Depicting the enemy
Professor Jo Fox provides fascinating insights into propaganda techniques of World War One.
Arch-enemy, a Russian posterView images from this item (1)
German depictionsIn Germany the war was justified as one of defence, as a result of aggressive encirclement on the part of the country’s enemies (France, Russia and Britain). This proved a fruitful theme in German propaganda. The Germans referred to the British as ’perfidious Albion’ and provided accounts of the Allied use of dum-dum bullets, mutilation, and brutality, as well as the use of ’savages’ from Africa and Asia to fight civilized peoples. The Germans also referred to the British naval blockade as an ’atrocity.’
British, French and Belgian depictionsBritain, however, is justifiably regarded as having deployed atrocity propaganda with more intensity and more skill than most. Stories of the dastardly deeds of ‘the enemy’ are a time-honoured technique of propagandists, particularly in war propaganda. The stereotype of the German ‘Hun’ that emerged in British propaganda was used to reinforce British values and to contrast such values favourably against German aggression and barbarism. The French employed similar stereotypes to depict the Germans in disparaging terms such as the Boche. The image of the enemy was a crucial aspect of wartime propaganda and served to justify British war aims, encourage enlistment, help raise war loans, strengthen the fighting spirit of the armed forces and bolster civilian morale.
The German invasion of neutral Belgium was the pretext for an anti-German campaign which rapidly mobilised widespread support amongst all sections of the population. Belgium was depicted as a defenceless child or woman ravaged by a brutal Prussian militarism. Tales of the spike-helmeted German ‘Hun’ cutting off the hands of children, boiling corpses to make soap, crucifying prisoners of war, and using priests as clappers in cathedral bells were widely believed by the British public, particularly after the Bryce Commission (1915), which had been established to look into these claims, concluded that many were true. Vilification of Kaiser Wilhelm II, and his Weltpolitik (often referred to as ‘kaiserism’), as well as accusations of German brutality, were hallmarks of British and French propaganda throughout the First World War. Like the British, the French fashioned the war against Germany into a struggle of civilization against barbarism and referred to the Kaiser as ‘chef des barbares’ (chief of the barbarians).The Germans’ policy of Schrecklichkeit (based on the idea that military ruthlessness shortens war) was in evidence during their advance through Belgium and was widely reported in the British press, which needed no encouragement from the government to publish stories of German atrocities, and as a result public opinion, whipped up by such stories, was prone constantly to hysteria.
Bryce report: Committee on alleged German outrages
Report of the committee led by Viscount Bryce, assessing 'alleged German outrages', 1915.View images from this item (10)
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