top of page

How To Win An Information War

By Manoel Chavanne

The topic of today's column is Peter Pomerantsev's third book, How to Win an Information War: The Propagandist Who Outwitted Hitler. For the regular readers of my pieces you'll have noticed that I've already recommended his first book here and his second book here. Funnily enough I had not realized that Pomerantsev had published another book last month and my friend Nadja pointed it out to me last week so I can now suggest it here. For those not familiar with him, Pomerantsev runs the Arena Initiative at the London School of Economics which is devoted to studying disinformation, propaganda and indoctrination. Their goal is to try and figure out what to do about that, how to address these issues and move forward.

How to Win an Information War: The Propagandist Who Outwitted Hitler.

His most recent book retells the life of Sefton Delmer, born in Germany of British parents in 1904. Delmer noticed how, in his youth the German propaganda affected him during World War I and how effective it could be. His family and him managed to leave Germany in 1917, so in the midst of the war, and to get to the UK where he had trouble adapting for a while. After the war he returned to Germany to work for the Daily Express (a British newspaper) and eventually became head of its Berlin bureau. This is where he befriended Ernest Rohm, a leading member of the Nazi party, who later organized for Delmer to become the first British journalist to interview Hitler. Demler eventually managed to earn the trust of Joseph Goebbels (Nazi chief propagandist), attended many of Hitler's speeches and even flew with him across the country during one of his most successful political campaigns. Eventually he left Germany again and was officially hired by the BBC where he hosted a program to counter Nazi propaganda.

This was what he did once a week and although it put him in the public eye, it was only a tiny portion of what his main duties were during World War II. Delmer's greatest impact was as an undercover mastermind of British propaganda targeted at German citizens. In short, his theory was that to reach the German population one should not confront them head on as the BBC was doing, but rather lure them in by making them believe you are one of them. His first, and possibly most successful character was “der Chef”, an unrepentant Nazi who was critical of the war and Hitler. Not on ideological grounds, but rather because he thought the Nazis weren't efficient enough at killing Jews and were too corrupt to efficiently invade the UK and USSR. Without spoiling the book, let's just say that this worked like a charm, for a while.

For its last broadcast, Delmer decided to air a “live” episode of der Chef where he would get assassinated by the Gestapo... unfortunately the British technicians didn't speak German and they made the mistake of playing the assassination tape twice proving that it was clearly not “live” but rather a planned event. Delmer didn't stop there. His operation expanded from him and two men at the beginning and grew to well over 100 propagandists working for and from the UK while pretending to be broadcasting from Germany.

Sefton Delmer behind the microphone

Here's an eye-opening illustration of how this point links back to the current situation here in Ukraine. The author recounts an anecdote where Ukrainian activists called Russians en mass. What they found is, that depending on the topic discussed, a different percentage of Russians hung up on them. If the Ukrainians talked about the war devastation, 80% hung up in 20 seconds or less. If they discussed a special tax Russians have to pay to support the occupied territories, then only 30% hung up. Only 25% hung up if the call was about travel limitations impacting Russian citizens and 43% hung up when the Ukrainian activists brought up Russian veterans in the conversation. It displays an appalling level of self-centeredness, but at the same time, potentially shows a way to turn Russians against their own government and this obscene war.

Throughout the book Pomerantsev draws several parallels between the World War II propaganda war discussed at length and the current Russian propaganda machine lying about the situation in Ukraine. A couple of powerful examples I noted were these two. “We often wonder why people follow leaders who are wildly self-centred, greedy and hateful. But that can be the very essence of their power: they allow their followers to indulge in their most cruel and hateful impulses, even as they foster the illusion that they are part of a noble and courageous spiritual mission. They legitimize, surface, articulate, and elevate all the horrid things we yearn to indulge in.” This part sadly doesn't only apply to Putin's Russia either, I'm sure we can all think of other such politicians in various countries.

The second one I want to quote is unfortunately way more powerful today than it was back thwn. “Meanwhile, adapting to different audiences is something that the enemies of democracies do all the time. They don’t do it, of course, to bring diverse audiences into a common public square, but to exacerbate our divides still further. Russian foreign propaganda channels have spent many years telling the right in America and across the world that Russia is fighting against LGBT rights in Ukraine—and then telling the left that Russia is fighting “Western imperialism”. They will tell white supremacists that Russia is the last bastion of “true” European values and white power, and then preach to the countries of Africa that the Russians are the friends of the colonised peoples of colour.”

This is made especially dangerous by social media because they gather so much data on each individual user that it is all the easier to manipulate masses. All propagandists need to do is purchase the data and then target each user individually based on which message is the most likely to trigger the desired action, or lack of action. In case you've missed it I covered this point in greater details last week.

der Chef at work in the studio in 1941

What more, Pomerantsev also states that, “The totalitarian mass leaders based their propaganda on the correct psychological assumption that, under such conditions, one could make people believe the most fantastic statements one day, and trust that if the next day they were given irrefutable proof of their falsehood … they would protest that they had known all along that the statement was a lie and would admire the leaders for their superior tactical cleverness…. The essential conviction shared by all ranks, from fellow-traveler to leader, is that politics is a game of cheating and that the “first commandment” of the movement: “The Fuehrer is always right,” is as necessary for the purposes of world politics—i.e., world-wide cheating—as the rules of military discipline are for the purposes of war.”

A recent example that will appear obvious to most readers is how Putin spent well over two years insisting that the situation in Ukraine wasn't a war but a Special Military Operation. He even jailed many of his own citizens for using the word “war”. Then, out of the blue, less than three weeks ago, Russian media admitted that this is a war. Of course, the propaganda machine moved the goal posts and blamed the assistance of Western countries to Ukraine to explain why the Special Military Operation turned into a war, but it goes to show, again, the lengths Putin is willing to go.

A real US propaganda poster from WWII, the idea being that oil should be

saved for the US army. A similar point count be made today regarding Putin

given that 60% of Russia's exports revenue come from selling fossil fuels.

We are left with the eternal question of what to do about it? Try a full-frontal attack on the propaganda machine by trying to debunk it piece by piece or ignore it? As reported in the book, Goebbels himself faced that question regarding Delmer and here's what Pomerantsev tells us about the situation. “Goebbels was keeping careful track of Delmer’s attacks on his pet presenter. The Reich’s minister for propaganda was stuck in the classic dilemma: debunk Delmer directly, and he augmented his stature; ignore him, and he let his messages proliferate unopposed. He chose the latter.” Hitler's master propagandist knew that you don't fight propaganda by debunking lies and explaining the truth, it's an extremely depressing fact to face but this is just not how the human brain works.

I'm well aware that the title of both this great read and my article is misleading as neither Pomerantsev nor myself have really taught you how to win an information war but hopefully you can now be a little better armed in order to not fall victim of propaganda and also understand that you need to first connect with the person you are trying to convince. Find common ground first, even if it's for the wrong reasons, to get them to listen, then and only then might you stand a chance. If you've read until here you are fighting the good fight so good luck to you!


bottom of page