SGM Herbert A. Friedman (Ret.)

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Lusitania medals (front and back)

Perhaps the worst single propaganda blunder the German committed was the Lusitania medallion. The Germans were so proud of the submarine sinking of the commercial vessel that Karl Goetz designed a medallion honoring the victory. One side shows the ship going down with the words "No contraband" at the top and “The liner Lusitania sunk by a German submarine 5 May 1915” at the bottom. The engraver added cannons and airplanes on the deck of the ship to justify its sinking. The back of the medallion depicts a mob of people buying Lusitania tickets from a figure representing death and the words “Business above all” while a man in the crowd reads a newspaper with the headline “U-Boat Danger!”

Unfortunately for Karl Goetz, he put the wrong date of sinking on the medal, an error he later attributed to an error in the newspaper account he had read. Instead of the correct date of 7 May, Goetz engraved 5 May, two days before the actual sinking of the Lusitania. This allowed the British to claim that the Germans had waited for the ship to leave port and committed wholesale premeditated murder. Goetz later corrected the date but it was too late by then.

British Intelligence copied the medallion and advertised it around the world to show the barbarian nature of the Germans. Some 300,000 British copies of the medallion were made on the instructions of Captain Reginald Hall R.N., the Director of Naval Intelligence. The British replicas were sold for 1 pound each, with the proceeds going to St. Dunstan's Blinded Soldiers and Sailors Hostels and the Red Cross, in special boxes with a view of R. M. S. Lusitania on the outside. A label on the box holding the medal read:

The "Lusitania" (German) Medal. An exact replica of the medal which was designed in Germany and distributed to commemorate the sinking of the "Lusitania." This indicates the true feeling the War Lords endeavour to stimulate, and is proof positive that such crimes are not merely regarded favourably, but are given every encouragement in the land of Kultur. The "Lusitania" was sunk by a German submarine on May 7, 1915. She had on board at that time 1,951 passengers and crew, of whom 1,198 perished.

This German medallion infuriated Americans who had relatives on the liner. In some ways, it helped to lead the United States into World War I. It surely was one of the great propaganda blunders of all time.

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Edith Cavell 

Another terrible propaganda blunder was the execution of the Red Cross nurse Edith Cavell on 12 October 1915. In fact, this blunder was so great that back in the 1960s when I exhibited my WWI material I had a photograph of Edit Cavell on the first page. The nurse was guilty; she admitted that she had helped British and French soldiers escape into neutral Holland.

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Postcard depicting Cavell's execution

The Germans could have locked her up, or they could have shipped her off to England. Instead, they put her in front of a firing squad. After that, any atrocity propaganda aimed at Germany was believed. If they could shoot a nurse, they could bayonet or burn babies and rape nuns. It was a blunder of monstrous proportions. Curiously, the French had also shot female spies, but the Germans were too stupid to point this out in their propaganda. The British did not have the same reservations about the German "murder" of Edith, the daughter of a British clergyman. 

A similar German blunder, though one of espionage and not propaganda, occurred in January 1917. British cryptographers deciphered a telegram from German Foreign Minister Arthur Zimmermann to the German Minister to Mexico offering cash and United States territory (Texas, New Mexico and Arizona) to Mexico in return for joining the German cause. The Germans also stated that they were about to begin unrestricted submarine warfare. The telegram had such an impact on American opinion that, according to David Kahn, author of The Codebreakers, "No other single cryptanalysis has had such enormous consequences." The British waited until 24 February to present the telegram to Woodrow Wilson. The American press published news of the telegram on 1 March. On 6 April 1917, the United States Congress formally declared war on Germany and its allies.

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To the American soldiers of German descent

The American WWI military PSYOP commander Captain Heber Blankenhorn mentions German leaflets in an article entitled "How American ‘shelled’ the German Lines with Paper." He says, "A little before the hour of our attack the German began his grand propaganda raid…He sent leaflets also, one began:

To the American soldiers of German descent.

You say in your loose leaf that you serve in an honourable way in the U. S. Army. Do you think it honourable to fight the country that has given birth to your fathers or forefathers? Do you think it is honourable to fall upon any country after it has heroically defended itself for four years against a coalition of peoples tenfold its superior in numbers...?"

Blankenhorn mentions a second leaflet that began,

To the colored soldiers of the U.S. Army: Hallo boys. What are you doing over here?

It went on to ask about the war for democracy in the land of Jim Crow cars and lynchings, adding an invitation to come to Germany where they liked colored citizens. It ended:

They enjoy exactly the same social privileges as every white man, and quite a number of colored people have mighty fine positions in business in Berlin.

This racial welcome is interesting because it shows the confusion among the German propagandists. They were already producing propaganda attacking the African soldiers among the French forces. They would do exactly the same thing in World War II. In a leaflet we discussed earlier they said, "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…" Who were these savages? They were the Arab and African colonial troops used by England and France. One wonders how the Germans justified calling the people of color "savages" in one leaflet while inviting them to come and live in Berlin in another.

