I Introduction

Psychological warfare is as old as warfare itself, and reliable records show it was used by all the early empires of the world.1  In Europe, the advent of the printing press in the mid fifteenth century opened up the possibility of using propaganda to reach ever larger numbers of people.

There are many intended functions of propaganda, and it can be directed at combatants, civilian populations of all sides of a conflict, and other “neutral” people or countries.2  This article will include material produced by government agencies, focusing on the British Warfare Executive during World War II.

It is useful to keep in mind Carl von Clausewitz’ ideas on information in war: “A great part of the information obtained in war is contradictory, a still greater part is false, and by far the greatest part is of a doubtful character” ( from: On War, 1832).

II Leaflets and Posters

Propaganda as we understand it today was used well before World War I to sway public opinion during the French and American Revolutions. The scale of its use increased dramatically with the start of the Great War.

Balloon and aircraft drops were used by both sides during World War I, and were often meant to be seen by soldiers in the trenches, to undermine morale by overestimating the numbers of fighters on the other side, or call into question the judgment of their own superiors.

An example of a British leaflet directed to soldiers in the German trenches shows a skull drinking soldiers from a glass with “Germany” written on it, calling it “Hell”.

Leaflets such as this were bundled together for release (see the hole in the upper left corner of the sheet).

DIE HEFE (Hell), WWI leaflet reproduced from United Kingdom National Archives
(Courtesy of www.psywar.org)


“Help us win! Sign up for war bonds”, 1917. Designed by Fritz Erler.
(Courtesy of www.dhm.de/lemo/kapitel/erster-weltkrieg/propaganda

On the home front, people were influenced by patriotic fervour and fear. Below is an example of a German poster used as the war dragged on. Food shortages, inflation and general economic collapse wearied the population of all the combatant countries. Intended to create a bond between the population of Germany and its soldiers at the front, this poster encouraged people to contribute to the war effort by investing in war bonds.



This poster is on display at the Comox Air Force Museum in the section on World War I.

In Canada, during WWI, young men were urged to volunteer with an array of recruitment posters appealing to patriotism and focused on joining a battalion near their home. This poster shows a soldier thinking of others who he believes should also be volunteering for service, equating service with being a ”man”, and war with a “real game”.

Courtesy of www.ww1propaganda.com/world-war-1-posters



Many leaflets were intended to intimidate combatants, such as the one above, a German example which was used against Allied troops about to land at Italian beaches such as Anzio in the first half of 1944.

Courtesy of www.medalsofengland.com

“Our nationalism, your salvation. Our socialism, your future.”
(Courtesy of www.verzetsmuseum.org

This poster was directed at the Dutch population under German occupation during World War II, intended to convince people their future would be much better if they supported Nazi government and values. It is questionable how effective this would have been, other than preaching to the already converted. Conditions such as food shortages, censorship and constant harassment would have made this alternative unpalatable to almost everyone. The picture of the blond woman holding a baby is a thinly veiled clue to the belief that the Dutch were ethnically Germanic, and therefore acceptable in the wider Nazi concept of ethnic “purity”.


The intent of psychological warfare is clearly to appeal to basic human emotions, such as fear, the need to affiliate with like minded others, and culturally specific feelings about family, home, and ties to the land. There is an attempt to dress emotional appeal up as reason, playing into the belief that what appeals to both the mind and heart is more likely to be objectively true.



1 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_propaganda#Pre-modern_precedents

2 Demm, Eberhard. Propaganda at Home and Abroad, 7 June 2017, p.1



http://www.dhm.de/lemo/kapitel/erster-weltkrieg/propaganda 26 Jan 2018

https://www.psywar.org/seftondelmer. 28 January 2018

http:// www.verzetsmuseum.org   26 January 2018

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Airborne_leaflet_propaganda   1 February 2018

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_propaganda 1 Frebruary 2018

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sefton_Delmer 2 February 2018

Burchell, Andrew. Crossman and Psychological Warfare, published by author at https://warwick.ac.uk/services/library/mrc/explorefurther/digital/crossman/urss/shaef/ , 2012.

Demm, Eberhard. Propaganda at Home and Abroad, 7 June 2017. Published by author at https://encyclopedia.1914-1918-online.net/pdf/1914-1918, downloaded 2 February 2018

Richards, Lee. The Day is Coming! British Aerial Propaganda to Germany 1940-44, published at www.psywar.org by author, 1996-2003

Rowen, Robert. Gray and Black Radio Propaganda Against Nazi Germany, New York Military Affairs Symposium, 2003

Taylor, Philip M., ed. Allied Propaganda in World War II: The Complete Record of the Political Warfare Executive (FO 898), Primary Source Microfilm and the UK National Archives, 2005.

Wortman, Marc. The Fake British Radio Show that Helped Defeat the Nazis, published at https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history, 28 February 2017