienced officers who had "recognized patriotic views". Briefings to the press created a high degree of uniformity in wartime reporting. Contact between journalists and fighting troops was prohibited, and journalists spoke only to high-ranking officers and commanders.
Both sides initially prohibited any photography or filming. The primary visual representation relied on war painting though the Germans used some filmed newsreels that were heavily censored. The French preferred painting over photography, but some parties used photographs to document the aftermath of damage that had been inflicted on cities by artillery. However, photographs of battle scenes were reenactments by necessity.
When World War I started, the United States had become a leader in the art of filmmaking and the new profession of commercial advertising. Such newly-discovered technologies played an instrumental role in the shaping of the American mind and the altering of public opinion into supporting the war. Every country used careful edited newsreels to combine straight news reports and propaganda.
The most influential man behind the propaganda in the United States was President Woodrow Wilson. In his famous January 1918 declaration, he outlined the "Fourteen Points," which he said that the United States would fight to defend. Aside from the restoration of freedom in Europe in countries that were suppressed by the power of Germany, Wilson's Fourteen Points called for transparency regarding discussion of diplomatic matters, the free navigation of the seas in peace and in war, and equal trade conditions among all nations. The Fourteen Points became very popular across Europe, and motivated German Socialists especially. It served as a blueprint for world peace to be used for peace negotiations after the war. Wilson's points inspired audiences around the world and greatly strengthened the belief that Britain, France, and America were fighting for noble goals.
Committee on Public Information
In 1917 Wilson created the Committee on Public Information]. It reported directly to President Wilson and was essentially a massive generator of propaganda. The Committee on Public Information was responsible for producing films, commissioning posters, publishing numerous books and pamphlets, purchasing advertisements in major newspapers, and recruiting businessmen, preachers and professors to serve as public speakers in charge of altering public opinion at the communal level. The committee, headed by former investigative journalist George Creel, emphasized the message that America's involvement in the war was entirely necessary for achieving the salvation of Europe from the German and enemy forces. In his book titled How we Advertised America, Creel states that the committee was called into existence to make World War I a fight that would be a "verdict for mankind." He called the committee a voice that was created to plead the justice of America's cause before the jury of public opinion. Creel also refers to the committee as a "vast enterprise in salesmanship" and "the world's greatest adventure in advertising." The committee's message resonated deep within every American community and served as an organization that was responsible for carrying the full message of American ideals to every corner of the civilized globe. Creel and his committee used every possible mode to get their message across, including printed word, spoken word, the motion picture, the telegraph, the poster, and the signboard. All forms of communication were put to use to justify the causes that compelled America to take arms.
Creel set out systematically to reach every person in the United States multiple times with patriotic information about how the individual could contribute to the war effort. The CPI also worked with the post office to censor seditious counterpropaganda. Creel set up divisions in his new agency to produce and to distribute innumerable copies of pamphlets, newspaper releases, magazine advertisements, films, school campaigns, and the speeches of the Four Minute Men. The CPI created colourful posters that appeared in every store window to catch the attention of passers-by for a few seconds. Cinemas were widely attended, and the CPI trained thousands of volunteer speakers to make patriotic appeals during four-minute breaks, which were needed to change reels. They also spoke at churches, lodges, fraternal organizations, labour unions, and even logging camps. Creel boasted that in 18 months, his 75,000 volunteers had delivered over 7.5 million four-minute orations to over 300 million listeners in a nation of 103 million people. The speakers attended training sessions through local universities and were given pamphlets and speaking tips on a wide variety of topics, such as buying Liberty bonds, registering for the draft, rationing food, recruiting unskilled workers for munitions jobs, and supporting Red Cross programs.
Historians were assigned to write pamphlets and in-depth histories of the causes of the European war. Beginning of World War One, both sides of the conflict used propaganda to shape international opinion. Thus, propaganda become a weapon which influence countries.
Self-justification and assigning blame
As their armies began to clash, the opposing governments engaged in a media battle attempting to avoid blame for causing the war, and casting blame on other countries, through the publication of carefully selected documents, basically consisting of diplomatic exchanges. The Germans were first, and other major participants followed within days.
