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The Propagandist who Outwitted Hitler


Peter Pomerantsev

London : Faber & Faber Limited, 2024

Hardback  304pp   RRP: $49.99


Reviewer: David Rees, May 2024


This is a book more about fighting a hidden war with information and disinformation rather than fighting a war with hard weapons. It explains how propaganda in war became more important as a soft weapon following the improvements in the technology of radio and telephonic transmissions in the Second World War. Most of the book is devoted to covering the background of Sefton Delmer and the big impact his ideas had on British propaganda when he became a director of a secret service known as the Political Warfare Executive (PWE). Sefton Delmer’s parents were Australian. Sefton’s father was from Tasmania and had been a Professor of English Literature at Berlin University. Both parents had lived in Berlin prior to and during the First World War before returning to England towards the end of the war. Sefton was born in Berlin in 1904 and brought up by his parents in Germany. He therefore spoke German fluently which was a great asset to the PWE.

The book is interesting to read as it not only covers Delmer’s role as a propagandist, but also his early development as a dual-national. It describes some of the difficulties he had as a schoolboy in England, where he was not easily accepted by his fellow students at St Paul’s school because of his earlier education in Germany. He still spoke English with a slight German accent. Nevertheless, he persevered and obtained a first-class degree from Oxford University before working as a foreign correspondent for the Daily Express newspaper. This involved postings to Germany and Portugal. As a journalist in Germany before the Second World War, he was able to meet many of the Nazi hierarchy and travel around with Hitler as part of the foreign press corps. He therefore was able to assess Nazi political strengths and weaknesses at close hand as well as meet people who were outside the political circle but who could provide useful propaganda material later. When the Second World War broke out, he was posted to neutral Portugal as a foreign correspondent of the Daily Express where he developed useful contacts through some German expats before he was asked to join a British secret service.

By way of background, the British secret services in the Second World War were often referred to as the departments for dirty tricks. There were lots of them with very dubious reputations. When Churchill became Prime Minister in May 1940, he wanted to bring together some of the departments associated with espionage, sabotage and propaganda under one organization reporting to the Minister for Economic Warfare. It was given the name of Special Operations Executive (SOE) and was operational by June 1940. It worked very closely with the other secret service departments such as MI5, MI6 and the three arms of Military Intelligence. SOE’s responsibilities were to coordinate espionage, subterfuge, political warfare, deception and psychological propaganda against the enemy as well as aiding local resistance groups in the Axis occupied countries. However, by August 1941, the growing importance of propaganda meant that the SOE’s propaganda staff were transferred to a new Political Warfare Executive (PWE) organization to which Sefton Delmer was recruited and later became a director.

Under Delmer’s leadership, the main aim of the PWE was to disseminate propaganda that would damage enemy morale and sustain the morale of the people in Nazi occupied countries. The organization therefore required staff who didn’t need to be military but had to have a flair for deception, language fluency and acting. So, many of them were people like actors, novelists, priests, journalists, etc. and BBC staff. The PWE used three radio channels to broadcast disinformation to the Germans and people in the Axis-occupied countries, The radio channels such as Gustav Siegfried Eins initially provided a British counter to the Lord Haw-Haw broadcasts, but they later developed their own genre.

Many books have been written about the SOE and its clandestine operations but few about the PWE and its more subtle form of hidden warfare. Peter Pomerantsev has carefully researched previously unavailable secret records from the Second World War to trace Sefton Delmer’s background and the history of the Political Warfare Executive. As an exiled Ukrainian, Pomerantsev argues that many of the propaganda ideas and processes used by Delmer could still be used effectively in the current Russian-Ukrainian war. Hence the title of his book.


The RUSI – Vic Library thanks the publisher for making this work available for review.

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