GERMAN WWI PSYOP

SGM Herbert A. Friedman (Ret.)

Most authorities consider World War 1 as the start of modern psychological operations as we know them. This was due in large part to the availability of mass communication media like radio, modern printing presses, and the innovative and expedient means to deliver the message to the target audience. Some of the means of media transmission were the new airplanes, special artillery rounds, leaflet mortars, hand grenades, and even specially modified leaflet balloons.

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Archduke Franz Ferdinand

World War I started with the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austria- Hungarian throne, in Sarajevo on 28 June 1914 by a member of the Black Hand, a Serbian nationalist secret society.

Austria-Hungary's reaction to the death of their heir was three weeks in coming. It issued an ultimatum to Serbia, which demanded that the assassins be brought to justice. Serbia had Slavic ties with Russia. In order to protect itself, the Austria-Hungarian government sought assurances that Germany would come to her aid should Russia declare war on Austria-Hungary. Germany, itching to use its military muscle, readily agreed.

Things moved quickly thereafter. Austria-Hungary, unsatisfied with Serbia's response to her ultimatum declared war on Serbia on 28 July 1914. Russia, bound by treaty to Serbia, mobilized its vast army. Germany, allied to Austria-Hungary by treaty, viewed the Russian mobilization as an act of war against Austria-Hungary, and declared war on Russia on 1 August. France, bound by treaty to Russia, responded by announcing war against Germany and Austria-Hungary on 3 August. Germany promptly responded on 4 August by invading neutral Belgium to open a quick path to Paris. Britain, allied to Belgium declared war against Germany on 4 August. In just a little over a month all of Europe was at war. Japan, honoring a treaty with Britain, declared war on Germany on 23 August 1914. Italy was allied to both Germany and Austria-Hungary. She was first neutral, but in May 1915, she joined the British and French against her two former allies. The United States declared a policy of absolute neutrality on the same day Britain declared war, 4 August. The U.S. would remain neutral until 1917 when Germany's policy of unrestricted submarine warfare and the British interception of the Zimmermann telegram to Mexico forced President Wilson to declare war on 6 April 1917. The war went on for four bitter years and ended with the signing of an armistice on 11 November 1918. It is amazing to note that a single terrorist assassination set all these defensive treaties, meant to protect nations and keep them from going to war, into motion. Ironically, nations that had signed treaties to keep them out of war suddenly found themselves drawn into a 4-year bloodbath.

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Kaiser Wilhelm

Marshall Hindenburg

When I first considered a study of the WWI psychological operations (PSYOP) of the Central Powers, I asked the renowned propaganda leaflet author and collector Klaus Kirchner if he had gathered much in the way of WWI German and Austria-Hungarian leaflets. He answered:

No, I have not. Imperial Germany regarded leafleting as not in agreement with the Geneva and Hague conventions. German leaflets were mostly used for about six weeks before it lost the war.

[Note: Curiously, Klaus wrote to me years later in 2013 and said that he had found a large collection of WWI leaflets and expected to publish a reference book on them in the near future].

Kirchner is mostly correct. The Allied leaflets enraged the Germans, who actually placed captured British pilots who dropped them on trial for their lives. In one very famous case, the Germans condemned two British pilots, Captain E. Scholtz and Lieutenant H.C. Wookey to prison. The two pilots were shot down and captured near Cambrai on 17 October 1917. They were charged with "the distribution in September 1917 of pamphlets detrimental to German troops." They were tried, found guilty of treason, and sentenced to 10 years at hard labor. The British government threatened severe reprisals against German officers, so in April 1918 the pilots were pardoned by the Kaiser and sent to a regular POW camp at Karlsruhe. According to Blankenhorn, the Americans, "fully aware of the enemy threats, made it a point to fly defiantly low as possible and drop their leaflets directly on German positions." This so embarrassed the British that they returned to the airplane for leaflet drops in the last weeks of the war. He also states that some British pilots burned the leaflets in their hangars to avoid carrying them over enemy lines.

