Master propagandist Sefton Delmer

Fighting lies with lies

What depths will we need to go to in order to tackle disinformation in our own time?


This article is taken from the May 2024 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

Propaganda and disinformation are amongst the biggest threats facing liberal democracies today. The internet’s promise to democratise information, whilst partly fulfilled, has further polarised societies by nurturing ignorance and feeding conspiracy theories.

With discourse thus poisoned, it is becoming increasingly difficult to discern truth from fiction, making the fight against disinformation arguably the most important one we face. For many, the future of democracy depends on it.

But how to defeat it? From studying disinformation’s recent history, it becomes apparent that lies must often be told to defeat lies, and that in such situations it helps to have the best liars in your corner.

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

Joseph Goebbels was the twentieth century’s most infamous and prolific liar, but quantity is not quality, and he was ultimately outwitted by Sefton Delmer, the Head of Special Operations for Britain’s Political Warfare Executive during World War II, and the subject of Peter Pomerantsev’s new book How to Win an Information War.

An expert on disinformation today, Pomerantsev sets out to explain how it was defeated in the past, showing how Delmer tried to loosen the Third Reich’s grip on power by flooding the country with stories of corruption, malicious gossip, and desertion in the army.

A master of black propaganda, he edited newspapers which were dropped from the skies along the front and produced covert radio programmes challenging the narratives Germans were being fed by the Nazi regime. But Delmer’s true genius, and the key to his success, lay in the way he used his innate understanding of the Germans to tailor disinformation to their sensibilities.

Born in Berlin to Australian parents, he was ten when the First World War began. As a Briton, he was now an object of ridicule to former friends and classmates, but he was nevertheless captivated by the deep sense of national belonging the Kaiser’s call to arms had produced. Later, he attributed this to a carefully cultivated propaganda message which spoke to Germans’ fragile pride and their intense need to belong.

When the time came to devise a propaganda strategy during World War II, Delmer knew it would have to speak to these truths to defeat them.

For the Nazis’ appeal, too, lay in their ability to exploit German insecurities — a process Delmer was able to diagnose first-hand as the Berlin correspondent for the Daily Express. He was also friendly with senior Nazis and granted personal access to Hitler, noticing in the Führer the redemptive hero the Germans had long craved. For Delmer to weaken Germans’ support for the Third Reich, therefore, propaganda operations would have to exalt the exact forces it aimed to destroy.

He thus ordered the German and Jewish exiles under his watch to produce radio programmes simultaneously praising Hitler and lambasting his government, and also to write newspaper articles revering the military whilst encouraging soldiers to lay down their arms. To increase their appeal, he also insisted that such messages glorify the nation and the racism and antisemitism it then stood for.

Must we nurture ignorance and conspiracy theories to defeat them?

Goebbels’ covert operations in Britain had simply exported German domestic propaganda, with his own clandestine radio programmes attacking the British government, the King and the Jews said to be controlling both. But Delmer knew his message needed to be more sophisticated. Lies had to be told to defeat lies, of course, but those lies had to speak to the truths dearest to those at whom the propaganda was aimed.

How to Win an Information War is an excellent book about the forgotten mastermind of black propaganda operations in World War II. A genuine page-turner, it adds something new to the already vast corpus on Britain’s information war against Nazi Germany.

The treatment of Delmer the man is, at times, a little too unvaried, based as it is almost entirely on his memoirs, and some will undoubtedly be put off by Pomerantsev repeatedly interrupting the story to reflect on the meaning of propaganda more generally, or on disinformation today.

Yet this, for me, is one of the book’s greatest strengths, making it impossible to consider this fresh angle on the past without keeping an eye on the present. For in reading about Delmer, the sometimes despicable antihero, we are left wondering: will we need to go to such depths to tackle disinformation in our own time?

Must we further nurture ignorance and conspiracy theories to defeat them? Pomerantsev does not provide answers to these questions, but the implication is clear. He leaves us with the jarring and unnerving image of propaganda and disinformation being, in some situations, forces for good.

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