Inside Story

The propagandist

How a shape-shifting journalist turned the Germans’ techniques back on them

Jane Goodall Books 10 May 2024 1639 words

Climbing inside their minds: Sefton Delmer broadcasting to Germany from the BBC on 1 November 1941. Kurt Hutton/Picture Post via Getty Images

What is propaganda? Peter Pomerantsev, one of those best placed to answer the question, ironically titled his bestselling 2019 book on the subject This Is Not Propaganda. Its subtitle, “Adventures in the War Against Reality,” though, was a significant step towards a definition.

The title of his previous book, 2014’s Nothing is True and Everything is Possible, is another. There, he recounted his experiences as a television producer in Russia between 2006 and 2016, the formative period of the “post-truth” era. In Russia, a president was “turning politics into a reality show, remaking authoritarianism with the logic of twenty-first-century entertainment.” In America, a reality TV star was on his way to the presidency.

Pomerantsev was born in Kiev in 1977. His parents had fled Russia to escape a KGB crackdown after they were discovered to be reading the wrong things. A few years later the family was in London, where he went to school. His return to Russia in 2001 was prompted partly by a wish to explore an identity he had left behind, but he took with him an instinct for the political dangers of messing with reality.

This is Not Propaganda is addressed to a world in which mass persuasion has run rampant, “where the means of manipulation have gone forth and multiplied.” His latest book, How to Win an Information War, released this month, completes what may be seen as a trilogy, but shifts the focus from those who create and promote the war against truth to the public who are its conscripts.

His central concern is that there seem to be no effective strategies for countering disinformation. Media outlets that identify with democratic principles and offer detailed factual coverage of events fail to reach audiences that have become wedded to sensationalised narratives and conspiracy theories.

On an urgent quest for antidotes that might actually work, Pomerantsev lights upon the story of Sefton Delmer, who spearheaded a bizarre and alarmingly effective British counter-propaganda operation during the second world war. Alarming because it was morally anarchic, flouting every ethical principle of public broadcasting. But weren’t the Nazis already doing just that?

That was the point. Delmer grasped the essential principle at the heart of all propaganda, which is mirroring and reversal. His capacity “to reimagine himself as others, become the enemy, climb inside their minds” arose from formative experiences not unlike Pomerantsev’s own.

Delmer’s parents were Australian. His father Frederick, an English literature scholar, had taken a professorial position in Germany by the time Sefton was born in 1904. As a ten-year-old schoolboy in Berlin at the outbreak of the first world war, he found himself torn between conflicting identities: the English-speaking outsider viewed with suspicion by his peers; the child stirred by collective exhilaration at national anthems and marches.

Things came to a head when Frederick was interned as an enemy alien. Following his release, the family fled to England, where Sefton found that, having stepped through the mirror, he was now a “German” outsider at school. In 1928, as an Oxford graduate, he decided to exploit his dual identity by returning to Berlin as a correspondent for the Daily Express.

With a novelist’s flair for scene-setting, Pomerantsev evokes the milieu of the Weimar republic, with its heightened and conflicting energies. Violent skirmishes broke out in city streets between communists and far-right nationalists. Storm troopers mixed with gender-crossing cabaret artists at all-night parties. Newspapers with extremist headlines poured off the presses. Hysterical posters depicted the ravening monster of inflation. In Delmer’s own words, the place had everything a tabloid foreign correspondent could wish for: “sex, murder, political intrigue, money, mystery and bloodshed.”

In this melting pot of identities, extreme and performative personae could be adopted and exchanged to suit the shifting cultural tides. Delmer engaged in the shape-shifting himself by mingling with experimental cabaret artists, some of whom were to become future collaborators.

In his role as correspondent, he cultivated the emerging leaders of the Nazi movement, winning the confidence of Erich Rohl, commander of the Storm Troopers, who allowed him to attend an inspection posing as his aide de camp. Delmer was enough of an insider to be included in Hitler’s national campaign tour following the Nazis’ loss in the 1932 election, and reported first-hand on the surging tide of mass hysteria.

Delmer was not just reporting, Pomerantsev stresses, he was also subverting. But he played the insider role so convincingly that British intelligence officers, suspicious of where his allegiances lay, opposed his requests to join. It was not until September 1940, when the British were clearly losing the war of the airwaves, that he was approached to return to England and attempt what he had been trying to convince them he could do.

