Persuading the people: British propaganda in the Second World War
Tasked with maintaining morale in Britain and influencing opinion abroad during the Second World War, the Ministry of Information (MOI) is known to have disseminated a vast number of propaganda films and radio broadcasts. However, what is less well known is that the MOI was also a major wartime publisher, producing books, illustrated magazines, pamphlets, leaflets and postcards
In his new book, Persuading the People: British Propaganda in World War II, Professor David Welch sheds new light on the importance of winning ‘hearts and minds’ during the Second World War. Based on the extensive archives held at the British Library, which have until now remained largely untapped, Welch explores both the successes and failures of the MOI’s numerous campaigns – from crude anti-Nazi and anti-Japanese publications to postcards depicting inspirational figures such as Winston Churchill.
Here, writing for History Extra, Welch reveals how the MOI played a key role in the dissemination of official propaganda to the British people, the Commonwealth, neutral nations, resistance groups as well as the enemy…
Britain and the Middle East: friend or foe?
One of the most problematic issues confronting British propaganda was its relationship with Muslim nations in the Middle East. During the Second World War, the Middle East was the region of a major propaganda struggle between Britain and its allies, and Nazi Germany and the other Axis powers.
Propaganda produced by the Nazis found a receptive ear in some areas of the Persian Gulf. The Nazi regime developed an approach to Muslims that largely ignored the Protocols of the Elders of Zion [an anti-Semitic text purporting to describe a Jewish plan for global domination]; Hitler’s political manifesto Mein Kampf and other European sources in favour of selected passages from the Qur’an.
The Nazis portrayed Islam as their natural ally and, accordingly, called for its revival while urging Muslims to act piously and emulate the prophet Muhammad. Radio Berlin in Arabic went so far as to declare: “Allahu akbar! Glory to the Arabs, Glory to Islam”. The Nazis noted the apparent parallel between sayings from the Qur’an (Sura 5:82, “You will meet no greater enemy of the believers than the Jews”) and the words of Hitler (“By resisting the Jews everywhere, I am fighting for the Lord’s work”) and helped transform the Qur’an into an anti-Semitic tract whose primary purpose was to call for eternal
hatred of Jews.
In 1941, the Allies published an Arabic newspaper with the intention of influencing Arabs to oppose the Germans. The publication was called Akhbar Al-Harb (‘News of War’) – later changed to Akhbar Al-Harb Wal-Alam (‘News of War and the World’) – and its content, mostly photographs, highlighted the Allies’ victorious achievements against the German army. The newspaper was published every fortnight and existed until the end of the war. Originally, Akhbar Al-Harb was published in Damascus, when Syria was under French mandate. However, the newspaper was later moved to Cairo by an Egyptian publishing company, Dar Al-Hilal, at a time when Egypt had an agreement with Britain. The newspaper was mainly distributed in the Middle East, including Egypt, Syria, Lebanon and Iraq, and it may have been the only newspaper published for Arabs during the war.
The British made efforts to counter this German propaganda by radio broadcasts of their own and through the production of printed materials such as posters, leaflets and pamphlets. The MOI was keen to demonstrate to the Muslim world that Christianity and Islam had much in common and that they needed to show solidarity to defeat what it termed the “godless evil of Hitlerism”.
The Muslim Attitude to the War was one of the first pamphlets dropped over the Middle East by the RAF. Written by M Najati Sidki (a “Palestinian journalist of note”), it urged Muslims to stand firm with Britain and her allies and was also translated into English.
Writing just before the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union, the author, having quoted extensive sections from the Qur’an to counter Nazi propaganda, summarised the position as follows: “The peoples of the East and Muslims in general are all united in supporting the cause of Democracy, in both word and deed. This they do, not in order to please the Allies, and not out of fear for them as Hitler’s agents allege. They support the Allies because Democracy is a vital cause for them, and because the freedom of peoples is the ideal for which they have long struggled”.
