In all belligerent countries the outbreak of war saw the establishment of censorship in 1914. This article will focus on the characteristics of censorship and propaganda in Imperial Germany. It discusses the pre-war preparations for control of the press in times of war; the institutions and operation of press censorship; the machinery of propaganda; and how censorship factored into representations of violence and death.

Already during the war, censorship and propaganda were highly controversial topics debated in parliaments and by the press. But in the interwar period there was almost no in-depth discussion of these issues. Rather, liberal and leftist papers still criticized the military’s management of censorship and propaganda as too harsh. Right–wing papers and groups denounced the military’s insufficiencies as too weak and not determined enough.

Press, Propaganda, Censorship

Preparing for War

In Imperial Germany, between the turn of the century and the outbreak of war, preparations for wartime military propaganda and censorship were still in their early stages. Unlike the German Navy, the Prussian Army had not established its own press department. In 1908 the general staff and press federations consulted with each other about instructions for the press in times of war. Despite these efforts, the army and the press failed to agree upon regulations for reporting on issues of secrecy. For the army, the coverage of maneuvers and cases of espionage was an acid test of the reliability of the press, as any news on espionage was unwanted. Based on this test, cooperation between newspapers and military authorities became impossible.

Cooperation in times of war was made more difficult by the fact that the army had made almost no preparations for it. Practical questions, like how to distribute information to the press, were only discussed in March 1912. A few weeks before the outbreak of war, the War Ministry finally specified censorship guidelines still valid during the war. In 1914, within the German secret service, there was no department assigned to press affairs. The officer assigned to administrative duties had to take on this task more or less as a sideline. Only during the mobilization in August 1914 was a press section established.[1]

In Germany in 1914 the daily press was at its peak, acting as the unrivaled central source of information; there were 4,200 daily papers in 1914.[2] Only a few papers attained national importance, including three from Berlin: Norddeutsche Allgemeine Zeitung, Berliner Tageblatt and Vossische Zeitung. Most of the papers were ideologically biased. The growth of the daily press also reflected the increasing social differentiation and politicization of German society. For example, the Social Democratic press experienced an impressive expansion: In 1912, in addition to their national paper, Vorwärts, the Social Democrats published ninety dailies.


The First World War ended the relative freedom of the press that existed in pre-war Germany. On 31 July 1914, Wilhelm II, German Emperor (1859–1941) decreed a state of war in Germany, and the military commanders in each military district assumed executive powers. The Prussian Law of Siege, passed in 1851 as a direct result of revolution in 1848, served as the legal basis for this shift in power.[3]

Germany was divided into twenty-four army corps districts. At the time of mobilization, when the army corps went into battle, they were replaced by Acting Army Corps (Stellvertretende Generalkommandos), each under an Acting Commanding General (Stellvertretenden Kommandierenden General). These military commanders were largely independent from the Reich, the state governments, the parliaments, and even military authorities; they were solely responsible to the emperor.[4] Acting in his name, they were empowered to suspend civil liberties such as freedom of speech. There was no authority directing the enforcement of the state of siege. Military commanders set up press and censorship departments and local police departments were used as their executive branches.

The military intelligence service, Department III b (Abteilung III b) under Major Walter Nicolai (1873–1947), coordinated all censorship efforts.[5] Because Dept. III b had no executive powers to issue orders to military commanders, it was dependent on the cooperation of the press and counter-espionage (and all other) departments of the Acting Army Corps. Therefore, one substantial task of Dept. III b was to coordinate the work of the Acting Army Corps. With mobilization the General Staff was augmented by an Acting General Staff Office (Stellvertetender Generalstab) and thus via an Acting Department III b (Stellvertretende Abteilung III b) under Colonel Karl Brose (1855–1930) remaining in Berlin.[6] The censorship departments of the Imperial Navy were less important.[7]

On 31 July 1914 instructions for the press were issued, listing all military affairs strictly forbidden from publication. Already by fall 1914, the absence of a centrally controlled censorship authority became obvious. The irregularity of censorship, as well as the clumsiness and narrow–mindedness of the censors, made reorganization necessary. To avoid an “exaggerated severity” in its censorship, the General Staff decided to establish a more centralized organization.[8] In October 1914, the Acting General Staff took the initiative, demanding suggestions for “the standardization of the entire censorship from the military central authorities.”[9] On 19 October 1914, the Oberzensurstelle (Higher Censorship Department) was established within the Acting Department III b to guarantee censorship conformity by handing over matters of regulation to the military commanders.

