Violence is a central element of wars. Transgressing the limits of the military force is said to be “atrocious.” In contrast, “war crimes” mean a transgression of the rules of war in international law having been codified in the 19th and 20th centuries. Thus, the notion of “atrocities” also comprises excesses of violence which are in conformity with the rules, but by virtue of their extent, brutality or frequency, are felt to be an infringement of rules.[1] Generally, actual and alleged atrocities of war committed by the enemy are used as propaganda. Therefore propaganda is an important element of wars. Accordingly, there is an “ 'historical normality' of atrocity stories in times of war.”[2] “Othering” denotes a process of distinguishing oneself from others by classifying them as different. Propaganda may reinforce the collective distinction from the enemy since the powers of horror make atrocity stories especially convincing.

In the First World War, propaganda focused particularly on such stories, elaborating and broadcasting them. In so doing, the classical "principles of war propaganda"[3] were applied to demoralize the enemy, to strengthen the mood on the battle front and to achieve home mobilization as well as to influence neutral opinion.[4] Warfare and propaganda were interdependent and the latter professionalized by using posters, picture postcards, caricatures and publications. Although atrocities occurred, the customs and rules of war - in contrast to the picture painted by atrocity propaganda - were generally respected.[5] So the following questions are to be posed: Which techniques of persuasion were employed? Did new images of oneself and the enemy arise and how did these change during the war as well as after 1918? Which are the most striking examples of successful propaganda? What was their impact during and after the war, when lies and falsehood were exposed?

Propaganda techniques and organizations

Propaganda "depends upon the adroit use of means under favourable conditions,” as expressed by the American political scientist, Harold Lasswell (1902-1978), in his analysis of world-war propaganda from 1927. "A means is anything which the propagandist can manipulate; a condition is anything to which he must adapt."[6] In particular, the British war propaganda is well researched. Its success was seen as setting standards. Modern warfare was waged on three fronts, "the military front, the economic front, and the propaganda front.” The main task of propaganda was to influence foreign powers either to stay neutral or to become allies. In the second half of the war propagandists also sought to strengthen the home front and to demolish "the enemy’s will to fight by intensifying depression, disillusionment and disagreement.”[7]

The conditions of propaganda addressed by Lasswell include, for instance, mental similarities or differences between nations. However, he somehow overstressed similarities such as the language Britain shared with the United States promoting communication and thus also propagandistic influence, while he omitted antagonising factors. The economic ties between the two countries, for example, did not only unite them but also put strain on their cooperation due to the huge debt Britain faced. Finally, Lasswell mentions technical conditions such as the British sea blockade which considerably impeded not only Germany’s overseas trade, but also its international communication. Through the fact that Britain blocked the German sea cable, it isolated Germany’s communication.[8]

The conditions of propaganda also include especially the media and tabloid press. The press lives on advertising. A large print-run enables higher prices for advertisements, and, in turn, presupposes an excitement among readers. Wars offer an ideal setting for the media: baser instincts such as hate and violence that are normally repressed can easily be released and boosted.[9] Thus, the press' lust for sensation joins with the government's aim of mobilizing the home front and influencing neutral countries. The impact of commercial propaganda is high since atrocity stories sell well in wartime. Journalists and intellectuals frequently support the official propaganda institutions. So propaganda not only works top-down but is also boosted bottom-up.

In the First World War, press reports about so-called atrocities were supported by surveys of state commissions such as the British “Bryce Committee” named after its Head James Bryce (1838-1922).[10] Furthermore, special propaganda institutions were created. On 3 August 1914 France established the Press House (Maison de la Presse) that was supposed to centrally steer censorship and propaganda. In London, on 7 August 1914, the Press Bureau was instituted. It likewise served censorship and controlled the entire postal communication abroad. In September the writer Charles Masterman (1873-1927) established at the government's behest a War Propaganda Bureau named Wellington House after its headquarters. At the beginning of 1918, even a propaganda ministry, the Ministry of Information came about. Finally the USA established a Committee on Public Information when they entered the war in 1917.[11]

In Germany, institutionalized propaganda developed decentrally. So-called “press conferences” were set up by the general staff to present the official view of matters. In October 1914 the Central Bureau for Foreign Service (Zentralstelle für Auslandsdienst) was established to influence enemy and neutral countries. In 1915 a Superior Censorship Office (Oberzensurstelle) sought to unify the German censorship system. It was later integrated into the new War Press Bureau. In 1917 the Photo and Film Bureau (Bild- und Filmamt or BuFa) was established to promote war loans, influence neutral countries, and produce propaganda films. The multiplicity of various offices prevented a unified and thus persuasive presentation of the Imperial government’s view. The centralization of media work set up only in 1918 by creating the United Press Department (Vereinigte Presseabteilung) did not have any impact.[12]