In the pamphlet God Defend the Right (pictured below), which was published in English and Arabic, the Nazi doctrine represents religious intolerance. The front cover shows a mosque with “God Defend the Right” and the back cover contains the essence of the propaganda message. Unlike the previous pamphlet, which was more of a polemic, this call to arms in the name of “God-fearing allies” is the authentic voice of the MOI:
“Islam and Christianity, both, reject the godless world of Hitler’s imagining… Against devout congregations in his own land, as against worshippers in countries his hordes have ravaged, the Nazi bully has sought by intrigue and desecration to overturn the altars of the godly. Muslims and Christians alike are committed to defend themselves against this spirit of evil unhappily let loose in the world today.
More like this
“The overwhelming majority of the world of Islam is today opposed to Hitlerism. Legions of the Faithful fight on every front against the Nazi menace, in comradeship-of-arms with their Christian allies. This is the union of God-fearing peoples which will defeat and destroy Hitlerism! This is the great uprising, of those who know God against those who deny Him! Forward, the armies of righteousness… MAY GOD DEFEND THE RIGHT!”
God Defend the Right. (© The British Library Board)
Meanwhile, several densely illustrated children’s storybooks were published, aimed at different target audiences in the Middle East and in Muslim countries in North Africa. They were designed by W Lindsay Cable, who famously illustrated Enid Blyton’s books in 1940 and 1942 as well as working for the MOI. Hussein & Johnny (pictured below) was translated into Farsi and was intended for an Iranian audience. Hussein is brought to England and enjoys aspects British life, including playing football for his school team and riding on steam locomotives with his friend Johnny, with whose family he is living.
The books were intended to show how enlightened and righteous Britain was and how the country had bravely fought against fascism, which was a threat to both nations. Ahmad & Johnny, meanwhile, is written in Arabic and follows the same format, although here Ahmad is Sudanese and Johnny’s father previously lived in Sudan. It is not stated explicitly (in this story at least), but it seems Johnny’s father brought Ahmad back from Sudan with him. Ahmad mentions an uncle but no father, so perhaps he is an orphan.
There are several attempts to link Sudan and Britain as friends and allies. Ahmad and Johnny go for a walk in the beautiful Kent countryside (after his father has warned them not to go too far because spies and soldiers could be around!) and they bump into a congenial farmer. He says that his son is serving in Sudan and was involved in fighting against the Italians in East Africa.
Britain is described in the book as the “home of freedom and the source of hope of the future”. The farmer and Ahmad, who is always seen wearing a fez, compare milk and yogurt in England and Sudan; the beauty of the countryside is stressed. The two boys and the farmer then meet a British pilot and a squadron of RAF planes fly overhead. Ahmad says he loves to learn about planes and the pilot starts telling him his story.
The story starts as a personal reminiscence by the pilot about learning to fly, his first time flying and so on, and then becomes a simple narrative of the outbreak of war and the Battle of Britain (in which he took part). As the pilot finishes his story, Johnny’s father appears and shakes his hand, thanks him and tells him that he and all the pilots will be remembered as “immortal heroes of truth and justice”. Like Hussein & Johnny, this storybook provides a shorthand history of the heroism of Britain in standing alone against Nazism (Dunkirk and the Battle of Britain are the examples used) and they depict the country as the beacon of freedom and (religious) tolerance.
‘Hussein & Johnny’. (© The British Library Board)
Posters and postcards
Posters did not often target the Arab world, but were more usually aimed at other overseas areas. There are, however, rare Arabic examples, and two have recently been discovered. Both of the posters seek to promote a strong, progressive image of Britain and stress the involvement of school children.
One poster ‘Students of British Schools Practise Today to be the Builders and Soldiers of Tomorrow,’ shows a group of boys in different situations, and mostly in military uniform, being taught a variety of skills necessary to become soldiers of the future. Perhaps the most striking image is of one of the boys actually firing a Bren light machine gun. However, juxtaposed against this overtly militaristic image and the need for military service are photographs of boys learning equally important engineering skills that will be necessary to build Britain’s future.
Another poster (pictured below), emphasises how British school children engage, from a young age, with democracy. Under the auspices of ‘Clubland’, the children are carefully organised in what appears to be a classic debating structure – with a group of speakers from the platform and an audience facing each other (possibly along the lines of the British parliament). The poster behind the platforms informs us that they are discussing ‘London Re-Planned’, demonstrating that even during war, young British people are thinking ahead to the future. Both posters which are in Arabic contain the slogan ‘For the Sake of Freedom’, which appears below a picture of the Union Jack.
