Saturday, 7 November 2009

‘The Same Old Hun?’: Anti-German Propaganda

More from Ian McLaine, Ministry of Morale: Home Front Morale and the Ministry of Information in World War II (George Allen and Unwin, London, 1979):

In war it is almost axiomatic that the peoples of the combatant nations must be taught to hate each other. This applied to Britain no less than it did to Germany in the Second World War. Writing before the war, Hans Speier stated, ‘In modern war, in which mass opinions count, the enemy has to be wholly identified ... with the principle of evil, so that one can mobilize the power of right for one’s own cause.’ As if with the Ministry of Information’s propaganda in mind, Joseph Geoghegan observed during the war that the enemy was denied any shred of justification:

He so blatantly represents the negation of all good, he so deliberately runs counter to every law of God or man, he carries with him such a foul string of barbarities that it becomes only right and proper to smite him hip and thigh.

While the Ministry saw it as a prime duty on the home front ‘by the dissemination of truth to attack the enemy in the minds of the public’, it became clear as the war progressed that statements made about the enemy represented a deliberate attempt to manipulate public opinion and attitude. ‘All propaganda is lies’, wrote Orwell in 1942, ‘even when one is telling the truth.’ The validity of this paradox is borne out by an examination of the Ministry’s use of the ‘truth’, for the propagandists did select facts to serve ends and they did offer as truth statements which at best could be described as convenient assumptions. On one issue - the nature of the RAF’s bombing strategy in Germany - they were not above stretching the truth to the threshold of lying.

A contemporary psychologist, E. H. Henderson, suggested that


the aim of the propagandist is to inculcate certain attitudes by means which prevent critical thinking. That the Ministry of Information attempted to accomplish this should cause no surprise. What is worthy of comment, however, is the fact that the Ministry simultaneously attached great importance to releasing simple, unadorned news and tried to persuade other departments to limit their requests for censorship strictly to matters of security. The ambivalence in departmental attitudes cannot be attributed to poor co-ordination between one division and another, since on the same day a senior officer might berate the Admiralty for withholding unpleasant news and then suggest at a meeting that the public should be induced to regard the Germans with hatred as a means of sustaining morale. […]

To judge by the resources, man hours and thought expended on telling the public what attitudes they ought to adopt towards the· enemy, the Ministry considered the matter to be one of cardinal importance. […]


The critical question as to whether the German people were to be characterised as incorrigibly aggressive was left for the consideration of the Ministry. Yet this matter, so closely related to a post-war settlement, should have merited the Cabinet’s closest attention. Unlike its operations in censorship and the issue of news, the Ministry was virtually unconstrained by higher authority in pronouncements on the enemy.

In July 1938 Stephen King-Hall insisted:

We must go into the war with a conviction in the minds of the people that it was forced on us and that we did all that was honourably possible to avoid it ... The danger would appear to be that in a crisis which may arise very suddenly we shall have public opinion in a muddle in this country ... we may find ourselves in the dangerous position of the Cabinet having issued threats and being committed to action for which public opinion is unprepared and might not support.

In the event, it was the public that clamoured for a firm declaration of war when Chamberlain appeared to waver after the Germans attacked Poland. Having prepared a considerable amount of material, the Ministry adopted a historical, almost scholarly, emphasis in explaining the causes of the war. In a pamphlet of some 6,000 words, D. A. Routh, the historian, reached deep into German history to expose the roots of her latest act of aggression and, while not sparing the nation from charges of wickedness, concluded:

... the tragedy of Germany is the tragedy of a great people who, through lack of political experience and for reasons lying far back in their history, have twice failed to prevent their national power from falling into the hands of violent and ambitious rulers ... The overthrow of National-Socialism is the one hope for the future of the German people.

In Assurance of Victory it was argued that Britain had striven to ameliorate the harsher provisions of the Versailles Treaty and to integrate Germany in a peaceful Europe but, misled by Hitler, the Germans had insisted on supporting a treacherous foreign policy. There was now no recourse but to prevent Germany from trampling


on the rights of other nations, a policy ‘which British Governments have consistently pursued in the face of the attempts of any Power to dominate Europe by force’. […]

Once the British were at war there was little sign of reluctance to pursue a struggle ‘quietly accepted as inevitable’ and as a consequence the Ministry’s long-winded statements about its cause became superfluous. A source of greater concern - and one that would continue well into 1941 - were reports of public confusion about Britain’s military aims. It was one thing to know who had started the war but quite another to know what victory was meant to achieve or, indeed, whether the government would stop short of the complete defeat of the enemy. […]


When the war moved closer to home and it was realised the fight was on in earnest the tone of the propaganda underwent an abrupt change, a process greatly hastened by Churchill’s accession to the premiership on 10 May.

