Armed Conflict Foreign Relations & International Law

Information Warfare and Its Casualties

Gavin Wilde
Tuesday, May 14, 2024, 9:37 AM

A review of Peter Pomertantsev, “How to Win an Information War: The Propagandist Who Outwitted Hitler” (PublicAffairs, 2024)

Propaganda posters issued by Quisling's Norwegian Nazi Party during the German occupation of Norway during the Second World War (Wolfmann,; CC BY-SA 4.0 DEED,

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“And who, in this moment, is the real Sefton Delmer?” asks Peter Pomerantsev about the subject of his new book, “How to Win an Information War.” “Which is his real voice, the one that expresses his ‘true’ identity? The Sefton Delmer who sings along to German war songs? Or the one muttering resistance in English under his breath?” These penetrating questions about identity, allegiance, performativity, and morality loom over the tale of Delmer’s counter propaganda fight against Nazi Germany in World War II. As the (comparatively glib) title suggests, Pomerantsev’s answers to some of these questions form the basis of his recommendation: turning the very media machinery that services autocrats’ grip on power, their armed aggression, and the brutality they foster, right back against them.

Pomerantsev’s latest tackles themes familiar to readers of his previous books—2014’s “Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible” and 2019’s “This Is Not Propaganda”—exploring the various ways in which humans both design, and navigate within, hostile information environments. As in those earlier outings, Pomerantsev once again deploys his trademark journalistic prose to craft an enlightening and engrossing narrative. But whereas those previous books were part travelogue, part interview, “How to Fight an Information War” is instead part historical nonfiction, part biography. Pomerantsev explores the archival record of Delmer’s life and career, which mirrors his own in several key ways. Both were émigrés amid geopolitical tumult, both struggled to fit into societies in flux, and both were intrigued by the nexus of media and culture. The author’s sense of kinship with his subject is palpable and at times even poignant. Most importantly, however, Pomerantsev attempts to put the reader in conversation with the modern-day parallels of Delmer’s experience. 

The interwar German media environment that Adolph Hitler seized upon thirsted for “someone to love and someone to blame, and in a society in flux, where all the old social roles had suddenly disappeared … a sense of who they were.” Enter Sefton Delmer, around whom Pomerantsev fashions something of a morality play. As a child from Berlin transplanted to Britain during the Great War, Delmer grappled from an early age with the complexities of identity—from individual to national, whether alone with a radio or as part of a crowd. Never quite accepted as a true Brit, yet still able to capitalize on his German roots as a journalist for a leading British newspaper in interwar Berlin, Delmer’s shrewdness landed him a front-row seat to the rise of the “crackpot” who became the 20th century’s most powerful dictator. It would later land him in the driver’s seat of one of Britain’s most covert (and controversial) counterpropaganda campaigns. 

Delmer had an early love of theater, which gave him a keen grasp of what constituted good acting: not mere mimicry, but sincere adoption of a character’s essence. He later contrasted this observation with the more frequent displays of chauvinism in German society. Their crude imitations of discipleship seemed to him like a thin cover for grievance; their cultural excesses a salve for a national sense of isolation. Delmer perceived Adolph Hitler’s showmanship and propaganda as faulty stand-ins for genuine civic engagement—a prepackaged, mass-produced identity, replete with hollow rituals and coerced enthusiasm. He noted the mutually constitutive relationship between Hitler the orator and his adoring crowds—each came to believe in, and adopt, the role they played for the other. Pomerantsev deftly examines this interplay through a modern lens, comparing it to the relationships between current strongmen and their followers. As Pomerantsev notes, “the real power of propaganda is not to convince or even to confuse: it’s to give you a sense of belonging.” 

Delmer was onto this fundamental feature of human beings—something social scientists would confirm in the ensuing decades: Like all animals, people perform certain roles and play to certain audiences in service of their own self-interest. They conform to in-groups and look suspiciously at members of out-groups. They often condemn violence against the former, while condoning it against the latter. Their brutality appears to grow with the size of the mob. Thus, for example, Delmer couldn’t help but contrast the half-hearted “sieg heils” exchanged by individuals on the street with the maniacal fervor of Hitler’s crowds—a “monster [which] became self-conscious of its size and intoxicated by the belief in its own omnipotence.” 