‘For the Sake of Freedom’. (© The British Library Board)
Pocket-facts postcards in general proved a popular propaganda vehicle with the MOI. They were cheap to produce, could be dropped by the RAF in large numbers, and the format allowed for a combination of detailed narrative and visual impact. The Director of Middle East Propaganda at the MOI, Professor LF Rushbrook Williams, targeted the Middle East region with carefully selected themes. Below are two examples in Farsi of Nazi exploitation and oppression of conquered peoples.
Postcard showing the experience under Nazi occupation (Greece, Romania, Yugoslavia, Hungary, Italy). (© The British Library Board)
Postcard showing the experience under Nazi occupation – in this case the theft of Hungary’s gold reserves. (© The British Library Board)
More sophisticated were a series of six postcards by the Egyptian-born political cartoonist ‘Kem’ (Kimon Evan Marengo), who was a prolific creator of propaganda cartoons for the British during the Second World War. The postcards are based on an episode from the famous Persian epic the Shahnameh, or ‘Book of Kings’. The Iranian scholar Mojtaba Minovi was working for the BBC Persian service during the war, helping to edit the pro-Allied magazine Rūzgār-i naw (‘The New Age’).
When asked for advice on an effective propaganda campaign for Iran, Minovi suggested using stories and imagery from the Shahnameh, which was written by Firdawsi (c940–1025). The work tells the history of Iran in verse over the course of 55,000 rhyming couplets, from its mythical origins in prehistory to the end of the Sasanian empire (cAD 650), and includes many of the classic stories that have come to be emblematic of Persian culture. Firdawsi is credited with saving the Persian language at a time when Arabic had become the paramount language of religion, culture, and power.
Kem’s six postcards, which were commissioned in 1942, use the myth of the tyrant Zahhak in an attempt to render anti-German propaganda more relevant to Iranian cultural sensibilities. The tyrant Zahhak, who features as Hitler in the postcards, epitomises an oppressive and barbaric ruler who brings to an end the enlightened rule of Jamshid.
One interpretation of Firdawsi’s tale is that Zahhak is symbolic of the Arab invaders who brought an end to the Sasanian empire and supposedly to Persian civilisation. After Zahhak fully displays his capacity for barbarity, Ahriman (that is, Iblis or Satan) causes serpents to grow from his shoulders that require a daily feeding of human brains, with victims chosen from among the youth of Persia (Iran). After years of reigning in terror, Zahhak has a dream of his downfall in which three warriors approach on horseback, one of whom is Feraydun, from whose face farr (the light of kingliness and justice) emanates.
After this dream, a blacksmith named Kaveh arrives at Zahhak’s court requesting the release of his son, one of the youths who is to be fed to the snakes on Zahhak’s shoulders. In front of his court, Zahhak feigns mercy and releases Kaveh’s son, but later asks Kaveh to sign a document attesting to his mercy. Kaveh refuses to falsely affirm the justice of a tyrant and tears up the document (see the third image below). He then raises his blacksmith’s banner on a standard, ferments a popular rebellion and goes in search of Feraydun, the future king who would rid Iran of Zahhak’s injustice and brutality.
Kaveh confronts the tyrant; the arrival of the promised warriors; Zahhak is overthrown and Iran is liberated. (© The British Library Board)
The second image in this row depicts the arrival of the promised warriors, Churchill leading the way with his cigar, followed by Stalin with his pipe and Roosevelt with his cigarette in its signature holder. The trio is led by the symbol of Iranian national liberation, Kaveh, with his banner, suggesting that an Allied victory would be a triumph for the Iranian people and not an occupation. Zahhak-Hitler is strapped across the horse with the serpents Mussolini and Tojo (who have grown from his shoulders), while Joseph Goebbels (with red tongue and horns) is dragged screaming behind by the horse’s tail. At the end of this episode, Feraydun dethrones Zahhak but, rather than killing him, binds him in Mount Damavand to be tortured by the snakes on his shoulders until the end of time. The Allied flags are proudly displayed in the foreground (see the first image in the row above).