As British troops. were being evacuated from Norway, the Policy Committee agreed that the separation of the German people from Nazism should in future be avoided. And after Dunkirk:

The Director General asked whether it was thought that the Ministry should now begin to stir up people’s more primitive instincts. After discussion it was considered that we should now pay more attention to stirring up people’s anger ... It might be merely sufficient to impress the people that they were in fact angry.


Two weeks later a paper setting out proposals for an ‘Anger Campaign’ was circulated at the Policy Committee. It is one of the more remarkable documents of wartime government, not merely because it illustrates the mood which gripped the propagandists themselves but also because it demonstrates the extent to which they were capable of misunderstanding the British public.

The public, ‘patient, long-suffering, slow to anger, slower still to hate’, were believed to be ‘harbouring little sense of real personal animus against the average German man or woman [and] accepting with amazing phlegm bitter reverses without overmuch recrimination’. This placidity must be replaced with ‘personal anger ... against the German people and Germany’. This raises two difficult questions. First, what justification was there for thinking that the people felt no anger towards the Germans? And second, was anger necessary ‘as a factor in increasing the war effort and preparing the British public for every emergency’? Such evidence as was available to the Ministry suggested that there was nothing approaching the almost hysterically bellicose mood of the British in the early months of the First World War, which is not to say that in the middle of 1940 the public regarded the Germans with equanimity. What did the Home Intelligence reports indicate? Hitler’s discomfiting ability to realise his military predictions aroused apprehension but it was Italy rather than Germany which earned the anger of the British after Mussolini’s declaration of war on 11 June. Not until September 1940 were there any reports of bitterness against the Germans, and even then they were said to have been aroused not by Nazi ideology or German victories in Europe but by direct air attacks on Britain. ‘It is so strange’, observed Harold Nicolson, ‘that in this moment of anxiety there is no hatred of Hitler or the Germans.’

Granted, then, that the Ministry had good reason to suppose that the people did not hate the enemy, what justification was there for the deduction that this represented a danger? It is too easy to be wise after the event. We know that the British people displayed resilience and determination, though in no greater measure than German civilians later in the war, but we must avoid the anachronism of imputing that knowledge to the propagandists in June 1940, when invasion seemed a distinct probability. Nevertheless, stolidity and phlegm might just as easily have indicated a sober realisation of the trials that lay ahead and a determination to withstand them; whereas anger of the semi-hysterical sort the Ministry wished to inculcate might, if spontaneously present, have revealed a certain brittleness and instability far more worrying than outward placidity.


It was the opinion of contemporary psychiatrists and social psychologists (whom, for the most part, the Ministry studiously avoided consulting) that hate is a poor basis for morale. The emotion, asserted one authority, prevents discrimination between good and bad individuals among the enemy, blinds one to historical realities and may, if continued into peacetime, affect post-war settlements and lay the foundation for another war. If the reasoning then current in the Ministry is followed, where does it lead? The public were not angry. They were, therefore, either not aware of the danger of the situation or were unwilling to construct for themselves good reasons for standing up to the Nazis. In consequence they were incapable of resisting whatever lay ahead.

So in order to ‘change the attitude of the most stolid and unvengeable people in the world’ it was proposed to mount a massive and, at first, clandestine campaign. Photographs, cartoons, posters, film, radio, leaflets, speeches, exhibitions, window displays - all were to be put at the service of ‘the modern art of propaganda - all pervasive, subtle and persistent’. The Ministry should be seen to enter the campaign only after non-official propaganda had succeeded and the people were beginning to feel stirrings of anger. The methods of Goebbels had not been overlooked, for, as the paper averred with a hint of admiration, ‘it is exactly upon these intensive lines that propaganda has succeeded in creating the militant Germany of to-day from a battered, helpless nation’. The officials of the Ministry were urged to regard themselves as ‘a small group of expert propagandists ... in a position to tap and colour and guide every source of public expression’. The ‘total attack’ was to have as its principal weapon the co-operation of the twenty or thirty most influential journalists of the national press who, in consultation with the Ministry, would write a ‘stream of carefully worded features’ based on certain themes. In suggesting one such theme, ‘The German Character’, the paper stressed the importance of tailoring the style and content to the class of the reader. For the broad mass the emotional appeal was felt to be most suitable:

1870 - 1914 - 1939

The ‘sophisticated and educated classes’ were to be given ‘more restrained and factual’ evidence:

The fundamental ‘rottenness’ of the German character - historical analysis.
German writers on the Germany bully complex - Nietzsche, Treitschke, etc.
Detailed instances where Germans have crumpled up.
German weaknesses.
Germany’s ‘case’ torn to shreds - refutation of Versailles Treaty attacks, etc.
Events since the war have utterly confuted the weak-kneed apologists for Hitler. His ‘lebensraum’ is the whole world. His ‘culture’ the death of every other race.

