A more civilized era, depicted in The Surrender of Breda by Valasquez  

From Advance to Barbarism

The Beginnings of War Propaganda

Civilized warfare: The Surrender of Breda by Valasquez

Seen in perspective it is now clear that the First World War was an unqualified disaster for the White Race. The first and greatest sufferers were the German people who after passing through a decade of humiliation and acute economic distress entered a decade of feverish activity and reckless political ambitions culminating in 1945 in a far greater and more complete disaster than that of 1918. The Nazi regime of Adolf Hitler was in essence a natural reaction to the flagrant injustice and hypocrisy of the Versailles Treaty.

Sooner or later all the peoples of Europe were destined to suffer from the consequences of the First World War. The military, moral and economic supremacy of Europe over Asia and Africa was lost for ever. The Yellow Race and Black Race no longer regarded the White Race as a distinct kind of superior being, invincible on the battlefield and guided by higher moral standards than those of coloured peoples. After 1945 the intelligence of the White Man was assessed by reference to his indulgence in two suicidal world wars for no rational purpose and in which victors and vanquished were obviously both bound to be losers: the White Man’s claim to be guided by higher moral standards was judged by reference to the abominable atrocities which White peoples had committed on each other during two world wars. To an impartial observer whether an Asiatic or an African it was clear from the joint testimony of both sides that the White peoples had behaved to each other with ruthless cruelty and reckless perfidy and it was hard for onlookers to say which group of antagonists was the worst.

Only in regard to the gigantic scale on which it was fought did the First World War surpass all previous conflicts. No leader of genius arose on either side to direct the fighting. Huge masses of men, mostly hurriedly trained civilians, were blindly hurled against each other supported by an unprecedented expenditure of ammunition. Naturally the loss of life resulting from the employment of such tactics was on a scale hitherto unimaginable. On the first day of the great Somme Offensive in 1916, the casualties of the British alone amounted to 60,000. After four months of continual and furious fighting both sides were utterly exhausted but no noteworthy advantage had been gained. Sir Douglas Haig complacently reported that the powers of resistance of the German Army must have been substantially reduced by such a slaughter, and set about preparing for a similar mass-offensive next year. It is estimated that during the Somme Offensive, three million men, the flower of the young manhood of the three leading European races, took part and over a million of them became casualties.

It can hardly be said that the First World War led to any fundamental developments in the art of war. The recently invented aeroplane was rapidly improved in order to serve as a weapon of war; the invention of the tank restored to the attacking side the advantage it had enjoyed over the defence before the introduction of quick-firing weapons and barbed wire. Surgery made great advances; those injured by the new scientific methods of destruction were patched up by new scientific methods of treatment. Only in one respect did the First World War initiate an entirely novel development and this was a political and not a military development. Until 1914 wars had been fought to secure some specific and limited aim. War propaganda had consisted of little more than vague assertions of the essential justice of this aim and haphazard abuse of the leaders of the enemy state. Although officially encouraged and inspired, it entirely lacked official planning and direction. It was intended merely to intensify normal patriotic feeling. The actual fighting was of course done by professional soldiers who obeyed their orders and needed no propaganda fictions to stimulate their zeal. But in 1914 an entirely novel situation arose. It was not only necessary to work out a plausible explanation of Britain’s participation in the war. It was imperative to develop a technique of presenting this explanation so skilfully and convincingly that nation-wide enthusiasm for the war would be generated.

In due course the Fourteen Points were propounded to an admiring world. The method of presentation adopted was an entirely new departure in international politics but the principles upon which this presentation was based had long been partially understood. For many years before 1914, a mass of empirical knowledge concerning the reactions of the human mind to certain astutely applied stimuli had been gradually accumulating and had been frequently turned to account for personal gain by various gifted individuals. As long before as the time of Charles II, Titus Oates had achieved results which in their way have never been surpassed. No emotional engineer of modern times can be compared with that French woman of genius, Madame Therese Humbert, who, at the end of the nineteenth century, for nearly twenty years kept the most astute bankers and financiers of Paris under her spell to her own great profit and their great loss. The celebrated Tichborne case of 1872 and the equally remarkable Druce case of 1907, the two most celebrated English fraud cases, both promoted by publicity, demonstrated how limitless is the credulity of the general public and what an imposing structure can be erected from a scientific blending of distorted facts and skilful fabrications.18 It was not, however, until 1914, that it was realized that what could be achieved by Orton the Wagga Wagga butcher and by Druce the Melbourne carpenter for their own personal advantage could be achieved on a far wider scale for the national good by persons of the highest integrity employed by the State and with all the resources of the State behind them. As so frequently happens in contemporary life, the haphazard lessons learned by private enterprise were adapted, systematized, and developed by the community. In this instance, at least, nationalization was triumphantly vindicated by the decisive results achieved.

It was the opinion of two such dissimilar observers as Lord Northcliffe and Adolf Hitler that the war of 1914-1918 was won by the war propaganda of the Allies. On the one hand, the peoples of the Allies were inspired in their war efforts by loud professions of genuine, if vague, ideals. On the other hand, the German people were never clear for what exactly they were fighting. When hostilities were progressing favourably they were told their reward would be the annexation of some foreign territory; when hostilities took an unfavourable turn, they were told that they were fighting for their existence – although their enemies were pledged to conclude a peace to which no reasonable objection could be made.

By winning the war, Allied propaganda can be said to have fully justified itself and yet it entailed serious drawbacks, the full effects of which were not experienced until afterwards. Obviously, this propaganda campaign violated two of the principles upon which Emeric de Vattel had been most insistent. In the first place, as we have seen, he had laid down that “all offensive expressions indicating sentiments of hatred, animosity and bitterness” must be avoided so that the way to a negotiated settlement might not be closed. Secondly, he had insisted that war aims must be limited and specific and should “not be mixed up with Justice and Right nor any of the great passions which move a people.”