Censorship of the press was a complex field of tasks and reconsiderations. To the army, newspapers were a twofold threat. First, the press could publish — inadvertently or intentionally — information on military capabilities and plans. Second, newspapers might be used by the enemy as a medium for the transmission of coded messages. Box number advertisements, crosswords, and chess problems were banned from the papers. Control over advertisements became a major element of censorship; the press department of the Acting Commanding General in Berlin alone screened 6.000 to 8.000 advertisements per day.[10]

Newspapers were considered the key source of information for the enemy. Therefore the most important task for the Higher Censorship Department was to prevent any reports on military, political, and economic affairs that could be useful to the enemy. Furthermore, weather forecasts were kept under strict censorship. The reason was not the censors’ overzealousness, but rather the understanding that these reports could affect military operations significantly.[11]

Censorship aimed at controlling all published information. This was achieved, above all, by controlling the information available to the newspapers. The censorship authorities directly controlled military information by assuming power over Germany’s most important news agency, Wolff’s Telegraph Bureau (WTB). Information given by WTB was already censored and could be printed without any further censorship.

Anything newspapers published was subjected to an ever-increasing body of rules and regulations. The Higher Censorship Department did not have the authority to give orders to the Acting Commanding General; they could only do so in an advisory capacity. Their activity was limited to “the exchange of suggestions and evaluations,” as well as issuing guidelines for the execution of censorship by press departments of the Acting Commanding Generals.[12] In Germany, by the end of 1916, censorship authorities had issued about 2,000 regulations. A 134-page reference book published by the Higher Censorship Department summarized the most important regulations alphabetically, from “Aalandfrage” (question of the Aaland Islands) to “Zweifel” (doubt). It was an A-Z not only of censorship but also of Imperial Germany at war.[13]

To keep up with the demand for firsthand information from fall 1914 onward, military authorities admitted only official war correspondents to the theaters of war. Moreover military authorities organized visits to the war theaters for dignitaries.[14] All reports were strictly censored, of course.[15] Beginning in August 1914 press conferences were held regularly at the Reichstag. They were not only an important source of information to journalists; they also became part of the censorship machinery. Everything military authorities declared undesirable during these conferences was to be regarded as a censorship decree.[16]

Despite efforts to censor information before it went to print, the authorities found themselves restricting what was on the page as well. The military published an official communiqué, titled “Heeresbericht,” giving a daily summary of the most important military events. Sometimes overzealous censors tried to repress its publication. There were rare instances when the censors’ work became obvious: Some white spots in the newspapers show when the censor had intervened to the extent that an article had to be skipped. Complete bans of newspapers were the toughest measure the Acting Commanding General exerted on the press. But newspaper bans happened less frequently, affected far fewer newspapers, and lasted for a much shorter period than assumed by past research.[17] The weakest measures were verbal or written warnings. In February 1917 the press department of the Acting Commanding General in Berlin reprimanded the local press 1,000 times.[18]

Initially censorship was meant to prevent the enemy from acquiring valuable information, such as troop movements and other military information. But as the war became ubiquitous, any affairs affecting the war effort were more likely to be subjected to censorship. Soon the censors had to consider the effects of news coverage on the people, and as a result the censors’ role changed from gatekeeping to managing public moods and hopes. In December 1914 the Deputy Commanding Generals were advised by Department III b: “Censorship should only seek to prevent exaggerations, distortion, and lack of judgment ...which could either arouse false hopes at home or provide encouragement to the enemy.”[19]

From 1915 onward, the increasing costs and shortages of food became more of a challenge for the censorship authorities. But censoring the coverage of bread shortages did not produce any bread, and so the possibilities of managing discontent by censorship were extremely limited. The unity of the people was endangered by two factors: a growing distrust of civil and military authorities for their inability to provide food, and schisms within German society. For example, the urban population began blaming the rural population - especially farmers - for holding back food and profiteering.

