Atrocity propaganda is the spreading of information about the crimes committed by an enemy, which can be factual, but often includes or features deliberate fabrications or exaggerations. This can involve photographs, videos, illustrations, interviews, and other forms of information presentation or reporting.

The inherently violent nature of war means that exaggeration and invention of atrocities often becomes the main staple of propaganda.[1] Patriotism is often not enough to make people hate the enemy, and propaganda is also necessary.[2] "So great are the psychological resistances to war in modern nations", wrote Harold Lasswell, "that every war must appear to be a war of defense against a menacing, murderous aggressor. There must be no ambiguity about who the public is to hate."[3] Human testimony may be unreliable even in ordinary circumstances, but in wartime, it can be further muddled by bias, sentiment, and misguided patriotism.[4]

According to Paul Linebarger, atrocity propaganda leads to real atrocities, as it incites the enemy into committing more atrocities, and, by heating up passions, it increases the chances of one's own side committing atrocities, in revenge for the ones reported in propaganda.[5] Atrocity propaganda might also lead the public to mistrust reports of actual atrocities. In January 1944, Arthur Koestler wrote of his frustration at trying to communicate what he had witnessed in Nazi-occupied Europe: the legacy of anti-German stories during World War I, many of which were debunked in the postwar years, meant that these reports were received with considerable amounts of skepticism.[6]

Like propaganda, atrocity rumors detailing exaggerated or invented crimes perpetrated by enemies are also circulated to vilify the opposing side.[7] The application of atrocity propaganda is not limited to times of conflict but can be implemented to sway public opinion and create a Casus belli to declare war.

Atrocity story

In the context of cults and apostasy the term atrocity story, also referred to as atrocity tale, as defined by the American sociologists David G. Bromley and Anson D. Shupe refers to the symbolic presentation of action or events (real or imaginary) in such a context that they are made flagrantly to violate the (presumably) shared premises upon which a given set of social relationships should be conducted. The recounting of such tales is intended as a means of reaffirming normative boundaries. By sharing the reporter's disapproval or horror, an audience reasserts normative prescription and clearly locates the violator beyond the limits of public morality. The term was coined in 1979 by Bromley, Shupe, and Joseph Ventimiglia.[8]

Bromley and others define an atrocity as an event that is perceived as a flagrant violation of a fundamental value. It contains the following three elements:

  1. moral outrage or indignation;
  2. authorization of punitive measures;
  3. mobilization of control efforts against the apparent perpetrators.

The veracity of the story is considered irrelevant.[9]

The term was coined by Stimson and Webb in discussing the ways in which patients talk about doctors.[10] It has also been applied in health care contexts to examine the way in which such stories are used to assert and defend the character of an occupation against illegitimate claims to its work or social standing.[11]


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By establishing a baseline lie and painting the enemy as a monster, atrocity propaganda serves as an intelligence function, since it wastes the time and resources of the enemy's counterintelligence services to defend itself. The propagandists' goal is to influence perceptions, attitudes, opinions, and policies; often targeting officials at all levels of government. Atrocity propaganda is violent, gloomy, and portrays doom to help rile up and get the public excited. It dehumanizes the enemy, making them easier to kill. Wars have become more serious, and less gentlemanly; the enemy must now be taken into account not merely as a man, but as a fanatic.[12] So, "falsehood is a recognized and extremely useful weapon in warfare, and every country uses it quite deliberately to deceive its own people, attract neutrals, and to mislead the enemy."[13] Harold Lasswell saw it as a handy rule for arousing hate, and that "if at first they do not enrage, use an atrocity. It has been employed with unvarying success in every conflict known to man."[3]

The extent and devastation of World War I required nations to keep morale high. Propaganda was used here to mobilize hatred against the enemy, convince the population of the justness of one's own cause, enlist the active support and cooperation of neutral countries, and strengthen the support of one's allies.[14] The goal was to make the enemy appear savage, barbaric, and inhumane.