Mentality also played a role making German press work differ fundamentally from that of the Allies. The government regarded itself as standing above political parties. The top-down understanding of state by the bureaucracy was oriented toward the ideal of impartiality. Hence there was no idea of orienting politics, policies or media toward the opinion of the majority. Even though German state representatives and pressure groups like the “Flottenverein” used media for political purposes the government only gradually developed a pragmatic approach toward systematically influencing public opinion by modern means of propaganda. There was a general objection of an “Americanization” of public communication. This did not correspond with the so-called essential German nature and, in the worst case, was even seen to favour social transformation. Officials objected to “state advertising” with picture postcards and illustrated posters. Ultimately, presenting the war without seriousness or making the enemy seem contemptible was regarded as inopportune and not complying with the German people's sentiment.[13] Only in 1917 did German political poster-art develop further when conventional restrictions were removed in the advertising campaign for war loans. These posters, however, were mainly self-referential; pejorative portrayals of the enemy were rare.[14]

There were no comparable inhibitions with regard to portraying the enemy among Western powers. In France, the “barbarian” topos prevalent since the revolutions of 1789 and 1848 had been transferred to the Germans in 1870/71 and was updated in 1914. The British term of abuse, “Hun,” the counterpart to the French insult, “Boche,” corresponded to a negative colonial cliché that the British transferred to Germany. Finally, the USA externalized their traumatic primary experience of the Civil War making Germany the enemy of humanity.[15] The principles of propaganda were based on plain black-and-white portrayals and on pairs of opposites such as guilt-innocence, permissible-impermissible, etc. Demonization of the enemy was very popular, along with glorifying one's own “holy” mission.[16]

Self-images and othering

For the coherence of warring societies, images of oneself and the enemy play a decisive role. The image of the enemy invariably represents the contrasting foil against which a group reassures itself. Consequently the enemy is a constitutive component of one's own identity.[17] Propaganda took up stereotypes that had largely been developed in the period leading up to the outbreak of war. During several pre-war crises the press played a crucial role in shaping public opinion about other nations, perpetuating negative clichés. In Britain it was the newspapers of Alfred Charles William Harmsworth, Lord Northcliffe's (1865-1922) press syndicate that were known for outspoken Germanophobia but French mass media were also predominantly hostile toward Germany.[18] Hence the German “barbarian” was already present before hostilities begun due to experiences of the German-French war. Whereas Germany in 1870/71 had presumed a classical cabinet war, France had engaged in a people's war in which even civilians — as snipers and guerrillas — resisted. This experience dominated the memory of the German military. In turn, German retaliatory measures such as destroying houses and shooting alleged perpetrators remained embedded in French collective memory. The image of the German “barbarian” could therefore in 1914 be immediately reactivated.[19]

Already on 6 August 1914, the French periodical Excelsior called the German Kaiser the "chef des barbares.” Two days later, the famous French philosopher, Henri Bergson (1859-1941), fashioned the war against Germany into a struggle of civilization against barbarism. At the centre of the "undifferentiated French hate campaign against Germany" was a downright racist notion of the barbarian which denied the Germans not only any cultural achievements, but also human qualities. It implied a categorical rejection of the enemy excluding any possibility of reaching an understanding.[20] On 23 August the satirical London periodical, Punch, presented a full-page caricature that showed “The Triumph of Culture”: a German soldier standing proudly over the corpses of a woman and a child. It was one of the first image-motifs on German atrocities and marked the emergence of a particular form of graphics: Bestial scenes portrayed German troops as a danger to civilized humanity. This followed its own logic: in order to presume “atrocities,” the enemy had to be defined as “atrocious.”[21]

Whereas the Germans were convinced they were fighting a war of defence, the Entente powers regarded the German Empire as the aggressor. The German invasion of Belgium, infringing international law, as well as rumours and reports of excesses of violence by German soldiers, facilitated their propaganda in drawing an unambiguous image of the enemy. The “Bryce Report” on alleged German atrocities of May 1915 appeared to be a scientific analysis of rumours but affirmed even the most brutal stories. Thus it was probably “one of Britain’s most shameful propaganda endeavours.”[22] The famous British illustrator and cartoonist Lancelot Speed (1860-1931) produced a short lightning sketch in 1914 entitled “Once a German always a German.” Five separate propaganda images showed a brutal German soldier transforming into a civilian businessman after the war thus warning Britons not to buy goods from a former robber, ravisher and murderer.[23] Additionally, biased neutral voices like that of Dutch cartoonist Louis Raemaekers (1869-1956) fuelled anti-German sentiment. His illustrations of the most horrifying tales of German outrage were also published by The Times: Spike-helmeted German “huns” cutting off the hands of children, spearing women, crucifying prisoners of war, and starving civilians.[24] These propaganda works were to convince the British public that Germans indeed committed crimes.

