Monday, November 5, 2012

Something Thoughtful

Nicholas Reid reflects in essay form on general matters and ideas related to literature, history, popular culture and the arts. You are free to agree or disagree with him. 


            One of the best loved ditties of British soldiers and schoolkids in the mid-twentieth century was the one about the testicular deficiencies of the Nazi leadership. (“Hitler has only got one ball….” etc.) It was sung cheerfully on parade-grounds and playgrounds to the tune of the Colonel Bogey march. Squaddies and kiddies alike had the happy sensation that they were singing something rude and subversive, but nevertheless broadly aligned to their nation’s interests.

            It has now been almost certainly confirmed that the first version of this rude  ditty was actually written by Toby O’Brien early in the war, when he was employed by the British Council. It was deliberately popularised in pubs and barracks by Britain’s propaganda apparatus. Un-broadcast-able at the time, of course, it was a massive hit nevertheless, allowing its millions of singers to imagine that they and their mates had actually thought it up themselves. Nazi leadership was castrated in one healthy piece of popular smut.

            This is an illustrious example of what is known as black propaganda. Quite rightly, African writers have frequently criticised the tendency of Europeans and their descendants to use “black” as a synonym for evil, so I use the term “black propaganda” with some trepidation and only because the term is now an established one.

            What is black propaganda?

            It is propaganda which pretends to be from a source other than its real one. It is designed to appear as impartial comment from plain folks who do not have a political or governmental agenda. But it always has an agenda, and that agenda is what we would now call “spin” – getting people to see things a certain way without their realizing that they are being manipulated.

            Blatant propaganda tries to sell things openly. Vote for me. Join my party. Join my cause. Join my church. We can easily see it for what it is, and accept it or reject it on those terms. Black propaganda is much more insidious. It works by not appearing to be propaganda at all.

            During the Second World War, the supreme master of black propaganda was Sefton Delmer. While Goebbels’ and Lord Haw-Haw’s overt propaganda broadcasts were countered overtly by the BBC, Delmer and his team (financed by British intelligence) set about creating a series of “German” radio stations. Really broadcast from England, by means of what was then the world’s most powerful radio transmitter, “Aspidistra”, they purported to be covert or dissident voices from within Nazi Germany itself. Sometimes they even expressed Nazi views, just slipping in the odd story that would unsettle German listeners. As best it could be judged after the war, it worked like a charm. At least thousands of German listeners believed demoralising or embarrassing stories about Germany’s war effort and leadership which they thought they had heard from an impeccably German source. (Delmer’s wavelengths were inhabited by native German-speakers who were all refugees from the Nazis).

            Towards the end of the war, Delmer’s system had a more direct application when German-language military broadcasts were made, deliberately sending false instructions on how troops were to be deployed. Sometimes these broadcasts were even cheeky enough to issue warnings to German soldiers against any false military broadcasts they might hear. This appears to have had some impact on the way the Germans responded to Operation Overlord and positioned their forces.

            When we hear about all of this now, we tend to applaud Delmer’s ingenuity. Any stratagem to defeat Nazis sounds good to us. Not everybody applauds, mind. I remember seeing David Hare’s 1978 British TV play Licking Hitler, clearly based on Delmer and his methods, which presented a much darker view of a system intended to deceive people.

            Delmer was not the first to practice black propaganda on a big scale. Far longer-running and more widespread were the efforts of the Comintern and (later) Cominform on behalf of Stalin’s Soviet Union, both before and after the Second World War. As well as its direct propaganda (including sponsored – and carefully-supervised - trips to the Soviet Union for celebrities and intellectuals), the Comintern and its successor ran and covertly financed, in both Western Europe and America, a host of magazines and other outlets which were designed to appear liberal or at best only vaguely centre-left, and which of course had no overt connection with the Soviet Union or local Communist parties. But by an insinuation here, a passing comment in the editorials there, they managed to promote a rosy view of the Soviet Union or at least suggest that it was no worse a place to live than the West (this at a time of famines, terror, purges etc.). Sometimes those who wrote for such publications were convinced and knowing Stalinists (like Lillian Hellman) who pretended they were something else. Sometimes they were genuinely innocent folk who thought they were simply advancing the cause of peace. The system was the essence of “spin”.

