SGM Herbert A. Friedman (Ret.)

Note: Text and/or images from article was used with the author’s permission in the book “Top Secret; Declassifying the Meaning of Life.”In 2016, images from this article were used as part of the Willa Cather Foundation exhibit “Telling War Stories – the Rhetoric of the Great War.”

Most authorities consider World War 1 as the start of modern psychological operations as we know them. This was due in large part to the availability of mass communication media like radio, modern printing presses, and the innovative and expedient means to deliver the message to the target audience. Some of the means of media transmission were the new airplanes, special artillery rounds, leaflet mortars, hand grenades, and even specially modified leaflet balloons.

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Archduke Franz Ferdinand

World War I started with the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austria- Hungarian throne, in Sarajevo on 28 June 1914 by a member of the Black Hand, a Serbian nationalist secret society.

Austria-Hungary's reaction to the death of their heir was three weeks in coming. It issued an ultimatum to Serbia, which demanded that the assassins be brought to justice. Serbia had Slavic ties with Russia. In order to protect itself, the Austria-Hungarian government sought assurances that Germany would come to her aid should Russia declare war on Austria-Hungary. Germany, itching to use its military muscle, readily agreed.

Things moved quickly thereafter. Austria-Hungary, unsatisfied with Serbia's response to her ultimatum declared war on Serbia on 28 July 1914. Russia, bound by treaty to Serbia, mobilized its vast army. Germany, allied to Austria-Hungary by treaty, viewed the Russian mobilization as an act of war against Austria-Hungary, and declared war on Russia on 1 August. France, bound by treaty to Russia, responded by announcing war against Germany and Austria-Hungary on 3 August. Germany promptly responded on 4 August by invading neutral Belgium to open a quick path to Paris. Britain, allied to Belgium declared war against Germany on 4 August. In just a little over a month all of Europe was at war. Japan, honoring a treaty with Britain, declared war on Germany on 23 August 1914. Italy was allied to both Germany and Austria-Hungary. She was first neutral, but in May 1915, she joined the British and French against her two former allies. The United States declared a policy of absolute neutrality on the same day Britain declared war, 4 August.

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The Zimmermann Telegram

The U.S. would remain neutral until 1917 when Germany's policy of unrestricted submarine warfare and the British interception of the Zimmermann telegram to Mexico forced President Wilson to declare war on 6 April 1917. The German foreign minister, Arthur Zimmermann, had sent a Telegram to the German ambassador in Washington to approach the Mexican government with an offer: if it was to join any war against America, it would be rewarded with the territories of Arizona, New Mexico and Texas. The British had intercepted the letter, broken the code, and informed the United States.

The war went on for four bitter years and ended with the signing of an armistice on 11 November 1918. It is amazing to note that a single terrorist assassination set all these defensive treaties, meant to protect nations and keep them from going to war, into motion. Ironically, nations that had signed treaties to keep them out of war suddenly found themselves drawn into a 4-year bloodbath.

Jose Pedro Mataloto and Anselmo Melo Dias said in Psychological Operations in the Great War:

Regarding organizational structure, in 1914 the German propaganda machine was operated by two entities in coordination: a press division that answered to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and a policy section under the General Staff of the Army. Their aim was to manage and destroy the enemy's fighting spirit, to keep the country's morale high and to influence public opinion, as well as to maintain friendly relations with neutral countries and secure their alliance.

Philip M. Taylor says in British Propaganda During the First World War 1914-1918, about the content of German propaganda:

The concept of psychological warfare was first practiced by the Germans who initiated the business of dropping leaflets over Allied troops in Nancy during the battle of Grande-Couronne in September 1914. Some leaflets even appear to have been dropped over Paris. By October 1914, the Germans were publishing the "Gazette des Ardennes" for the benefit of French troops. At first, the War Office was reluctant to respond. When Lord Northcliffe suggested in September 1914 first to Sir John French and then to General Wilson that facsimile letters should be dropped over German lines by aeroplane, the latter replied that propaganda was 'a minor matter Ś the thing was to kill Germans.'

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Kaiser Wilhelm

Marshall Hindenburg

When I first considered a study of the WWI psychological operations (PSYOP) of the Central Powers, I asked the renowned propaganda leaflet author and collector Klaus Kirchner if he had gathered much in the way of WWI German and Austria-Hungarian leaflets. He answered:

No, I have not. Imperial Germany regarded leafleting as not in agreement with the Geneva and Hague conventions. German leaflets were mostly used for about six weeks before it lost the war.

[Note: Curiously, Klaus wrote to me years later in 2013 and said that he had found a large collection of WWI leaflets and expected to publish a reference book on them in the near future].