Dr. Philip M. Taylor, author of "Munitions of the Mind - A History of Propaganda from Ancient World to the Present Day," Manchester University Press, Manchester and New York, 1995, discusses the legal issue in more depth:

For most of 1918 , the principal method of distributing enemy propaganda was leaflets not airplane. This was because at the end of the 1917, four captured British airmen were tried by a German court martial for ‘having distributed pamphlets containing insults against the German army and Government among German troops in the Western Theatre of War.’ Although two of the accused were acquitted due to lack of evidence, and although the court itself questioned the ruling about whether this act was a violation of international law, two officers were sentenced to ten years imprisonment. When news of this punishment reached the war office in January 1918, all leaflet dropping by airplane was suspended. Reprisals were threatened, resulting in the pardoning of the two British officers, who were returned to their camps and treated as normal prisoners of war. But the Air Ministry remained reluctant to commit its men and machines to leaflet raids and the suspension order remained in force until October 1918, barely a month before the end of war.

The problem of the German threat is mentioned by Captain P. Chalmers Mitchell in a 23 February 1918 report entitled “The Aerial Distribution of Propaganda to the Enemy. He says in part:

From the mechanical point of view, the use of aeroplanes is by far the most satisfactory mode of distribution. Relatively large loads of printed matter can be carried swiftly and distributed in bundles, packets, or single sheets with a high degree of accuracy and in a great range of weather conditions. For some time this method was employed and in the end of 1916 and the beginning of 1917 arrangements were made for a great increase in the output and distribution of propaganda. Early in 1917, however, four captured English airmen were court-martialed in Germany for the dissemination of inflammatory literature, and although these were acquitted on a technical point of evidence, German Headquarters intimated through diplomatic channels, that the dissemination of inflammatory literature by airmen would be dealt with as an offence against the laws of war…Moreover, it was ascertained in conference with G.H.Q., France that it was probable that the Germans in their efforts to suppress the distribution of Allied propaganda would not be punctilious in bringing charges against captured airmen. The correctness of this opinion was made clear in December 1917 when two captured British airmen were sentenced to ten years penal servitude for the distribution of duplicates of letters written by German prisoners of war or captured in their possession. It was accordingly decided that the method of distribution by aeroplanes must be abandoned.

Neil Leybourne Smith’s History of 3 Squadron, Australian Flying Corps, RAAF  adds:

February through to March 1918 involved the Squadron in many photographic missions around the Armentieres area where fighting was intense. Some flights were assigned to drop propaganda leaflets over enemy rest camps well behind the front line. Their purpose was to unsettle the enemy by letting them know that good food and warm billets awaited them if they choose to surrender. However these missions were discontinued after it became known throughout the Corps that pilots brought down in enemy territory while dropping leaflets were treated brutally by the enemy.

Mitchell goes on to discuss German dissemination and propaganda:

The Germans use paper balloons in large quantities. Samples of the balloons they employ have been obtained by G.H.Q., France and submitted to the Munitions Inventions by M.I.7.B. It cannot be said that there is any evidence as to the efficacy of German propaganda amongst the British troops. Samples of it are sent over from G.H.Q., France and examined by M.I.7.B. They consist of flysheets in bad English announcing German successes on other fronts, pictures of the happy fate of prisoners of war in Germany, boasts of the results of the U-boat campaign and copies of the Continental Times. Propaganda specially destined for the French is more effective. The chief effort is the Gazette des Ardennes, a weekly newspaper written in French and with occasionally an illustrated supplement. It is distributed both by aeroplane and by balloon. It is cleverly conducted, containing much inflammatory political matter, ex parte statements as to the progress of the war, attacks on the English, news of individual French prisoners, lists of French and Belgians alleged to have been killed by the action of Allied Airmen. From a propagandist point of view, it is much more unscrupulous and probably more effective than our Courrier, but this is due to the fact that a special effort has been made to exclude "inflammatory" matter from the Courrier.

