Author, Peter Pomerantsev discusses Sefton Delmer's unconventional approach to fighting authoritarian propaganda.

Producer: Samy Amanatullah
06/06/2024 • 02:18 AM EST

Journalist and author, Peter Pomerantsev talks about his latest book How to Win an Information War: The Propagandist Who Outwitted Hitler, which highlights the work of Sefton Delmer, a pioneer in the field of psychological warfare and black propaganda, who produced fake German radio broadcasts inside German-occupied Europe to subvert and demoralize the Nazis during World War II. The conversation extends beyond Delmer, to discussing how modern authoritarian propaganda is still so psychologically appealing and effective at manipulating those who ultimately fall victim to it.

0:00: Samy Amanatullah:

With us today, we have journalists and one of the foremost voices on modern disinformation, Peter Pomerantsev. He's a senior fellow at John Hopkins University's SNF Agora Institute, where he co-directs the Arena Initiative. And he's the author of many books on propaganda, including his latest, How to Win an Information War: The Propagandist Who Outwitted Hitler. In the book, he tells the story of Sefton Delmer, a British propagandist whose techniques helped undermine the Nazis. Peter Pomerantsev, thank you so much for joining us today.

0:34: Peter Pomerantsev:

Thank you for having me.

0:37: Samy Amanatullah:

Regarding your latest book, why did you choose to write it?

0:41: Peter Pomerantsev:

What a fantastic question. So, it's my first history book. It is a book that's 80% history, but a largely forgotten character who basically led British covert operations, to subvert Nazi propaganda. And when I started going through the archive of the campaigns that he waged, which were largely in the form of covert radio stations, he ran dozens of them into occupied Europe and Nazi Germany. There were a couple of moments, which made me go wow, and made me realize that there was something that he was doing that was very relevant today.

And to put it very, very simply, he understood that the power of authoritarian propaganda, in this case, Nazi propaganda, but authoritarian propaganda generally, was not so much about the official ideology or even the lies that it told, but it was about a type of identity that it allowed people to perform. He had a very theatrical view of human nature. He thought we were always acting versions of ourselves and basically saw the Nazis as giving people a role to play in life, which was deeply evil, but deeply fulfilling. It allowed people to be sadistic, feel themselves superior, gave them a sense of self-worth at the expense of others, but also gave them a simple identity in a time of massive social and economic confusion.

And that is so similar to today. I think Delmer would've instantly recognized the world of social media where people are constantly and in very kind of capturable ways performing their political identities, echoing the same phrases, the same emotions. I mean, we can now just research that online, how people imitate each other in a political cult, essentially. But he was very alive to that by observing the rise of the Nazis, and really the essence of what he did. He did many things, but the essence of what he was doing as he tried to undermine Nazi propaganda, was try to to explode this identity and alienate people from it.

And he tried many things. He was a deeply amoral person. He didn't believe in preaching or, you know, giving people lectures about democracy. He really wanted to climb into their psychological addiction to authoritarian propaganda. And in that sense, I think he's incredibly contemporary and we can learn a lot from his experiences, which by the way, are not all positive. Many things he did were deeply negative, even evil in some ways. But then there were moments of incredible inspiration as well. And then incredible foolishness.

I compare him to a trickster God you know like Loki, who's constantly trying different things. But like these trickster gods, even though a lot of the tricks that he pulled, well, some were silly, some were amoral, some were deeply inspired, but they're always about creating independent feeling and independent thoughts. He's always provoking his audiences. And in that sense, I do think he actually has a very democratic mission. But like, you know, like these gods like Hermes or Loki, they have a very mixed legacy.

4:16: Samy Amanatullah:

So who was Sefton Delmer?

4:21: Peter Pomerantsev:

So Sefton Delmer, to give you the full biography, and I think it's important, he was the son of a kind of Australian British academic at Berlin University. Now that's important because he was born in Berlin, right at the start of World War I, and he grew up as this kind of British boy in Germany during the First World War. And one of the reasons I decided to write a book about him was he was so honest about his childhood, where he was picked on, for being a British boy in a German school. And you could imagine what it was like, you know, you're the enemy. So beaten up and picked on and bullied and very much an outsider.

And at the same time was completely drawn to German war propaganda and World War I, singing along with the songs, marching along with it, and kind of, from an early age, asking who's the real you? Is it the one who's sucked into the propaganda or the one who's being a victim of the propaganda? And so from an early age, he's so aware that our identities are malleable and propaganda forms them. Kind of the long story short, he goes back to Britain. He goes to Oxford because he speaks fluent German. He became the most successful British journalist in Weimar, Germany.