Kirchner is mostly correct. The Allied leaflets enraged the Germans, who actually placed captured British pilots who dropped them on trial for their lives. In one very famous case, the Germans condemned two British pilots, Captain E. Scholtz and Lieutenant H.C. Wookey to prison. The two pilots were shot down and captured near Cambrai on 17 October 1917. They were charged with "the distribution in September 1917 of pamphlets detrimental to German troops." They were tried, found guilty of treason, and sentenced to 10 years at hard labor. The British government threatened severe reprisals against German officers, so in April 1918 the pilots were pardoned by the Kaiser and sent to a regular POW camp at Karlsruhe. According to Blankenhorn, the Americans, "fully aware of the enemy threats, made it a point to fly defiantly low as possible and drop their leaflets directly on German positions." This so embarrassed the British that they returned to the airplane for leaflet drops in the last weeks of the war. He also states that some British pilots burned the leaflets in their hangars to avoid carrying them over enemy lines.

Dr. Philip M. Taylor, author of "Munitions of the Mind - A History of Propaganda from Ancient World to the Present Day," Manchester University Press, Manchester and New York, 1995, discusses the legal issue in more depth:

For most of 1918 , the principal method of distributing enemy propaganda was leaflets not airplane. This was because at the end of the 1917, four captured British airmen were tried by a German court martial for ‘having distributed pamphlets containing insults against the German army and Government among German troops in the Western Theatre of War.’ Although two of the accused were acquitted due to lack of evidence, and although the court itself questioned the ruling about whether this act was a violation of international law, two officers were sentenced to ten years imprisonment. When news of this punishment reached the war office in January 1918, all leaflet dropping by airplane was suspended. Reprisals were threatened, resulting in the pardoning of the two British officers, who were returned to their camps and treated as normal prisoners of war. But the Air Ministry remained reluctant to commit its men and machines to leaflet raids and the suspension order remained in force until October 1918, barely a month before the end of war.

The problem of the German threat is mentioned by Captain P. Chalmers Mitchell in a 23 February 1918 report entitled “The Aerial Distribution of Propaganda to the Enemy. He says in part:

From the mechanical point of view, the use of aeroplanes is by far the most satisfactory mode of distribution. Relatively large loads of printed matter can be carried swiftly and distributed in bundles, packets, or single sheets with a high degree of accuracy and in a great range of weather conditions. For some time this method was employed and in the end of 1916 and the beginning of 1917 arrangements were made for a great increase in the output and distribution of propaganda. Early in 1917, however, four captured English airmen were court-martialed in Germany for the dissemination of inflammatory literature, and although these were acquitted on a technical point of evidence, German Headquarters intimated through diplomatic channels, that the dissemination of inflammatory literature by airmen would be dealt with as an offence against the laws of war…Moreover, it was ascertained in conference with G.H.Q., France that it was probable that the Germans in their efforts to suppress the distribution of Allied propaganda would not be punctilious in bringing charges against captured airmen. The correctness of this opinion was made clear in December 1917 when two captured British airmen were sentenced to ten years penal servitude for the distribution of duplicates of letters written by German prisoners of war or captured in their possession. It was accordingly decided that the method of distribution by aeroplanes must be abandoned.

Neil Leybourne Smith’s History of 3 Squadron, Australian Flying Corps, RAAF  adds:

February through to March 1918 involved the Squadron in many photographic missions around the Armentieres area where fighting was intense. Some flights were assigned to drop propaganda leaflets over enemy rest camps well behind the front line. Their purpose was to unsettle the enemy by letting them know that good food and warm billets awaited them if they choose to surrender. However these missions were discontinued after it became known throughout the Corps that pilots brought down in enemy territory while dropping leaflets were treated brutally by the enemy.

German Leaflet balloon -1916

Mitchell goes on to discuss German dissemination and propaganda:

The Germans use paper balloons in large quantities. Samples of the balloons they employ have been obtained by G.H.Q., France and submitted to the Munitions Inventions by M.I.7.B. It cannot be said that there is any evidence as to the efficacy of German propaganda amongst the British troops. Samples of it are sent over from G.H.Q., France and examined by M.I.7.B. They consist of flysheets in bad English announcing German successes on other fronts, pictures of the happy fate of prisoners of war in Germany, boasts of the results of the U-boat campaign and copies of the Continental Times. Propaganda specially destined for the French is more effective.

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Gazette des Ardennes

This 25 July 1917 copy of the German newspaper was found “caught in barbed wire along with many other copies...” according to a pinned note signed by a Captain C.S. Hunt. These newspapers were usually written in French but for some unknown reason this one is written in English. One can see that the revolution has started and instead of fighting, the Russian troops are debating and walking away from the front. The commanders have decided to shoot the deserters. The newspaper concludes that it is not the men who are at fault, but their leaders who have sent them into battle to uselessly die.

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The pinned note attached to the newspaper.

Mitchell continues:

The chief effort is the Gazette des Ardennes, a weekly newspaper written in French and with occasionally an illustrated supplement. It is distributed both by aeroplane and by balloon. It is cleverly conducted, containing much inflammatory political matter, ex parte statements as to the progress of the war, attacks on the English, news of individual French prisoners, lists of French and Belgians alleged to have been killed by the action of Allied Airmen. From a propagandist point of view, it is much more unscrupulous and probably more effective than our Courrier, but this is due to the fact that a special effort has been made to exclude "inflammatory" matter from the Courrier.