The other major weapon in the MOI’s arsenal in its propaganda directed at the Arabic world was the BBC. Its Empire Service had started broadcasting in 1933, but it would take fascist Italy’s invasion of Abyssinia (Ethiopia/Eritrea) in 1935 before the government could be persuaded to start an Arabic service. Following Mussolini’s invasion, Italy opened a short-wave propaganda station in Bari targeting the Middle East in Arabic to undermine British interests, particularly in Palestine. It proved to be a highly successful campaign – a mixture of entertainment and allegations of British atrocities. The Foreign Office felt it had to respond, and the BBC Arabic Service went on-air in January 1938.
The relationship between the Foreign Office the BBC remained tense. Just as the Foreign Office was nervous about BBC Arabic broadcasts before the war, it renewed its criticism once hostilities began, with complaints that the service lacked – as one report put it – “virility and incisiveness”. But the BBC defended itself, suggesting that British diplomats were trying to ‘shoot the messenger’. One senior manager wrote that “harassed diplomats” were looking “more and more to the BBC to turn ‘planned withdrawals’ (ie ‘defeats’) into victories”. He suggested that “it would be a great mistake for the BBC to imitate the unrestrained abuse of Berlin”.
Later, as the news from the war turned positive, the BBC noted ruefully that while those “truthful news bulletins were voted dull… Victory has changed all that. We are no longer accused of dullness”. Together with news, wartime broadcasts also featured Arab music, poetry and readings from the Qur’an as well as literary competitions.
In spite of the concerns of the Foreign Office, from the very outset the BBC attracted a dedicated audience in the Middle East, convinced of its veracity and integrity. In this context the increasing importance of the BBC overseas mirrored a trend that was taking place in Britain, where Fleet Street’s position as the first point of news declined from 1939 to 1945. This was a paradoxical situation; as more people bought copies, newspapers were replaced by radio as the most trusted source of news. By 1944, the BBC’s 9pm radio news programme was estimated to reach up to 50 per cent of the population (at its peak, the BBC recorded its audience at 34 million out of a population of 48 million). The BBC retained the trust of the public, which newspapers had largely lost.
A similar belief in the veracity of the BBC also applied to its overseas broadcasts (to the British empire and to all the other parts of the world). These were an especially important source of news and communication for resistance movements. The BBC provided its own literature describing its role in the world, and the MOI published and distributed pamphlets detailing the extent of BBC coverage and its popularity within the Arabic-speaking world. In the image below, listening to the BBC is shown to be a shared experience. Such MOI publications, which rarely contained political propaganda, were also intended to encourage others in the Arabic-speaking world to listen regularly to BBC broadcasts.
'The BBC and the Arabic World’ - strikingly modern cover design. (© The British Library Board)
Inside the pamphlet are numerous photographs showing that listening to the BBC is a shared experience. Here we see happy families listening to their radios and a group of elders listening intently in a communal context. (© The British Library Board)
During the Second World War, then, the Ministry of Information produced an extraordinarily wide-ranging collection of propaganda material. Not only was it responsible for handling official news, but also to conduct publicity campaigns for government departments. In these desperate times the MOI produced steady streams of propaganda for the home front, for the colonies and for dissemination through occupied and neutral countries.
Patriotic material encouraged Britons to maintain a stiff upper lip, nutritional information kept the strained population healthy, and thousands of postcards, leaflets and booklets were dropped from aircraft over occupied countries, undermining the enemy’s influence.
However, there would be no place for the ministry in the post-war period. Its fate was similar to that of Winston Churchill, the prime minister. It lingered on a little longer, but was unceremoniously disbanded in March 1946, with its residual functions passing to the new Central Office of Information, which continued to produce ‘public information’ for the government until it was disbanded in December 2011.
David Welch is Emeritus Professor of modern history and director of the Centre for the Study of War, Propaganda & Society at the University of Kent. His latest book, Persuading the People: British Propaganda in World War II, is published by the British Library. Two further blogs that discuss the British Library’s Arabic resources included in this article are Dr Nur Sobers Khan and Louis Allday.
Save 42% AND receive a copy of The Earth Transformed by Peter Frankopan when you subscribe BBC History Magazine! PLUS Get FREE access to HistoryExtra worth £34.99.