Op-Ed: World War I unleashed total war, and the power of mass communication


Nov. 11, now called Veterans Day, was originally Armistice Day, a commemoration of the end of World War I, in 1918, the cessation of 50 months of shooting, shelling and killing that claimed the lives of 9 million combatants. It was the Great War, the war to end all wars, but today, 100 years after the armistice was signed, it may chiefly be remembered as the exact opposite of all that — a prelude to many conflicts still to come.

The causes and the operational and geographic details of this truly catastrophic global war have faded from our national memory; nonetheless, we live in a world still shaped by World War I. Geopolitically, it spelled the end of the Ottoman Empire, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Germany’s colonial empire and Imperial Russia. It terminated European monarchies and literally and disastrously redrew the map of the Middle East. It unleashed modern, industrialized warfare — total war — and it introduced the world to the full extent of the power of modern communications, in the form of the war’s propaganda.

Of course World War I, which began in 1914, was not the first in which participants sought to publicize their aims, the rightness of their cause and the perfidy of their enemies. But it was the first in which mass communication techniques were controlled and deployed by governments for a wide variety of patriotic aims: to demonize their enemies, to attract soldiers, to bolster the morale of their citizens, and to fund the staggering costs of full militarization.

Large-scale public information campaigns were conducted by all the major participant nations and aimed at their own soldiers and civilians, at the enemy forces, and at other nations not yet involved in the war, most notably the United States, which didn’t enter the war until April 1917. Propaganda media included mass-circulation newspapers, advertising, photography, popular cinema, cartoons, songs, magazines and books.

(Pritzker Military Museum and Library)

The medium that had lasting impact, and became most emblematic of the war, was vivid propaganda posters. Nearly all war nations produced them, but the most artful and memorable are those of Britain and the United States.

Influence and persuasion were the aims, and governments were not above employing deception, half-truth, distortion and outright falsehood to make their case. Early in the war, the British Parliament published the Bryce Report on “Alleged German Outrages,” full of unsubstantiated accounts of savage German military behavior in Belgium and France. It was soon widely discredited, but not before it was effectively exploited in propaganda distributed in Europe and the United States.

British posters such as “Remember Belgium!” interpreted (or “spun,” we would say now) alleged atrocities including civilian rapes and murders committed by the invading German armies. German soldiers were “Huns,” uncontrolled barbarians whose acts included torching libraries and cathedrals. The German Kaiser became “The Beast of Berlin.” The images were motivational, stoking hunger for justice and revenge and assuring audiences that this war was an existential conflict.

(Pritzker Military Museum and Library)

Britain had entered the conflict with a comparatively small volunteer army. Much of its early propaganda sought to promote voluntary enlistments with such slogans as “Come Along Boys, Enlist Today,” and “Daddy, what did YOU do in the Great War?” After about two years of war, Britain turned to conscription, as had France, Russia and Germany years earlier; “selective service” began in the United States soon after it entered the war. American artist James Montgomery Flagg responded with one of the most durable pieces of U.S. propaganda ever produced, and one now considered not just a patriotic ad, but art: the iconic stern-faced, finger-pointing Uncle Sam: “I Want YOU for the U.S. Army.”

U.S. posters, like Britain’s, romanticized military service with such entreaties as “A Wonderful Opportunity for You: United States Navy.” As the war dragged on and costs skyrocketed, the emphasis in propaganda posters shifted to fundraising: “BUY VICTORY BONDS” (the U.S.); “LEND YOUR FIVE SHILLINGS TO YOUR COUNTRY AND CRUSH THE GERMANS” (Britain). Germany and France also sought to fund their war efforts by asking for civilian loans via poster appeals.

(Pritzker Military Museum and Library)

At the beginning of the war, the messages and imagery conveyed by the posters could be seen as sincere if emotionally manipulative attempts to attract citizens’ hearts and minds. Their lasting impact, however, owes less to sincerity and more to irony.

As the war dragged on, the horrific casualties mounted, privations on the home front grew and political unrest spread. Military units mutinied, and desertion rates increased. Weary civilians turned cynical. The posters’ optimism, glamorization, appeals to patriotic national symbols and depictions of soldiers’ heroism soured.

The posters are harbingers of the modern state’s ever more sophisticated attempts to sway us. And they are also harbingers of our doubts about those attempts. Britain, the U.S., Germany and France couldn’t paper over the ghastliness and the costs of World War I. Propaganda, after all, is propaganda.

Michael W. Robbins wrote the historical text for the book “Lest We Forget: The Great War — World War I Prints from the Pritzker Military Museum and Library.”

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