The Perils of Propaganda

Issue Date April 2024
Volume 35
Issue 2
Page Numbers 180–184
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How to Win an Information War: The Propagandist Who Outwitted Hitler. By Peter Pomerantsev. New York: PublicAffairs, 2024. 304 pp.

“Knowledge is power,” wrote Francis Bacon, and in war, information is a weapon. Peter Pomerantsev is a student of propaganda, especially but not solely the Russian variety, and twenty-first–century information warfare. Having already authored two highly regarded books on these topics, he seeks to understand these phenomena even as he works in the realm of ideas to defend democracy and his native Ukraine against propaganda such as Vladimir Putin’s. The Russian president likes to justify his aggression by charging that Ukraine is not a real country but part of a larger “Russian world”; that Ukraine is a “springboard against Russia” and a pawn in the West’s “anti-Russia project”; that Kyiv “simply does not need Donbas”; and that today’s Ukraine is full of neo-Nazis.

With interests and commitments such as Pomerantsev’s, it seems natural that he would turn to the jaw-dropping but semi-obscure career of World War II British covert-propaganda wizard Sefton Delmer (1904–79). Born to Australian parents in Berlin and raised there till World War I’s outbreak turned his father into a detained enemy alien, Delmer was a bilingual Oxford graduate, hard-partying bon vivant, and once-and-future reporter for Lord Beaverbrook’s Daily Express who spent World War II fighting the Nazis with information, some of it true and much of it false. His comrades in arms included the future novelist Muriel Spark, and he bonded with another writer-to-be, a Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve officer with a vivid imagination and a taste for spy games whose name was Fleming . . . Ian Fleming.

About the Author

Philip J. Costopoulos is executive editor of the Journal of Democracy.

View all work by Philip J. Costopoulos

As a clandestine-radio impresario in Britain’s Political Warfare Executive — a wing of the secret army that Prime Minister Winston Churchill formed in July 1940 to “set [Nazi-occupied] Europe ablaze” — Delmer knew his foes. In May 1931, he had become the first British journalist to interview Adolf Hitler.

In 1932, Delmer had a seat on the plane with Hitler and his propaganda chief, Joseph Goebbels, as they flew around Germany addressing mass rallies in as many as four cities a day during the year’s three national elections (p. 39). It was a glimpse into the future: history’s first use of that staple of modern political campaigns, air travel. Delmer saw up close how the Nazis expertly worked to bring out the German public’s worst impulses. In 1934, Hitler’s government expelled Delmer, who worried increasingly about the Nazis’ rise.

Hitler had told Delmer personally that no “softies” were wanted in the Nazi movement, and that a weak and selfish inner Schweinhund (pigdog) lurked inside everyone, undermining idealism and larger loyalties (p. 99). Delmer would later use these remarks against the Führer, ingeniously broadcasting a mix of news, rumors, and lies designed to seem as if they came from dissident nationalists — probably within the ranks of the Wehrmacht (German armed forces) — who despised Jews and Churchill but also loathed the creatures of the Nazi establishment.

Delmer played jazz and big-band music banned by the Nazi regime while freely salting his scripts with barracks-room obscenities and sexual references. His aims were to seem authentic and to capture attention so that he could induce Germans to step outside Nazi rhetoric about the “master race,” the “Thousand-Year Reich,” and “Judeo-Bolshevism,” perhaps see its ridiculousness, and in any case focus instead on their personal needs and concerns and the ways in which Hitler’s war was harming these.

Goebbels believed that people were “gramophones” who merely played back whatever the authorities put out as “public opinion” (p. 83). Delmer disagreed. He believed, as Churchill had put it in his post-Munich BBC radio address to America on 16 October 1938, that even “a little mouse, a little tiny mouse of thought” could threaten dictators since their rule — which Churchill condemned as the “fetish worship of one man” — had set itself against the “workings of the human mind” and the “natural promptings of human nature.” Delmer thought that, along with the emotions propagandists try to play on, people retain a rational capacity to weigh evidence and make judgments about what is real. Pomerantsev plants his flag here too, as any democrat must: If humans are no more than playthings of their passions, self-government is a lost cause.

By posing his broadcasts as the voice of angry, sharp-tongued nationalists, Delmer was urging Germans to resent Nazi Party bigwigs as corrupt, inept shirkers who lived well on special privileges while ordinary soldiers and civilians suffered. The programming was so convincing that U.S. officials thought it came from inside Germany. David Bowes-Lyon, a British intelligence officer and the brother-in-law of King George VI, had to visit Washington to tell President Franklin Roosevelt the shows were fake (p. xiv).

In May 1941, when Delmer and his team began beaming their programs from the English countryside into Germany (eventually reaching even U-boats at sea), they had heard from higher-ups that no holds were barred (p. 81). The struggle against one of history’s most vile tyrannies was fast becoming a total war. The Luftwaffe was bombing British cities, and the Royal Air Force was striking back in kind; in these circumstances, telling German audiences lies over the airwaves crossed no red lines. Some falsehoods seem like pranks: Delmer spread a rumor that the Reich health bureau wanted to collect urine samples by mail, and for weeks Germans dutifully posted full bottles off to Berlin (p. 160). Other ploys were less amusing: To promote desertions, Delmer’s team forged letters and even sent food baskets to trick worried-sick German families into thinking that sons, brothers, and husbands missing at the front were alive and well after having absconded to neutral countries (pp. 180–81).