            The presiding genius of this black propaganda offensive was the German Communist Willi Munzenburg (ironically, he was eventually purged and murdered by the Stalinists). He perfected the art of setting up “front” organizations to advance Soviet interests in the guise of apolitical philanthropy. The best book about him and his influence is Stephen Koch’s Double Lives, first published in 1994 and subtitled “Stalin, Willi Munzenberg and the Seduction of the Intellectuals”.

            Among other things, Koch’s book confirmed the suspicions I always had about the over-praised British journalist Claud Cockburn – a man of many talents who, outside his largely fictitious memoirs, was a witty essayist and wrote some decent thrillers.

            The Cockburn legend is of the valiant lone crusading journalist, whose little cyclostyled newsletter The Week was set up in 1933 and designed solely to give its small and select (but influential) readership the inside story on the nasty things the British government was up to. My suspicions were aroused when I first read his wife Patricia Cockburn’s book The Years of the Week. First published in 1968, her book (a thoroughly dishonest one as it turns out) is filled with stories on how her clever husband just happened to stumble on an important piece of inside information, or just happened to overhear people talking about a secret government initiative, and then went off and wrote his brilliant expose about it in The Week – purely in the public interest, of course.

            To the alert reader, there are so many such stories in Mrs Cockburn’s book that it soon sounds highly implausible – and it is. Mrs Cockburn never mentions that throughout the whole time he was producing The Week, Claud Cockburn was in fact advised (and funded) by a Soviet controller who told him which stories to play up and which would cause maximum embarrassment to the British government (which, of course, really did have its dirty secrets). The controller also fed him enough secret, but genuinely factual, information to make stories in The Week credible.

            Here we have our old friend black propaganda – the real purpose of The Week was always to advance Soviet interests, with a hint here and an insinuation there, but without ever directly talking about it.

            Ultimate proof of this? The British government prosecuted Cockburn and shut The Week down. This was at a time – in early 1941 - when Britain was at war with Nazi Germany, while Hitler still was in alliance with Stalin. Communists worldwide were instructed to present the war as a mere shindy between rival capitalist powers, a party line which Cockburn dutifully followed (as did Communists in New Zealand such as Tom Spiller and Elsie Locke, parts of whose book Peace People are as mendacious as The Years of the Week, even if Locke wrote it long after ceasing to be a Communist).

            The British government finally lifted its ban on The Week. But Mrs Cockburn blandly tells us in her book that now Claud no longer wanted to produce it and it was discontinued. What she fails to note is that, by the time the ban was lifted, the Soviet Union was allied to Britain and at war with Hitler. Cockburn’s Soviet controller made it clear that a subversive journal undermining the British government no longer suited the Soviet interest. No point in black propaganda in such circumstances.

            By this stage – if you have read thus far – you may wonder why I am this week banging on about black propaganda.

            I have just read and written a review of Ian McEwan’s less than stellar novel Sweet Tooth. It concerns a British (MI5) attempt at black propaganda during the Cold War. A number of times McEwan makes reference to the Encounter affair.

            To give a brief outline of it: Encounter was a modest English political, cultural and literary magazine, founded in 1953 and at first edited by the left-ish poet Stephen Spender. As contributors, it attracted a very wide range of well-known academics, intellectuals, critics and imaginative writers. Its essays and literary criticism were among the best. Its politics were impeccably liberal and centre-left. It featured much good poetry. Nobody could accuse it of being reactionary or madly conservative. If you access back-numbers or reprints, you will still find much to admire in it. But (here’s the rub) it had no liking for the Soviet Union and, whenever it mentioned the topic, it suggested that it was better for Europe to be allied to Washington than subjected to Moscow. In this, it was at one with the Congress for Cultural Freedom, which opposed Communist “front” groups by publicising the lack of intellectual freedom in the Soviet Union and by publishing writers who had been banned there and in Soviet-controlled Eastern Europe.

