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How to Win an Information War by Peter Pomerantsev review – the radio host who beat Goebbels at his own game

How to Win an Information War by Peter Pomerantsev review – the radio host who beat Goebbels at his own game

In 1941 a secret British radio station called on Germans to rise up against Hitler. Run by German exiles, it was explicitly left wing. The station’s target audience was “the Good German”. Its broadcasts were serious and idealistic: a ray of light amid totalitarian darkness. They were also a complete flop. With Nazi propaganda rampant, and Hitler’s armies seemingly invincible and on the march across Europe, few bothered to listen in.

It was at this point that Britain’s wartime intelligence services tried a more radical approach. That summer, a talented journalist called Sefton Delmer was given the job of beating the Nazis at their own information game. Delmer spent his childhood in Berlin and spoke fluent German. In the early 1930s he chronicled Hitler’s rise to power – flying in the Führer’s plane and attending his mass rallies – as a correspondent for the Daily Express.

Working from an English country house, Delmer launched an experimental radio station. He called it Gustaf Siegfried Eins, or GS1. Instead of invoking lofty precepts, or Marxism, Delmer targeted what he called the “inner pig-dog”. The answer to Goebbels, Delmer concluded, was more Goebbels. His radio show became a grotesque cabaret aimed at the worst and most Schwein-like aspects of human nature.

As Peter Pomerantsev writes in his compelling new study How to Win an Information War, Delmer was a “nearly forgotten genius of propaganda”. GS1 backed Hitler and was staunchly anti-Bolshevik. Its mysterious leader, dubbed der Chef, ridiculed Churchill using foul Berlin slang. At the same time the station lambasted the Nazi elite as a group of decadent crooks. They stole and whored, it said, as British planes bombed and decent Germans suffered.

Delmer’s goal was to undermine nazism from within, by turning ordinary citizens against their aloof party bosses. A cast of Jewish refugees and former cabaret artists played the role of Nazis. Recordings took place in a billiards room, located inside the Woburn Abbey estate in Bedfordshire, a centre of wartime operations. Some of the content was real. Other elements were made up, including titillating accounts of SS orgies at a Bavarian monastery.

The station was a sensation. Large numbers of Germans tuned in. The US embassy in Berlin – America had yet to enter the war – thought it to be the work of German nationalists or disgruntled army officers. The Nazis fretted about its influence. One unimpressed person was Stafford Cripps, the future chancellor of the exchequer, who complained to Anthony Eden, the then minister for foreign affairs, about the station’s use of “filthy pornography”.

By 1943, Delmer’s counter-propaganda operation had grown. He and his now expanded team ran a live news bulletin aimed at German soldiers, the Soldatensender Calais, as well as a series of clandestine radio programmes in a variety of languages. Delmer’s artist wife Isabel joined in. She drew explicit pictures showing a blonde woman having sex with a dark-skinned foreigner. Partisans sent the pamphlets to homesick German troops stationed in Crete.

Others who made a contribution to Delmer’s productions included Ian Fleming, the creator of James Bond, and the 26-year-old future novelist Muriel Spark. Fleming worked for naval intelligence. He brought titbits of information that made the show feel genuine, including the latest results from U-boat football leagues. Many Germans guessed the station was British. But they listened anyway, feeling it represented “them”.

Hitler at the 1935 Nuremberg rallyView image in fullscreen

Pomerantsev is an expert on propaganda and the author of two previous books on the subject, Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible and This Is Not Propaganda. The son of political dissidents in Kyiv, he was born in Ukraine and grew up in London. During the 00s he lived in Moscow and worked there as a TV producer. Since Vladimir Putin’s 2022 invasion he has been part of a project that documents Russian war crimes in Ukraine.

Like Delmer, Pomeranstev has personal experience of two rival cultures: one authoritarian, the other liberal and democratic. He draws parallels between the fascist 1930s and our own populist age. The same “underlying mindset” can be seen in dictators such as Putin and Xi Jinping, and wannabe strongmen and bullies such as Donald Trump. “Propagandists across the world and across the ages play on the same emotional notes like well-worn scales,” he observes.

In Pomerantsev’s view, propaganda works not because it convinces, or even confuses. Its real power lies in its ability to convey a sense of belonging, he argues. Those left behind feel themselves emboldened and part of a special community. It is a world of grievance, victimhood and enemies, where facts are meaningless. What matters are feelings and the illusion propaganda lends of “individual agency”. Its practitioners bend reality. And – as with Putin’s fictions about Ukraine – make murder possible.

The book offers a few ideas as to how we might fight back. When horrors were uncovered in Bucha, the town near Kyiv where Russian soldiers executed civilians, Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, appealed to the Russian people. This didn’t cut through. Most preferred to believe the version shown on state TV: that Moscow was waging a defensive fight against “neo-Nazis”. It was a comforting lie that absolved Russians of personal responsibility.

Ukrainian activists hit a similar wall when they cold-called Russians and told them about the destruction caused by Kremlin bombing. On assignment for the Guardian in spring 2022, I chatted with Ukrainian refugees who had fled their homes in Kharkiv. Many called relatives in St Petersburg and other Russian cities to explain they were under attack. Typically, their family members did not believe them. “They really brainwashed you over there,” one said.

The activists had more success when they mentioned taxes or travel restrictions – issues that spoke to the self-interested “pig-dog”. Pomerantsev suggests that Delmer’s approach worked because he allowed people to care about the truth again, nudging them towards independent thought, while avoiding the pitfall of obvious disloyalty. He brought wit and creativity to his anti-propaganda efforts as well, turning his radio shows into bravura transmissions.

Pomerantsev makes an intriguing comparison between der Chef and Yevgeny Prigozhin, the Russian oligarch who in summer 2023 staged a short-lived rebellion against Putin. Two months later, Prigozhin died in a plane crash. The oligarch was a charismatic figure who roasted Russia’s generals for their incompetent handling of the war. He used earthy prison slang. It was this ability to communicate in plain language that made him popular – and a rival.

The book muses on whether Delmer was ultimately good or bad. Are tricks and subterfuge justified in pursuit of noble goals? It concludes that the journalist’s greatest insight was his understanding of his own ordinariness, and how this might be exploited by unscrupulous governments and rabble-rousing individuals. “He was vulnerable to propaganda for the same reasons we all are – through the need to fit in and conform,” Pomerantsev notes.

Luke Harding’s Invasion: Russia’s Bloody War and Ukraine’s Fight for Survival, published by Guardian Faber, was recently named Ukraine’s nonfiction book of the year

Source: theguardian.com