World War Propaganda Posters

WW1 propaganda posters, and WW2 propaganda posters, are an essential component of psychological warfare in their involved time periods.

World War 1 and 2 were the first Great Wars, and the testing ground for new types of warfare, on a scale never seen before. Acolytes of history are familiar with the advancements in weapon technology and conventional (and unconventional) battlefield tactics, but the advancements made in the realm of psychological warfare are ever so present amongst the pungent scent of carbon and earth-shattering sounds of artillery blasts in the forests and fields of Europe and beyond. 

Propaganda posters are a profoundly important fixture of the nations involved in both power blocs. Their impact on civilian populations and militaries is of great importance in the grand scheme of things in the same degree that memes are in modernity.

Propaganda in history

It is no surprise that propaganda as a concept lacks a universally agreed upon definition. Different disciplines have different interpretations of it, and underneath those live even more variations of said interpretations. Brevity calls, however. To breathe coherent life into World War propaganda posters, it would be beneficial to view it as communication–one with roots in ancient civilization–but a linguistic start in the 17th century AD. 

Historians date the first use of the word propaganda back to 1622 and credit its usage to Pope Gregory XV. The Catholic Church was embarking on a proselytizing campaign in non-Christian nations, albeit not with unity. Although Rome was the power center of the church, missionaries from Portugal and Spain led their own evangelizing movements with limited direction from the Pope. In order to counter this, Gregory XV created the Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith, which became the ecclesiastical authority over missionary work in heathen nations. [source

Propaganda, as a term, propagated from the Catholic Church’s affairs, under the enforcement of Gregory XV’s committee. Through its work, the church could use methods of communication to evangelize and convert in unreached lands. Ralph D. Casey would argue that propagandas prior use was honorable and associated with what “commanded the respectful attention of mankind.” [source]  

Fast forward to the dawn of the 20th century, where manufacturing and production technology entered its most advanced stage since the Gutenberg printing press. Mass media was in a new era, with mediums of communication influencing large swaths of civilian populations. That brings us up to 1914, and the start of WWI, which will be the next significant milestone in the history of propaganda. 

Propaganda in World Wars

The role of propaganda in the First World War was multifaceted. It came in various forms with various goals. WWI would end up being the quasi-trial grounds for the effectiveness of this new form of mass communication, similar to other advancements in military hardware and tactics:

Patriotism & Nationalism

As a tool of mass media, governments often used propaganda in the First World War for promoting a strong national identity and rekindling the spark of patriotism amongst the populations. The First World War was unique for many reasons, one of the most prolific being the sizes of the involved military forces. Instead of cities fighting cities, or smaller forces fighting for land or resources, the scale was at a national level. 

An entire nation being at war requires a supportive citizenry, willing to either enlist in the service or fulfill a supporting role in factories, hospitals, or other areas. Not only that, but an energized sense of patriotism raises morale. High morale was a strain of lifeblood in the veins of First World War powers. The clever use of propaganda was one way the pulse of the war machine could continue its rapid frequency. 

Atrocity/weaponized propaganda 

WW1 propaganda posters had a potent offensive use, requiring no bullets or artillery barrages to inflict damage. Psychological warfare is a now commonly used term to describe the more “weaponized” use of propaganda, including its “atrocity” form. 

The United States and Britain were the WW1 benefactors that primarily used atrocity propaganda. Its primary goal was to use propaganda as a tool of emotional manipulation to gain public support for the war and foster hatred for the enemy. Unlike patriotic propaganda, however, the atrocities committed by the Austro-Hungarians and Germans turned into mass media messaging. [source]

Outside of atrocities, weaponized propaganda could garner support in countries who were neutral to the war, yet could be beneficial to have as an ally. This happened covertly and overtly using news media and the spreading of books and pamphlets in target populations. [source]

Overall, WW1 and WW2 propaganda posters proved themselves as a worthy component of military campaigns on a global scale. The same principles and forms of propaganda mentioned above crossed into the Second World War mere decades later. 

World War Propaganda Posters

WW1 propaganda posters, and WWII are some of the most famous and prolific pieces of visual art from each period. They cover the different arenas of propaganda and its forms of use, including patriotism, recruitment, and as an active measure. 

