First World War Propaganda: Thoughts and LessonsJanuary 8, 2017
In writing about the emergence of public diplomacies as part of the practice of statecraft I’ve recently run up against the First World War and the importance that was given to propaganda. My main concern has been with the way that First World War affected the development of public diplomacies after the conflict but in doing this work I’ve been forced to think about two other issues; how was the term ‘propaganda’ used in the period used and how should we analyse the effects of ‘propaganda’ during the First World War? This is important as not only is ‘propaganda’ part of 21st century political discourse but also of academic discourse. I’ve commented before that I’m not a big fan of the idea as an analytical term. So three sets of thoughts on the meaning, effects, and relevance of First World War propaganda.
The concept: In looking at the First World War one struck by 1) the frequency with which the term ‘propaganda’ is used and 2) compared with later periods, certainly by the 1940s, the lack of nuance. Essentially ‘propaganda’ is ‘the internet’ of the era: something new is happening but the conceptual frameworks for thinking about it are not well developed. This is consistent with a general pattern I see in the history of public diplomacies that practices are improvised first and rationalized afterwards. Obviously the people who are doing ‘it’ have some idea what they are doing but the differentiations of the 1940s – publicity, political warfare, propaganda, information; white/grey/black; source, message, channel receiver aren’t there so ‘propaganda’ gets thrown over everything. This doesn’t immediately change after 1918 many people (Hitler, Ludendorff, Northcliffe) believe it to have produced such big effects (collapse of Russia, Austria-Hungary, Germany) it is also approached as this huge thing that can has to be explained in sweeping concepts ie Lasswell’s ‘control of public opinion through the manipulation of symbols’.
Why was ‘propaganda’ given such importance? It was a way of talking about the importance of public support (and lack of support) for the war. Where support was lacking authorities were quick to attribute it to enemy propaganda. The comparison with the Second World War is also helpful here. First World War states had to improvise organizations to mobilize people and resources to fight the war, often relying on civil society organizations, ‘propaganda’ was used to cover this process. This also means that there was a close relationship between propaganda and organization. Propaganda was a tool to build organization but organization created the capability to mobilize the population. As we move to the present there has been an increasing tendency to treat ‘propaganda’ as communication and to lose sight of this organizational dimensions. In the later war, drawing on the experience of 1914-18, states construct bureaucracies to carry out these mobilizational tasks. Further, states have much systematic programmes for monitoring morale and repressing dissent. There is still lots of ‘propaganda’ but it is broken down into specific tasks and harnessed to state organizations so for instance that ‘publicity’ to encourage growing vegetables by the Ministry of Food is differentiated from political warfare carried out by the Political Warfare Executive. In the First World War this organizational and conceptual differentiation it much more embryonic.
The Issue of Effect: Recent historical writing (for instance Mark Cornwell’s The Undermining of Austria-Hungary) has made the point that in the post 1918 period there were lots of people on both sides who had an interest in emphasizing the role of ‘propaganda’ in causing the collapse of the Central Powers rather than really analysing what happened. On one side were the Allied propagandists who could write about what they did (activity and outputs) and could see the collapse of Germany and Austria-Hungary (outcome). On the other side were those who could see the outcome plus some of the outputs and were quick to connect the two. Neither group were keen to think about the question of context (activity+implementation+context =outcome). The impact of propaganda activity cannot be separated from the context in which it occurs. Effects have multiple dimension. Some people may be directly affected by an activity but if you cannot produce strategically significant effects leaders are not going to be proclaiming the value of the effort. Leaving aside the case of the United States, First World War combatants had never waged conflicts with such a level of protracted mobilization and where all, to greater or lesser degrees had significant unresolved social tensions that were exacerbated by the war. Any discussion of the effects of propaganda needs to locate the activity in the context.
Some pointers to current issues and questions for future research, that I’ve taken away from this work on the First World War.
- Influence activities work best on divided targets. For instance, in attacking the Central Powers the Allies could work with nationalist and socialist networks. Divisions allow the attackers to play on existing lines of cleavage but they also inhibit repression and control. The authorities in Berlin and Vienna were playing a difficult balancing act and were not in a position to clamp down on their opponents, these divisions also inhibited their own counter propaganda.
- This leads to a corollary to arguments about indexing (elite consensus limits the sphere of permissible dissent in the media) and CNN effect (lack of policy certainly leads to media influence on policy). Elite consensus/policy certainty also enables repression of dissent further reinforcing elite + media consensus (and spiral of silence?).
- What’s the relative importance of counter-narrative versus repression or counter-organizational work in dealing with foreign influence operations? During the 1920s the country that was most sensitive about propaganda was the UK, not least because the Comintern was constantly using agent networks to mobilize against imperial rule. However, as far as I can see the British response was not counter-narrative but surveillance, arrests and deportations. In discussions of foreign influence operations and how to counter them breaking up organizations where feasible is an important part of a response.
- This leads to a question about changing media environments. The academic literature on propaganda tends to treat it as a media/communications phenomenon while political writings (eg Communists, Nazis, US/UK political warfare) always connect it to organization. How does social media effect this communication/organization balance? Can you get the effect of organization without the costs/risks of building one.
That’s question for another day.