The First World War as a Media Event
The First World War was not a media event.1 However, so this article’s hypothesis, during the course of the conflict, the combatants increasingly aimed at the construction of media events as part of their own war effort and attempted to use them to influence their own populations, neutral states, their respective allies and enemies. Individual occurrences that were highlighted as media events from among the many that made up the war were intended to give structure to the war and provide orientation for the public. Frequently, different constructions of one and the same event competed with each other. According to this interpretation, the First World War was not a media event, but rather consisted of numerous media events (and no less frequently of media non-events), which were constructed by the powers engaged in the conflict.
The war correspondents based at the Austro-Hungarian War Press Office were an example of this. From the beginning of the war, they set about constructing the daily occurrences "at the front" as reportable events for their readers back home solely on the basis of army reports.2 As the war progressed, films – such as the famous The Battle of the Somme – were also increasingly viewed as important. They too created events that linked together into a narrative across the years of trench warfare, in order to strengthen the resolve of the "home front", although, due to the technological capabilities of the time, these medially (re)constructed events of the war always contained reconstructed scenes.3 Ultimately, the very identity of the respective enemy as a group was created by media events. Even postcards and posters played a central role in the successful construction of the image of the barbaric German enemy as the "Boche" and the "Hun" by French and British propagandists.4
Notwithstanding the variety of different media available, during the First World War newspapers played a dominant role in disseminating news and interpreting the conflict politically,5 and notwithstanding the illustrative power of photographs, it was textual reporting that narrated the war.6 This article thus focuses on textual newspaper reporting while constructing the argument for the central thesis. It first discusses the Battle of Jutland as an example of the construction of a contested media event. This media event is then placed in the context of the considerations of the British and German armed forces involved in the battle regarding the use of media and the construction of media events as an element of warfare. The British and German armed forces were chosen as examples because these central parties to the conflict pursued a particularly active media strategy not only during the war itself, but also beyond it, and they each repeatedly referred to the other's media strategy.7 Finally, a second thesis is briefly introduced – the thesis that after the end of the war there were indeed groups that were interested in reconstructing the First World War retrospectively as one media event. But first, to the Battle of Jutland.
The Media Battle of Jutland
The Battle of Jutland8 on 31 May and 1 June 1916 was the largest naval engagement of the war between the British Grand Fleet and the German High Seas Fleet (Hochseeflotte). It occurred largely "out of sight" not only of the broader public of the nations involved, but also of the military commands of both countries, and even of most of the people directly involved, who experienced it in the interior of ships. Most of the battles of the war exhibited a similar non-visibility, but it was particularly conspicuous in the case of this engagement at sea. The latter was subsequently constructed in the media by the military commands of both sides with the help of journalists as a success for their own side. Versions of the battle were constructed that were in opposition to each other – competing media events. They were intended to convince the people at home and neutral states of one's own victory, to sow doubt in the enemy country, and to motivate one's own allies.
How these opposing media events were constructed with regard to the aims referred to above is illustrated by an analysis of reporting in the liberal Berliner Tageblatt and in The Times of London. In the first week of June 1916, which is focused here, the Berliner Tageblatt was still endeavouring to adhere to the dictate of avoiding domestic political discord (Burgfrieden), and The Times was owned by Lord Northcliffe (Alfred Harmsworth, 1865–1922). As regards their coverage of the naval battle, these two newspapers were representative of the respective broader press landscapes of the two countries. In the first two weeks after the naval battle, they reported intensively on the event, publishing official reports, reports by their own journalists, commentaries and leading articles on the topic, as well as reports from the press of enemy countries, of allied countries and of neutral states. They continued to carry reports of the event even after 5 June 1916, when the death of Lord Kitchener (Herbert Kitchener, 1850–1916) temporarily dominated the headlines. After two weeks, the intensity of coverage of the battle began to wane, though it subsequently increased again in response to specific events, such as the publication of the official report of the British commander Admiral John Jellicoe (1859–1935) in July 1916.