In October 1946, The Propaganda Branch, Intelligence Division, based in the Pentagon, Washington D.C., published a report entitled A Syllabus of Psychological Warfare. It was prepared to give quick answers about Psywar to the press that wanted to know what the United States had done during WWII. In the report there is a brief mention of psychological warfare of the Central Powers in WWI. Curiously, there is no mention of leaflets, just political operations:

The Central Powers used very old-fashioned political warfare. They were reactionary monarchies, legitimist in outlook, and were unable to exploit the revolutionary, democratic and autonomist sentiments of their time. Their chief political warfare exploit consisted of inducing Turkey to proclaim a Jihad against the Allies…The Germans gave Lenin transit from Switzerland to Finland in the expectation that Lenin would enter Russia, commit high treason against the Czar, and take Russia out of the war. He did so, but the engulfing wave of Communist revolution contributed to the defeat of Germany as well.

The New York Times mentions enemy propaganda several times in 1918. On 2 November 1918 they state that German leaflets were showered over American troops in Berne on the French front. The leaflet was entitled “Never say Die,” and advised the American troops to return home and not die for foreign countries. A week later on 9 November the newspaper said:

General Pershing recently visited the American division headquarters and enjoyed the experience of being bombarded by German propaganda printed in French. The Germans obviously being ignorant of the fact that Americans held the sector. General Pershing made the comment that he didn’t believe the Americans could be induced to stop fighting in this manner.

One amusing phase of the propaganda battle which the Germans are waging is the sending of copies of President Wilson’s official statements, accompanied by the question to American soldiers, Why continue the fight.”

For the purposes of this article, we will mostly call the Central Powers "Germany." Although it was the Austria-Hungarian Empire that started the war, it was the more militant Germans that were the major military force within the Central Powers.

We know very little about the organization of German PSYOP. We do know that for a people who claimed to consider propaganda leaflets immoral and illegal, they printed and dropped quite a few of them.

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German postcard "We Teach You To Run!"
An example of patriotic propaganda at home.

George Bruntz tells us a little about the German organization in Allied Propaganda and the Collapse of the German Empire in 1918, Hoover War Library Publication number 13, Stanford University Press, California, 1938. He says that early in the war, Germany conducted a campaign of patriotic propaganda at home to keep up the morale of the German people and the troops. The Kriegspresseamt (War Press office) did this work and also the task of issuing war news to the German press. There was no concentrated effort to produce propaganda in the early years of the war and Germany fell far behind the Allies.

When the allies started to seriously weaken German morale with their leafleting, the Germans had no answer. By early 1917, the German War Minister called a meeting of high government officials to discuss the problem. The official report of that meeting concludes:

It is high time that this strong undermining work of the enemy be countered with similar propaganda in an even more active manner.

The decision of the group was to set up a central agency for the collection of propaganda in the Foreign Office. The government would adopt a stronger internal policy:

Strong opposition to all propagandists...is in order.

The Kaiser would make himself more available to visit workers and hospitals. The Emperor would take credit for all measures aimed at alleviating the food situation. General Ludendorff told the Army"

Everything which is likely to prejudice the morale of the troops, for instance leaflets sent down from the air by the enemy or sent out from home must be kept at a distance.

By 15 September 1917 the "Vaterlandischen Unterricht unter den Truppen" ("National Instruction for the Troops") was formed. The Army High Command would see that patriotic instruction took place among the troops. The officers would assure that the troops did not read enemy leaflets and strengthen the will to win among their men. The weakness in this plan was that officers were planning battles and had little time or interest in patriotic instruction. On 20 March 1918, just eight months before the Armistice, Ludendorff wrote to the Imperial Chancellor and suggested that the loose propaganda organization be centralized and made stronger. He wanted an organization similar to Lord Northcliffe's British "Propaganda for Enemy Countries" unit. The government denied his request for such an agency. The Germans simply never got the hang of it.

In 1918 the German Imperial Command began offering rewards for enemy leaflets. In September 1918 the German government paid over 250,000 marks for about 800,000 leaflets. This plan was doomed to failure. In reality, the Germans were now subsidizing the reading of enemy propaganda. Individuals who would have never touched enemy leaflets now hunted for them to collect a reward. Naturally, while they had the leaflets in their possession they read them. The result of the reward offer was exactly the opposite of what was desired.

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Narhrichtenblatt der 18 Armee

The Narhrichtenblatt der 18 Armee, (Message sheets of the 18th Army) number 21, admitted defeat:

In the sphere of leaflet propaganda the enemy has defeated us. Shooting poison darts from a secure hiding place was never a German art. We realized, however, that this struggle is a life and death matter, and that one has to fight the enemy with his own weapons. Yet the spirit of the enemy leaflets skulks around and refuses to be killed...The enemy has defeated us not as man against man in the field of battle, bayonet against bayonet. No, bad contents in poor printing on poor paper has made our arm lame.

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German PSYOP

There is reason to believe that a German pilot dropped the first leaflet of the war. R. G. Auckland mentions the leaflet in an article published in the summer 1970 Falling Leaf magazine, the journal of the Psywar Society. Auckland states that in late August 1914 the German First Army was about to cross the River Marne on its way to Paris. The Army has as one of its assets the 11th Military Group of Aeroplanes stationed at nearby St. Quentin. Flight officer Lieutenant Hiddessen was apparently an ardent nationalist with a strong belief in Germany's eventual victory. He was ordered to bomb Paris on 30 August.

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Artist portrayal of Hiddessen's first leaflet drop

As the flight crew prepared his Taube reconnaissance aircraft, they placed a rubber bag full of sand (to add weight) and printed leaflets in the cockpit. Hiddessen dropped the first bomb to be dropped on Paris at exactly 12:45 p.m. He dropped four bombs, and then threw the leaflet bag from his cockpit. It had a six-foot long forked banner in the German national colors trailing behind. Pedestrians found the bag on the ground and immediately took it to the local Prefecture of Police where it was labeled:

Corrupt information thrown on to the streets by strangers in an aeroplane...

When opened, the pouch was found to contain a number of printed three-line leaflets. The text was:

The German Army is at the gates of Paris; it only remains for you to surrender. (Signed) Lieutenant von Hiddessen.

Auckland believes that Hiddessen misunderstood his mission.

He should have taken them from the pouch and thrown them overboard at convenient intervals so that the German note was spread far and wide over Paris, and then finally drop the bag overboard as a final gesture of German supremacy and arrogance.

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Pilot List
Courtesy of Barry Hayter

[Author’s note] One of the wonderful things about placing these articles on the Internet is the feedback that we get from the readers. After seeing the picture of the pouch and streamer thrown from Hiddessen’s aircraft, Barry Haytor wrote in to say that among his grandfather’s souvenirs from the Great War were some handwritten sheets of paper in the German language entitled “To the British Flying Troop” with vertical columns for Date, Name, Rank, Nationality and Fate. The sheets list the Allied flyers and indicate that many were killed, others injured.

Along with the papers found in the estate of Lieutenant Colonel John Henry Langton DSO, MSM, of the Royal Engineers and later the 4th Royal Welsh Fusiliers, is a small pouch with a single snap, and a long colorful cotton streamer in red, white and blue (the colors of Great Britain).

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Pouch and streamer

Although we do not know for sure, we might assume that the documents were placed in the pouch and dropped over Allied lines as a courtesy, with the streamer attached to make the package more visible. This would seem to show that spirit of knighthood that has so often been mentioned about the flyers in the First World War.

We now return to the story of German leaflets dropped on Paris.

The same story is mentioned in The History of the Great European War, Volume 3, page 16.

After a few days, by 6 September, these visits of enemy aeroplanes became, for a week or two, quite a matter of course, and although on several occasions not only did they do damage to buildings, but even killed some unfortunate children and old men. The people of Paris were determined not to be frightened. As a matter of fact, Parisians gradually acquired the habit of regarding the visits of German aircraft as a form of entertainment, and particularly amusing was the literature, which the tactless, foolish Germans thought, would be good policy to drop upon Paris from their machines. It is inconceivable to imagine that any sane people could have expected to seduce the patriotism of the Parisian by dropping upon him, accompanied perhaps by a bomb, a printed appeal such as the following: ‘The German Army is at the gates of Paris; it only remains for you to surrender. (Signed) Lieutenant von Hiddessen.’ A paper with these words on it, bound up with the German flag, was picked up on the street where a bomb had fallen and just about the time and place that another bomb had mangled and killed a woman and two little children.

