Outbreak of the war
End of the war

Friend and foe – guilt and innocence in First World War propaganda

The propaganda produced by the warring states exhibited few distinctive national traits. It conveyed similar messages about the progress and aims of the war, images of the enemy and national identity, varying according to the country of origin.

In Britain as in France, the German Empire and the Habsburg Monarchy, propaganda radicalized the meaning and legitimation of the war. The rabble-rousing messages brutalized collective imaginations, reinforced enemy stereotypes and made a compromise settlement between the hostile states unthinkable.

All the states involved in the war blamed the enemy for the war, stylizing it as the aggressor and themselves as the defenders of justice. This victimization allowed them to represent their prosecution of the war as a legitimate battle for peace, while painting the enemy’s actions as a violation of international law. The reciprocal assignment of blame led to the hardening of the stereotypes of enmity only a few weeks after the outbreak of war, and these basic accusations were conveyed in unchanging messages.

On the Allied side these accusations of guilt were accompanied by the denigration of the Central Powers as ‘Huns’ and ‘barbarians’, against whom the Allies were waging a ‘crusade against evil’, an argument that ran like a thread through the atrocity propaganda against Germany. As the principal enemy, Germany and its soldiers, standing in for the Central Powers, were accused of sadism, brutality and sexual violence. Anti-German propaganda was supported by American sociologists who opined that Germany’s technological and industrial progress stood in inverse contrast to its politico-cultural backwardness – a fatal interaction that they claimed was demonstrated by Germany’s brutal conduct of the war.

The Habsburg Monarchy deployed atrocity propaganda against Russia, issuing unceasing reports of rapes, extreme acts of violence and massacres of civilians. By turn, Austria-Hungary’s projection of its identity used art to convey its special culture, demonstrating its supposed superiority as a nation.

The fact that the basic lines of the propaganda campaigns on all sides were able to establish themselves so quickly was connected with the rivalries between the Great Powers that had preceded the war. Propaganda drew on existing stereotypes of enmity, falling on fertile soil in the general population. It was also suited as a medium of national self-articulation, the purpose of which was to bolster the nation’s sense of self-esteem by dissociation from and denigration of the enemy Other.

Translation: Sophie Kidd


Mousser, Jaouad: Die Konstruktion des Feindes. Feinde und Feindbilder in zwei Jahrhundertkriegen, Saarbrücken 2007

Jeismann, Michael: Propaganda, in: Hirschfeld, Gerhard/Krumeich, Gerd/Renz, Irene (Hrsg.), Enzyklopädie Erster Weltkrieg, Paderborn/München/Wien/Zürich 2009, 198-209

Johler, Reinhard: Zwischen Krieg und Frieden. Die Konstruktion des Feindes. Eine deutsch-französische Tagung, Tübingen 2009


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

    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.