The media versions of the battle on both sides were rooted in the progress of the naval engagement. The battle had begun on 31 May 1916 in the sea off Jutland9 and continued until the early hours of 1 June. Vice Admiral Reinhard Scheer (1863–1928), who had been appointed commander of the German High Seas Fleet at the beginning of the year, had actually only intended to engage and weaken parts of the British Grand Fleet. But as German radio communications had been decoded, Jellicoe was aware of German plans. He put to sea before the enemy in order to meet him with the entire Grand Fleet. However, initially it was the fast battle cruisers of both sides that engaged each other, with the British side suffering comparatively heavy losses. Then the main body of both fleets came into contact. The German navy soon withdrew from this engagement badly weakened. During the night, it was mainly small units of both sides that were active. The next morning, the German fleet returned to its ports. It had inflicted heavier losses on the British fleet than it had suffered itself, but Britain remained in command of the seas.10
As the German fleet had returned to port before the British fleet, the German Admiralty was able to put out the first official reports of the engagement in the North Sea. A report in the morning edition of the Berliner Tageblatt on 2 June 1916 stated that there had been a "successful naval battle against the main body of the English [sic] fleet".11 German navy command related the scale of the success to the numbers of ships lost by each side.12 Two German ships had been lost and one was missing compared with the loss of at least six British ships.13 Over the subsequent days, the German side gradually admitted the full scale of its losses, which, in total, were still less than the British ones.14 Writing in the evening addition of the Tageblatt on 2 June, the newspaper's naval expert, retired captain-at-sea Lothar Persius (1864–1944),15 stressed that the Royal Navy had not only lost important ships, but also "prestige". Even though further German losses had been confirmed, he argued, the excellent performance of German sailors and German technology was undeniable. The German High Seas Fleet had delivered "a painful blow" – though he conceded that the Grand Fleet remained numerically superior to it.16
The German Admiralty and the Berliner Tageblatt – which largely supported the Admiralty's version of the battle – pursued three aims in their representation of the naval battle. Firstly, they sought to protect the reputation of the German navy at home and to justify the many years of naval build-up that had preceded the war. Persius had already declared after the first official report of the battle that its outcome would "prompt the most exuberant joy and satisfaction in Germany".17 The president of the Reichstag, Johannes Kaempf (1842–1918), stressed in a speech to parliament that "a great and beautiful victory has been achieved by our young navy".18 The foreign edition of the Tageblatt subsequently explicitly stated that the policy of naval build-up had been proven right.19 Secondly, they sought to create or strengthen the impression in neutral countries that, while Germany was not on a par with Britain in terms of naval power, it was nonetheless not at Britain's mercy in this regard, and that Britain's naval dominance was by no means unchallenged.20 After all, Germany was still dependent on neutral shipping companies daring to transport goods for Germany in spite of the British naval blockade. Thirdly, the representation of the battle was intended to sow doubts about the British navy in the enemy camp and among Germany's allies in order to potentially influence the course of the war.