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A German propaganda balloon fell in Switzerland during WWI with some copies of the Gazette des Ardennes still attached to it. The balloon and contents will be a featured special exhibition of the Museum of the Old Arsenal in Solothurn, Switzerland.

Jean Jacques Waitz, a French propagandist and Alsatian artist code-named "Hansi,” talked about his time writing propaganda for the French in WWI in his 1922 book Through Enemy Lines. Here, he mentions the German Gazette des Ardennes:

The Germans, at the same time, were already powerfully equipped. They had at Charleville a good printing press that published the Gazette des Ardennes; The Gazette of the Ardennes was not only intended for the unfortunate inhabitants of the invaded regions. The German Command intended to use it also to demoralize French soldiers and the population of the interior. At the end of 1914, the newspaper was distributed by post, balloons and aircraft.

On 1 March 1916, the French printed a forgery of the German Gazette des Ardennes. It was fully illustrated, and had paper, format, and font that were so similar to the German newspaper that it was difficult to identify as a French fake. Once again the German newspapers were furious. One picture that really drew their ire was an illustration in which a German soldier holds a French baby lovingly whom he feeds. The photographer says to him that it is a touching scene, to which the German soldier replies “I killed the mother.”

Bernard Wilkin and Maude Williams mention the Gazette in their article German Wartime Anglophobic Propaganda in France, 1914–1945:

During the First World War a ban on all neutral and Allied newspapers ensured that there was no alternative to the Gazette des Ardennes. This embargo forced French civilians desiring to know the latest news about the war to read German propaganda. In November 1914 Intelligence and propaganda unit Abteilung IIIb launched a newspaper named La Gazette des Ardennes. It was a well-planned initiative managed by German supervisors and an editorial team composed of French and Alsatian journalists. For the whole war this widely distributed newspaper (publication increased from 25,000 copies per issue in 1915 to 175,000 copies in 1917) would become the most prominent voice of Anglophobia in the occupied territories. Despite being banned, the Gazette des Ardennes also found its way into France through neutral countries or by post… From November 1914 to April 1915, the newspaper published no fewer than 124 Anglophobic articles – 3 and a half per issue. The newspaper was delivered by unmanned balloons and German agents posting the forbidden newspapers to France from neutral countries… In 1914–18 the Germans largely built their campaign of Anglophobia on the idea that Britain was a greedy empire built on unrestricted capitalism.

The reader will find more on the Ardennes Gazette in the French section later in this article.

In October 1946, The Propaganda Branch, Intelligence Division, based in the Pentagon, Washington D.C., published a report entitled A Syllabus of Psychological Warfare. It was prepared to give quick answers about Psywar to the press that wanted to know what the United States had done during WWII. In the report there is a brief mention of psychological warfare of the Central Powers in WWI. Curiously, there is no mention of leaflets, just political operations:

The Central Powers used very old-fashioned political warfare. They were reactionary monarchies, legitimist in outlook, and were unable to exploit the revolutionary, democratic and autonomist sentiments of their time. Their chief political warfare exploit consisted of inducing Turkey to proclaim a Jihad against the Allies…The Germans gave Lenin transit from Switzerland to Finland in the expectation that Lenin would enter Russia, commit high treason against the Czar, and take Russia out of the war. He did so, but the engulfing wave of Communist revolution contributed to the defeat of Germany as well.

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Never Say Die

The New York Times mentions enemy propaganda several times in 1918. On 2 November 1918 they state that German leaflets were showered over American troops in Berne on the French front. The leaflet was entitled “Never say Die!,” and advised the American troops to return home and not die for foreign countries. Some of the text is:

Don’t die till you have to!

What business have you to die for France, for Alsace-Lorraine, or for England in France?

Isn’t it better anyhow to live than to die, no matter for how “glorious” a cause? Isn’t it better to live and to come back to the old folks at home, than to rot in the shell holes and trenches in France?

A week later on 9 November the newspaper said:

General Pershing recently visited the American division headquarters and enjoyed the experience of being bombarded by German propaganda printed in French. The Germans obviously being ignorant of the fact that Americans held the sector. General Pershing made the comment that he didn’t believe the Americans could be induced to stop fighting in this manner.

One amusing phase of the propaganda battle which the Germans are waging is the sending of copies of President Wilson’s official statements, accompanied by the question to American soldiers, Why continue the fight.”

For the purposes of this article, we will mostly call the Central Powers "Germany." Although it was the Austria-Hungarian Empire that started the war, it was the more militant Germans that were the major military force within the Central Powers.

We know very little about the organization of German PSYOP. We do know that for a people who claimed to consider propaganda leaflets immoral and illegal, they printed and dropped quite a few of them.