Delmer sensed that, if at the individual level, identity usually trumps facts, at the societal level, it can trump basic human decency. He wondered: What if there were a way, through clever deception, to jolt people into recognizing their own shallow performances? Might some subtle nudge toward self-consciousness spark their eventual break from the crowd? Dogged by this question, and armed with a novel approach, Delmer was eventually called to spearhead covert radio broadcasts into German and occupied territories for Britain’s Political Warfare Executive—a clandestine agency charged with ginning up and spreading content both to undermine German morale and to bolster that of allies and citizens in occupied territories. He scripted and produced radio broadcasts that were designed less to “cater to idealists” and conscientious objectors to Hitler’s regime, and more to pierce the self-serious façade of its most devout adherents.

Delmer’s top-secret transmissions—which were often lurid, profane, and even pornographic—served as a kind of insider-gossip tabloid on the German airwaves. With details culled from real-world intelligence, his troupe of native-German-speaking voice actors played the role of disaffected former Nazi elites, spilling the goods about self-dealing, hypocrisy, and sexual deviance rampant within their ranks. The intent was for German listeners to find these salacious exposés genuine, to find their own voyeurism addictive, and ultimately to find their “outrage at all the corruption and perversion” sufficiently compelling to cause dissent, confusion, and distrust of Hitler’s reich. Pomerantsev recounts how “Delmer’s method was to prick you awake by making you aware that there was an element of artifice in everything you do. And in that moment of sudden self-awareness, you could, if you had enough motivation, depart from the power of propaganda.”

Pomerantsev interweaves this World War II-era history with that of contemporary Russia, and the similar way in which the Kremlin uses propaganda to justify its war on Ukraine. This includes his own first-hand and Ukrainian eyewitness accounts of Russian soldiers who cited the blatant falsehoods peddled by Moscow’s state-controlled media to justify their barbarity in Bucha and elsewhere. These somber passages and the gripping history of Delmer’s contributions to the allied war effort are more than sufficient to make “How to Win an Information War” a must-read. The book draws weighty parallels between Hitler’s Germany and Putin’s Russia—and, by implication, other modern-day demagogues following similar rhetorical pathways—and their accompanying propaganda strategies. 

If the book’s greatest strengths arise from Pomerantsev’s mixture of biography, history, and social psychology, that mixture comes at the expense of the book’s titular focus and prescription: media manipulation. In the aftermath of World War II, Delmer wrestled with the efficacy and morality of his deceptive craft, and historians have more recently debated the utility of British counterpropaganda in defeating the Nazis. Pomerantsev’s book often reads as his own attempt to grapple with the same conundrum: If propaganda underlies “the sense that life is just political cabaret,” then countering it in any systematic, consequential (not to mention deceptive) way risks solidifying the exact same sentiment. The author rightfully notes “the danger of dabbling in disinformation,” however noble the intent: “it nurtures an environment of endless distrust that benefits authoritarian instincts.” Indeed, Delmer sought to draw out “the inequalities of sacrifice” between the common people and the privileged elites—yet this is ironically the same theme on which illiberal populist movements throughout the West have propagandized in recent years. While nodding toward these dilemmas, Pomerantsev nevertheless seems to wave them off to endorse the overriding imperative of countering genocidal regimes, “no-holds barred.” 

German-American philosopher Hannah Arendt—the 20th century’s leading analyst of human susceptibility to tyranny—argued that the stories we often tell ourselves are not only an escape from reality, but an escape from responsibility. Crucially, this insight extends beyond propaganda’s dictatorial purveyors, such as Hitler and Putin. It applies equally to propaganda’s consumers—and perhaps even to its analysts and its would-be opponents as well. Just as German citizens found in Nazi propaganda a sense of agency and control, the way we examine propaganda often tends to seize these affordances right back again. Social psychologists, from John Dewey a century ago and on through the present, have warned against this urge “to understand fundamental aspects of humanity … to explain them in terms of things outside of them,” to reduce them to blank slates that can be drawn upon at will. For instance, Pomerantsev’s writing often lends propaganda an almost animated quality, detailing how it “acts on people,” “molds us,” and “sucks [us] in.” While such shorthand may be commonplace, this way of essentializing information unavoidably objectifies humans—relegating people, the choices they make, and their treatment of others to the backdrop, stripping them of any real agency, discernment, or responsibility. Ultimately it is people who use messages in the media they encounter to give themselves license for their passions, building a distorted image of how widely accepted (or encouraged) their behaviors are. 

