The lie of Douaumont
Censorship of newspapers in World War I
We set ourselves the goal to find out how reports were manipulated and censored. The events around the Fort Douaumont near Verdun in May 1916 were chosen to examine representing censorship in World War I. France and Germany fought each other in order to occupy the stronghold. An occupation would have given prestige to the big powers, so they censored and manipulated reports permanently to insure and convince the people of a speedy victory.
After an extensive research on original newspapers from 1916, on specialized literature , we succeeded to create an informative and short TV program.
Hendrik: Good evening ladies and gentlemen, welcome to today's program. We give a warm welcome to the professor of history, Sebastian Kriewel. Which topic did you prepare for us?
Sebastian: Good evening, Mr. Bendel. Today's episode deals with the current events around Fort Douaumont. This is the most important defense work in the forts' belt of the French fortress Verdun. That's why it arouses the interest of both France and Germany. Reading the reports from the war zone, you get to know that the fort would be safely in German occupation but it is reported that French attacks increase.
Hendrik: Originally, the Fort Douaumont belonged to France, right?
Sebastian: Right, it was built by the French government in 1885. It cost 6 million Francs, enormous costs for a fort. At the beginning of the war, Fort Douaumont wasn't that interesting for Germany, probably, because the Germans thought that a successful siege wouldn't have been possible.
Hendrik: But this changed on February 21, 1916. That day, Germany started an assault while the fort wasn't that occupied by French soldiers. Short time later, Fort Douaumont was conquered. How did the French people react on the capture of such an important defense work? Anyhow, Verdun is, by looking on the map, a significant protection against the German army.
Sebastian: You're right. On the map you can see the forts' belt of Verdun. In this part, there is Fort Douaumont, Fort Vaux, Fort Souville and Fort Tavanne. Verdun itself is located over there. This sector is protected by the forts thus surprised were the French when Germany managed to conquer the fort. After having had no interest on the fortress since the beginning of the war in 1914, the attack happened absolutely unexpected by France.
Hendrik: Which significance is attached to the fights of Fort Douauont.
Sebastian: The fight of Fort Douaumont should have been the decisive factor of who's going to win the battle of Verdun. The stronghold became more and more the object of prestige during the showdown between Fance and Germany. This is why both nations invested more and more men and material to sew the battle up. Thus great was the interest of the nations' people on the fight. But how does the German people evaluates the current events around Fort Douaumont and what about the reporting on this topic?
Hendrik: I asked myself as well, this is why we sent our correspondent Malte Drescher to Berlin to get to know which information is delivered to the people and how do they judge them. Good evening Mr. Drescher.
Malte: Good evening Mr. Bendel, good evening Mr. Kriewel.
Hendrik: Mr. Drescher, how do the Germans react on the reports of Fort Douaumont?
Malte: The people react very sereme, they trust the German king and the Supreme Army Command. The official version which says that Fort Douauont would be safely in German occupation, isn't doubted.
Hendrik: You mentioned the Supreme Army Command. How do the plain citizens get all these information?
Malte: They get the information by all the newspapers which are circulating on the streets. I got some editions as well.
Hendrik: So, how is the situation described? You already suggested what the Supreme Apply Command indicated. Do you have some more information?
Malte: The situation is described quite precisely. The “Frankfurter Zeitung” on May 25, 1916 quotes the war correspondent Eugen Ralfschmidt who explaines: “The Fort Douaumont is not only partly but completely and utterly in our property.” This is confirmed by the “Neue Preußische Kreuzzeitung” in the evening report on May 26, 1916: “Not a single fighting French guy has reached the inside of Fort Douaumont, not even temporary.” In the reports of “Frankfurter Zeitung” on May 26, 1916 the defense lines entered by Frenchmen are described as “transitory cleaned parts of defensive position”. Continuing it is said: “During all the fights in the last weeks the Fort hasn't been wrested from the Germans.”.
Hendrik: In French newspapers, the events are reported completely different. The reports of the French army command of May 25, 1916 state that after having begun the offensive one day before, the fort would have been wrested from the Germans. Do the German newspapers reports of similar occasions or are the announcements of France disputed?
Malte: No, non-exclusive anyway. By reading several German newspapers you get to know some differences as well. For example, the “Norddeutsche Allgemeine Zeitung” reported: “In the inside of Fort Douaumont, Frenchmen push back the Germans although they perform vivid defense.” Germany would only occupy the Northern edge of Fort Douaumont.
Hendrik: Thanks so far, let's come back to Mr. Kriewel. Do you have more precise information about these reports? Which of these statements is true?
Sebastian: By considering in all objectivity, the statements of the “Frankfurter Zeitung” and the “Neue Preußische Kreuzzeitung” aren't quite correct. During the French offensive on October 24, the Fort was hardly under gun fire, before the Frenchmen pushed forward. Many different compartments attacked the edges of the defense at the same time until several French units got into the fort. Inside Fort Douaumont, there were hard fights. For Germany, the situation got worse, they were forced to withdraw.
Hendrik: In this case, the German reports were faulty, apart from the “Norddeutsche Allgemeine Zeitung” Can you confirm that, Mr. Drescher?
Hendrik: Is already told anything about coming fights or war zones?
Malte: Yes, as a location for upcoming conflicts is mentioned the Côte De Froide Terre. This is an important base to observe the routes Verdun- Bras and Verdun-Fleury. The base would help Germany to capture Verdun faster.
Hendrik: Very interesting. So the citizens of Berlin don't worry about losing the war?
Malte: Not officially. But a combat fatigue is coming up. You can no more recognize any optimism or national war fever. Nobody speaks loudly that the war could be lost. But I guess secretly there is people’s doubt, especially because there are some newspapers that report more critically, how we just saw.
Sebastian: Thanks for watching and have a nice evening.
Hendrik: See you.