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German postcard "We Teach You To Run!"
An example of patriotic propaganda at home.

George Bruntz tells us a little about the German organization in Allied Propaganda and the Collapse of the German Empire in 1918, Hoover War Library Publication number 13, Stanford University Press, California, 1938. He says that early in the war, Germany conducted a campaign of patriotic propaganda at home to keep up the morale of the German people and the troops. The Kriegspresseamt (War Press office) did this work and also the task of issuing war news to the German press. There was no concentrated effort to produce propaganda in the early years of the war and Germany fell far behind the Allies.

When the allies started to seriously weaken German morale with their leafleting, the Germans had no answer. By early 1917, the German War Minister called a meeting of high government officials to discuss the problem. The official report of that meeting concludes:

It is high time that this strong undermining work of the enemy be countered with similar propaganda in an even more active manner.

The decision of the group was to set up a central agency for the collection of propaganda in the Foreign Office. The government would adopt a stronger internal policy:

Strong opposition to all in order.

The Kaiser would make himself more available to visit workers and hospitals. The Emperor would take credit for all measures aimed at alleviating the food situation. General Ludendorff told the Army"

Everything which is likely to prejudice the morale of the troops, for instance leaflets sent down from the air by the enemy or sent out from home must be kept at a distance.

By 15 September 1917 the "Vaterlandischen Unterricht unter den Truppen" ("National Instruction for the Troops") was formed. The Army High Command would see that patriotic instruction took place among the troops. The officers would assure that the troops did not read enemy leaflets and strengthen the will to win among their men. The weakness in this plan was that officers were planning battles and had little time or interest in patriotic instruction. On 20 March 1918, just eight months before the Armistice, Ludendorff wrote to the Imperial Chancellor and suggested that the loose propaganda organization be centralized and made stronger. He wanted an organization similar to Lord Northcliffe's British "Propaganda for Enemy Countries" unit. The government denied his request for such an agency. The Germans simply never got the hang of it.

In 1918 the German Imperial Command began offering rewards for enemy leaflets. In September 1918 the German government paid over 250,000 marks for about 800,000 leaflets. This plan was doomed to failure. In reality, the Germans were now subsidizing the reading of enemy propaganda. Individuals who would have never touched enemy leaflets now hunted for them to collect a reward. Naturally, while they had the leaflets in their possession they read them. The result of the reward offer was exactly the opposite of what was desired.

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Narhrichtenblatt der 18 Armee

The Narhrichtenblatt der 18 Armee, (Message sheets of the 18th Army) number 21, admitted defeat:

In the sphere of leaflet propaganda the enemy has defeated us. Shooting poison darts from a secure hiding place was never a German art. We realized, however, that this struggle is a life and death matter, and that one has to fight the enemy with his own weapons. Yet the spirit of the enemy leaflets skulks around and refuses to be killed...The enemy has defeated us not as man against man in the field of battle, bayonet against bayonet. No, bad contents in poor printing on poor paper has made our arm lame.

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German PSYOP

I want to make a brief comment here. This article was written about the year 2000. The illustrations I used were found in old magazines and newspapers and borrowed from friends in the now defunct Psywar Society. Many were rather poor and blurry, but they were so rare that I used them in the story. In 2014, the German researcher Klaus Kirchner published a book on this same subject. Being able to scour the museums and Archives of Europe he had some better images. In several cases I have replaced my old ripped and torn leaflets with his better images. I want to thank my old friend Klaus (now deceased) and give him full credit for many of the images you will now find in this article.

There is reason to believe that a German pilot dropped the first leaflet of the war. R. G. Auckland mentions the leaflet in an article published in the summer 1970 Falling Leaf magazine, the journal of the Psywar Society. Auckland states that in late August 1914 the German First Army was about to cross the River Marne on its way to Paris. The Army has as one of its assets the 11th Military Group of Aeroplanes stationed at nearby St. Quentin. Flight officer Lieutenant Hiddessen was apparently an ardent nationalist with a strong belief in Germany's eventual victory. He was ordered to bomb Paris on 30 August.

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Artist portrayal of Hiddessen's first leaflet drop

As the flight crew prepared his Taube reconnaissance aircraft, they placed a rubber bag full of sand (to add weight) and printed leaflets in the cockpit. Hiddessen dropped the first bomb to be dropped on Paris at exactly 12:45 p.m. He dropped four bombs, and then threw the leaflet bag from his cockpit. It had a six-foot long forked banner in the German national colors trailing behind. Pedestrians found the bag on the ground and immediately took it to the local Prefecture of Police where it was labeled:

Corrupt information thrown on to the streets by strangers in an aeroplane...

When opened, the pouch was found to contain a number of printed three-line leaflets. The text was:

The German Army is at the gates of Paris; it only remains for you to surrender. (Signed) Lieutenant von Hiddessen.

Auckland believes that Hiddessen misunderstood his mission.

