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World War One Propaganda: Today's Political and Social Weapon in America

Robert Ditmore is a student of history, and as both a Christian and a veteran, he is particularly fond of military and religious histories.

Execution of British nurse, Edith Cavil

Execution of British nurse, Edith Cavil

What is Propaganda?

Webster’s Dictionary defines propaganda as “information, especially of a biased or misleading nature, used to promote a political cause . . . .” Propaganda has been around from the moment the serpent whispered to Eve “ye shall be as gods” and today is prevalent in politics, marketing, activism, and just about every other aspect of life. Its more sinister application, however, can be found in the manner in which it has been used during wartime.

How was Propaganda Disseminated?

While it had been used in all wars of antiquity, to one extent or another, it was not until World War One (WWI) that propaganda became extensively used to appeal to the passions of the masses in such a way as to influence the outcome of a war. The ability to communicate quickly with the masses through “newspapers, speeches, films, photographs, posters, books, pamphlets, periodicals, and cartoons” was seen by politicians and military leaders as a way of turning the minds of the populace to either support or oppose a nation’s war efforts. Therefore, belligerents of WWI “deliberately created organizations to generate and direct propaganda at their enemies . . . allies . . . neutrals . . . and their own populations, as an essential part of the way they waged war.” Its more specific application was its use in bolstering the “motivation of the soldiers and of the civilian population while trying to do the opposite to the enemy.” The objective of this paper is to provide evidence that propaganda, during WWI, came to be viewed by the civilian and military leaders of the belligerent nations as a weapon as important as any other in their arsenals for defeating the enemy and gaining their strategic goals.

Propaganda used to sell War Bonds

Propaganda used to sell War Bonds

Who Was Ultimately Left in Charge of Propaganda?

Germany very early on understood the role propaganda would play in maintaining the morale of the military and the civilian population. The ability to win a war depended a great deal on support from the civilian sector and a drop in morale greatly decreased the probabilities of success. The Germans grasped this concept before any other belligerents in WWI and were prepared for a war of propaganda from the beginning of the war.

Other than the News Department of the British Foreign Office (BFO), Great Britain had no “official propaganda organizations” at the beginning of the war. The BFO, when they did concern themselves with the dissemination of propaganda, concentrated their efforts almost entirely on maintaining “military secrecy and security in wartime.” Great Britain did not possess the foresight of the Germans as regards the importance of propaganda in maintaining morale, at least not at the outbreak of war.

Once a German, always a German

Once a German, always a German

As the war progressed, propaganda was afforded the deference it deserved by both Germany and Great Britain. Propaganda became increasingly decentralized in both countries. The German military maintained control of most of their propaganda efforts; however, Great Britain came to the conclusion that propaganda, to the greatest extent possible, should be “left to unofficial actors”, such as “newspapers, churches, patriotic societies, commercial advertisers . . . and other groups and institutions with extensive experience” in the development, use and dissemination of propaganda. Britain, still liberal in their political ideology at the time, believed the government should not get involved in anything the people “could do for themselves” Instances did arise in which the government became more heavily involved; for example, as German propaganda became increasingly far-reaching, especially in their attacks launched from the United States (U.S.), the British propaganda became progressively more state-directed.

What Was the Creel Committee?

For its part, the U.S. did not concern itself with propaganda until the country became embroiled in the war. Upon its entry into the war, the U.S. propaganda organization immediately became “highly centralized” and remained so until the end of the war. One of the first steps the U.S. took was to create the Committee on Public Information, “commonly known as the Creel Committee” which oversaw all matters of propaganda. Influenced by the Committee, the U.S. passed the Espionage Act of 1917, which gave the government “wide powers to restrict or control the press”; this was in large part a response to the massive propaganda campaign that Germany had been running from the U.S. aimed at influencing the U.S. Congress regarding decisions being made on providing arms and supplies to the Allied powers.

George Creel and members of Creel Committee established by President Woodrow Wilson

George Creel and members of Creel Committee established by President Woodrow Wilson

At the behest of the Creel Committee, the U.S. also passed the Sedition Act of May 1918 which extended the powers of the Espionage Act. Stephen Badsey suggests that the U.S. government, regardless of the passage of these acts, preferred. . . [not to resort to] coercion or censorship. Most of the U.S. efforts in the use of propaganda would be directed towards domestic concerns, for which purpose the Creel Committee had been formed. The Creel Committee remained an important element of U.S. propaganda efforts throughout the war.

