Depictions of atrocities during wartime can dramatically reshape public opinion and behavior. During 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, some Americans became skeptical of propaganda—particularly after false reports of mass crimes against civilians. Anger and resentment about having been manipulated to intervene in WWI helped to fuel anti-war sentiment.
During World War II, Allied officials expressed reservations about spreading so-called "atrocity stories." Their Nazi counterparts, however, made full use of them. Leading 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 false stories of Czech and Polish violence against ethnic German civilians. They argued that these attacks needed to be avenged. Following the German-led attack on the Soviet Union, Nazi propagandists used real Soviet atrocities against local populations to encourage pogroms against Jews and to rationalize mass murder as reprisals for Soviet crimes.
In Germany and elsewhere in Axis-controlled Europe, exposure to these crimes—whether in posters, in cinema newsreels, or other press—had the effect the Nazi propagandists had desired. Shown to movie audiences in newsreels in the the summer of 1941, these images caused shock and outrage. They also sometimes led to demands for harsher punishment for Jews, who were falsely presented as the perpetrators of the violence. Photographs and film footage gave this propaganda an air of authenticity.
Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels often pushed back against reports about the Nazi regime's cruel treatment of Jews by claiming that these were "atrocity stories" invented by "international Jewry" and the Nazi regime's political opponents. He also used reports of real crimes by Soviet forces—such as the 1940 Katyn Forest Massacre2—to try to divide the Allies.
On the battlefield, German armed forces created and spread 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. They aimed to raise doubts in the minds of soldiers about the justness of their cause.