Outbreak of the war
End of the war

“Let your hearts beat for God and your fists beat the enemy”

Subjects of pictorial propaganda

It was not only the messages of inflammatory propaganda that exhibited similarities in all the countries involved in the war. The subjects and forms of representation of pictorial propaganda were also astonishingly similar.



Fundamentally all states strove to represent their participation in the war as natural and ordained by God and fate. To this end a personality cult was created around the heads of state, in particular in the case of Kaiser Wilhelm and Emperor Franz Joseph, portraying them as the executors of divine will. In giving the war a political meaning it was also invested with religious and apocalyptic significance. The Allies and the Central Powers alike waged it as the ‘war to end all wars’, thus justifying the uncompromising use of all means. Military commanders appeared in pictorial propaganda as father figures standing above the people and towering above adversaries in images intended to convey confidence and hope to the people.

Images from the front were primarily intended to propagate confidence. Battle scenes invariable showed national troops charging forwards in superior numbers while the enemy was portrayed as an inferior force in retreat, even when this no longer corresponded to the reality on the ground. Propagandists resorted to existing clichés, depicting enemy troops as stereotypes. Thus German propaganda portrayed the Serbs as the epitome of uncivilized, thieving ‘Balkanese’, the Russians as uncouth and permanently drunk, the French as incapable of fighting, the British as devious and weak, and the Italians as faithless traitors.

Images of women were used to transport a variety of different messages. On the one hand as suffering victims they made the case for increased war efforts, while on the other they were shown as factory workers symbolizing the mobilization of the home front as well as the war industry. As nurses they were transformed into earthly guardian angels, embodying the longing for safety and security and becoming the objects of clandestine erotic desire. Images of children playing on the other hand were intended to downplay the war and illustrate its everyday dimension.

Depictions of military commanders or government leaders holding a globe in their hand emphasized the imperialist claims of the warring parties. Maps were used to illustrate war aims and theatres of war to obvious propagandistic effect.

Illustrated stories of the home front glossed over the privations of war and motivated people to persevere. It was emphasized that the enemy was at least as poorly supplied and that one could counter shortages with ingenuity and inventiveness. Here blame for hardship could be directed towards individuals or groups of people who were made responsible for people’s plight: profiteers, squanderers and hoarders became the internal enemy, and as such also the subject of propaganda.

At the beginning of the war propaganda met with general approval, with the population needing little convincing. This changed with the major battles at Verdun and on the Somme in 1916. As the war went on propaganda had to address the waning of the initial euphoria and emphasize the momentousness of the war. To ensure that the sacrifices already made had not been in vain, the war had to be continued until a victorious peace was assured.

Translation: Sophie Kidd


Spilker, Rolf/Ulrich, Bernd (Hrsg.): Der Tod als Maschinist. Der industrialisierte Krieg 1914-1918. Eine Ausstellung des Museums Industriekultur Osnabrück im Rahmen des Jubiläums „350 Jahre Westfälischer Friede“ Bramsche 1998

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

Weigl, Hans/Lukan, Walter/Peyfuss, Max: Jeder Schuss ein Russ, jeder Stoß ein Franzos. Literarische und graphische Kriegspropaganda in Deutschland und Österreich 1914-1918, Wien 1983

Zühlke, Raoul (Hrsg.), Bildpropaganda im Ersten Weltkrieg, Hamburg 2000


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

    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.