By contrast, until the end of the war, the Germans did not succeed in unifying themselves against a primary enemy. If for the workers, Russian tsarism was regarded as the European evil, bourgeois circles concentrated their rage mainly on Britain and, from 1917 on, also on the USA. Werner Sombart's (1863-1941) 1915 essay on “Traders and Heroes” polemically exaggerated the often-postulated contrast between the British and the Germans.[25] In constructing a self-image, demarcation from France also played an important role. However, the French were regarded as vain and decadent, but also as cultivated. The topos of the traditional enmity that was part of the German standard anti-French repertoire was scarcely employed. The demarcation was done with regard to political ideas. Thus, “1789,” representing the French Revolution which had ended in a rule of terror and a European war with German defeats and the dissolution of the Old Empire was associated with a negative French influence on German history. In order to clearly show the caesura between the war’s beginning in 1914 and the pre-war period, the concept of revolution, previously regarded in Germany as a synonym for overthrow, anarchy and chaos, was reinterpreted positively: just as 1789 went into history as the date of individualism and a destructive liberation, 1914 was to enter into history as the “German Revolution” ushering in an age of community and order.[26]

Stimulated by Tacitus' Germania, Germans connected themselves back to the loyal, brave and communal Teutons and contrasted them antithetically against the Romans and the superficial individualistic French. This opposition is to be found in numerous writings since the late 19th century. “Community” and “society” were counterposed just as were “culture” and “civilization.” That these oppositions had been taken up since 1914 and elaborated thus did not represent anything conceptually new, but an exaggeration of thoughts that had already been expressed earlier.[27] Additionally, Russia was regarded as the stronghold of non-culture. Reports of Russian atrocities in East Prussia confirmed these prejudices. The differences between the enemies being reflected also in the various clichés made it difficult for the Germans to identify a primary enemy. They had "enemies, but no concept of the enemy.”[28]

Already in September 1914, the moral lines of struggle had been drawn. The Germans accused the French and Belgians of leading a people’s war that violated international law, and the Allies condemned the German conduct of the war as cruel and criminal. The discrepancy between the German self-image as a cultured nation whose soldiers were fighting chivalrously, and the Allied image of Germans as brutal barbarians could not have been greater. However, it has to be taken into account that the Allied propaganda also took up real events.

Transgressions of norms

Brutal retaliation for a people’s war that was not one — this is, in brief, John Horne’s and Alan Kramer’s conclusion regarding German violations of the laws of war on the Western front. Apart from a few studies,[29] for a long time there had been a lack of a systematic, detailed investigation of those incidents called "atrocities" by Allied propaganda. In their study, Horne and Kramer confirmed that between August and October 1914 a total of more than 5,000 civilians were killed and 129 towns were partially or totally destroyed. They placed the "myth-complex of the 'franc-tireur war’ ”[30] at the centre of their analysis. There had indeed been acts of sabotage or attacks on German soldiers, but there was no organized resistance. The French guerrilla attacks of 1870/71 etched in the German collective memory had pre-formed the image of the enemy that had been updated in 1914, thus distorting the perception of real occurrences. Hence, accidental shots fired by undisciplined soldiers or friendly fire had been interpreted as an insidious attack confirming the image of the enemy and augmenting the nervousness as well as a diffuse fear amongst the German army.[31]

This collective guerrilla "delusion" distorted the perception of real incidents. The conviction of being the victim of an illegal Belgian people's war promoted violent attacks by German soldiers during their advance. In addition, the industrialized warfare increasingly dissolved the boundaries between combatants and non-combatants. Horne and Kramer distinguished three kinds of war atrocities: collateral damage, i.e. incidents happening during the course of military action; excesses of violence attributable to panic among German soldiers; and targeted attacks such as deportations, human shields or the destruction of houses. Particularly dramatic was the destruction of the town of Leuven in August 1914 and the fighting with the Belgian civilian corps (Garde Civique) whose rudimentary uniforms misled the Germans into thinking that they had become exposed to guerrilla fighters rather than to regular troops. Furthermore, the Schlieffen Plan had put pressure on the soldiers to succeed. Not only the exhaustion of the German troops, but also the unexpectedly robust resistance by the Belgians had endangered the imperative of a quick victory. Thus a fatal mixture of fear, over-exertion and rage had led to the reaction of retaliating against real or supposed attacks with draconian measures and to an escalating spiral of fear and violence.[32]

