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Propaganda and the mobilisation of consent during the two world wars

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Authored by Catriona Pennell
Published on 12th September, 2023 16 min read

Propaganda and the mobilisation of consent during the two world wars

Introduction

The British vote to exit the European Union (2016) and US administration under Donald Trump (2017−2021) have highlighted the degree to which appeals to personal and emotional belief are far more compelling than objective facts in contemporary politics. “Fake news” has become a convenient way for those in power to dismiss uncomfortable truths. But these anxieties over the politics of communication are not vastly different to the types of concerns that emerged over propaganda in the aftermath of the First World War.[1] Propaganda has meant different things at different times, and its etymology can be traced back to the Reformation. Its employment goes back even further to the Chinese general Sun Tzu’s The Art of War 2,400 years ago.[2] Yet today, it is predominately understood as something distasteful, sinister, and pejorative because of its wholesale use by governments during the First World War as a weapon of modern warfare.[3]

The First World War, 1914−1918

It was the fifth century Greek tragic dramatist, Aeschylus, who first coined the notable phrase: “In war, truth is the first casualty.” Fifteen centuries later, a decade after the end of the First World War, former Liberal (and later Labour) MP, Arthur Ponsonby, published Falsehood in Wartime (1928), which enshrined Aeschylus’ sentiments as the basis of his modern assessment of immoral wartime reporting. Ponsonby was especially incensed by what he believed to be the government’s wilful control and manipulation of information:

With eavesdroppers, letter-openers, decipherers, telephone tappers, spies, an intercept department, a forgery department, a criminal investigation department, a propaganda department, an intelligence department, a censorship department, a ministry of information, a Press bureau, etc., the various Governments were well equipped to “instruct” their peoples.[4]

Ponsonby was correct to highlight the vast array of agencies that were set up across all combatant nations during the First World War to, firstly, control how and what information was disseminated, and, secondly, to monitor the fluctuating mood and opinion of the public. Information-control was hardly surprising: anything that could be of use to the enemy, such as troop movements, size of casualty lists, and operational timings, needed to be carefully guarded. Through the passing of the Defence of the Realm Act (DORA) in the House of Commons (without debate) on 7 August 1914, and the establishment of the Official Press Bureau the following day, the government had executive powers which included the suppression of published criticism (and punishment of those responsible for advancing it) and information calculated to be indirectly or directly of use to the enemy.[5]

However, the need to persuade the general population of the justice and moral righteousness of the “national cause” required new initiatives. Consent for war needed to be mobilised and maintained across the entire nation.[6] While writers, educationalists, artists, performers, and civic and religious leaders could help to rally their people around the flag, “propaganda helped shore it up over the fifty months of conflict”.[7] For this was an important evolutionary step towards “total war”, exemplified by the Second World War with its unprecedented involvement of civilians as combatants and targets, its mass destruction, and its global scale.[8] Whole nations — not just professional armies — were locked in mortal combat. This, and subsequent modern wars, required propaganda to mobilise hatred against the enemy, to convince the population of the justness of the cause, to enlist the active support and cooperation of neutral countries, and to strengthen the support of allies.[9]

While the Press Bureau did exercise a considerable measure of control, it also sought a high level of cooperation with the press. “Voluntary participation” best describes the relationship between the press and the government in matters of control and censorship.[10] Censorship and propaganda offices did not need to impose their views on editors, journalists, and cartoonists; they shared them and decided to put their pens and brushes at the service of Britain against Germany in their own way.[11] Censorship in Britain during the war was far from severe, repressive, and undemocratic. Although DORA regulations applied in part to the press, the government never had control of the press by law. An overall assessment of newspaper censorship in Britain during the First World War must conclude that it was far from draconian: the press was too powerful an institution for any government to control or repress.[12] In terms of propaganda, the British people were not brainwashed and misled.[13]

Instead, we should understand the information flow in Britain during the First World War as two-way; the reason propaganda had any power at all was a function of its synergistic relationship with opinion. This is crucial. While there was undoubtedly a degree of state manipulation “from above” that is not the whole story. When common sense on the popular level diverged from state propaganda, the official message rang hollow or simply vanished. But when propaganda coincided with popular feeling, independently generated and sustained, then it had real force.[14] The British people saw the First World War as they did not because of government control and manipulation but because that is how they wished to see it.[15]

