WWI Propaganda: Posters and Other Techniques

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  • 0:04 Definition of Propaganda
  • 0:53 History
  • 1:31 Themes
  • 3:58 Songs & Films
  • 4:23 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Nate Sullivan

Nate Sullivan holds a M.A. in History and a M.Ed. He is an adjunct history professor, middle school history teacher, and freelance writer.

In this lesson we will examine World War I propaganda. We will analyze the messages and themes contained in World War I posters, as well as other forms of propaganda.

What Is Propaganda?

If you've ever been to a history museum containing exhibits related to either World War I or World War II, you may have seen some propaganda posters on display. Propaganda played a major role in both world wars. Before we go any further, let's define our main term. Propaganda is any form of media used to influence a person's view, usually about politics or society. Posters and flyers are among the most well-known types of propaganda, but photographs, film footage, artwork, and music can also be used as propaganda.

While we may think of propaganda as being automatically false or containing a lie, this is not necessarily the case. Even though propaganda carries a negative connotation, it is not always a bold-faced lie. For example, a poster encouraging civilians to donate scrap metal is not necessarily false; however, it's still considered propaganda.

History

Although some of us may associate propaganda with the 20th century, it actually dates back to ancient times. In the American Revolution, Patriots and Loyalists sought to recruit followers to their cause. During World War II, the Nazis were especially effective at harnessing the power of propaganda. Reich Minister Joseph Goebbles produced many propaganda films aiming to demonize the Jews in the minds of Germans.

Let's look at World War I propaganda posters and analyze their messages, themes, and uses. Remember, posters are just one of many forms of propaganda; however, during World War I and II they were highly visible and did much to shape public opinion. Let's dig in!

Themes

World War I broke out in 1914, but the United States did not join the conflict until 1917. The governments involved in the war did much to present their cause as the just or righteous cause. Nationalism was a common theme in World War I posters.Nationalism is extreme pride in one's nation, or the idea that one's nation is superior to others. It's like patriotism on steroids. European nations encouraged nationalism in government-sponsored posters by appealing to nationalistic and patriotic sentiments.

This poster showcases the glory of a French 75 mm artillery piece.
75

Some propaganda posters were downright racist. Anti-German sentiment was common in the U.S. during World War I, and many American propaganda posters aimed to demonize the German people. In many of these posters, the word 'Hun' was used as a slang term for Germans. Common slogans included 'Down with the Hun!' or 'No Mercy for the Hun!' In many posters, the 'Hun' was represented as a monster or beast intent on raping and pillaging. Demonization, or depicting a person or place as threatening, was a common propaganda tactic designed to incite anger and foster feelings of hatred toward a particular group.

An American propaganda poster demonizing Germans as the Hun.
hun

Many propaganda posters were positive in nature. They encouraged civilians to join the military, promising adventure and glory to those who did. One of the most famous American propaganda posters of all time features Uncle Sam pointing toward the viewer, with the words 'I WANT YOU FOR U.S. ARMY' (below).

This famous American propaganda poster was designed for recruitment purposes.
sam

One famous British poster was designed to instill shame among men who decided not to join the military. It depicts children looking up at their father and includes a text at the bottom that reads: 'Daddy, what did YOU do in the Great War?', implying that men of courage have a duty to fight for their country.

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