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Selling War: The Role of the Mass Media in Hostile Conflicts from World War I to the "War on Terror"

Selling War: The Role of the Mass Media in Hostile Conflicts from World War I to the "War on Terror"

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Selling War: The Role of the Mass Media in Hostile Conflicts from World War I to the "War on Terror"

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Jan 28, 2013


This book is the first collection of essays to explore the changing relationships between war, media and the public from a multidisciplinary perspective and over an extended historical period. It is also the first textbook for students in this field, discussing a wide range of theoretical concepts and methodological tools for analyzing the nature of these relationships. The book starts with a thorough overview by Philip Seib of war, the media and the public sphere. His chapter explores how the perception of war in the public sphere is influenced by the media and, more precisely, how the news media define and perform their social function in relation to war. It points to the fact that it is not only the way in which journalists deliver news about war to the public that affects how people think about war. Information and its impact on the public are also influenced, to a varying extent, by the medium that conveys the message. The impact of newspaper articles differs from that of a live television report from the battlefield, which in turn differs from an amateur’s YouTube video, not just in terms of production but also in terms of access and consumption. Obviously, changes in the media environment and its technologies affect the nature of news journalism, the role of professional communication and the way media messages are perceived by the public.
Jan 28, 2013

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Selling War - Intellect Books Ltd



'Never Such Innocence Again': Propaganda and Total War

War and the Public Sphere

European Examples from the Seven Years' War to the World War I

Reinhard Stauber


In recent times, historical research – and, most notably, the concept of Erfahrungsgeschichte (‘the history of experience’) – is acknowledging the role of the mass media in shaping the knowledge and the images of reality that are present in society. That is particularly true in times of war when the media enjoy privileged access to information. Based on the examples of four European wars between 1750 and 1918 (The Seven Years’ War, the Crimean War, the Franco-Prussian War of 1870–71 and the World War I), this chapter outlines the techniques and forms in which the media reported on war in the past few centuries. It attempts to illustrate the fact that conjuring up images of the enemy and arming the citizenry against real and presumed opponents has always been an important tool in creating in-groups while excluding ‘the others’. In the course of the nineteenth century, the notion of the ‘nation’ developed into an absolute value that could not be questioned and thus became the highest and the sole reference point for the loyalty of political associations and their leaders. It thus emerged that war and nation-building or nation-state-building were very closely associated with one another. The experience of war counts as one of the central nation-building factors in modern times, and the incorporation of the nation into the events of war would be unthinkable without the nineteenth-century mass media and their accounting of the events in words and images.


War, as Karmasin (2007) has recently explained, is a deadly and ever-present extreme state of human existence. Not least for this reason, they are also media and communication events that have had an enormous impact since the beginning of the historical tradition (Karmasin, 2007: 11; see also Daniel, 2006a; Köppen, 2005; Knieper and Müller, 2005; Preusser, 2005; Löffelholz, 2004; Hartwig, 1999; Imhof and Schulz, 1995).

The media and communication sciences can contribute to research on the close interconnections between a media culture and war, but the historical sciences also have a part to play. Over the past ten years, the concept of Erfahrungsgeschichte (‘the history of experience’) has been extended beyond the evidence of actors, eyewitnesses and those directly affected (‘the experience of war’) to include the process of medial transmission to a wider audience (Buschmann and Carl, 2001). The mass media have a key function in shaping the knowledge that is present in society: they create images of reality that stamp experience and become particularly effective in certain contexts, especially when such media enjoy privileged access to information, as is (or seems to be) the case in times of war.

‘In modern times societies are increasingly integrated, in terms of communication, via the mass media’ (Buschmann, 2001: 102). The European wars of the 1850s and 1860s gave the role of the mass press a sudden boost and placed newspapers at the center of public communication. By 1850 at the latest, politics recognized that the press was indispensable as an instrument of political mobilization (Buschmann, 2001: 113). Thus war became a fixed component of the contemporary world of the imagination – not only as a military event but also with respect to its political, social and historical contexts. Wars and crises were not only communicative events of the first rank but also screens on to which the clash of opinions between political world images and various social views were projected.

In this chapter, I shall present four European examples between 1750 and 1918 in order to outline the techniques and forms in which the media reported on war.

