Depicting the enemy

How did fighting nations depict the enemy? Professor David Welch explores the techniques used when creating atrocity propaganda.
During World War One atrocity propaganda was employed on a global scale. The Great War was the first total war in which whole nations and not just professional armies were locked in mortal combat. This and subsequent modern wars required propaganda to (1) mobilize hatred against the enemy; (2) convince the population of the justness of one’s own cause; (3) enlist the active support and cooperation of neutral countries; and (4) strengthen the support of one’s allies. Having sought to pin war guilt on the enemy, the next step was to make the enemy appear savage, barbaric, and inhumane. All the belligerents in World War One employed atrocity propaganda associated with the enemy and, as a result, stereotypes emerged that had been largely developed in the period leading up to the outbreak of war. The recognition of stereotypes is an important part of understanding the use of anti-symbols and the portrayal of the enemy in propaganda. The enemy is of great importance in propaganda, for not only does it provide a target that can be attacked, but also it offers a scapegoat – the easiest means of diverting public attention from genuine social and political problems at home.

Arch-enemy, a Russian poster

Russian propaganda poster depicting Kaiser Wilhelm II, the ‘arch-enemy’, whose polices contributed to the outbreak of war.

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German depictions

In 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 depictions

Britain, 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

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

Both the British stereotype of the Hun and the French image of the Boche provided a platform for the Allies’ propaganda to launch a moral offensive against a society founded upon militaristic values, thereby bringing home to their own populations the unimaginable consequences of defeat. Hatred of the enemy and atrocity propaganda therefore played a major role in the wave of patriotism that enveloped Europe in the early stages of World War One.
  • David Welch
  • David Welch is Professor of Modern History and Director of the Centre for the Study of War, Propaganda & Society at the University of Kent. His books include Germany, Propaganda and Total War, 1914–1918 (2000 & 2014), Modern European History 1871-2000 (2000) and The Third Reich: Politics and Propaganda (2002). He is co-author of Propaganda and Mass Persuasion: A Historical Encylopedia, 1500 to the Present (2003) and editor (with Jo Fox) of Justifying War. Propaganda, Politics and the Modern Age (2012). His latest book, Propaganda. Power and Persuasion (2013), accompanied the summer exhibition at the British Library. He is currently writing a history of propaganda in World War Two.

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