In our time of social media, the First World War strikes us as a highly modern, mediatized mass-event. People from all over the world, including those distant from the battlefields, those living in neutral nations, those in the colonies, could read about the war, view it, and listen to it. Both the traditional written media (newspapers, leaflets, novels, poetry) and the old and new visual and aural media (photography and film, cartoons, paintings and posters, the phonograph and wax cylinders) informed and influenced a global audience.

In neutral countries, these media did not only serve an informative purpose, they were often the products of meticulously orchestrated but often shady propaganda campaigns by the belligerent nations. Building on an allegedly shared culture, race, or ideology with these neutral states, the Allied and Central Powers bombarded the neutrals and their colonies with political, economic, and cultural propaganda, in an attempt to win them over. To a large extent, propaganda politics were the result of a negotiation between belligerent officers and local, neutral intellectuals. Neutral countries were transformed into international contact zones where cultural protagonists such as writers, film makers, translators, artists, playwrights, propaganda officers, journalists, and editors from both belligerent and neutral nations had secret encounters with one another. They discussed possible strategies and propaganda themes such as atrocities, a future world order, and they shared cultural ideals to influence neutral opinion.

These encounters resulted in the production of diverse cultural outputs, such as translations, foreign theatre tours, and film screenings, carried out by editors, translators, and propaganda officers acting as go-betweens. Of course, these encounters between belligerents and neutrals were not only stimulated by geopolitics and ideology, but also by professional and financial motivations. The resulting cultural exchanges could be hybrid, bilateral, or one-sided in nature, and could lead to the appropriation, reinterpretation, contestation, or rejection of foreign cultures.

With regards to belligerent propaganda, experiences by those on the home front are somewhat similar to those within the neutral countries. As cultural mobilisation of the home front was vital for the continuation of the war, it was also confronted with selective and biased information. State officials also tried to control private correspondence. Soldiers wanted to inform their family members back home of their well-being and the latest developments at the front, but these encounters were regulated by the authorities who censored the messages or provided pre-printed materials.

Cultural propaganda was never confined to the European continent. The mobilisation of colonial soldiers into the European armies and German-Ottoman efforts to revolutionise inimical empires led to the design of various means of (anti-)imperial propaganda. Alliances between German agents and dissident colonial intellectuals were established to write pan-Islamic and anti-colonial pamphlets in multiple languages, which were targeted at colonials all over the world. German agents used neutral countries as secret routes to transport inflammatory brochures, activists, money, and rifles to the British and French colonies. Confronted with dissident voices and activities in the colonies, the Allies developed counterpropaganda, in the form of brochures, films, and newspaper articles, all the while using the skills and knowledge of loyal colonial intellectuals.

In this collection of sources, we can explore how cultural propaganda was set up in different geographical settings, from the neutral countries and the colonies to the belligerent home front. The sources are not limited to a selection of the ‘final products’ such as films, translations, and exhibitions, which mediated these encounters. Attention is also paid to the production of these products, which allows us to reveal parts of the propaganda machine ‘behind the scenes’ and the multifaceted and often shady nature of propaganda. As well as a variety of media, including written, visual, and oral sources, this collection also represents different genres, such as reports from official propaganda services, correspondence between local intellectuals and belligerent officers, manifestos, leaflets, poems, posters, cartoons, novels, newspaper articles, and film advertisements.

Geert Buelens & Tessa Lobbes