The German way of communicating during the war is best understood by looking at the final year. In summer and fall 1918 censorship and propaganda authorities failed the ultimate test. After German successes on the Western front that spring and early summer, allied counteroffensives were pushing back the German armies. One defeat followed another. General Erich Ludendorff (1865–1937) referred to 8 August 1918 as the “Black Day of the German Army.”[20] Information on these dramatic events—which ultimately compelled the Supreme Army Command (Oberste Heeresleitung or OHL) to end the war—was hard to find in German newspapers. They summed up the events of 8 August as a rout (Schlappe). Censorship and propaganda authorities decided to keep bad news quiet from the people at home—even if newspaper readers could read between the lines and surmise that the course of the war had taken a bad turn. Slowly but surely all hopes were shattered that the war could end with a victorious peace (Siegfriede). When, in October 1918, it was suddenly announced that Germany had to ask for an armistice, the military crisis became a crisis of the state’s and the monarchy’s legitimacy.

In the last days of October 1918, war-weary sailors of the German High Seas Fleet off Wilhelmshaven revolted; they had no intention of being sacrificed in the last days of the war. Within a few days their mutiny spread through the Navy and soon turned into a general revolt that swept aside the monarchy. In Berlin military authorities tried to hold off any information on the events by censoring the press and blocking the railroads to seal off the capital. But they failed to stop the mutiny from becoming a nationwide revolutionary movement.[21]


From the beginning, military and civilian leaders realized that the morale of the people would be a decisive element in winning the war. Therefore maintaining “unanimity” at home was a key aspect of all censorship and propaganda efforts. But the more war challenged society at large, and the more complex the war became, the more important it was for censorship to “guard” political, social, and economic aspects of everyday life.

At the outbreak of the war, German censorship authorities took it for granted that their sole task was to maintain military secrecy. At first, the military regarded any publicity, including propaganda, as a danger to military operations. But the line between censorship and propaganda eventually blurred. The establishment of the War Press Office on 14 October 1915 was the turning point, when controlling the press became less about censorship and more about propaganda. The War Press Office became the center of all propaganda efforts organized by the German military, in the field and at home. The Higher Censorship Department was incorporated into this new apparatus under the direct control of Department III b. The Higher Censorship Department’s responsibilities and tasks remained unchanged. The War Press Office, like the Higher Censorship Department, had a purely advisory role. Executive departments were the propaganda departments set up by military commanders.

In light of worsening living conditions, military authorities increasingly were concerned with improving civilian morale. Until 1916, the focus of civil and military authorities had been on foreign propaganda. In spring 1917, the OHL and the Prussian War Ministry ordered the decentralization of propaganda at home. In each Acting Army Corps, officers were appointed to organize propaganda in their corps districts.[22] With the introduction of Vaterländischer Unterricht (patriotic instruction) into the army at the end of July 1917, all domestic propaganda activities came under the control of the War Press Office and thus the OHL. The framework of all propaganda work was dictated by general guidelines of the War Press Office. The propaganda officers had to then see to the details of this framework. However, the patriotic instruction for civilians was administered with far less uniformity than the military propaganda.[23] It was handled differently in almost every district. Even though the military became the most important authority organizing official propaganda, a multitude of civil and private authorities took part. Germans at home and in the trenches were flooded with propaganda to bolster morale, using all media available: brochures, leaflets, postcards, caricatures, placards, theater performances, movies, and speeches.