France developed its own propaganda organizations, just as did Great Britain, the U.S., and Germany. France’s experience proved to be very similar to the British experience; and in fact, their propaganda organizations were actually modelled after the British organizations. Badsey wrote that Australia, Canada, New Zealand and other “democratic countries responded to the strains of the war in a similar fashion” as Great Britain.

World War I Propaganda Posters: The U.S. Joins the Fight | History

Front Line Propaganda

Quoting Louis Loyzeau de Grandmaison, Barbara Tuchman wrote in The Guns of August that “Battles are beyond everything else struggles of morale.” Without question, maintaining troop morale is one of the most important endeavors during any war. When troops become disheartened and of the opinion a war is beyond their ability to win decisively, they will suffer deteriorating morale, and as de Grandmaison stated, “Defeat is inevitable as soon as the hope of conquering ceases to exist.”

Propaganda a Tool for Destroying Troop Morale?

All belligerents in WWI understood this and took major steps in degrading the morale of the enemy while maintaining a high level of morale within their own armies. Propaganda played a major role in this effort and Kaiser Wilhelm II gave the allies a gem to use in their propaganda campaigns against Germany. When sending off his troops to quell a rebellion in China, Wilhelm talked of how the Huns had slaughtered men, women, and children during their campaigns. He then spoke of the need to treat the Chinese as the Huns had handled their enemies 1500 years earlier. Wilhelm proclaimed “whoever falls into your hands will be forfeited . . . no Chinese will ever again dare to look cross-eyed at a German.”

What Does Propaganda Look Like?

It is almost impossible to research this topic without coming across propaganda posters depicting very large, almost monster like caricatures of German soldiers brutalizing wounded allied soldiers, or carrying away the occasional French or Belgium damsel in distress. Inevitably the captions under such caricatures refer to the German soldier as “the Hun”. The significance of the name was lost to very few. Of course, any allied soldier seeing such images naturally associated the safety of his loved ones back home with his own ability to stop the Hun. Propaganda such as this was utilized regularly by all to instill into the minds of the soldier the importance of destroying the enemy.

Brutish Hun Gorilla

Brutish Hun Gorilla

Encouraging Surrender

To better enhance their ability to affect the morale of the enemy, the British developed MI7, the department whose soul objective was the deterioration of morale among enemy troops on the frontline. To this end, MI7 produced “a large volume of written propaganda, including leaflets aimed at enemy troops . . . to encourage surrender.” In February 1918, after the nomination of Lord Alfred Northcliffe as Director of Propaganda in Enemy Countries, the allies began a major push to demoralize enemy troops on the front; “it has been claimed that during the summer and autumn of 1918, more than 100,000 leaflets per day were dropped over German lines.” There has been some conjecture that “collapse of the Austrian front in Italy” was attributable to MI7 efforts; however, Eberhard Demm wrote that “its significance is probably exaggerated.” The British were not the only actors to make use of propaganda on the front lines. France and Germany each were involved in the mind game as well.

Ultra-Racist Germany Exploited Black Enemy Troops

At one point during the war, France and Great Britain began deploying black troops from their colonies to the front. The Germans wasted no time in exploiting this development. Demm wrote that German propagandists reacted by depicting “blacks as cannibals – or even as monkeys” while producing leaflets showing “French women pregnant with bastard Negro children”, all meant to inflame the German soldier against the enemy.

Germany instilled fear and aroused men to fight with propaganda regarding black allied troops..

Germany instilled fear and aroused men to fight with propaganda regarding black allied troops..

Of course, said Demm, the “French cartoonist skillfully countered in one cartoon which showed a Negro soldier taking out a knife while saying to a trembling German prisoner ‘Don’t worry, Mohammad never eats pigs . . .’. A great deal of effort and expense was utilized in attempts to demoralize soldiers on both sides of the front; however, there appears to be a great deal more literature regarding the efforts on the home front.