By 1918, it was clear that propaganda was a key feature of the way modern warfare was going to be waged. War was now not only a physical battle but a psychological one as well, fought in and for the minds of combatant (and neutral) populations. For some people, like Ponsonby, this was deeply concerning, and the interwar period saw a vast amount of literature published debating this new “threat”. The literature focused, in particular, on alleged atrocities perpetrated by the German Army as it invaded Belgium and north-eastern France in the autumn of 1914.[16] Now discredited,[17] it would have significant repercussions for both liberal democracies and the fledgling dictatorships of 1930s Europe, as discussed below.[18]  In liberal Britain, a deep distrust developed amongst ordinary citizens, fuelled by the difficult post-war economic conditions, who concluded that they had been duped by patriotic slogans and atrocity propaganda. Politicians were sensitive to these criticisms and the Ministry of Information (MOI), which had been set up in early 1918 to centralise the British propaganda effort, was disbanded.[19] 

The Second World War, 1939−1945

With the onset of the Second World War, the task of winning “hearts and minds” was even more crucial, owing to the conflict’s size, scale, and territorial reach. Unlike the First World War, the battle against the Third Reich now came directly to the British mainland. Night after night, from September 1940 to May 1941, German bombers attacked British ports, cities, and industrial areas in an attempt to push Britain economically and psychologically out of the war. Attacks on London continued with little respite until May 1945. Known as “the Blitz”, over 32,000 civilians were killed, and 87,000 seriously injured.[20] The British government needed to maintain morale or risk capitulation to the enemy. 

On the surface, Britain appeared to be better prepared for this second global catastrophe. A new MOI came into operation only days after war was declared in September 1939. But it struggled to meet the needs of maintaining morale amongst a population being battered by a war of attrition. It was also not as well-developed as its counterparts in European totalitarian regimes (on the Right and Left) that had been operating for several years in the interwar period. The new Ministry lacked gravitas in Whitehall and suffered from a difficult relationship with the press, who accused it of hampering their efforts to report the war, through censorship and withholding information, and of generally being overly bureaucratic and inept.[21]

Patriotic material was designed to encourage citizens to maintain a “stiff upper lip” as well as providing information to keep the public fit and healthy. But as the war expanded globally, so did the concomitant propaganda effort. The MOI produced a steady stream of persuasive literature to be disseminated across the colonies and occupied and neutral countries.[22] The Political Warfare Executive (PWE) dealt with enemy territory. The incorporation of the censorship machinery of the Press and Censorship Bureau into the MOI in April 1940 (which had been kept separate in the First World War) was an important organisational reform and recognised the need to integrate the control of the news with the dissemination of positive propaganda. Overall, the production of wartime news, across the press, the BBC, and other media outlets, was a far slicker and more sophisticated effort in the Second World War. By 1941, Britain had gained a reputation for producing an honest, free, and truthful media that still managed to avoid giving anything of significance away to the enemy. Britain’s wartime propaganda was seen to tell “the truth when, in fact, the whole truth could not be told”.[23]  

Conclusion

Jay Winter has described the First World War as “the most spectacular advertising campaign to date”. The product it was trying to “sell” was the war itself. As a result of “the excesses and exaggerations of this effort, the term ‘“propaganda” has come to mean “lies”’ —  “Falsehoods” as Ponsonby put it.[24] However, as Adrian Gregory has argued, there are significant methodological errors with Ponsonby’s analysis, particularly with regard to his accusations that the British press manufactured stories about German atrocities that in fact originated in rumours, myth, and even sometimes German propaganda. He concluded that Ponsonby’s book “is not an inquiry into propaganda; it is propaganda, of the most passionate sort”.[25] Falsehoods in Wartime is now as much a primary source — the raw materials of history — as the newspapers and illustrated magazines contained in this digital collection. 

