Outbreak of the war
End of the war

The First World War as reflected in the distortions of caricature

Caricature was especially successful as a medium of propaganda since its subtle visual effects could have a substantial and far-reaching impact, ensuring the swift dissemination of emotions and values in reaction to current events.

With the rise of the illustrated sensational press at the beginning of the twentieth century, the press image acquired a decisive importance in the mediation of news and events. The same period also saw the heyday of the caricature in the daily and weekly press and satirical publications. With the outbreak of war and under pressure from the censorship authorities, most caricaturists turned away from their mocking criticism of the domestic political scene to toe the governmental propaganda line. Caricatures performed the function of mobilizing the population for the war, encouraging them to persevere and carry on, and of reinforcing enemy stereotypes.

Exaggeration, generalization and a clearly discernible bias (derogatory or glorifying, aggressive, humorous, etc.) are the defining stylistic elements of caricature. Generally caricatures consisted of an exaggerated pictorial image frequently accompanied by short text passages. The interplay between image and text conveyed a clear message that mostly referred to a specific event and reflected the subjective opinion of the artist. As the ‘eye-catcher’ of propaganda, caricaturists relied on the readers’ powers of association. The blurred line between truth and illusion was deliberately deployed as a stylistic device.

Atrocity caricatures and inflammatory images vilified the enemy states. Furnished with negative attributes and belittled through exaggeration, they were held up to ridicule. Stereotypical images of enmity were based on long-established clichés and frequently referred to actual individuals at whom hatred for the enemy was projected. Especially popular were figures from public life who had an unprepossessing physiognomy. A typical example of this was the way in which the British foreign minister Sir Edward Grey was portrayed in German-language cartoons.

Frequently they enemy was represented by symbolic national figures, Germania embodying the German Empire, Austria the Austria-Hungarian Monarchy, John Bull personifying England, Marianne standing for France and Uncle Sam for America. Nations were also represented as animals: Britain appearing in the guise of a bulldog, France lampooned as a cockerel, Italy symbolized as a snake, Japan as a monkey and Russia represented as a bear. Austria-Hungary appeared as a double-headed eagle while Germany was portrayed as the Hohenstaufen eagle. Through repeated use of these images they became a sort of short-hand reference for the respective nations.

Translation: Sophie Kidd


Demm, Eberhard (Hrsg.), Der Erste Weltkrieg in der internationalen Karikatur, Hannover 1988

Demm, Eberhard Karikaturen aus dem Ersten Weltkrieg. Eine Ausstellung des Bundesarchivs, Koblenz 1990

Tomenendal, Kerstin: Das Türkenbild in Österreich-Ungarn während des Ersten Weltkrieges im Spiegel der Kriegspostkarten, Klagenfurt/Wien/Ljubljana 2008

Topitsch, Klaus: Die Greuelpropaganda in der Karikatur, in: Zühlke, Raoul, Bildpropaganda im Ersten Weltkrieg, Hamburg 2000, 49-92

Vocelka, Karl: K. u. k.: Karikaturen u. Karikaturen zum Zeitalter Kaiser Franz Josephs, Wien/München 1986

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

    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.