Wartime propaganda: the battle of the airwaves

During the Second World War, the Free French fought a vicious propaganda battle with the collaborator and anti-Semite, Philippe Henriot. Kay Chadwick examines the campaign for French hearts and minds, waged on thousands of radio sets…

This article was first published in the July 2010 issue of BBC History Magazine

(© Hulton Archive–Getty Images)
A poster for the Free French Movement in America, c1942. (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)


On 6 January 1944, at the start of the final year of the German occupation of France, Philippe Henriot was appointed as secretary of state for information and propaganda for the Vichy regime (the administration that governed much of southern France during the Second World War). In doing so, he became Vichy France’s infamous voice of collaboration in its final, most disreputable phase.

“My task,” Henriot announced a few days later, “is to explain events and to counter the lies and slanderous words spoken on British radio. Propaganda cannot be neutral, and it is my intention, in presenting events truthfully, never to hold back from interpreting matters from a French perspective.” Henriot’s declaration brought a sharp response from the Free French at the BBC, who had left their homeland and spoke from London to the France of occupation and collaboration.

“Philippe Henriot is the Boche’s man,” proclaimed Louis Lévy. “And that’s why he has been given the job at Propaganda. Minister for propaganda, the French Goebbels… For a few months, or for a few weeks. But not for very long. Be quick and get on with your screeching, Philippe, the liberation is on its way!”

Henriot was, by 1944, a zealot for the German cause. He had been raised in a classic right-wing Catholic environment which promoted tradition, order and nationalism, and which upheld a brand of anti-Semitism that regarded Jews as ‘non-French’. In the 1930s, he had been a highly visible and eloquent MP for the right, and an ardent anti-communist and anti-republican.

Henriot was also at this stage a committed Germanophobe, and he spoke out against Germany’s aggression as late as 1940. That year, however, with the defeat of France, Henriot rallied to the cause of Philippe Pétain, Vichy’s leader, and became one of the great orators of the so-called ‘National Revolution’. He welcomed Pétain’s meeting with Hitler in October 1940 as a sign of better times for France.

Vichy France’s arch propagandist, Philippe Henriot.  (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

What fundamentally turned him into a militant advocate of collaboration was Germany’s invasion of Russia in June 1941. In Henriot’s view, Germany now became the means of delivering European Christian civilisation from the godless monster of communism.

From 1942 to the end of 1943, Henriot broadcast his message weekly on Radio Vichy, at the same time undertaking an unrelenting programme of lectures across France, and writing for pro-collaboration newspapers.

In December 1943, the Germans made it clear to Vichy that they wished to see Henriot appointed to the top job at Propaganda, since they considered him a powerful orator and wanted him to have free rein to broadcast as and when he wished.

Following his elevation to government in January 1944, Henriot took to his new role with gusto, embarking on an intensive schedule of twice-daily broadcasts. These gave him frequent and direct access to the hearts and minds of the many French who tuned in to listen as the war entered its lethal endgame.

Throughout his period in office, Henriot played powerfully on the emotions of the French. His broadcasts revolved around a range of themes likely to resonate with a population that had become used to the occupation, was still awaiting liberation, and was fearful of the further conflict and destruction that this would bring.

Rather than deny the likelihood of the landings or an eventual Allied victory, Henriot chose instead to emphasise the horrors these would bring. His words were designed to heighten fear and alarm, to foster defeatism, and to weaken support for the Allies and the ‘Maquis’ (the domestic Resistance movement), all with the goal of influencing whom the French would support when the landings did finally happen.

He consistently focused on the Allied bombing of France, which intensified in spring 1944 in advance of the landings, showering his listeners with nightmarish descriptions of devastated towns littered with corpses and coffins. He repeatedly attempted to disconnect public opinion from the Maquis by claiming that it was crammed with bloodthirsty terrorists and criminals. He portrayed them as communists and foreigners, who would stop at nothing for their own gain and who were not committed to France’s best interests.

“Rouen, the RAF kills 140 French civilians,” 1942 (Getty Images/Art archive)

In contrast, he praised Vichy’s vicious police force (the ‘Milice’) as heroes of the nation, men who would restore order to a chaotic world. And he called on the French to obey Vichy and to participate in the forced labour programme (which many French attempted to evade), arguing that, by working in Germany, the French would be serving France’s interests.

Henriot nourished a dread of communism, constantly warning that Russia was the most powerful of the Allies and would hold sway in the postwar world. He flagged up the long wait for the landings, talking of failed promises by the Allies. And he continually sought to undermine the Free French. He mocked Charles de Gaulle, declaring him a puppet leader largely ignored by the Allies, who was at the mercy of the many Jews and diehard communists within the French Committee of National Liberation.