Where does this leave the historian who wishes to utilise the British press as a window onto wartime experiences, attitudes, and behaviour? Do we disregard this array of source material for being “biased” and inaccurate? Historians need to take issues of reliability seriously and wartime press is problematic precisely because of its place within state-led propaganda machines. But all sources — no matter their provenance — contain some degree of bias and production with “purpose”. It is the task of the historian to be attuned to this and to understand the need to contextualise, corroborate, and identify gaps in information. As Jo Fox has argued, the challenge for the historian is “to disaggregate the sources and find the very real voices in among the exaggeration”.[26]

The interwar turn against propaganda had serious consequences. At the outbreak of the Second World War, the fear of “duping” a population was prominent in the minds of British propagandists. The question of atrocity was received with widespread scepticism; if atrocity stories were “proved” to be false in the First World War, then surely they were false again? As the Nazis inflicted very real atrocities upon Jewish people in the late 1930s and across Eastern Europe in 1940 and 1941, the news was not reported. The British press virtually excluded the suffering of Jews and others from their anti-Nazi publicity campaigns.[27] It was only in April 1945, with the reports and images that emerged from Europe’s extermination camps on the BBC’s Home Service programme War Report, that the full horror of Nazi atrocities was revealed.[28]

 Footnotes

[1] Mark Connelly et al., ed., Propaganda and Conflict: War, Media and Shaping the Twentieth Century (London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2019), 2.

[2] For a full discussion on the meaning and origins of the word “propaganda” please see David Welch, ed., Propaganda, Power and Persuasion: From World War I to Wikileak (London: I. B. Tauris, 2015), 1–40.

[3] David Welch, World War II Propaganda: Analyzing the Art of Persuasion during Wartime (Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2017), xi–xii.

[4] Arthur Ponsonby, Falsehood in Wartime: Containing an Assortment of Lies Circulated Throughout the Nations During the Great War (London: George Allen and Unwin, 1928), 2.

[5] For more on British propaganda during the First World War see, G.S. Messinger, British Propaganda and the State in the First World War (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1992); Michael L. Sanders and Philip M. Taylor, British Propaganda during the First World War, 1914−18 (London: The Macmillan Press, 1982).

[6] Catriona Pennell, A Kingdom United: Popular Responses to the Outbreak of the First World War in Britain and Ireland (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012).

[7] Jay Winter, "Propaganda and the Mobilization of Consent", in The Oxford Illustrated History of the First World War, ed. Hew Strachan (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), 216.

[8] John Horne, "Introduction: Mobilizing for “Total War”, 1914−1918", in State, Society and Mobilization in Europe During the First World War, ed. John Horne (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), 3.

[9] https://www.bl.uk/world-war-one/themes/propaganda (last accessed, 27 April 2023). 

[10] Deian Hopkin, "Domestic Censorship in the First World War", Journal of Contemporary History, 5, no. 4 (1970): 153–54.

[11] Eberhard Demm, "Propaganda and Caricature in the First World War", Journal of Contemporary History, 28, no. 1 (1993): 168. 

[12] Pennell, A Kingdom United.

[13] Nicholas Hiley, "The News Media and British Propaganda, 1914−1918", in Les Sociétiés Européenês et La Guerre de 1914-1918, ed. Jean Jacques Becker and Stéphane Audoin-Rouzeau (Nanterre: Université de Paris X, 1990), 175–76.

[14] Winter, "Propaganda and the Mobilization of Consent", 217.

[15] Hiley, "The News Media and British Propaganda, 1914−1918", 177. Author’s emphasis. 

[16] Stephen Badsey, The German Corpse Factory: A Study in First World War Propaganda (Warwick: Helion and Company, 2019).

[17] John Horne and Alan Kramer, German Atrocities, 1914: A History of Denial (London: Yale University Press, 2001).

[18] Jo Fox, “The legacy of World War One propaganda”, British Library, January 2014. See https://www.bl.uk/world-war-one/articles/the-legacy-of-world-war-one-propaganda (last accessed 27 April 2023). 

[19] Welch, World War II Propaganda, xiii.

[20] Mark Clapson, The Blitz Companion: Aerial Warfare, Civilians and the City Since 1911, Illustrated edition (London: University of Westminster Press, 2019). See also Susan R. Grayzel, At Home and Under Fire: Air Raids and Culture In Britain From The Great War To The Blitz (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012).

[21] Welch, World War II Propaganda, xvi.

[22] David Welch, Persuading the People: British Propaganda in World War II, 1st Edition (London: The British Library Publishing Division, 2016).

[23] Welch, World War II Propaganda, xvi.

[24] Winter, "Propaganda and the Mobilization of Consent", 216.

[25] Adrian Gregory, The Last Great War: British Society and the First World War (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008), 43.

[26] Jo Fox, “The legacy of World War One propaganda”, British Library, January 2014. See https://www.bl.uk/world-war-one/articles/the-legacy-of-world-war-one-propaganda (last accessed 27 April 2023).