The middle classes - ‘still not mentally at war’ - had to be convinced that the Germans intended to rob them of their incomes and culture; the professional classes ‘told of refugee professional men, of how they have been hounded and put to menial tasks - like washing dishes and cleaning lavatories’; and shopkeepers, businessmen and industrial workers disabused of the idea that ‘things might go much the same way under Hitler’. While being careful to emphasise that stories of German brutality should not be allowed to arouse fear rather than hatred, the Ministry insisted that atrocity stories are believed and are effective. Thus another Nurse Cavell story was to be found and news of German ruthlessness treated so as to illustrate triumphant courage ‘such as the woman in Bruges in 1914 who slaughtered two Germans who had killed her son’.

The smaller touches were not omitted. Nazi leaders, it was recommended, should never be mentioned without an appropriate label: ‘Hitler - the Arch Gangster’, ‘Jew Baiter Streicher’ and ‘Lie Minister Goebbels’. The BBC must be persuaded to cease referring to ‘Herr’ Hitler and ‘Signor’ Mussolini. A rather more drastic suggestion was


that ‘a few death sentences on traitors would have a great effect in heightening the public temper against the enemy’.

Hitler posed a very difficult problem. Later in the war it would be possible to make a joke of him but in 1940 it was not easy to counter the impression of his political and military omniscience, and all that could be done was to suggest somewhat feebly that the opposite was the case:

It cannot be too strongly emphasized that Hitler’s success is engendering a legend of infallibility which is immensely powerful ... THIS LEGEND MUST BE DEFEATED. It must be made clear that the little countries Hitler has invaded were lying defenceless at Hitler’s door for generations. Even in France he is only making headway by sheer weight of metal. Hitler is personally fallible, despicable, cowardly ... He is important only as the embodiment of the German lust for power in the most evil guise it has ever taken.

This latter assertion contains the essence not only of the Anger Campaign but of the tenor of domestic propaganda for the rest of the war, namely that there can be no distinction between a German and a Nazi. Nazism is but the latest and most virulent manifestation of the inherent wickedness of the German race. Stephen King-Hall’s propaganda theme of 1938 - ‘we reluctantly destroy German bodies in order to save the souls of the rest’ - had been hastily jettisoned. The new orthodoxy, suggested the propagandists, should be embodied by a famous writer such as J. B. Priestley in a short wall text to be issued in millions:

The Secret Beast

In the middle of a great civilised continent, far from the sea which brings a breath of the outer world to freshen men’s minds, a secret people dwell.

Ever and again they become crazed with a spell of hero worship. A leader arises among them who tells them that they are greater than the other peoples of the world. Knowing nothing of the world’s vastness and of the seas which link land to land, they believe - and march out to slaughter and destroy.

The secret people of the Germanys are worse than fools in their folly. When their madness comes upon them, out leaps a primitive, barbarian beast-like instinct. They kill without pity, rejoicing in blood, as animals kill. They know no law, as animals know no law.


They are Europe’s secret beasts, roused to senseless fury. It is all Europe’s mission to cower them and cage them today, as all Europe has had to do before.

The Hun is at the gate. He will rage and destroy. He will slaughter the women and the children. But in the end, he will run from the men as he has always run in the past.

Out then and kill ... the extermination of the wild animal let loose on Europe is the plain business of Europe’s citizens.

By these and other means a fundamental change of public attitude was to be wrought. The wish was very much father to the thought. No evidence was forthcoming during the brief life of the Ministry to support the belief that public opinion and emotion were so malleable, and just how seriously the proposed campaign was regarded in the department it is difficult to tell. The men responsible for approving it were well educated, intelligent and worldly and it is barely conceivable that they could contemplate treating the British public as a body of credulous simpletons. Moreover, in proposing a reversion to the crudest type of First World War propaganda, were they not aware of the scepticism which the falsity and unscrupulousness of that propaganda had engendered between the wars? The explanation must be tentatively sought in the states of mind of the propagandists themselves. They knew what the public could only strongly suspect - that the threat to Britain was imminent and grave - and the Anger Campaign seems to have been devised to stir up their own ‘primitive instincts’ as profoundly as those of the people at large. The Ministry saw about them a dangerous complacency whose cure it was their urgent duty to prescribe. While other men produced the munitions and manned the beaches the propagandists probably felt the need to do something which could be interpreted, if only by themselves, as of equal importance to the nation’s defence. It was at this time, too, that the Ministry were advocating the imposition of compulsory censorship, but this departure from the liberal attitude with which censorship was normally exercised was soon abandoned. Not so the new propaganda. For, although the Anger Campaign was not implemented on the heroic scale originally contemplated, its principal themes were embodied in the Ministry’s public attitude towards the enemy for the rest of the war.


No comments: