Homeworks academic service

An overview of the wartime propaganda of world war one

Table of Contents

Trick, treat or bonfire 01 Nov 2013 The real tragedy of the First World War is perhaps not that it was so costly in lives and treasure, but that the populations of Europe consented to war for so long and so allowed the carnage to continue. This is what we may call the tragedy of consent. As Britain and her allies remain engaged in military operations across the world, in an age of professional soldiering, one cannot ignore the fact that the fate of those fighting and dying on our behalf remains, as it was during the Great War, our individual and collective responsibility.

From the mid-Twenties, as warring nations came to terms with the devastating human and material legacies of the conflict, these images of enthusiastic patriotism seemed to encapsulate the tragedy of European and imperial populations.

By this reading, they were populations hoodwinked into the conflict by patriotic lies, maintained in a state of mental subjugation by propaganda and censorship, and led into battle by incompetent and callous generals. Despite sporadic outbursts such as those in Munich, the warring nations never fell for the nationalist frenzy that is too often associated with August 1914.

But their common consent to the war accounts for the duration of a conflict of unprecedented scale. So why were nations so quick to consent?

Because the war that broke out in 1914 was not simply the result of geopolitical and strategic tensions. This battle between empires and nations pitted competing visions of the European and international orders that put cultures and ideologies at the heart of the business of war.

Most British commentators claimed Britain stood for liberal democracy and international law against authoritarian Germany.


The alternative to war — German occupation and domination — was seen as unacceptable across the political spectrum. Few soldiers died for abstract ideals of nation; most risked lives to defend the safety of their friends, family and home. Through newspapers, posters, advertisements, church sermons and socialist speeches, this language of mobilisation soon swept through nations at war. Such was the strength of consent that it became difficult in Britain to show opposition to the war.

Keir Hardie, the Scottish socialist and labour leader who was also a staunch pacifist, routinely saw his speeches in 1914 disrupted by hecklers. It is ironic that in asserting their opposition to other nations — and confirming their consent to war — European populations demonstrated how much they had in common. Even in Russia, where revolution had shaken the foundations of the Tsarist regime as recently as 1905, the rural masses rallied to defend the nation; 96 per cent of soldiers reported for duty.

The memoirs of German soldiers in the battle of the Somme showed they were convinced that the fate of their heimat — homeland — and the safety of their families rested on their capacity to defeat France and to break the encirclement allegedly sought by her Russian ally.

One did not have to embrace the war to be committed to its victorious end. But as war dragged on for far longer than anyone had expected and took its heavy toll, commitment to the war effort began to shift in 1915 as nations began to question the mounting human and material cost. Strikes and protest did not express opposition to the war but reminded employers and the state of their obligations.

Those who went on strike, such as workers on the Clyde in 1915, Berlin women in 1917 and Parisian metalworkers in 1918, claimed their sacrifice justified their protest.

Each social group defended their collective interest and their patriotic record, standing by their consent while exposing the cracks.

  • The First World War demonstrated the transformative potential of total war;
  • However, successive German governments maintained propaganda organisations through into the 1930s, for the purpose of depicting Germany and its Army as having been wronged by the Treaty of Versailles, including a repeated claim that British propaganda had been based on lies;
  • But it must also be stressed that much propaganda generated in all countries was the product of non-government initiatives, or of government co-operation with private institutions, and that much of this propaganda was on a small and local scale.

But for women forced to queue for food in Berlin, the state was not living up to the standards set by their men at the front.

And state authorities neglected the working classes at their peril.

How Were Propaganda Posters Used in World War 1?

Populations started to equate the unprecedented level of casualties and mounting economic difficulties with the sacrifice borne of wartime mobilisation.

By 1918, patriotism and citizenship had become all about sacrifice and no longer about preserving a cultural and national identity. Our boys frankly acknowledge what the alternative to defeat means in this war and tell you they prefer to die with honour than survive with shame.

The First World War demonstrated the transformative potential of total war. Beyond Russia, the war had brought down the German, Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman empires and allowed the birth or rebirth of nations across Europe.

Propaganda and the tragedy of consent

From Washington to Beijing through Toronto and Berlin, social movements, often led by veterans and former war workers, challenged established political, racial, gendered and social hierarchies.

In the eyes of these protesters, progressive and redistributive social policies were expected to repay the sacrifices they had consented to during the war. French women protested unsuccessfully for the extension of suffrage. Social and racial inequalities persisted despite the promises made in wartime. The war did not only blur the boundaries between soldiers and civilians. It showed warring populations were not merely victims of the conflicts; they were — through their consent - also agents of destruction.