Similar leaflets were reported in the German magazine Flugsport, issue of 28 October 1914. In every case the leaflets were dropped over Paris. One leaflet has the text, "Frenchmen: You are being deceived. The Germans are victorious. Beware of the Englishmen and their insincerity."

Another leaflet dropped at the Parc Monceau (like the Hiddessen leaflet attached to a long streamer) said:

We have conquered Antwerp. Soon it is your term.

In one case the Germans dropped an informational leaflet to apprise the French of the fate of some of their captured officers:

Proclamation.

To the commander of Paris. From Lt. Hans Steffen, 35 Infantry Regiment.

I am happy to give you information about the following French officers.

(List of French names)

They are in captivity and have asked to send this letter in order to assure their relatives.

And the bombs? I regret that we are at war.

Au Revoir, Parisians,

Hans Steffens,
Flight Lieutenant.

The Collection Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris has a number of German leaflets on file that were dropped over the frontlines in 1918. The first is all text. It shows a very interesting speech pattern of a German trying to use American slang. Some of the text is:

NEVER SAY DIE! Don’t die till you have to. What business have you to die for France, for Alsace-Lorraine, or for England and France? Isn’t it better to live anyhow than to die, no matter for how ‘glorious the cause?’ Isn’t it better to live and come back to the old folks at home, than to rot in the shell holes and trenches of France? You have had to hear many high falutin words about ‘liberty,’ ‘humanity,’ and ‘making the world safe for democracy,’ but honest now, aren’t those catch words merely sugar coating to the bitter pill of making you spend wretched months far from home? Do you really believe those German soldier boys in their faded grey uniforms on the other side of ‘no man’s land’ are hot on the trail of your liberties?...

A second filed leaflet is also all text, this time aimed at British troops. Once again, the German writer tries to use a friendly informal style of English:

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Look here you fellows

Look here you fellows – I don’t want to tell you fairy tales and I don’t want to try and change your opinion against your country – I know you chaps stick to your country and I admire you for it – What I am going to tell you are facts and nothing but facts. Do you fellows realize what America’s so called help means to England? It means ENGLAND’S FINANCIAL RUIN…

The message goes on to point out that England is in the grip of a moneylender who will bleed them dry. America will demand the repayment of war loans with interest. American shipbuilding will overpower that of the English and at the end of the war, America will rule the waves. This is a parody, of course, of "Britannia rules the waves" and the Germans probably thought it would strike an emotional chord in the average "Tommy."

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Life, Liberty and Happiness

A third leaflet is entitled "Life, Liberty and happiness." This leaflet is for the American troops. Some of the text is:

Life, Liberty and happiness.

So long as the administration is determined to keep the war going there is only one way for you to get out of this miserable fix and that is for you to stop fighting. You can do this honorably. As a freeborn American citizen, you have the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. The American Constitution guarantees you these rights. Exercise them!..."

This leaflet was also depicted in U.S. Official Pictures of the World War, Pictorial Bureau, Washington DC, 1920.

It is interesting to note that the Germans feel that the American soldier has the Constitutional right to refuse to fight. There might have been such an argument made in WWI but in 1950 that loophole was closed when the Congress of the United States established the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ). The UCMJ was the first attempt to turn the existing law into a comprehensive code. The code defines the German request as: "Desertion with intent to avoid hazardous duty or to shirk important service." The penalty in time of war is "Death or such other punishment as a court-martial may direct."

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THINK IT OVER

The final leaflet is entitled "THINK IT OVER!" This leaflet is similar to WWII leaflets in that it uses a divide and conquer message to try and drive a wedge between the American troops and their British allies. Some of the text is:

THINK IT OVER!

You have had music to march to, flags waving to cheer you on and words of praise and you have left behind you all that is dear to you to come to France to fight the Germans. Until the English wanted you for cannon food you never knew that the Germans were your enemies, but no sooner did England realize that she couldn’t beat the Germans even with the help of nearly all the rest of the savage and civilized world that she persuaded you that the Germans were ‘Huns’ and your deadly foes…"

Certain words just jump at you in this message. For instance, any good propagandist would have used the term "cannon fodder" instead of "cannon food." It doesn’t matter in a white leaflet such as this one that is clearly German in origin. It is disastrous in a black leaflet that attempts to hide its place of origin. The Germans also conveniently forget to mention unrestricted submarine warfare, the sinking of the Lusitania, or the Zimmerman telegram as partial cause for the American war involvement.

