The First World War and Propaganda – the Feigned War

Postkarte aus der Serie „Ich hatt‘ einen Kameraden“ von 1915; CC BY-NC-SA 3.0
Postkarte aus der Serie „Ich hatt‘ einen Kameraden“ von 1915; CC BY-NC-SA 3.0

The First World War was a massive slaughter. The media and propaganda, however, painted a gallant and heroic picture of the war, thus prolonging the willingness to bear misery and suffering.

“The war had to supply us with what we wanted; the great, the overwhelming, the hallowed experience,” wrote Ernst Jünger in his autobiographical novel Storm of Steel. When the war broke out in August 1914, the German Empire went wild with joy, at least in the cities. The Munich daily Münchner Neueste Nachrichten wrote on August 3: “Enthusiasm runs high throughout the entire population. Huge crowds of people thronged the streets, cheering the Emperor and singing the national anthem and patriotic songs.” The other warring countries also experienced such pro-war fervor.

The many volunteers – more than one million during the first weeks of mobilization – could hardly wait to get to the front and to fight and heroically defeat the enemy in a noble and gallant battle. The model for that was the quick victory over France in 1870/71.

Magazines such as the Berliner Illustrirte Zeitung kept evoking the battles against France. One illustration, for example, showed German soldiers, sabres at the ready, storming a hill near Wörth; the viewer sees no casualties, no wounded, not even the enemy, only Prussian heroes.

Prior to the outbreak of the war, only a few people had an idea what a war that was being fought with weapons of mass destruction such as machine guns, shells, and heavy artillery would look like. Yet once the armies dug in for trench warfare in November 1914, the soldiers’ dreams of a heroic war collapsed.

A German infantryman wrote in a letter from Verdun:

“When we arrived in our position, tired as dogs, we lay down in shell holes – no trenches or shelters in sight; after all, the area had been conquered only two days earlier. So we we lay there for four days, soaking wet and two feet deep in dirt – a barrage rained down on us so that we were being thrown from one hole to the next; the wounded moaning and crying with pain, condemned to dying a miserable death; shelling day and night – often it was 10 to 20 shells per second raining down on us like hail, burying us and digging us up again. Our lieutenant cried like a baby; the way they were lying there – a leg gone, arms gone, ripped to pieces. God, it was terrible.”

Meanwhile, the media fought a war for the hearts and the minds of the population. The belligerent countries hastily established propaganda and censorship departments: the Maison de la Presse in France, the Ministry of Information in England, while the intelligence and espionage division of the General Staff in Berlin was in charge of German propaganda at the beginning of war. Trench journals, mobile film units, theater performances, and propaganda brochures were designed to keep the German soldiers in a good mood as well as in line. Civilians were given military newspapers with their food stamps and brochures whose print run was up to eleven million. Topics included “Let’s Fight the Final Battle!” or “What the Enemy Wants.” The first total war was also the first war that was fought through the modern mass media.

The so-called “Burgfrieden” (party truce) in the German Empire necessitated unity and solidarity. Soldiers who agreed to collaborate with the army command and to paint a rosy picture of life on the front back home were rewarded with extended home leave. Erich Ludendorff, who was appointed First Quartermaster General in August 1916 and who was the real mastermind behind the Third Army Command, later wrote in his memoirs: “The consolidation of the soul of the people is the foundation of total war.”

As far as war propaganda was concerned, Germany was on the defensive: British and French cartoons depicted their principal enemy as barbarians sowing death and destruction – a justified charge given the atrocities committed by the German army in neutral Belgium where German soldiers, for example, burnt down the city of Louvain, including its library – the “Oxford of Belgium,” according to the English press.

A Swiss cartoonist depicted Wilhelm II as a butcher, wearing a blood-stained apron and wielding a big cleaver. German propaganda was thus constantly at pains to downplay or refute the charges the Allies brought against them – with limited success. After all, the two camps fought with different weapons: French and especially English propaganda were backed by a democratic culture of debate, dominated by hate and atrocity propaganda and the demonization of the enemy. The Germans were more reserved, at least until 1917.

In keeping with the old Prussian motto, “Keeping quiet and calm is the citizen’s first duty,” the arguments were old-fashioned and overly didactic. France was seen as a gallant enemy. Only England, the principal enemy, was denigrated as a fat “John Bull,” a power-hungry plutocrat ready to sacrifice everything for the sake of money.

The Nazis drew their lessons from this propaganda defeat

Guided by article 22 of the Hague Convention of 1907 respecting the Wars and Customs of War on Land, the highest German censorship authority pointed out: “The language we employ towards our enemies may be harsh. However, a tone that insults and underestimates the enemy is not a sign of power. The purity and greatness of the movement that has seized our people requires a dignified language.”

The cartoonists were caught up in the nationalist fervor and readily carried out the business of propaganda, the “war service with the weapon of thought,” as Thomas Mann called it. During the war, from 1914 through 1918, barely a critical cartoon was published in Germany. If the war was criticized, it was always the war fought by the others. The German cause seemed noble and just. One example is the satirical magazine Simplicissimus. Allegedly authentic photos from the front showed fighting scenes that were reenacted at the behest of the propaganda departments, far from the actual battles, with the soldiers wearing gleaming uniforms, taking no cover and fighting in a pristine natural environment.

A particularly striking example is the German war movie With Our Heroes at the Somme. Shot in January 1917 and released by the Bild- und Filmamt (Picture and Film Office; Bufa), a forerunner of Ufa, the film was completely staged and filmed behind the front lines, at maneuver sites and in studios. Its “military-official” rating notwithstanding, the film struck the German audience as ridiculous and awkward. The British rival film, The Battle of the Somme, on the other hand, showed original footing from the front.

Ludendorff later said that British propaganda had played a huge role in the Allied victory. German propaganda failed to catch on. Conveying no message other than bravery, it did not focus on cruelty and suffering nor did it hold the enemy responsible for them. It would have been easy to blame the food shortage of 1916/17 - the famous “Steckrübenwinter” – on the British naval blockade, but the propaganda command did not want to prove to the Allies that their strategy worked.

So it was not just geographically, but also psychologically that the gap between the front and the home front was bigger in Germany than in France or England. The longer the war continued, notions of gallant soldiers and individual bravery faded and were replaced by virtues such as a capacity for suffering and perseverance, thus helping prolong the war. German propaganda failed to reach its goal of uniting the front and the home front.

The Nazis drew their lessons from this propaganda defeat. Nazi Germany’s war of conquest – and its propaganda – was organized by the trench generation of the First World War.

In 1924, Hitler wrote in prison that German propaganda had failed. In his pamphlet Mein Kampf, he laid out rules that were then implemented in the Third Reich. Propaganda had to “awaken the imagination of the public through an appeal to their feelings, in finding the appropriate psychological form that will arrest the attention and appeal to the hearts of the national masses.” In all countries, the old images of the enemy survived the interwar years. The freshly stoked hatred thus fell on fertile ground.

Philipp Obergaßner
Copyright: Süddeutsche Zeitung

Translation: Manuela Thurner

December 2014

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