How Propaganda Shaped The Great War for Britain and Germany

Peter Curry

3 mins

23 Oct 2014

Image credit: Commons.

After the First World War, both sides were convinced that the other had gained the advantage in propaganda.

‘Today words have become battles’, declared German General Erich Ludendorff, ‘the right words, battles won; the wrong words, battles lost.’ Both Ludendorff and General Hindenburg claimed that propaganda had seen to the ‘demoralisation’ of their troops in the latter stages of the war. George Weill remarked that ‘each of warring nations persuaded itself that its government had neglected propaganda, whereas the enemy had been most effective.’

“Destroy This Mad Brute” – United States wartime propaganda, from Harry Hopps, 1917. ‘Kultur’, the German word for culture, is written on the ape’s club. Credit: Library of Congress / Commons.

Both sides used propaganda as a recruitment tool. The British, and later the Americans, encouraged men to enlist using posters depicting the Hun as an aggressive invader, often with apelike characteristics.

Propaganda and war bonds

Propaganda was also a tool for fund-raising. British propaganda films You! and For the Empire exhorted people to buy war bonds. The latter even showed exactly the quantity of munitions that certain donations would provide.

Not all propaganda was produced by governments. Some was generated by private individuals and autonomous groups. A large proportion of wartime reels and films were produced by the private sector with little prompting from the state.

Anti-Serbian propaganda. The text reads, “But the little Serb has also stunk up the entire world.” Credit: Wilhelm S. Schröder / Commons.

Drawing a negative image

Newspapers rarely needed any prompting to attack the national character of the Germans. The Sunday Chronicle alleged that the Germans had cut off the hands of Belgian children. Journalist William Le Queux described the ‘the wild orgies of blood and debauchery’ in which the Germans were supposedly engaged, including ‘the ruthless violation and killing of defenceless, girls and children of tender age.’ At least eleven pamphlets on this subject were published in Britain between 1914 and 1918, including Lord Bryce’s official Report … on Alleged German Atrocities in 1915.

American posters capitalised on this representation of Germany, depicting the Hun advancing on Belgian women to persuade American citizens to buy war bonds.

Souvenirs became an important part of the propaganda machine too. There were toy tanks in Britain, in France, Lusitania jigsaws and a militarised version of Monopoly, and in Germany, miniature artillery pieces capable of firing peas.

Germany fought back against its negative image. October 1914 saw the publication of The Manifesto of the 93. This document, signed by 93 eminent German scholars and artists, insisted that Germany’s involvement in the war was purely on defensive grounds. It laid out a full denial of the alleged atrocities committed during the invasion of Belgium.

A counter manifesto, The Manifesto to Europeans, received only 4 signatures including its author Georg Nicolai and Albert Einstein.

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The value of propaganda

Germans were also frustrated by the role of Lord Northcliffe, who owned Britain’s largest newspaper group. His aggressive use of propaganda, particularly towards the end of the war, earned him a poor reputation among the Germans.

One German even wrote an open letter to Lord Northcliffe in 1921:

‘German propaganda was in spirit the propaganda of scholars, privy councillors and professors. How could these honest and unworldly men cope with devils of journalism, experts in mass poisoning like yourself?’

Novelist John Buchan, who played an important role in British propaganda agreed: ‘So far as Britain is concerned,’ he commented in 1917, ‘the war could not have been fought for one month without its newspapers.’

Beaverbrook asserted that the newsreels he had produced as Minister for Information were ‘the decisive factor in maintaining the moral of the people during the black days of the early summer of 1918.’

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Ludendorff wrote that ‘in the neutral countries we were subject to a sort of moral blockade,’ and that the Germans ‘were hypnotised … as a rabbit by a snake.’

Even Hitler believed that Northcliffe’s wartime propaganda was ‘an inspired work of genius’. He wrote in Mein Kampf that he ‘learned enormously from this enemy propaganda.’

‘If the people really knew,’ Lloyd George told C. P. Scott of the Manchester Guardian at a low point in December 1917, ‘the war would be stopped tomorrow. But of course they don’t – and can’t know. The correspondents don’t write and censorship would not pass the truth.’