The Eighteenth Century – The Seven Years’ War

Even in the eighteenth century, current political news was disseminated most quickly and widely by the daily or weekly press. The development of this medium in the context of the seventeenth-century ‘communication revolution’ can, it seems, be attributed in part to the high proportion of war-related reportage in early newspapers and to the interest of urban elites in particular in this sort of information (for an overview, see Wilke, 2005). Events of the Thirty Years’ War, such as the storming of the city of Magdeburg, which was reduced to ashes in 1631, or the conclusion of peace in 1648, were early large-scale media events with a European dimension (Schultheiss-Heinz, 2004; Wrede, 2004; Blitz, 2001).

This trend continued in the eighteenth century and was promoted by the evolving enlightened and critical public sphere. The Seven Years’ War, which was fought in a number of theaters of war in Europe and overseas between 1756 and 1763, was a major event. One of the leading German-language newspapers of the period, the Unpartheyischer Correspondent, published in Hamburg, increased its average print-run from 1,500 to more than 10,000 between 1730 and 1780.

I shall discuss some of the main features of war reporting in the eighteenth-century press by taking as an example the Austrian monarchy’s oldest newspaper, the Wiennerisches Diarium (from 1780 on renamed the Wiener Zeitung), founded in 1703 and privileged by the imperial court. The court supplied information exclusively to the Wiener Diarium, and the paper was justifiably considered the official mouthpiece of Viennese politics (Gestrich, 2006).

Usually published twice a week, the newspaper ran to eight pages in length. In times of war, however, extensive reports and supplements meant that it regularly doubled or tripled in size, news about Austria, France (its most important ally), and its main enemy, Prussia, forming the main focus of interest. ‘Detailed news about the other belligerent powers was frequently conveyed by [regular] correspondents in the respective capitals, rather than coming from the front’ (Gestrich, 2006: 26f). Thus, the news did not originate with war reporters in the real sense of the word. A time lag of ten to fourteen days between the occurrence of an event and it being reported on in the press was the rule.

About one-third of the reports were devoted to things that would hardly arouse interest today, such as the deployment and redeployment of troops, that is, the semipublic side of preparations for war, which could be observed on the spot with relatively little risk. There were fewer reports about armed conflicts and battles (about 15 percent), and only 3 percent of the reports concerned war crimes in the broadest sense, especially plundering and forced requisitions. It is hardly surprising that the Wiennerisches Diarium concentrated on such acts committed by Prussian troops, which points to the propaganda function of the manner in which news is selected.

The Wiener Diarium’s main sources for its war reports were the field journals and war diaries kept by the Austrian army. Written at the headquarters of operational units (and incidentally, not always by high-ranking soldiers), they were sent to the Viennese court, which passed parts of them on to the press. The journals were ‘composed in a very neutral tone, and reported a great deal about troop movements, officers’ achievements, and promotions. Battles, as a rule, were described in a distanced manner, as if from the perspective of a general watching from the top of a hill’ (Gestrich, 2006: 33). In certain cases, for example in 1760, when Prussia firebombed Dresden, a royal residence defended by the Austrians, the consequences of acts of war became visible to the civilian population. The perspective of the ordinary soldier, by contrast, was completely missing.

The Crimean War 1853–56 – The First Media War?

By the nineteenth century, newspapers were the standard medium of war reporting, and they continued to play this role. The Crimean War was the first European war that readers could find information about by reading newspaper reports filed regularly by correspondents writing from the midst of events – that is, reports from the front in the real sense, using the first-person perspective of a participant, in words or images. All the major London newspapers had at least one reporter with the troops at the front and in Constantinople – and thus the independent journalistic genre of war reporting was born (Daniel, 2006b; Knightley, 2004; Lambert and Badsey, 1994; Münkler, 1992; Royle, 1987).

The flood of different images turned the Crimean War into a spectacle of visual representation (Keller, 2007; Smith, 1978):

In addition to the traditional battle pictures such as those commissioned, for example, by the weekly Illustrated London News (with sales of 200,000 in 1855), there were a large number of relatively inexpensive lithographs, retouched in color, and often available only after a few weeks. They included, for example, William Simpson’s iconic representation of Florence Nightingale as the ‘Lady with the Lamp’.

In a huge panorama in Leicester Square, Londoners could experience the Battle of Alma, fought on September 20, 1854, at the end of the same year; Madame Tussaud put Florence Nightingale on display; and the battles of the siege of Sevastopol were recreated in sound and light shows.

Photography, so far, still played a minor part in this flood of images of a distant war (Holzer, 2003a). Photographers had been present on the spot since the spring of 1855, but their products were of little interest to current reporting as there was no technical means of reproducing photographs in newspapers. Roger Fenton photographed the life of troops behind the lines, in vegetable gardens and with military bands, and he left more than 300 portraits of officers. Furthermore, James Robertson and Felice Beato documented the destroyed fortifications of Sevastopol after it was captured in September 1855 (Paul, 2004: 61–5; Keller, 2003).

