1914: Then Came Armageddon

United Against Germany

“Nothing is more important, however, than the origins of this conflict, and the doom which awaits Civilization unless Kultur is crushed.”

William Roscoe Thayer, 6 March 1916

The German Aggressor

Aiming to garner support for the war, Western publications depicted Germany as the aggressor, publicizing Germany’s alleged crimes. These encompassed everything from “robbery” and “incendiarism” to “murder,” “killing the wounded,” and “sheltering behind women.”

 “Germany’s Confession: The Lichnowksy Memorandum,” an American pamphlet, argues in 1918 that Germany has finally confessed to starting the First World War. In this account, German elites are the primary culprits: “Who bears the blame that the German people were goaded into a furious hate and thereby into a war spirit? Only those in the service of the Junker class, who are the ruling military caste in Germany.” Additionally, pro-war pamphlets in the United States often featured images of “German victims,” usually French or Belgian women and children.

Two french children with wounds
Image of two wounded French children, “Thousands of Little Children of France are Crying to You to Save Them from German Frightfulness”

Perceptions in Western Texts

Pillage, rape, arson, and murder are the common practice of our enemies… prov[ing] an astonishing degeneration in German habits of thought since 1870.
. . . .
Almost everywhere citizens of every age have been dragged from their homes and led into captivity, many have died or been killed on the way.
. . . .
Acts committed in the violation of the laws of war and affecting combatants, murder of wounded or prisoners, stratagems forbidden by international conventions, attacks on doctors and stretcher-bearers, have been innumerable in all the places in which there has been fighting.”

German Atrocities in France: A Translation of the Official Report of the French Commission, 1915
US poster depicting an American soldier shoving a German soldier as he tries to grab a woman and child in front of a flaming background

Given World War I’s international scope, pamphlets and propaganda were crucial in shaping international opinion in favor of the Allies and Central Powers. Western pamphlets aimed to align American perceptions with those of Western Europe, further solidifying the interconnectedness of the Allies. Within both British and American publications, authors focused on the atrocities committed by the Central Powers. France was often depicted as the greatest victim of the German effort and used as a catalyst for support of the Allied effort. These atrocities were also reported in a French commission on the Violation of International Law and circulated widely.

The French commission offers excruciating details of the crimes committed, especially against women and children, and enunciates the gross extent of international law violations by the Germans. Most damning perhaps is the French report concerning German mistreatment of wounded French combatants, injuring them with crude weaponry, such as scissors, before robbing them of their weapons, possessions, and dignity.

British pamphlets sought to create greater unity within their colonies by boasting of their loyalty, signaling to the world the expansive strength of the British Empire and, in turn, the Allies. According to the pamphlet “Reality,” the Central Powers “had entirely misunderstood and misread the nature of that bond of love, of loyalty, of brotherhood that bound England and her self-governing Colonies into one mighty Empire. They had failed to grasp the fact that the children of the Empire had learnt ‘how good and how sweet is it for brothers to live together in unity’ under the protection of the British flag. Three years ago there was a crucial test of the Empire, and quick as a lightning flash came the response from overseas.”

In response to German pamphlets circulating within Europe and North America claiming a supposed defensive war effort, American pamphlets authored by Germans offered a confession of guilt, effectively damning the German reputation and undermining their propaganda. Germany’s Confession: The Lichnowsky Memorandum (1918) by Prince Karl Marx Lichnowsky, former ambassador to Britain examines German exiles’ attempts to expose what they perceive as lies spread about the German government and their so-called aggression. The pamphlet states:

American poster depicting a dramatized German soldier looming over a landscape and looking out into water with blood on his bayonet and hands.

“It has come at last. After protesting innocence and brazenly denying guilt for nearly four years, Germany has admitted her crime against civilization.
. . . .
After setting forth all the damning evidence against Germany, Prince Lichnowsky sums it up: ‘First. We encouraged Count Berchtold (the Austrian foreign minister) to attack Serbia, although no German interest was involved and the danger of a world war must have been known to us… Second. We rejected Great Britain’s plan of mediation… Third…with Count Berchtold willing to listen to reason, before Austria was touched, on the mere mobilization of Russia, we set out an ultimatum to Russia and on the 31st of July, we declared war on Russia, although the Czar had pledged his word that as long as negotiations were going on not one man would be sent on the march. We thus deliberately destroyed every chance at a peaceful settlement.
. . . .
And finally Herr von Jagow, Germany’s foreign minister at the outbreak of the war… makes this startling admission, among others: ‘I by no means share the opinion prevalent among us today that England laid all the mines for the outbreak of the war; on the contrary, I believe in Sir Edward Grey’s love of peace and in his earnest wish to arrive at an agreement with us.’. . . .
Let us establish the facts. The war was not popular in England; it also was not popular in Russia and France. But it has become popular…We, however, have for almost four years been inoculated with the view that ‘England laid all the mines which caused the war’— a view which the Secretary of State (Von Jagow), in accordance with the evidence of the ambassador (Prince Lichnowsky), has now declared to be false!’”

Germany’s Confession: The Lichnowksy Memorandum, 1918.