Not all of Horne's and Kramer's results were new:[33] there were also older studies on this topic.[34] New, however, was the scope of their analysis. They were criticized for having derived their information primarily from sources arising shortly after the wartime events (and partly even in connection with war propaganda), but also from traditions that were not unified and in many cases contradicted one other. The official publications of the Belgian and French bureaux in particular should have been situated more clearly within the politico-historical context of the time of their making, not just in the German sources. Since Horne and Kramer did not differentiate categorically between war atrocities and war crimes, their data on civilian victims in Belgium and France have also been questioned. Many people were killed during the course of military actions, but not necessarily by actions contravening international law.[35]

In contrast, the Austrian-Hungarian army committed massive war crimes against civilians on the South-Eastern front. The taking and killing of hostages, deportations and forced labour characterized the brutal war on the Balkans as well as the deliberate destruction of houses, and mass executions. Hundreds of “selfies” taken by Austro-Hungarian soldiers showing them with maltreated and executed civilians illustrate the dehumanizing effects of systematic terror and brutalization. Violence also characterized the German occupation regime of “Ober Ost” in Russia but it is the Austro-Hungarian excesses of violence which have recently been denoted a “war of extermination.”[36]

However, transgressions of norms, and atrocities by the Entente powers are still little researched. Among these are the possible use of dum-dum bullets (which expanded on impact) and the shooting of German prisoners of war on land and at sea. In addition there is the use of passenger and mercantile ships to transport munitions. The best-known example is the American passenger steamer, Lusitania, sunk by a German U-boat in May 1915, that was loaded with 4.2 million cartridges and 5,000 shrapnel projectiles. Here, research has investigated especially the question whether the Lusitania was hit by one or two torpedoes and whether an explosion of munitions or some other cause led to its rapid sinking. The fact that contraband was on board was thus pushed into the background. In addition, the British government’s policy, which made it into a major topic of its propaganda and which secretly welcomed the sinking of this ship with US citizens on board, since it influenced the eventual entry of the United States into the war, has not been investigated closely. Also scarcely treated is the arming of British mercantile ships (so-called Q-ships) to sink German U-boats. Thus, for instance, the mercantile ship Baralong, equipped with camouflaged cannons, sank the German U 27 on 19 August 1915, and the British commander had all the German sailors shot. Finally, the British sea blockade of Germany should be mentioned, which was supposed to starve Germany. Being at least questionable under international law it is mostly mentioned only on the side.[37]

Just as little researched are the war crimes committed by the Russian army in 1914 in East Prussia, Galicia and Bukovina. Violence and destruction characterized the Russian occupation regime. In East Galicia, especially Jews were the victims of massive Russian pogroms. In East Prussia, up to 6,000 civilians were killed and around 40,000 buildings destroyed. More recent research presumes that the enormous material damage along the entire Eastern front could have been even greater than in the West. Moreover, with regard to the massive war crimes in the East, criticism has been leveled against regarding “German atrocities” on the Western front as a special case and against the underestimating of similar transgressions of norms by the Western Allies and the Russians. The historiographically long-neglected Eastern front has, in the meantime, again come into the sights of historians, but to the present day there is a lack of comparative studies on war crimes on the various fronts.[38]

Propaganda topics and images

There were violations of international law and excesses of violence on all sides, but French, British and later American propaganda succeeded in setting the agenda: the brutality of German soldiers, the destruction of cultural monuments and the sinking of passenger and hospital ships. Appropriately elaborated, these topics seemed to be particularly suitable for mobilizing volunteers and damaging Germany's image. The effect of general portrayals of the perpetrators, including Wilhelm II, German Emperor (1859-1941), German officers and soldiers, and of various victims (women, children, Catholic priests, prisoners of war) could be enhanced when concrete cases were worked up into propaganda, such as the sinking of the Lusitania or the shooting of the British nurse, Edith Cavell (1865-1915).[39] When Edith Cavell was sentenced to death in October 1915 by a German military court in Belgium because she had helped about 250 Allied soldiers escape from behind German lines, the verdict conformed with the law of war. However, it was a disaster for the Germans because it was particularly suited, via propaganda, to inflaming worldwide outrage. Countless images as well as about thirty publications appeared solely on this topic. By contrast, in 1917 the Germans did not succeed in propagandistically exploiting the execution in 1917 of the well-known, beautiful Parisian dancer Mata Hari (1876-1917) by the French for spying for Germany.[40]

