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Propaganda as a weapon? Influencing international opinion

From the beginning of World War One, both sides of the conflict used propaganda to shape international opinion. Curator Ian Cooke considers the newspapers, books and cartoons produced in an attempt to influence both neutral and enemy countries.
Governments during the First World War devoted massive resources and huge amounts of effort to producing material designed to shape opinion and action internationally. The efforts of states to justify their actions, and to build international support, resulted in some of the most powerful propaganda ever produced. They also shaped attitudes towards propaganda itself in the years following the end of the War.

'Are we afraid? No!' A propaganda postcard depicting the British Empire

This postcard uses the Union Flag and the icon of the Bulldog to show Britain, Australia, Canada, India, New Zealand and South Africa standing united against a common threat, 1915.

'Are we afraid? No!' - British propaganda showing the British Bulldog, with five others representing Australia, Canada, India, South Africa and New Zealand.

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Influencing the news

One of the first actions carried out by Britain at the start of the war was to cut Germany’s under-sea communication cables, ensuring that Britain had a monopoly on the fastest means of transmitting news from Europe to press agencies in the United States of America. Influencing the reporting of the war around the world, with the aim of gaining support and sympathy, was an important objective for all states. In Britain, a secret organisation, Wellington House, was set up in September 1914, and called on journalists and newspaper editors to write and disseminate articles sympathetic to Britain and to counter the statements made by enemies. As well as placing favourable reports in the existing press of neutral countries, Wellington House printed its own newspapers for circulation around the world. Illustrated news, carrying drawings or photographs, was viewed as particularly effective. By December 1916, the War Pictorial was running at a circulation of 500,000 copies per issue, in four editions covering 11 languages. The Chinese-language Cheng Pao had a fortnightly circulation of 250,000 issues, and was described as having ‘such a powerful effect upon the masses that the Chinese government were able to declare war against Germany’.[1]

Professor Jo Fox discusses how atrocities such as the invasion of Belgium, the execution of Edith Cavell and the sinking of the Lusitania were utilised by World War One propagandists.

German and British covert propaganda

In addition to press reporting, states attempted to influence opinion using a wide range of pamphlets, cartoons, and longer books. German efforts in the USA centred on the production of vast numbers of publications through existing German cultural institutions. The War Plotters of Wall Street, published in 1915, is an example of this type of propaganda. It tells of a plot by unscrupulous financiers to draw the USA into a war which would be against its own interests and ruinous to its economy. The book warned Americans against financial support for Britain, arguing that loans would never be repaid.

However, German propaganda tended to lack subtlety, and the use of organisations such as The Fatherland Corporation as publishers often gave the game away. British efforts, directed through Wellington House for most of the war, took a different approach. Commercial publishers were used to give the impression that works were produced independently of state direction. Books and pamphlets were published in huge numbers and circulated to lists of people identified as opinion makers sympathetic to Britain. The intention was that popular support for Britain would be built through local advocates rather than appearing to come from Britain directly.

The English Beast by Count Paul von Hoensbroech

Illustrated German propaganda pamphlet attacking ‘the English beast’ by depicting England as an octopus controlling the globe with its tentacles.

The English Beast, a propagandist pamphlet produced shortly after the war in Germany. The image shows England as a monstrous giant squid, lying on a bed of money and choking the globe with its twisting tentacles.

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My Mission to London, by the German Prince Lichnowsky

My Mission to London

My Mission to London, written in 1916 by Prince Lichnowsky, sets out a criticism of German foreign policy towards England. It was reprinted in large numbers by Wellington House.

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Official propaganda

In some cases, this covert activity would be supported through more overt official messages, where this might lend further weight. The 1915 British Parliamentary publication, Report of the Committee on Alleged German Outrages (the ‘Bryce Report’) was an attempt by the government to set out its justification for war, and to give credibility to stories of German atrocities in Belgium and France. The report, widely circulated alongside Wellington House propaganda, was based on testimony from refugees from Belgium and France, and was later criticised for its uncritical treatment of sources.

The Bryce report: Committee on alleged German outrages

Front cover of the Bryce report: Committee on alleged German outrages

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

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Exploiting mistakes made by the enemy

British propaganda aimed at neutral countries also made effective use of Germany’s misfortunes or misjudgements during the war. In 1916, an independent German artist created a small number of medals to commemorate the anniversary of the sinking of the Lusitania. The medals focused on German justifications for the act (which had claimed 1,198 lives), alleging that the passenger liner had been carrying weapons for Allied forces. The medal was found by British agents, and hundreds of thousands of copies were made and circulated to highlight the ‘barbarity’ of the enemy.

Most damaging of all was the ‘Zimmerman telegram’, a German diplomatic communication which was uncovered in 1917 by British intelligence. The telegram contained details of German plans in the event of the USA joining the war on the Allied side. It envisaged an offer to Mexico of territory including the states of Texas and Arizona in return for declaring war on the USA. Although the American President, Woodrow Wilson, had probably already decided to commit to war before the contents of the telegram were known, their subsequent publication ensured public support.

French poster 'The voice of the ruins'

The voice of the ruins

'La voix des ruines' ('The voice of the ruins'), a poster from 1918 blaming the destruction of French soil on Germany.

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Propaganda against enemy armed forces

Alongside attempts to influence public opinion in neutral countries, propaganda was also used directly against enemies. From the start of the war, aeroplanes and balloons were used by all sides to drop leaflets and posters over fighting forces and civilians.
On the Western Front, the German publication, the Gazette des Ardennes, was intended in part to engender French and Belgian civilian hostility to British forces. It was countered by the British publication Le Courrier de l’Air. As well as publications in French and Flemish, German propaganda included material written in Urdu, aimed at Indian regiments fighting in Europe. These leaflets and posters played on resentments of British rule in India, and attempted to persuade soldiers to stop fighting or join with German troops.[2]

The impact of international propaganda

The impact of this propaganda on fighting forces is hard to assess. Leaflets and posters were certainly circulated in vast numbers by all sides, and captured troops were often found to have leaflets in their possession, despite the harsh penalties imposed for doing so. There were also reports of leaflets being exchanged for money.

Certainly, contemporary commentators were impressed, and sometimes horrified, by the effectiveness of propaganda in influencing public opinion. In the years immediately following the war, the exaggerated reports of German and Austrian treatment of civilians were denounced as ‘atrocity propaganda’. In the USA, the opinion that the country had been ‘duped’ into joining the war influenced isolationist policies. Both Lenin and Hitler were convinced of the significance of propaganda in ensuring success. Perhaps the most damaging legacy was the myth that gained currency in Germany that the war had been lost not on the battlefield, but through the influence of foreign propaganda on the German people.

Ligue Souvenez-vous

A booklet and stamps produced by the French league, Souvenez-vous (French for ‘remember’), which aimed to perpetuate the memory of German crimes after the war.

A booklet and stamps produced by the French league, Souvenez-vous (French for ‘remember’), which aimed to perpetuate the memory of German crimes after the war.

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[1]The National Archives INF 1/317 Home Publicity during the 1914-1918 War

[2] Propaganda leaflet dropped on Indian regiments fighting in France. Berlin?, c.1915. The British Library PP Urdu 37

  • Ian Cooke
  • Ian Cooke is Lead Curator for International and Political Studies at the British Library. He has worked in academic and research libraries for 17 years, and is on the editorial team for the journal African Research and Documentation. In 2013, he co-curated the British Library exhibition Propaganda Power and Persuasion.

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