Homefront Propaganda

According to Badsey, the Central Powers understood that propaganda was just as important to the moral health of the people back home as it was to the men at the front. He wrote that “the German military . . . considered deeply the matter of morale and support for a war among the German people.” General Erich Ludendorff, considered by Badsey to be the “single most important propagandist” the Germans had, actually viewed propaganda as a means of strengthening morale back home, which led to greater support for the military and the nation’s strategic objectives. He also realized it to be a tool in developing his “wider emerging concept of total war” in which every resource available at the home front will be utilized to ensure the defeat of the enemy. Ludendorff is probably better remembered as the man who developed the “stab in-the-back” myth which held that the German army remained undefeated at wars end.

British John Bull with a string of German submarines he caught while fishing

British John Bull with a string of German submarines he caught while fishing

Helmuth von Moltke, German General Chief of Staff when the war began, saw propaganda from a different perspective than most. Moltke was concerned with getting the Alsatians to come to grips with being German. Germany was in need of under-officers and Moltke understood that the best resource at the time was from the Alsace – Lorraine region. Moltke’s idea of propaganda was to impose a policy of “universal service” on the Alsatians; a concept he considered to be “the best kind of propaganda” and the means of inspiring a sense of national patriotism within the Alsatian population.

Propaganda Used as a Recruiting Tool

In 1914, when war first broke out, Britain saw little need for the use of propaganda as a recruiting tool. One veteran of the war explained that in the beginning “long lines formed outside of recruiting and enlistment stations”; there were no problems with getting men to volunteer to go fight the Hun.[1] However, as the war progressed and the news of the horrific fighting, suffering and unimaginable casualties began to filter through to the people, it became increasingly difficult to convince men to volunteer.

The use of demagoguery was, and remains prevalent in propaganda. Woman and child from Lusitania show drowning.

The use of demagoguery was, and remains prevalent in propaganda. Woman and child from Lusitania show drowning.

Enemy create and glorify national heroes i.e. The Red Barron

Enemy create and glorify national heroes i.e. The Red Barron

Propagandizing National Heroes

German propagandists utilized national heroes as sources of propaganda as well. The aerial feats of Manfred von Richthofen, more famously known in the west as the Red Baron, were seized upon by German propagandists as a means of instilling pride into the German army, and fear into the allies. Richthofen had become the object of “cult-hero worship” in Germany. Taking advantage of his popularity, official propaganda organizations “circulated various rumors, including the idea that “Special squadrons” had been organized specifically for the purpose of bringing Richthofen reign of terror in the skies to an end.

It was said that “by 1916, the rate of able volunteers had fallen such that conscription was introduced.” To counter this dilemma, British organizations began a massive propaganda campaign focused on bringing in recruits. This effort was not limited only to the Island, but included the distribution of propaganda in all of the British dominions as well. Some of the British dominions had already created their own propaganda organizations and were already contributing to the effort.

Photography and Cinema in Propaganda

Australia, in May 1917, created the “Australian War Records Section”, which was headed up by a Charles Bean, a war correspondent who introduced “photographers and cine-cameramen to the propaganda effort. Canada and India also contributed to a great extent. Canada, since television had not yet been invented and radios were rare, relied heavily on propaganda posters to disseminate “particular ideas or points of view to citizens of Canada.”

Charlie Chaplin in WWI propaganda film.

Charlie Chaplin in WWI propaganda film.

Propaganda Utilized to Vilify

Propaganda served other important needs as well. In 1915, the British released a report, Report of the Committee on Alleged German Outrages, which contained fearful stories from the front.. While it might seem counter-productive to release to the public literature telling of the grisly character of the war, it was determined that use of this type of literature was the most effective way of “vilifying” the German enemy.


The German propaganda machine, early in the war, had launched a massive propaganda campaign (openly) in the United States and was also known to have elements in the United Kingdom. Their purpose was to discourage citizens in those countries from supporting the allies. Vilification of the enemy was Britain’s counter to the German propaganda.

In the United States, the Germans worked feverously to turn public opinion against the U.S. intent to supply machinery and munitions to the allies. The U.S. and Britain countered by working together and producing propaganda to, once again, vilify the Germans. In New York, a Broadway show was staged, which was designed specifically for “inspiring military service” Getting Together proved a very successful propaganda venture; it is interesting to note that George Creel, Chairman of the Committee on Public Information, was the husband of the lead actress in the production.

