Outbreak of the war
End of the war
The war in the nursery: the function and effect of war games

As the war increasingly made its presence felt in children’s everyday life, it also began to appear in the games they played. The general militarization of society also took hold in the nation’s nurseries. Role-play strengthened emotional ties with the aims of the war, while board and card games conveyed propaganda messages.

The games and toy industry reacted quickly to the initial enthusiasm for the war. Building on the established tradition of war toys and games of strategy, most of the new additions and new versions appearing on the market between 1914 and 1916 had the war as their theme. Miniature lead soldiers, trenches and artillery pieces, prisoner transports and field hospitals started to appear in nurseries. New versions of existing games were brought out, their design and narrative featuring clear references to the war. This was especially evident in the adaptation of parlour games which now included the re-enactment of battles.

The martial tendency of these games fulfilled a clear educational function: the graphics, terminology and design of the toy figures were intended to convey a new world order and version of history, the events of the war were aestheticized, soldiers shown as heroic models and virtue, duty and obedience held up as central values. Rhyming phrases and slogans reinforced emotional internalization of patriotism and loyalty to the Fatherland, while battle and siege games made combat appear harmless. Card games such as Weltkriegsquartett conveyed technical and military knowledge, and illustrations reinforced enemy stereotypes.

Through play children adopted friend-and-foe constellations, became inculcated with racist stereotypes and built up mental images of the enemy. In their games hostile states were disparaged as figures of ridicule, while the armies of their own nation and their allies were glorified.

With the outbreak of hostilities the war dominated children’s role play, which became pervaded with military vocabulary. Popular in all social strata and often organized by the state in patriotic associations or Jugendwehren (a sort of territorial organization for boys), were out-of-door war games. With the aim of re-enacting the war as realistically as possible, children armed themselves with iron bars, catapults and knives, dug trenches and stormed ‘enemy troops’ with might and main. Often these war games were played with such intensity that they degenerated into mass brawls, but in any event educational indoctrination was here reinforced by physical enactment.

Through the combination of narrative, form and rules of the game suggestive messages could be conveyed which were absorbed intensively through play and the urge to win that was inherent in these games. In playing them, children developed an enthusiasm for soldierly life, practised military terminology and internalized ideological concepts.

As the war continued, interest in war toys diminished, and war games began to disappear from the shelves. They were replaced with more abstract games that were not primarily focused on the war and dispensed with military images and warlike subjects. As the war everywhere encroached on all aspects of life, playful enjoyment of it dwindled away.

Translation: Sophie Kidd


Demm, Eberhard: Deutschlands Kinder im Ersten Weltkrieg. Zwischen Propaganda und Sozialfürsorge, in: Militärgeschichtliche Zeitschrift (2001), 60, 51-79

Hoffmann, Heike: „Schwarzer Peter im Weltkrieg“. Die deutsche Spielwarenindustrie 1914-1918, in: Hirschfeld, Gerhard et al. (Hrsg.): Kriegserfahrungen. Studien zur Sozial- und Mentalitätsgeschichte des Ersten Weltkriegs, Essen 1997, 323-335

Strouha, Ernst: Spiel und Propaganda. Antisemitismus, Krieg und Ideologien in Gesellschaftsspielen 1900 -1945, in: Ausstellungskatalog Spiele der Stadt. Glück, Gewinn und Zeitvertreib, Wien/New York 2013, 136-145



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

    War enthusiasm

    This brass kitchen mortar was exchanged as part of a metal collection for an iron mortar as an example of the possible ways of participating actively in the war and showing enthusiasm for it. When the First World War broke out, large sections of the Austro-Hungarian population were gripped by veritable euphoria. This enthusiasm was not shared by all sectors of society, however. It was strong in urban, bourgeois and intellectual circles, less so in the rural and working population.

  • 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

    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.