Posts Tagged ‘First World War’


First World War Propaganda: Thoughts and Lessons

January 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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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?).
  3. 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.
  4. 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.


The CNN Effect circa 1910

July 14, 2016

Having dug pretty deeply in the literature on the impact of the media on policy making I recently discovered that I’d missed Oron Hale’s Publicity and Diplomacy.  Published in 1940 it examines the role of the press in creating the hostility between Britain and Germany in the quarter century before the First World War.

It’s valuable for two reasons

Firstly,  the research design is rather more sophisticated that a lot of the more recent writings on the topic as Hole recognizes that he needs to look at firstly, the effect of the press on policy makers, secondly, the effect of the policy makers on the press in both countries and thirdly, at the interaction across national boundaries.  Of course this is something that it’s much easier to do in a historical study where documents and memoirs are available that it is in a more recent period.  The mass circulation press (along with the expansion of the franchise) was still something of a new media at this point and policy makers gave it a great deal of attention because of their perception of its mediating role between public and policy makers, policy makers and public and across borders.  Policy makers studied the press to track public and party opinion. They were also aware that they could address audiences at home and abroad through the press but balancing the two was not easy. Press coverage could be partially managed by policy makers but was partially autonomous and this generated plenty of scope for misunderstanding.  The overall thrust of the analysis is that from the Boer War there was growing mutual antipathy between the press of the two countries.  As with other studies that look at media coverage over time (eg Bahador 2007) he sees a ratchet effect where repeated escalations in tension do not fully recede, at the core of these escalations was the naval arms race.  This is important because the reduction in tensions between the two governments from 1912 was not reflected in the press and he sees the sustained period of tensions as producing the alliance system and perspectives on Germany that led Britain to enter the war in 1914.  If this study was published today you’d probably see constructivist and structurationist themes at work.

Secondly, it also suggests that it’s very easy to overstate the differences between the diplomacy and media of today and those of a century ago.  Contrary to our image of ‘secret’ diplomacy Hale finds that there were few developments that did not find their way into the press.   Hale provides plenty of examples of journalists willfully placing the most negative interpretations on events.  The German representative at the Algeciras Conference in 1906 complained that he’d been the subject of  three fabricated interviews in one week.  During the Boer War a news agency operating from London did good business selling fake news calculated to appeal to the anti-British German press.


Hale, Oron J. 1940. Publicity and Diplomacy: With Special Reference to England and Germany, 1890-1914. New York: Appleton Century.

Bahador, Babak. 2007. The CNN Effect in Action: How the News Media Pushed the West Toward War in Kosovo. New York: Palgrave.


Historical Engineering and Public Diplomacy

February 5, 2013

You quite often read that public diplomacy needs time to work.  From an organizational point of view this is a real problem because you want to be able to demonstrate impact in the current planning cycle.  The result is that PD ends up being evaluated by reference to  inputs or activity measures.    However when you start to dig into the history of  PD you start to see some cases where  the impact of government communications activities unfolds over very long periods.

Here’s a couple of examples.

When I was an undergraduate I took a final year option on The Causes of War.  As part of this we looked at the historiography of the origins of the World Wars.  This all came back to me when I was looking for material on German external communications after the First World War.   Article 231 of the Versailles Treaty  assigned responsibility for the war to Germany and it was this that was the basis for reparations so almost from day one the Auswartige Amt set out to undermine the ‘war guilt clause’.  Partly this was about conventional diplomacy but a large part was also about shaping public debate over the war in Germany and abroad.   Scholarly discussion of the  origins of the conflict was a particular interest and the AA and its front organizations would arrange for the purchase, translation and circulation of works that they saw as helpful.  They would also arrange research trips and the supply of documents for foreign scholars that were seen as sympathetic.  At the same time they would seek to arrange hostile reviews of work that they saw as unhelpful.  Behind this  was the publication between  1922 and 1926 of  40 volumes of strategically edited diplomatic correspondence, Die Grosse Politik der Europaischen Kabinette, 1871-1914.   By shifting focus from Germany to the actions of other powers  or to the operation of the international system the idea that Germany was uniquely responsible for the conflict was undermined.   The arrival of the Nazis in 1933 saw the adoption of a rather more direct line of attack on Versailles but the efforts of the Schuldreferat – the guilt department – continued to influence debate on the war for decades afterwards.   It was not until after the Second World War that researchers were able to get their hands on the full German diplomatic archives and even after that it took decades for the implications of the new research to percolate through academia.  Even if the historical community is well aware of these debates it’s still not unusual to see older studies  (eg Sidney Fay’s history) cited in the International Relations literature.   Keith Wilson’s Forging the Collective Memory provides collects several articles dealing with the work of the Schuldreferat.

Back in the ’90s you used to hear it said that Czechoslovakia was the most western oriented of the former Warsaw Pact states, they had Vaclav Havel and Milan Kundera so it seemed plausible and I didn’t think about it…until a few months ago when I read Andrea Orzoff’s, Battle for the Castle: The Myth of Czechoslovakia in Europe 1914-1948.  Orzoff’s point is that image of Czechslovakia as natural extension of Western Europe was one that was deliberately constructed by the group of nationalists around T.G. Masaryk and Edvard Benes.  The First World War offered an opportunity for the nationalists but the decision to look for support from France and Britain was not without resistance, there were nationalist factions that looked to the East and saw Czechoslovakia’s future as a monarchy ruled by a Romanov prince.  Orzoff’s book follows the efforts of Masaryk and his supporters through the creation of Czechoslovakia and into the period of the ‘first republic’.   Masaryk’s political network,  the hrad or castle, laboured mightily to maintain the image of Czechoslovakia as a liberal republic even if in some respects, particularly the treatment of national minorities, it was little different from the other central and eastern European states of the period.   In Britain Hungary’s public diplomacy, motivated by the treatment of the Hungarian minority,  chipped away at the image of Czechoslovakia.   Orzoff concludes her treatment by looking at the way that the ‘castle’ version of Czechoslovakia became entrenched American historiography – not least through the work of Madeleine Albright’s father Joszef Korbel.

What’s the moral of this story for public diplomats?  Stop wasting your time on Twitter and go and hang out with some historians.

Orzoff, A. (2011) Battle for the Castle : The Myth of Czechoslovakia in Europe, 1914-1948. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Wilson, K.M., ed. (1996) Forging the Collective Memory : Government and International Historians through Two World Wars. Providence RI: Berghahn Bookss