Time and again he called into question his rival broadcasters’ legitimacy to speak to and for France, attacking them for ‘abandoning’ French soil.

They were emigrants, he declared, who whined constantly from abroad that they were the true representatives of France, but who were in reality indifferent to her plight. They could have no understanding of events in France, since they had chosen to exile themselves from the homeland. And they would thus be safe abroad when the devastation that would accompany the landings heightened France’s agony.

“They kill! Wrapped in the folds of our flag.” A propaganda poster aimed at the Resistance, created by the Vichy government, 1942. (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Simple curiosity

In Henriot, the Free French encountered an indefatigable rival who was, for all his sinister manipulation of the truth, a skilful and compelling broadcaster. In 1944, Henriot was credited with having revitalised Vichy’s propaganda, which many French to date had judged bland, monotonous and poorly informed.

Reports drafted for Vichy, as well as intelligence communiqués received in London from agents in France, reveal that many French listened to Henriot out of admiration, hostility, or simple curiosity.

One Vichy official attributed this to the fact that “public opinion is interested by the duel Philippe Henriot is waging across the airwaves against the French at the BBC. Finally, people are saying, here is an adversary equal to [Free French rivals] Bourdan and Marin, and even to Schumann himself.”

Resistance agents in France repeatedly reported that Henriot’s propaganda was influencing the minds of the uncertain and the fearful, and called for a sustained onslaught from the Free French propagandists in order to demolish his arguments. The Free French themselves were acutely aware of Henriot’s skills and warned their audience to beware: “He knows how to use a microphone,” said Louis Lévy, “and how to string together nicely balanced sentences.” Pierre Bourdan emphasised to listeners that Henriot’s often emotional words were “a strategy”.

Members of the Maquis study the maintenance of weapons dropped to them by parachute in the Haute Loire. (Roger Viollet/Getty Images)

Such warnings by the Free French about Henriot’s propaganda formed part of their own campaign of counter-propaganda, which they waged against him on air from the early weeks of 1944, replying to his words with compelling broadcasts of their own.

It was crucial, for instance, that a positive representation of the Maquis alongside a negative reading of the Milice should be offered to contradict Henriot’s portrayal and to create a sympathetic bedrock of support connecting the French with the Resistance. The Free French thus emphasised that the Maquis were the true and loyal sons of France.

They called on young French men to evade the forced labour programme and join the Maquis; and they exhorted the population generally to be ready to support the rapidly growing Resistance movement once the long-awaited landings came. They also presented the Milice as bandits and terrorists pursuing a civil war against ordinary French people.

The topic of the Allied bombing was a sensitive issue for the Free French to tackle from the relative safety of London, and they acknowledged that Henriot’s representation could strike a chord with those who had lost loved ones in the ruins.

In response, they therefore regretted the bombings as a tragic necessity and were careful to express empathetic recognition of the suffering caused, both from within Britain and on their own behalf. And, in order to bolster confidence in the progress of the Allies towards the landings, they emphasised what Henriot chose to ignore, namely the Allied air attack on Germany, as well as Germany’s defeats elsewhere in Europe.

The Free French also worked hard to counter Henriot’s charges of their absence and disconnection from France. In one significant exchange, they strove to unite Charles de Gaulle psychologically with the French back home by telling listeners that he kept on his desk a box containing French soil, only for Henriot to point out that he himself had no need for such a box, since the soil was there beneath his feet.

Philippe Henriot watches as the Legion of French Volunteers departs for the front, 1944. He was killed the following day. (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

The Free French fought back. They contested his claim that Vichy was France and proclaimed that only those who had stayed in France to continue the fight against Germany were true French, not the cowards who, like Henriot, had stayed and collaborated.

Such verbal sparring created a complex conversation aimed at manipulating the interpretation of events at this most critical juncture in the war. Both sides continually listened to the other, and then referred to what had been said in their own reply.

Both were well-aware of the need to keep up a commentary on events in order to counter what the other was saying. And both sustained a damning portrait of the opposition, aiming to reinforce in listeners’ minds the treachery and cynicism of the other side, in contrast to the patriotism and sincerity driving their own words and actions.

Henriot derided the Free French as “the puppets of dissidence” and “the tall story merchants at the BBC”. Whether they were Jewish or not, he consistently depicted them all as “the Jewish shirkers in London”, a classification he employed to indicate that the Free French should not be considered ‘true’ French.

The Free French retaliated strongly. They branded Henriot a “shabby little Judas”, a “pedlar of fear” and “the most cowardly of cowards”, and littered their broadcasts with references to him as the “French Goebbels”.

