The Most Lasting Legacy of World War I, by Joseph Miranda

One of the new strategic weapons first used in World War I was mass propaganda or psychological warfare. That includes the full spectrum of media shaping and political subversion. It was first used on a massive scale during World War I to try attack the morale of enemy troops and weaken the will of opposing governments and their citizenry to go on with the war. It was also employed defensively to try to maintain friendly troop morale and civilian morale at home.

The advent of its general employment has ever since meant militaries can no longer remain apolitical. If they don’t engage on the propaganda and psychological warfare fronts their opponents can, in effect, outflank them strategically there.

The British started with an immense advantage in that regard in 1914 because their control at that time of the global news, cable and wireless services gave them easy access to audiences worldwide. Their propaganda pushed the concept of self-determination for the nationalities living under Central Powers control, especially within the Austro-Hungarian Empire and German-occupied Poland – thereby trying to subverting the legitimacy of those imperial governments.

In Arabia, in addition to that same kind of propaganda, British intelligence dispatched T. E. Lawrence (“Lawrence of Arabia”) to lead a guerrilla war against the Ottomans. A combination of propaganda, arms supply and training cadre soon succeeded in creating a large force behind enemy lines.

The Germans had to play catch up during the war, creating their own propaganda apparatus. That meant producing newspapers, posters and films, dispatching agitators and other agents in neutral and enemy countries.

The Germans sent agents as far afield as Egypt, Persia and Afghanistan to try to stir up rebellion against the Allied colonial powers. In the Caucasus they supported local nationalists to undermine the Russians and gain access to oilfields crucial to their own war effort. In East Africa, Col. Lettow von Vorbeck conducted a lengthy campaign against British Empire forces that, though militarily insignificant compared with the main fronts in Europe, proved to have great value in maintaining German morale at home.

In 1917 the Germans took psychological warfare to a unique new level when they deployed radical agitators to work to weaken the Russian Provisional Government that, under Alexander Kerensky, was keeping the country in the war against the Central Powers despite the removal of the Czar. In April of that year the Germans transported Vladimir I. Lenin in a sealed train from his place of exile in Switzerland to Petrograd. It proved an inexpensive gamble that paid off handsomely when Lenin's Bolsheviks overthrew the Provisional Government and effectively took Russia out of the war.

For the communists, propaganda was from the start a major front. By employing what they called “agitprop” (agitation and propaganda) they created and maintained a mass movement in support of their larger program of “Peace, Bread, Land.”

Their propaganda effort was also used to create an in-depth political indoctrination program for training insurgent cadre. It became a crucial part of their entire revolutionary effort, intended to not only overthrow the old order but to simultaneously replace it with a radical new one.

They used agitprop everywhere. During the armistice negotiations with the Germans, Lenin and Trotsky tried to use it to secure at the bargaining table what they couldn’t hold onto at the military front. A renewed German offensive in February 1918 put an end to that tactic before it could bear fruit, so the communists agreed to the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk.

That gave the Central Powers effective control – in the form of newly independent nationality based states – of most of what had been the western Russian Empire. Thus it was Germany's propaganda strategy that worked best in 1918, but with powerfully disruptive unintended consequences thereafter.

Another aspect of the communists’ use of agitprop was the creation of what amounted to politicized soldiers – ones who not only conducted agitprop, but also what was called “propaganda of the deed,” the use of military action to gain revolutionary goals. For the communists those were initially the “Red Guards,” a politicized militia that rose in 1917-18 to seize control of government buildings and engage in combat with assorted regime foes.

The full blown Red Army that Lenin and Trotsky later organized took military politicization even further, using it to attempt to spread revolution across not only the lands of the old Russian Empire but also into the Central Powers' armies and Eastern Europe.

The political soldier concept was alien to the former European professional military tradition; however, with the collapse of Imperial Germany in November 1918, there arose the paramilitary “Freikorps” (Volunteer Corps). They were composed largely of veterans of the recently ended World War, and many of their cadre were from the elite stormtroop units of its final campaigns.

They had a strong political component from the start, combining nationalism, anti-communism and an aversion to control by civilian politicians – who they believed betrayed Germany in ending the war. Their overarching attitude – that they were a new breed of ultra-modern soldier – did much to create a break with the past and open the way for those same kinds of forces in other societies worldwide. It was the Freikorps that crushed various communist revolutionary movements inside Germany, then in 1919 marched into the newly independent Baltic states to defeat the communists there.

The Freikorps proved successful against the Reds, but failed in their attempt to set up a German-controlled dependency in the Baltic states. Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia maintained their independence from both the Germans and Soviets and, with Allied assistance, managed to expel both. Nonetheless, the Freikorps became something of a legend within Germany in the years after that, and they provided the inspiration for Hitler’s Brownshirts in the following decade.

Aside from certifying extreme nationalism, the creation of politicized soldiers led to other postwar developments. Ernst Junger, a stormtroop officer and later a literary figure, became an advocate of a far-right form of anarchy in the 1920s. He and his adherents saw the Great War as having shattered the 19th century belief in progress and rationalism, replacing it with a new worldview based on the revelations obtained from fighting together under the full force of modern industrialized combat.

Those sentiments weren’t confined only to Germany. Gabriele D'Annunzio, an Italian war hero who had led an air raid over Vienna in August 1918 to drop propaganda leaflets, was associated with his nation’s version of the stormtroops. In September 1919 he marched at the head of 2,000 Italian nationalists in a coup which took over the city of Fiume in what later became Yugoslavia (now Rijeka, Croatia). He set up a “free state” there and maintained the city's independence for over a year until the Allied powers brought that regime to its end.

At first it seemed the main legacy of World War I was that it had set in place the doctrine of “total war,” which held that for a nation to triumph it must mobilize the entirety of its military, political and industrial efforts. That legacy was overturned in 1945, however, when the advent of the civilization-destroying power of atomic weapons necessitated a switch to “limited war.”

That meant the militaries of nuclear-armed powers could no longer directly engage against each other for fear such conflict would quickly escalate into what amounted to species suicide. Of course, that new limit has in turn worked to further emphasize the importance of propaganda and psychological warfare. Today, though its center of gravity has moved onto the internet and its social media, its that legacy from the Great War that’s proven most lasting.

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