Having been surprised by the British declaration of war on Germany, German politicians and media referred to Britain as the “perfidious Albion” using Britannia’s ancient name. German military provided accounts of the Western Allied use of dum-dum bullets, accused Belgian women and priests of mutilating wounded German soldiers and denounced the use of “savage” colonial troops from Africa and Asia to fight civilized peoples. Moreover Russian soldiers who had invaded East Prussia for about two months in 1914 were accused of destroying villages and killing civilians.[41] Even though the Germans called the British naval blockade an “atrocity” they did not succeed in portraying it as illegitimate and brutal in a similarly convincing way as the British did the German U-boat war. This was due to the imperial German leadership's wanting to avoid any admission of vulnerability.[42]

Furthermore, because of its declarations of war on France and Russia, the German Empire was regarded as the aggressor. Germany could scarcely convincingly communicate its own conviction of leading a war of defence because German troops had occupied Belgium almost completely and had advanced deeply into French and later Russian territory. Basically, it is always easier to accuse an occupying power of atrocities than an enemy on whose territory one is fighting. Therefore Germany found itself in a dilemma, since it could only utilize the “Cossack atrocities” in East Prussia for propaganda purposes for as long as the Russian army occupied German territory. The accusations Germany made against Russia were similar to those it was confronted with by the Western powers: the destruction of houses and resources, the killing and deportation of civilians as well as the rape of women.[43] The world public, however, was more interested in happenings on the Western front, so that reports of war atrocities in this theatre of war were followed with particular attentiveness supported by Anglo-American propaganda.

Since, in contrast to Germany, Britain and the United States, lacking military conscription, had to rely on recruiting enough volunteers, the portrayal of the enemy had special importance: sympathy with the victims in Belgium and France had to be roused and hate inflamed against the enemy. Allied propaganda focused on this by disseminating and illustrating "horror stories"[44] of violated women and brutally murdered civilians that were suited to demonizing the Germans. Thus, Allied atrocity posters portrayed the Germans as beasts, showed extreme scenes of violence as well as dumb, malicious German soldiers moving through countries, pillaging, scorching and murdering.[45]

Some recruiting posters are among the outstanding achievements in the area of psychological influencing. These include the British poster showing War Minister, Horatio Herbert Kitchener (1850-1916), looking straight at the viewer with the line, "Britons, [Kitchener] Wants You” or “Your Country Needs You.” Also its American counterparts showing “Uncle Sam” in a similar pose are well known.[46] Apart from that, the French cathedral at Reims damaged by artillery fire, the badly damaged Belgian town of Leuven and the sunk Lusitania were particularly suited to iconographic processing by propaganda posters.[47] The motifs of many French posters and caricatures were bloodthirsty or had pornographic characteristics.[48] Images of violated women and maimed children resulted from an obsession with violence and sexuality widespread since the late 19th century. Such portrayals of victims, however, arose mainly from the fantasy of contemporaries, since primarily men were the victims.[49]

It is interesting that many of the atrocities attributed to the Germans followed an example of propaganda already applied successfully by the British in previous wars. Thus, cases of rape of British women and girls by Indian rebels during the Indian uprising in 1857 were elaborated by the British press to confirm existing prejudices against the “primitive” natives. The subsequent harsh actions of the British were portrayed as the restoration of law and order and as a measure to civilize the indigenous population.[50] In the First World War, the topos of rape served to justify Britain's entry into the war and to recruit soldiers. Particularly illustrative was the legend of the hacked-off hands, which quickly advanced to a common metaphor for German cruelty. The origin of this "phantasmagoria" (Gerd Krumeich) was located precisely in a scandal around the Belgian Congo where, at the beginning of the 20th century, Congolese workers and children were punished by Belgians by having their hands hacked off. It is noteworthy that here Belgian colonial atrocities were successfully re-interpreted as a symbol of Belgian identity as a victim.[51]

However, "the spectrum of atrocities," burdened upon Germany "was virtually infinite in its diversity.” Thorough research to verify reports of atrocities on Belgian and French civilians was not regarded as necessary because, according to the British Foreign Minister, Arthur James Balfour (1848-1930) in 1917, “in view of the many atrocities committed by the Germans," there was no reason to doubt that even far-fetched stories of atrocities were true.[52] A particularly dreadful propaganda idea was the rumour spread in April 1917 that the Germans were using a "corpse-processing factory" to make soap. Nearly all atrocities attributed to the Germans were collated in 1917 by a German War Crimes’ “Calendar.”[53]

Propaganda and counter-propaganda

German artists, intellectuals and journalists viewed the Allied propaganda as defamation and a form of dirty warfare. Their attempts to counteract British propaganda were to be a boomerang. The best known examples of this phenomenon are the officious call "To the cultured world" in 1914 and the "Lusitania Medal" in 1915. In October 1914, ninety-three highly reputed scientists, artists and writers protested against Allied propaganda and asserted that German soldiers always conducted themselves chivalrously. The signatories protested against the "lies and slander" to which Germany was being subjected. They repudiated German blame for the war as well as accusations of German war atrocities. The signatories wrote that the enemies, "were bearing false witness against us.”[54]