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America In Europe

The Germans also produced propaganda newspapers entitled America in Europe and The Continental Times. The latter was published by the "America in Europe Company, Frankfurt Main, Postfach 55." The dates known are 5 August, 12 August, 19 August, 9 September, 16 September, and 23 September 1918. One copy bears the French finder’s notation, "Found 200 meters south of the hillside 260, 2 (Serres to Athienville Road), about 12 kilometers north of Luneville (Meurthe and Moselle)." In general, each edition showed a satirical cartoon on the first page. For instance, the edition of 19 August shows a man in an old fashioned pillory guarded by a German soldier. Some of the explanatory text is:


We call Herbert L. Platt, Vice-president of the Standard Oil Company a liar! He deserves the pillory because he lied that the Germans crucified two American soldiers (See our issue of August 5).

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The Germans also dropped a number of leaflets on French troops. One leaflet pictured Joan of Arc, an old enemy of the British, and a six-stanza poem. It reminds the French that the British have always been their traditional enemy.

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The Consequences of refusal

A second German illustrated leaflet dropped on the French depicts Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau holding the arm of Marianne (the symbol of the French Republic) while German aircraft bomb Paris in the background. The implication is that the old warmonger keeps France in the war by force, causing the death of innocent lives. Clemenceau had clamped down on internal dissent and had several senior French politicians who called for peace arrested for treason. Text at the bottom of the leaflet is, "Poor Paris, but to accept peace it is necessary for my hands to be free." The finder has handwritten on this leaflet, "Chateau-Thierry, April 1918."

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Armistice with Russia

Another leaflet dropped in 1917 on the French explained that armistice that Germany had reached with France. Nicholas II signed his abdication on 15 March 1917, but in it hoped that the new Russian government would continue the war. The leaflet is entitled, "Armistice Suggestion and Immediate Peace with the Russian Government." This peace meant that Germany was now free to move its armies to the western front.

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Peace is in Sight!

This all-text German leaflet was dropped on French troops about two weeks from the end of the war. It was found by American Captain J. M. Smith on 24 September 1918 at Pont-Ó-Mousson, a small town between Metz and Nancy. Why an American officer? The St. Mihiel offensive began on 12 September 1918. The main attack was made by two American corps. I Corps was assigned a front from Pont-Ó-Mousson on the Moselle westward to Limey. The leaflet text is:

Peace is in Sight!

Austria-Hungary has proposed peace talks.
, Bulgaria and Turkey are not opposed to it.

Peace is in sight!

Peace again before the winter!
The peace for which all the people aspire!

It now depends on the governments of the Allies whether peace is made or the sufferings of the ravaged people continue. It is for the Allies to decide whether they will remain deaf to the wishes of the people.

Is this the moment to open peace negotiations? We believe the answer is yes!

To the German successes of spring and summer, Allied successes followed. Nothing was decided. The German Army still occupies strongly fortified positions.

The two adversaries are ready for new combat. In the best case what result can be obtained? The slow destruction of their enemy and greater destruction of French territory. All that at the price of new sacrifices of innocent blood!

The moment is right for peace negotiations, to begin a peace of reconciliation!

It is for the governments and for the people of the Allies to decide.

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Russian Soldiers

On the subject of Russia, the Central Powers also dropped a number of propaganda leaflets over the Russians. An Austrian leaflet entitled "Russian Soldiers!" was dropped on forces besieging the Austrian fortress of Przemsyl. The Russian attacked the fortress on 10 October 1914 and again from 7 November 1914 to 22 March 1915. The text of the leaflet is:

Russian Soldiers!

Come on over to us!

The stories of your officers that our forces treat you badly when you come over to us are utter lies. Do not believe them! A terrible winter is coming, with great cold and much weariness. Do you really want to suffer from the cold when you could be sitting with us in a warm room?

How many hundreds of thousands of your brothers are already with us! They are living well, they are being fed as they should be, they get drinks, and many of them no longer wish to return home,

Come over to us!

Then this war will be over for you, an end to all suffering. There is no hope of you winning this war. If you continue fighting, you are only unnecessarily increasing your suffering.

Come on over to us!

Our armies are victorious everywhere: in Russia, in France, in Italy and in Turkey. Of the former Serbian kingdom there is nothing left anymore. Everything is in our hands. Soon there will not even be a Serbian Army. Why should you wait any longer?

All come over to us!

For each usable rifle, which you bring with you, you will receive 5 rubles. For each usable rifle cartridge one kopeck.

