Propaganda during the War
All sides, including Germany, used propaganda against their enemies, as all sides have done in all wars throughout history, but the propaganda efforts of Germany and the Central Powers were amateurish and ineffectual compared to the British.
In their propaganda efforts, the Germans tended to appeal to reason instead of to the emotions. They never portrayed their enemies as bloodthirsty, inhuman beasts. The Allies, Great Britain in particular, by contrast, proved themselves masters at adroitly manipulating world opinion by widespread propagation of fantastic tales of German villainy.
From the beginning of the war, stories of German atrocities filled British and American newspapers. (American newspapers depended at that time on British news services for most of their news stories about Europe, which came across undersea cables controlled by Britain. The Germans had no access to the American media. Great Britain made sure of that by cutting Germany’s six trans-Atlantic cables to America.)
The first atrocity stories came out of the German march through Belgium at the beginning of the war. Germany’s purpose was not to attack Belgium, per se, but to pass through Belgium in order to outflank French defenses and then make a drive toward Paris. This strategy was known as the Sclieffen Plan, which the Germans believed was the only way to achieve a quick victory over France. Germany’s “violation” of neutral Belgium served as Britain’s pretext for going to war against Germany, though the decision to go to war for other reasons (mainly economic) had already been made.
Belgium was only a pretext. To enter the war, it was necessary to win public support, and the propaganda opportunities resulting from Germany’s invasion of Belgium, as well as the fabricated stories of German atrocities in Belgium served that purpose. “Eyewitnesses” were found who described hairy knuckled Huns in Pickelhaube helmets tossing Belgian babies in the air and catching them on their bayonets as they marched along, singing war songs. Stories of German soldiers amputating the hands of Belgian boys were widely reported (reputedly to prevent them from firing rifles). Tales of women with their breasts cut off multiplied even faster. There were also tales of crucifixions of Allied soldiers. Europeans and Americans were more religious then than they are today and the crucifixion stories aroused outrage. (It should be mentioned that of all forms of evidence accepted in modern courts of law, eyewitness testimony is considered the least reliable.)
But rape stories were the favorite of all atrocity tales. One “eyewitness” described how the Germans dragged twenty young women out of their houses in a captured Belgian town and stretched them on tables in the village square, where each was raped by at least twelve “Huns” while the rest of the soldiers watched and cheered. After being fed a steady diet of this kind of propaganda, the British public veritably demanded revenge against the loathsome Hun. A group of Belgians toured the United States (at British government expense) telling these stories to Americans. (Britain wanted to draw the United States into the war.) President Woodrow Wilson solemnly received the group in the White House. The propaganda portrayed Britain as “a knight on a white horse” coming to the defense of violated, neutral Belgium. This was cynical manipulation of public opinion, of course, because if Germany had not violated Belgian neutrality, Britain would have done so without a second thought.
Germany angrily denied all of these stories. So did American reporters who were with the German army and knew that they were lies. But these denials did not find their way into American newspapers. The British controlled what went into American papers and it was the British who were generating the atrocity stories. To enhance the credibility of these fantastic atrocity stories, the British government asked Viscount Bryce early in 1915 to head a royal commission to conduct an investigation. The British government, of course, intended that Bryce would support this false propaganda, which he obediently did. Bryce was a well known historian with a good reputation in America. He not only had served as the British ambassador in Washington, but had written several complimentary books about the American government. The British knew that he was highly respected and admired in America, and that he had a reputation for rectitude and honesty. America would believe whatever he said. Bryce was also intensely loyal to his own country and therefore perfect for the job.
Bryce and his six fellow commissioners, all lawyers, historians and legal scholars, “analyzed,” if you can call it that, 1,200 depositions of “eyewitnesses” who claimed to have seen these German atrocities first hand. Almost all of the eyewitness accounts came from Belgians who had left Belgium for England as refugees, though some accounts also came from British soldiers in France. The commission never interrogated a single one of these eyewitnesses, but relied on their written statements instead (Shades of the Nuremberg Trials after the next war). Since there was a war on, there were no “on site” investigations of any reported atrocity. Not a single witness was identified by name, including the soldiers who had provided written accounts. Yet, the commission officially confirmed that all the atrocity stories, no matter how fantastic, were true. This bogus investigation was just another part of Britain’s anti-German propaganda campaign.
The “Bryce Report” was released on May 13, 1915, and the British government made sure it went to every newspaper in America. The impact was phenomenal, especially coming just after the torpedoing of the British liner Lusitania which caused the deaths of 135 Americans. Americans from coast to coast were outraged. A wave of revulsion for all things German swept the country. Hatred of Germans reached fever pitch. Suddenly the American public was clamoring for war. (There is well founded suspicion that the Lusitania was set up as a decoy by the First Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill, deliberately exposing it to a German submarine attack for the purpose of bringing America into the war).