In Britain, an open and highly controversial public debate accompanied the decision, taken by Aberdeen’s government at the end of 1853, to join France in granting the Ottoman Empire armed support against Russia. Other topics that attracted wide public attention were whether Britain’s preparations for war were adequate; the strategy followed by the commander-in-chief Lord Raglan, after the landing of the Black Sea expeditionary forces (approx. 30,000 strong) in 1854; the logistical problems at the theaters of war; or the sanitary conditions and especially the atrocious medical care for British soldiers. The popularity of the war against the empire of the Russian tsar, who was presented as a sort of archenemy, was stoked by all the British newspapers and served to conceal the transition to an offensive war in the summer of 1854, a step marked by the decision to besiege the fortress of Sevastopol in the Crimea. But from the turn of the year 1854–55 the leading articles in all the print media became clearly more critical of the war (‘national suicide’, according to The Times of January 25, 1855, Daniel, 2006b: 55), and Prince Albert, consort of Queen Victoria, increasingly became a target for xenophobic journalists.

The Times occupied a special position – it had something like a public–private partnership with the government in Westminster. Strongly capitalized and peerlessly well informed about events in the capital and worldwide, it was the newspaper of choice in the City of London, where it sold up to 60,000 copies, and the most widely read newspaper worldwide for international news. In addition, during the 1850s it was something like the government’s mouthpiece vis-à-vis an unstable House of Commons, riven by special interests. As early as 1852, Henry Reeve, a Times leader writer and Privy Council official, had written to Foreign Secretary Granville: ‘This nation is a good deal enervated by a long peace, by easy habits of intercourse, by peace societies and false economy. To surmount the dangerous consequences of such a state, the Government will require the support of public opinion’ (Daniel, 2006b: 41f).

Unlike Queen Victoria, who advised against paying too much attention to journalists, the British prime ministers of the Crimean War period, Aberdeen and Palmerston, were clearly aware ‘that the times are gone when politics was able to dispense with the press’ (Daniel, 2006b: 57).

The Times’ proximity to the arcane area of politics, the information passed to it and, not least, the financial strength of its owner, John Walter III, meant that its editors were confident that as a moral authority and Europe’s conscience, they had a claim to influence politics. Indeed, they felt a moral imperative to do so: ‘A newspaper such as The Times is in the position rather to confer than receive favours, and rather to act as the umpire than the tool or the instrument of party’ (Daniel, 2006b: 55).

The Crimean War was at the beginning of William Howard Russell’s (1820–1907) career as special correspondent for The Times. Previously the paper’s parliamentary reporter, from February 1854 on he accompanied the British Expeditionary Corps for more than two years. Later he worked for the paper in India, during the American Civil War, at Königgrätz in 1866 and Sedan in 1870, and in 1879 he was in South Africa for the Daily Telegraph.

Working for The Times opened every door for Russell. In March 1861 he was received in Washington by President Lincoln, who said, ‘The London Times is one of the most significant powers in the world – I cannot think of anyone who has more power, except perhaps the Mississippi. I look forward to getting to know you as its ambassador’ (Russell, 2000: 208).

And in July 1870 Bismarck personally told the Times correspondent, who had paid him a courtesy visit in Berlin before his journey to Lorraine, ‘You will travel. I cannot give you an order; that is a matter for the War Minister. A decree has been issued that in principle press correspondents are not permitted to accompany our army. But you are an exception and will shortly receive your credentials’ (Russell, 2000: 287; see also Daniel, 2004; Atkins, 1911).

Russell and Edwin Lawrence Godkin, who reported from the front for the Daily News, unsparingly conveyed the negative conditions they found, including those on their ‘own’ side. ‘To this extent, the reputation of war reporting as a journalistic genre that informs and speaks the truth, a reputation which goes back to the Crimean War, has a core of reality’ (Daniel, 2006b: 61).

Yet for future generations of war reporters who, consciously or not, allowed themselves to be used in the service of their own ‘patriotic’ cause, this core of reality could become an expedient lie to get them through life.

The vividness and drama that characterized the reports by Russell and Godkin can be attributed to the relatively great freedom of movement that journalists enjoyed in the military theaters and depended on their individual ability in finding the right people to talk to. As a rule, reports were sent to London by post, which meant that the information had a transmission time of two to three weeks. The Crimea was not integrated into the continental telegraph system until April 1855, and even then correspondents only exceptionally telegraphed their reports because of the high costs involved (see Kaufmann, 1996).

