You Want Propaganda? Now This Is a Story About Propaganda


Mr. Fleming's latest book is The Illusion of Victory: America in World War I (Basic Books, 2003). He is a member of the board of directors of HNN.

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As the media becomes more and more pervasive in daily life, one of the fastest growing historical fields is the study of how certain nations or groups or individuals have manipulated the news for their own purposes. There are few better examples than the British and American demonization of Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany before and during World War I.

Wilhelm II was a juicy target. Before the war, Lord Northcliffe, the conservative British press lord, had regularly abused him as a warmonger and a menace. A grandson of Queen Victoria, the Kaiser had a prickly relationship with his British royal cousins and a tendency to shoot off his mouth about Germany's martial prowess and its right to a "place in the sun." He was also fond of discoursing on the danger of "the yellow peril" -- the growing power of Japan -- and the superiority of white northern European Protestants. One pundit dubbed him a German version of Theodore Roosevelt.

Prone to nervous breakdowns -- he suffered three in the five years preceding the war -- the Kaiser was extravagantly fond of gorgeous military uniforms, perhaps an attempt to achieve masculinity in spite of a withered arm. At his desk, he sat in a saddle because it made him feel like a warrior. His gaunt face, which featured haughtily curled mustaches, made him a hostile cartoonist's dream.

Soon the Kaiser, who had little more control over his armies than King George V of England had over the British Expeditionary Force, was being blamed for rapes and murders in Belgium and called a megalomaniac with a hunger to rule the world. From here it was only a short step to calling him "the Mad Dog of Europe" and "The Beast of Berlin." The British hired a Dutch cartoonist, Louis Raemakers, to portray the Kaiser as a cross between a Cro-Magnon primitive and a slavering crocodile. Raemakers' handlers made sure he was hailed as a great artist and distributed books of his caricatures in the United States, one of them with an introduction by Prime Minister Herbert Asquith. When the artist visited the United States, Woodrow Wilson invited him to the White House.

In the wake of this tidal wave of hate, it was hardly surprising to discover that by March 1917, the Rev. Newell Dwight Hillis, pastor of the Plymouth Congregational Church in Brooklyn, was telling his well-heeled flock that he was prepared to forgive the Germans "just as soon as they are all shot." Then, to fill his cup of happiness to the brim, he wanted to see "the sight of the Kaiser....hanging by a rope."

Totally forgotten was the special supplement devoted to the Kaiser in the New York Times on June 8, 1913, on the 25th anniversary of his coronation. On its front page, along with a handsome portrait of the monarch in a Navy uniform, was an effusive salute to him from the paper's editors. The banner headline at the top read: KAISER, 25 YEARS A RULER, HAILED AS CHIEF PEACEMAKER. The accompanying story called him "the greatest factor for peace that our time can show" -- and credited Wilhelm with frequently rescuing Europe from the brink of war.

Along with the Times's unstinting praise came effusive tributes from prominent Americans, including Theodore Roosevelt, his White House successor William Howard Taft, Columbia University president Nicholas Murray Butler and steel tycoon Andrew Carnegie, whose full page commentary concluded that all the citizens of the civilized world were the Kaiser's "admiring loving debtors" for his service to the cause of peace.

When America entered the war, Hollywood decided to make the Kaiser one of their prime targets. Their opening assault was My Four Years in Germany, a film based on the book by former Berlin ambassador James W. Gerard. In the first reel, a card announced: "FACT NOT FICTION." The Kaiser was portrayed as a man with the IQ of a paranoid six year old. He rode a hobby horse as he made plans to invade Belgium. The German general staff was introduced with a series of superimposed images comparing each man to an animal.

Even worse was The Kaiser, The Beast of Berlin, which opened on Broadway in the spring of 1918. The content more than justified the title. The man whom the New York Times had acclaimed as the Prince of Peace in 1913 was portrayed as gloating over slaughtered Belgian civilians and torpedoed ships. To add to the fun, audiences were told that they could "hiss the Kaiser" every time his mustachioed face appeared on the screen. Moving Picture World praised the film: "The scenes are said to be historically accurate and picture a strong dramatic series of events in a commendable way."

