Outbreak of the war
End of the war

Sexual violence in Allied war propaganda

The atrocities committed against Belgian and French civilians by German troops was a central focus of Allied war propaganda. Pictures of defiled and mutilated women and children were used to justify the war and to mobilise the population of the Allied countries.


Between August and October 1914 German troops committed brutal acts of violence against Belgian and French civilians. These “German atrocities” or “atrocités allemandes” cost 5,521 Belgian and 906 French civilians their lives. Rumours of mass rape and mutilation of Belgian and French women spread in the first weeks of the war. As a result, Belgium, France and Great Britain set up a committee of inquiry to document the German war crimes in accordance with the Hague Convention of 1907. The committee confirmed the reports of massive sexual assaults on the female civilian population by German soldiers.

The number of raped and mutilated women is difficult to determine today. Regardless of the specific dimension, the Allies considered the rapes to be a central component of the atrocities committed by the German troops. Stories of women being ravaged, breasts being cut off and children’s hands being amputated were widespread and depicted the German enemy as inhuman and impossible to negotiate a ceasefire with. The truth of these accusations is difficult to ascertain, but these horror scenarios nevertheless played an essential role in the construction of German atrocities for propaganda purposes.

Reports of atrocities and mass raping of Belgian and French women were used in the Allied countries to justify the war and the continued killing so as to prevent such acts and avenge the violence perpetrated against the women and children. The defence of family and sexual values became an essential element of Allied motivation. Apart from the mobilisation of the British and French people, the instrumentalisation for propaganda purposes of the German atrocities also served to influence neutral countries, particularly Italy and the United States.

The identification of the female victims with the nation played an important role in the Allied war propaganda. The ravaged woman became a symbol of a conquered (female) nation enduring the violence of a brutal (male German) invader. Belgium was also a neutral and innocent country that had been raped. Allied propaganda posters frequently showed innocent ravaged women as a metaphor for countries terrorised by German troops.

Tabloid newspapers, popular literature, postcards and cartoons disseminated the image of German barbarians and their Belgian and French victims. Not just individuals but the entire German people were accused of the atrocities. Germany became the ultimate evil power capable of committing the most atrocious deeds. The German war atrocities and their exploitation for propaganda purposes contributed significantly to the image of Germany as an enemy and to the moral legitimation for the war by the Allies.


Translation: Nick Somers 


Daniel, Ute: Frauen, in: Hirschfeld, Gerhard/Krumeich, Gerd/Renz, Irina (Hrsg.): Enzyklopädie Erster Weltkrieg, Paderborn et al. 2009, 116-134

Gullace, Nicoletta F.: Sexual Violence and Family Honor: British Propaganda and International Law during the First World War, in: The American Historical Review (1997), 102/3, 714-747

Harris, Ruth: The “Child of the Barbarian”: Rape, Race and Nationalism in France during the First World War, in: Past & Present (1993), 141, 170-206

Horne, John/Kramer, Alan: Deutsche Kriegsgreuel 1914. Die umstrittene Wahrheit, Hamburg 2004

Kramer, Alan: „Greueltaten“. Zum Problem der deutschen Kriegsverbrechen in Belgien und Frankreich 1914, in: Hirschfeld, Gerhard/Krumeich, Gerd/Renz, Irina (Hrsg.): 'Keiner fühlt sich hier mehr als Mensch...'. Erlebnis und Wirkung des Ersten Weltkriegs, Essen 1993, 85-114

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Contents related to this chapter


  • Aspect

    Violence in war

    Violence was a universal social phenomenon during the First World War. Soldiers, civilians, men, women, children and old persons were all confronted by it in one form or another. The way it was experienced differed. It was practised and suffered, it had mental and physical manifestations, it took place at a structural and an individual level, and it was felt directly and indirectly.

  • 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 crimes

    The Austro-Hungarian army committed various types of war crimes, ranging from the use of illegal warfare agents and inhuman treatment of prisoners of war to brutality towards civilians. Villages and towns were burnt to the ground, hostages were taken and shot, there was forcible deportation, internment, forced labour, mass executions, rape and pillaging. The Habsburg military courts also sentenced tens of thousands of people to death. It only took a careless comment, a spurious suspicion or a denunciation for an innocent civilian to end up on the gallows.