Atrocity propaganda in history

Before the 20th century

Accounts of Irish atrocities during the Rebellion of 1641 are now dismissed as propaganda, but led to real massacres.[15]

In a sermon at Clermont during the Crusades, Urban II justified the war against Islam by claiming that the enemy "had ravaged the churches of God in the Eastern provinces, circumcised Christian men, violated women, and carried out the most unspeakable torture before killing them."[16] Urban II's sermon succeeded in mobilizing popular enthusiasm in support of the People's Crusade.

Lurid tales purporting to unveil Jewish atrocities against Christians were widespread during the Middle Ages.[17] The charge against Jews of kidnapping and murdering Christian children to consume their blood during Passover became known as blood libel.[18]

In the 17th century, the English press fabricated graphic descriptions of atrocities allegedly committed by Irish Catholics against English Protestants, including the torture of civilians and the raping of women. The English public reacted to these stories with calls for stern reprisals.[19] During the Irish rebellion of 1641, lurid reports of atrocities, including of pregnant women who had been ripped open and had their babies pulled out, provided Oliver Cromwell with justification for his subsequent slaughter of defeated Irish rebels.[15]

In 1782, Benjamin Franklin wrote and published an article purporting to reveal a letter between a British agent and the governor of Canada, listing atrocities supposedly perpetrated by Native American allies of Britain against colonists, including detailed accounts of the scalping of women and children. The account was a fabrication, published in the expectation that it would be reprinted by British newspapers and therefore sway British public opinion in favor of peace with the United States.[20]

After the 1857 Sepoy Mutiny, stories began to circulate in the British and colonial press of atrocities, especially rapes of European women, in places like Cawnpore; a subsequent official inquiry found no evidence for any of the claims.[21]

In the lead up to the Spanish–American War, Pulitzer and Hearst published stories of Spanish atrocities against Cubans. While occasionally true, the majority of these stories were fabrications meant to boost sales.[22]

20th century

World War I

See also: British propaganda during World War I and The Rape of Belgium

It was reported that some thirty to thirty-five German soldiers entered the house of David Tordens, a carter, in Sempst; they bound him, and then five or six of them assaulted and ravished in his presence his thirteen-year-old daughter, and afterwards fixed her on bayonets. After this horrible deed, they bayoneted his nine-year-old boy and then shot his wife.


Stories of German soldiers impaling children on their bayonets were based on extremely flimsy evidence.[24]

Atrocity propaganda was widespread during World War I, when it was used by all belligerents, playing a major role in creating the wave of patriotism that characterised the early stages of the war.[25] British propaganda is regarded as having made the most extensive use of fictitious atrocities to promote the war effort.[25]

One such story was that German soldiers were deliberately mutilating Belgian babies by cutting off their hands, in some versions even eating them. Eyewitness accounts told of having seen a similarly mutilated baby. As Arthur Ponsonby later pointed out, in reality a baby would be very unlikely to survive similar wounds without immediate medical attention.[26]

Another atrocity story involved a Canadian soldier, who had supposedly been crucified with bayonets by the Germans (see The Crucified Soldier). Many Canadians claimed to have witnessed the event, yet they all provided different version of how it had happened. The Canadian high command investigated the matter, concluding that it was untrue.[27]

Other reports circulated of Belgian women, often nuns, who had their breasts cut off by the Germans.[28] A story about German corpse factories, where bodies of German soldiers were supposedly turned into glycerine for weapons, or food for hogs and poultry, was published in a Times article on April 17, 1917.[29] In the postwar years, investigations in Britain and France revealed that these stories were false.[25]

In 1915, the British government asked Viscount Bryce, one of the best-known contemporary historians, to head the Committee on Alleged German Outrages which was to investigate the allegations of atrocities. The report purported to prove many of the claims, and was widely published in the United States, where it contributed to convince the American public to enter the war. Few at the time criticised the accuracy of the report. After the war, historians who sought to examine the documentation for the report were told that the files had mysteriously disappeared. Surviving correspondence between the members of the committee revealed they actually had severe doubts about the credibility of the tales they investigated.[30]

