The War on the Walls: Propaganda in the Great War

Paul Fussell has argued that every war, but the First World War in particular, "constitutes an irony of situation because its means are so melodramatically disproportionate to its presumed ends." 1 A war lasting more than four years, in which nine million soldiers lost their lives, hardly seems a fitting response to a murder in which the perpetrator was apprehended mere moments after firing the fatal shots. 2 In the Tyler poster collection are contained many illustrations of that irony.

As Fussell argues, the First World War was a conflict, not unique in history, in which the justifications for the conflict seemed always to lag behind the ever-escalating violence with which it was fought. The governments involved, which depended on the will of the governed whether they were democratic or not (witness the revolutions and disturbances of 1917-1918 among even the most autocratic regimes), scrambled to articulate goals that seemed commensurate with the suffering and the expenditures of blood and treasure incurred already in the fall of 1914. 3 What could justify such tremendous and ongoing sacrifices? Certainly not poor Franz Ferdinand's memory.

Instead, these posters try to answer the question, "why do we fight?" with absolute claims about morality and civilization, "just war" and terror. Some posters made a legalistic appeal to the viewer's reason, laying out the case against German aggression (such as the French poster, #34), while most relied heavily on fear and moral outrage. The frail bodies of female victims of German aggression litter the landscapes of these posters. Americans were famously challenged to "Make the World SAFE" (poster #19) for democracy, to make the easy choice between being enslaved or loaning the government money (poster #23), and to "Beat Back the Hun" whose blood-stained boots and hands threatened to sow destruction in the United States (posters #36 and #37). A vicious cycle ensued in which past sacrifices imparted a certain glory to the cause, which justified further efforts, calling forth further sacrifices and casualties. No government was able, in that environment, to bring an end to the war based on negotiation or even less on the status quo ante. The French poster warning its viewers against the dangers of a negotiated settlement in 1918 (poster #39) demonstrates this principle. The tattered veteran in the foreground asked Frenchmen not to betray him after all his sacrifices and victories.

The materials that accompany each poster in this exhibit often provide the opportunity to draw the contrast between the heroic, glorious representation of war in the posters and the harsh realities of the front. "Learning to Ride" (poster #18) loses some of its appeal when one considers the vulnerability of horses (and their riders!) to automatic weapons fire and poison gas attack. The "inconvenience" of crowds of volunteers at enlistment centers pales in comparison to the dangers of going "over the top." (poster #7)

However, visitors to the exhibit are well-advised not merely to see the "ironic" juxtaposition of propaganda and the front, of lies and reality. Certainly, there is myth-making in these posters. The knuckles of real German soldiers did not scrape the ground, nor did most of them, in reality, sport the notorious "Pickelhaube" helmet seen in so many posters. Not even in World War Two did German bombers threaten the Statue of Liberty (poster #40). However, the stories of German atrocities were not complete fabrications. While they may never have actually crucified a Canadian soldier (poster #21), the German army did commit numerous crimes in Belgium, including the razing of the university town of Louvain. 4 While other nations are not blameless, Germany and Austria-Hungary did issue the first declarations of war. Even if the British blockade of Germany were also technically illegal, German submarines did violate established norms of conduct at sea by sinking merchant ships of neutral nations.

There are also fundamental truths about the war revealed to the careful student of these posters. The requirements of modern "total" war, for example, are evident in the incessant calls for soldiers, in the admonitions to conserve basic materials such as fuel and wheat, and in the pleas for subscriptions to war bonds.

Verisimilitude, if not "truth," was essential to the success of these posters. Propaganda is "effective communication," and to be effective, posters had to correspond roughly to the viewer's political, social, and moral context. 5 They rely on that context to bridge the gap between the facts and the desired action. They invoke your faith in universally held values, like courage, religion, even seemingly atavistic notions of chivalry. The (sometimes eccentric) texts, documents, and facts that accompany the posters are useful for revealing that larger context. They can help the reader get a glimpse of the larger context in which these posters existed, both the sometimes jarring dissonance between the promises of recruitment posters (for example) and the realities of the front as well as the striking pervasiveness of the themes raised in the posters in public and private discourse.

When these posters were first exhibited in 1937, the chair of Temple's history department suggested in his introductory essay that the "vicious propaganda so well illustrated in these posters… was responsible for the prolongation of the War, for the vengeful and unworkable Treaty of Versailles and, indirectly perhaps, for the international bitterness and rancour which may make another holocaust inevitable." 6 While the true impact of propaganda posters remains difficult to assess, one can nevertheless point to certain undisputed facts. Millions of men did enlist in the armed forces (many of them voluntarily). Governments raised billions of dollars in war bond drives. The influence of propaganda is evident in the persistence of themes contained in these posters in the public discourse of the postwar period. Novels, plays, political speeches, and countless memorials to the dead testify to the pervasive sense that the sacrifices of the war were worthwhile. 7 Even supposed anti-war statements like Remarque's All Quiet on the Western Front support, albeit indirectly, the posters' claims about the epochal significance of the conflict.

Whatever their impact in concrete terms, the posters exhibited here represent the pinnacle of communicative arts in their era. At the turn of the 20th century, the poster was the queen of mass communications. Film was in its infancy, and other mass media (such as radio and television) were either undiscovered or commercially undeveloped. We see in many of these posters significant investments in artistic talent. Posters attracted well-known artists like Howard Chandler Christy, whose "Christy Girls" had graced numerous advertisements in the pre-war era (poster #13). Unlike many posters produced in World War Two, posters of the First World War are often lavish, ornamental, and remarkable in their attention to detail.

It is regrettable that the vagaries of Mr. Tyler's collecting habits have virtually excluded posters from countries other than the United States, Great Britain, and France. 8 The posters assembled here are not in that sense truly representative. Other nations' posters expounded similar themes (virtues of the nation, atrocities of the enemy, necessity of universal participation and effort) but did so in different styles, with different allusions to the social and cultural context of the poster-producing nation. The posters and other materials nevertheless provide a window into an earlier world that shares many concerns with our own. The ironies and hypocrisies that are so evident as we glance backward should inspire not cynicism or surrender but rather humility as we struggle to solve the problems of our own age.

Dr. Jay Lockenour
Associate Professor of History
Temple University
April 2004