But there were skeptics of the Bryce report. In England, Sir Roger Casement called the report a lie, and wrote a report of his own refuting it, though no one paid much attention to it. The American lawyer, Clearance Darrow, was so skeptical that he traveled to France in 1915 and searched in vain for a single eyewitness who could confirm even one of the Bryce stories. Increasingly dubious, Darrow announced that he would pay $1,000, equivalent to around $25,000 today, to anyone who could produce a Belgian boy whose hands had been amputated by a German soldier, or any other Belgian or French victim who had been mutilated by German troops. None were found.
The “proofs” provided by the Bryce Committee in its investigation, as well as the methods employed in gathering them, violated every elementary rule of evidence. Careful scholars have long since demonstrated that the entire report was made up of nothing more than distortions and outright falsehoods.
But Britain was determined to pull the United States into the war and Bryce and his colleagues were willing accomplices in that effort. They justified their lies and exaggerations because it served the higher cause of Mother England. After the war most historians dismissed 99 percent of Bryce’s atrocities as fabrications.
One called the report “in itself one of the worst atrocities of the war.”
“After the war,” recounts Thomas Fleming in his book Illusion of Victory, “historians who sought to examine the documentation for Bryce’s stories were told that the files had mysteriously disappeared.” As the war drew on, another fabricated story was widely circulated. It was reported that the Germans were operating a “corpse factory” where the bodies of both German and Allied soldiers killed in battle were supposedly melted down for fats and other products useful to the German war effort. The Germans were accused of making soap out of human fat. Human skins were used to make fine leather goods such as lampshades, driving gloves and riding breeches. The bones of these corpses were said to have been ground up and used as fertilizer on German farms.
A detailed account of this so-called “corpse factory” appeared in the highly respected British newspaper, The Times, on April 17, 1917. According to the story, trains full of corpses arrived at a large factory. The bodies were attached to hooks connected to an endless chain. The article carefully described the process inside the corpse factory.
“The bodies are transported on this endless chain into a long, narrow compartment, where they pass through a bath which disinfects them. They then go through a drying chamber, and finally are automatically carried into a digester or great cauldron, in which they are dropped by an apparatus which detaches from the chain. In the digester they remain from six to eight hours, and are treated by steam, which breaks them up while they are slowly stirred by the machinery. From this treatment result several products. The fats are broken up into stearin, a form of tallow, and oils, which require to be redistilled before they can be used. The process of distillation is carried out by boiling the oil with carbonate of soda, and some of the by-products resulting from this are used by German soap makers. The oil distillery and refinery lie in the south-eastern corner of the works. The refined oil is sent out in small casks like those used for petroleum, and is of a yellowish brown color.”
Note the meticulous detail. The story was a total fabrication, but it was a “plausible” story, especially with all the detail, and it was not possible for the Germans to completely refute it while the war was still going on. After the war, of course, the story was exposed as the lie it was. No such corpse factory existed. It is interesting that the story of making soap out of bodies emerged again during World War II when the Germans supposedly made soap out of Jewish corpses. That lie is still widely believed and remains a staple of Jewish Holocaust propaganda. The “lampshades out of human skin” story also had its origin in World War I and emerged again during World War II when Germans were supposedly making lampshades out of Jewish skin. There was nothing to it, yet it also remains a staple of Jewish Holocaust propaganda.
Historian Thomas Fleming observes in his book “The Illusion of Victory,”: “The purpose of war propaganda, as peddled by both the Anglo and American elite, was to create a widespread public image of Germans as ‘monsters capable of appalling sadism’ — thereby coating an appeal to murderous collective hatred with a lacquer of sanctimony.”
“The trick,” said Fleming, “is to leave the target audience at once shivering in horror at a spectacle of sub-human depravity, panting with a visceral desire for vengeance, and rapturously self-righteous about the purity of its humane motives. People who succumb to it are easily subsumed into a hive mind of officially sanctioned hatred, and prepared to perpetrate crimes even more hideous than those that they believe typify the enemy.”
The Bryce Report as well as all the other anti-German propaganda unquestionably helped England win the war. It convinced millions of Americans and other neutrals that the Germans were beasts in human form, and this, as much as anything else, helped bring America into the war.
But there were adverse consequences to this lurid atrocity propaganda campaign. It poisoned public opinion against the Germans to such an extent that it could not be undone. It was an obvious factor, for example, in the British decision to maintain the total blockade of Germany for seven months after the war was over, which, incidentally, was a violation of international law.
The blockade caused a million German civilians to starve to death, and unbearable suffering of millions more. The blockade itself was far and away the greatest atrocity of World War I, though it receives very little publicity, and it was done, not by the evil Germans, but by the saintly British.
By creating blind hatred of Germany, the anti-German propaganda campaign also contributed to the harsh peace terms imposed on Germany at the end of the war, which then sowed the seeds of World War II. Though historians and other scholars have exposed these German atrocity stories as nonsense, the image of German villainy has remained fixed. The benign world opinion of Germany which existed right up to 1914 was replaced overnight by the myth of unique German savagery which left a permanent residue of Germanophobia deep in Western minds. This explains why “our boys” were so willing to obliterate whole German cities and kill hundreds of thousands of German civilians with air bombardments during the Second World War. This hate propaganda, as false as it was, also had the effect of totally demoralizing the German people.