The Great War: Propaganda Posters

“Why We are at War,” Presidential Propaganda

The president of the United States, Woodrow Wilson, introduced his own propaganda in the form of a series of letters titled Why We are at War”. The messages were address to Congress and dated from January to April of 1917. Even though addressed to Congress, these letters were intended for dissemination to the American people as well. In these letters Wilson makes what strikes one as a curious statement aimed at the southern states. Wilson wrote:

"I particularly appeal to the farmers of the South to plant abundant foodstuffs, as well as cotton. [This isn’t so unusual a statement considering the ability of the southern climate and geography, but then he continues . . .] They can show their patriotism in no better or convincing way than by resisting the great temptation of the present price of cotton and helping, helping upon a great scale, to feed the nation and the peoples everywhere who are fighting for their liberties and for our own."

It appears Wilson did not consider the taking of an oath and participation in the Spanish-American War as proof enough of patriotism. Wilson’s statement cannot not be considered anything less than propaganda directly challenging Americans to prove their patriotism by participating in the war, whether on the frontlines, or on the home front.

Buy Bonds to preserve Liberty

Buy Bonds to preserve Liberty

A Positive Correlation with the use of Propaganda and Morale?

Many books can be written regarding the propaganda efforts made on the home fronts by the respective belligerents; however, M. Jean de Bloch wrote that “the exact disposition of the masses in relation to armaments is shown by the increase in the number of opponents of militarism and preacher s of the socialist propaganda.” Bloch’s point was essentially that there was a positive correlation between the morale and determinations of the people, and the contribution of arms, machinery, supplies, and manpower made to the war effort. Effective propaganda, therefore, played a critical role in WWI, on all sides.

Propaganda Used by Germany to Alienate German-Americans from the Adopted Country!

Before the war, little if any thought had been afforded by the belligerents as to the importance of propaganda during wartime, Germany being the one exception. Well before 1914 the Germans were already considering using propaganda for purposes other than bolstering morale at home and on the front. Badsey wrote “On the wars outbreak a semi-official network already existed to disseminate a favorable view of Germany in other countries . . .” The U.S. was home to a very large population of people of German descent and it was these the Germans desired most to encourage to enlist in the German armies, influence American politicians, spread harmful propaganda, and commit acts of espionage and sabotage. For this purpose, the German government “openly subsidized its own semi-official news agency, the Wolff Telegraph Bureau (WTB).” In addition to the WTB, the Central Office for Foreign Information was organized to counter, in foreign countries, any negative, harmful propaganda being dispersed in those countries. Incredibly, a German press establishment opened in New York just weeks before the opening of the war; it was such organizations as these that “distributed pro-German literature and provided support of the German-American press.”

Germans attempted to exploit race relations and cause division in U.S. military.

Germans attempted to exploit race relations and cause division in U.S. military.

Propaganda used to Cause and Exploit Racial Divisions Within Enemy Forces

Not only did the Germans work to obtain support from German-Americans and disillusioned Americans of other ethnicities, there was also a great effort made to exploit the racial divisions long existing in the U.S. Emmitt Jay Scott, formerly the long time secretary for Booker T. Washington wrote:

The lynching of . . . Negro men and women . . . was . . . magnified through the lens of a well-directed German propaganda, with the manifest purpose of stirring . . . unrest among both white and colored Americans."

As demonstrated previously, the Germans had no problem developing propaganda exploiting existing racial tensions in an attempt to disrupt the enemy. Scott found it to be incredible that the massive German effort failed to create the desired rift between whites and blacks in the U.S. Quickly after learning that one of the Divisions they were fighting was a Negro division, the Germans bombarded the American lines with literature asking questions designed to cause to question their own loyalties. “Hello, boys, what are you doing over here?; Fighting the Germans? What have they ever done to you?” are among the many questions asked in an attempt to instigate desertion. When discussing the success of home front propaganda in dampening the effects of the German propaganda, Scott credited President Theodore Roosevelt and his vigorous opposition to hyphenated Americans and pacifist, which was widely published, as being critical to the counter-attack on foreign propaganda.

