Shadows of the First World War: Surveillance, Censorship, and the Right to Privacy

by Catherine Katz

Catherine Katz is an MPhil in Modern European History student at the University of Cambridge.

In a recent Wall Street Journal article, historian Margaret MacMillan writes that during the First World War, ‘Governments assumed greater control over society and have never entirely relinquished it’. [1] As we observe the centenary of the First World War, we should note that it is also the centenary of the modern surveillance state, when the antecedents of practices like phone tapping and email hacking first emerged.  While many are familiar with First World War military postal censorship, few realize that the British Liberal government also practiced extensive civilian postal censorship. 

Today, national security practices are routinely criticized for their privacy-invading nature.  Like the counterintelligence practices, this accompanying ‘privacy objection’ is part of the living legacy of the First World War.  However, at that time, only Americans expressed the privacy objection, and not the British themselves.  This important distinction indicates that by the early twentieth century a cultural divide had emerged between Britain and United States regarding the two nations’ interpretation of basic freedoms and their relative value.

In 1911, under Secretary Winston Churchill’s direction, the British Liberal government began systematically censoring foreign mail sent to and from Britain.  This measure initially responded to domestic security concerns about German spies lurking in Britain, who were supposedly coordinating a naval invasion of the island nation.  However, by the outbreak of war, the British government realized civilian postal censorship’s true value as a component of economic warfare and blockade strategy.  By censoring international civilian correspondence, the government could gather intelligence and disrupt communication between its enemies who attempted to conduct business via neutral parties in order to circumvent the blockade.  So extensive was the censorship program that the British navy forced ships carrying mail between neutral nations to temporarily dock at British ports so that mail could be searched for contraband and valuable intelligence.  By 1916, the government employed over 4,000 postal censors and read a quarter of a million pieces of international mail every week. [2]

The British Liberal government justified civilian postal censorship as a component of New Liberal ideology, under which social welfare trumped laissez-faire principles.  New Liberals argued that government-directed civilian postal censorship promoted collective welfare, much like their newly created pension and unemployment insurance programs.  Just as the government was responsible for the health and welfare of its elderly and unemployed citizens, it also had a duty to provide collective security, even at the expense of individual privacy. [3]

By 1916, Britain’s aggressive naval actions and its justification of civilian postal censorship as social welfare policy severely damaged its relations with the United States.  Woodrow Wilson’s Secretaries of State and War, Robert Lansing and Henry Stimson, became particularly incensed, their hostility evident in letters to the British government on the subject of their ‘lawless’ behavior of ‘illegal jurisdiction’.[4]  While American politicians certainly resented British interference in neutral trade and communication for economic reasons, their more passionate objection to postal censorship was ideological.

Postal censorship clashed with a new line of legal discourse that had emerged in the United States by the late-nineteenth century: the right to privacy.  In 1890, lawyers Louis Brandeis and Samuel Warren had published a groundbreaking article in the Harvard Law Review.  They explained that in an environment of increasingly invasive media, the individual should have the ‘right to be let alone’.[5]  Between 1890 and 1914, American lawyers increasingly invoked the ‘right to privacy’ argument in litigation.  By contrast, this modern legal discourse did not emerge in Britain until after the Second World War, and only then as a component of United Nations human rights legislation.  The idea that censoring private correspondence invaded individual privacy never arose in any Cabinet or Parliamentary discussions.

Though it may seem that government surveillance and the privacy versus national security tradeoff are idiosyncratic issues in the early-twenty-first century, our current debates are only the most recent developments in a much older conversation.  Amidst reflections on the Great War, which are so often dominated by war poetry and iconic images of ‘Tommies’ in the trenches, we must also recognize the surveillance state as part of the living legacy of what historian David Reynolds calls the ‘long shadow’ of the First World War. [6]

[1]  Margaret MacMillan, ‘World War I: The War that Changed Everything’, The Wall Street Journal, 20 June 2014.

[2]  ‘Memorandum on the examination of mails carried by neutral ships’, 15 July 1916, The National Archives, Kew (TNA), Cabinet Records (CAB) 37/151/32; ‘Historical sketch of the directorate of Military Intelligence during the Great War, 1914-1919’, TNA, War Office Records (WO) 32/10776.

[3] ‘Report on Postal Censorship’, TNA, Ministry of Defense Records (DEFE) 1/131, p. 151; Michael Freeden, The New Liberalism: An Ideology of Social Reform (Oxford, 1986), p. 69.

[4]  Patrick Devlin, Too Proud to Fight: Woodrow Wilson’s Neutrality (Oxford, 1974), p. 508.

[5]  Louis Brandeis and Samuel Warren, ‘The Right to Privacy’, Harvard Law Review, IV (1890).

[6]  David Reynolds, The Long Shadow: The Great War and the Twentieth Century (London, 2013), pp. 419-35.


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