Black art as weapon of war

Propaganda - Easily Led - British Propaganda in the Twentieth Century
November 5, 1999

Propaganda is a word that puts people on their guard. It signals that some kind of mischief or deception may be afoot. Even those professionally engaged in it are sometimes reluctant to acknowledge their involvement. Joseph Goebbels, for example, though notorious as the arch-exponent of the black art, took great exception to the title of minister of propaganda, which the Fuhrer foisted upon him. Only at Adolf Hitler's insistence did he finally adopt it, still convinced that it was a poor indicator of his stature in the party and the visionary mission he expected to fulfil.

However, as these three well-researched and entertaining books make clear,successful propaganda is not all bad and certainly not totally dependent on lies. "If anything, it is easier for propaganda to be effective if it is based on the truth," writes Oliver Thomson in Easily Led . "Any definition of propaganda that emphasises a reliance on untruth would be naive and would exclude too many important campaigns of mass persuasion that did not have to resort to any deception."

That line of argument would not have cut much ice with Hitler, who never regarded truth as an essential ingredient of propaganda. For him, words and ideas existed to be twisted to suit his purpose; what mattered above all else was the result. He is credited with the belief that "it would not be impossible to prove with sufficient repetition and psychological understanding of the people concerned that a square is in fact a circle".

Small wonder, then, that many lay the blame for propaganda's poor image at the door of the dictators, who made such remorseless use of it. That point is taken up in Propaganda by its editors Bertrand Taithe and Tim Thornton, in their introduction to a wide-ranging collection of essays.

"In 20th-century western Europe," they say, "the popular perception of propaganda focuses on the activities of governments and the state; thus propaganda has become a misnomer and its image has been perverted by the developments of German and Russian totalitarianism or by its close links with advertising. While advertising has become almost an art form with its own aesthetics and critical studies, propaganda has ended in the dustbin of historical analysis and practice along with the Gestapo, the Stasi and the KGB."

What surprises many people is that "propaganda" seems to have become a pejorative word almost from the moment of its birth, although there is no shortage of examples of its use for good causes as well as bad. One possible explanation is that it has its origins in the violent religious conflicts in Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries. It is reported to have first made its appearance in 1622 in the title of a papal body, the Sacra Congregatio de Propaganda Fide, which was directed against Protestantism and inevitably created bitter controversy.

This piece of religious history is of limited public interest now. A typical dictionary definition merely describes propaganda as "consisting of information, ideas or rumours deliberately spread widely to help or harm a person, group, movement, institution, nation, etc". That casts a net so far afield that hardly any aspect of human activity is excluded. Once it is accepted, nearly everything can be classified as propaganda of a kind - not just communications deliberately designed to influence opinion, such as newspaper editorials, politicians' speeches, church sermons and soapbox oratory, but anything that has a message to deliver: charity appeals, marketing material, public health warnings, recruiting posters and the like. Even the custom of stamping a ruler's head on coins of the realm can be regarded as imperialist propaganda, if anyone chooses to see it in that light.

However, it is in the context of war, as the new publications remind us, that propaganda comes into its own. The propaganda machine does not always slip easily into gear when it is needed; while the higher command works out its battle plans, confusion tends to reign. In 1914, the British public, euphoric at the prospect of a righteous battle ahead and a quick victory, had high hopes of "it all being over" by Christmas - an optimistic view that the authorities did not discourage. But the people had no idea how much of the national effort was being dissipated at that time by petty squabbles between ministries and the Whitehall-based warriors.

Philip M. Taylor gives a revealing picture in British Propaganda in the Twentieth

Century of the growing tensions of this initial period, with overlapping responsibilities, duplication of effort and a general lack of coordination at the top. "The result," he says, "was that, before long, the system became subject to inter-departmental jealousies and rivalry - factors that proved debilitating in work that required continuity, creativity and speedy action."