German newspapers published allegations that Armenians were murdering Muslims in Turkey. Several newspapers reported that 150,000 Muslims had been murdered by Armenians in Van province. An article about the 1908 Revolution (sometimes called the "Turkish national awakening") published by a German paper accused the "Ottomans of the Christian tribe" (meaning the Armenians) of taking up arms after the revolution and killing Muslims.[31]

World War II

During World War II, atrocity propaganda was not used on the same scale as in World War I, as by then it had long been discredited by its use during the previous conflict.[32] There were exceptions in some propaganda films, such as Hitler's Children, Women in Bondage, and Enemy of Women, which portrayed the Germans (as opposed to just Nazis) as enemies of civilization, abusing women and the innocent.[33] Hitler's Children is now spoken of as "lurid", while Women in Bondage is described as a low-budget exploitation film; the latter carries a disclaimer that "everything in the film is true", but facts are often distorted or sensationalized.[34]

However, the Germans often claimed that largely accurate descriptions of German atrocities were just "atrocity propaganda" and a few Western leaders were thus hesitant to believe early reports of Nazi atrocities, especially the existence of concentration camps, death camps and the many massacres perpetrated by German troops and SS Einsatzgruppen during the war. Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt knew from radio intercepts via Bletchley Park that such massacres were widespread in Poland and other east European territories. Moreover, the existence of concentration camps like Dachau was well known both in Germany and throughout the world as a result of German propaganda itself, as well as many exposures by escapees and others from 1933 onwards. Their discovery towards the end of the war shocked many in the west, especially of Bergen-Belsen and Dachau by allied soldiers, but the atrocities carried out there were amply supported by the facts on the ground. The Nuremberg trials in 1945/6 confirmed the extent of genocide, Nazi medical experimentation, massacres and torture on a very wide scale. Later Nuremberg trials produced abundant evidence of atrocities carried out on prisoners and captives.

The Germans themselves made heavy use of atrocity propaganda, both before the war and during it. Violence between ethnic Germans and the Poles, such as the 1939 Bloody Sunday massacre, was characterised as barbaric slaughter of the German population by the subhuman Poles, and used to justify the genocide of the Polish population according to the Nazi Generalplan Ost plan.[35] Late in the war, Nazi propaganda used exaggerated depictions of real or planned Allied crimes against Germany, such as the bombing of Dresden,[36] the Nemmersdorf massacre,[37] and the Morgenthau Plan for the deindustrialisation of Germany[38] to frighten and enrage German civilians into resistance. Hitler's last directive, given fifteen days before his suicide, proclaimed the postwar intentions of the "Jewish Bolsheviks" to be the total genocide of the German people, with the men sent off to labour camps in Siberia and the women and girls made into military sex slaves.[39]

Soviet–Afghan War

The PFM-1 mine was claimed to have been deliberately designed to attract children

According to a 1985 UN report backed by Western countries, the KGB had deliberately designed mines to look like toys, and deployed them against Afghan children during the Soviet–Afghan War.[40]

Newspapers such as the New York Times ran stories denouncing the "ghastly, deliberate crippling of children" and noting that while the stories had been met with skepticism by the public, they had been proven by the "incontrovertible testimony" of a UN official testifying the existence of booby-trap toys in the shape of harmonicas, radios, or birds.[41]

The story likely originated from the PFM-1 mine, which was made from brightly colored plastic and had been indirectly copied from the American BLU-43 Dragontooth design. The Mine Action Coordination Center of Afghanistan reported that the allegations "gained a life for obvious journalist reasons", but otherwise had no basis in reality.[40]

Yugoslav Wars

Main article: Propaganda during the Yugoslav Wars

In November 1991, a Serbian photographer claimed to have seen the corpses of 41 children, which had allegedly been killed by Croatian soldiers. The story was published by media outlets worldwide, but the photographer later admitted to fabricating his account. The story of this atrocity was blamed for inciting a desire for vengeance in Serbian rebels, who summarily executed Croatian fighters who were captured near the alleged crime scene the day after the forged report was published.[42]