So during the rise of the Nazis, he's a journalist in the twenties and thirties in Berlin. He has this fluent German, he kind of manages to persuade the Nazis to let him into that inner sanctum when they're still an opposition party. He flies with Hitler during Hitler's very, very famous air tours when Hitler's running for president and chancellor of Germany in the late 1920s. So he sees the rise of the Nazis, he sees how they're using propaganda. By 1932, he's left the country as they actually solidify their power, but he sees them close up. He knows them personally.

So when World War II starts, he basically starts telling the British government, the way you are doing counter propaganda is not going to work. You don't understand the emotional hold these people have over the Germans, how much they appeal to Germans, genuinely. And you need to start a different type of counter propaganda. He isn't let in at first. From 1941, he's kind of given the freedom to run essentially covert operations against the Nazis. And it's based out in this very spectacular country house. One of the most illustrious country houses in Britain, surrounded by paintings, by Renaissance and great masters.

And in this incredible setting, he gathers around himself this unique team, which includes a lot of Jewish emigres from Germany. A lot of people from the cabaret scene in Germany who've run away, academics, pretty much the first professor of psychiatrist, psychoanalysis at Cambridge. Many others, through a mix of bohemians, artists, novelists, spies, soldiers, creating dozens of radio stations, newspapers, leaflets, but most famously radio stations, which are aimed at people inside occupied Europe.

Which are covert stations, they are, well, you know, at some level, disinformation stations, they pretend to be Nazi stations, but they're undermining Nazi propaganda from inside. They pretend to be Bulgarian stations, French stations, Italian stations, pretending to be inside the country while actually based in Britain. But the interesting thing is that from 1943 onwards, the audience are meant to understand this. The audience are meant to know perfectly well that these are the British, cosplaying Nazis.

Essentially Delmer realizes that that's a safer way for people to listen to these stations. It gives them an excuse to listen to them in case they're discovered. They can say, oh, I'm sorry, Gestapo. I thought this was a genuine Nazi station. But here's what's really interesting. It gives them a psychological excuse. And he and his colleagues write about this a lot, that it's easier for people to listen to criticism of the Nazis when they talk about it as our country, our boys, our Germany, rather than something from the outside. I mean, essentially it's a very sophisticated idea about communication.

You know, people listening know perfectly well this is the British dressed up as the Nazis, criticizing the Nazis from inside, and taking part in this sort of masquerade where they are taking part in a kind of willing act of conscious communal duplicity. I mean, Delmer had a very sophisticated understanding of audiences. He saw them as co-participants in the media, not just passive receivers of messages, but taking part in this masquerade.

And he saw the Nazis doing that as well. You know, the Nazis were welcoming people into their gruesome, you know, evil cabaret acts. And well, Delmer was saying well no, you can be part of this much more ironic space as well. He treated audiences as grownups. I think that's very important. He treated audiences as common creators in an act of media, not simply as people who just listen to a message and are brainwashed, but as participators.

10:18: Samy Amanatullah:

Earlier you brought up sadism as an aspect of propaganda, and in your book you identify the psychological power of Nazi propaganda as the need for belonging, sadism, and simplified identity. Are these the main components that are propping up this sort of transnational fascist or authoritarian movement that we see today?

10:43: Peter Pomerantsev:

But to be clear, that's the pattern of a lot of authoritarian propaganda. I mean Nazis also had very specific things. And I think Sefton Delmer, by the way, was very clear that Nazis are a unique evil in, you know, for very good reason, the historians like to put up guardrails around them. But Delmer saw patterns in authoritarian propaganda throughout the 20th century, sort of talking about the Soviet Union or sort of East Germany that he looked at as well after the war.

The rise of war propaganda in Germany in the first World war where he was living, but also propaganda in democracies. I mean, he looked at war propaganda in Britain during the First World War and how that had also cultivated certain types of feeling and anti-critical thinking. So he saw these patterns as repeating. So I mean, the Nazis have many other things which make them, you know, deeply unique as in like, you know, of course the genocide or the physical extermination of whole peoples, of anybody who's an enemy of the Nazis in Germany.

So I would be very careful in saying that is what makes them unique. It's other things which make the Nazis unique, but those things are among the commonalities. Yes, the feeling of a unique, not just a feeling of commonality, not just a feeling of community, but a feeling of exclusive community that is superior to anybody outside of it and that dehumanizes anybody outside of it. So you're either part of the "Volk," you know, the people, the sort of Aryan people and if you're outside of it, you are somehow subhuman.

