New Times,
New Thinking.

Hitler, Putin and the information wars

Peter Pomerantsev’s new book shows how Second World War propaganda tactics are being used by the Kremlin today.

By Sonia Purnell

As the Second World War generation leaves us, we ignore the lessons from that conflict at our peril. One is why so many are susceptible to  demagogues and their dark propaganda. We once liked to believe the phenomenon belonged to the distant 1930s but now realise it is on a repeat loop – even in countries such as Britain and the US that used to consider themselves immune. Peter Pomerantsev’s timely book draws on the battles of the last century to explore how to win the new information war.

The book skilfully weaves into current events the story of the ingenious and arguably amoral Sefton Delmer of the UK’s wartime Political Warfare Executive. Along the way, Pomerantsev asks pressing questions, including: is it necessary to resort to base tactics to overcome even baser messages on the other side? Can being idealistic and entirely truthful work against populist lies when democracy itself is at stake?

Perhaps it takes someone who has fallen for propaganda to understand its power. At the age of ten, Delmer was the only British boy in a German school at the beginning of the First World War. His classmates branded him a “traitor” and one even set upon him with his fists, yet when Delmer heard German militaristic chants and saw the fluttering patriotic flags, he felt “a thrill of exultation”. The emotion was all the stronger precisely because he was a powerless outsider, even though deep down he knew he had “no business feeling like this about these German war songs”.

Whether Delmer had been too “thrilled” by Nazis as an adult concerned the British – who repeatedly rejected his attempts to join the secret services. As a correspondent in Berlin for the Daily Express, he had travelled to rallies with Hitler and partied with senior Nazis – claiming he had done so for journalistic reasons. His inside knowledge was certainly of interest, but had his need to belong – somehow he had never fully fitted in to British life – informed him or compromised him?

Eventually the doubts gave way to recognition of Delmer’s usefulness. He certainly had a clear understanding of why propaganda – whatever its evident untruth or sadism – worked. The most susceptible were (and are) outsiders, the lonely, the anxious, because they want to belong, to be led, to be fed “truths” that are arousing rather than real. How many of us today know once sensible people seemingly “bitten by a Dracula of disinformation” (as Pomerantsev puts it), who have “changed so much” we can “barely communicate” with them about the state of the world?

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Many have suffered loss and disappointment in their lives and have a need – probably unconscious – for a special (or superior) identity as well as someone to blame for life’s ill-treatment. And the spell that binds them will not be broken by fact-checkers who undermine the “alternative” realities that raise them above those they fear or resent.

This is the reason why simply pointing out demagogues’ lies rarely works. It does not matter how often the 40 per cent of Republicans who believe that the 2020 election was stolen from Donald Trump are shown that the claims are demonstrably false. The lies have been pumped out by such hypnotic characters that they have become the currency of a different “truth” or even an escape from the truth altogether. The battle has become about “identity, not information” in which it is deemed necessary to lie when surrounded by supposed “evil” threats – whether, in today’s terms, the EU, Nato or migrants trying to cross the US southern border or the English Channel.

However, as Pomerantsev discovered from Delmer’s methods of “outwitting” Hitler, beneath the outward fervour of the fans lurks a scintilla of doubt. Not so much about the veracity of what they are being sold but whether the demagogues – Vladimir Putin, Trump or the chief Brexiteers – really care about their supporters or only themselves. Eventually, the demagogue’s mantra that “it’s never my fault” may be his undoing.

How to accelerate this process? Delmer used the same medium for his broadcasts to the German people as the Nazis – radio – and even the same theme tune (albeit played on a wonky piano). His intimate knowledge of the Führer’s entourage enabled him to transform a mild-mannered German novelist of Jewish descent into a fictitious but credible German radio personality, Gustav Siegfried Eins, also known as der Chef. Der Chef spoke fluent Nazi, complete with the latest slogans, swearing, racial slurs and condemnation of the British, combined with a bitter rage at his lot. Success in countering the lies required Delmer to climb “into Germans’ relationship with the Nazis – not lecture them from outside”.

Knowing there was distrust between the army, especially the Prussian military aristocracy, and the Nazi Party, Delmer had der Chef exacerbate it as only an “insider” could.

Hitler himself was, at least at first, out of bounds for criticism. But time after time Sefton had der Chef rail against other party chiefs for leading self-indulgent lives of upmarket brothels, secret stashes of pâté and Moselle wines and holidays on the Dalmatian coast – all while German soldiers died of dysentery on the front and their loved ones were defenceless against RAF bombing at home. He used a multitude of intelligence sources to ensure the accuracy of his emotionally explosive attacks.

Delmer thus adopted the dictum of the Nazi chief propagandist, Joseph Goebbels – “Don’t become boring!” – to beat him at his own game. Crucially, there was no moralising but a focus on personal doubts (about corruption, incompetence and profiteering) and feelings (anger at genuine hardship and fears of losing the war). Der Chef never openly took aim at listeners but ultimately encouraged dissent through self-interest. His success surely prompts the question whether those who once supported Trump, and understand his supporters, are the only ones capable of stopping him now.

Delmer’s creation sounded so in tune with his audience, even while secretly broadcasting from the billiard room of an English country house, that the Americans (who were listening but were not in on the trick) were fooled into believing there was growing anti-Nazi sentiment in the German army. There wasn’t. At least not significantly, and not yet. But thanks to Delmer’s tactics and the extraordinary popularity of der Chef – and the trust placed in him – there would be. Delmer had identified the scintilla of doubt and fed it, and in 1944 Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg launched a plot to assassinate the Führer (even if it failed and hopes of a widespread rebellion were dashed).

W hat lessons should we draw from Delmer’s story, 80 years later, in the face of Russian disinformation over the invasion of Ukraine and a possible Trump win in November? What is permissible in the pursuit of victory against a new kind of existential threat? Can it be called freedom and democracy if won by manipulation? Could deception inflate distrust in democracy, and so boost demagogues in the long run? In later life, Delmer would wonder whether his aims of undermining the Nazi killing machine had entirely justified his means.

Pomerantsev is a senior fellow at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore specialising in contemporary propaganda, but this compelling and important book is not just the product of an academic life. Of Ukrainian heritage, he was in the town of Bucha in the Kyiv region a week after the 2022 Russian massacre, witness to the 458 body bags neatly laid out in a field near the church – the ultimate result of “brain-destroying” propaganda that led Russian troops to believe they were fighting Ukrainian Nazis. Ukrainians had appealed to Russian relatives and friends to help stop the madness – to no avail. The Russians thought accounts of the bloodshed were fake or exaggerated or, when presented with incontrovertible proof of the killings, that Russia had had “no choice” in a world where the mother country faced mortal threats. Now, Russian state news outlets are working hard to blame the recent concert hall attack, in which more than 130 were killed, on Ukraine, despite evidence pointing strongly to Islamic State.

The Kremlin’s disinformation has been unconscionably potent, permitting, even encouraging, atrocities while still leading many Russians to believe they are pursuing a noble cause of liberation. As the author rightly concludes, “Propagandists across the world and across the ages play on the same emotional notes like well-worn scales.” If the tune is familiar, then so are the choices we face in dealing with it.

Sonia Purnell’s new book, “Kingmaker: Pamela Harriman’s Astonishing Life of Seduction, Intrigue and Power”, will be published by Virago in September

How to Win an Information War: The Propagandist Who Outwitted Hitler
Peter Pomerantsev
Faber & Faber, 277pp, £20

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[See also: Ukraine’s history war]

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This article appears in the 03 Apr 2024 issue of the New Statesman, The Fragile Crown