Monday, 9 August 2021

Book Review: Censorship and Propaganda in World War I: A Comprehensive History

It is amazing how books on World War I and World World War II are still popular. One of the recent books on First World War that I read was Censorship and Propaganda in World War I: A Comprehensive History by Eberhard Demm.

Quite an eye-opener with fascinating facts, this book is must read. 

Below is the detailed review of this book that was published in 2021 by Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly.

Eberhard Demm’s Censorship and Propaganda in World War I: A Comprehensive
History takes us inside the operations of propagandists and censors who shaped patriotic
sentiments and sustained the morale of the Central and Allied powers during the
First World War. Now, at a distance of 101 years from the event, this book provides an
objective understanding of the relevance of censorship and propaganda for a war.
According to Demm, patriotism nurtured nationalistic fervor in three ways: (a) attenuation
of anti-government propaganda, (b) exaggeration of the image of fatherland, and
(c) demonizing of the enemy. In the context of the First World War, Demm argues that,
by carrying out these processes, censors and propagandists orchestrated the war policy
of the government to achieve victory.

Currently a retired professor at the University of Lyon III, France, Demm has been
writing extensively for the past 35 years in English, German, and French on the First
World War and nationalist propaganda. This book not only recapitulates his passion
for underresearched political tools used for relentless indoctrination, but also undertakes
an in-depth analysis of the polemics of the First World War. Demm argues that
rigorous censorship fueled peoples’ consent for war, enabling governments of the warring
states to ensure an unfaltering spirit of patriotism and zeal for fighting. Borne out
of the necessity to ensure security of the military secrets, state-directed censorship
suppressed all information and communication that aroused misconceptions about the
dictates of army and government. Propaganda that worked in tandem with censorship
justified government policies and created mass appeal for sacrifice and discipline.
Censorship and Propaganda undertakes an enormous task to braid together social
and political conditions of the world war with cartoons, caricatures, posters, films,
music, poem, and theater of that era. The book is thoughtfully organized into 12 chapters
dealing with the tactics that both government and society used to (mis)represent
realities and tragedies of the First World War. The book discusses the organization,
limitations, methods employed, and impact of propaganda newspapers, telegraph,
books and brochures, telephonic conversations, and letters of soldiers and civilians in influencing the emotions and behaviors of people called on to sacrifice for fatherland and discredit their enemies.

Coherently structured and lucidly written, this book digs deep to flag various
sources and strategies of soft power, as agents of warring states and neutral states alike
sought to mobilize people and sway public opinion. To be sure, other work has analyzed
the overt and covert usage of censorship and propaganda for the continuity of
war, such as J. D. Squires’s British Propaganda at Home and in the United States from
1914 to 1917; David Welch’s Germany, Propaganda and Total War, 1914-1918: The
Sins of Omission, The Third Reich: Politics and Propaganda, and Germany and
Propaganda in World War I: Pacifism, Mobilization and Total War; Rebecca D’Monte’s
British Theatre and Performance 1900-1950; David Monger’s Patriotism and
Propaganda in First World War Britain: The National War Aims Committee and
Civilian Morale; Stewart Halsey Ross’s Propaganda for War: How the United States
was Conditioned to Fight the Great War of 1914-1918; Nicholas John Cull, David
Holbrook Culbert, and David Welch’s Propaganda and Mass Persuasion: A Historical
Encyclopedia, 1500 to the Present; among many others. However, Demm’s work
stands apart from most of this literature because it expansively covers a range of propaganda
and censorship efforts, comparing and contrasting their efficacy. In addition,
the book discusses social responses (acceptance or refusal) to war propaganda which
depended on class, gender, education, ethnic identity, and age.

What the book lacks is an explanation of the complexity of the sociological and
psychological conditions in which people of the warring states had to operate in the
field of censorship and propaganda. Demm seems to assume that the reader is a student
of political science. He therefore does not fully delve into the historical background
of the war, nor into the people and their means of livelihood (e.g., how did
families earn when men were encouraged to go to war?) that prevailed in the early
20th century. Also, the book focuses somewhat lopsidedly on anti-German propaganda
materials on the part of Allied powers to demonize their enemy, thus undermining the
book’s claim to be a comprehensive account of ways that both sides used to justify
their rationales for war efforts—and atrocities—through censorship and propaganda.
Demm justifies this approach by arguing that Allied powers cautiously reported and
shared information, thus requiring closer inspection of their propaganda messages and

Nevertheless, the book is an informative survey of the popular culture during World
War I, replete with data and statistics. Some of the fascinating sections deal with the
rise of corruption of news agencies, contributions of specific propogandists, war
bonds, and the preponderant role of schoolteachers as propogandists. The book makes
for a good read on history untold, war crimes, and other objectionable aspects of state
secrecy deemed necessary for political imperatives. The concise empirical narratives
of controversial war-time events, at times complemented by illustrations, makes
Censorship and Propaganda a must read for anyone interested in understanding the
forces that maintain social order during war.

Citation: Paul, Aditi, “Review of Eberhard Demm, Censorship and Propaganda in World War I: A Comprehensive History”, Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly, 98 (1), March 2021.

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