The French collector Michael Girard has discovered other German leaflets. He mentions one in the Falling Leaf of spring 1979.

The leaflet is entitled "Peace in Sight." Some of the text is, "Austria-Hungary has proposed to enter into negotiations of peace. Germany, Bulgaria and Turkey have no objection to it. Peace is close at hand! Peace before winter! Peace the yearning of all nations! It all depends upon the Allied governments whether peace shall be realized or the sufferings of the tortured nations are to continue. Now it is the turn of the Allied governments to speak out. Or, if they should prefer to turn a deaf ear to the appeals of their subjects, it is up to the peoples themselves…" Notice that the haughty Germans have no part in this peace process. They hide behind the Austria-Hungarians.

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Peace in Sight
Leaflet courtesy of Rod Oakland collection

A similar leaflet with much the same message is entitled "Peace in sight at last." Some of the text is:

Austria Hungary has again issued an appeal to all belligerent nations to enter into negotiations of peace. Austria-Hungary’s Allies too have on several occasions declared their readiness for peace, and their point of view remains unchanged. What are the French, English, and American governments going to say to this? Up to the present the offer of the Central Powers have been rejected by them. Why? Didn’t the soldiers at the front want peace? Who was then against it…

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What are we fighting for?

"Max, Prince of Baden", signed a second peace leaflet.  It reprinted a letter sent to President Wilson on 4 October 1918, and Wilson’s reply of 8 October 1918. Some of the text of this leaflet is:

What are we fighting for? The German note: The German Government requests the President of the United States of America to take in hand the restoration of peace, acquaint all belligerent States with this request, and invite them to send plenipotentiaries for the purpose of opening negotiations. It accepts the programme set forth by the President of the United States in his message to Congress on Jan 8, 1918……

Notice that the Germans are already wary of the French and British. They have seen Wilson’s "Fourteen Points" and believe that they can make a fair peace with the help of the American president. Unfortunately, the British and French will demand their pound of flesh in repatriations, and this will lead to German anger, desire for revenge, and World War Two just two decades later.

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What are you still fighting for?
Leaflet courtesy of Rod Oakland collection

Another German leaflet was obviously dropped very late in the war, most likely 1918 from the mention of a "fifth winter in the trenches." This leaflet is addressed to everyone, including the French and the Belgians. The message is in English on one side and French on the other. The most interesting aspect of the message is the very formal and dated text, "Ye Britons..." One assumes that because Christmas is mentioned in the propaganda message the Germans were trying to use a more religious Biblical terminology. Of course, it just could just have easily be really bad use of the English language by a German translator.

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The German People Offers Peace

President Harry S. Truman was an artillery captain in France during World War I. He sent this German leaflet home to his wife Bess in a letter dated 30 October 1918. The front of the leaflet is in English, the back is in French. Some of the text on this leaflet is:

The German People Offers Peace. The new German democratic government has this programme: ‘The will of the people is the highest law.’ The German people wants quickly to end the slaughter. The new German popular government therefore has offered an Armistice…

The leaflet is now on display in the Harry S. Truman Presidential Library. Notice that by the end of October 1918 the situation has become so bad that the Germans themselves are offering peace. History will show that the Nazis will later blame this new German democratic government for stabbing Germany in the back and claim that the army never lost a battle in the field.

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Invitation to Discuss Peace-Terms

On the subject of peace, the above leaflet was found a collection of three scrapbooks dating from the early 1900's. Within one of the volumes is a leaflet “dropped from an airplane in France by the enemy among our troops.” The leaflet seems to have been trimmed along the sides and is not in the best condition but the text is interesting. There is a long discussion about peace talks, and the Germans mention the speeches by American President Wilson on 12 February (Lincoln’s Birthday) and 4 July 1918 (Independence Day. It is clear that they know the end is near and they ask for a meeting where everything can be discussed. They say in part:

We are of the firm conviction that all belligerents owe to mankind to consider in common whether it is not possible to put an end to this frightful struggle now, after so many years of costly but undecided fighting, the whole course of which points toward an understanding.

