Stefan Zweig, commenting on the First World War, claimed that in order to carry on with a war of four terribly long years states had to find ways to transform the popular mass sentiment such as hatred, anger, and the will to fight into more intense and long-lasting passions, and that the “dreadful science” called propaganda had to be invented to achieve it.[1] Propaganda was not in fact a product of the Great War; however, war propaganda produced between 1914 and 1918 differed from similar activities of previous wars in two aspects. First, during that period, propaganda was organized in a “scientific manner” for the first time.[2] Second, the Great War was the first total war in which all belligerent states resorted to propaganda as a means to reach all segments of society in order to obtain popular “consent.” In short, propaganda became the main political weapon not only to justify the war but also to mobilize hearts and minds.[3]

Although infrastructural deficiencies such as low literacy rates[4] and underdeveloped communication and transportation facilities[5] particularly limited the effect of written propaganda in the Ottoman Empire, the Committee of Union and Progress (hereafter the CUP) effectively used propaganda on the home front throughout the war for three main aims: to maintain mobilization; to justify internal policies; and to repress through censorship any kind of opposition deemed detrimental to war-making efforts.

Organizing Propaganda

In the Ottoman Empire, no specific official bodies were established for the organization of propaganda. The Ministry of War (Harbiye Nezareti) and, under it, the General Staff (Erkan-ı Harbiye-i Umumiye Riyaseti) were the main state institutions arranging and coordinating such activities, especially regarding military issues. Enver Pasha (1881-1922), the Minister of War and a follower of German propaganda methods, played a key role in wartime propaganda.[6] On 7 August 1914, approximately three months before the Ottomans’ official entry into the Great War, the General Staff declared a new regulation for censorship that had been in effect since the Raid on the Sublime Porte (Bab-ı Ali Baskını) in 1913.[7] The new regulation which made the existing censorship stricter was an important attempt to organize propaganda. In this way, the war government monopolized the press and, in the absence of any oppositional voices, gained extra power to control and direct the home front through limited and biased information.

The Intelligence Office (İstihbarat Şubesi) under the General Staff was the foremost institution for censorship, particularly concerning any kind of publication on military issues. However, its authority was not unlimited. As stated by Kazım Karabekir (1882-1948), the director of the Intelligence Office, the German Intelligence Bureau had direct influence on propaganda activities in that news and articles served to newspapers were entirely excluded from the control of any Ottoman official authority.[8] The Intelligence Office was not able to manipulate the news and publications made by the Ministry of Interior (Dahiliye Nezareti) and the Central Committee (Merkez Komite) of the CUP, the two other institutions of propaganda on the home front.[9]

The Ottoman Navy League (Osmanlı Donanma Cemiyeti) and the National Defense League (Müdafaa-i Milliye Cemiyeti) were the leading semi-official organizations promoting the propaganda activities of the war government. Although both were ostensibly independent and civilian, they had organic ties to the CUP. The Ottoman Navy League established on 19 July 1909 actively supported war-making efforts between the years 1914 and 1918 by collecting donations and engaging in militaristic-patriotic propaganda. The activities of its branches in the provinces contributed to the mobilization of the Anatolian Turkish-Muslim population.[10] The National Defense League founded on 1 February 1913 during the Balkan Wars was a voluntary organization aiming to provide moral and material support to the army and government in a state of war.[11] Among the sub-divisions of the League, the Committee for the Enlightenment of Public Opinion (Tenvir-i Efkar Heyeti also known as Heyet-i İrşadiye) had an active role in propaganda. In the initial meeting of the committee, a method for public “enlightenment” was described as informing people about existing conditions and inviting and persuading their self-sacrifice. Composed of authors, poets, intellectuals, and religious leaders of the time, the members of the committee mostly propagated through public speeches and conferences.[12]

The Youth League (Genç Derneği) set up in 1916 was another organization which assisted the CUP government in propaganda activities. Different from the two semi-official organizations mentioned, the Youth League took German youth organizations as model and was directly bound to the Ministry of War.[13] Its main goal was to prepare, both mentally and physically, the unschooled Ottoman youth for the war. However, the League also served as an organ of propaganda to ensure popular support for wartime policies of the CUP, especially in rural areas.[14]

Means of Propaganda

In early August 1914, in order to gain total control of the press, the Ministry of Interior led by Talat Pasha (1874-1921) planned to close down all newspapers except Tanin, the semi-official publication of the CUP. Since this was an extremely radical attempt even under martial law conditions, on the advice of Kazım Karabekir, the Ministry of War decided to put into effect the censorship regulations mentioned in the previous section rather than attempting to close down all newspapers.[15] As a consequence, alongside with Tanin, some other newspapers such as İkdam, Sabah, Vakit, Tercüman-ı Hakikat, Tasvir-i Efkar, and Servet-i Fünun continued publication.[16] However, all these newspapers had to be reduced to one-third of their usual size due to a paper shortage and include almost the same editorials and war news mainly submitted by German and Austrian sources.[17]

From early August 1914 on, news trumpeting the indisputable final German triumph became a heavily used tool for the CUP to justify fighting alongside the Central Powers.[18] When the Ottoman Empire entered the war, the newspapers contributed to war propaganda in a variety of ways: by disseminating unreal news of victory;[19] by concealing military failures like the Canal Mission and Sarıkamış;[20] and by postponing the publication of some critical news such as the Arab Revolt.[21] Thus, the aim was to raise the morale of the home front and maintain support for war.