This focus on a “call to action” (flee the army, hoard rationed goods, mail liquid gold to the capital) is another one of Delmer’s insights that Pomerantsev identifies. Changing what people think matters less than changing what they do: Never ask the enemy’s people to be directly disloyal (that is risky for them, and the desire to fit in cuts against conscious betrayal anyway). Instead, try to help people do things that are in their own interests but against the regime’s: Delmer’s team wrote and illustrated a pamphlet, disguised as a prized pack of cigarette papers, that taught German soldiers how to safely fake disease symptoms so they could go from the front lines to the hospital (p. 172). Delmer knew the pamphlet would be found out, but it still served his purpose since it sowed distrust between medical staff and soldiers, and caused soldiers who were truly ill to be left at the front where they could infect more troops.

Although Delmer wrote two volumes of memoirs, he left no recipes for how to work the strange magic of his brand of “black” (concealed-source) propaganda, and Pomerantsev notes that for us in the age of AI deep fakes, viral tweets, chatbots, and online sock puppets, there are no “easy lessons” to draw (p. xvii). Pomerantsev follows Delmer in recognizing that propaganda does not win wars — combat does — and that winners are hard to undermine.

Delmer can be credited with “insights,” however (p. 117). Perhaps chief among these is that in propaganda warfare, high-mindedness is a bust. Direct, idealistic appeals to the intrinsic worthiness of democratic self-government, human rights, and universal humanity Delmer called “a waste of breath and electric power” (p. 62).

To scrape away at public support for a dictatorial regime, you must become what your authoritarian enemies will revile as a “pirate of the ether” (p. 162). You must forget lofty abstractions and instead seed the enemy’s camp with tensions, anger, and suspicions concerning the everyday things that people care about: rationing, shortages, and travel restrictions; the welfare of friends and loved ones shipped off to fight; why, when bombs are falling on your city, the regime will never admit it (p. 123). This is the power of the ordinary; Delmer’s grasp of it was anything but.

Another insight Pomerantsev draws from Delmer, a classic “insider-outsider” who never felt fully at home in either Germany or Britain, is that propaganda feeds on the common human desire to fit in. That desire is unchanging; mass political propaganda as an answer to it is a function of modern urban-industrial life, which severs traditional ties and leaves people hungry for even an imitation community such as a political cult of left or right might provide. Delmer knew the power of the urge to conform: As a Berlin schoolboy, he had found himself excited to sing German war songs along with his classmates — praising the kaiser and damning the British — even though he was bullied and assailed as a British subject and his father had lost his prestigious teaching post and been sent to a grim detention facility (p. x).

The discussion of Delmer is interwoven with passages about contemporary Ukraine. When Putin invaded, Pomerantsev was at work on this book. He went to Kyiv in March 2022 to launch an effort to document Russian atrocities. The Ukrainian interludes are prudently circumspect; there is a hot war going on, and it is best not to give many details at this point on the inside story of Ukrainian efforts to counter Putin’s propaganda with (among other things) “improvised civic political warfare executives” over the last two years (p. 222). The most telling of these passages features a Ukrainian family who sheltered in their basement for weeks alongside a small group of Russian soldiers, getting to know them and coming to grasp the variety of motives and viewpoints among them (pp. 170–73).

Without a doubt, Delmer was a genius at turning the Nazis’ own propaganda methods against them. He played his game of masks and mirrors with great skill and gusto, and spread discontent, demoralization, division, and confusion so effectively that he appears to have influenced the 20 July 1944 conspirators who nearly succeeded in assassinating Hitler that day. Delmer’s broadcasts, which the plotters knew came from Britain, raised their hopes that if they could kill the Führer and end Nazi rule, a peace deal with the Allies might become possible (p. 193).

But did Delmer finally outsmart himself? Here Pomerantsev sounds a cautionary note. Delmer titled the second volume of his memoirs Black Boomerang (1962). “Black” was a reference to the covert type of propaganda he used, and “boomerang” was a suitably Australian term for blowback. He recognized that the encouragement his broadcasts gave to the failed July 20 plotters ended up pushing the army closer to the party as Hitler began taking revenge and generals outdid one another in swearing fealty lest they too fall to the bloody purge.

After the war, traveling West Germany as a Daily Express reporter once again, Delmer was dismayed by how many servants of the Third Reich were making it back to influential posts within the new Cold War Bundesrepublik. He feared that his counterpropaganda had aided their rise: The impression he had spread that the German military had opposed the Nazi government, he worried, had inadvertently laid the basis for the “clean Wehrmacht” legend, which held that German soldiers (and even, in some versions, the Waffen-SS) had taken a dim view of the Nazi state, had fought as honorable German patriots, and could by and large not be considered complicit in Nazi atrocities (pp. 214–15).

The legend is false. Along with other records, transcripts made from secret U.S. and British wartime recordings of captured German soldiers make clear that Wehrmacht men knew of and had taken part in systematic war crimes, including mass shootings of civilians, and feared vengeance. But how responsible was Delmer for promoting the “army with clean hands” narrative? Pomerantsev in this brief book opts not to sift this heavily discussed matter, but it may suffice to note that there were many reasons beyond Delmer’s broadcasts for the rise of the post-1945 clean-hands myth. Yet amid the urgency of trying to beat the devil with the devil’s own tools, Delmer did come away feeling guilty that he may have, however unwittingly, done at least some of the devil’s work. “The owl of Minerva takes flight only at dusk,” wrote Hegel, and here is a late insight from Delmer looking back that today’s information warriors, if they feel eager to beat antidemocratic forces any way they can, should ponder.


Copyright © 2024 National Endowment for Democracy and Johns Hopkins University Press