The names of famous signatories guaranteeing scientific objectivity were supposed to unmask British propaganda as lies. The opposite was achieved. It was not the scholarly reputation of the academics that made the call credible in overseas eyes, but rather, the assertions that appeared not to be credible destroyed the reputation of German academia. The call was supposed to represent a demonstrative “banding together” of the Germans, and so the signatories announced a unity between German army, German people and German culture. Here, the "fateful German ability to provide the igniting keyword for free to enemy propaganda" manifested itself, because from then on, the ostensible militaristic German culture became a topos of Allied propaganda. Rightly it has been ascertained that the call speaks "with a remarkably good conscience but at the same time also with an incredible, culpable naivety.”[55]

In August 1915 the Bavarian medal-maker, Karl Goetz (1875-1950), struck a bronze medal which portrayed the sinking of the Lusitania by the U 20 three months earlier. Goetz had specialized in satirical medals. His best-known medal shows on the front the sinking ship from whose deck crates of munitions and cannons are falling into the water. On the reverse, a ticket office of the Cunard Line can be recognized at which death is selling tickets. One of the passengers is holding a newspaper in his hands on which "U-boat danger" can be read, an allusion to warnings issued by the German embassy. On the upper edge the motto is engraved, "Business above All.” This portrayal of the incident corresponded to the official German view. The fact that the ship had munitions on board justified its sinking in many German eyes.[56]

The British reaction was a masterpiece of counter-propaganda: it asserted that it was a matter of a German jubilation medal deriding the victims and, even during the war, had 250 copies made in iron to protest against the alleged German cynicism. The copies were sold to collect money for the British Red Cross. Leaflets and posters were distributed with the copies suggesting that the German original was an official imperial memorial striking. In this way it suppressed the circumstance that the British government had misused the passengers as human shields (the accusation made by the imperial German government) to supply itself with weapons and munitions. The re-interpretation of the medal's original purpose was so successful that the Bavarian War Ministry prohibited the manufacture and sale of the original at the beginning of 1918.[57]

On the whole, German propaganda consisted mainly in flatly refuting Allied accusations, justifying them as a necessity of war, or as reprisals or countering them with similar accusations against the enemies. In 1914 it took up two themes especially actively: Russian atrocities in the East and the use of dum-dum bullets in the West. When German troops reported they had found large quantities of such bullets after taking the French fort of Longwy, Kaiser Wilhelm II sent a protest telegram to the U.S. President Woodrow Wilson (1856-1924) to protest against the enemies' conduct of the war that violated international law. However, brutal portrayal of the enemy played no major role in official German propaganda.[58] Ultimately it remained essentially reactive and largely ineffective.[59] By contrast, German advertising for war loans was to be successful since, from 1917 on, it was given a boost of professionalism. The Imperial Bank (Reichsbank) with its branches as well as the Imperial Treasury (Reichsschatzamt) were responsible for state-loan advertising. For the sixth loan early in 1917 it used a motif by the Munich art professor, Fritz Erler (1868-1940). His poster with the call, "Help Us Gain Victory!" became the leitmotif of the campaign. It presents a soldier standing in a barbed wire entanglement symbolizing the trench warfare on the western front. He is looking resolutely into the distance.[60] To the present day this poster is a part of the canon of World War I iconography.

From “atrocities” to “war crimes”

The Allied demand for atonement of war crimes was made not only at the end of the war. Their advance in summer 1918 gave a boost to such plans.[61] However, only Germany’s military collapse in autumn 1918 enabled the victors to actually call the accused to account. The demand to convict even the Kaiser was not only shared among leading politicians in the Entente states, but by the broad public.[62] A lack of appropriate provisions in international law, the immunity of heads of state and the prohibition of retrospective penal legislation, however, made a trial against Wilhelm II impossible.[63] Finally it was laid down in the penalties of the Treaty of Versailles that the Kaiser should subject himself not to a penal conviction but to a special procedure for a moral one. All the other accused persons — initially several thousand — were to stand trial under international law or penal law and be extradited from Germany. The German side demanded in vain that Allied infringements of international law should also be discussed.

