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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.[1] This was also the first war in which the government systematically produced propaganda as a way to target the public and alter their opinion.

World War I propaganda stamp

World War I propaganda stamp

External propaganda to other countries was an integral part of the Diplomatic history of World War I and were designed to build support for the cause, or to undermine support for the enemy.

Propaganda in the United StatesEdit

The United States entered World War I in 1917 as an associated power on the allied side of Britain and France.[2] By the time that World War I came around, the United States was a leader in the recently discovered art of movie making and the new profession of commercial advertising.[2] Such newly discovered technologies played an instrumental role in the shaping of the American mind and the altering of public opinion into a pro-war position. Perhaps the most influential man behind propaganda in the United States during World War I was President Woodrow Wilson. In one of Wilson's most famous declarations, he outlined the "Fourteen Points" which he said the United States would fight to defend.[3] Aside from the restoration of freedom in European countries suppressed by the power of Germany, Wilson's Fourteen Points called for lack of transparency regarding discussion of diplomatic matters, free navigation of the seas both in peace and war time, and equal trade conditions among all nations.[3] The Fourteen Points would serve as a blueprint for world peace to be used for peace negotiations after World War I.[2] Wilson's points inspired audiences around the world and greatly strengthened the belief that Britain, France and America were fighting for noble goals.[2]

America's Committee on Public InformationEdit

Upon entering World War I, the United States, led by Woodrow Wilson created and implemented The Committee on Public Information which was made up by the Secretaries of State, the Army, and the Navy.[2] The committee would report directly to President Wilson and was essentially a massive generator of propaganda.[2] The Committee on Public Information was responsible for producing films, commissioning posters, publishing numerous books and pamphlets, purchasing advertisements in major newspapers, and the recruitment of business men, preachers and professors to serve as public speakers in charge of altering public opinion at the communal level.[2] The committee, headed by former investigative journalist George Creel, emphasized the message that America's involvement in the war was entirely necessary in achieving the salvation of Europe from the German and enemy forces.[2] 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."[4] He called the committee a voice that was created to plead the justice of America's cause before the jury of public opinion.[4] Creel also refers to the committee as a "vast enterprise in salesmenship" and "the world's greatest adventure in advertising."[4] The committee's message resonated deep within every American community and also served as an organization responsible for carrying the full message of American ideals to every corner of the civilized globe.[4] Creel and his committee utilized every possible mode to get their message across, including; printed word, spoken word, the motion picture, the telegraph, the poster and the sign board.[4] All forms of communication were put to use in order to justify the causes that compelled America to take arms.

Atrocity propagandaEdit

File:Atrocity Propaganda used against the Germans in WWI.jpg

Atrocity propaganda was a form of advertising used during World War I which focused on and embellished the most violent acts committed by the German and Austro-Hungarian armies.[5] The Germans and Austro-Hungarian soldiers were depicted as inhumane savages with their barbarity being 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 regarding war crimes.[5] This was done as a way to depict the multiple acts of violence committed against civilians by the occupying Austro-Hungarian forces in Serbia in 1914. These reports were written in vivid detail and described individual acts of violence against civilians, soldiers and prisoners of war.[5] Some of these actions included the use of forbidden weapons, the demolition of ancient libraries and cathedrals, as well as the rape and torture of civilians.[5] Graphic illustrations, accompanied by first hand testimonies that described these crimes as savagely unjust served as a compelling reminder for the justification of war.[5] Other forms of atrocity propaganda depicted an alternative to war which involved German occupation and domination.[6] This 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”.[6]

Propaganda was used in World War One as in any war - and the truth suffered. Propaganda ensured that the people only got to know what their governments wanted them to know. In World War One, the lengths to which governments would go to in an effort to blacken the enemy’s name reached a new level. To ensure that everybody thought in the way the government wanted, all forms of information were controlled. Newspapers were expected to print what the government wanted the reader to read. In fact, though this would appear to be a form of censorship, the newspapers of Britain, effectively controlled by the media barons of the time, were happy to play ball. They 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”.[7]

Propaganda playing on patriotism and nationalismEdit

Uncle sam propaganda in ww1

Uncle Sam's call to arms

According to scholar David Welch, patriotism and nationalism were two of the most important themes played on by the propaganda of the time.[1] In 1914, the British army was made up of professionals as well as volunteers, causing the government to rely heavily on propaganda as a tool to justify war to the public eye.[1] This propaganda was used to promote recruitment into the armed forces as well as to convince civilians that if they joined, their sacrifices would be rewarded.[1] One of the most impressionable images of this First World War is 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, convincing them to join the war effort.[1] Another message deeply embedded in national sentiment was one where the religious symbolism of St George was shown slaying a dragon which represented the German forces.[1] Images of enthusiastic patriotism seemed to encapsulate the tragedy of European and imperial populations.[6] Such images were able to conjure up feelings of required patriotism and activism among those influenced.[6]