Gulf War

Main article: Nayirah testimony

Iraq invaded Kuwait in August 1990. On October 10, 1990, a young Kuwaiti girl known only as "Nayirah" appeared in front of a congressional committee and testified that she witnessed the mass murdering of infants, when Iraqi soldiers had snatched them out of hospital incubators and threw them on the floor to die. Her testimony became a lead item in newspapers, radio and TV all over the US. The story was eventually exposed as a fabrication in December 1992, in a CBC-TV program called To Sell a War. Nayirah was revealed to be the daughter of Kuwait's ambassador to the United States, and had not actually seen the "atrocities" she described take place; the PR firm Hill & Knowlton, which had been hired by the Kuwaiti government to devise a PR campaign to increase American public support for a war against Iraq, had heavily promoted her testimony.[43]

Unification Church

In their study of 190 newspaper articles about former members of the Unification Church between 1974 and 1977, Bromley and others found that 188 contained atrocity stories and were largely hostile to the church. The most frequent atrocities were:

  1. Psychological violation of personal freedom and autonomy;
  2. Economic violations: reports that the church forced member to sell their private property and to give it to the church;
  3. Severing of the parent-child relation. This grew out of the hostility of families who had been rejected by members of the church;
  4. Political and legal atrocities, because the church was run by a foreigner.

According to the American sociologist Kurtz, there was an element of truth to many of these stories, but these things happen in many organizations and the coverage of the church was very negative.[44]

Atrocity stories served as justification for deprogramming of Unification Church members.[44] The term is also used for stories about other new religious movements and cults.

21st century

Iraq War

In the runup to the 2003 Invasion of Iraq, press stories appeared in the United Kingdom and United States of a plastic shredder or wood chipper[45][46] into which Saddam and Qusay Hussein fed opponents of their Baathist rule. These stories attracted worldwide attention and boosted support for military action, in stories with titles such as "See men shredded, then say you don't back war".[47] A year later, it was determined there was no evidence to support the existence of such a machine.[48]

In 2004, former Marine Staff Sgt. Jimmy Massey claimed that he and other Marines intentionally killed dozens of innocent Iraqi civilians, including a 4-year-old girl. His allegations were published by news organizations worldwide, but none of the five journalists – embedded with the troops and approved by the Pentagon – who covered his battalion said they saw reckless or indiscriminate shooting of civilians. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch dismissed his claim as "either demonstrably false or exaggerated".[49]

In July 2003 an Iraqi woman, Jumana Hanna, testified that she had been subjected to inhumane treatment by Baathist policemen during two years of imprisonment, including being subjected to electric shocks and raped repeatedly. The story appeared on the front page of The Washington Post, and was presented to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee by then-Deputy Defense Secretary Paul D. Wolfowitz. In January 2005, articles in Esquire and The Washington Post concluded that none of her allegations could be verified, and that her accounts contained grave inconsistencies. Her husband, who she claimed had been executed in the same prison where she was tortured, was in fact still alive.[50]

Other cases

During the Battle of Jenin, Palestinian officials claimed there was a massacre of civilians in the refugee camp, which was proven false by subsequent international investigations.[51]

During the 2010 South Kyrgyzstan ethnic clashes, a rumor spread among ethnic Kyrgyz that Uzbek men had broken into a local women's dormitory and raped several Kyrgyz women. Local police never provided any confirmation that such an assault occurred.[52]

During the Libyan Civil War, Libyan media was reporting atrocities by Muammar Gaddafi loyalists, who were ordered to perform mass "Viagra-fueled rapes" (see 2011 Libyan rape allegations).[53] A later investigation by Amnesty International has failed to find evidence for these allegations, and in many cases has discredited them, as the rebels were found to have deliberately lied about the claims.[54]

In July 2014, the Russian public broadcaster Channel One aired a report claiming that Ukrainian soldiers in Sloviansk had crucified a three-year-old boy to a board, and later dragged his mother with a tank, causing her death.[55] The account of the only witness interviewed for the report was not corroborated by anyone else,[56] and other media have been unable to confirm the story,[57] despite claims in the testimony that many of the city's inhabitants had been forced to watch the killings.[56] A reporter for Novaya Gazeta similarly failed to find any other witnesses in the city.[58]

During the 2023 Israel-Hamas War, allegations of atrocity propaganda were frequently exchanged by all parties to the conflict.

