The legacy of World War One propaganda

Jo Fox explores the legacy of World War One propaganda, explaining the role it played in shaping the propaganda campaigns of World War Two for both Britain and Germany.
By 1918, it had become clear that propaganda was a fact of modern society. For some it represented the solution to the challenges of the twentieth century; for others, its greatest threat. The sheer volume and intensity of the literature on propaganda published in the interwar period, largely in response to its deployment in the First World War, attests both to its contemporary importance and to its contested status. This literature established a series of contemporary assumptions (now largely discredited by scholars) that were difficult to dislodge: propaganda was an unseen, almost mystic, force in society that could manipulate the thoughts and behaviour of the vulnerable masses at will. Its success was undoubted and the repercussions for both liberal democracy and for fledgling European dictatorships considerable.

Victory and defeat

The closure of Britain’s Ministry of Information in December 1918 and, eight months later, of the United States Committee on Public Information prompted numerous publications by propagandists keen to assert their role in securing victory. Campbell Stuart’s The secrets of Crewe House: the story of a famous campaign and George Creel’s How we advertised America glorified the skill of Allied propagandists, who deployed their ‘specialism’ with devastating efficiency. As evidence of Allied success, Campbell Stuart cited the German General Erich Ludendorff’s ‘pathetic.... apologia’ drawn from his War memories. Ludendorff attributed the collapse of the German army and of civilian morale to ‘mischievous and lying propaganda’, concluding that ‘we were hypnotised… as a rabbit is by a snake’. Allied propaganda had convincingly demonstrated German war guilt, and the nation would now face the consequences. Ludendorff lamented that the Versailles Treaty (1919) ‘sent the German people into bondage, into an absolutely crushing one. All delusions have vanished’, he wrote, ‘We look into nothingness. Something else is needed’.

Treaty of Versailles

Treaty of Versailles

Extract from the Versailles Treaty, stating that 'Germany accepts the responsibility [...] for causing all the loss and damage to which the Allied and Associated Governments and their nationals have been subjected [...]'.

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The pacifist turn

As nations began to reflect on the cost of war, commentators raised questions over the nature of Allied propaganda. In 1928, the British pacifist MP Arthur Ponsonby published Falsehood in Wartime. Ponsonby claimed to have exposed the false nature of the atrocity stories that lay at the heart of Allied campaigns. ‘There must have been more deliberate lying in the world from 1914 to 1918 than in any other period of the world's history’, he asserted, and he went as far as to suggest that not only had propaganda been responsible for convincing unsuspecting British citizens to enlist; it had also drawn the United States into war in 1917 under false pretenses. This charge was to have a profound impact on future British propaganda activities there. For Ponsonby and for many contemporaries, such as Robert Graves (in Goodbye to all that), moral fears and social anxieties about propaganda largely concentrated on its challenge to democracy. Propaganda inevitably involved a degree of censorship and control that sat uneasily alongside perceptions of democratic societies as free and open. An article by Aldous Huxley in Time and Tide in May 1932, the same year that he published Brave New World, reflected fears about a future ‘great Ministry of propaganda’. This was, according to Huxley, a very real, and sinister, threat to democracy: ‘A really efficient propaganda could reduce most human beings to the condition of abject slavery’. The challenge posed by Europe’s dictators, who seemed to deploy propaganda to suppress the will of the people without regret, brought such concerns into sharp relief.

The modern political weapon

Ludendorff’s explanation of German defeat contributed to the development of the Dolchstoβlegende (‘stab in the back myth’), a dominant theme of far-right rhetoric, although it had appeal across the political spectrum. With its origins in the ‘spirit of 1914’, that victory would be achieved through will and nerve, the myth preserved the German army’s honour and excused the miscalculations of military strategists. It had a profound impact on the political thinking of Adolf Hitler, who declared in his first speech as the new chancellor of Germany on 1 February 1933 that ‘Fourteen years have passed since those unfortunate days when the German people, blinded by various internal and external promises, forgot the highest values of our past’. Nazism proposed to restore these values, not least through an active programme of propaganda and ‘popular enlightenment’. Hitler firmly believed that the loss of the war was a result of ineffective and inefficient German propaganda. The experience of 1914-1918, he wrote in Mein Kampf, ‘spurred me to take up the question of propaganda even more deeply than before… What we failed to do, the enemy did with amazing skill and really brilliant calculation. I myself learned enormously from this enemy war propaganda’. Praising the manipulation of atrocity stories, he concluded that Allied propaganda was regarded as ‘a weapon of the first order, while in our country it was the last resort of unemployed politicians and a haven for slackers’. As a result, he determined that Germany would not be in such a position again, and propaganda was to play integral role in acquiring and, after 1933, consolidating power.

Consequences

These debates played a formative role in shaping propaganda campaigns when war came again in 1939. Whereas Britain pursued a more understated approach, National Socialist propaganda sought to activate the population psychologically. Attempting to dispel the ‘myth’ of Allied supremacy, Joseph Goebbels, the Nazi propaganda minister, deemed British dominance in propaganda during the First World War an ‘easy victory’. But times had changed: ‘we have become political psychologists’, he wrote in the newspaper Der Angriff in March 1940, ‘whereas Churchill and Chamberlain are still employing methods from 25 years ago and think they are still dealing with the Germans of 1918’. The fear of exposing old wounds was dominant in the minds of British propagandists. Concerned that tales of barbarism would prompt the ‘feeling that it is the old armless-baby-act of the last war being worked all over again’ (John Grierson), they virtually excluded the suffering of Jews and others from their anti-Nazi publicity campaigns. It was only in 1945, with the reports and images that emerged from Europe’s extermination camps, such as those by Richard Dimbleby from Bergen-Belsen, that the full horror of Nazi atrocities was revealed.
  • 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.

The text in this article is available under the Creative Commons License.

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