The central theme of German propaganda was the Burgfriede (domestic truce) claiming that the enemies foisted the war upon Germany; therefore, German society had to put aside internal dispute to fight a just war. Emperor Wilhelm II pronounced, after the declaration of war against Russia on 1 August 1914, “Ich kenne keine Parteien mehr, ich kenne nur noch Deutsche!” (“I know no more parties, I know only Germans!”) As the war continued, the perseverance (Aushalten), symbolized by an iconic soldier with a steel helmet, was becoming a patriotic virtue. But on the home front pre-war tensions were intensified by the grievances of war. For many, the hardships were only bearable if they were shared fairly. As propaganda called for national unity, this willingness to endure was shattered when it became obvious that pre-war disparities persisted.

The Realities of War: Representing Violence and Death

Between 1914 and 1918 masses of photos were taken at the front and at home, making the First World War a highly visual war. From its beginnings there was a growing demand for authentic representations of what was going on “out there.” Photographs in particular were considered an “objective” medium depicting the realities of war. The censorship regulations for photos constituted one of the most detailed entries of the Nachschlagebuch (reference book).[24] As a matter of principle, “any visual representations of a military kind were subject to censorship prior to their publication.”[25] Shooting photographs and movies with intent to publish had to be authorized by the censor.[26] In Germany, censorship authorities admitted photographers and cameramen to the theater of war starting in October 1914. The collecting and printing of photos of dead soldiers was discouraged.[27] But photos of dead German soldiers were only forbidden if their faces were clearly recognizable. Photos of wounded or mutilated soldiers were allowed if the article brought up their care and welfare.[28] Most published photos did not show any actual fighting, only its outcome: the effects of artillery, destruction, prisoners, and wounded people. They focused on motifs located behind the front, far off from the actual fighting. At the same time amateur photographers were allowed to take photos at the front. Their photos were circulated among soldiers and tolerated by military authorities. These amateur photos usually depicted slain enemy soldiers. But in rare cases amateur photos were printed as postcards showing dead German soldiers.

Representing war met immense difficulties, not only from the censorship authorities. The battles on the Western Front were waged over dozens or hundreds of kilometers, with battlefields showing nothing but destruction and devastation. If a camera reached the front lines it could not show anything but the emptiness of the battlefield: “Even if the war photographer, under danger of his life, goes into the first line of trenches and takes a photo, in most cases it will show only a highly dull scenery marked by barbed wire and recent earthworks.”[29] Last but not least the technical limitations of bulky, heavy cameras made it almost impossible to take photos of combat. This gap in representing the war had to be closed by drawings, paintings, and even staged photos. The printing of obviously staged photos was taken for granted and did not cause concern or even protest; they were considered more significant because they “give a picture corresponding to reality and by this perform the task to give the public the right impression.”[30]

Death notices in newspapers were also regulated by censorship authorities. One notice should not mention more than five to eight names, and by no means should the units of the soldiers be mentioned.[31] An official casualty list was published in newspapers from the first days of the war. However, starting at the end of August 1914 newspapers were forbidden from printing the complete list and were requested to print only the names of those who came from the newspaper’s distribution area. This was to avoid any depressing influences on the public. Even so, the complete casualty lists were not kept secret but were hung out publicly; people could also subscribe to them.[32] Explicitly forbidden were compilations of the overall losses as well as indexes. A noteworthy German peculiarity was the illustrated casualty lists that the Prussian Army issued in 1914 and 1915. Deceased soldiers who could not be identified and surviving soldiers who had suffered a loss of identity were pictured in the hopes that someone might recognize them.[33] The soldiers who had been killed, wounded, and gone missing from the battlefield had relatives who were left in uncertainty. Their fate was another aspect of censorship. To avoid false hopes, any articles claiming that these soldiers had turned up were subject to pre-censorship and were only approved if the information was confirmed.[34]

Throughout the war foreign newspapers were available in Germany. In August 1914 the General Staff decreed that all foreign newspapers should be transported unhindered.[35] Only especially malicious newspapers should be excluded from postal subscription. [36] Allied war reports were printed in German newspapers.[37] They were not to be altered and the papers were obligated to print an official comment. In 1916, articles by foreign newspapers were declared undesirable by the censorship, but they were not forbidden. Newspapers were advised that all news coming from abroad should be treated with reticence and headlines should be chosen with utmost accuracy: “The reports themselves and reflections have to adapt in their outer form to the German war reports and have to be lessened.”[38] Speeches in German parliaments as well as reports on them could be printed in the press and were not censored.