British war reporters in the Crimean War obtained much of their information from regimental officers. These were already known to British newspapers as the authors of letters to the editor, and they were not sparing in their criticisms of the commander-in-chief Lord Raglan and his general staff. Thus a new sort of pressure was exerted on the leading generals, and politics could interfere in strategic questions with ever shorter reaction times. Raglan, 66 years old at the time and a protégé of Wellington’s, had last seen active service at Waterloo in 1815. He considered himself responsible only to his supreme commander, Queen Victoria, and was neither able nor willing to deal with these new conditions:

Instead of sending reports from the theatre of war written with an eye to capturing the attention of the reading public, he continued to file his extremely dependable but boring dispatches. Instead of receiving reporters from the front working for the big London papers in his headquarter in the Crimea, he snubbed them by ignoring them. (Daniel, 2006b: 49)

Until February 1856, when the war was practically over, correspondents’ reports were not formally censored. Raglan complained about Russell’s reports because they revealed details of troop positions to the enemy side, which could have security implications. However, there appeared to be no reaction from the editorial board in London, and the government could not afford to take any measures that, however remotely, might have looked like a restriction on freedom of the press.

Finally, it should be mentioned that the Crimean War precipitated the first charitable appeal launched by the media in military history (see Wilke, 2008). In 1854 John Delane, editor of The Times, established a relief fund in his newspaper to provide money for better medical treatment for British soldiers. This drew public attention to an aspect of the war that was not specifically strategic or political, and inspired Florence Nightingale to set off for Scutari, where the biggest British military hospital was located, with 38 nurses on October 21, 1854. Officially, she was acting on the instructions of the British War Ministry.

She was not the only private individual acting to demonstrate that civilian commitment and competence could achieve more than the clogged-up military bureaucracy. Alexis Soyer demonstrated the efficiency of his catering service in providing meals for the troops in the Crimea and, in the spring, the company Peto, Brassey & Betts constructed a section of railway line between the harbor of Balaklava, where the British supply ships landed, and the troop positions outside Sevastopol. But Austen Henry Layard’s suggestion that the government should instruct a private army to conduct the war (made in the House of Commons in July 1854) was certainly unrealistic.

Germany 1870–71 – The Media Production of National Unity

The war of 1870–71 is one of the first in history to be followed and influenced by public opinion from the start.

(Becker, 2001: 47)

The telegraph now played the central role in the transmission of news during wartime, especially since the railways made it possible to deploy troops more rapidly, thus making quicker communications necessary. But the telegraph was also important in communications between the ‘front’ and the ‘home front’. The so-called Königliche Depesche (royal dispatch) developed into a popular ritual. In this dispatch the supreme commander, King Wilhelm of Prussia, reported important events from his headquarters to his consort Augusta in Berlin, who was formally Prussia’s regent in his absence.

From the city palace in Berlin, these texts were passed on to newspaper editors, who printed them as posters that were then displayed so that large numbers of people could read them. Naturally, they were also printed in the newspapers. More detailed information generally only followed a few days later, in the form of army reports and reports from their own correspondents who, as a rule, could not use the telegraph and had to rely on the army postal services (see Koch, 1978).

Among the war reporters were experienced men such as Russell, who again reported for The Times, and Friedrich Wilhelm Hackländer, who worked for the Augsburger Allgemeine Zeitung. Others hired themselves out to newspapers out of a love of adventure or a sense of political mission, even though up to that point they had only experienced war in books. One example was the writer Gustav Freytag, a writer who was already well known. He reported for his own weekly, Die Grenzboten, from the headquarters of Crown Prince Friedrich of Prussia.

He was an exception. Compared with their British colleagues, German reporters were at a disadvantage. ‘As civilians who did not wear a uniform, had no military rank, and moved around the theatre of war largely independently’ (Becker, 2006: 70), they often encountered mistrust. Their copy was often reprinted by other newspapers that ignored the laws of copyright, and the authors frequently recycled their own reports in war books or memoirs that they put together. Examples in this case are Freytag and the well-known novelist Theodor Fontane (Daniel, 2005).

The war correspondents themselves, such as Hans Wachenhusen, were fully aware of the dilemma they faced between writing lively descriptions and their lack of an overview of the whole strategic picture. They were also conscious of the fact that while their eyewitness accounts might have enormous atmospheric density, the information value of these accounts as far as understanding the larger context was concerned was limited.

