Tuesday, May 21

Who do you think you are kidding, Mr Hitler?

How to Win an Information War: The Propagandist Who Outwitted Hitler

Peter Pomerantsev (London: Faber, 2024)

Contemporary journalist and academic Peter Pomerantsev is a specialist on propaganda, and in an era where a coalescing of circumstances makes it difficult for readers of good faith to navigate their way to accurate information. These circumstances include the proliferation of potential sources, the increasing polarisation of beliefs, and many people’s habit of operating in verbal silos where they end up exposed almost exclusively to viewpoints they already share. Needless to say, the explosion of social media has accentuated these and other trends. Whatever the democratizing effects of social media, too, misinformation and disinformation have flourished, and the US-based Pomerantsev is evidently concerned about the large numbers of American citizens who still believe that the 2020 Presidential election was ‘stolen’ from Donald Trump.  

But what happens if those seekers of information are not living in a democracy in the first place? Pomerantsev was born in Ukraine, and in 1978, when he was an infant, his family had to leave the country after his parents were arrested by the KGB for distributing dissident material. Pomerantsev is, unsurprisingly, very interested in Russian propaganda, and especially in its pervasive influence since the invasion of Ukraine two years ago. He was particularly dismayed at how hard it was for Ukrainians to convince their own relatives and friends in Russia that what they were enduring on the ground in Ukraine was really happening. How can propaganda of such power be combated?

Pomerantsev thus turns to the anti-Nazi propaganda that was disseminated to Germans by the British in World War II – disseminated in order to counter the activities of the Nazis’ master-propagandist, Josef Goebbels. He focuses on the career of Sefton Delmer (1904-79), a brilliant maverick of Australian heritage who, during the early 1940s, coordinated a series of radio broadcasts from Britain that were directed at German audiences. In approaching this project, Delmer was keen to work out what strategies would have some impact on Germans.

The reasons that Nazi propaganda worked, Delmer and others realised, related to people’s emotions and their sense of themselves in relation to the nation. It aimed ‘to conjure a great battle between dark and light and to give you a place within it’ (p. 90). In appealing to apparently noble ideals, however, self-centred and greedy leaders and their propagandists arouse their followers ‘to indulge in their most cruel and hateful impulses’ (p. 38). They create, or exploit, a sense of victimhood and humiliation, and encourage their audiences to project those feelings outward, to direct them against others represented as enemies. In the Nazis’ case, this was primarily the Jews. People become consumed with aggression towards a foe, while convinced of their own righteousness. Meanwhile the combination of the charismatic leader and rancour fomented against enemies also stimulates a sense of belonging – people lose their sense of isolation and loneliness and come to feel part of a greater whole. Self-interest is usually prominent: when the Nazis urged citizens to denounce their neighbours, most who did so were not pursuing a political ideology but furthering personal grievances and vendettas.

Delmer set up two series of radio broadcasts and oversaw others. The first showcased a figure called ‘der Chef’ (‘the boss’); the second, established later in the war, featured a range of announcers and participants. They were geared to sow among their listeners distrust of (and disgust at) the behaviour of the Nazi party machine and the SS, without much direct criticism of either the armed forces or Hitler himself. The ‘der Chef’ figure retailed often lurid gossip, including much which dealt with the sexual antics of Party members and the SS – notably antics involving orgies in commandeered monasteries (!) This is one of the ways that Delmer appealed to what he called the ‘Schweinehund’ (pigdog) he believed to exist in most people. People lapped up this stuff, while persuading themselves that they were motivated solely by moral outrage. (It’s still a familiar ploy of tabloid news outlets, of course.)

The feelings generated, nevertheless, did undermine confidence in the Party and the SS. So did other aspects of the broadcasts. The second station, the Soldatensender, transmitted less smut but, like ‘der Chef’, drew attention to other potential sources of scandal and discontent. These included unfair distribution of resources, and especially of rations – rations which were sometimes said to be contaminated as well. The Soldatensender station purveyed a wide variety of material, and featured conversations among presenters about the latest news from Germany and the front. As the war worsened for the Germans, more of this information was close to the truth, and was steadily aimed at spreading distress about what was happening, fear of the future, and hostility to the authorities. The station spread rumours as well about resistance organisations now opposing the Nazis – but organisations that didn’t exist. Wrapped in cigarette papers, too, information was offered about how to fake illness so as to avoid further military service.

Some of his techniques gave Delmer himself pause on ethical grounds. With so many German parents desperate to know the fate of their soldier sons, his propaganda team wrote them letters purporting to confirm that these young men had escaped the front and were now living prosperous lives abroad. To make the claims more convincing, they sent the parents food parcels supposedly from their sons. The young men, needless to say, were most of them dead. This deceit might well seem cruel, but the counter argument would be that tackling the Nazis represented a struggle against unmitigated evil, in which quest anything could be justified. On the other hand, disinformation might also ‘boomerang’ (as Delmer termed it). After the war, when German survivors were keen to play down any Nazi involvement on their own part, some claimed that they had in fact been active in one of the fictional resistance groups described on the Soldatensender….

An aspect of Delmer’s approach which Pomerantsev makes much of is especially thought-provoking: his constant sense of the performative dimension of human behaviour. Delmer had become aware of this as a child living in Berlin, where his father was a university academic. When World War I broke out, Sefton’s school became awash with propaganda, and he was ostracised by the other boys.  His father was also detained in poor conditions for several months. The headmaster and teachers were nonetheless kinder in private than they were in their public posturings. Yet what disturbed Sefton the most was his own susceptibility to the jingoism. Despite the way he and his family had been treated, he was actually tempted to join in the singing and the flag-waving himself. The teachers were performing roles, and Sefton Delmer himself was almost induced to do so too.

When organising his propaganda activities, Delmer did draw on people who were literally acting. They were refugees from Germany and Austria who were strongly opposed to Nazism, some of them because of their or their relatives’ persecution as Jews. On the radio stations, they played Nazis and other Germans of various kinds, in order to combat the real Nazis. But Delmer found another element of performativity relevant, one that helped to explain how his kind of propaganda worked. The Nazis, as Pomerantsev puts it, ‘gave people a sense of identity in a confusing and unstable world’ and thus urged them ‘to fully inhabit the vile roles they offered’. But the supposed revelations in the broadcasts constantly suggested ‘how these roles were actually acts’. Thus listeners might realise that they ‘could choose not to play them, or … transform them’. Most listeners to the Soldatensender did realise that it was a British rather than a German station, and the British knew that they knew, but the role-play was sustained because ít ‘helped reveal censored truths’. That meant that, unlike when they submitted to German propaganda and became passive and anonymous, the listeners regained some kind of individual agency.  The actions that Delmer’s broadcasts stimulated, too, such as runs on rations and clothes, and feigning sickness to avoid fighting, were arguably good for the individual, while damaging the Nazi cause. They broke people’s habits of blindly following Nazi orders (p. 227)

This book gives us much to think about. The armed conflict which bedevils so much of the world today inevitably generates propaganda – but what kind of disinformation can be justified in these circumstances? How many causes are unambiguously just and legitimise demoralising the citizens of the enemy? And on the other hand, if human beings are easily worked on emotionally, how might this condition be helpful for those eager to disseminate truthful information, given that appeals to abstract concepts and high ideals alone may be ineffective? Evoking again the current Russia-Ukraine war, Pomerantsev discusses the cold-calling campaigns directed at Russians by the Ukrainian side. He reveals that the calls that garner engagement are those that tap into the respondents’ individual interests and concerns……