In support of these contentions, Vattel had, in brief, argued that the only justification for any war is that it will lead to a lasting peace. Now a lasting peace can only arise from a freely negotiated settlement. Emotion in any form is an impediment to negotiation. Offensive expressions and appeals to abstractions arouse emotion. Therefore, offensive expressions and appeals to abstractions must be avoided in warfare.

The war of 1914-1918 may be said to have been won by copious and adroit use of offensive expressions and appeals to abstractions. In accordance with Vattel’s argument, it did not lead to a lasting peace. Further, Vattel contended that a harsh dictated peace must inevitably arouse a determination in the defeated side to reverse it. Adolf Hitler can best be interpreted as the incarnation of this determination.

During the course of the struggle, one final opportunity was vouchsafed the peoples of Europe by indulgent destiny to escape the natural penalty of disunity and disorder. In European Civil War No. 8a, the belligerents proved so equally matched that after three years of desperate conflict no decisive advantage had been gained. Truculent self-confidence had been everywhere abashed; the German Army had achieved no second Sedan at the Marne and no second Trafalgar had been achieved by the British Navy at Jutland; far from reconquering Alsace, the French Army had failed to protect Northern France from enemy occupation; the Russian Army and the Austrian Army had each sustained a series of humiliating defeats; and the Italian Army had recently demonstrated at Caporetto how far and how fast panic-stricken human beings can run. In every country and among all classes, realization had come that war was no longer the polite orderly sport of kings as it had been in the eighteenth century, but had become a tedious, costly, and murderous business; in every country and among all classes war-weariness and disillusionment had become predominant. To those who objected that three years of frantic endeavour and terrible slaughter must not be wasted, it could be answered that the best and, in fact, the only justification of so much toil and bloodshed would be not some petty territorial annexations or frontier adjustments but an enduring peace, securely based on the realization by all concerned that in a present-day war no one benefits. Had peace been concluded in 1917, for several generations at least the militarists and armament manufacturers would have striven in vain to banish the memory of such an experience.

The golden opportunity to establish a lasting settlement must have been obvious to many at the time. It was left, however, to the Marquess of Lansdowne alone to draw public attention to it. Representing not merely sane public opinion in Great Britain or even sane contemporary opinion in Europe, but voicing the protest against futile squabbling which had been so often expressed by isolated European thinkers since the dawn of the Middle Ages, on November 27, 1917, Lord Lansdowne wrote a letter to The Times urging that negotiations for peace should be commenced. “The prolongation of this war will spell ruin for the civilized world,” he wrote. “If the war is to be brought to a close in time to avoid a world-catastrophe, it will be because on both sides the peoples realize that it has already lasted too long.”

In attempting to influence a public suffering from acute paranoia by an appeal to reason, Lord Lansdowne displayed the highest moral courage. He also displayed keen political foresight, although we may not be able to credit him with vision of all that was at stake. If a peace without victors and without vanquished had been concluded in 1917, it would have been a peace primarily the work of Europeans and, consequently, there would have been no occasion to pay humble homage to President Wilson and his gospel of “self-determination” which inevitably entailed an early dissolution of the British Empire; Germany’s Unknown Soldier would have remained merely one of the obscure millions who had fought in the front line for their fatherland; the return of Alsace by Germany to France would have removed the principal subject for ill-feeling between the two chief European states; the ruling classes in Russia would have quickly regained the upper hand; Russia would have remained a member of the European family of nations and Lenin’s attempt to restore the Eurasian Empire of Genghis Khan in the shape of a militant communist commonwealth would have been stifled at its inception; and unthinkable would have remained such features of contemporary life as the indiscriminate killing of civilians by terror attacks from the air, the mass deportations of populations numbering millions, the official looting of private property, the systematic sabotage of enemy industries, and the consignment of prisoners of war to the gallows or to slavery of indeterminate duration. Perhaps of even greater interest to many in the future will be the fact that Asia would have remained a vast but remote area beyond the Urals and not, by swallowing half Europe, have extended to the banks of the Oder within four flying hours of London. No date in human history suggests more pregnant might-have-beens than the date of Lord Lansdowne’s letter.

But habits engrained during a thousand years are not easily overcome. The editor of The Times, before falling into a swoon, consigned the letter, albeit it was the letter of a peer and an ex-cabinet minister, to his wastepaper basket. The editor ofThe Daily Telegraph was, however, made of sterner stuff: greatly daring, he published the letter. Before writing it, Lord Lansdowne had disclosed his intention to a number of prominent statesmen – including Mr. Balfour, Lord Hardinge and the American, Colonel House – who had whispered approval of his views. But when the storm broke, these gentlemen preserved a discreet silence. The British Government expressed horror at the mere suggestion that the objects of the war should be disclosed; the emotional engineers were given their orders and, in a few days, Lord Lansdowne was the most unpopular man in the country. Thereafter, those who continued to fight for European sanity were fighting a battle finally lost. (pp. 148-154)


18. Both these celebrated legal actions concerned great fortunes which were claimed by impudent impostors. In both the claims were supported by reckless perjury. With enormous expense and trouble both claims were finally conclusively disproved. Nevertheless, in both cases a numerous section of the British public remained unshakably convinced that the impostors had been unjustly treated.

F. J. P. Veale, Advance to Barbarism: The Development of Total Warfare From Serajevo to Hiroshima. Mitre Press (London) 1968.

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