Six months of heated propaganda exchanges came to an end when, on 28 June 1944, Henriot’s voice was finally silenced by the guns of the Resistance. That evening, Maurice Schumann proclaimed: “We will not hide our joy at this event. France will do very well without the voice of Philippe Henriot.”

Vichy accorded Henriot a national funeral at Notre-Dame cathedral in Paris, the ceremony taking place as the Allies continued their advance into Normandy. Pierre Dac, for the Free French, described it as a “National-Socialist funeral”.

Henriot had been, as propagandist Jean Oberlé conceded, the Free French’s principal broadcasting adversary. While the guns were blazing on the battlefields of Europe, the verbal skirmishes between Henriot and the Free French were also a battle for the future of France. Radio had shown itself to be a weapon of war.

Marshal Philippe Pétain in 1940. (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Hearing voices: listening to the radio in the Second World War

Radio is a powerful tool which has often been manipulated in war, not least because of its capacity to reach across national borders directly into peoples’ homes. The Second World War was a radio war, when audiences worldwide were relentlessly targeted by the disembodied voices of a host of broadcasters representing both Allies and Axis.

During the war up to 40 per cent of households in France had a licensed wireless, rising to 60 per cent if estimated unlicensed sets are included. The network of transmitters and the multiple wavelengths used meant that the authorised stations of Radio Vichy and Radio Paris could be heard nationwide.

Equally, intelligence reports and correspondence sent from France to the BBC show that its broadcasts could be picked up across France, unless there were reception problems caused by the weather or by wavelength jamming.

Vichy banned listening to the BBC in public in October 1940, and extended this in October 1941 to include listening in private, a sure sign that its influence was feared. The maximum penalty for infringement was initially a fine or a jail sentence, but this increased to the death penalty after Germany occupied all of France from November 1942. However, enforcement was sporadic and the ban was widely ignored.

It is impossible to know precisely how many French tuned in to the BBC during the war, but those who did heard more and more programmes in French. For, as its capacity to transmit to Europe improved, the time it could allocate to broadcasting in French similarly increased, rising from around two hours daily in 1940 to between five and six hours in 1944.

Background: Vichy France

France’s defeat by Germany in June 1940 brought the collapse of the Third Republic and heralded the start of the authoritarian Vichy regime. Its head, Philippe Pétain, was a First World War general renowned as the victor of Verdun.

France was initially divided into two zones: a northern zone occupied by the Germans, whose base was Paris; and a southern so-called ‘free’ zone, whose administrative centre was Vichy. In November 1942, the German occupation extended to the whole country.

Vichy promoted reactionary values via its ‘National Revolution’, a programme for regeneration which characterised the regime until spring 1942. Its thrust was encapsulated in the maxim ‘Work, Family, Homeland’, which replaced the Republican slogan of ‘Freedom, Equality, Fraternity’.

The regime enjoyed a certain degree of popularity in its early stages, although the failure of many of its policies coupled with the dismal reality of everyday life left many French feeling that the National Revolution was an abstract experiment. From 1942, Vichy became increasingly repressive, reaching its most brutal and disreputable phase in 1944 as the liberation approached.

Throughout, Vichy displayed a readiness to persecute its enemies, to rid the country of ‘undesirables’ such as Jews and communists, demonstrating that ultimately the regime was one of exclusion.

Pétain met with Hitler in October 1940, declaring afterwards to the French that “today I embark on the pathway of collaboration”. Thereafter Vichy willingly collaborated with Germany, viewing a German victory as the means to halt the tide of communism.

Most notoriously, from 1942 the regime became a willing participant in the Final Solution, playing an active role in the round-up of Jews for deportation. It complied with Germany’s demand that France supply workers for Germany, and, when voluntary departures proved insufficient, instituted a forced labour programme in early 1943 which served further to disconnect public opinion from Vichy.

From June 1940, Charles de Gaulle challenged Vichy’s claim to legitimacy, asserting from London and Algiers (where the Allies landed in November 1942) that the Free French represented the continuity of French government.

Diplomatic relations between Britain and France ended following the British attack on the French fleet at Mers-el-Kébir in July 1940,
a few days prior to the formalisation of Vichy. But the regime was recognised by Russia until her entry into the war in 1941; and the USA maintained diplomats in Vichy until November 1942, also accrediting a diplomat to the Free French from July 1942.

In September 1944, Vichy became a government-in-exile in Sigmaringen, across the border in Germany.

After D-Day, De Gaulle’s wartime French Committee of National Liberation evolved into the Provisional Government of the French Republic. This was recognised by the Allies in October 1944 as France’s legitimate government.



Dr Kay Chadwick is an expert in 20th‑century France and senior lecturer at the School of Cultures, Languages and Area Studies, University of Liverpool

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