At the end of the war, the Kaiser abdicated and sought asylum in the Netherlands. There was talk of trying him and his sons as war criminals but nothing came of it. He spent the next twenty years in Amerongen Castle, near the town of Maarn, entertaining guests and keeping in good physical condition by sawing wood. He died in 1941, distressed by Germany's plunge into another war.

On July 15, 1959, on the 100th anniversary of the Kaiser's birth, the British Broadcasting Company released a film about the fallen monarch. Five days before it was broadcast, its producer, Christopher Sykes, published an article about it in the Radio Times. He admitted that in his boyhood, even the mention of the Kaiser sent "tremors of appalled horror through my nerves." This was not unusual for any Briton who grew up during the era of the Great War. The myth of the wicked Kaiser had been propagated so relentlessly by British historians and newspapermen, even otherwise intelligent statesman reacted with revulsion when they heard Wilhelm's name.

The film was remarkable as much for what it did not say as for what it said. There was no attempt to explain how the myth of the wicked Kaiser came into being. The largely covert British propaganda machine of World War I remained covert. The myth was merely stated as a fact which endured for at least ten years after World War I. Meanwhile, a parade of distinguished Britons such as Sir Harold Nicholson exonerated the Kaiser from the charge of starting the war. His responsibility was described as "small" compared to leaders in Russia and Austria-Hungary. The VIPs described meetings with the Kaiser before the war and in his postwar years of exile in Holland. Everyone burbled about his amiability and sincerity. There was much talk about his love of England and his devotion to his grandmother, Queen Victoria. The film closed with discussions of Wilhelm's old age and death, with flattering comments on the way he displayed no bitterness toward those who had slandered him so viciously.

Some pundits speculated that the explanation for the film was the Cold War. A section of the British press continued to slander the Germans at every opportunity. Not a few Germans suspected these attacks reflected British government policy. The BBC film may have been sponsored by London to strengthen the British-American alliance with Germany against Soviet communism. Whatever the motive, the film achieved at least an approximation of the historical truth. One commentator said it also demonstrated what little reliance can be placed on contemporary opinion.

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Byron S McCormick - 4/26/2009

By the way this was supposed to be a reply to The NYT by VJ. Hit the wrong link...DOH!

Byron S McCormick - 4/26/2009

"Along with the Times's unstinting praise came effusive tributes from prominent Americans, including Theodore Roosevelt, his White House successor William Howard Taft, Columbia University president Nicholas Murray Butler and steel tycoon Andrew Carnegie, whose full page commentary concluded that all the citizens of the civilized world were the Kaiser's "admiring loving debtors" for his service to the cause of peace"

The article points out how all media outlets at the time assassinated the character of Kaiser Wilhelm. NYT, along with Woodrow Wilson(only a President) and Andrew Carnegie tried to point out that he was peaceful, but instead the wave of PUBLIC opinion, which clearly differs from that of the NYT(based on this web-article), completely overshadowed this man.

This is why people like you shouldn't even be allowed to stay in this country.

You have neither the intelligence nor the inclination to figure this stuff out, just from whats handed to you! OMG you are SOOOO dumb! Its disgusting.

IF you have evidence to support your claim, and its not in this article, please provide it or keep your trap shut. Not only does it bring to light your automatic bias against NYT, but it also shines a light on your ignorance of the subject.

If you would have read the article, you would understand that the propaganda referred to in this article is about media propaganda, which went against the grain of what the NYT was reporting.

My god man, your dumber than Sarah Palin!

