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Grolier Club Exhibitions


Propaganda, The Best-Read Army in the World, curated by Molly Manning, exhibited at the Grolier Club

World War II was a “war of words,” and troops faced an incessant stream of propaganda that aimed to demoralize, confuse, and persuade them to surrender. This case contains a sampling of German, Japanese, United States, and British propaganda leaflets. Can you decipher truths from deceits?

No! German Propaganda Leaflet, undated. 

In this “war of words,” Germany produced hundreds of unique, demoralizing messages that were scattered across Allied positions. The reverse side of this leaflet states, “No travels, no evenings out, no swank dinners, no dances.” The visible side states “No! For ever, for days, for weeks, for months to have to freeze and hunger out in muddy foxholes—what for—for whom?” The soldier who found this leaflet wrote “propaganda” and mailed it home.

U.S. Office of War Information, Psychological Warfare Team. Words are Weapons, undated. 

In Germany’s ever-escalating battle to persuade Allied troops to surrender, the United States launched a counteroffensive in psychological warfare. Defining this as the “science of using words and ideas as weapons,” the United States printed two main types of propaganda. The first aimed to demoralize the enemy, and the second encouraged civilians in occupied lands to resist the Nazis and aid Allied forces as they advanced.

Japanese Army Headquarters. Please! Please Come Back, undated. 

While Germany printed the lion’s share of Axis propaganda leaflets, Japan also engaged in psychological warfare tactics. This colorful leaflet implores, “Please! Please come back.  Don’t die, it’s terrible to be dead!” On the reverse side, troops are told that they can avoid death by “waving a white flag,” putting their gun on their left shoulder with the muzzle down, and redeeming this surrender “ticket.”

All Aboard, Outward Bound. German Propaganda Leaflet, July 1944. 

Shortly after D-Day, this leaflet was distributed by German rockets onto Allied troops. It appears to show the Grim Reaper hovering over a troop transport heading to Europe. The backside states that the British should fight their own war, and that American troops should consider how they “deserted [their families] to fight in Europe in a war that hasn’t a thing to do with you.” “Isn’t America far enough away from it all?”

Jerry’s Front Radio. German Propaganda Leaflet, undated. 

This crafty leaflet was meant to lure American GIs to provide their personal information and a message for broadcast on German radio. Germany’s “Axis Sally” radio program attracted audiences around the world because “Sally” would interview American POWs or convey messages from troops to their loved ones. By complying, troops were told they could spare their families of “the dreadful feeling of anxious suspense concerning your fate.” The reverse side is a surrender pass.

BBC. British Propaganda Leaflet, undated. 

Some propaganda leaflets aimed to be informative rather than deceptive. This leaflet by the BBC has the same message translated into ten languages. Its main theme reiterated that truthful war reporting was broadcast by the BBC on a daily basis. “Throughout Europe, men and women are risking imprisonment, and even death, to hear the news from London, because they know it tells them the truth,” the leaflet says.

Hello, Pte. Breger! German Propaganda Leaflet, undated. 

“Borrowing” a cartoon by Private Dave Breger (who coined the term “GI Joe”), this German propaganda leaflet aimed to attract the attention of Allied troops with the familiar sight of a favorite cartoon. It urged surrender. “Your uniform will always be damp and cold, just like last week; and no place to dry it!” According to the leaflet, it would be “better to pass Christmas time in the warm barracks of a German PW’s camp.”

If you should be captured you will be safe. German Propaganda Leaflet, undated. 

If you should be captured these are your rights. Washington, D.C.: U.S. War Department, May 16, 1944. 

Real or fake? After the War Department printed a booklet painting a grim picture of German prisoner of war camps and detailing the rights captured troops retained, Germany printed a nearly identical propaganda leaflet that heralded the comforts of life in a German prisoner of war camp. By copying the familiar format of a War Department booklet, Germany hoped to fool American troops into reading its false claims.

The Dead Will Never Return! German Propaganda Leaflet, undated. 

Death or an honorable surrender? This is the theme of this double-sided propaganda leaflet. On the reverse side, there is an “Honour Roll,” listing prisoners of war who surrendered to the German Army. “The POW will safely return,” the leaflet states. On the visible side of the leaflet, there are lists of those killed in action with descriptions of the “dearly loved” family members they left behind.

I’m sitting on the top of the world. German Propaganda Leaflet, undated. 

A colorful panel on the front of this leaflet claims that prisoners of war are “sitting on the top of the world.” The back of the leaflet claims this is true because POWs are safe, well-fed, entertained, and in receipt of medical care. An American troop who received this leaflet wrote on the bottom, “This is a joke the Germans are putting out, it really gives us a laugh. I hope they don’t believe it.”

John Gilbert Winant. La guerre du peuple et la paix du peuple. United States Government, undated. 

Among the literature the U.S. Government published for nations that had been under Nazi occupation is this booklet printed in French, “The People’s War and the People’s Peace.”  Though undated, it seems likely that this was published before V-E Day, as the booklet asks the French for their cooperation in destroying totalitarianism and paving the way for freedom across Europe. Such literature was expressly prohibited by the Nazis, which might explain the booklet’s easy-to-hide size.

Two Ways to End the Maneuver. German Propaganda Leaflet, undated. 

No Place to Go. German Propaganda Leaflet, undated. 

These two propaganda leaflets are addressed to specific U.S. Army divisions, and Germany had a penchant for distributing these leaflets precisely on the divisions named.  It was unsettling to the troops who received them. This tactic aimed to give credence to the substance of the leaflets, since the German Army proved it knew the exact positions of particular units.