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Teaching the First World War
Teaching the First World War

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1 Defining propaganda

Propaganda is information designed to support a particular cause or damage an opposing cause. It is information produced to persuade its audience to think or act in a certain way. Though it has not always been associated with falsehood, propaganda now has negative connotations, and is generally used to describe information that distorts the truth or is intentionally misleading. This does not mean, however, that propaganda has to be entirely false; it may well contain elements of the truth.

Propaganda has often been ‘top-down’ in nature, orchestrated by the state with the aim of persuading the wider populace. Students may understand it in this light. But propaganda does not have to function in this way. During the First World War, the production of propaganda often depended on the cooperation between the state and private institutions – it was not solely produced by government agencies. And propagandistic content also appeared in magazines, newspapers, books, songs and postcards, for example, that were not commissioned by the state.

Students need to understand why propaganda was so important during the First World War, and here it is useful to introduce the concept of ‘total war’, a term used to describe a conflict that permeates every aspect of society, engaging both the military and civilians. In ‘total wars’, which depend on the support of entire populations, propaganda is especially important. We’ve already seen how this held true at the start of the war in Germany, where the government needed its people to think they were fighting a defensive war. The same held true of all governments at the time (and arguably since!) – people will choose to fight to defend their country and their families. It is much harder to persuade them to attack another country without provocation.

Activity 1 The functions of propaganda

Timing: Allow around 5 minutes

Before your read on, take a few minutes to consider the potential functions or purpose of propaganda. Why did governments use propaganda during the war?


Broadly speaking, propaganda often performed one or more of the following key functions during the conflict:

  • To persuade the population to support the war effort in various ways. In countries without conscription, such as in Britain at the start of the war, this involved encouraging men to enlist and women to support men in doing so.
  • To instil certain behaviours in the population, such as encouraging them to buy bonds or not waste food, for example.
  • To demonise and ridicule the enemy.
  • To influence public opinion in enemy countries.
  • To help win over and gain the support of neutral nations.

When asking students to analyse examples of propaganda, it’s useful for them to consider which of these categories their sources might fall into. In many cases, they might perform more than one of these functions.

Did you know?

Students can find further resources for studying the functions of propaganda during the First World War in the following places:

  1. Propaganda at Home and Abroad provides a valuable overview of propaganda during the war.
  2. Making Sense of the War discusses how various countries used propaganda to understand the war.

In the next activity, you will consider what questions we can ask of propaganda material.

Activity 2 Asking questions when analysing propaganda

Timing: Allow around 5 minutes

Before you look at some examples of war-time propaganda and analyse them, take a moment to jot down some questions you think students should ask of the material.

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Here are some questions you may have thought about:

  • Who produced this propaganda? In which country was it produced? Was it produced by the state or by a private organisation, such as a newspaper or magazine? (In some cases, this last question may be difficult to answer.)
  • When was it produced? What was the historical context (key political and military events, for example)?
  • Who was the likely audience? Did it address a particular group of society or a particular nation, for example?
  • What does the propaganda tell us? If it is an image, which countries or people are depicted? If it is a textual example, what does the author of the piece discuss and describe?
  • What was the purpose of this propaganda? You may find it useful here to refer again to the four key functions of First World War propaganda outlined above. Students should consider the intended audience of the propaganda and what it was designed to achieve.
  • How does this example of propaganda persuade its audience? Does it play on people’s fears? Does it use humour and ridicule? Does it attempt to shame or encourage people to act in a certain way?
  • What are the uses and limitations of this source for historians? How useful is this source and what can it tell us more broadly about the history of the First World War? What doesn’t it tell us?

Your list might have looked similar, or you might have come up with different questions. This would also be a useful exercise for your students to complete.

When analysing propaganda as a primary source, students can use these questions as a guide. They may not be able to answer all of them, but, with further research online, it should be possible to answer many of them.

In the next sections, you’ll analyse propaganda from three different countries with worked examples for each. Each section will begin with a brief overview of the organisation, character and functions of propaganda in each of these countries, before introducing two examples that can be analysed as sources in the classroom.