In accordance with the distinction between the right to war (ius ad bellum) and law of war (ius in bello), it was basically established as part of the sovereignty of each and every state that it could wage war. However, the parties to the war were subject to the international law of war that had been codified by the 1864 Geneva Convention and elaborated by the Hague conferences of 1899 and 1907 as well as the London Maritime Law Conference of 1908/09. War was thus a legitimate means of politics, but, at the same time also legally an orderly state of affairs.[64] The amnesty clauses usual in peace treaties indicate that the authority of the injured state to prosecute infringements of the law of war was recognized. The background to amnesty clauses was the will not to burden the peace by punishing guilt.[65] Whereas the German-Russian peace treaty of Brest-Litovsk still stood within this tradition, the penal clauses of Versailles represented something new.

At the beginning of February 1920, the Allies handed over to the Germans a list of around 900 persons whose extradition they demanded pursuant to Articles 228-230 of the Treaty of Versailles. Among those named were the highest military and political leaders of the Empire. After this list had been published on 5 February 1920 in the Berliner Tageblatt, through an intentional indiscretion on the part of the German government, there was a public storm of outrage. President Friedrich Ebert (1871-1925) promised that he and the government would do everything "to save Germany from these harshest of all demands.”[66] The German government, which already in November 1919 had proposed to have the trials take place before the highest German Supreme Court (Reichsgericht) in Leipzig warned the Allies against destabilizing Germany politically by insisting on extradition.[67] Out of fear of a Bolshevization of Germany as a consequence of political instability, but also in view of the Netherlands' refusal to hand over Wilhelm II, and also against the background of differences of opinion among the Allies, the victors provisionally renounced extradition demands in February 1920.

That the trials ultimately took place before the Leipzig Court was to the Allies' advantage because in this way they could keep their promise of punishment made to their own populations without having to bear responsibility for the verdicts. Consequently, on 17 May 1920, they handed over to Germany a “sample list” of forty-five persons whose conviction they demanded.[68] The German Supreme Court had to examine whether the military action was justified by the law of war and whether, if that was not the case, there had been an infringement of German penal law.[69]

Post-war propaganda and trials of war criminals

After the war's end, the Allies could no longer evade the demands for punishment by their peoples, who had been incited by propaganda, even once the enormous difficulties associated with legal proceedings had become clear. Thus, the prevailing psychological conditions for the trials that took place in 1920/21 before the German Supreme Court in Leipzig were still dominated by the propagandistically heated atmosphere of the war period. It is striking that "the events of the invasion of Belgium and France in 1914 still clearly left their mark on the memory and the policies of the Allied decision-makers in 1919.”[70] Among the British and French public, the demand for punishment was the dominating topic even after the war's end. Thus, David Lloyd George (1863-1945) had placed his election campaign in December 1918 under the motto of "Hang the Kaiser;” Georges Clemenceau (1841-1929) accused Kaiser Wilhelm II and his "accomplices" at the beginning of December 1918 of "the greatest crime in history;” and Lloyd George averred in spring 1919 that the concluding of peace would be to no purpose if "all these crimes were to remain unatoned.”[71] Such positions increased the demands of the public for punishing the accused, just as did the commemoration of German acts of violence at memorial ceremonies, the unveiling of monuments and other events.[72] Whereas in Britain a differentiated image of the new German Republic arose, French policy toward Germany remained particularly aggressive. After it was unsuccessful in destroying the German Empire, France aimed at weakening Germany permanently.[73]

For the Germans, the accusations of blame for the war and of criminal acts were mentally unbearable and regarded as unfair. The continuing British sea blockade and the delayed release of German prisoners of war were seen as Allied “cease-fire atrocities” and were likewise perceived as acts of violence, along with the coerced conditions of peace. In many German eyes, they illustrated the hostile “will to annihilate” Germany and thus seemed to retrospectively confirm that Germany had led a war of defence. However, the “counter-list” of Allied war crimes compiled by the German government remained unpublished for reasons of foreign politics.[74] Finally, the occupation of the Rhineland and the Ruhr District now made Germany into a victim of foreign occupation. The fact that the French deployed many colonial troops made the German public very angry. German anti-French propaganda called these occupying troops a "black ignominy.” The violations attributed to African soldiers resembled in their sexual connotations the accusations made against German soldiers on the Western front.[75]

The first trials according to the Allied list took place in Leipzig between May and July 1921. The subject of five cases that had been striven for by Britain was the mishandling of British prisoners of war and the sinking of two hospital ships. The subject of the four cases raised by Belgium and France were the mistreatment of children as well as the execution and mistreatment of prisoners of war. With regard to propaganda, it is instructive that the Allies did not allow any crimes to be tried that were among the main propaganda themes: Edith Cavell, Lusitania or Leuven. Neither "hacked-off hands" nor bestial murder of women and children was taken up. Rather, several unambiguous violations of the international law of war were tried which had been committed in a similar way also by Allied troops: the killing of shipwrecked sailors as well as the execution or mistreatment of prisoners of war and civilians.

