Censorship During the War Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

During World War I, at the time the largest and most costly war in human history, censorship was pervasive, involving a complex web of ministries and laws in all belligerent, or warring, nations. Thousands of censors were used on battlefields, in government offices, and in newspaper pressrooms to limit the access of press and public to the war’s often terrible truths. As the war progressed, censorship in the principal combatant nations evolved in strikingly similar ways; for the sake of clarity, World War I censorship can be divided into three general phases, or periods.

World War I ushered in a new era of modern media censorship, creating a proving ground for techniques of government control and propagandistic manipulation of the press which would be used in subsequent conflicts.

During World War I, at the time the largest and most costly war in human history, censorship was pervasive, involving a complex web of ministries and laws in all belligerent, or warring, nations. Thousands of censors were used on battlefields, in government offices, and in newspaper pressrooms to limit the access of press and public to the war’s often terrible truths. As the war progressed, censorship in the principal combatant nations evolved in strikingly similar ways; for the sake of clarity, World War I censorship can be divided into three general phases, or periods.

First Phase

The beginning of the war witnessed the so-called eyewash period, nicknamed later by those who were appalled at tendentious lies and canards that had filled the press of all belligerent nations. This initial phase lasted through 1914, but the inaccuracies were most blatant in August and September. Editors and reporters filled news columns with misleading material, often because they were unable to obtain news from the war zones. Strict military censorship not only kept correspondents from the front but also maintained a nearly complete silence regarding the major battles of fall, 1914. Faced with anxious readers clamoring for war news, editors responded with exhortations to patriotism and fabricated stories of doughty troops relentlessly advancing; one famous French headline, for example, optimistically reported that Allied soldiers were “only five steps from Berlin.”

Editors in the belligerent nations, especially the democracies of Great Britain and France, accepted, with surprisingly little initial protest, the strict military censorship that made it almost impossible to obtain reliable information. In Britain, Lord Kitchener, commanding the British Expeditionary Force, intensely disliked the press. In France, General Joseph-Jacques Césaire Joffre, commanding the French armies, believed, as did most of the French military, that press indiscretions had led to the country’s defeat during the Franco-Prussian War of 1870–1871. He was not about to let such a hazard again befall French military operations.

In fact, neither Germany, Austria-Hungary, nor Russia generally allowed war correspondents at the front during this period. A partial exception was Germany, which, during the first weeks of war, allowed correspondents from neutral countries, such as the United States, to follow German troops as they advanced through northern France. This meant that the press of neutral nations offered a more accurate perception of the fall battles than the press of combatant nations. Reporters who tried to sneak past military police risked being jailed or even executed as spies, although none apparently received the ultimate punishment for trying to evade military censorship.

Accompanying this silence from the front was a haphazard but determined effort to set up a censorship arm of government at home. Wartime press offices, designed to offer censorship guidelines and punishment for “betrayal,” sprouted from all ministries. French censorship was typical: A day before France declared war, a “press office” was set up; two days later, before parliament adjourned to let the government fight unimpeded by politics, the Law of August 5, 1914, forbade publication of a wide variety of news. It covered news of a military nature, such as troop and ship movements; mobilization, armament, and provision operations; and changes in high command. However, it also covered lists of killed and wounded, as well as any news “having a troubling influence on the spirit of the army or population.” This last part was the origin of a new concept—that of political censorship during wartime. It would become the most controversial aspect of censorship during World War I.

In August, 1914, however, the press in most belligerent nations agreed with little protest to harsh limitations on freedom of expression. The key to understanding this, especially in nations such as France and Britain, which had enjoyed great press freedom, is the concept of a short but “sacred union.” In every fighting nation, nearly everyone assumed that the war would be brief: a few weeks, perhaps; a few months, at most; “home by Christmas,” for sure. For this short crisis period, nearly everyone agreed that the most effective and patriotic response was silence, a brief suspension of political discourse during a short war. If for a few weeks there could be no news other than patriotic hyperbole, it did not really matter, because after the war was over—and no country considered the possibility of a long struggle—normality would return.

The tight screws of censorship meant that few people, even in neutral nations, were aware of the scale of slaughter during the fall of 1914. As it became clear that the war would last longer than a few weeks, however, journalists began trying to reclaim their lost rights as reporters, especially in Britain and France.

The Allied military relented slightly at the end of 1914, when Britain, and then France, began to give journalists tours of the front. It was becoming clear to government and military leaders that carefully censored news articles could have a propagandistic effect more powerful than silence.

Second Phase

The second year of war inaugurated a new phase of censorship based not on the elimination of all war news but on the development of a structured system to carefully manage the news. At the beginning of the war, censorship generally developed haphazardly, with no underlying plan or structure. Of the conflict’s major original belligerents, Britain had fought in other wars most recently, and therefore had more experience of press coverage during modern war. France, however, had a stronger central bureaucracy and had enjoyed only three decades of press freedom, while Germany and Austria-Hungary were not committed to democratic principles of a free press, although prewar publications in those countries had been quite outspoken. Russia had never had a free press at all. As censorship coalesced into bureaucracy, France established the most pervasive of all systems. Censors were employed in every city, large and small, to review every publication in France, from the smallest rural magazines to the largest metropolitan dailies. Offending news columns could literally be scraped off the metal plates already molded, leaving huge blocks of blank space in the printed paper. No other country’s press was physically so scarred by censorship.

