Outbreak of the war
End of the war
The First World War in books for children and teenagers

One of the ways in which children were confronted with the events of the war was in the books written specifically for them during that time. These were intended to persuade children and their parents of a particular interpretation of the war. The heroic representation of their own nation and the alienized depiction of the enemy made it clear how children and adults alike were expected to perceive the war.


At the beginning of the war there was particularly wide interest in war-themed children’s books and their educational role. New works came onto the market and publishers hastened to issue war versions of popular classics. These publications were intended to persuade children of the purported causes and aims of the war. Illustrated copies in particular were full of national stereotypes intended to familiarize their young readers with the ‘good Central Powers’ and to stigmatize the enemy nations. Packaged in child-centred stories, propaganda messages were transported via emotive images.

A good example of this can be seen in the Kriegs-Struwwelpeter (‘War Struwwelpeter’), a new edition of this highly popular children’s book published in 1915. A year earlier a satirical English version of Struwwelpeter had appeared in Britain, making fun of the German Kaiser. Written by Karl Ewald Olszewski, the Kriegs-Struwwelpeter  includes war-themed subjects, modifying the familiar figures accordingly: Struwwelpeter mutates into the villainous ‘Bombenpeter’, an impersonation of King Peter I of Serbia, while Suppen-Kaspar (Kaspar Who Would Not Eat Any Soup) becomes ‘Blockade-John’, Zappel-Philipp (Fidgety Phillip) is transformed into the Italian Zappel-Pepo who sits with Father Germany and Mother Austria at table and falls down (a reference to Italy’s perceived betrayal), and John Guck-in-die-Luft (Johnny Head-in-Air) is drowned in the Dardanelles.

In Die Geschichte von den schwarzen Buben (‘The Story of the Inky Boys’) the good boy Michl is teased by three ‘bad boys’. The latter personify Allied politicians and are illustrated with stigmatizing attributes: Tsar Nicholas holds a bottle of vodka, while the French president Raymond Poincaré bears a pretzel with a scroll inscribed ‘Revenge’ and the British foreign minister Sir Edward Grey wields a pennant bearing the word ‘Envy’. The verses relate how the envious boys try to take away Michl’s garden from him. Kaiser Wilhelm intervenes and throws them into an ink-pot. The story thus conforms to a typical propaganda topos: the alleged unprovoked aggression perpetrated by the Allies on the Central Powers.

In the war version of Struwwelpeter the enemy states are embodied by the misbehaved children, while Austria and Germany are represented by the parents, appearing as positive authorities. The enemy states are portrayed not only as perfidious, delinquent and wicked but also as clearly inferior. The message to young readers was unequivocal: Austria and Germany would win the war and their wicked and inferior enemies would receive just punishment.

Other books for children and teenagers also contained mostly heroic accounts of the war, telling of successful combat operations at the front and the heroism of young volunteers. Largely fictional accounts of experiences at the front fanned enthusiasm for the war, providing boys in particular with brave heroes to idolize. These featured young soldiers sacrificing themselves heroically for the Fatherland, escaping parental authority and experiencing exciting adventures on the battle field.

As the war continued these narratives moved closer to what their readership was actually experiencing, adopting new themes (prisoners of war, rationing, et cetera), and eventually started to lose their persuasiveness. Nonetheless, what linked all these publications over the years were the emphatically propagated ideals of self-denial and the performance of one’s duty together with their appeal to the self-sacrificing patriotism of the younger generation.

Translation: Sophie Kidd


Demm, Eberhard: Deutschlands Kinder im Ersten Weltkrieg. Zwischen Propaganda und Sozialfürsorge, in: Militärgeschichtliche Zeitschrift (2001), 60, 51-79

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

    War enthusiasm

    This brass kitchen mortar was exchanged as part of a metal collection for an iron mortar as an example of the possible ways of participating actively in the war and showing enthusiasm for it. When the First World War broke out, large sections of the Austro-Hungarian population were gripped by veritable euphoria. This enthusiasm was not shared by all sectors of society, however. It was strong in urban, bourgeois and intellectual circles, less so in the rural and working population.

  • 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.