A color book is a collection of diplomatic correspondence and other official documents published by a government for educational or political reasons, and to promote the government position on current or past events. In wartime or times of crisis, they have especially been used as a propaganda vehicle, to justify governmental action, or to assign blame to foreign actors. The choice of what documents to include, how to present themm, and even what order to list them, can make them tantamount to government-issued propaganda.
In the early 17th century, blue books first came into use in England as a means of publishing diplomatic correspondence and reports. They were so named, because of their blue cover. During the time of the Napoleonic Wars in the early 19th century, they were being published regularly. By the second half of the century, Turkey began publishing its own version in red, and the concept of color books spread to other countries in Europe, with each country using one color: Germany using white; France: yellow; red: Austria-Hungary (Spain also used red later, as did the Soviet Union); green: Italy; gray: Belgium; orange: Netherlands (and Tsarist Russia). This concept spread to the Americas as well, with the United States using red, Mexico: orange, and various countries in Central and South America using other colors; it even spread as far as China (yellow) and Japan (gray).:26
The German White Book[a] appeared on 4 August 1914, and was the first such book to come out. It contains 36 documents.[b] Within a week, most other combatant countries had published their own book, each named with a different color name. France held off until 1 December 1914, when they finally published their Yellow Book. Other combatants in the war published similar books: the Blue Book of Britain, the Orange Book of Russia, the Yellow Book of France, and the Austro-Hungarian Red Book, the Belgian Grey Book, and the Serbian Blue Book.
The French Yellow Book (Livre Jaune), completed after three months of work, contained 164 documents. These works of propaganda aimed to convince public opinion of the validity of their rights.:7–19 Unlike the others which were limited to the weeks before the start of the war, the Yellow Book included some documents from 1913, putting Germany in a bad light by shedding light on their mobilization for a European war. Some of the documents in the Yellow Book were challenged by Germany as not genuine, but their objections were mostly ignored, and the Yellow Book was widely cited as a resource in the July crisis of 1914.
It turned out after the war was over, that the Yellow Book wasn't complete, or entirely accurate. Historians who gained access to previously unpublished French material were able to use it in their report to the Senate entitled "Origins and responsibilities for the Great War"[c] as did ex-President Raymond Poincaré. The conclusion set forth in the report of the 1919 French Peace Commission is illustrative of the two-pronged goals of blaming their opponents while justifying their own actions, as laid out in two sentences:
The war was premeditated by the Central Powers, as well as by their Allies Turkey and Bulgaria, and is the result of acts deliberately committed with the intention of making it inevitable.
Germany, in concordance with Austria-Hungary, worked deliberately to have the many conciliatory proposals of the Entente Powers set aside, and their efforts to avoid war nullified.— Peace Conference Commission on the Responsibility of the Authors of the War and on Enforcement of Penalties
Later, publication of complete archives from the period of the July crisis by Germany, Britain, and Austria, as well as some from Soviet archives, revealed some truths that the Yellow Book conveniently left out. In particular, was Yellow Book document #118, which showed a Russian mobilization in response to Austrian mobilization the day before on 30 July, but in fact, the order of mobilization was reversed; Russian mobilized first. After a contorted explanation by Quai d'Orsay, confidence in the Yellow Book was ruined, and historians avoided using it.
In her essay for the April 1937 issue of Foreign Affairs, Bernadotte E. Schmitt examined recently published diplomatic correspondence in the Documents Diplomatiques Français and compared it to the documents in the French Yellow Book published in 1914, concluding that the Yellow Book "was neither complete nor entirely reliable" and went into some detail in examining documents either missing from the Yellow Book, or presented out of order to confuse or mislead the sequence in which events occurred. He concluded,
The documents will not change existing views to any great extent. They will not establish the innocence of France in the minds of Germans. On the other hand, the French will be able to find in them a justification of the policy they pursued in July 1914; and in spite of Herr Hitler's recent declaration repudiating Article 231 of the Treaty of Versailles, they will continue, on the basis of these documents, to hold Germany primarily responsible for the Great War.— France and the Outbreak of the World War
In the German White Book, anything that could benefit the Russian position was redacted.
German propagandists called the Yellow Book a vast "collection of falsifications". France was accused of having given its unconditional support to Russia. Germany tried to show that it was forced into general mobilization by that of Russia, which in turn, blamed Austria-Hungary. The Allied documents on the circumstances of the declaration of war, as well as the war crimes committed by the German army, constituted the basis on which the Allies would rely in 1919 to formulate Article 231 of the Treaty of Versailles assigning the exclusive responsibility for the outbreak of the war to Germany and Austria-Hungary.
