Atrocity propaganda

Atrocity propaganda focused on the most violent acts committed by the German and Austro-Hungarian armies, emphasising their barbarity and providing justification for the conflict. Professor Jo Fox describes the forms that such propaganda took in the early years of the war.
Victims shot, bayoneted to death, killed with knives, arms lopped off, torn off, or broken, legs broken, nose cut off, ears cut off, eyes put out, genital organs cut off, victims stoned, women violated and killed, breasts cut off, persons hanged, victims burnt alive, one child thrown to the pigs, victims clubbed to death with butt-ends of rifles or sticks, victims impaled, victims whose skin was cut into strips.
Professor R A Reiss, a prominent forensic scientist commissioned by the Serbian Prime Minister to conduct an enquiry into war crimes, thus categorised the numerous violent acts against civilians perpetrated by the occupying Austro-Hungarian forces in Serbia in 1914. His account bore striking similarities to French and British publications of the same period, notably Le livre rouge des atrocités allemandes and the Bryce Report. In painstaking detail, such reports recorded the crimes of 1914, individual acts of violence against civilians, troops and prisoners of war; looting and pillage; the use of weapons ‘forbidden by the rules and conventions of war’; the destruction of ancient libraries and cathedrals, and of homes and villages; rape, mutilation, and torture. Vivid illustrations and first-hand testimonies accompanied each description of the ‘crimes without name’, while Liège, Louvain, Dinant, Antwerp, Reims, Arras, and Senlis were transformed into ‘martyred towns’, ravaged by an uncompromising, inhuman enemy whose victims ranged from children to the elderly, from men of God to the injured and helpless. Such images dominated the early propaganda of the Great War, serving as a potent reminder of the justification for war and a vindication of the sacrifice it demanded.

The nature of atrocity propaganda

Atrocity propaganda varied, appearing in books, newspapers, pamphlets, sketches, posters, films, lantern slides, and cartoons, and on postcards, plates, cups, and medals. It operated on many levels. Official government reports presented ‘evidence’ that German troops had contravened the Hague Conventions of 1899 and 1907. Eyewitness accounts from victims and perpetrators made for compelling and convincing reading, and, although methods of investigation often fell short of legal standards, the reports appeared to be based on irrefutable facts. That respected experts led these enquiries (Bryce, for example, having served as a British Ambassador to the United States, member of the House of Lords, and jurist) further legitimised the allegations.

Bryce report: Committee on alleged German outrages

Bryce report: Committee on alleged German outrages

Report of the committee led by Viscount Bryce, assessing 'alleged German outrages', 1915.

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Copyright: © Crown Copyright and provided under an Open Government Licence

While the reports tended to adopt an objective tone, salacious stories were extracted from testimonies to form the basis of sensational newspaper articles, exhibitions (such as that by Louis Raemaekers in London in 1915), or popular books. This created a dynamic, transformative and self-reinforcing propaganda environment. William Le Queux detailed the suffering of the ‘honest, pious inhabitants’ of Belgium, at the mercy of ‘one vast gang of Jack-the-Rippers… frothing with military Nietzschism’ and excited by ‘a primitive barbarism’. Although initially a response to the invasion of Belgium in 1914, atrocity stories drew - as Le Queux’s account suggests - on pre-existing anti-German sentiments. These sentiments were strengthened by wider official and unofficial publicity campaigns that pitted German Kultur against Christian civilization and morality, and created an interpretative framework for subsequent events. The ‘assassination’ of Edith Cavell, the sinking of the Lusitania, the declaration of unrestricted U-Boat warfare, Zeppelin raids, and the use of gas in the trenches all seemed to confirm the fundamental depravity of the German character and bolstered the hierarchy of enemies. Thus German atrocities were afforded a particular prominence, whereas the Turkish slaughter of Armenians passed almost unnoticed. The power of atrocity stories derived in part from their ability to stand either alone, as singular acts of barbarism and moral depravity, or as a series of pre-meditated collective behaviours that condemned a nation. These shocking stories allowed propagandists to justify the war, encourage men to enlist, raise funds for war loans schemes, and shake the United States from its neutrality. The impact of such propaganda was enduring, lasting well into 1918 and beyond.

The German response

Allegations of atrocities proved difficult to refute. Any attempt to do so attracted further publicity, and explanations offered by the German and Austro-Hungarian authorities seemed only to confirm their guilt. The ‘Manifesto of the 93’, signed by leading German scientists, scholars and artists, including fourteen Nobel Prize winners, refuted charges of war guilt and legitimised the retaliation of German soldiers against illegal franc-tireurs (irregular forces, ‘free-shooters’), asserting that German troops had acted within international law. German propaganda pointed to the hypocrisy of ‘perfidious Albion’ (Great Britain), whose brutal Empire had perpetrated countless atrocities against the suppressed peoples of Ireland, India, Egypt, and Africa, and pointed to Germany’s own record of scholarly endeavour and social welfare.
The German Foreign Ministry’s ‘White Book’ sought to exonerate German troops as the victims of an illegal and unrelenting ‘people’s war’ conducted by Belgian civilians. This strategy proved unsuccessful. The Académie française condemned the Manifesto, while the ‘White Book’, highly selective and deploying unconvincing evidence, seemed to confirm German crimes and was demolished by the Belgian Livre Gris (1916). Attempts by the Austro-Hungarian Government to justify its troops’ actions met with similar criticism: Reiss condemned the ‘tardy excuses of the Austrian officials [which] fall to the ground’. By simply responding to Allied accusations, German and Austro-Hungarian propaganda was purely reactive: it failed to exploit the Allies’ own contraventions of international law, handing to them the moral high ground and ultimately the more convincing explanation for the outbreak of war.

Legacy

In the inter-war period, investigations into the nature of war propaganda suggested that atrocity stories had been fabricated by the Allies in order to justify the war and to encourage enlistment. Although more recently historians such as John Horne and Alan Kramer have illustrated the importance of the franc-tireur myth to the German military mind-set and highlighted the contravention of international law entailed in the murder of c.6000 Belgian citizens in 1914, for many years doubts about the veracity of Allied claims and the memory of the franc-tireurs remained.
When German forces once again occupied Belgium in 1940, monuments to civilian resistance in 1914 were destroyed, while researchers sought evidence of the existence of a citizen army in the Belgian and French archives. Liberal democratic propagandists of the Second World War were divided over the memory of the Great War: some invoked the experience of 1914 to demonstrate Germany’s continual threat to a peaceful Europe (Lord Vansittart’s Black Record, 1941, for example), while others pointed to the uniqueness of Nazism. While seeking ‘another Edith Cavell’ for their campaigns, they were limited by the popular memory of ‘false’ 1914 atrocity stories. As a result, they feared exposing themselves to charges of exaggerating Nazi atrocities in Europe from 1941, with the consequence that the plight of the Jews and others was largely ignored and public attention directed elsewhere.
  • Jo Fox
  • Jo Fox (FRSA, FRHistS) is Professor of Modern History at Durham University. She is a specialist on the history of propaganda and war. Her publications include Film Propaganda in Britain and Nazi Germany: World War II Cinema (Berg, 2007) and (with David Welch) Justifying War: Politics, Propaganda and the Modern Age (Palgrave, 2013). She is a National Teaching Fellow (2007) and the Director of Communications for the Royal Historical Society. Jo Fox is currently researching the history of rumour in the First and Second World Wars.

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