Newspapers & Magazines

Newspapers and magazines were the most important medium of mass communication in the First World War. In the decades prior to 1914, due to increasing literacy rates and cheaper production and distribution costs, newspapers had become available in all corners of Europe. The various publications reflected – and shaped – different regional, religious, social, or political viewpoints, and many households subscribed to several daily, weekly, or monthly editions.

In the European colonies in Africa and Asia, a small but growing print market had also developed. Most titles appeared in European languages and catered to European colonials or a small number of educated local elite. Non-European publications functioned as both tools of colonial power and propaganda, as well as being fora for anti-colonial critique. Even though the vast majority of colonised subjects were illiterate, public readings brought the news to people even in the more remote regions.

The outbreak of war in August 1914 was the first global news event. Within a little as a few hours, or at the most a few days, newspapers all across the world reported not just on the developments in Europe, but also on the potential consequences of these events for people living in neutral countries and colonies not directly affected by the war. The hunger for news increased circulation numbers, buoying the press. But the consumption of news alarmed military and civilian authorities and precipitated desires to control the publication of information deemed sensitive, leading to the implementation of official censorship.

Most governments soon realised the potential for influencing public opinion through the press and established professional departments for war propaganda. Editors of newspapers had to balance between reporting about political and military developments and the perpetuating patriotic sentiments. Most publications portrayed their nation’s respective enemies in increasingly negative stereotypes, drawing on pre-war sentiments and exaggerations. The portrayal of German soldiers as ‘barbarians’ in the Entente press or the representation of French and British colonial soldiers as ‘wild hordes’ in German papers are but two such examples. This ‘propaganda battle’ was not only carried out in the combatant countries themselves, but also in the press of the neutral nations and their colonies. To win the backing of the neutrals, the Entente and Central Powers presented – with the help of local supporters – perspectives, justifications, and aims for the war and attempted to discredit their opponents.

Civilian readers in all countries not only followed the general development of the war, but paid particular attention to the theatres of war, where friends and family members were stationed. Illustrated magazines, printed maps, photographs, and drawings of battles facilitated a detailed understanding of events for readers far away, allowing their readers to familiarise themselves with modern weaponry, troops' transport, and military infrastructure. Small or remote places that were sites of important confrontations – like Verdun, Caporetto, Gallipoli, or Tannenberg – became not only household names but, through the swift publication of photographs, could be linked with distinct imagery.

Reciprocally, newspapers functioned – together with letters and postcards – as an important link between soldiers and their home communities. Soldiers cherished opportunities to continue reading their local newspapers and subscription magazines from home while on service. Many papers also published private letters or photographs sent in by local men serving abroad and provided regular reports on their lives at the front and their experiences in foreign countries.

However, just as important as the press were the various soldier newspapers published by most forces for the duration of the war. These publications numbering thousands of titles – ranging from a few improvised and hectographed pages to professionally printed and distributed newspapers – aimed to both inform and entertain the soldiers, and to reinforce a sense of community and solidarity. While the majority were published under strict military censorship, these newspapers nonetheless offer an important insight into everyday life at the front.

All newspapers and magazines that were published during the war were constrained by the restricted mobility of their reporters, decreasing resources, and official and self-censorship. Yet these publications remain irreplaceable sources for historians to understand the variations and shifts in thoughts and opinions that influenced and reflected the public’s attitude to a war that impacted on every society across the globe.

Daniel Steinbach