Review: How to Win an Information War: The Propagandist Who Outwitted Hitler, by Peter Pomerantsev

A publisher I know used to say that if you want to sell more books, put “Hitler” in the title. In this case, someone may have been taking his advice. It was not Hitler who Sefton Delmer outwitted — it was the Nazi propaganda boss Josef Goebbels.

Delmer, who was raised in Germany by a British family, took on the running of several British radio stations during the Second World War that broadcast in German to Nazi-occupied Europe, pretending to be based in Germany. His approach was not to preach to the “better angels” of the Germans, but to their self-interest. His radio broadcasts (and printed materials, which were air dropped) offered advice on how to fake illness and get out the front lines, shared gossip (some of it true, some not) about the corrupt Nazi leaders, and repeated sometimes the racist and antisemitic language of the Nazis in order to appear genuine. Did it work? Maybe.

At the same time as Peter Pomerantsev tells the story of Delmer — who I, for one, had never heard of before — he also writes about the present day, about Russian propaganda and disinformation. The point of the book — as the title indicates — is to see what lessons can be learned from Britain’s experience with countering German Nazi propaganda from the Second World War for today’s world.

On this I think the books falls a bit flat. It is not entirely class how much Delmer’s efforts contributed to the Allied victory. Nor is it obvious (to me) what lessons can be learned for today. Perhaps Pomerantsev wants to avoid too much detail in order not to give the game away.

In any event, I hope leaders of Western countries are paying attention. We also know the role played by Western media during the Cold War — including the BBC, Radio Free Europe and Voice of America — in helping to bring down the Communist regimes. There are surely lessons there as well.