When public opinion is steered by war propaganda

by Eliane Perret

“No earthly justification excuses the capitulation of reason to public opinion.” This is how Romain Rolland begins his novel Clérambault1, in which he makes us empathise with the enthusiasm for war and the confusion in people’s minds at the beginning of the First World War. This war left behind millions of dead, destroyed cities and regions and people who, in great grief and hopelessness, had to summon up their last courage to turn again to the tasks of life and rebuild their existence and their country. First published in 1920, Romain Rolland’s work is up to this day an impressive literary document that is recommended reading for every contemporary.

“When war is declared, truth is the first casualty”

Even then, the question arose as to how one can remain lucid in times of war despite the media propaganda barrage and avoid collective hysteria. This question arises again today. For alert contemporaries, it is important to become aware of the mechanisms of concealment, deception and deliberate lies used by those whom one should trust, especially in such difficult times. As is so often the case, it is worth reflecting on previous insights and experiences. In 1928, Arthur Ponsonby (see box), an English politician, published the book “Falsehood in Wartime”2, in which he presented his research on the methods of war propaganda in the First World War. He concluded that in war, truth reaches an inglorious low, which he summed up in the phrase: “When war is declared, truth is the first casualty”. Ponsonby assumed that in times of peace it is helpful to find out what propaganda methods are used to try to mislead people to justify one’s own actions. So too in war, because the “deception of whole peoples is not a matter to be taken lightly”, he writes. In calm retrospect, the facts could be examined, and the truth brought to light, at least in retrospect. Often, however, this is precisely what is hindered by the warring parties, because the lies have had the desired effect in the meantime and uncovering them is undesirable. Many of the old war lies therefore survived for years.

Analogue: Letter opener, Decipherer, Forger

So even then, after the First World War, it was recognised that psychological factors are just as significant for warfare as military ones. People must be guided into going along with war plans. They are not so easily blinded and seduced, because it goes against their nature to fight and kill each other. That is why today it is a matter of course for every war ministry to have a department for war propaganda – admittedly with a somewhat more innocuous name.
  Today the means of propaganda are very sophisticated. Ponsonby still reported “eavesdroppers, letter openers, decipherers, telephone tappers, spies, a wiretapping department, a forgery department, a criminal investigation department, a propaganda department, an intelligence department, a censorship department, a ministry of information, a press office” with which public opinion and mood were controlled.

Digital: Hard to check – uncanny speed

Today, digital media play a central role in propaganda. Specialists use a huge toolbox with which they can falsify, censor or switch messages so that a certain narrative (as they say today) prevails through constant repetition and gains a monopoly on opinion. The emotional charge of the content, with which people’s sympathy is captured, has also become even more important. A brief moment of reflection is hardly possible anymore, because the lies are difficult to verify, yet are spread with uncanny speed.
  In addition, the current concentration of media providers on a few globally networked agencies and corporations prevents a broad spectrum of opinions and does not do justice to the circumstances of the individual countries. Perhaps some of you still remember the Swiss radio station Beromünster, which was appreciated during and long after the Second World War for its neutral reporting with its own local correspondents. Today, correspondents from other, even warring (sic!) countries are often called in, which is problematic simply because of Switzerland’s neutrality.

Developing a sensorium

That is why it is part of people’s basic civic education today to know what methods are used to form opinions and what propaganda techniques they are exposed to. It would be a project for the experienced older generation to learn together with the adolescents how to recognise, for example, whether pictures and documents are manipulated or whether a YouTube or TikTok film depicts reality or falsifies it (these would, by the way, be meaningful contents of media lessons that would lead to real media competence). When such knowledgeable people then discover how they can be deceived in sophisticated and carefully orchestrated ways, they will be more vigilant and develop a sensorium for statements and pronouncements that are destined to be accepted as truth.

Additionally …

A government that engages in controlling the opinion of its population through propaganda should be aware that it is disregarding the right to freedom of opinion and is gambling away the trust of the people. If it is a matter of justifying acts of war, this is even more serious. In doing so, it is failing in the task it has been given.  •

The following books accompanied me in my writing:

1 Rolland, Romain. Clérambault. Reinbek near Hamburg
2 Ponsonby, Arthur (1988). Falsehood in Wartime. New York: E. P. Dutton & Co, 1929. (Excerpts in: https://archive.org/details/16FalsehoodInWartime)


Arthur Ponsonby (1871–1946)

Lord Arthur Ponsonby was a British civil servant, politician and writer. He came from a distinguished English family. His father Sir Henry was Queen Victoria’s private secretary, he himself Queen Victoria’s page. After his studies, he entered the diplomatic service and subsequently took on various political posts. He was one of those parliamentarians who opposed Britain’s entry into the First World War. Ponsonby was appointed to the House of Lords in 1931 and became Speaker of the House. He continued his commitment against the war until 1939, in the hope that his country could prevent another great war.


Basic principles of war propaganda

The methods of war propaganda described by Arthur Ponsonby were systematised and updated by the Belgian historian Anne Morelli as follows.1 The reporting is guided by the following:

Rule 1: We don’t want war; we are only defending ourselves.
Rule 2: Our adversary is solely responsible for this war.
Rule 3: Our adversary’s leader is inherently evil and resembles the devil.
Rule 4: We are defending a noble cause, not our particular interests.
Rule 5: The enemy is purposefully committing atrocities; if we are making mistakes this happens without intention.
Rule 6: The enemy makes use of illegal weapons.
Rule 7: We suffer few losses, the enemy's losses are considerable.
Rule 8: Recognised intellectuals and artists support our cause.
Rule 9: Our cause is sacred.
Rule 10: Whoever casts doubt on our propaganda helps the enemy and is a traitor.

1 Morelli, Anne (2021). “Die Prinzipien der Kriegspropaganda.” (The principles of war propaganda.) Verlag zu Klampen, Springe

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