A report to parliament by German jurist Hermann Kantorowicz after the war investigating the causes of World War I found that Germany had a large share of responsibility in triggering World War I, and cited the White Book as one example, in which about 75 percent of the documents presented in it were falsified.
Atrocity propaganda exploiting sensational stories of rape, mutilation, and wanton murder of prisoners by the Germans filled the Allied press. The Germans and Austro-Hungarian soldiers were depicted as inhumane savages, and their barbarity was emphasized as a way to provide justification for the war. In 1914, prominent forensic scientist, R.A. Reiss was commissioned by the Serbian prime minister to conduct an investigation on war crimes. It was done as a way to depict the multiple acts of violence that had been committed against civilians by the occupying Austro-Hungarian forces in Serbia in 1914. The reports were written in vivid detail and described individual acts of violence against civilians, soldiers, and prisoners of war. Some of the actions included the use of forbidden weapons, the demolition of ancient libraries and cathedrals, and the rape and torture of civilians. Graphic illustrations, accompanied by first-hand testimonies that described the crimes as savagely unjust, were compelling reminders to justify the war. Other forms of atrocity propaganda depicted the alternative to war to involve German occupation and domination, which was regarded as unacceptable across the political spectrum. As the Socialist Pioneer of Northampton put it in 1916, there could "be no peace while the frightful menace of world domination by force of German armed might looms about and above us".
Propaganda was used in the war, like any other war, with the truth suffering. Propaganda ensured that the people learned only what their governments wanted them to know. The lengths to which governments would go to, to try to blacken the enemy's name, reached a new level during the war. To ensure that everybody thought as the government wanted, all forms of information were controlled. Newspapers were expected to print what governments wanted readers to read. That would appear to be a form of censorship, but the newspapers of Britain, which were effectively controlled by the media barons of the time, were happy to follow and printed headlines that were designed to stir up emotions, regardless of whether they were accurate or not. The most infamous headlines included "Belgium child's hands cut off by Germans" and "Germans crucify Canadian officer".
Use of patriotism and nationalism
Patriotism and nationalism were two of the most important themes of propaganda. In 1914, the British army was made up of not only professional soldiers but also volunteers and so the government relied heavily on propaganda as a tool to justify the war to the public eye. It was used to promote recruitment into the armed forces and to convince civilians that if they joined, their sacrifices would be rewarded. One of the most impressionable images of the war was the "Your Country Needs You" poster, a distinctive recruitment poster of Lord Kitchener (similar to the later Uncle Sam poster) pointing at his British audience to convince it to join the war effort. Another message that was deeply embedded in national sentiment the religious symbolism of St George, who was shown slaying a dragon, which represented the German forces. Images of enthusiastic patriotism seemed to encapsulate the tragedy of the European and imperial populations. Such images were able to conjure up feelings of required patriotism and activism among those who were influenced.
The German Kaiser often appeared in Allied propaganda. His pre-1898 image of a gallant Victorian gentleman was long gone, replaced by a dangerous troublemaker in the pre-1914 era. During the war he became the personified image of German aggression; by 1919 the British press was demanding his execution. He died in exile in 1941, by which time his former enemies had moderated their criticism and instead turned the hatred against Hitler.
Use as weapon
The major foreign ministries prepared propaganda designed to reach public opinion and elite opinion in other countries, especially the neutral powers. For example the British were especially effective in turning American opinion against Germany before 1917. Propaganda thus became an integral part of the diplomatic history of World War I and was designed to build support for the cause or to undermine support for the enemy. Eberhard Demm and Christopher H. Sterling, state:
- Propaganda could also win over neutral states by encouraging friendly elements and local warmongers, or, at a minimum, keep neutrals out of the war by fostering non-intervention or pacifist views....It could help retain allies, break up enemy alliances, and prepare exhausted or dissatisfied nations to defect or make a separate piece.
Nonmilitary propaganda into neutral countries war was designed to build support for the cause or to undermine support for the enemy. Wartime diplomacy focused on five issues: propaganda campaigns to shape news reports and commentary; defining and redefining the war goals, which became harsher as the war went on; luring neutral nations (Italy, Ottoman Empire, Bulgaria, and Romania) into the coalition by offering slices of enemy territory; and encouragement by the Allies of nationalistic minority movements within the Central Powers, especially among Czechs, Poles, and Arabs.