Censorship was far from total and newspapers were by no means the only link between the front and the Heimat. They were linked by letters, soldiers home on furlough, and hearsay. Furthermore, the losses were visible on the streets: Wounded and disabled soldiers were part of everyday life and so were mourning widows. The naïveté promoted by patriotic postcards did not mean that the recipients were completely ignorant of how terrible the war was. That the war was awful was obvious; the slain soldiers were fathers, husbands, brothers, and lovers, and no censor could hide 2.000.000 fatalities. Propaganda had to give meaning to this loss in order to encourage soldiers and people at home to persevere. The censor’s duty was to safeguard these efforts.

Censorship was not only only an issue of obstacles to the press, but also an issue of the expectations of the consumers of news and imagery. Did people want to know what the war was like? The reception of Krieg dem Kriege (War against War), a 1924 anthology of shocking photographs edited by Ernst Friedrich (1894–1967), hints at the answer.[39] Its readership was confined to pacifist circles; the broad public did not want to see photos of dead, mutilated, or decomposed soldiers. The majority preferred anthologies showing heroic and nationalistic imagery of the war.


Censorship was a framework set up by military authorities but realized by editors, journalists, photographers, painters, and graphic artists. It is hard to distinguish between this censorship and self-censorship, but their daily work cannot be reduced to a hard and heroic struggle with narrow-minded censors. Most of them considered themselves patriots who worked hard to win the war. The diaries of editors, such as Theodor Wolff of the liberal Berliner Tageblatt, and the records of daily press conferences reveal the everyday frictions between the press and censorship authorities. Hellmut von Gerlach (1866–1935), editor of the Berlin leftist weekly Die Welt am Montag, described coping with censorship as walking a tightrope (“Drahtseilkunst”).[40]

German authorities—especially in the last year of the war—were under the illusion that censorship and propaganda could offer ersatz for victories, bread, coal, or anything else missed at the home front. But the censors could not feed, warm, nor clothe the people—nor could they win the war. Their efforts could only mitigate Imperial Germany’s many crises. But censoring beyond military affairs was an unsuitable attempt by an authoritarian state to ease the fundamental problems of a country tested by the war.

In its overall effect, censorship was not comprehensive. Military authorities could dominate the newspapers but they could not control public opinion or morale. But without a doubt, censorship of almost all social, economic, and political affairs became more and more widespread during the war. Department III b played an important role in this. Before 1914 the military intelligence service was only an espionage and counter-espionage service, but by the time of the armistice, its responsibilities reached far beyond that. In 1918 it was organizing postal censorship and it was also a political police force. In addition to the press, all means of communication (letters, lectures, books, pamphlets, and word of mouth) were subjected to military control. In 1918 the military commander in Berlin even set up an organization by which women could control hearsay in the open street and identify people spreading rumors and undermining morale.[41] The longer the war continued, the more people became aware that the authorities were manipulating the information published in the newspapers. This credibility gap and a perceived downturn in the government’s legitimacy reinforced each other and eventually became an aspect of the collapse of the home front in 1918.

During the war German propaganda condemned any behavior endangering the war effort as unpatriotic, helping the enemy, and sabotaging the German military effort. For example, in fall 1918 a caricature showed a German worker resisting the seditious enemy propaganda, symbolized by a satanic creature.[42] After Germany surrendered in 1918 these representations continued and right–wing groups maintained that the valiant German army returned undefeated to the homeland. In this view, the defeat was blamed on the home front that had stabbed the army in the back. Erich Ludendorff alleged that the home front had been hypnotized by enemy propaganda as a rabbit is by a snake.[43] The assumptions that propaganda had been the enemies’ decisive weapon and that the German government failed to use propaganda as effectively as the enemy were extremely popular during the 1920s, contributing to the back-stabbing myth.

Florian Altenhöner, Independent Scholar

Section Editor: Christoph Cornelißen