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How to Win an Information War by Peter Pomerantsev: A vital lesson in dangerous propaganda

Author’s latest book is, in essence, a quest to understand the informational bunker Zelenskiy was confronted with following Putin’s invasion

How to Win an Information War: The Propagandist Who Outwitted Hitler
How to Win an Information War: The Propagandist Who Outwitted Hitler
Author: Peter Pomerantsev
ISBN-13: 9780571366347
Publisher: Faber & Faber
Guideline Price: £20

How to Win an Information War, Peter Pomerantsev’s latest book on his specialist topic of propaganda, is driven by deeply personal motives. Pomerantsev has written the book while working with The Reckoning Project, an alliance of journalists and lawyers documenting Russian war crimes in Ukraine, the land of Pomerantsev’s birth.

Towards the beginning of the book, he recounts how Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskiy was taken aback to see how quickly Russian citizens retreated en masse into an “informational bunker” following Putin’s invasion. Polls showed that the vast majority of Russians supported the war, refused to accept reports of Russian atrocities and believed that the invasion was a necessary response against western aggression.

How to Win an Information War is, in essence, a quest to understand the informational bunker Zelenskiy was confronted with. Pomerantsev’s discovery of Sefton Delmer, a largely forgotten protagonist in the propaganda battle between Britain and Nazi Germany, provided the book’s genesis. In Delmer, Pomerantsev hoped he had found both a different way to understand propaganda, and a means to coax people out of the informational bunker it induces.

Delmer was a leading figure in Britain’s psychological warfare campaign against the Nazi regime. Born in Berlin to Australian parents, his early experiences deeply influenced his understanding of propaganda. At the outbreak of the first World War, Delmer saw how German friends and neighbours abruptly turned against him and his family, labelling them as “foreign enemies”. His father’s arrest and the family’s subsequent deportation to England further traumatised the young Delmer. In England, he once again found himself an outsider, mocked by his classmates for his German accent, and ridiculed for wearing the ankle socks that German schoolboys wore. These early experiences taught him that propaganda works in part by providing people with a sense of belonging, a shared identity with the crowd and an acceptance that he himself was denied.


As a young adult, Delmer returned to Berlin as chief correspondent for the Daily Express where he secured remarkable access to the inner circle of Nazi leadership, including Hitler. Delmer flew as correspondent for the Express on Hitler’s private plane as he addressed mass rallies across Germany in the run-up to the 1932 presidential election.

Delmer watched as Hitler whipped up feelings of victimhood among the crowds, conjured up hatred towards the supposed causes of their suffering, and promised his followers a route out of their own humiliation by imposing suffering and humiliation on others. Reality, Delmer realised, was the absolute opposite of what the crowds wanted to hear. What Hitler was offering instead were excuses and justifications, an escape from an unbearable reality, and the promise of a deeply desired alternative reality.

But Delmer’s experiences also showed him that support for the regime was not driven solely by love of the Fuhrer, devotion to the Fatherland and longing for the Third Reich. The reality on the ground was also driven by much more sordid, self-serving and shameful motives – settling scores against a neighbour, acquiring the apartment of a deported Jew, keeping a job, or gaining a promotion. In fact, Goebbels too recognised this. Nazi propaganda was based on the reality that totalitarian regimes survive both by stoking fanaticism for a collective utopian fantasy on the one hand and appealing, as Goebbels characterised it, to the “pigdog” in every citizen on the other hand.

How to Win an Information War succeeds brilliantly in shedding light on the first question that Pomerantsev sought to answer: namely, what makes people susceptible to the blindness that propaganda can create? But the book’s real importance lies in the fact that it ultimately fails to provide the answer to his second question: how might people be induced to break out of it?

Pomerantsev does not find a silver bullet. Delmer too, Pomerantsev reports, was left doubting how important propaganda had been in defeating Hitler. After the war he concluded correctly that the big factor in the defeat of the Nazis was the total war waged upon it, at the cost of millions of lives.

The vital lesson Pomerantsev offers is that propaganda does provide the essential soundtrack for the descent into rule by dangerously disordered leaders. Once there, however, history shows that the escape has always been achieved only through conflagrations of immense violence. Propaganda can bring us down, but it offers little value as a means of escape.

Instead of looking towards propaganda for salvation we must turn instead, and urgently, to the prophets of truth who tell us that some changes are irreversible, that some actions cannot be undone. Individual moral responsibility in the moment is both a measure of our humanity and our sole means of holding on to it. Alternatives to this fundamental reality are delusions that can kill. As Pomerantsev himself concludes, what we need to do is give people the motivation to care about truth again.

Ian Hughes is author of Disordered Minds: How Dangerous Personalities are Destroying Democracy