5 June 2017

From the BBC Handbook 1941

THE HON. HAROLD NICOLSON, M.P. – Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Information

The British public, I am glad to feel, have a healthy dislike of all forms of governmental propaganda. It may be for this reason that the Ministry of Information (which is our equivalent of the vast propaganda agencies maintained at enormous cost by the totalitarian States) is the most unpopular department in the whole British Commonwealth of Nations.

The British public do not want to be told what they ought to think or feel; they much resent any Government Department which seeks to control what they should see or write or read or hear. They wish to express their thoughts freely and to have free access to the thoughts of others. The press also is enraged by the limitations which in wartime must be imposed upon the freedom of news; and I am bound to extend all sympathy to the ardent journalist who snatches a story red hot from the oven of history only to see it become cold and dry and stale upon the censor’s desk.

In so far as I am connected with the Ministry of Information, I regret of course that our motives should so frequently be misinterpreted, our intelligence be so cruelly underestimated, and our shining virtues and achievements be not merely ignored—which in itself would be hard to bear—but actually denied or turned to ridicule and contempt. Yet as a citizen of the British Commonwealth, and as a person who in times of peace wallows in the liberal point of view, I am glad that this great family of nations should refuse to imitate the subservience of the slave peoples, or to become that ‘mutton-headed herd of sheep’ which, according to their Führer, the German nation has always been and always will be.

Mr. Duff Cooper first broadcast as Minister of Information on 16 May 1940

If the Ministry of Information were to become a beloved feature of our political life, then I should indeed feel that something had gone very wrong with the mental and spiritual health of my countrymen. The Ministry, like the black-out, is a regrettable necessity of war. Yet although we never hope, or even wish, to be loved, we should like to be a little less misunderstood. The reason for this misunderstanding is that many people imagine that the Ministry of Information is attempting (in some clumsy, amateurish, and most inefficient manner) to imitate the technique of Doctor Joseph Goebbels. Nothing could be more unfair.

We are convinced that totalitarian methods of propaganda are not only foolish as such, but wholly inapplicable to a civilized community. If the British public saw that we were trying to do something quite different from what Dr. Goebbels is trying to do, then the misunderstanding between us might be diminished. I feel, therefore, that it will not be out of place to explain the essential difference between the theory and practice of German, or totalitarian, propaganda, and those of British, or democratic, propaganda.

Herr Hitler’s theory of propaganda, as expounded with such a wealth of detail and such disregard for grammar in the pages of Mein Kampf, is already well known in this country. His purpose has been to create a mass of uniform and unthinking opinion completely subservient to his dictatorship. His avowed method is to appeal to the lowest instincts in human nature, namely to envy, malice, greed, fear, and conceit. He addresses himself not to the civilized mind of the German nation but to its primitive, and often unconscious, emotions. He seeks from these emotions to create a nucleus of inflamed sentiment which can be lashed to fever-point, now from this direction and now from that, and which in itself precludes the critical or even the rational frame of mind. He aims at constantly maintaining this high temperature of sentiment by the use of symbols and bogies, and by the constant provision of some new excitement or some new hatred.

He employs repetition, exaggeration, emphasis, and the distortion of reality as deliberate weapons wherewith to stun and shatter the intelligence of the German people. He mouths fantastic promises, yells out imaginary threats, screams and weeps over fictitious grievances. He forces the whole people to identify their own fears and hopes and passions with the personality of their Führer so that their Leader becomes for them the embodiment of the national consciousness and thus—however inconsistent his pronouncements, however wild his ambitions, however dangerous his adventures—the repository of the national will. By these methods an extreme condition of mass-hallucination is attained; the nation’s energy and expectancy are tuned to so hysterical a pitch that wars of conquest become the only outlet; and a fine quality of self-sacrifice is distorted and disordered until it flickers on the edge of suicidal mania.

Mr. Winston Churchill first broadcast as Prime Minister on 14 July 1940

There are people, even in this country, who have been so impressed by the effects of this herd hysteria, by the actual efficiency with which Herr Hitler has carried out his own plan of forcing the German people not to think, that they forget to examine the very serious disadvantages which this method entails. Herr Hitler’s method is bound to fail in the end, since it is based upon the fundamental fallacy that the actions of mankind are invariably and permanently determined by their lower and not by their higher instincts.

In taking as the type of average human being the very low individuals with whom he had himself consorted, Herr Hitler ignored the indisputable fact that in the end it is the virtues and not the vices of the human race which prevail. He believes, evidently, that he can continue for ever pandering to the greed, the vanity, the self-interest, or the cowardice of his fellow-mortals. Indubitably he has succeeded within a limited area and for a limited time. But he has aroused in the world such a tide of antagonism as has faced him with a retribution which he will not be able to escape, since cynicism is an uncreative state of mind.

Even if we consider totalitarian propaganda from the purely practical and non-ethical point of view, it is clear that it contains within itself very serious dangers and disadvantages. In the first place, in that its purpose is to suppress free thought, it is obliged to stifle criticism. For if your avowed purpose is to appeal to the lowest common denominator in the nation’s intelligence, then obviously (and Hitler has himself admitted it) you must exclude all intellectual considerations and all intellectual speculation. You are thus brought inevitably to interfere, not merely with primary and secondary, but also with higher education; and the mental currency of your country thereby becomes debased and the mind of the people impoverished.