Mike W Luckham - 7/19/2004


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Dr GJ Weisensee - 6/27/2003

Dear Sir, I heard that the mother tongue of Wilhelm was English, since his mother Victoria was a daughter of Queen Victoria. Wilhelm grew up the first 10 years at least in the UK. Is there any proof about that available? Truly yours, G.J. Weisensee, Bern, Switzerland

VJ - 6/25/2003

It's good to know that the vaunted and frequent lies of the NY Times in order to curry favor with the powerful have a very long and noted tradition! WW1 Propaganda is some of the most amazing I've ever seen. Temple Univ.(PA) had a exhibition on it just a few months back.

Walter Hearne - 6/24/2003

(1) The Kaiser and his courtiers embarked on an aggressive armaments program in the decades preceding World War I, particularly with regard to naval forces. While it is true that the Kaiser had a "tendency to shoot his mouth off," his outbursts about Germany's "place in the sun" were not mere lunatic ravings, but the reflection of Germany's deliberate strategic plan. The scholarship on World War I of the past thirty or so years have overwhelmingly demonstrated that the Great War began because Germany made a calculated, conscious decision that it could gain more from war than could be lost.

(2) The dominant mood of the American, and especially the British publics in the period leading up to World War I was not one of boisterous, militaristic nationalism, but of pacifistic sentiment. The talk of this time, as during the interwar period, was about how outmoded war had become as an instrument of foreign policy. Successive British governments repeatedly refused to step up their armaments programs despite consistent evidence of Germany's aggressive intentions. Left-wing intellectuals and journals repeatedly insisted that Germany's military buildup was the product of British provocation and that "moderation breeds moderation." British statesmen repeatedly failed to recognize the nature of the German regime and assumed that the Kaiser would never do anything so "irrational" as to actually seek or risk a war. Fleming notes that the New York Times hailed the Kaiser as a "chief peacemaker" in 1913 but fails to explain the intellectual climate behind this bewildering statement. But yes, just as Gustav Stresemann would later be seen as a man of peace, and just as Neville Chamberlain believed Hitler was a man he could trust, many people before 1917 could see no wrong in the Kaiser.

(3) That the situation changed so dramatically and rapidly when hostilities broke out, leading to some of the now infamous propaganda of the time, was indicative of a people being so rudely disabused of their erroneous notions. This sort of yo-yo between pacifist foolishness and frenzied nationalism is not all that surprising.

Bill - 6/24/2003

Many years ago I worked with an old man who grew up in the Spuyten Duyvil area in the Bronx. He told me of watching motion pictures being filmed there with actors dressed up in German army uniforms complete with spiked helmets. The actors went through the motions of committing horrible acts against women and children actors. He said that later he saw these shown in movie theaters as newsreels taken in Belgium. I never thought to ask him if this was before or after America's entry into the war.

Ben Cosin - 6/24/2003

It is useful to expose and deplore proppagandistic exploits of the past and the present - especially those undertaken to launch wars...
but WHY are our populations especially prone to such propaganda in relation to foreign affairs?
I would suggest that even the worst of media and politicians are susceptible to domestic pressure from the civil society they rule . Indeed, tyrants since before Haroun al Rashid have paid especial to confidential accounts of civilian 'morale', naturally eschewing public debate. Giant capitalist media corporations try to set the agenda in a comparable though distinct manner. But they cannot evade their domestic bases and the preferences of the public in market societies.
On the foreign affairs front, however, citizens/voters have no direct experience (soldiers are censored, tourists lack the interest, capitalists need governemtn contracts etc in this neo-mercantilist age...)
Governments can and do tell any lie they fancy about thier foreign entanglements and adventures, and the public lack the experience to find them out, certianly hwile poliices are being formulated and executed. Even today Brits use the name of Alsatian for what everyone else calls German shepherd dog - because from 1914 everything German was pogromized in the UK.
The political lesson is that the most democratic foreign policy is the least interventionist. apart from the many other evils of war, the extra encouragement it gives to systematic government lying is not the least.

JS Narins - 6/23/2003

I wanted propaganda.

Thank you very much.