He should have taken them from the pouch and thrown them overboard at convenient intervals so that the German note was spread far and wide over Paris, and then finally drop the bag overboard as a final gesture of German supremacy and arrogance.

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Pilot List
Courtesy of Barry Hayter

[Author’s note] One of the wonderful things about placing these articles on the Internet is the feedback that we get from the readers. After seeing the picture of the pouch and streamer thrown from Hiddessen’s aircraft, Barry Haytor wrote in to say that among his grandfather’s souvenirs from the Great War were some handwritten sheets of paper in the German language entitled “To the British Flying Troop” with vertical columns for Date, Name, Rank, Nationality and Fate. The sheets list the Allied flyers and indicate that many were killed, others injured.

Along with the papers found in the estate of Lieutenant Colonel John Henry Langton DSO, MSM, of the Royal Engineers and later the 4th Royal Welsh Fusiliers, is a small pouch with a single snap, and a long colorful cotton streamer in red, white and blue (the colors of Great Britain).

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Pouch and streamer

Although we do not know for sure, we might assume that the documents were placed in the pouch and dropped over Allied lines as a courtesy, with the streamer attached to make the package more visible. This would seem to show that spirit of knighthood that has so often been mentioned about the flyers in the First World War.

We now return to the story of German leaflets dropped on Paris.

The same story is mentioned in The History of the Great European War, Volume 3, page 16.

After a few days, by 6 September, these visits of enemy aeroplanes became, for a week or two, quite a matter of course, and although on several occasions not only did they do damage to buildings, but even killed some unfortunate children and old men. The people of Paris were determined not to be frightened. As a matter of fact, Parisians gradually acquired the habit of regarding the visits of German aircraft as a form of entertainment, and particularly amusing was the literature, which the tactless, foolish Germans thought, would be good policy to drop upon Paris from their machines. It is inconceivable to imagine that any sane people could have expected to seduce the patriotism of the Parisian by dropping upon him, accompanied perhaps by a bomb, a printed appeal such as the following: ‘The German Army is at the gates of Paris; it only remains for you to surrender. (Signed) Lieutenant von Hiddessen.’ A paper with these words on it, bound up with the German flag, was picked up on the street where a bomb had fallen and just about the time and place that another bomb had mangled and killed a woman and two little children.

Similar leaflets were reported in the German magazine Flugsport, issue of 28 October 1914. In every case the leaflets were dropped over Paris. One leaflet has the text, "Frenchmen: You are being deceived. The Germans are victorious. Beware of the Englishmen and their insincerity."

Another leaflet dropped at the Parc Monceau (like the Hiddessen leaflet attached to a long streamer) said:

We have conquered Antwerp. Soon it is your term.

In one case the Germans dropped an informational leaflet to apprise the French of the fate of some of their captured officers:


To the commander of Paris. From Lt. Hans Steffen, 35 Infantry Regiment.

I am happy to give you information about the following French officers.

(List of French names)

They are in captivity and have asked to send this letter in order to assure their relatives.

And the bombs? I regret that we are at war.

Au Revoir, Parisians,

Hans Steffens,
Flight Lieutenant.

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Life, Liberty and Happiness

A third 1918 leaflet is entitled "Life, Liberty and happiness." This leaflet is for the American troops. Some of the text is:

Life, Liberty and happiness.

So long as the administration is determined to keep the war going there is only one way for you to get out of this miserable fix and that is for you to stop fighting. You can do this honorably. As a freeborn American citizen, you have the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. The American Constitution guarantees you these rights. Exercise them!..."

This leaflet was also depicted in U.S. Official Pictures of the World War, Pictorial Bureau, Washington DC, 1920.

It is interesting to note that the Germans feel that the American soldier has the Constitutional right to refuse to fight. There might have been such an argument made in WWI but in 1950 that loophole was closed when the Congress of the United States established the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ). The UCMJ was the first attempt to turn the existing law into a comprehensive code. The code defines the German request as: "Desertion with intent to avoid hazardous duty or to shirk important service." The penalty in time of war is "Death or such other punishment as a court-martial may direct."

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Germany’s Financial Strength

In a previous leaflet Germany attacks the economy of England and claims they will be bled dry by the war. In this 4-page leaflet Germany goes on to brag about its own strength, pointing out all the gold it has amassed and how it can pay for the cost of the war with no strain to its economy. The Secretary of the Treasury, Dr. Karl Helfferich points out that the last war loan raised four and one half billion marks. He says that the total expenses of Germany’s enemies are about 900 million dollars a month. Meanwhile, the Reichsbank increased its gold reserves from 1,250 million marks to 2,300 million, a full billion, at the beginning of the war. Unlike England, German finances are built on a firm foundation. The German nation “will stand vindicated before the world and the future will be ours.”

