Media war in Austria-Hungary - War photography as propaganda in World War I

Unprecedented in the history of war, photography was used extensively as propaganda material to strengthen national feeling at home and demonstrate military might. This is the finding of the photo-historic analysis of the photographic collection at the picture archive of the Austrian National Library, one of the FWF-sponsored projects. The bulk of the Austrian graphic material was actually commissioned by the imperial and royal war press bureau and used systematically as a propaganda instrument.

Aerial photographic reconnaissance in World War I. The photo, shot by an unknown photographer of the Austrian-Hungarian war survey department No. 7, shows a double-decker of the 13th flying squad in Kolomea, Galicia, probably at the beginning of 1916 © Use of this photo for editorial purposes is free of charge, subject to attribution: Picture archive of the Austrian National Library, Vienna. [K 31763]. Further images at

The systematic application of mass media in the service of war was known from World War II onwards. Besides the spoken and written word, pictures mainly demonstrated the strength of one's own warfare and concealed its weaknesses. Actually, this tactic dates from World War I. The analysis of more than 33,000 war photos (original glass negatives and prints) clarifies this point. The majority of photos depict East and South-East European war settings.

The dead are the dead of the enemy
The Austrian photohistorian Anton Holzer researched the photo pool from World War I at the Austrian National Library, which compared internationally is very extensive and in excellent condition. Using a computerised project database, a screen selection was examined by photo-historic methods. Holzer collected as much information as possible on individual pictures: photographer, region, topic and historic background. Comparative studies in East and South-East European archives provided additional material. "Initially," says Holzer, "these photographs were mainly employed in surveying, and were used beside other media like drawing and lithography for documenting war events." Its potential as propaganda material was soon recognised. Photos should present one's own war as heroic and successful. Photos were therefore subject to strict censorship. "Many aspects of the war remained unrecorded for a specific propaganda purpose. Thus the dead soldiers on the battlefield were always the enemy. Indications to one's own dead were only indirect - recorded only as funerals and commemorations," says Holzer.

Mobilisation of the photographic view
Professional photographers were officially commissioned by the imperial and royal war press bureau for executing this photo propaganda endeavour. Amateur photographers were also increasingly employed in the propaganda during the second half of the war. The censored photos were distributed to domestic and international press, displayed in exhibitions and hung as posters. "It is remarkable that these photographs not only document the battlefield, but record the enormous war logistics. The large war machinery is apparent in these photographs and display the success of the Austrian war efforts in all areas. There are photographs of telephone and radio installations, successful construction of railways and roads, replenishment and food supply stores," explains Holzer. The propagandistic photographs also record captured weapons and soldiers, refugees and forced labourers.

Altogether this research project delineates how far the systematic embedding of war reporting in the military apparatus can be traced back. For FWF, this project shows how quickly basic research can relate to current events and hence, how important the support of such projects is. Poignantly enough, the propagandistic use of mass media has reached its peak in the Iraq conflict today.

Anton Holzer, M. A.
Florianigasse 75/19
A-1080 Vienna
T +43/1/2186409
M +43/664 163 05 51

Issued by:
PR&D - Public Relations for Research & Development
Campus Vienna Biocenter 2
A-1030 Vienna
T +43/1/505 70 44

Vienna, June 14, 2004