WW1 Propaganda Posters

WW1 Propaganda Posters
Field Marshal Lord Kitchener [source]

This poster is one of the most well-known ones to come from the First World War. It originated in Britain, and features Field-Marshall Lord Kitchener, who was a seasoned war hero prior to the start of the war. The primary goal of its messaging was recruitment, using Lord Kitchener as an inspirational figure. His celebrity was a resource that could influence men to enlist, with a stern and inviting look captured by the artist Alfred Leete. The extent of the posters’ actual success remains contested, but it spawned myriads of similar formats used in propaganda and art later on. [source]

WW1 Propaganda Posters
American propaganda targeting civilians [source]

This poster seems to target both the female and civilian population of the US during the war effort. It’s messaging is likely a recruitment drive for help in the production of domestic goods, including in the agricultural sector, as illustrated. The “only men go to war” stereotype is thankfully in the ash-heap of history amongst armed forces personnel in the West, but the idea of “the girl left behind” was surely prominent in this generation. The messaging within the poster likely seeks to recruit females whose partners are off at war to fulfill the masculine roles left vacant. [source]

World War 1 Propaganda Posters
“Remember Scarborough!” [source]
World War 1 Propaganda Posters
“Remember Scarborough!” [source]

Atrocity and Imagery

These two posters are an excellent example of atrocity propaganda (particularly the bottom one). The famous British painter, Luck Kemp-Welch, is the artist behind this propaganda, the subject being the Raid on Scarborough, which took place on the 16th of December, 1914. German battleships opened fire on the British town of Scarborough early in the morning, killing 17 citizens, injuring more and inflicting massive damage on the town’s infrastructure. The first poster includes Britannia, the personification of Britain. Her forceful presence on the poster was likely included to inspire citizens to fight for the nation. The second poster appeals to the pathos with an emphasis on German atrocities in the raid, including the death of women and children. [source]

World War 1 Propaganda Posters
“And you?” [source]

Austrian artist Alfred Roller is the designer of this piece of German WW1 propaganda posters. The tagline “Und Ihr?” translates to “And you?” which signifies the arts message, a rhetorical question posed towards the population, asking them to evaluate their own support for the German war effort. Here, the goal was to achieve more subscriptions to Austrias Seventh War Loan (“7. Kriegsanleihe”). The underlying idea is for a citizen to see an injured German soldier, and then ask themselves what they are contributing. If not with life and limb in the trenches, the fiscal option is the next best thing. [source]

WW2 Propaganda Posters

World War 2 Propaganda Posters
Rosie the Riveter [source]

WW2 propaganda posters were the next evolution of mass propaganda.

The same predicament that plagued the US homeland during WWI had a resurgence in WWII. Once again, most military enlistees were male, meaning the workforce back home suffered a myriad of gaps. It would be a grave misfortune to leave out the role women played during this time, and the famous Rosie the Riveter poster above is symbolic of the strength and bravery those women displayed.

J. Howard Miller designed the Rosie poster in 1942, with the goal of inspiring women to join the war workforce. A sizeable increase in employed women surged, despite female workers being paid around 50 percent less in wages than males. The role women played in WWII was monumental, as they produced crucial hardware, such as munitions and aircraft parts. [source] WW2 propaganda posters such as Rosie would become some of the most recognizable images of the war.

Robert James Nichol is the artist behind this piece of Canadian WWII propaganda. The beaver is symbolic of the Canadian spirit, and is chopping away at a tree containing Adolf Hitler. The message is clear: join the war effort, and “get your teeth into the job.”

Making an enemy

World War 2 Propaganda Posters
Racist propaganda [source]

This piece of propaganda uses a racist caricature of a Japanese soldier in order to promote war bonds. There are likely a few different layers beneath it that made it effective. For one, there is the stereotypical “helpless woman” trope, which can have an emotional appeal towards the population.

Similarly, the Japanese soldier has a grotesque and almost monster like illustration, and is labeled a “horror”, sowing hatred in the population towards the enemy, and drawing citizens to buy the product. Racism was a prominent feature of some WW2 propaganda posters and helped capture the hate expressed during the time.

“Beware of Spies” (Source)

This is a German World War 2 propaganda poster, illustrated by Theo Matejko. The message reads “Beware of Spies–Be Cautious in Conversations!”, signaling espionage awareness as its main purpose.

Russian propaganda [source]

Russian propaganda in WWII was on the nationalistic side. It was common to see similar themes throughout the posters, including a larger-than-life portrayal of Joseph Stalin commanding his masses of troops, all for the glory of mother Russia.

Conclusion:

Propaganda posters were an invaluable medium for all nations during the First and Second World Wars. They would capture the national fervor of these countries, the plights that their people had to endure, and the goals they all sought to achieve. By capturing the essence of these times, propaganda posters served not only to change the minds of the people in the time of use.

Michael Ellmer
Michael Ellmer
Michael is a Senior Intelligence Analyst at Grey Dynamics. He is a veteran of the United States Marine Corps, where he served as an infantryman for eight years, with tours to Iraq, Afghanistan, and the Pacific Theater. Upon entry into the civilian sector, he completed his undergraduate degree at Seattle Pacific University with a focus on communications studies. He is currently pursuing a master’s degree in Strategic Intelligence Analysis at Brunel University London.

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