Radio propaganda was proving one of the most effective weapons in the German arsenal, and like the blitzkrieg bombs it was aimed directly at civilians. William Joyce, a member of Oswald Mosely’s British fascist movement who achieved notoriety under the nickname Lord Haw Haw, had gone to work for Goebbels’s propaganda ministry in Germany.

Joyce had come up with the idea of a program to be broadcast into Britain in which actors impersonated English working men. Their talk of how “the bosses” were deliberately delaying their response to air-raid sirens to get more hours of productivity was designed to provoke social division and erode support for the war effort among the working class. British ratings for the program had grown to alarming levels.

Put in charge of a small team of writers, researchers, technicians and performers at a country estate in Bedford, Delmer set about outplaying the enemy at their own game. Pomerantsev does a fine job of exploiting the spy-thriller aspects of the story, and it comes as no surprise when we learn that one of Delmer’s collaborators in the new enterprise was James Bond creator Ian Fleming. They shared a flair for personae that Delmer saw as a kind of secret weapon.

Watching the German crowds stirred to fanatical enthusiasm (“fanatical” was a term of approbation in the Nazi vocabulary) he realised they were involved in a kind of role-play. Intense as it was, role-play was an engagement with limits. At some point, you would drop it, and perhaps exchange the role for another one. If he was right, Hitler’s supporters were not rusted on and, given sufficiently convincing provocations, could be turned.

Having diagnosed the Nazi appeal from within, Delmer’s team copied its key elements: the obscene insults, sado-masochist energies, paranoia and insatiable need for vengeance. And pornography. It was here that Delmer crossed the line, but where the strategy really gained traction. Officers in London began to balk at the graphic images and salacious, cruelty-laced narratives purporting to document the activities of decadent Nazi commanders.

Ratings, though, were Delmer’s unassailable defence. By the end of the war, audience numbers for the BBC’s German-language broadcasts were estimated at between ten and fifteen million a day, up from a million when Delmer joined the service in 1941.

If dramatisation could work to create hysterical euphoria, Delmer believed, it could also be deployed to introduce the seeping toxin of demoralisation. He had an enduring fascination with the psychology of Hitler’s followers and his focus was always on the person on the receiving end of diatribes that outdid the rhetorical extremism of the Nazis themselves.

As the geopolitical propaganda wars heat up, threatening to derail American democracy and end the sovereignty of eastern European nations, what does this history have to teach us now? That is Pomerantsev’s question, and it burns with his own involvement in the Ukraine resistance.

On a mission with journalist colleagues to document war crimes in 2022, he visits Bucha, the site of some of the worst atrocities of the invasion. During thirty-three days of Russian occupation, one in ten of the residents who had failed to evacuate in time had been killed. Many who survived had been raped and tortured. He goes on to Kharkiv, where his grandmother lived through the Stalin-engineered Holodomor (famine) in the early 1930s; now the genocidal onslaught is happening again, this time with bombs and tanks and propaganda.

Russians immediately denied the attacks or accused Ukraine of committing them, or sometimes both. “It never happened, and it was their fault,” is typical of the messaging. They have adopted techniques of scrambling and inversion cut and pasted from the Nazi playbook, says Pomerantsev.

Kremlin-promoted narratives have gained currency not just in Russia but also within the American right and the British left, and in many European countries where political cohorts are opposed to their governments’ support for Ukraine. If we don’t get smarter about the nature of the propaganda war, Pomerantsev warns, we’re going to lose. What he means is that we are faced with the loss of shared ground in truth and reality.

This is where Delmer’s story has currency. Aside from some extreme tactics that should not be replicated, he offered insights that have enduring relevance. Principal among these was an awareness that political alignments of the most intense kind are performative: people are attracted to a role in a drama, especially one that gives them a sense of belonging.

But the roles we adopt are not who we are, which is why so many fanatical supporters of Hitler peeled quietly way after a few years. The same thing is happening with Trump followers, if not in sufficient numbers to dispel the prospect of another Trump presidency.

The more we become aware of political role-play as such, the greater the chance we will resist being conscripted blindly as part of “a mass coordinated show.” Awareness creates critical distance, and critical distance is where propaganda goes to die. •

How to Win an Information War: The Propagandist Who Outwitted Hitler
By Peter Pomerantsev | Faber | $49.99 | 304 pages