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German Leaflet Alleging Allied Atrocities

Atrocity story I
US Holocaust Memorial Museum; Gift of Carter Boehm

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.

See Adolf Hitler, Mein Kampf, translated by Ralph Manheim, Sentry Edition (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1943), 181. See also: Alan Axelrod, Selling the Great War: The Making of American Propaganda (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009).

In April and May of 1940, Soviet secret police executed more than 20,000 members of the Polish intelligentsia and military officer corps. For more on the Katyn murders, see: J.K. Zawodny, Death in the Forest: The Story of the Katyn Forest Massacre (Pickle Partners Publishing, 2015).

On February 12-15, Allied bombers dropped several thousand tons of explosives on the city of Dresden, the capital of the German state of Saxony. Casualties are estimated at roughly 25,000 civilians. Contemporaries and later generations have debated the military utility of the attack, and some have even declared it a war crime. See: D.J.C. Irving, The Destruction of Dresden (Transworld, 1966); Jörg Friedrich, The Fire: The Bombing of Germany, 1940-1945, trans. Allison Brown (New York: Columbia University Press, 2006). 

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Archival Information for This Item

Source (Credit)
US Holocaust Memorial Museum
Gift of Carter Boehm
Accession Number 2014.536.1
Date Created
March 1945
Document Type Pamphlet
How to Cite Museum Materials

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