Politics & Media
Apr 01, 2024, 06:28AM

Dark Arts of Propaganda

Fighting fascism on the information front. 

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During World War II, German soldiers and civilians tuned into a clandestine radio station featuring angry commentary by a right-wing military officer called “der Chef” (the Chief), who’d rant about Nazi bureaucrats betraying the nation. Hacks from the Nazi Party and the SS were living a high life amid wartime deprivation, sleeping with soldiers’ wives, and enabling “Godless harlotry” by turning monasteries into brothels, where “these pigs” would hold orgies, said Der Chef, who asked: “How can honest German soldiers fight and risk their lives in a destructive battle when these blasphemers at home do whatever they like and take over one cloister after another for their filthy purposes?”

Der Chef’s monastic whorehouses were bogus, as was his entire existence. How to Win an Information War: The Propagandist Who Outwitted Hitler, an intriguing book by Peter Pomerantsev, recounts an elaborate British project to demoralize Nazi Germany through fake radio shows. The effort’s leader was Sefton Delmer, whose bad experiences growing up as an English boy in Germany during World War I, and journalistic coverage of Germany in the 1930s, getting to know top Nazis, made him well-suited to exploit the enemy’s psyche and fight a battle of wits against Nazi Propaganda Minister Josef Goebbels.

Delmer, who’d gotten the name der Chef from hearing Hitler’s staff use it to refer to the Fuhrer, astutely recognized that the persona of a reactionary officer—who saw Hitler as a decent type such as he’d fought alongside in the Great War, but denounced the Fuhrer’s decadent hangers-on, in pornographic detail—could do more to undermine the Nazis than high-minded exhortations about freedom and democracy; for good measure, der Chef called Churchill a “drunk Jew.” As programs and characters lost traction with the German audience, Delmer would replace them. He reputedly gave der Chef an on-air death amid machine-gun fire, after listeners heard a voice scream: “I've finally caught you, you pig!”

How to Win an Information War bends genre boundaries, part history, part biography, and part how-to guide for deploying or countering propaganda. Pomerantsev, from Ukraine, has a particular interest in fighting back against Vladimir Putin’s lies about the country he invaded. A disturbing feature of the current U.S. right is its receptiveness to Russian propaganda about Ukraine, such as the claim that the invaded nation had a chain of bioweapons labs in collaboration with the CIA. How to Win an Information War should be of interest to anyone delving into persuasion in a time of polarization.

As I was putting the book down, I saw a tweet from Steven Giardini responding to a recent piece of mine that was critical of the Trumpian Republican right, “Fear and Radicalism,” by saying he’s “still waiting for my friend @kennethsilber, an erstwhile republican, to perform this sort of vivisection on joe biden and today's democrat party.” It’s a valid query. Am I overlooking flaws in my adopted party out of zeal to trash the one I abandoned? Could I be recruited as an ally against what writer Mark Ellis calls the “loathsome Biden Regime”? In Giardini’s question there seems a distant echo of why der Chef’s broadcasts resonated; my right-leaning background, despite later divergences, may make my opinion more interesting to readers on the right than if I were a long-time Democrat preaching at them.

My policy preferences are broadly with Joe Biden and the Democrats, over Donald Trump and the Republicans, but a point-by-point comparison would be misleading, since my key consideration is that Trump poses a threat to the constitutional order, and Biden doesn’t. All presidents have frictions where they jostle with the other branches at the edges of the separation of powers. Trump sought to steal an election; he deployed fake electors, pressured public officials to fabricate vote counts, and whipped up a violent crowd to disrupt the counting of electoral votes. Trump used withholding of aid as leverage to extort a foreign government to announce an investigation into a political opponent. Trump falsified business records to conceal payments aimed at misleading the voters. Trump hoarded national-security documents and obstructed the government’s efforts to retrieve them; why he did that remains an ominous mystery, but his claim it was allowed under the Presidential Records Act is transparently false.

If I were to perform a “vivisection” on the Democratic Party, it would search for areas where the activist left dominates policies enacted by the administration and Congress. By and large, that’s not the case. Instead, relations between Democrats and the hard-left have often been antagonistic, exemplified by a recent event in which Biden, along with Barack Obama and Bill Clinton, were interrupted by protestors over Gaza, who were chided by Obama. By contrast, Trump promises to pardon the January 6 “hostages,” and has claimed a right to pardon himself, steps that would undermine the rule of law. Given his attempts to manipulate elections to date, Trump’s regaining power would threaten the integrity of future elections. Claims that Biden and the Democrats “do the same things” are specious acts of projection.

When Sefton Delmer beamed propaganda into Nazi Germany, he drew on a curious finding from his childhood in Imperial Germany. He’d seen that many people parroting the Kaiser’s propaganda weren’t really convinced by it, and suspected that Hitler’s crowds also included many pretenders, or people who’d get disillusioned with the Nazis sooner or later. Delmer perceived weaknesses in fascism, that it relied on vacuous conformity and a fatuous cult of personality. That insight remains relevant today.

—Follow Kenneth Silber on Threads: @kennethsilber


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