Thus, as late as 1916, it was possible for one senior figure in the Whitehall hierarchy to write to another: "Heartiest congratulations to you and the Foreign Office and Grey [the Foreign Secretary] for having slaughtered your enemies last Wednesday in what I think is the most effective destruction that any Office has given to any of its critics during the 18 months of war." The enemies in question were not the Germans but Britain's own War Office.

The lessons of the first world war did not ensure a smooth start to propaganda warfare a generation later in 1939. "There can be no doubt that the ministry of information entered the second world war hopelessly ill-prepared for the tasks that lay before it," Taylor says. "Despite the considerable progress made during the final year of peace, there still remained much more preparatory work to be done, particularly in the areas of propaganda techniques and content. Small wonder that it should become something of a public joke"

Taylor suggests that the muddled start may have been due in part to the fact that before Hitler's seizure of Prague in March 1939, few people in British governmental

circles were prepared to accept the idea that either a ministry of information or psychological warfare in general was a necessity. "After all, they did mean war - and that was something everyone had been working so hard to avoid," he says.

But, by general consent, once the British got going they gave a good account of themselves on the propaganda front in both wars. They were inventive and flexible, preferring to stick with the truth, but prepared to tell lies and practise deceits if necessary for the successful prosecution of the war. Indeed, they showed a noticeable aptitude for "black" propaganda, designed to confuse the enemy about the true source of false reporting. An example of this was the creation of a radio station allegedly functioning from the heart of Germany, but in fact based in England. By vigorously attacking Winston Churchill and the royal family in the course of the broadcasts, sufficient credibility was established to convince the target audience that they were listening to a genuine domestic service. This made the station all the more valuable as a propagandist tool.

In some respects, however, Britain's approach to the nuts and bolts of propaganda and publicity, particularly in the early years of both wars, were curiously inept. In 1914, journalists were not allowed to visit the war zones to see for themselves what was happening at the fronts. The admiralty was similarly opposed to giving access to the fleet. The newspapers were expected to carry reports from "official eye-witnesses", hardly an arrangement calculated to inspire confidence.

Similarly, in 1939, the cinema newsreels - a vital channel of communication with the public - faced surprising obstruction when seeking to cover the war at close quarters. So preoccupied initially were the service departments with secrecy that no British newsreel cameramen were allowed to accompany the British Expeditionary Force to France. One result was an astonishing shortage of footage recording Britain's "miracle" at Dunkirk.

In both world wars, the Germans and the Allies went to great lengths to win the Americans to their respective causes or at least, in the case of Germany, to persuade them to remain neutral. Getting the Americans into the first world war was a daunting task for the British: the United States was determined not to become directly involved and regarded with deep suspicion any propaganda approaches that seemed calculated to persuade them to do so. Nonetheless, the Germans adopted a brash policy of megaphone diplomacy, using noisy salesmanship tactics that soon proved counter-productive. The British decided on a more discreet approach, circulating information to a carefully chosen list of opinion formers and relying on them to pass on the key messages to others, thus avoiding the taint of propaganda. A typical accompanying letter ran: "In common with the great majority of Americans you have, no doubt, made up your mind as to what country should be held responsible for this tragedy, but these papers may be found useful for reference, and because they contain the incontrovertible facts, I feel you will probably welcome them in this form." Neither the British nor the German approach instantly achieved its objective: there was a long wait until 1917 before the US finally joined the war, but when it did so the Allies had reason to rejoice: victory was clearly on the way.

Similarly, in the second world war, the propaganda aimed across the Atlantic was carefully camouflaged. The Americans were more determined than ever not to be drawn into a European war, but the Japanese, by bombing Pearl Harbor, secured the objective that Britain alone could never have achieved: ensuring that the US's massive power and resources were added to the Allied cause.

Don Harker was formerly director of public affairs, Granada Television.

Propaganda: Political Rhetoric and Identity 1300-2000

Editor - Bertrand Taithe and Tim Thornton
ISBN - 0 7509 2028 9
Publisher - Sutton
Price - £50.00
Pages - 369

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