In addition, multiple peace proposals came from neutrals and from both sides although none of them progressed very far. Some were neutral efforts to end the horrors. Others were propaganda ploys to show one side as being reasonable and the other as obstinate.
As soon as the war began, Britain cut Germany's undersea communication cables as a way to ensure that the Allies had a monopoly on the most expedient means of transmitting news from Europe to press outlets in the United States. That as a way to influence reporting of the war around the world and to gain sympathy and support from the other nations. In 1914, a secret British organization, by the name of Wellington House, was set up and called for journalists and newspaper editors to write articles that sympathized with Britain as a way to counter statements that were made by the enemy. Wellington House implemented the action not only through favourable reports in the press of neutral countries but also by publishing its own newspapers, which were circulated around the globe. Wellington House was so secret that much of Parliament was in the dark. Wellington House had a staff of 54 people, which made it the largest British foreign propaganda organization. From the Wellington House came to the publication The War Pictorial, which, by December 1916, reached a circulation of 500,000, covering 11 languages. The War Pictorial was deemed to have such a powerful effect on different masses that it could turn countries like China against Germany.
Propaganda and its ideological impacts on women and family life in the era differed by country. British propaganda often promoted the idea that women and their families were threatened by the enemy, particularly the German army. British propaganda played on the fears of the country's citizens by depicting the German army as a ravenous force that horrified the towns and cities it passed through, raped women, and tore families apart. The terror ensued by the gendered propaganda influenced Britain's war policies, and violence against the domestic sphere in wartime became seen as an inexcusable war crime.
In the Ottoman Empire, the United States, and in other countries, women were encouraged to enter the workforce since the number of men kept shrinking during the war. The Ottoman government already had a system that incorporated the participation of women in governmental committees that had established in 1912 and 1913. Thus, when the war began, the government was able to spread patriotic propaganda to women all over the empire through the women's committees. Propaganda encouraged women to enter the workforce, both to support the Empire and to become self-sufficient by state-sanctioned work that was specified for women.
American war propaganda often featured images of women but typically reflected traditional gender norms. While there was increasingly a call to employ women to replace the men who were at war, American propaganda also emphasized sexual morality. Women's clubs often produced attitudes against gambling and prostitution.
- Home front during World War I
- British propaganda during World War I
- Wellington House, the common name for Britain's War Propaganda Bureau
- History of the United Kingdom during World War I#Propaganda
- Italian propaganda during World War I
- Opposition to World War I
- Centre for the Study of the Causes of the War
- Causes of World War I
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Media related to World War I propaganda at Wikimedia Commons
- Badsey, Stephen: Propaganda: Media in War Politics, in: 1914-1918-online. International Encyclopedia of the First World War.
- Demm, Eberhard: Propaganda at Home and Abroad, in: 1914-1918-online. International Encyclopedia of the First World War.
- Brendel, Steffen: Othering/Atrocity Propaganda , in: 1914-1918-online. International Encyclopedia of the First World War.
- Aulich, James: Graphic Arts and Advertising as War Propaganda, in: 1914-1918-online. International Encyclopedia of the First World War.
- Records of World War I propaganda posters are held by Simon Fraser University's Special Collections and Rare Books
- Cooke Ian: Propaganda as a Weapon? Influencing International Opinion., The British Library, The British Library, 23 Jan. 2014,
- Cooke Ian: Propaganda in World War I: Means, Impacts and Legacies., Fair Observer, 9 Oct. 2014, .
- Ther Vanessa: Propaganda at Home (Germany), in: 1914-1918-online. International Encyclopedia of the First World War.
- “World War 1 Propaganda Posters.” Examples of Propaganda from WW1 | American WW1 Propaganda Posters Page 5,
- “World War 1 Propaganda Posters.” Examples of Propaganda from WW1 | German WW1 Propaganda Posters,
- Canadian Posters from the First World War, online exhibit on Archives of Ontario website
- The French Woman in War-Time
- Stage Women's War Relief
- Women are Working Day and Night to Win the War
- Joan of Arc Saved France. Women of America, Save Your Country--Buy War Savings Stamps