Outbreak of the war
End of the war

Propaganda: psychological warfare in the First World War

The First World War witnessed the wholesale mobilization of the masses to an extent that had never been seen before. As in all the belligerent countries, targeted propaganda became an important element of warfare in the Habsburg Monarchy. Men and women, young and old, the front line and the hinterland, were to form a common ‘front of opinion’.

The targeted use of state propaganda took warfare onto a new level. Increasingly sophisticated technology and intense personal commitment led to professionalization of official propaganda, marginalizing public criticism and doubt. Propaganda was used to persuade the population of a particular view of the war and to mobilize the total forces of the land in support of the war aims. The political leadership invoked the unity of the state and the emotional loyalty of the people. Likewise, anybody who doubted the official version of events was stylized as a traitor to the common cause.

Propaganda was utilized to extend the reach of warfare to the population of enemy states. The aim was not merely to defeat the adversary on the battle field but to demoralize the population in the hinterland through the use of targeted propaganda. The warring powers sought to defend their position towards the neutral states, attributing guilt for the conflict to the opposing side. Each side accused the other of waging a war that broke international law.

The instruments of propaganda were varied and deployed in all the states involved in the conflict. With varying degrees of speed and professionalism they accompanied the military operations in the media, making the war tangible beyond the front. Modern mass communications meant that the radius of action could be extended considerably. Documentaries, propaganda and feature films glorified the mission of war, posters exhorted every individual to make a personal contribution to the war effort, and the postcard industry multiplied patriotic motifs and propaganda slogans. Pamphlets disseminated politically biased information, while cartoons denounced the enemy and propagated national stereotypes. Exhibitions popularized the war among the masses, heroizing the armed forces and their allies. Through the targeted use of pictorial propaganda the war became an established presence as an object of visual consumption in everyday life.

Translation: Sophie Kidd


Džambo, Jozo (Hrsg.): Musen an die Front! Schriftsteller und Künstler im Dienst der k. u. k. Kriegspropaganda 1914-1918. Begleitband zu gleichnamigen Ausstellung des Adalbert-Stifter-Vereins, München 2003

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

Mayer, Klaus: Die Organisation des Kriegspressequartiers beim k. u. k. AOK im Ersten Weltkrieg 1914-1918, Unveröffentlichte Dissertation, Universität Wien, Wien 1963.

Rother, Rainer (Hrsg.): Die letzten Tage der Menschheit. Bilder des Ersten Weltkrieges. Eine Ausstellung des Deutschen Historischen Museums Berlin, der Barbican Art Gallery, London und der Staatlichen Museen zu Berlin – Preußischer Kulturbesitz in Verbindung mit dem Imperial War Museum, London, Berlin 1994

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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

    Mobilisation of the civilian population

    During the "Gold for Iron” campaign, gold rings or jewellery donated to finance the war were exchanged for iron rings. The civilian population was called upon to play an active role in welfare and aid associations and to offer its services for the fatherland. Women and children collected clothes and blankets for the army and hospitals, and materials like wastepaper and iron for recycling. They knitted and sewed, and these "Liebesgaben” or charitable gifts were sent to the front to provide emotional encouragement to the troops.


  • 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.