Outbreak of the war
End of the war

The canon of images of the First World War as reflected in the illustrated press

The illustrated press had a decisive influence on the imagery of the war. It provided a social context in which the photographic image became a medium for social communication. However, the visual representation pattern of the war in the press was also subject to military control and censorship.

The pictorial canon of the First World War is characterised by photographs at the front. While the first images of the war showed soldier portraits taken far from the battlefields, the demand was soon heard for more spectacular photographs from the front. In particular when military successes were recorded, there was an increase in the demand for effective dramatic pictorial material. Newspapers hoped for spectacular images of the war and the illustrated press fought for the best pictures. The particular value of photography for newspapers and magazines lay in the authenticity that the public attributed to it. The viewer became an eyewitness of an apparent reality without actually being present.

At the demand of the media, pictures of the war zones and the front lines, of battle action and destruction became the dominant imagery of the war. Dynamic reporting, characterised by spectacular battle scenes, vivid close-ups and dramatic pictorial narratives began to dominate. Photographs of this kind were extremely rare but were so frequently reproduced that they became decisive for the pictorial history of the First World War, of which they were not representative.

What played a secondary role was the fact that the First World War was by no means conducted on clearly delineated battlefields. The camera only recorded the fate of the civil population on the margin. It was only in the second half of the war that the hinterland attracted the attention of the illustrated newspapers, the frontlines of the trench war having become rigid and reports from the front having ceased to be exciting. Nevertheless, the focus continued to be on the everyday life of the soldiers – the images showed the supplies and the provision of food in field camps, dental treatment, field bakeries, communal washing days and the like. The focus of these images was on the comradeship of the soldiers, and the war was presented as a tourist adventure. The aim of the published photos was to sustain an optimistic patriotic mood. Photographs of modern weapon technology, huge piles of equipment and modern war materials demonstrated the destructive force and fuelled the enthusiasm for industrialised war technology. These images were intended to communicate the certainty of victory and an aesthetic image of the war.

In contrast, shocking images were as a rule avoided. The characteristic taboo topic of published images was death in war, which was only indirectly a topic, such as through the publication of portraits of fallen soldiers or in the form of dead enemy soldiers. The dead body of the enemy demonstrated the military dominance of one's own country and became a trophy of the war efforts. In the official pictorial language of the war, death in one's own ranks was only shown abstractly and in the ritual of remembrance. Thus a pictorial canon was created in the media that only marginally corresponded to the real experiences of the soldiers and was characterised by a taboo on the reality of war.

Translation: David Wright



Holzer, Anton: Die andere Front. Fotografie und Propaganda im Ersten Weltkrieg, Darmstadt 2007

Holzer, Anton (Hrsg.): Mit der Kamera bewaffnet. Krieg und Fotografie, Marburg 2003

Holzer, Anton: Das Lächeln der Henker. Der unbekannte Krieg gegen die Zivilbevölkerung 1914-1918, Darmstadt 2008

Holzer, Anton: Der illustrierte Krieg. Fotografie und Bildberichterstattung 1914-1918, in: Alfred Pfoser/Andreas Weigl (Hrsg.): Im Epizentrum des Zusammenbruchs. Wien im Ersten Weltkrieg. Wien 2013, 486-493

Hüppauf, Bernd: Fotografie im Ersten Weltkrieg, in: Spilker, Rolf/Ulrich, Bernd (Hrsg.): Der Tod als Maschinist. Der industrialisierte Krieg 1914–1918. Eine Ausstellung des Museums Industriekultur Osnabrücl im Rahmen des Jubiläums „350 Jahre Westfälischer Friede“ 17.Mai–23.August 1998, Osnabrück 1998, 108-123

Paul, Gerhard: Bilder des Krieges – Krieg der Bilder. Die Visualisierung des modernen Krieges, München 2004


Contents related to this chapter


  • Aspect

    Guiding the masses

    Guiding the mood of the masses was an important aspect of warfare during the First World War. Considerable information and communication work was carried out to persuade the population of the “true facts”. All areas of life were influenced by propaganda in a way that had not been seen hitherto: reports in the newspapers, posters on the walls, even teaching material in schools now communicated controlled information. What methods and media were used? How did the various warring nations attempt to influence public opinion? What was communicated and how effective was the propaganda?

Persons, Objects & Events

  • Object


    All Quiet on the Western Front was released in 1930. It was the film of Erich Maria Remarque’s novel of the same name about the experiences of a soldier during the First World War. Remarque’s book and the film adaptation are classic anti-war statements. Alongside the patriotic, glorified heroic epics and “authentic” documentation of service for the fatherland, this was just one way in which the First World War was portrayed in literature and films – a medium that had come into being only twenty years before the outbreak of war.

  • Object

    Monitoring & control

    Everyday life in the Habsburg Monarchy was characterised by propaganda, monitoring and control, as can be seen by the many blank spaces in the daily newspapers and deletions in private correspondence and telegrams. At the same time an attempt was made in texts and audio-visual media to whip up general enthusiasm for the war. Not even the youngest inhabitants of the empire remained untouched, and the influence of the state was also felt in the schools of the Monarchy.

  • Object

    Depicting the war

    The photo by Alexander Exax shows a scene in the trenches in Galicia in 1915. The title “im Feuer” [“under fire”] gives the impression that the picture has been taken in the middle of the action. Dynamic photos like this were typical of the pictorial iconography of the First World War. The illustrated weeklies were among the most important distribution media, but there were others: exhibitions and posters, picture postcards and cinemas collaborated with private picture agencies and the official propaganda to provide a visual depiction of the war.

  • Object

    The foreigner, the adversary, the enemy!

    To popularise the greeting “Gott strafe England” [“May God punish England”] and the response “Er strafe es” [“May He do so”] it was printed on posters, badges and postcards. The idea was to promote patriotism and hatred of England. Right after the start of the war, animosity and mutual attributions of blame by the two sides were manifest. Xenophobia was officially encouraged as a sign of patriotism. This singling out and denigration of the enemy was designed to strengthen solidarity and justify the country’s own war policy.