These three aims were also pursued on the British side – albeit with the roles reversed. In the case of the last two aims, those who constructed the media version of the naval battle on the British and German sides went into direct competition with each other. However, because the Grand Fleet returned to port later than the German fleet, the British Admiralty began its efforts about a day after its German counterpart. The first reports appeared in The Times on 3 June. Initially, the reports seemed to confirm the jubilant German version, as the Admiralty conceded that the Grand Fleet had suffered heavy losses. However, the reports also stressed three aspects that were intended to relativise this. Firstly, the conditions in which the naval battle had been fought had greatly favoured the Germans. Secondly, losses had been inflicted on the enemy that were at least as great as those suffered by the British fleet. Thirdly, the German High Seas Fleet had fled shortly after the main body of the Grand Fleet had intervened in the battle.21
The British Admiralty was also supported by journalists in its construction of the battle’s media version. At that, the part played by British journalists in shaping the media event was greater than that played by their German counterparts. The former criticised the state organs more openly. Their reports carried more information that had been acquired by their own research, which formed the basis of their own interpretation of events. In view of the delayed reporting, this was very much welcomed by the Admiralty, which had deliberately loosened censorship to this end.22 Thus, The Times not only supported the reports of the Admiralty with reports and commentary by its own correspondents, but also expanded on those reports. It emphasized that the German navy had only been successful while it had enjoyed a numerical advantage,23 and it stressed that Zeppelinsand mine-laying submarines had played an important role in German success. It had not been solely due to skilled seamanship and the quality of the German fleet,24 both of which were excellent on the British side.25 Above all, The Times stressed, the outcome of the naval battle had not changed the overall "naval situation": the blockade remained in place, the Allies were able to move freely on the high seas and Germany would still have to take on the Grand Fleet to change this.26
In this way, the outline of the naval battle as a media event (or media events) was set up. According to the German version, a young navy, which due to shrewd political planning was well trained, excellently equipped and highly motivated, had taken on its superior enemy and had inflicted heavy losses in men, material and prestige on that enemy while suffering only light losses itself. According to the British media event, by contrast, the battle had been a defensive victory for Britain. Thanks to numerous conditions that were in its favour, the German fleet had inflicted heavy damage, but the Royal Navy with its long tradition of naval dominance had put the Germany fleet to flight, had inflicted just as heavy losses on the latter, and had repelled a challenge to Britain's naval supremacy. Over the subsequent days, these interpretations became more fixed, and their reception by target groups at home, in neutral countries, in allied countries and in the enemy country was tested.
For the benefit of the domestic audience, The Times stressed that the losses suffered would only strengthen the resolve of the British people. "It will sting them to fresh exertion, it will dispel much idle and harmful optimism, it will steel their unalterable resolution to win this war or to perish."27 The newspaper regretted that the German side had been able to disseminate its "version of the fighting" in numerous neutral countries, describing that version as "as usual, exaggerated and misleading" and serving "for the moment [to] impress credulous neutrals, and even … to cause temporary discouragement amongst some of our Allies".28 But ultimately, Britain could depend on the ability of allies and neutral countries to judge for themselves, The Times stated.29 After all, the New York Stock Exchange had recovered from the fall in stocks that had occurred after the initial German reports of success30 and the Dutch media were already asking why the supposedly successful German fleet had retreated to its ports.31 On 5 June, The Times reported that the public view in the USA was that "Britannia still rules the waves".32 In allied France, The Times reported, the battle had resulted in the size of the British contribution to the war being publicly recognized for the first time.33
On the German side, Persius argued on the day of the first British statements about the battle that it was to be expected that Great Britain would attempt to hide or relativize its own losses and "to construct" greater losses on the German side.34 Such "Legendenbildungen" (myth making) – as the German Admiralty described it in a further statement35 – was of course hopeless, as "the neutral press" knows "that the German Admiralty usually immediately admits to every loss".36 It was undeniable, according to Persius, that the High Seas Fleet "had succeeded again in delivering a mighty blow to that arrogant phrase 'Britannia rules the waves'".37 The Berliner Tageblatt carried numerous reports from neutral and allied countries that were intended to demonstrate that the version of the naval battle constructed in the German media was the one that corresponded to the naval reality.38 The newspaper quoted from articles, according to which the battle would "have the greatest consequences for global history".39 Swedish newspapers had – according to the Tageblatt – adjudged that the British "control of the seas now appears highly questionable".40 In the case of the British media, on 4 June the Tageblatt cited the Daily News as having supposedly acknowledged the British defeat.41 In response to British accusations that the German side was concealing its own losses,42 Persius stated that "nobody who is able to judge for themselves … is in the slightest doubt that the report of the [German] Admiralty regarding our losses is accurate".43 Even after the German navy had been forced to admit additional losses, which the British side made full use of to attack German credibility,44 Persius remained undeterred. Germany had achieved something great, he insisted. This was confirmed by "newspapers from enemy countries and neutral countries! Nobody can … deny that the battle represents a precious glorious chapter in German naval history".45