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The final leaflet is entitled "THINK IT OVER!" This leaflet is similar to WWII leaflets in that it uses a divide and conquer message to try and drive a wedge between the American troops and their British allies. Some of the text is:


You have had music to march to, flags waving to cheer you on and words of praise and you have left behind you all that is dear to you to come to France to fight the Germans. Until the English wanted you for cannon food you never knew that the Germans were your enemies, but no sooner did England realize that she couldn’t beat the Germans even with the help of nearly all the rest of the savage and civilized world that she persuaded you that the Germans were ‘Huns’ and your deadly foes…"

Certain words just jump at you in this message. For instance, any good propagandist would have used the term "cannon fodder" instead of "cannon food." It doesn’t matter in a white leaflet such as this one that is clearly German in origin. It is disastrous in a black leaflet that attempts to hide its place of origin. The Germans also conveniently forget to mention unrestricted submarine warfare, the sinking of the Lusitania, or the Zimmerman telegram as partial cause for the American war involvement.

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What are we fighting for?

"Max, Prince of Baden", signed a second peace leaflet.  It reprinted a letter sent to President Wilson on 4 October 1918, and Wilson’s reply of 8 October 1918. Some of the text of this leaflet is:

What are we fighting for? The German note: The German Government requests the President of the United States of America to take in hand the restoration of peace, acquaint all belligerent States with this request, and invite them to send plenipotentiaries for the purpose of opening negotiations. It accepts the programme set forth by the President of the United States in his message to Congress on Jan 8, 1918……

Notice that the Germans are already wary of the French and British. They have seen Wilson’s "Fourteen Points" and believe that they can make a fair peace with the help of the American president. Unfortunately, the British and French will demand their pound of flesh in repatriations, and this will lead to German anger, desire for revenge, and World War Two just two decades later.

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What are you still fighting for?

This two-sided leaflet was disseminated in November 2018. It mentions the "fifth winter in the trenches." This leaflet is addressed to everyone, including the French and the Belgians. The message is in English on one side and French on the other. The most interesting aspect of the message is the very formal and dated text, "Ye Britons..." One assumes that because Christmas is mentioned in the propaganda message the Germans were trying to use a more religious Biblical terminology. Of course, it just could just have easily be really bad use of the English language by a German translator.

The Germans use Race Against America

In 2022, about 15 years after I wrote this article, Dr, Jared M. Tracy wrote a book titled VICTORY THROUGH INFLUENCE, Texas A&M University Press, College Station, that discussed the history of Psychological Operations in WWI, WWII, and the Korean War. Although the book mostly covers American operations, it does mention the Central Powers and Germany. As the war neared the end, the Germans sent leaflets to the American forces. Tracy adds (edited for brevity):

They underscored white American's Germanic heritage, offering to welcome back "Every lost sheep that finds its way back to the herd." Aware of racial tensions in the United States... German propagandists invited black soldiers to the homeland "where they do like colored citizens." They asked readers why they fight for a "democracy" full of double standards, "Jim Crow and lynchings."

The American Expeditionary Forces tracked German propaganda, which aimed at getting soldiers to question whether they were willing to die in a war nearing its end. For example, the AEF reported German aviators dropping leaflets with "Austrian Peace Note" on 24 September 1918. "Peace in Sight" and "Why" were dropped on 3 October.

Tracy then quotes some letters sent home from American soldiers at the front:

A little sheet of German propaganda that has been dropped to our men on the front lines by the Hun aeroplanes. They are trying to weaken the morale of our men. What a feeble appeal for us to give ourselves up to them. Our boys only laugh at them and gather them up for souvenirs. They come down every morning like rain and the ground is covered but no one bothers with them.

The Germans are dropping a great lot of propaganda explaining that they hate bloodshed and killing, and they do not want to continue the war, are offering world peace, have become a new Germany, have a nice democratic government, and are nice law-abiding citizens. Also, they are dropping stuff inviting the doughboys to come over and surrender, promising the best of treatment. They are whipped now, and they know it, and even admit it, but they will have to take just a little more time for the fact to percolate thru their fat Dutch heads.

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Coloured Soldiers of the States!

During WWI, Germany did not produce many propaganda leaflets and those that were produced were disseminated very late in the war. This rare 1918 single-sided WWI leaflet is addressed to American “Coloured” soldiers and promises them a nice heated room and plenty of food in the warm south of Germany if they surrender or are captured. For those that are not aware of the gradual American change in the description of people of color, in the 40s they were called “colored,” later slowly changed to “Negro.” Later, that description became “black” and more recently “Afro-American,” in the United States. Notice that in this leaflet they used to British spelling of “Coloured.”

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The Above Leaflet as seen dropped on “Watchmen”

What is interesting about this leaflet is that in October 2019 the HBO TV Channel produced a show called Watchmen. In the second broadcast they depicted a WWI German aircraft dropping this leaflet over black American soldiers. A website called “Monsters and Critics” featured an article by Shawn S. Lealos titled “Watchmen on HBO: Did the Germans really drop leaflets in World War I?” The author stated that they did drop leaflets and showed the one we depict above.