See also


  1. ^ MacDougall, Curtis D., Understanding Public Opinion: A Guide for Newspapermen and Newspaper Readers (New York: Macmillan, 1952) pp. 101–102
  2. ^ Rogerson, Sidney (1938). Propaganda in the Next War. Great Britain: MacKays Limited. p. 27.
  3. ^ a b Delwiche, Aaron. "Domestic Propaganda During the First World War". Retrieved 12 November 2012.
  4. ^ Ponsonby, p.128
  5. ^ Linebarger, Paul M.A. 1954. Psychological Warfare (2nd ed.) New York: Duell, Sloan and Pearce, as cited in: Budge, Kent. "Propaganda". The Pacific War Online Encyclopedia. Retrieved 11 November 2012.
  6. ^ "Inventing Atrocities". National Review Online. 10 August 2007. Retrieved 4 December 2016.
  7. ^ David L. Miller (2013). Introduction to Collective Behavior and Collective Action: Third Edition. Waveland Press. p. 98. ISBN 978-1478610953.
  8. ^ Bromley, David G., Shupe, Anson D., Ventimiglia, G.C.: "Atrocity Tales, the Unification Church, and the Social Construction of Evil", Journal of Communication, Summer 1979, pp. 42–53.
  9. ^ Richardson, James T. Minority Religions and the Context of Violence: A Conflict/Interactionist Perspective in Violence and New Religious Movements by James R. Lewis, 2011, Oxford University Press, page 43
  10. ^ Stimson GV; Webb, B. (1975) Going to see the doctor. London: Routledge
  11. ^ Dingwall, R. (1977) Atrocity Stories and Professional Relationships. Sociology of Work and Occupations, Vol4, No 4
  12. ^ Linebarger, Paul (1948). Psychological Warfare. Landisville, Pennsylvania: Coachwhip Publications. p. 22. ISBN 1616460555.
  13. ^ "Falsehood in Wartime". Retrieved 11 November 2012.
  14. ^ Cull, Culbert, Welch, p.24
  15. ^ a b "How lies about Irish 'barbarism' in 1641 paved way for Cromwell's atrocities". The Guardian. 18 February 2011. Retrieved 14 July 2014.
  16. ^ Cull, Culbert, Welch, p. 23–4
  17. ^ Carl R. Trueman (2010). Histories and Fallacies: Problems Faced in the Writing of History. Crossway. p. 133. ISBN 978-1433520808.
  18. ^ McLeod, Kembrew (2014). Pranksters: Making Mischief in the Modern World. NYU Press. p. 101. ISBN 978-0814764367.
  19. ^ James David Drake (1999). King Philip's War: Civil War in New England, 1675–1676. Univ of Massachusetts Press. p. 134. ISBN 1558492240.
  20. ^ "The Atrocity Propaganda Ben Franklin Circulated to Sway Public Opinion in America's Favor". Slate. 1 July 2015. Retrieved 30 March 2017.
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  27. ^ Jennifer Keene; Michael Neiberg (2011). Finding Common Ground: New Directions in First World War Studies. Brill. p. 32. ISBN 978-9004191822.
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  29. ^ Celia M. Kingsbury (2010). For Home and Country: World War I Propaganda on the Home Front. U of Nebraska Press. p. 49. ISBN 978-0803228320.
  30. ^ "The Historian Who Sold Out". History News Network. Retrieved 13 July 2014.
  31. ^ Ihrig, Stefan (2016). Justifying Genocide: Germany and the Armenians from Bismark to Hitler. Harvard University Press. p. 168. ISBN 9780674504790.
  32. ^ Philip M. Taylor (2003). Munitions of the Mind: A History of Propaganda, Third Edition (PDF). Manchester University Press. p. 222. ISBN 978-0719067679.
  33. ^ Philip M. Taylor (2003). Munitions of the Mind: A History of Propaganda, Third Edition (PDF). Manchester University Press. p. 230. ISBN 978-0719067679.
