Depictions of atrocities during wartime can dramatically reshape public opinion and behavior. Beginning in World War I, Allied officials created propaganda claiming that the German army had committed horrific crimes against civilians. Their goal was to mobilize the home front to support US involvement in the war. Even Adolf Hitler, who had served on the front lines in the WWI, admired the British and Americans for their skillful portrayals of the enemy.1
Following WWI, revelations about the fabricated nature of many of these Allied atrocity stories made some Americans skeptical of propaganda, particularly reports of mass crimes against civilians. Anger and resentment about having being manipulated to intervene in WWI helped to fuel anti-war sentiment.
During World War II, Allied officials expressed reservations about spreading "atrocity stories." Their Nazi counterparts, however, made full use of them. In the lead-up to the occupation of the Sudetenland in fall 1938 and the invasion of Poland the following year, the German Ministry of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda published stories of Czech and Polish violence against ethnic German civilians, arguing that they needed to be avenged. Following Germany's invasion of the Soviet Union, Nazi propagandists used real Soviet atrocities against local populations to encourage pogroms against Jews and to justify their mass murder as reprisals for Soviet crimes.
In Germany and elsewhere in Axis-controlled Europe, the public display of such gruesome brutalities, whether in posters, in cinema newsreels, and other press, had the effect the Nazis had desired. Audiences in movie theaters in the summer of 1941 screamed or turned away in shock, sometimes demanding harsher measures against Jews, who were falsely presented as the perpetrators of the violence in these "atrocity stories." Photographs and film footage gave this propaganda an air of authenticity.
Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels also understood that he could counter reports about cruel treatement of the Jews for audiences abroad by claiming these were "atrocity stories," invented by "international Jewry" and political opponents. He also used reports of real crimes by the Soviets, such as the Katyn Forest Massacre2 to try to divide the Allies.
On the battlefield, the German armed forces created and disseminated extremely graphic leaflets exposing recent Soviet crimes and denouncing the Allied bombing of Dresden as an "atrocity."3 Like the leaflet displayed here, dropped on Allied soldiers in Italy in 1945, these materials played upon emotions and aimed to raise doubts in the minds of soldiers about the justness of their cause.