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How Colored People are treated in Germany

This September 1918 leaflet uses the American spelling of “Colored” as it should since it targets Americans. Two black prisoners-of-war are depicted along with a letter they wrote telling of the good treatment in a German POW camp. The leaflet ends with the comment:

There you have the “German atrocities” they keep telling you about, to frighten you from going over to the right side. The want you to make you forget the real atrocities continually committed against the despised colored men in the States.

The back of the leaflet is titled “How Colored People are treated in America,” and quotes a New York World article, “Negroes lynched Wholesale.” It is an excellent “divide and conquer” leaflet.

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As a boy I remember often hearing the story of “Little Black Sambo.” Curiously it was not about Americans at all. Sambo was the hero of a story about a little Indian boy who tricked a bunch of tigers that wanted to eat him and ended up eating them. An artist who drew the pictures used in the book made the boy seem dark and as a result in the United States he was considered a Negro child. About the 1970s I think, there was outrage at the racial aspect of the story and it gradually disappeared. In fact, one restaurant chain named “Sambos” was forced to close its doors.

But, in 1918 Germany prepared an 8-page comic booklet to tell the story of Sambo. He joins the Army as a good patriot and goes to France to fight. He has various adventures, performs heroically, and at the end goes back home and is lynched. The whole thing is a parody of a Rudyard Kipling novel and it is to be sung to the tune of “Tommy Atkins,” a song that tells of unwanted British soldiers that suddenly become popular when the bullets are flying. It is very innovative and imaginative.

The Germans encourage the Irish to revolt

Many Irish saw the World War as an opportunity to win their freedom from the British. They believed in the old adage: “The enemy of my enemy is my friend.” It was not just talk. A deal had been struck with Irish patriot Roger Casement for German rifles. The German ship Libau, masquerading as the Aud, a Norwegian vessel, set sail from the Baltic port of L├╝beck on 9 April 1916, bound for the south-west coast of Ireland. The Libau carried 20,000 rifles, 1,000,000 rounds of ammunition, 10 machine guns, and explosives. The British captured the German ship. Casement was hung as a traitor.

And now to some German leaflets encouraging the Irish to break free from the British.

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The Dawn of Irish Freedom

This two-sided August 1916 leaflet depicts a German Eagle attacking an ape-like Great Britain. A young girl representing Ireland has the opportunity to break away from the ape. The text on the front of the leaflet is:


Declaration of Irish Independence – New York March 4-5 1916

Germany’s Struggle with England is Ireland’s Opportunity.

The back of the leaflet has a long propaganda message titled:


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Troubles in Ireland

This single-sided leaflet is in the form of a newsletter with the news of 10 May through 13 May 1916. As might be expected the news is all bad for the Irish since they rose up and attempted to throw off the British yoke during Easter week, 1916. Some of the comments are:

England continues execution in Ireland! Asquith [Prime Minister of the United Kingdom from 1908 to 1916] informed the House of Commons that these executions being directed by the military authorities, he could not guarantee that further executions would be postponed until Parliament had spoken…

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Erin for ever

This two-sided leaflet was disseminated in 1916. The author calls the leaflet “Our modest and humble little paper Ireland.” The news is all about the British tactics after the Easter rebellion and in the center is an etching of Sir Roger Casement who we are told was “Hung by the thugs” 3 August 1916. Casement is mentioned again on the back of the leaflet:


“The dead who die for Ireland are the only live men in a free Ireland”

Sir Robert Casement

Roger Casement, our Hero and our Chief is no more! The noblest and most chivalrous soul that ever graced this earth has gone to join the phalanx of our glorious Irish Martyrs…We have no tears left to mourn him. They are dried by the fires of hate!

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The better part of valor

Another leaflet dropped on American troops in November 1918 is entitled "The better part of valor. Are you a brave man or a coward? It takes a brave man to stand up for his principles. Cowards stand behind leaders and die, imagining that by doing so they become heroes..." The leaflet goes on to use a twisted logic to explain that those people who refuse to fight and surrender are heroes, while those who stand and die for a cause are cowards.

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Dear Tommy

On occasion the Germans almost seemed to have a wry sense of humor. Here the Germans have apparently won a small bit of land in the trenches and they are thinking of retreating back to their own lines. They leave a message for the British:

Dear Tommy,

Thanks for the loan of this ground. It served its purpose. Now you are welcome to have it back.


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Dear Tommy

There is a second leaflet known to exist on the same paper with the same print. Nobody is willing to say that this is the back of the leaflet but I think it must be. This one says:

Dear Tommy,

You are quite welcome to what we are leaving. When we stop we shall stop, and stop you in a manner you won’t appreciate.