The two versions of the naval battle as media events thus stood in direct competition with each other. They were bound up with the hope, which was formulated with the domestic audience in mind, that they could affect the course of the war. Josef Schwab (1865–1942) stressed in the weekly foreign edition of the Berliner Tageblatt on 6 June that the success of the German fleet had illustrated "that it is not possible to defeat the allied Central Powers". The "political significance of our victory" would have to be impressed upon the enemy nations so that they would declare their willingness to sue for peace.46 On the British side, Winston Churchill (1874–1965) viewed the battle as "a definite step towards the attainment of complete victory"47 and a leading article in The Times stated that it had strengthened the resolve of the country to the extent that it would resist the peace negotiations being suggested by neutral countries at the instigation of German agents. "The magnitude of our losses in men and in ships has burnt into us the grim resolve that these losses shall not have been in vain."48
Neither of the two media events was able to win out over the other because, as the navy correspondent of The Times observed on 5 June, "[i]t can surprise nobody if both combatants claim a victory, the Germans because they were not beaten decisively in their first big engagement with the strongest Fleet in the world; and the British because they defeated the object of the enemy and forced him to fly for safety".49 Of course, this did not discourage either side from continuing to write in support of their own media version of the battle. The weekly edition of the Berliner Tageblatt of 14 June ended with a cartoon depicting two sailors in the North Sea. The German sailor with his gun raised shouts triumphantly after the retreating Briton: "'Hey, Englishman, you lost something!' 'What?' 'Naval dominance!'"50
The public controversy regarding the interpretation of the naval battle did not end during the course of the war, but continued in the years afterwards.51 One reason for this is that, ultimately, a case could be made for both versions of the battle. It can be said that two competing media events were constructed over the duration of the war and beyond, which were intended to influence the course of the war itself by motivating the domestic audience and allies, by drawing neutral countries onto one's own side, and by demoralizing the enemy. This approach was not a coincidence. During the course of the war, the British and German armed forces had increasingly attempted to influence the conflict by means of media reporting.52
Media Events in the Media Strategies of the Armed Forces
Prior to the First World War, the idea that human action could be influenced on a large scale with the help of media reporting received particular interest at the news service of the German Imperial Naval Office.5354 Based on experiences in peacetime and inspired by observations from the Russo-Japanese War, the idea was already expressed in January 1905 that in wartime the service should be used "for the publication of war news, war reports, etc., and in so doing potentially exert influence over the war".55 One year later, the German Admiralty adopted this idea and now held the view that in wartime the German navy would need a central office for working with the media, which "in the interests of our own war effort … publishes news in newspapers, … that in the public – specifically abroad – will be advantageous for our cause".56
After the outbreak of war, the German navy started having reports published that suited its purposes from 3 August 1914 onward.57 The army was initially hesitant to follow its lead and viewed the provision of information to the media primarily as a quid pro quo for the cooperation of the media in maintaining secrecy regarding "militarily relevant" sites.58 The British military was similarly reticent to start with.59 However, in both countries the armed forces soon changed their attitude and began to push for media support for the war effort. From the winter of 1914/1915 onward, the German army had accounts of individual combat engagements prepared for the press. In December 1914, the quartermaster general, General Adolf Wild von Hohenborn (1860–1925), called for reports of heroic deeds, to "honour the heroes, engender pride in their relatives, and provide an incentive to the young units".60 According to General Erich von Falkenhayn (1861–1922), a Kriegsnachrichtenstelle61 (war news service) should "on the basis of battle reports, present to the public individual, discrete battle operations, while primarily focusing on exceptional deeds by units or individuals".62 In other words, military occurrences were to be transformed into media events to motivate domestic civilian society to support the war effort. This support was considered crucial. In the words of Colonel General Helmuth von Moltke (1848–1916): "The outcome of the war does not depend on the army alone. The nation itself bears half of the responsibility for the outcome of the war. The attitude that we adopt at home affects the attitude of our soldiers through a million threads."63 These efforts to influence the mood at home were expanded during the course of the war.64 The British military followed the German example closely, and though the media in Britain were allowed greater space for their own initiative, leading representatives of the army such as Field Marshall Douglas Haig (1861–1928) used censorship and personal connections to journalists to turn reports of military developments into media events that suited their purpose.65
Together with domestic audiences, neutral states were also a target of these media events. Here too, it the German armed forces became active first. One of their main aims was to portray their strategy of using submarines against merchant ships as a legitimate reaction to the blockade of Germany.66 In response, the British military, which viewed the use of media coverage in this context as a "fourth weapon",67 presented its own perspective at regular conferences and put out official reports, such as those of Haig.68 The construction of the Battle of Jutland as a media event demonstrates in exemplary fashion how much the armed forces of both sides cared about how neutral states judged their interpretations of military events. It also shows how closely the two combatants observed each other's media coverage.