Propaganda as a weaponEdit

The non-military diplomatic and propaganda interactions during the war were designed to build support for the cause, or to undermine support for the enemy.[8][9] 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, Romania) into the coalition by offering slices of enemy territory; and encouragement by the Allies of nationalistic minority movements inside the Central Powers, especially among Czechs, Poles, and Arabs. In addition, there were multiple peace proposals coming from neutrals, or from one side or the other; none of them progressed very far. Some were neutral efforts to end the horrors. Others were propaganda ploys to show one side was being reasonable and the other was obstinate.[10]

As soon as the war began Britain cut Germany’s under-sea 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.[11] This was done as a way to influence reporting of the war around the world and to gain sympathy and support from the other nations.[11] In 1914, a secret British organization by the name of Wellington House was set up, calling for journalists and newspaper editors to write articles which sympathized with Britain as a way to counter the statements being made by the enemy.[11] Wellington House implemented this action not only through favorable reports in the press of neutral countries, but also by publishing its own newspapers for circulation around the globe.[11] Wellington House was so secret, in fact, that Parliament was often not aware of them. Wellington House had a staff of 54 people, which made it the largest British foreign propaganda organization.[12] From the Wellington House came 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.[11]

Women in propagandaEdit

See alsoEdit


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 1.4 1.5 Welch, David. "Propaganda for patriotism and nationalism". Retrieved 30 March 2015. 
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 2.4 2.5 2.6 2.7 Messinger, Gary (January 1, 1992). British Propaganda and the State in the First World War. Manchester University Press. pp. 20–30. 
  3. 3.0 3.1 Wilson, Woodrow (January 8, 1918). "President Wilson's Message to Congress". Records of the United States Senate. 
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 4.3 4.4 Creel, George (1920). How We Advertised America: The First Telling of the Amazing Story of the Committee on Public Information that Carried the Gospel of Americanism to Every Corner of the Globe. Harper and Brothers. 
  5. 5.0 5.1 5.2 5.3 5.4 Fox, Jo. "Atrocity Propaganda". Retrieved 30 March 2015. 
  6. 6.0 6.1 6.2 6.3 Purseigle, Pierre. "Inside the First World War". Retrieved 7 May 2015. 
  7. Trueman, Chris. "Propaganda and World War] One"]. 
  8. David Stevenson, The First World War and International Politics (1988).
  9. Z.A.B. Zeman, Diplomatic History of the First World War (1971)
  10. See Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Official Statements of War Aims and Peace Proposals: December 1916 to November 1918, edited by James Brown Scott. (1921) 515pp online free
  11. 11.0 11.1 11.2 11.3 11.4 Cooke, Ian. "Propaganda as a weapon? Influencing international opinion". Retrieved 30 March 2015. 
  12. Epstein, Jonathan. "German and English Propaganda in World War I". NYMAS. Retrieved 26 April 2015. 

Further readingEdit

  • Cornwall, Mark. The undermining of Austria-Hungary: the battle for hearts and minds (London: Macmillan, 2000), Focus on Italy and Britain
  • DeBauche, L.M. Reel Patriotism: The Movies and World War I (University of Wisconsin Press, 1997)
  • Haste, Cate (1977). "Keep the Home Fires Burning: Propaganda in the First World War". London. 
  • Horne, John; Kramer, Alan (2001). "German Atrocities, 1914: A History of Denial". London. 
  • Kaminski, Joseph Jon. "World War I and Propaganda Poster Art: Comparing the United States and German Cases." Epiphany Journal of Transdisciplinary Studies 2 (2014): 64-81. online
  • Knightley, Phillip (2002). "The First Casualty: The War Correspondent as Hero and Myth-Maker from the Crimea to Kosovo". Johns Hopkins University Press. ISBN 978-0-8018-6951-8. 
  • Messinger, Gary S. (1992). "British Propaganda and the State in the First World War". New York. 
  • Paddock, Troy R. E. World War I and Propaganda (2014)
  • Ponsonby, Arthur (1928). "Falsehood in War-Time: Propaganda Lies of the First World War". London: George Allen and Unwin. 
  • Sanders, M. L. (1975). "Wellington House and British propaganda during the First World War". Cambridge University Press. pp. 119–146. Digital object identifier:10.1017/S0018246X00008700. JSTOR 2638471. 
  • Sanders, M. L.; Taylor, Philip M. (1982). "British Propaganda During the First World War, 1914–18". London. 
  • Stanley, P. What Did You do in the War, Daddy? A Visual History of Propaganda Posters (Oxford University Press, 1983)
  • Tunc, T. E. "Less Sugar, More Warships: Food as American Propaganda in the First World War" War in History (2012). 19#2 pp: 193-216.
  • Welch, David (2003). "Propaganda and Mass Persuasion: A Historical Encyclopedia, 1500 to the Present". In Nicholas J. Cull, David H. Culbert and David Welch. ABC-CLIO. pp. 123–124. ISBN 978-1-57607-820-4. 
  • Welch, David. Germany and Propaganda in World War I: Pacifism, Mobilization and Total War (IB Tauris, 2014)

External linksEdit

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