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Austria-Hungarian leaflets to Russia

The two leaflets above were prepared by Austria-Hungary and dropped on the Russians. They were both dropped in 1915. The leaflet at left is a forgery of a Russian proclamation signed by Nicolas II. The fake text by Nicolas II says that the war was forced upon him against his will by the intrigue of his kinsman Grand Duke Nicolas and "the treacherous generals" who support him. The purpose of the war is to force the Tsar from his throne so that he can be replaced by the pretender. The Tsar assures his soldiers that he would never have willingly entered the war knowing beforehand that it would mean defeat for Mother Russia. However, since he fears for his life, he must continue to follow the dictates of his enemies. He concludes by asking his soldiers to refuse to obey the generals and instead turn their weapons against any and all who threaten the life and liberty of "your Tsar," and the security and stability of the dear Motherland. The leaflet is signed, "Your unfortunate Tsar Nicolas II."

The leaflet at the right offers a reward. It is entitled "7 rubles." It is an offer by the Austrian military administration to pay seven rubles for each Russian rifle, and one kopeck for each Russian cartridge turned over to the Austrian authorities. It can also serve as a surrender leaflet, since the last line assures the reader that prisoners of war in Austria are well fed and well treated.

German Propaganda to Italy

We have few specimens of German propaganda to Italy, but we do have a British report dated 26 May 1918 and entitled Enemy propaganda on the Italian front. The report says that the Germans used aerial leaflets, trench newspapers and pamphlets. They were all printed in Italian and dropped from airplanes, thrown by hand or fired from trench mortars. According to the British report found by researcher Lee Richards, The leaflets consisted of a single sheet of print, frequently on colored paper. They feature one theme and are frequently disguised as socialist propaganda. Some of the themes are that England, America and the Capitalists are enriching themselves by the war and the Entente signing of peace treaties with Romania and the Ukraine. Other leaflets are military in nature, announcing German victories on the Western front and depicting maps.

The principal trench newspapers are: La Giberna; Sprazzi di Luce; Il Canestro; L’ Eco d’Occidente; La Patria; Il soldato; La Politica in Trincea and for the benefit of the Third Italian Army Notizie d’oltre PIAVE. After the title and date each contains from four to twelve news items with headings. Some of the subjects discussed are the submarine war, the food shortage of the Allies, and the inadequate help to be expected from America. Some of the typical headings are: The losses of the English Colonial troops; The effect of the new gun on Paris; The pacifist movement in France and India; The deficient equipment of the American troops; a call for the liberation of India; and the diminished munitions output as a result of the submarine.

The British report just three pamphlets, very elaborate, well printed, bound in paper of a different color and including illustrations, maps and diagrams. Albione e la Verita deals with the submarine war in great detail. La Scampagnata inglese in Italia quotes selected sentences from an article in the “Daily Chronicle” saying how much the British troops like Italy, the inference being that they will never withdraw and that Italy is Britain’s latest colony. A cruder pamphlet entitled How England treats her Allies includes a chapter on the burning of Salonika by the British with photographs.

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Two German "Gott strafe England" propaganda labels

During WWI the Germans printed thousands of patriotic propaganda labels to be placed on envelopes. Perhaps the most popular were various vignettes with variations of the term "Gott Strafe England.


A certain German corporal took great notice of the enemy themes and leaflets. Adolf Hitler recognized the shortcomings in German psychological operations of the First World War. During his very early days in the Nazi Party he took charge of propaganda affairs and studied the way it could be used to build his political organization. Hitler was determined that Germany would not be found wanting in the next war. Some of his pertinent comments in Mein Kampf are:

For what we failed to do, the enemy did, with amazing skill and brilliant calculation. I, myself, learned enormously from the enemy war propaganda.

The art of propaganda lies in understanding the emotional ideas of the great masses and finding, through a psychologically correct form, the way to the attention and thence to the hearts of the great masses.

The function of propaganda is, for example, not to weigh and ponder the rights of different people, but exclusively to emphasize the one right it has set out to argue for.

The purpose of propaganda is not to provide interesting distraction for blasÚ young gentlemen, but to convince, and what I mean us to convince the masses.

All propaganda must be popular and its intellectual level must be adjusted to the most limited intelligence among those it is addressed to.

It must confine itself to a few points and repeat them over and over.

Hitler's concepts were noted and followed and the results can be clearly seen in German WWII propaganda. Once in power, the Fuehrer appointed Joseph Goebbels as his Reich Minister for Public Enlightenment and Propaganda, which gave him total control of the communications media - i.e. radio, press, publishing, cinema and the other arts. Goebbels followed his leader's philosophy religiously and is quoted as saying, "A lie repeated often enough is accepted as truth." A very few themes were repeated over and over in the most base way. Some of those themes are "The guilt of the Jews," "The Americans are at home with British wives while the Tommy is at the front," and "The British will fight until the last Frenchman is dead." Many of these themes were relatively successful early in the war. As the tide turned and the Germans kept repeating those same themes, they became laughable and little better than their failed WWI propaganda. The Fuehrer's philosophy did not allow for flexibility.

We have barely scratched the surface of the use of propaganda in WWI. This article is intended only to introduce the subject. Interested readers are encouraged to write to the author at