No effective press censorship was exercised in the 1870–71 war, but this was unnecessary on the German side because a dual ‘internal censorship’ ensured that the reportage had the desired patriotic thrust. First of all, all newspapers in principle supported the war against France and the policy of national unification; there was nothing like the attempt by The Times in 1854–55 to put pressure on its own government. And second, all correspondents knew that about eight days after publication, their reports would be read by military staffs and soldiers in many quarters. They therefore avoided any overt or critical descriptions. Furthermore, in 1870 they mostly had their own side’s victories to report, which meant that ‘on the whole, they could write the truth without having to hurt anyone too much’ (Becker, 2006: 71).

Pictorial reportage continued to be largely the domain of the ‘battle painters’, known at the time as Specialartisten (‘special artists’). Their drawings were sent to newspaper editors by the army postal service, and were then, as a rule, transformed into woodcuts. Two weeks after the depicted events the drawings were ready to be published. One section of the print media, led by the Gartenlaube, an illustrated family paper that had been published since 1853, placed special emphasis on this constant stream of visual material and thus significantly enhanced its circulation. During the war it achieved print-runs of 300,000, which meant that as many as three million people might actually have seen each copy (Wildmeister, 1998). There were also short-lived publications that profited from the news boom during wartime and specialized in graphics. They had martial names such as Deutsche Kriegszeitung or Der Deutsche Volkskrieg.

The Specialartisten also had opportunities to make use of their war drawings again following their return ‘from the field’ in the form of representative paintings, which a suitably primed bourgeois civil society gladly bought. Photography, which was not yet technically advanced enough to capture rapidly moving scenes, still played a secondary part in current reportage. Nonetheless, in the form of postcards and portraits, it played an important role in the communication between those in the field and those back home (Becker, 2001: 380–482; Bock, 1982; see also Paret and Fliessbach, 1990: 177–210).

The density of information in word and image, the regularity with which it was delivered, its rapid utilization by the mass media, and the broad appeal it had among the population would, it seems, allow us to speak of an independent media reality of war during the campaign of 1870. This dictated particular themes and patterns of perception and interpretation, not only among the audience at home but also in the theater of war itself. As Becker (2006) has pointed out, ‘By [also] obtaining an overview with the aid of these publications, soldiers at the same time acquired patterns of interpretation with whose assistance they came to terms, to whatever degree, with their own experience’ (Becker, 2006: 73).

Thus a sort of ‘interpretative community’ was created, linking the army and home, and this community was central to the political dimension of the war from a Prussian-German point of view. The main and crucial theme of the media reality of 1870 was the nation, and in this case more specifically the creation of the German nation by means of a war under Prussian leadership. The war anticipated the creation of the nation, which had not yet been founded formally, as a community of experience and as a space of common experience. This played a crucial role in binding the army, politics and society together into one indissoluble unit. The war set the stage for the southern German states to move over to the side of politics centered on Berlin and for the founding of the German Kaiserreich at the beginning of 1871. It was no accident that the new polity chose the day of the capitulation of Sedan (September 2, 1870) as its national day. A central interpretative plank of the successful foundation of the kleindeutsches Reich (the implementation of the ‘small German’ solution) was to link the 1870 War of Unification closely with Napoleon’s military defeat in the ‘wars of liberation’ of 1813–15. This conjured up Germany’s triumph – at last – over the ‘archenemy’ France, and made it possible to foreground Prussia’s role in the supposed national rebirth of Germany (Buschmann, 2003: 25–53; Becker, 2001: 292–376).

War reporting placed itself in the service of this idea, fulfilling the function of allowing the home front to participate in the experience of soldiers as intensely as possible, while, conversely, keeping soldiers in close contact with those at home.

Even in the run-up to the war, the Prussian king’s honor and the alleged insult delivered to him by French diplomacy were conflated with the entire nation’s honor. In a letter dated August 1870, the great lawyer Rudolf von Jhering, in Vienna at the time, described how he read five newspapers everyday at home, while still finding time to go to town and read even more papers or study the latest bulletins on display. There was no time for academic work, he wrote. He thought of the war constantly and dreamed about it at night. He noted uneasily that he was degenerating and beginning to wish evil on the French. Finally, claiming that he was ‘taking part’ in this war himself (‘I hope it is the last for me’), he came close to equating his experience of the war as a newspaper reader with that of a soldier (Becker, 2001:

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