German First World War propaganda map depicting Great Britain as an octopus

FREIHEIT DER MEERE. ENGLAND DER BLUTSAUGER DER WELT. [“Freedom of the Seas. England the World’s Bloodsucker.”] [Germany, late 1917-1918.]
Lithograph printed in black and red, 12 5/8”h x 18 3/8”w plus title, legend and margins.

A scarce First World War propaganda map, Freiheit der Meere depicts Great Britain as an octopus extending its tentacles to embrace its far-flung empire.

The poster has been attributed to a 1918 campaign overseen by the Militärische Stelle des Auswärtigen Amtes, a division of the German Foreign Office responsible for propaganda efforts and the censorship of wartime publications. The campaign drew on President Wilson’s “Fourteen Points” speech, seeking to portray the purported hypocrisy of the Allied war effort and aims.

The overall effect is rather comic, as the octopus is noticeably goggle-eyed and has 24 scrawny arms, while the “bloodsucker” label makes for a decidedly mixed metaphor. Nonetheless, the message is serious, as explained by PJ Mode:

“This German poster depicts Britain as an octopus threatening the “Freiheit der Meere,” Freedom of the Seas. Its numerous tentacles reach out to some 27 places allegedly colonized or attacked by the Empire, from “Bermudas” in 1609 to “Archangelsk” and “Kronstadt” in 1917. In January 1918, President Wilson presented the famous “Fourteen Points,” a statement of the U.S. views on principles essential for ending World War I and establishing enduring peace…. The second Point reflected Germany’s U-boat attacks on American shipping, one of the principal reasons for U.S. entry into the war: “Absolute freedom of navigation upon the seas, outside territorial waters, alike in peace and in war . . . .” The octopus here attacks Britain’s own respect for Freedom of the Seas, part of the German effort to gain leverage in the eventual peace negotiations.” (Persuasive Maps: PJ Mode Collection, #2286.)

Like many propaganda maps, Freiheit der Meere relies on sins of omission: First, it gives no indication of Germany’s own overseas colonies in Africa and the South Pacific. More glaringly, it makes no mention whatsoever of the campaign of unrestricted submarine warfare inaugurated by Germany in early 1917, which came close to bringing Great Britain to its knees.

Freiheit der Meere was hardly the first time a combatant country had employed octopus imagery in its propaganda. PJ Mode continues:

Freiheit der Meere was hardly the first time a combatant country had employed octopus imagery in its propaganda.  The earliest use of an octopus motif on a propaganda map was probably on Fred Rose’s Serio-Comic War Map for the Year 1877,where it was used to represent an aggressively imperialist Russia. The motif reappeared many times since, in any number of contexts, representing among others Prussia, Standard Oil, Winston Churchill, and the Jewish people. “The prevalence of the octopus motif in later maps suggests that the octopus also spoke to humanity’s primeval fears, evoking a terrifying and mysterious creature from the depths (the dark outer places of the world) that convincingly conjured a sense of limitless evil.” (Baynton-Williams, The Curious Map Book, p. 180)

In all, a scarce and striking example of the octopus motif in First World War propaganda mapping. 

Persuasive Maps: PJ Mode Collection, #2286. In his description Mode quotes from Peter Barber and Tom Harper, Magnificent Maps (London: The British Library, 2010) and Ashley Baynton-Williams, The Curious Map Book (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015).


Folds flattened, minor repairs to edges, faint tape stain visible in left margin. Lined on verso. Very good overall.