The naval battle was in fact a pivotal point in the media activities of the armed forces during the war. Under the constant observation of the enemy, this work was increasingly intensified during the second half of the conflict, and it was understood as a means of weakening the enemy, not least in terms of the resolve of its civilian population. Shortly before the engagement between the two battle fleets in the North Sea, the German naval media expert Karl Boy-Ed (1872–1930) had emphasized how important it was "to support the naval war effort through the press whenever possible".69 He was also in favour of the army engaging in such activities because, in his view, the war was increasingly "being one of public opinions" and "deeds alone will not get it done in our time of press dominance!"70 To him, the "deeds", ranging from military operations to German victories, also had to be portrayed in the right way in the media in order to affect the course of the war. In other words, they had to be staged as media events. He was not alone in this view. In early 1918, First Quartermaster-General Erich Ludendorff (1865–1937) stressed that it was the duty of those producing reports for the military office at the department of foreign affairs "to exploit politically in neutral and enemy countries the military successes of German arms by publicising them in words, images, films and oral propaganda".71 For him, the media portrayal of one's own successes was "an aid to achieving victory",72 the aim of which was "to destroy the will of the enemy's home front to continue the war by making correct propagandistic use of our military victories".73 In the strategic thinking of the supreme army command, turning battles into media events was crucial to successfully prosecuting the war in view of the military stalemate at the front. Compared to this position, the British armed forces were more reticent. Nonetheless, they also took an interest in the media portrayal of military engagements and they shared the view that this portrayal could affect the outcome of engagements. For example, Haig was eager to have the Battle of the Somme presented as a success in the media,74 and the taking of Jerusalem in late 1917 was turned into a media event through the careful staging of the entry of the British into the city under General Edmund Allenby (1861–1936).75 However, on the British side it was primarily politicians and journalists who sought to influence the war by means of skilfully constructed media events. The newspaper owner Lord Beaverbrook (Max Aitken, 1879–1964), who was appointed minister of information during the war, asserted that the media aspect of the war was "not less vital for victory than fleets and armies".76
In spite of the importance that was attributed to the media portrayal of the First World War while the war was ongoing, ultimately it was not decided in the media but by the logistical, numerical and military superiority of the Allies with the assistance of the USA – even if this view was not shared by everyone in the aftermath of the war.
The First World War as a Media Event
After the weapons had (largely) fallen silent and the First World War had ended, there were those who were still convinced that the media aspect had been decisive.77 They included those on the Allied side who were viewed as successful propagandists, and who asserted even outside their own circles that their work had made a vital contribution to the outcome of the war.78 In Germany, right-wing nationalist circles seized on the influence of the media as a way of explaining their own defeat without admitting military inferiority. The ground was already prepared for this interpretation when Moltke declared in 1915 that the domestic population would carry part of the responsibility for the outcome of the war. In November 1918, Paul von Hindenburg (1847–1934) carried this interpretation forward by asserting that the enemy had "succeeded in depressing the mood on our side at home and in the army through planned propaganda".79 These were the first building blocks of the Dolchstoßlegende (stab-in-the-back myth) and the central basis of National Socialist enthusiasm for propaganda.80 At the heart of that propaganda was the reinterpretation of the First World War as a conflict that had been decided through the skilful control of the media, or, to put it another way, a retrospective construction of the First World War as a media event.