            In 1967, an article in the left-wing American magazine Ramparts revealed that Encounter – like many other Congress of Cultural Freedom initiatives – was supported and partly funded by the CIA. The situation has been deplored and decried in a rather hysterical book by Frances Stonor Saunders, Who Paid the Piper: The CIA and the Cultural Cold War published in 1999. (It was published in the United States under the title The Cultural Cold War: The CIA and the World of Arts and Letters). The book has a shock-horror tone. Saunders would have us believe that an anti-Communist Left in Europe  was merely the creation of American subversion (and capital) and black propaganda. Everything from abstract-expressionist art to the publications of Solzhenitsyn is all part of a CIA plot.

            Despite his academic style, a far more reasoned riposte to Saunders is Giles Scott-Smith’s The Politics of Apolitical Culture: The Congress for Cultural Freedom, the CIA and Post-war American Hegemony, first published in 2002. Scott-Smith points out that an extensive anti-Communist Left intelligentsia already existed in Britain and the rest of Europe before the CIA started backing it; that the Congress for Cultural Freedom was more direct, and less devious, in its aims and methods than contemporaneous Soviet “front” groups were; and that, in the end, what Encounter and its ilk were saying was objectively true, as became more and more evident the nearer the USSR came to its eventual disintegration. The Soviet Union really was an oppressive totalitarian society with limited respect for civil rights and no place for intellectual freedom. These objective facts were not the creation of the CIA.

            So what does all this say about black propaganda?

            It is absolutely right and proper that historians untangle the webs of influence behind political writings (or cultural writings with political resonance). It is right and proper that that the backers of black propaganda be revealed and their agendas exposed. It is also fair to say that, in general, the contributors to Encounter tended to go far too easy on the faults of the USA and its foreign policy.

            But to me the bobbsy-dai some parts of the Left still kick up over Encounter etc. has an air of desperation to it. What America’s spy service was doing in the cultural arena was at best a pale imitation of what the Comintern and its successor had been doing for years. Worse, by the 1950s, Soviet black propaganda wasn’t working as well as it had in the days of the “Popular Front”. It had become decidedly moth-eaten. Without having to be prompted, all but the veriest ninnies could now see that “Peace” movements with Soviet backing really meant propaganda for Soviet foreign policy. All Europe could see that their interests would never be served by the power which held show trials in the 1940s, stomped on East German workers and Hungarian rebels in the 1950s, and stomped on the Prague Spring in the 1960s. They didn’t need Encounter or the CIA to tell them; although intellectuals (who are often more gullible than the general population) may have needed Encounter and its ilk to give them an intellectual rationale for what the rest of the population already understood.

            Am I therefore being an apologist for black propaganda? Not really. I would prefer a world in which people say openly who they are and what their agenda is. I am not advancing the dodgy argument that “two wrongs make a right”. Nor am I approving the (frequently Marxist) notion that “the end justifies the means”. But, as in my opinion of Sefton Delmer’s campaigns, I can’t help judging black propaganda at least in part in terms of the cause it is serving. Encounter closed down in 1991, just after the Soviet Union fell apart. The fact that the CIA funded it for some years doesn’t keep me awake at night.

Insulting Footnote: If you are interested in checking out such things, you will find that the CIA’s own website (easily accessed on line) gives a favourable review to Frances Stonor Saunders’ The Cultural Cold War: The CIA and the World of Arts and Letters.  Their take is that she overrates the CIA’s influence, but that she has written a genuinely interesting book about a past era. They describe it as a book about an “historical curiosity”. I’m not sure that Ms.Saunders would be too happy to know this.

1 comment:

  1. In the early 1950s NZ playgrounds also had a ditty that I suspect was also penned by Toby O'Brien to the tune of Walt Disney's "Whistle While You Work".
    Whistle While you Work/Mussolini made a shirt/Hitler work it/ Britain tore it/Whistle while you work.
    While still on 1940s "black propaganda", in her autobiography "Curriculum Vitae" the Scottish novelist Muriel Spark admitted that her writing fiction really began when she wrote misleading but convincing tales for Delmer's "German" broadcasts.