However, the German Supreme Court had a difficult time conducting the trials since it acted in a field of tension between opposed expectations of the German and the Allied public, as well as against the background of an extremely tense political situation both domestically and internationally. After the conviction of two naval officers in 1921, even the liberal Justice Minister, Eugen Schiffer (1860-1954), confidentially expressed that the government shared the view that "the one-sided condemnation of German war criminals was immoral" and was rightly felt by the general population to be a "violation of any sense of justice.”[76] Of the twelve cases with a total of seventeen accused that were tried from January 1921 to November 1922 by the German Supreme Court, ten ended with convictions and seven with acquittals. However, the court convicted only the lower ranks, not high-ranking officers.[77]

The Allies' reaction to the trials and the verdicts was mixed. Belgian trial observers left Leipzig after the acquittal in a Belgian case. The French followed their example after the acquittal of two generals. The three convictions in the British cases were regarded by Britain as inadequate. Whereas British trial observers appraised the trials as fair, especially in view of the conditions, the British public called them a farce.[78] The reception of the Leipzig verdicts by the German public was also mixed. The critique of the left-wing press related to the conviction of simple soldiers while simultaneously acquitting high-ranking officers. Right-wing nationalist media made the convicted into innocent “heroes.” The Germany army welcomed the acquittals, and was outraged by the prison sentences. The lawyers’ stance was mainly negative. There was criticism that the duty to obey commands was inadequately appraised and the state of affairs had been falsely reconstructed. An individual responsibility for violations of international law was not accepted.[79]

Impact after 1918

In the 1920s, the most horrible accusations of atrocities were unmasked as constructions of propaganda. Lord Arthur Ponsonby (1871-1946), Harold Lasswell, Georges Demartial (1861-1945) and Hellmuth von Gerlach (1866-1935) were at the forefront of clarifying what happened in the propaganda war.[80] After the war's end propaganda was regarded as brainwashing, as grand deception and a monstrous lie.[81] In Germany this knowledge reinforced the stab-in-the-back myth in broad circles. Having been duped by the Allied propaganda — that was the accusation by Conservative and right-wing nationalist circles — the Socialists and liberal parties had not recognized the enemies' will to annihilate Germany. Therefore, in November 1918, they laid down arms and delivered the German Empire into the hands of enemies. Former political and military leaders of the Empire such as Erich Ludendorff (1865-1937) pushed this argument because, if the propagandistically demoralized homeland had stabbed the victorious German army in the back, they were able, with this Allied propaganda success, to deflect from their own failings.[82]

Despite that, propaganda became more professional in the 1920s.[83] In Germany this was apparent e.g. in illustrated posters in which the occupation of the Rhineland and the Ruhr District was denounced. Thus, at the beginning of the 1920s, racist atrocity posters cropped up when France intentionally deployed colonial occupying troops to humiliate the Germans and show them "the degree of their defeat in a particularly drastic way.”[84] Iconographically, the poster motifs resembled those used by the Allies during the war to denounce the conduct of German soldiers. In addition, this development underscores that portrayals of atrocities are easier when the enemy is located on one's own territory.

The topic of “atrocities” cannot be viewed independently of “atrocity propaganda.” After the war there was an “impossible consensus” with regard to the excesses of wartime violence. In Belgium and France, the franc-tireur delusion was not acknowledged as the cause of German acts of violence, and in Germany war crimes were flatly disputed. A “mutual denial” thus characterized the mentalities of the former enemies in the 1920s.[85] Furthermore, the unmasking of war propaganda along with the post-war propaganda in Germany, Belgium and France fuelled post-war othering. Together with the huge toll of the war, the Versailles regulations and the complicated question of the meaning of war, it led to that fateful "mental prolongation of the war situation into the concluding of peace.”[86]


Propaganda was systematically deployed, both qualitatively and quantitatively, as a political instrument for the first time. The First World War saw propagandistic exaggeration as well as real transgressions of norms. Supposed or actual atrocities were exploited, reinforcing diverse negative stereotypes. They were not only attributed to the leaderships and military forces of enemy states but were turned into characteristics of the enemy itself. The Anglo-American war propaganda drastically demonized Germany. Sharply drawn images of the enemy strengthened the self-esteem of nations, at the same time perpetuating the political and cultural othering of the enemies. In this way, the propaganda was one of the factors that reduced the scope of foreign politics and impeded not only the concluding of peace, but also a rapprochement after 1918. In doing so it contributed to making the post-war into "what it finally became: a pre-war.”[87]

Steffen Bruendel, Goethe Universität Frankfurt am Main

Section Editors: David Welch; Dominik Geppert