[27] Nicoletta F. Gullace, "Allied Propaganda and World War I: Interwar Legacies, Media Studies, and the Politics of War Guilt", History Compass, 9, no. 9 (2011): 686–700.

[28] Jo Fox, “The legacy of World War One propaganda”, British Library, January 2014. See https://www.bl.uk/world-war-one/articles/the-legacy-of-world-war-one-propaganda (last accessed 27 April 2023). See also Judith Petersen, "Belsen and a British Broadcasting Icon", Holocaust Studies: A Journal of Culture and History, 13, no. 1 (2007): 19–43. 

Bibliography

Badsey, Stephen. The German Corpse Factory: A Study in First World War Propaganda. Warwick: Helion and Company, 2019.

Clapson, Mark. The Blitz Companion: Aerial Warfare, Civilians and the City Since 1911. Illustrated edition. London: University of Westminster Press, 2019.

Connelly, Mark et al., ed. Propaganda and Conflict: War, Media and Shaping the Twentieth Century. London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2019.

Demm, Eberhard. "Propaganda and Caricature in the First World War". Journal of Contemporary History, 28, no. 1 (1993): 163−192.

Grayzel, Susan R. At Home and Under Fire: Air Raids and Culture In Britain From The Great War To The Blitz. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012.

Gregory, Adrian. The Last Great War: British Society and the First World War. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008)

Gullace, Nicoletta F. "Allied Propaganda and World War I: Interwar Legacies, Media Studies, and the Politics of War Guilt", History Compass, 9, no. 9 (2011): 686–700.

Hiley, Nicholas. "The News Media and British Propaganda, 1914-1918". In Les Sociétiés Européenês et La Guerre de 1914-1918, edited by Jean Jacques Becker and Stéphane Audoin-Rouzeau. Nanterre: Université de Paris X, 1990.

Hopkin, Deian. "Domestic Censorship in the First World War". Journal of Contemporary History, 5, no. 4 (1970): 151–69.

Horne, John. "Introduction: Mobilizing for “Total War”, 1914-1918". In State, Society and Mobilization in Europe During the First World War, edited by John Horne. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997.

Horne, John, and Alan Kramer. German Atrocities, 1914: A History of Denial. London: Yale University Press, 2001. 

Messinger, G.S. British Propaganda and the State in the First World War. Manchester: Manchester University Pressg, 1992.

Pennell, Catriona. A Kingdom United: Popular Responses to the Outbreak of the First World War in Britain and Ireland. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012.

Petersen, Judith. "Belsen and a British Broadcasting Icon". Holocaust Studies: A Journal of Culture and History, 13, no. 1 (2007): 19–43.

Ponsonby, Arthur. Falsehood in Wartime: Containing an Assortment of Lies Circulated Throughout the Nations During the Great War. London: George Allen and Unwin, 1928.

Sanders, Michael L., and Philip M. Taylor. British Propaganda during the First World War, 1914−18. London: The Macmillan Press, 1982.

Welch, David. Persuading the People: British Propaganda in World War II, 1st Edition. London: The British Library Publishing Division, 2016.

———, ed. Propaganda, Power and Persuasion: From World War I to Wikileak. London: I.B. Tauris, 2015.

———. World War II Propaganda: Analyzing the Art of Persuasion during Wartime. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2017.

Winter, Jay. "Propaganda and the Mobilization of Consent". In The Oxford Illustrated History of the First World War, edited by Hew Strachan. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000.

 


Authored by Catriona Pennell

Catriona Pennell

Catriona is Professor of Modern History and Memory Studies at the University of Exeter. She specialises in the history of nineteenth and twentieth century Britain and Ireland, with a particular focus on the relationship between war, empire, experience, and memory. She has published on various aspects of the experience of war and empire and on understandings of cultural historical approaches to the study of modern conflict more generally. Her first book, A Kingdom United: Popular Responses to the Outbreak of the First World War in Britain and Ireland, was published by Oxford University Press in 2012. She has acted as the Middle East consultant for two editions of The Times Complete History of the World (2010 and 2015). She has led or co-led a number of externally funded interdisciplinary research projects with particular emphasis across the intersections of history, politics, education, and memory studies. She is now working on a volume on the British Empire and the First World War as part of OUP’s "Greater War" series.


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