So the ability to unleash and legitimize and normalize feelings, which are usually taboo, often through the figure of the leader. So the leader is narcissistic and sadistic themselves, and that allows you to be narcissistic and sadistic, which I think is something we really miss when we look at these leaders. We wonder why do people follow these asshole leaders? Because they let their followers be assholes. That's the point of it. You know, don't they see these people are awful that they're following? That is why they like them because they allow you to be that way. I think that's a very, very important thing to understand. 

And I think Delmer was, if we talk about theories of communication Delmer would say that the audience are willing participants in this drama, you know, they're not just people who've been conned or befuddled. They are agreeing to and enjoying being in this gruesome cabaret of authoritarian propaganda. They like the identity. Not just the communal identity but they're sort of getting to be somebody, so in Nazi Germany is like you get to be an Aryan, you get to be a member of a special cast. You kind of know who you are, you're very male, very German, you have a very simplified sense of who you are. And in a time of chaos, people really yearn for that.

So I think those are very, very important ingredients, I'm sure we could get into some more. But I think what makes Delmer very unique is that he sees people as willing participants in this drama, they're not just victims. However, because it is a drama, because this is a performance that you are enjoying and indulging in. There is always the possibility of another performance and Delmer doesn't see people as static. So you chose to be part of this drama. That means you could also choose to be part of another one. And you can sort of provoke people into choosing other ways of being, which we can get into in a minute, which is how Delmer thought you could do that.

So it's closer to being people who've chosen to join religious groups. You can still get them out if you really climb into that relationship and understand their desire to join these groups. But also how at some level they are being, maybe knowing with their own knowledge, exploited but they are being exploited, and you can get into that.

15:13: Samy Amanatullah: 

During World War II, much of Allied propaganda was targeting the so-called good German or the idealists. And Delmer wanted to appeal to Germans' lack of idealism and they're inner "pig dog" to use the translation. What did Delmer understand that the establishment didn't?

15:32: Peter Pomerantsev:

So a little bit like today when we look at a lot of pro-democracy, what's sometimes called "liberal media," he felt that it was preaching to the converted. So he's talking specifically about the BBC German service, which was full of British and German, well German emigres and sort of British thinkers talking about how great democracy was, how Germany should leave aside fascism and turn to more virtuous forms of politics. And Delmer, was like look, it's 1941. Hitler occupies the whole of Europe from Paris to the Black Sea. This isn't working. You're just talking to yourselves. You're just talking to other emigrant groups who've left, this isn't going to help.

And he'd seen how Germans enthusiastically took up Nazi propaganda, how they enjoyed it, how the others were just scared to say anything. So sort of preaching to people wasn't gonna work. He wanted to do something else, he wanted to sort of like he wanted to be a much more aims, sort of effect driven, like how do we get people to disobey Nazi orders? To not take part of the German economy, to not take part in Nazi rallies, to defect from the army?

So let's be much more concrete in where we're trying to get to. And the way to do that he felt was to appeal to Germans, or to compete on the sort of strong feelings of anger and jealousy, and to certain extent resentment, that the Nazis were so good at playing on, but to turn it against the Nazis. So to show the Nazi Party as exploiting people, as corrupt, as stealing people's rations, while ordinary soldiers and citizens starved. I mean, that's on a really simple level and kind of messaging level.

And then on a deeper level, really, the Nazis were always trying to give people a sense that they were part of a beautiful body politic and beautiful body. So much of their propaganda was about, you know, the beautiful Aryan body, physically. They were into the beautiful people, and you were meant to associate with that. You watched all these posters and movies of gorgeous model-like youths and maidens. You are meant to feel part of that. You are meant to feel part of a huge collective all these marches and communal events. They're trying to make you feel that you're part of a glorious body politic, and glorious physical body.

And Delmer's propaganda, he called it propaganda, was constantly showing how soldiers were experiencing disease and deprivation. How there were all these illnesses in Nazi society because the water system wasn't being looked after. So he was trying to actually say no, actually, the Nazi body politic is ugly. It's corrupt. The physical body that is created as the wounded bedraggled soldier. Again, incredibly detailed stories about the lives of soldiers on the front, about the lice that they were suffering from, the diseases they are suffering from. This real closeup of an almost visceral feeling that this beautiful body that the Nazi's are creating is actually an abused body.

And then giving incredible detail about and facts about the things that really matter to people. How, if there had been a bombing, about which streets had been bombed and whether your relatives were on it, about the sort of weapons that you might be using on the front and what bad quality those weapons were. If you wanted to sort of defect from the front, how to sort of pretend that you had an illness so you could escape. So giving people kind of how to and advice and factual information that would be useful for them to get away from the Nazi construct.