In the second place, it is a demonstrable error to believe that the stability of any nation depends upon the uniformity of its thought; on the contrary, it is the diversity of opinion and interest which gives balance to the State. The durability of British institutions is due to their diversity; if one of them fails, there are always other forms, other alternatives, to take its place. By insisting upon the uniform and the machine-made State, Hitler has given Germany no possible alternative to his own system; this absence of elasticity .and variation will, when disaster threatens, bring the whole fabric to the ground.

In the third place, the purely emotional appeal is subject to the law of diminishing returns ; the strength of the dose has to be increased with every fresh injection. You cannot keep a whole people in a state of constant public excitement for twenty years; either they will suffer a nervous breakdown, or they will become immune to stimulants. Boredom, panic, or lethargy is bound to result.

And in the fourth place, no permanent propaganda policy can in the modern world be based upon untruthfulness. The day will come when Herr Hitler will desire with all his soul to be believed by his own people and by the peoples of the world. He will then find that, having forged so many cheques, having issued so many fraudulent balance sheets, he is unable to borrow five pounds upon the market. Even in propaganda, honesty is the best policy every time.

‘London carries on’ – Michael Standing of the BBC with others in the crypt of St. Martin-in-the-Fields during an air raid; the late Reverend Pat McCormick is speaking into the microphone

Although we can in this way detect many fallacies in the Hitlerian theory of propaganda, it would be foolish for us to underestimate its great potency as a short-term expedient. Hitler has been able to convince his people, and especially his young people, that his movement is some historic challenge to the old world-order and that every German man and woman has an historic part to play. And since the main malady of the modern world is a sense of personal frustration, Hitler in inspiring his people with a sense of personal opportunity has managed to compensate his countrymen for their appalling lack of self-reliance by giving them a mystic confidence in their destiny as a race, their mission as a Herrenvolk. Yet even here there is a flaw in his argument, which will increase and become a wide cleft or fissure. For if the Germans are to regard themselves as a superior race, then why should they be treated as slaves, who cannot be permitted to think, or speak, or hear?

Considerations such as these bring me to the essential difference between totalitarian and democratic, between autocratic and liberal, propaganda. The former appeals to mass emotion, whereas the latter relies upon the free mind. Thus, whereas the totalitarian method is essentially a short-term method—being a smash-and-grab raid upon the emotions of the uneducated—the democratic method should be a long-term method seeking gradually to fortify the intelligence of the individual. In other words, the ‘passionate idea’ which is at the root of all totalitarian propaganda cannot be maintained indefinitely, since the emotions of man cannot remain permanently strained. By contrast democratic propaganda, although its effects are less immediate and far less sensational, does aim at creating a durable state of common sense. Totalitarian propaganda is akin to revivalism; democratic propaganda is akin to education.

If that be true, then what system should the democratic propagandist adopt? The answer is, I suggest, extremely simple. He should seek to provide the individual with true facts and common principles. He should concentrate in every way possible upon the rapid provision of plentiful and accurate news. In so doing he should remember always that accuracy is more important than speed, since it is upon his unfailing truthfulness and precision that the ‘credit’ which he seeks to acquire must in the long run be based.

Air Marshal Sir Philip Joubert

In the second place, he should consistently adopt common standards such as the public will recognize as shared by themselves. There are three such standards which the democratic propagandist should always keep in mind; or in other words there are three main principles, common to the mass of mankind, upon which he should always insist. The first of these principles is that truthfulness is more effective than untruthfulness and honesty more durable than cunning. The second is that there does exist a difference between ‘right’ and ‘wrong’, and that this difference is readily appreciated by the vast majority of mankind.

And the third is that most people know the distinction between foolishness and sense.

The Audience for the 1.0 p.m. News Bulletin.

Weekly Averages between 31 December 1939 and 8 September 1940

It is upon this basis that any Ministry of Information, in a democratic country, should strive to work. Its task will never be easy. There will always be those who are so irritated by the necessary restrictions of war that they will throw suspicion upon the sincerity of the Ministry’s intentions. There will be those, again, who become impatient of the slow and often indiscernible results of a long-term policy, and who will clamour for the drums, the fireworks, and the mesmerism of the totalitarian system. There will be many occasions upon which, for reasons which it is not always possible to explain, information has to be delayed or even withheld.

Yet I am convinced that, if these precepts and principles are unflinchingly respected, a large measure of public confidence will in the end be acquired ; and that it will be realized that the Ministry is seeking, not to form or to suppress the diversity or liberty of the country’s thought, but to provide the men and women of this island and of the world with true facts and directives such as will enable them to come to correct conclusions in their own unconquerable minds.

You Say

2 responses to this article

Joanne Gray 5 June 2017 at 9:54 pm

Strange, but everytime the above passage mentioned Hitler and “totalitarian propaganda”, I couldn’t help but think.about the current situation in America and how history is repeating.

Jeremy Rogers 13 June 2017 at 4:16 pm

Interesting that it is still “Herr Hitler” in nearly all references to him this article, especially early on.

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