Besides newspapers, bi-weekly or bi-monthly journals also became primary tools of propaganda. Harb Mecmuası backed by the Intelligence Office under the General Staff not only embraced patriotic literary items produced by the intellectuals of time, as well as reports from the fronts and relevant commentaries, but also published a great number of photographs portraying war fronts and technological and architectural achievements.[22] Through such written and visual material, the journal aimed at convincing the public of the idea that the Ottoman Empire had sufficient power to maintain the war.[23]

Donanma, the journal of the Navy League, also included similar content in order to raise nationalist consciousness. In addition, it played an important role in collecting donations for the navy and the families of soldiers.[24] While ideological propaganda based on Turkish nationalism was a priority for Harb Mecmuası and Donanma, the content of the Youth League Journal (Osmanlı Genç Dernekleri Mecmuası) served more practical objectives such as preparing youth for military service and emphasizing the necessity of physical education.[25]

Newspapers and journals reserved plenty of space for literary items. Poetry was the main literary genre reflecting nationalist fervor. Among other nationalist poets of the time, Mehmed Emin [Yurdakul] (1869-1944) was a key figure contributing to cultural propaganda through his patriotic poems. In addition to the ones issued in journals and newspapers, he also produced several volumes of poetry that were printed in great numbers and distributed throughout the armed forces so as to raise the nationalist sentiment of military personnel.[26] In addition to poems, journals also included short stories with nationalist messages.[27] However, although printed materials had a certain capacity to influence popular masses, the CUP government and semi-official organizations engaged in propaganda were aware of the fact that underdeveloped infrastructure and low literacy rates were serious handicaps to the effectiveness of written propaganda. Therefore, from the beginning of the war, oral propaganda was used in order to reach illiterate people.

Religious speeches and sermons at mosques calling for the populace to contribute to mobilization with all material and moral means formed the essential component of oral propaganda. When the Ottoman Empire entered the war, imams (prayer leaders at mosques) selected from among the committee of the ulema (heyet-i ilmiye) presented orations almost every day.[28] Furthermore, the National Defense League organized sermons and mevlids at major mosques to appeal to the masses.[29] However, oral propaganda was not limited to these. In Istanbul and other provinces, semi-official organizations and the CUP itself arranged many conferences and public addresses with patriotic content to enlighten the people on the significance of their support for the war process.[30] According to state elites, another form of oral propaganda was requesting literate people to inform the illiterate about official messages concerning the war.[31]

Ideological Content

Throughout the war, whether written, visual, or oral, propaganda involved nationalistic and Islamic themes to convince the populace to support the army and the government. Political and intellectual reaction following the Balkan Wars (1912-1913) came to be influential in shaping the content and rhetoric of propaganda during the Great War. From 1913 on, books, journals, and newspapers frequently underlined that, as an empire being defeated by newly-emerged, small Balkan states, the “awakening” and “revival” of the Ottoman Empire was only possible through raising national consciousness.[32] Publications after 1913 in that vein prepared Ottoman public opinion for the propaganda discourse between 1914 and 1918.[33]

In August 1914, journals and newspapers published numerous pro-war articles arguing that the war was the Ottoman Empire’s chance to survive. Such indoctrination led wide masses to attend pro-war demonstrations organized by the CUP, especially in Istanbul.[34] When the empire entered the war alongside the Central Powers, nationalist propaganda based on a clear-cut definition of the “internal enemy” (non-Muslim Ottomans who were reluctant to support mobilization) and the “external enemy” (the Allied Powers and their citizens) assumed an Islamist tone as well.

During the initial months of the war, Pan-Islamism and Pan-Turkism were the two main ideological elements of official propaganda. However, the rapid and disastrous defeat of the Ottoman army in the Battle of Sarıkamış (22 December 1914-17 January 1915) weakened the Pan-Turkist spirit. On the other hand, Pan-Islamism aimed at mobilizing both the Muslim population within the empire and the Muslims in the colonies of the Allied Powers reached a peak through the proclamation of Jihad (Islamic holy war) in November 1914. However, Pan-Islamist propaganda yielded disappointing results for the Ottoman rulers for two reasons, as, first, the call for Jihad went virtually unheeded throughout the Muslim world, and, second, the loyalty of the Muslim but non-Turkish population within the empire came under question after the Arab Revolt in 1916.[35]

Despite the failure of Pan-Islamist appeals on an international level, from November 1914 to the end of the war, the Jihad rhetoric remained an important part of official propaganda. The war government, occasionally assisted by the National Defense League, published Jihad pamphlets written in simple language to explain holy war and the religious importance of supporting mobilization whether militarily or as a civilian.[36] Islamic propaganda based on Jihadist discourse was at the time a way to gain the support of non-Turkish Muslim communities living in the Ottoman Empire.[37]

