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When Propaganda (Studies) Began

Written by Stefan Goebel.

It was during the First World War that the modern age of propaganda began. Propaganda has, of course, a much longer tradition, but the years 1914-1918 mark a watershed. Propaganda became a central plank of the war effort, pervading public (and private) life. Moreover, it was during this war that the contours of a new academic subject – propaganda studies – began to emerge.

Official propaganda grew from being a sideshow to an integral element of war policy, notably in Britain which saw the creation of a separate Department in February 1917 and eventually a fully-fledged Ministry of Information, headed by the press magnate Lord Beaverbrook, one year later. Yet, in the first half of the war, most governments produced remarkable little official ‘information’ but relied on the self-mobilisation of society, that is, participatory propaganda from ‘from below’. Arguably, the most effective propaganda during the First World War was not instigated by the state or its subsidiary organisations but emerged from within civil society.

The role ordinary people played in the propaganda war can be illustrated by the wartime phenomenon of war landmarks. Throughout Austria and Germany local communities erected wooden objects which, in the course of month-long celebrations, were punctured by a series of nails. The participants had to pay for the privilege by contributing to war charities. Moreover, they had a creative part in the nailing ritual for every iron nail represented a particular motto chosen by the participant. Initiated and organised by local worthies, the success of this practice ultimately depended on widespread participation. By means of collective action, the wooden objects were – or, sometimes, were manifestly not – turned into steel figures symbolising the local community’s iron will to see the military campaign through.

The practice of erecting war landmarks was without parallel in other countries. The nearest equivalent in Britain was the tank bank, launched by the National War Savings Committee in November 1917. Tanks, exhibited in central squares from Bristol to Glasgow, solicited money from the populace for war bonds rather than war charity. Similar to the iron-nail war landmarks, tank banks were places of both spectacle and performance, sites where not only the organisers but also the audience played an active part. Both practices elevated ordinary people from mere viewers to true participants. Timing, though, was different. While the nailing ritual flourished in the mid-war years, the tank banks only got rolling in the final year of the conflict. By then, German savings had been eaten up by inflation and civilian morale reached a low ebb. Tank banks mobilised financial and symbolic resources in Britain that had already dried up in Germany.

The process of cultural mobilisation was often bottom-up rather than top-down, and local actors could react angrily to political interferences from above. Yet, it would be artificial to attempt to draw a sharp dividing line between self-persuasion and opinion control. The boundaries between grassroots, commercial and official propaganda were extremely fluid; and often they formed a synergistic relationship. Take posters and advertising. Before 1914 it would have been easy to spot the difference between a public notice and a poster; but during the war, the two genres became blurred, as state agents – with assistance from the advertising trade – attempted to seduce, and as commercial producers, merchants and advertisers sought to take advantage of the aura of public authority that came with the support for the war.

Academics participated in the propaganda war, too; many gave public lectures or wrote patriotic pamphlets. Importantly, some (self-reflective) scholars began to study how the war impacted on the public sphere and vice versa. In 1916 Aloys Meister, a professor of history at Münster University, published a short monograph on the German press in wartime. Moreover, he initiated a press archive and established a commission on newspaper research. His efforts gave an important stimulus to the eventual establishment of Zeitungswissenschaft (newspaper studies) during the inter-war years. In the same year in which Meister published his study, the first university institute of press studies was founded at Leipzig University with the aim of professionalising journalism at a time of national crisis. The scholarly study of the press and the academic training of journalists have their origins in the modern propaganda war.

The roots of disciplines such as communication, media and journalism studies can be traced to the period of the First World War. Yet, as Piers Robinson notes in his blog, propaganda is a subject that has received scant attention from social scientists in recent years. The same is not quite true of historians. The cultural turn in historical studies has triggered a new wave of research into the commercial press, visual culture, popular entertainments and patriotic rituals between 1914 and 1918. Some of the most innovative research into propaganda can be found in the field of First World War studies. Yet the term ‘propaganda’ itself seems to have become somewhat unfashionable, replaced by new concepts such as ‘war culture’, ‘patriotic culture’, ‘mental mobilisation’ or simply ‘representations’. The new analytical vocabulary mirrors to some degree a shift of emphasis: from the study of the coercive elements of mass mobilisation such as censorship and indoctrination to an understanding of the consensual dimension of waging war. Significantly, the three-volume Cambridge History of the First World War (2014) does not contain a chapter specifically on propaganda – and yet propaganda runs like a red thread through the three tomes. Paradoxically, a boom in the study of propagandistic forms, languages and practices has gone hand-in-hand with the demise of the concept of ‘propaganda’.

Stefan Goebel is Director of the Centre for the Study of War, Propaganda and Society and a Reader in the School of History at the University of Kent.

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