The Imperial and Royal Government therefore proposes to the government of the belligerent nations to send delegates in the near future to a place in a neutral country – time and place to be appointed – with a view to a confidential and not obligatory conference upon the main principles of a treaty of peace….

We know from the text that this leaflet was prepared in mid to late 1918. The Germans would surrender on 11 November 1918.

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The better part of valor

Another leaflet dropped on American troops in November 1918 is entitled "The better part of valor. Are you a brave man or a coward? It takes a brave man to stand up for his principles. Cowards stand behind leaders and die, imagining that by doing so they become heroes..." The leaflet goes on to use a twisted logic to explain that those people who refuse to fight and surrender are heroes, while those who stand and die for a cause are cowards.

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Dear Tommy
Leaflet courtesy of Rod Oakland collection

On occasion the Germans almost seemed to have a wry sense of humor. Although little is known about this leaflet, one assumes that it was dropped during one of the many German retreats in 1918. The Germans threaten the British with dire consequences once they decide to turn and fight.

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This strange uncoded German leaflet is all text and appears to be a rare example of the Germans using a fatwa of jihad against the Allies. The language is Urdu, and the script is Devnagari which is used by the Hindus and not by the Muslims who are the apparent targets of the leaflet. It is likely that the target group is not the Muslim but the Hindu and Sikh troops of the British Indian Army. In that case, the aim could be a “divide and conquer” attempt to drive a wedge between the Indian Hindu and Muslim troops in the Allied ranks. The text is:

The High Priest of Islam in Holy Mecca has on the occasion of the Id Festival issued an edict to you [all the Muslims] that declares “jihad” against the English and French.

The King of Turkey has gone on war against the barbaric English, French and Russian nations and his allies are the Afghan people.

[Note: During World War I Afghanistan remained neutral, despite pressure to support Turkey when its sultan proclaimed his nation's participation in a holy war. Afghan Emir Habibullah Khan did entertain a Turco-German mission to Kabul in 1915. The Central Powers agreed to a huge payment and shipment of arms if Afghanistan would attack British India. At the same time the Emir offered to block an attack on India by the Central Powers in exchange for an end to British control of Afghan foreign policy.]

We can see from the examples quoted above that the Germans wrote and designed terrible propaganda. Their leaflets were mostly all text with little color and nothing to catch the eye of the enemy and invite him to pick it up. The language was not convincing and in some cases laughable. Worse, the logic was flawed. It is no wonder that their propaganda leaflets were unsuccessful and we do not see the same complaints from the Allied General Staff that we see from the German general staff who bitterly complained that Allied PSYOP sapped the strength and spirit of their armies.

German propaganda is criticized harshly in The Art and Science of Psychological Operations: Case Studies of Military Application, Pamphlet 525-7-1, HQ Department of the Army, 1976:

The German effort floundered largely on national arrogance, bureaucratic inflexibility, and a firm belief in the Clausewitzian precepts of military victory. In short, Imperial Germany failed to communicate.

Garth S. Jowett and Victoria O’Donnell are also unimpressed in German propaganda as they note in Propaganda and Persuasion, Sage Publications, London, 1986. They say in part:

Initial German international propaganda was amateurish, consisting mainly of using enlisted writers and scholars to explain why the Allies were responsible for starting the war. Unfortunately, all they succeeded in doing was to create antagonism in the targeted countries with their arrogance in the face of the atrocity stories coming out of Belgium and France…For once the vaunted German efficiency filed to operate, and there was never and real coordination of the various German propaganda efforts throughout the war…

The biggest philosophical difference was that whereas German propaganda efforts were only able to convey the fact that the war was being fought to avenge the country’s honor, The British were able to make the war appear to be “the war to end all wars,” that is, the war that would defend humanity everywhere.

Adolf Hitler agreed in Mein Kampf:

Did we have anything you could call propaganda? I regret that I must answer in the negative. Everything that actually was done in this field was so inadequate and wrong from the very start that it certainly did no good and sometimes did actual harm. The form was adequate, the substance was psychologically wrong: a careful examination of German war propaganda can lead to no other diagnosis.

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