The capriciousness of political censorship increasingly became an object of press protests. Governments discovered that their censors not only could stop military reports but also could offer a means to control morale on the home front. France’s censorship law against “troubling influence” left censors wide latitude to cut any sort of antigovernment criticism or negative news. Britain’s Defence of the Realm Acts provided the government broad powers to control criticism that might weaken morale, although Britain did not resort to on-site censorship as France did. However, as the terrible human and material costs of a stalemated war often ineptly fought over four hundred miles of front began to become clear, wartime governments also began to realize that, in order to win, public opinion would have to be mobilized for a long siege.

The need to mobilize public opinion, as well as industry, the economy, and men in uniform, became a significant new feature of this war, one which would heavily influence the century’s later wars as well. By 1916 military commanders and government leaders were persuaded: The phases of great secrecy and begrudging acceptance gave way to the war’s third phase of censorship, one in which the United States would play a major role.

Third Phase

Part of World War I lore is the story of the 1916 Verdun battle: The tenacious heroes of French forts, the “sacred way” supplying the front, and the ultimate sacrifices under the most difficult conditions became an inspiration for French and Allied morale throughout the rest of the war. This was, however, a legend produced by the French military’s own correspondents, writer-soldiers in the field who dispatched battle stories to the press back home. The French military had replaced secrecy with an energetic publicity campaign designed to strengthen morale and sway world opinion to the Allied side. Britain, Germany, and soon the United States were also to build elaborate propaganda operations, which provided a blizzard of brochures, photos, articles, and reference materials to the world’s press. A system of battlefield accreditation allowed Allied correspondents greater access to the front, and every government now encouraged reporters to publish more, and still more, about the war, as long as the press published the right kinds of story. Generally speaking, after 1915 no major battle was actually misrepresented in the Allied press.

The United States, outraged over renewed German submarine attacks on neutral ships as well as over the German atrocity stories spread primarily by British propagandists, declared war on the Central Powers in April, 1917. The United States military had been little different from its European counterparts in its intense distrust of the press, but President Woodrow Wilson’s government had learned from the trials and errors of its allies. The Committee on Public Information, directed by journalist George Creel, was charged with coordinating censorship and publicity but avoiding rigid controls; it encouraged the government to be as open and honest with the press as possible.

Still, the appearance of an American censorship more flexible than that of European powers belies the often coercive nature of U.S. censorship law. For accreditation, American war correspondents were required to take an oath not to disclose facts helpful to the enemy, and their sponsoring publications were required to post ten-thousand-dollar bonds to guarantee their proper behavior. Reporters in Europe chafed at the American general John J. Pershing’s rigid control; in one case, New York Tribune correspondent Heywood Broun, fed up with the enforced silence over the U.S. military’s monumental supply blunders, broke the story in December, 1917, after evading on-site censors by returning to the United States. The newspaper forfeited its ten thousand dollars. Pershing was furious.

Another reporter determined to evade military censors, George Seldes, joined a group of five American correspondents shortly after the armistice to sneak into Germany from Luxembourg. The “adventure of the runaway correspondents” made the men celebrities, especially after Seldes and his group landed a short but sensational interview with the German field marshal Paul von Hindenburg. The reporters were arrested and tried in courts-martial on their return to the Allied lines, but they escaped punishment.

At home, American publications generally were not harassed as long as they reflected mainstream, patriotic concerns. Most did. Those that did not, particularly radical and socialist publications, were harassed not only by federal authorities but also by an extensive patchwork of state and local censorship laws designed, as per a government directive to accredited war correspondents, to withhold information liable to “injure the morale of our forces abroad, at home, or among our allies.”

Three new federal laws limited free speech: the Espionage Act (1917), the Trading with the Enemy Act (1917), and the Sedition Act (1918). These formed the first set of U.S. laws controlling press freedom since the early 1800’s, but, influenced by wartime patriotic fervor, few editors complained. Offending publications were denied access to the mails and confiscated from street corners. More than one thousand Americans were sentenced to banishment or long jail terms under the Espionage and Sedition acts, although most of their jail terms were commuted after the fear of German spies and postwar Bolsheviks faded in the early 1920’s.

During World War I, the United States and other combatant nations established a sprawling web of censorship and propaganda unprecedented in its comprehensive influence. Germany was perhaps least skillful of the major powers in organizing this network to mobilize public opinion. Such Germans as Adolf Hitler and Joseph Goebbels, however, so obsessed with the control of public opinion, clearly learned from their enemies’ successes in World War I; they would use these and other, similar techniques to great effect during the Nazi era, which would begin a mere fifteen years after World War I ended.

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