Propaganda total War and the use of propaganda in Britain and Germany

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Total War and the use of propaganda in Britain and Germany

Historians generally refer to WWI as the first 'total war'. It was the first conflict in which modern industrialised societies mobilised their complete economic, technological and psychological resources in order to wage war. Unlike earlier wars, which involved relatively small numbers of soldiers on the battlefield, it affected many aspects of the lives of civilian populations and demanded enormous sacrifices and support from them: Mobilisation of the home front was crucial to achieving military victory.

Features of total war

Conscription of men into the armed services

Increased government control of the economy

Increased government control over daily lives of citizens and subsequent loss of personal liberty

Control of the labour force

Physical safety and security of civilian populations threatened

Propaganda used to create support for the war and encourage acceptance of the necessity of personal sacrifice

Censorship of bad news about the war in newspapers and magazines to maintain morale and support for the war effort

Demands unprecedented sacrifices from the entire population
What do we mean by propaganda?

Propaganda is the use of text, pictures and symbols to influence the attitudes of people who see the material. This may involve the distortion of facts or even total lies. Effective propaganda is not concerned with the truth, but with what people think the truth is.

Why was propaganda used in World War I?

Total war demands support and sacrifices from the entire population. During WWI, propaganda aimed at maintaining a sense of national purpose and support for the war effort. It was used to:

Encourage recruitment

create national unity and maintain morale on the homefront

raise funds for the war effort

create hatred of the enemy

Types of propaganda





meetings, speeches and marches

school lessons

Early British Propaganda

justified the British position

developed the atrocity story

encouraged recruitment

instilled patriotism

Justification of the British Position

Britain justified its declaration of war on Germany on the basis Germany's invasion of neutral Belgium. The British press stigmatised Germany's actions as a treaty breaker with the slogan "A scrap of Paper". Britain, along with France and Prussia had promised to guarantee Belgium's neutrality in the 1839 Treaty of London. Early British propaganda portrayed Germany as the aggressor and 'little Belgium' as its innocent victim. Belgium's defence was a matter of national honour. Note the use of symbols and iconography to simplify and heighten the message in the examples.


'The Scrap of Paper': Parliamentary Recruiting Committee
London 1914 (December)

This official poster demonstrates how propaganda was used to justify Britain's position and encourage recruitment.

British postcard, 1914

Britain, represented by the bulldog is backed by its empire. Support for Belgium is portrayed as a matter of honour. Britain's determination and steadfastness is conveyed through the symbol of the bulldog - pugnacity and strength are characteristics we often associate with the species. 'Britain' is poised, determined to take on the challenge presented by Germany's violation of the Treaty of London. The eagle, teasing and provocative, symbolises Germany.

Development of the atrocity story

Atrocity stories about Germans became a central part of British propaganda. Supposed German barbarity was emphasised in an effort to justify the British cause and instil hatred of the Germans. Atrocity stories, as a feature of propaganda, appealed to domestic and international audiences.


German actions in Belgium

Nurse Cavell

The Lusitania

German actions in Belgium

Cartoon depicting German atrocity in WWI

The gentle German is an early example of British hate propaganda. The soldier depicted is actually Kaiser Wilhelm II. Atrocity stories emphasised the bestiality of the 'hun' and frequently misrepresented the truth. When Germany invaded Belgium, stories spread of German soldiers bayoneting Belgian babies as a general practice.

Kaiser Wilhelm II

Image kindly supplied by the Photos of the Great War website

Features of early recruitment propaganda

Emphasized patriotism and duty

Two days after the declaration of war, Britain's most well-known professional soldier, Lord Kitchener of Khartoum, was asked to organise a campaign to encourage civilians to join the army. Alfred Leete's poster of Kitchener's face and pointing finger became a familiar sight throughout Britain. The slogan 'Your Country Needs You!' captured the imaginations of thousands of young men who rushed enthusiastically to enlist in Kitchener's New Army. From the outset, British propaganda was simple, direct and effective.

Presented a moral argument

The violation of Belgian neutrality, the invasion of France and the perpetuation of 'atrocities' such as the murder of Edith Cavell and the sinking of the Lusitania were used to convince the British population of the righteousness of the Allied cause and to persuade young men to enlist.
Later British propaganda

Circumstances and focus changed

Conscription was introduced in January 1916 so recruitment was no longer an issue. Propaganda now focused on the promotion of total war in the context of a war of attrition. Total war placed unprecedented demands on the civilian population and required the mobilisation of the all of the nation's resources. Propaganda was used to persuade people that individual sacrifice, including economic deprivation and the curtailment of individual freedom, was essential to the war effort. Most of all, there was the need to maintain psychological support for a war that was causing unprecedented loss of human life - of father's and sons. Propaganda now:

continued to emphasise the justness of the Allied cause

attacked the opponents of war

appealed for support for financing the war

promoted self-discipline and sacrifice at home

perpetuated hatred and fear of the enemy to the point of paroniria and hysteria

maintained a positive view of the Allied war effort


"To prevent this --" 1918 (June) "Preserve Perishable Produce"
Food Production Department
London [1918?]

German propaganda

justified German cause

recruitment not an issue

encouraged hatred of Britain

glorified German war effort and presented it in a positive light to boost morale

appealed for economic and psychological support from the population

Anti-British propaganda

Hatred of the British was encouraged. The message of this poster reads 'God Punish England!' The message was also used as a greeting and stamped or engraved on items such as envelopes pots and pans.