They are apparently retreating but threaten the British with dire consequences once they decide to turn and fight. David L. O’Neal told me:

My assumption of the use of this leaflet is the tactic that the Germans used in vacating forward trenches and allowing the British to take the ground. The attacking British would later find out that German artillery was sighted very accurately on that ground. After a blistering shelling and counter attack to reclaim the previously vacated trenches. After several of these attacks with the high casualty counts…..these leaflets might have been very effective on British morale.

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This German leaflet is clearly dated 22 October 1914 and that is a nice surprise. We hardly ever now the exact date a leaflet was printed. As usual, the Germans try to drive a wedge between the British and their Indian troops. They would produce dozens of such divide and conquer leaflets in the Second World War. Some of the text is:

Do you know what is happening in your native country? Do you know that England (the betrayer of your country and the whole of civilization) has brought your troops here because she wished to be rid of you and feared the uprisings that have meanwhile broken out in your country.

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This strange uncoded German leaflet is all text and appears to be a rare example of the Germans using a fatwa of jihad against the Allies. The language is Urdu, and the script is Devnagari which is used by the Hindus and not by the Muslims who are the apparent targets of the leaflet. It is likely that the target group is not the Muslim but the Hindu and Sikh troops of the British Indian Army. In that case, the aim could be a “divide and conquer” attempt to drive a wedge between the Indian Hindu and Muslim troops in the Allied ranks. The text is:

The High Priest of Islam in Holy Mecca has on the occasion of the Id Festival issued an edict to you [all the Muslims] that declares “jihad” against the English and French.

The King of Turkey has gone on war against the barbaric English, French and Russian nations and his allies are the Afghan people.

[Note: During World War I Afghanistan remained neutral, despite pressure to support Turkey when its sultan proclaimed his nation's participation in a holy war. Afghan Emir Habibullah Khan did entertain a Turco-German mission to Kabul in 1915. The Central Powers agreed to a huge payment and shipment of arms if Afghanistan would attack British India. At the same time the Emir offered to block an attack on India by the Central Powers in exchange for an end to British control of Afghan foreign policy.]

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A Turkish leaflet for the Allies

The Turks dropped propaganda leaflets on the Allies on several occasions. One leaflet referenced in the literature was addressed to Indian soldiers asking why they were fighting for their colonial masters. A second leaflet dropped soon afterwards appealed to African Senegalese troops to stop fighting and risking their lives for their French masters.

The Gallipoli Campaign of World War I that took place on the Gallipoli peninsula in the Ottoman Empire from 25 April 1915 to 9 January 1916. Britain and France launched a naval attack followed by an amphibious landing on the peninsula with the eventual aim of capturing the capital of Constantinople. The naval attack was repelled and, after eight months' fighting, the land campaign also failed and the invasion force was withdrawn to Egypt. The campaign was one of the greatest Ottoman victories during the war and a major Allied failure. 8,709 Australian were killed and 19,441 wounded. 2,779 New Zealanders were killed and 5,212 were wounded. Many of these “Colonial” troops thought that the British has thrown them on the beach to be killed without proper support. This Turkish leaflet uses a “divide and conquer” message to convince the colonial troops that they are dying for the insatiable greed of the British.

We can see from the examples quoted above that the Germans wrote and designed terrible propaganda. Their leaflets were mostly all text with little color and nothing to catch the eye of the enemy and invite him to pick it up. The language was not convincing and in some cases laughable. Worse, the logic was flawed. It is no wonder that their propaganda leaflets were unsuccessful and we do not see the same complaints from the Allied General Staff that we see from the German general staff who bitterly complained that Allied PSYOP sapped the strength and spirit of their armies.

German propaganda is criticized harshly in The Art and Science of Psychological Operations: Case Studies of Military Application, Pamphlet 525-7-1, HQ Department of the Army, 1976:

The German effort floundered largely on national arrogance, bureaucratic inflexibility, and a firm belief in the Clausewitzian precepts of military victory. In short, Imperial Germany failed to communicate.

Garth S. Jowett and Victoria O’Donnell are also unimpressed in German propaganda as they note in Propaganda and Persuasion, Sage Publications, London, 1986. They say in part:

Initial German international propaganda was amateurish, consisting mainly of using enlisted writers and scholars to explain why the Allies were responsible for starting the war. Unfortunately, all they succeeded in doing was to create antagonism in the targeted countries with their arrogance in the face of the atrocity stories coming out of Belgium and France…For once the vaunted German efficiency filed to operate, and there was never and real coordination of the various German propaganda efforts throughout the war…

The biggest philosophical difference was that whereas German propaganda efforts were only able to convey the fact that the war was being fought to avenge the country’s honor, The British were able to make the war appear to be “the war to end all wars,” that is, the war that would defend humanity everywhere.

Adolf Hitler agreed in Mein Kampf:

Did we have anything you could call propaganda? I regret that I must answer in the negative. Everything that actually was done in this field was so inadequate and wrong from the very start that it certainly did no good and sometimes did actual harm. The form was adequate, the substance was psychologically wrong: a careful examination of German war propaganda can lead to no other diagnosis.

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