Beyond stating the mere facts of German guilt present within this pamphlet, the pamphlet acknowledges the ignorance concerning the truth of the war:

“We were then fully convinced that the program of English statesmen consisted of nothing less than to stop Germany’s commercial and colonial expansion. With us one-half of the world of the western hemisphere was convinced through the press of Germany. We believed in the press of the old fatherland, which preached hatred against England everywhere, following its governmental press, where the German voice was sounded… The blame for the bloodshed lies with the German Government…It is to be remembered that these words are not those of an Englishman. They are words of the noblest of the German nation…the pan-Germans in their megalomania are the ones who brought about this calamity upon the German people.”

Victims of Germany: Women and Children of France

A Defensive War?

To combat rising anti-German sentiment following the invasion of Belgium, pro-German authors contended that Germany was fighting a defensive war and was not the aggressor. With France, England, and Russia already aligned at the time of publication, “Truth About Germany: Facts About the War” was printed and distributed within the United States in 1914, hoping to find an ally in the American government by presenting the German truth of the war. Written by American academics, this pamphlet promised “correctness, completeness, and veracity.”

The pamphlet begins with a strong condemnation of war and the reaffirmation of a German hope for peace: 

“It deeply distresses us to see two highly civilized nations, England and France, joining the onslaught of autocratic Russia. That this could happen, will remain one of the anomalies of history. It is not our fault: we firmly believed in the desirability of the great nations working together… There was no cause for war between Western Europe and us, no reason, why Western Europe should feel itself constrained to further the power of the Czar… The war has severed us from the rest of the world, all our cable communications are destroyed. But the winds will carry the mighty voice of justice even across the ocean… Do not believe the mischievous lies that our enemies are spreading about!”

With hopes to consolidate support for Germany, this pamphlet turns to address “lies” spread by what Germany believed to be slanderous Western news:

“Germany has now not only to battle against a world in arms, but it must also defend itself against lies and slanders which have been piled up around it like a hostile rampart… Germany is shut off as with a hedge from the outside world, and the world is supplied solely with news given out by our enemies.”

“Let us select several facts as examples and as evidence – facts connected with the preparation of this war, as well as with the conduct of it thus far… All the cables controlled by the English-French-Russian coalition disseminate the lie about the ostensibly ‘preventive war’ that Germany wishes and prepared for. The German ‘White Book’’ prints documents proving the white purity of the German conscience as represented by the Kaiser, Chancellor, and people… What Russia did was more than a mere attack, it was a treacherous assault. The following fact[s] prove this: The German mobilization was ordered on August 1, whereas Russia began to mobilize fully four weeks earlier, or about the beginning of July… These confiscated papers prove that Russia hoped to be able to mobilize against Austria before Germany could get official information on Russia’s measures.”

In concluding this pamphlet, after presenting a series of German rebuttals to Western claims, the authors “appeal to American friends,” citing the extensive trade history between the United States and Germany as grounds for an alliance. Additionally, they seek to appeal to the moral high ground of Americans:

“To know that we have American friendship in this struggle will mean a great moral support for us in the coming trying days, for we know that the country of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln places itself only on this side of a just cause and one worthy of humanity’s blessing.”

German poster depicting U-Boats encircling the British isle.
“Buy War Loans for U-Boats Against England” German Postcard

Prince Lichnowsky, the author of the Lichnowsky Memorandum, was the German ambassador to England at the outbreak of World War I and critical of Germany’s execution of the war, especially the violation of Belgian neutrality. This publication displays how Lichnowsky blamed German foreign policy for the beginning of the war, whereas pro-German pamphlets blamed the “autocratic” rule in Russia, England, and France.

This memorandum was not intended for mass distribution but rather for personal family archives, allowing Lichnowsky to speak more openly concerning his reservations about the war. In a section entitled “Berlin was War-like,” Lichnowsky recalls returning to Germany following his diplomatic trips and urging for the threat of violence to be reduced:

“When I arrived in Berlin I saw the Imperial Chancellor, and said to him that I regarded our foreign situation as very satisfactory, since our relations with England were better than they had been for a very long time past. I also remarked that a pacifist Ministry was in power in France.

Herr von Bethmann Hollweg seemed not to share my optimism, and he complained about Russian armaments. I tried to calm him, and insisted especially that Russia had no interest in attacking us, and that such an attack would, moreover, never obtain the support of England and France, as both countries wanted peace… Dr. Simmermann (the Under Secretary), who was representing Herr von Jagow (Foreign Secretary) showed an unmistakable animosity [in his work] against Russia, who, he said, was everywhere in our war. Difficulties about commercial policy were also involved. Of course, I was not told that General von Moltke (Chief of General Staff) was pressing for war.”

Lichnowsky, after establishing a general acceptance of war within Berlin, continues to offer harsh criticism of the Triple Alliance in the war, blaming it for tainting the Germans:

“I am no enemy of Austria, or Hungary, or Italy, or Serbia, or any other State; I am only an enemy of the Triple Alliance policy, which was bound to divert us from our aims, and to bring us on to the sloping plane of Continental policy.”