Germans were also taught to recite the "Hymn of Hate' which claimed that Britain was Germany's only real enemy. Ernst Lissauer was awarded and iron cross for its composition.

Lissauer's Chant of Hate Against England

What do we care for the Russians or French?

Shot against shot, and thrust for thrust!

We fight the foe with bronze and sheath,

And some day or other we make our peace.

You we shall hate with enduring hate;

We shall not forbear from our hate;

Hate on water and hate on land,

Hate of the head and hate of the hand,

Hate of the hammer and hate of the crown,

Hate of seventy millions pressing down

We love as one; we hate as one;

We have one foe, and one alone, England.

From third stanza of song by Bavarian soldier, Ernst Lissauer, distributed in the German army, taught to

German school children, set to music and sung in concerts. Lissauer was decorated by the Kaiser.

From: Handbook of War Facts and Peace Problems, Germany's Purpose and Method in Making War Chap. III
The organisation of propaganda
Early attempts to manipulate public opinion were ad hoc. A secret War Propaganda Bureau was established in September 1914. It organised propaganda like an election campaign with posters, meetings, rallies and leaflets.

Private initiatives were encouraged. For example, the leading voluntary organization that most influenced public opinion early in the war was the Central Committee for National Patriotic Organisation. Theoretically it was quite independent of the government, but senior positions held by important political figures such as Asquith and Balfour gave a semi-government appearance. The Parliamentary Recruiting Committee also produced a great deal of early recruitment propaganda.

Lloyd George created the Department of Information in January 1917 to better coordinate propaganda.

The Press consistently encouraged support for the war effort. Newspapers reflected and manipulated public opinion which was hostile to aliens, pacifists, conscientious objectors, socialists, strikers and other 'shirkers'.

Propaganda aimed at German soldiers and civilians was dropped from aeroplanes and balloons. Leaflets included news banned by German Censors, and called for revolution in Germany. In naval ports, leaflets detailing German U-boat losses disheartened sailors' families. By October 1918 up to 5.5 million leaflets a day fell on the Eastern and Western Fronts, contrasting German conditions with those of the Allies.

The organization and coordination of propaganda in Germany was not as effective as in Britain. The government did not set up a ministry of propaganda. Perhaps, this was partly due to the fact the military exercised tight control over civilian lives and never had to consider recruitment as conscription was already in place when war broke out.

The military had its own service called the German War News. The Army organised press conferences and provided reports on military operations and was also responsible for censorship and control of information from the front.

Attempts were made to use public employees and government institutions to generate enthusiasm for the war effort. Patriotic festivals were organised by civil leaders, prominent businesses and academics. Flags and portraits or statues or other depictions of war heroes were the symbols and music, poetry and patriotic speeches the content of these public events. Parades were staged to celebrate victories and designed to create national enthusiasm. Teachers were expected to act as propaganda agents.
The effectiveness of propaganda: Historians' views
Source A

"German propaganda to neutrals was, in general, less efficient that British. The Germans were not so effective at simplifying the issues of the war into right against wrong, and failed to establish any coordinated machine for propaganda. They were also put at a particular disadvantage when, on 15 August 1914, the Allies cut the transatlantic cable, thus cutting of Germany's main line of communication to America. Germany's main propaganda effort was through press conferences organized by the army and a press service which reported military operations and was responsible for censorship and control of information from the front. Like Britain, Germany failed to realize that in a long war enthusiasm for fighting would wane, but she failed to seize the initiative, not only in counteracting Allied propaganda to neutrals about German war guilt, but also in exploiting in the simplest terms, using simple images, those events which could denigrate the enemy."

C. Haste, Keep the Home Fires Burning: Propaganda in the First World War London: Rogers, Coleridge & White 1977, p 39
Source B

Considerable argument developed after the end of the war about whether propaganda was of was not a useful weapon during the war. The authorities in Germany during the war were so concerned about Allied propaganda that they organised a conference in August 1917 to see how they might counter it. The participants were told they had to come with more slogans to appeal toe the German people. It emerged, however, that the artists and government officials called in to study British and French posters were amazed to see how effectively the Allies got across their messages. One of the organisers made the telling revelation that, when they tried to enlist German artists to produce propaganda posters, they found man of them were very critical of the war. The methods of control from the military at the top of the system were too heavy handed and out of touch with the views of the ordinary German civilians.

It became one of the themes of the military and their civilian supporters in Germany that Allied propaganda (dishonest, of course) had a major factor in causing German soldiers to become demoralised at the end of the war. Both Hindenburg and Ludendorff gave this excuse quite openly in their published memoirs........................

Recent historical opinion by Ina Beckett, Jay Winter, and G.J. De Groot are sceptical the effectiveness of propaganda on German soldiers and in bringing the United States into the war. They argue that the German army was beaten on the battlefield, not in a war of words. The Germans and their concept of 'total war' (with their initial use of gas, the use of Zeppelins to bomb innocent civilians in seaside towns and their use of submarines to sink passenger liners) was too far ahead of its time to be accepted as civilised behaviour.

Alf Pickard, World War I and its aftermath: HSC Modern History core Guide, Phoenix Education 2002, pp 91- 92

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