As one German citizen recounted, “I think anyone who hadn’t cheered along would have been murdered by his neighbors.” Propaganda was doubtlessly a factor in German society’s devolution into such madness. But whether it was as causal and decisive as Pomerantsev seems to assert warrants more debate than he offers here. After all, however enlightened we might fancy ourselves, human beings are innately tribalistic, prone to herd-like behavior and violence. Print, broadcast, and online media accompany these phenomena but are neither the root cause nor likely a reliable cure for them. Delmer’s quest to “deliver truth to people who are resistant to it” somewhat sidestepped this complexity in service of a more existential imperative. But, as the latter chapters of this book reveal, time has a way of correcting for such oversimplification, however necessary at the time. Lies, deception, and manipulation tend to boomerang and backfire in unpredictable ways. For instance, Delmer’s exploits made it difficult, however inadvertently, to separate fact from fiction and to identify unrepentant Nazi collaborators in the aftermath of the war.

This nuance is an unwelcome distraction, however, from the sense of urgency dripping from the pages of “How to Win an Information War.” The world is presently faced with a similar battle against evil forces acting on the outright falsehoods with which they flood the airwaves and platforms. Pomerantsev makes an emotionally compelling case for efforts akin to Delmer’s at the height of World War II—creative, organized, surgical, and calibrated—this time, against the Putin regime. Readers cannot help but find themselves nodding in agreement, sidestepping—as both Delmer and Pomerantsev expressly do in the book—the stark reality that there remains no meaningful way to measure success, to avoid unforeseen consequences, or to maintain our own moral bearings in the process. 

Meanwhile, the political, technological, and media environments of the 21st century bear little resemblance to those of the 1940s. Investigative journalists and civil society organizations have for years dedicated themselves to exposing the corruption and depravity of the Putin regime. His grip on power and support for his war among Russians has nevertheless remained largely intact. The main culprits for their complacency are hardly poor organization or poorly crafted content. More likely, the urgency of a counterpropaganda mission is playing a very familiar role: providing those of us on the right side of history with an orderly narrative and a noble sense of shared identity, offering us a world of cause and effect, where facts and righteousness might be harnessed against evil forces. As another related historical treatment asserts, “psychological warfare thus involves more than a series of practices and techniques to strategically manipulate individuals abroad; it involves the production of political fictions about itself and about the nature and reality of warfare more broadly.”

Despite its universal appeal to good and evil alike, such comforting simplicity demonstrates the greatest weakness of so-called information war: its inescapable recursiveness, its unending wilderness of mirrors. Ultimately information is a by-product of people, not the other way around. And people make choices. To anchor these choices—and ultimately their humanity—to their media diets is to grant information warriors of any stripe undue credit for their cunning, and to absolve them and their audiences of accountability for their behaviors. In this vein, Pomerantsev alludes to postwar Germany’s (and Western powers’) failure to hold Nazi officers and collaborators more fully responsible for atrocities. Such an outrageous history must not be repeated in the case of Russia’s war on Ukraine. “The propaganda made me do it” is an unacceptable excuse. By extension, “our counterpropaganda snapped them out of it” is probably more morally satisfying than realistic as an aspiration.

It is because of these internal debates—which Pomerantsev pulls from within Delmer, reveals within himself, and provokes within his readers—that I was unable to put his latest book down. Ultimately, “How to Win an Information War” succeeds wildly (if, in places, despite itself) at raising deeper philosophical questions about propaganda, its role in shaping national identities, and its use by the good and the evil alike, in politics and in war. With this addictive page-turner, Pomerantsev’s incisiveness once again sets his work above and apart from the often-crowded disinfo-hype genre. In this regard, the book offers so much more than its title suggests. Conscientious readers may find themselves conflicted about what might be lost in attempting to “win” an information war, but they will nevertheless be richer for the experience of wrestling—as Sefton Delmer did—with the question.

Gavin Wilde is a senior fellow in the Technology and International Affairs Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. He previously served as director for Russia, Baltic, and Caucasus Affairs at the National Security Council from 2018 to 2019, where his focus areas included election security and countering foreign malign influence and disinformation.

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