  34. ^ Bernard F. Dick (1996). The Star-spangled Screen: The American World War II Film. University Press of Kentucky. pp. 189–190. ISBN 0813128218.
  35. ^ Ian Kershaw (2001). Hitler 1936–1945: Nemesis. Penguin Books Limited. p. 242. ISBN 978-0141925813.
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  37. ^ Samuel, Wolfgang. "War on the Ground", The War of Our Childhood: Memories of World War II, University of Mississippi Press; ISBN 1578064821.
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  39. ^ "Führer Order, 15 Apr 1945".
  40. ^ a b Braithwaite, Rodric (2011). Afgantsy : the Russians in Afghanistan, 1979–89. Oxford University Press. pp. 234–235. ISBN 978-0199832668.
  41. ^ "Soviet Toys of Death". The New York Times. 10 December 1985. Retrieved 30 March 2017.
  42. ^ "Media : Truth Is Again a Casualty of War : Fabricated accounts of atrocities in Yugoslavia have often led to fierce reprisals". Los Angeles Times. 17 December 1991.
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  44. ^ a b Kurtz, Lester R. Gods in the Global Village: The World's Religions in Sociological Perspective 2007, Pine Forge Press, ISBN 1412927153, p. 228
  45. ^ "Saddam Executed; An Era Comes to an End". ABC News.
  46. ^ "News Archive". U.S. Department of Defense.
  47. ^ Clwyd, Ann (March 18, 2003). "See men shredded, then say you don't back war". Times Online. Archived from the original on 5 September 2008. Retrieved 31 March 2017.((cite news)): CS1 maint: bot: original URL status unknown (link)
  48. ^ "Brendan O'Neill: The missing people-shredder". The Guardian. 25 February 2004. Retrieved 13 July 2014.
  49. ^ "Is Jimmy Massey telling the truth about Iraq?". St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Archived from the original on December 5, 2005. Retrieved 12 July 2014.
  50. ^ Wyatt, Edward (21 January 2005). "Iraqi Refugee's Tale of Abuse Dissolves Upon Later Scrutiny". The New York Times. Retrieved 13 July 2014.
  51. ^ Dickey, Christopher (14 January 2009). "The Crying Game". Newsweek. – "histrionic claims by Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat that 1,000 civilians had been killed. (In fact, about 50 Palestinians had fought and died in a ferocious battle that also cost the lives of 23 Israeli soldiers.)"
  52. ^ Levy, Clifford J. (20 June 2010). "Barriers Removed in Kyrgyzstan Despite Uzbek Protests". The New York Times. Retrieved 13 July 2014.
  53. ^ MacAskill, Ewen (29 April 2011). "Gaddafi 'supplies troops with Viagra to encourage mass rape', claims diplomat". The Guardian. Retrieved 30 March 2017.
  54. ^ "Amnesty questions claim that Gaddafi ordered rape as weapon of war". The Independent. 22 October 2011. Retrieved 12 July 2014.
  55. ^ Farchy, Jack (18 July 2014). "Malaysia Airlines crash: Russian media blame Kiev". Financial Times.
  56. ^ a b "Russians Hear News About Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 That's Good for Kremlin". Wall Street Journal. WSJ. 21 July 2014. Retrieved 24 July 2014.
  57. ^ "Russian TV sparks outrage with Ukraine child 'crucifixion' claim". Yahoo News. Retrieved 24 July 2014.
  58. ^ Nemtsova, Anna (15 July 2014). "There's No Evidence the Ukrainian Army Crucified a Child in Slovyansk". The Daily Beast. Retrieved 24 July 2014.


Further reading