So throwing negative emotions onto the Nazi Party, sort of alienating people from the attraction of the Nazi Party and the Nazi body politic, and its community. And thirdly, giving them really very rich information that would be useful to them in getting away from the Nazi community, whether physically or psychologically or economically. Those are kind of the ingredients that he was using. And I think there's a lot to think about today, when we think about the sort of the emotions and elements that he was playing on.

20:27: Samy Amanatullah:

You mentioned the use of detail and local facts, and I was thinking this is in an information environment where the idea of truth is undermined, the Nazi say, you can never discover it, it doesn't matter. And Delmer's use of facts and specificity and local information come across as incredibly valuable assets at times. So if things like fact-checking is ineffective and truth is elusive, why is the strategic use of facts so potent?

21:02: Peter  Pomerantsev:

So the vast majority of Delmer's work was around fact-gathering and really, with huge specificity. You're quite right. So just to give you a sense of how much effort he put into it, I mean he was getting information from partisan groups in France, for example, who would give him information like, what new car was the local Nazi official driving that was clearly corruptly gained or what were the diseases that the prostitutes at the local brothel give people, and so on and so forth?

So in this world where facts have lost their meaning, partly because everything is about emotion, everything's about identity. So people are locked into the identity and the emotions that the Nazi's give them. The facts that are going to resonate with people are ones that (A) show that you care about and know about their lives better than the Nazis, better than the propagandists. You're in kind of in a competition because the radio stations that Delmer created were covert, so they would say they were German stations but the audience knew it was the British pretending to be the Nazis. This was a safer way to deliver information. So the Germans knew perfectly well, this was the British who were behind these stations.

And the idea was almost like look at how much we know about your lives. We actually care about you, or know you and understand you better than your bosses. So it was already this really strong gesture saying, yes, you know perfectly well that we are your mortal enemy. We're not just your enemies in a culture war, we're your enemies in a literal war. But we know more about your life than anybody else. Which (A) makes us look incredibly powerful and knowledgeable. But (B), means look, your bosses don't care about you. The Nazis say they care about you, but they don't know your lives the way we know your lives. Yeah, that's number one.

Number two, these are the facts that matter to you. It's always stuff that is super useful to you. For all this stuff about post-truth, and the rejection of truth, which is clearly a facet of authoritarian propaganda. People do still care about the truth when it really matters to them. When it comes to something that affects their daily lives, and not about the abstract truth or the truth about things far away. When it comes to something that affects your life. Then you start to care again. So what are the facts that matter to people to get them to engage in a fact-based dialogue is really, really important.

So I think Delmer would say in that sense, he did believe in the facts, but it's going to be about the facts that the audience cares about. Are they gonna get killed tomorrow? Are the weapons, for talk about a war, are the weapons or the foodstuffs they're about to get from their superiors, are they poisoned? Is there about to be a run on certain goods in the economy, so should you go out and buy all the pantyhose in Cologne tomorrow?

So constantly thinking what are the facts that people care about, and yes that is often about local news. That often has great specificity. And how can you add to those facts? What are the actions that those facts stimulate? Today, it's much easier. Today we have all sorts polls that can tell you about what people care about, corruption in the local administration, even in a dictatorship. I mean, it's much easier to get to those facts, Delmer had to do really quite incredible feats of information gathering to get those facts.

But you know, in America, it's all about the story that Americans are very alarmed about how people live in information bubbles. How certain parts of the population won't listen to the liberal media and stuff like that. But you know, when you have a story about the water in Flint, Michigan that's affecting the locals there, suddenly people are reading the New Yorker and the New York Times because it affected their lives. So people will burst out of these, so-called filter bubbles when they see something that affects them personally. So I think Delmer would be very alert, aware to that.

But I think he's always very cognizant that you've gotta get people to that point. You've gotta get people to the point where they start caring about facts again. And to do that you have to confront the kind of toxic emotional cocktail, the various types of identity, that we were talking about earlier, that authoritarian propaganda provides. So you've gotta get into that sort of dark operating theater of people's desires as well before you can even get to the point where people are prepared to listen. So using the full spectrum. To undermine or disrupt the emotional bond between people and authoritarian propaganda and then start introducing facts into the discussion, but the facts that people care about.

26:43: Samy Amanatullah:

Okay, it looks like we're out of time for today. We've been talking to Peter Pomerantsev, disinformation expert and the author of How to Win An Information War: The Propagandist Who Outwitted Hitler. Peter Pomerantsev, thank you so much for joining us today.

27:01: Peter Pomerantsev:

Thank you and happy editing. We've spoken for quite a long time and I hope it's not too much of a nightmare.

27:07: Samy Amanatullah:

No, I have like a page with more questions I can take your whole afternoon, so thank you so much.