Nevertheless, according to the CUP, the predominant Turkish-Muslim population of Anatolia was the main reliable human resource. Therefore, the CUP propaganda targeting Muslim Turks mixed Islamism with nationalism. In fact, the war government used Jihad propaganda, which included nationalist elements, not only to ensure the regular mobilization of Anatolian Muslims, but also for the public approval of a series of domestic policies aimed at non-Muslim Ottoman citizens, including the forced migration of Anatolian Armenians. While the official rhetoric based on saving the state and religion marginalized non-Muslims in the eyes of Muslim Turks, there appeared to be popular support for or impassivity towards hostile CUP policies against Armenians and Ottoman Greeks.[38]

Targeted Social Groups

The CUP government propagated the idea that it was a sacred duty for all citizens to mobilize resources to ensure the survival of the empire. Soldiers on all fronts had to be ready to sacrifice their lives if necessary. In return for their altruism, the people on the home front would unquestioningly support mobilization. War propaganda based on themes of “duty” and “sacrifice” mainly targeted three social groups mostly composed of Turkish or non-Turkish Muslims: soldiers at fronts, young men at the age of the conscription, and women facing the difficulties of war at the home front.[39]

To keep the motivation for war-making alive, the Ministry of War regularly distributed Harp Mecmuası throughout the armed forces.[40] Conscription of soldiers from religious orders in voluntary units was also a form of propaganda. On the one hand, such voluntary units served to raise the morale of regular soldiers; on the other hand, being from influential denominations, they contributed to the legitimacy of CUP policies among society.[41]

A general factor which reduced the motivation of soldiers was not knowing whether their loved ones were safe. To prevent widespread concern, the war government made an arrangement in the Penal Code. The addendum to Article 206 put into effect on 16 September 1915 introduced the death penalty for sexual assault on any women in soldiers’ families.[42] Parallel to that, Harp Mecmuası also published literary works intended for soldiers to assure them of the safety of their homes.[43]

Martyrdom was another theme useful for motivating soldiers. Those who bravely fought for the dignity of their families and their homeland would attain the highest Islamic honor were they to die for that cause. Harp Mecmuası published a series named Yaşayan Ölüler [the Living Dead] which consisted of semi-fictional stories praising martyrdom.[44] These served not only to motivate soldiers, but also to convince new recruits to the army.

The branches of the Youth League in the provinces were active in preparing young men for the war and justifying war policies. Yet, Enver Pasha thought them unsuccessful in gaining enough support from the society.[45] Especially in the final years of the war, since there was desperate need for manpower, the Navy League and the National Defense League engaged in intense propaganda activities aimed at the mobilization of young men. However, popular participation in such activities was generally restricted to the urban middle and upper classes.[46] The figure of Mehmetçik (Little Mehmet) created by the CUP became an important symbol in war propaganda. The epitome of an average young Muslim-Turkish soldier, he stood for all patriots ready to sacrifice their lives for Islam and the empire.[47]

War conditions turned Ottoman women who were mothers, wives, or sisters of conscripted men into breadwinners for their families. Whether living in urban centers or rural regions, they had to face enormous hardships. The CUP government, failing to produce effective solutions to women’s problems, tried to maintain their consent for the mobilization. Thus, in addition to becoming another symbol of self-sacrifice, women also came to be a direct target for wartime propaganda. The Ladies’ Society to Assist Soldiers’ Families (Asker Ailelerine Yardımcı Hanımlar Cemiyeti), the women branches of the Red Crescent (Kızılay), and the National Defense League cooperated with the government in propaganda activities targeting women.[48] Here, the recurrent message conveyed was the obligation of patriotic Muslim Ottoman women to encourage their sons, husbands, and brothers to join the war for the sake of the empire.[49]

The impact of wartime propaganda was not the same for women from different social classes. While upper class women welcomed wartime propaganda and became active members of the semi-official organizations mentioned above, the case was totally different for women from lower classes who had to struggle with hunger and poverty.[50] From the beginning of the war, either by sending petitions and telegrams to the government[51] and/or by joining protests against food shortages and conscription, lower class Muslim Ottoman women showed that they were not passive receivers of wartime propaganda.[52]


According to Jay Winter, when wartime propaganda coincides with popular feeling it has great capacity to direct people; but when state propaganda remarkably differs from public opinion, it has little chance to appeal to the masses.[53] At the beginning of the Great War, CUP propaganda was sufficiently effective at eliciting consent for the war. Ottoman citizens who voluntarily mobilized a large portion of their material resources supported the CUP’s war policies believing that the Great War was a historical opportunity to save the empire. Nevertheless, as the war dragged on, wartime hardships and casualties became more real than the official rhetoric and promises for the future. From 1917 on, propaganda began to lose its effect on the home front. While young men grew reluctant to submit to the self-sacrifice demands of war propaganda, women faced with wartime realities were also on a totally different plane which made them unresponsive to patriotic messages. As a result, aware of the deteriorating conditions at home, many soldiers inevitably became deserters in order to better take care of their families.

Deniz Dölek-Sever, Zonguldak Bülent Ecevit University

Section Editors: Melanie Schulze-Tanielian; Yiğit Akin