I just finished reading the 1928 book Falsehood in War-time by Arthur Ponsonby. The full text is here. The book is a chronicle of allied war propaganda during World War I. It’s a very enlightening read. It’s also short, so you should be able to cruise through it quickly.
I’ve said before that if you don’t understand WWI, you’ll never understand WWII. You will simply repeat popular propaganda with no context for why the players involved did what they did, when they did it. World War I also serves a couple of unique places in military history. It was not only the first truly industrialized war, but it was also the first truly media driven war, in the sense we know that today. This makes it very instructive for understanding how governments sell the wars they want to their citizens.
Propaganda was used extensively on all sides during WWI, and many mistakes were made in it’s formulation and distribution. Many times the atrocity stories were just too outlandish to be believed, and this left the citizenry skeptical that they were being lied to. Other times, stories were believable, yet over-reported, which led to the same effect, or forcing some type of verification to happen. These message control mistakes would ultimately be corrected during World War II, when propaganda reached a sort of epic, golden age.
It’s also very interesting to see how the basic tenets of propaganda really haven’t changed much. We see the same basic constructs in war coverage today. Today we have “unverified” atrocity stories, like Gaddafi supplying Viagra to his troops to encourage rape and Iraqi troops tossing incubator babies on the floor. In World War I this took the form of the “Belgian baby without hands” story, the “Ravaged nurse” story, the “Crucified canadian” story, etc.
One thing never changes: in war, the enemy must be completely de-humanized into a blood-thirsty monster.
Here are some good quotes:
In wartime, failure of a lie is negligence, the doubting of a lie a misdemeanour, the declaration of the truth a crime.
The psychological factor in war is just as important as the military factor. The morale of civilians, as well as of soldiers, must be kept up to the mark. The War Offices, Admiralties, and Air Ministries look after the military side. Departments have to be created to see to the psychological side. People must never be allowed to become despondent; so victories must be exaggerated and defeats, if not concealed, at any rate minimized, and the stimulus of indignation, horror, and hatred must be assiduously and continuously pumped into the public mind by means of “propaganda.”
The use of the weapon of falsehood is more necessary in a country where military conscription is not the law of the land than in countries where the manhood of the nation is automatically drafted into the Army, Navy, or Air Service. The public can be worked up emotionally by sham ideals. A sort of collective hysteria spreads and rises until finally it gets the better of sober people and reputable newspapers.
When war reaches such dimensions as to involve the whole nation, and when the people at its conclusion find they have gained nothing but only observe widespread calamity around them, they are inclined to become more sceptical and desire to investigate the foundations of the arguments which inspired their patriotism, inflamed their passions, and prepared them to offer the supreme sacrifice. They are curious to know why the ostensible objects for which they fought have none of them been attained, more especially if they are the victors.
War is fought in this fog of falsehood, a great deal of it undiscovered and accepted as truth. The fog arises from fear and is fed by panic. Any attempt to doubt or deny even the most fantastic story has to be condemned at once as unpatriotic, if not traitorous. This allows a free field for the rapid spread of lies.
There was no richer field for propaganda than the United States of America in the first years of the war.
Some lies which were little known here seem to have circulated successfully and been swallowed down in America, such as: poisoned sugar-candy dropped by German aeroplanes for children to eat; the outraging of nuns in Belgian convents; the clipping of a chaplain’s ears by Uhlans; and the German deification of Hindenburg by the hymn “Hindenburg ist unser Gott” (someone with insufficient knowledge of, or ear for, German having heard Luther’s hymn ” Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott “). Persecution of Germans and everything German was undertaken with zeal;