Written Correspondence as Propaganda

Douglas Wilson Johnson, a well-known America geologist, author, and professor at Columbia University, was one of many chosen to receive correspondence from German intellectuals attempting to turn them against the countries (U.S. in this case) war efforts. While it is not stated in the document, the letter Johnson received probably came from the signers of the “Manifesto of 93” which was signed by 93 German intellectuals, including fourteen Nobel Prize winners, refuted charges of war guilt and legitimized” many of the atrocities committed by German troops. In his response, Johnson confirms the letter is strictly propaganda when he wrote of the correspondent’s rabid denunciation of the American press for their vilification of the German soldier.

Johnson’s antagonist wrote that the American press “has become one of the direst plagues of humanity . . . pitting nations, religions, and classes against one another.” Johnson admits that the German-American press had gone to great lengths to oppose the American press and justify Germany’s positions. Credit must be given to Germany’s former Colonial Secretary, Dr. Bernhard Dernberg for his efforts in establishing the foreign propaganda campaigns. He and those in his propaganda organization worked tirelessly to vindicate the German soldier, as well as bring pressure on the American Congress to pass an embargo denying aid to the Allies. Interestingly, Johnson would write that he had himself begun to believe Americans had been deceived by their own country regarding the magnitude and longevity of the war.

Navy recruiting poster from WWI.

Navy recruiting poster from WWI.

How Effective was Propaganda?

Determining the general effectiveness of propaganda during WWI is difficult. However, a good example of a successful propaganda campaign is the one initiated by General Erich Ludendorff. Ludendorff’s “stab-in-the-back” myth proved to be highly successful, so much so that this myth almost became a German battle cry for the Second World War. The German Foreign Ministry’s White Book campaign, whose aim was to “exonerate the German troops as victims of an illegal and unrelenting ‘peoples war’ conducted by Belgium civilians” proved to be a massive failure. Obviously, the writing campaign in which Professor Johnson was challenged and the attempts by the Germans to exploit racial tensions in America both ended in failure as well.

Much Remains to be learned of the Effectiveness other Countries Propaganda Efforts.

It must be considered too that thousands of speeches were given around the globe of which there is little record. Very little is known about the propaganda efforts of Russia, Italy, Austria-Hungary, and the Ottoman Turks. Bloch certainly believed in the potential effectiveness of propaganda. His concern regarded the change in composition of modern armies. Armies had for some time been becoming less professional and composed more of “peace loving people” whose inclinations to fight would quickly deteriorate once exposed to propaganda describing the horrors of war. A great deal of research needs to be completed before an accurate assessment of the effectiveness of propaganda can be made.


The purpose of this study has been to bring to light the deference given by all belligerents to the use of propaganda as a weapon of war. The use of propaganda can easily be likened to psychological warfare, both are designed to weaken the enemies will to fight; and as Grandmaison has warned, “defeat is inevitable as soon as the hope of conquering ceases to exist.” Many American writers, since 1920, have written that propaganda was highly effective in the war and give as an example the Allies ability to draw the U.S. into the war. If to any degree WWI propaganda effectively inspired nations to enter the war: instilled fear or determination into the front lines and home fronts: inspired armies to fight to the death to protect loved ones from the Hun, or any other dehumanized enemy; prove to be a spark to ignite another world war, then propaganda must be viewed as weapon of war as dangerous as any other.

New York TImes 11.11.1918 Armistice Day.

New York TImes 11.11.1918 Armistice Day.

On Armistice Day, November 11, 1918, as the Church bells were ringing in celebration of the wars end, a mother received a telegram informing her that her son had been killed in action just one week earlier. It is hard to imagine the heartbreak Wilfred Owens’ mother experienced knowing her son came so close to surviving the war. Wilfred Owens is known for his war poetry, and his untimely death gives strength to much of it. His most recognized poem may well be one of the most powerful pieces of propaganda to come out of the Great War. In Dulce et Decorum est Owens described the horrendous death of a British soldier who unfortunately failed, during a mustard gas attack, to don his gas mask. Such propaganda as this should be distributed to the masses in the hopes that enough would be inspired to stand up and say no, war is not the answer.


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