World War One atrocity propaganda

World War One atrocity propaganda was a specific propaganda technique that sought to garner support for war and provide a moral explanation for it, by highlighting the crimes and atrocities committed by the of the enemy. Professor Jo Fox discusses a number of atrocities utilised by propagandists, such as the invasion of Belgium in 1914, the execution of Edith Cavell and the sinking of the Lusitania. Using British Library collection items such as the Bryce Report, Professor Fox discusses the techniques used by propagandists, their validity as historical sources and their legacy in the inter-war years and beyond.

First World War atrocity propaganda is primarily focused on the atrocities committed by German troops as they invaded Belgium in 1914. The power of atrocity propaganda can be seen in the convergence of a series of events, beginning with the invasion of Belgium in 1914 through the execution of Edith Cavell, the sinking of the Lusitania, resulting in the loss of 1,200 civilian lives. All of this seemed to confirm German barbarism and further stories only seemingly intensified this idea further – the Zeppelin raids, the use of what were considered to be unconventional weapons, such as the use of poison gas, flamethrowers, and so on. All of this fitted the master narrative of German barbarism that was begun with the invasion of Belgium in 1914 and actually persisted throughout the war. It continued to be a dominant theme even in 1918 when a number of pieces of propaganda started to begin this idea of ‘once a Hun, always a Hun’. And that persisted way beyond the war itself.

These are two examples of the type of atrocity propaganda that was quite common and they depict two of the most fundamental events surrounding atrocity. The first is the execution of Edith Cavell. And we can see in this series of images the depiction of the German, here as being the slayer of Edith Cavell, assisted by death.

This postcard here depicts the suffering of civilians in the Lusitania, grasping for dear life following the U-Boat attack – the merciless U-Boat attack by the Germans. And this again depicts German barbarity, targeting civilians.

Undoubtedly both sides committed atrocities and there was a very similar case to that of Edith Cavell committed by Allied troops that simply was not picked up by German propagandists. But German propagandists were really fighting from a difficult position because they had committed the ultimate atrocity and that was the invasion of Belgium so they always were on the back foot.

The Bryce report was an official government report released in 1915. It was very important in terms of legitimising a number of the atrocity stories emanating from Belgium. And it was particularly important given that it seemed to have an official voice. Bryce had been a former ambassador to Washington , he was a jurist, he was a member of the House of Lords and he collected together a series of eye-witness testimonies from Belgium in the report. And this seemed to confirm a lot of the speculation that had been going on in the press and through rumours that were widely circulating at the time. So the report goes through each of the incidents, detailing specific evidence against the German crimes. And every so often Bryce intersperses this narrative with first-hand eyewitness testimony. “We were all placed in Station Street, Louvain, and the German soldiers fired upon us. I saw the corpses of some women in the street. I fell down and a woman who had been shot fell on top of me. I did not dare to look at the dead bodies in the street, there were so many of them.” So by stacking the evidence in this way, Bryce attempted to detail all of the crimes and the specifics gave this an heir of legitimacy and truth which was later exploited by propagandists in the press and in popular literature.

This report was commissioned by the Kingdom of Serbia on Austro-Hungarian atrocities and in many ways it was similar to the Bryce Report of 1915.

The official accounts were supplemented by more popular accounts such as this one on German atrocities. And we can see that these more popular accounts used the official accounts of the Belgian Commission to develop the story but when we look inside the tone is very different. “Briefly the monarch of the Huns may be best described as the worthy leader of one vast gang of Jack the Rippers”.

Sometimes official reports were turned into more popular illustrated accounts. This is the example of the French Red Book. We can see in this image that each case is given a certain visual identity. This story about the rape of a woman in front of her three year old child by a German soldier was reported in the official French account of atrocities. The book goes on to detail various cases of German brutality.

There were multiple intended audiences for the atrocity propaganda. First of all neutral countries and in particular the United States. And the sinking of the Lusitania came at the same time as the release of the Bryce report and these together were thought to be quite persuasive to American audiences.  But atrocity propaganda shouldn’t be seen solely as a top-down propaganda campaign. It was very much shaped from below. It was in response to the public desire to know what the sacrifice of war was for. And a lot of the atrocity propaganda that came out was really stoked by the press but in response to popular desire. And it was that cumulative effect that really gave the propaganda its power.

The question of reliability of these accounts is obviously a very important one for historians. The difficulty with the sources is that they were attempting to capture very real events on the ground. But as historical evidence they are very problematic in that they’re eye witness accounts often, sometimes relayed second hand, and sometimes complicated by a whole series of other factors such as rumours, the exaggeration of what was going on in Belgium and the trauma of the atrocities that had been perpetrated. The inter-war years obviously complicated this account by claiming these were simply propaganda fabrications. This simply is not true. And recent historical research from the 1990s onwards has pointed to the very real atrocities that were committed in Belgium, in France, in 1914, 1915. The difficulty for the historian is to disaggregate the sources and find the very real voices in among the exaggeration.

The publications of individuals, pacifists like Arthur Ponsonby, Falsehood in Wartime in 1928, seemed to suggest that the atrocity stories that circulated in 1914, 1915 in particular had been falsified by the government in order to persuade neutrals to come into the war, in order to persuade the people to go to war in 1914. We know from subsequent historical research that some of those atrocity stories were in fact true – the work of people like Horne and Kramer really demonstrated that. But in the interwar period there was a real questioning, particularly in Britain and the United States about the compatibility of liberal democracy and propaganda. In Germany there was the opposite – that the far right in particular drew on the ‘stab in the back’ theory and saw propaganda as a scapegoat for military loss and argued that propaganda was to be at the centre of any future military and political strategy.

Now one of the unfortunate consequences of all this debate in the inter-war years that seemed to universally condemn Allied propaganda as being a series of falsehoods was that when the world went to war again in 1939, the question of atrocity really was problematic for propagandists. Because there was widespread public scepticism now about atrocity, when there were very real atrocities being perpetrated by the Nazis in 1940, 1941, particularly in eastern Europe, that there was a reluctance to report them. It was very hard to grasp then the scale of what was going on in eastern Europe – the scale of the Nazi’s planned final solution from 1941 onwards. And this was one of the legacies that had an enduring effect on modern Europe.

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