Q&A: Music as a ‘psych-weapon’

Who discovered that the first four notes of Beethoven’s 5th Symphony could be used as an anti-German propaganda ‘psych-weapon’?

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In July 1941 BBC radio launched ‘V for Victory’, a propaganda campaign that encouraged listeners across Nazi-occupied Europe to show their support for the Allies by scrawling the letter V wherever they could. “Splash the V from one end of Europe to another,” said Colonel Britton, the assured voice of the European service.

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The idea was inspired by Victor de Laveleye, a Belgian working at the BBC, who told his countrymen to use the letter
V as a “rallying emblem” since it is the first letter of the French word for victory (victoire), the Flemish word for freedom (vrijheid) and, of course, the English word victory, making it a multinational symbol of solidarity.

Not long after the July broadcast, Douglas Ritchie, the 36-year-old news editor who went by the on-air pseudonym of Colonel Britton, realised that the three staccato notes and one long note at the start of Beethoven’s 5th Symphony echoed the Morse code for the letter V (dot-dot-dot-dash). Ritchie made it the theme song for his radio programme and listeners began to replicate the sound any way they could as a symbol of resistance.

Locomotive engineers blasted the dit-dit-dit-der on their whistles, for example. Across occupied Europe people daubed the V symbol and tapped out the sound to show their solidarity and demoralise the occupier, who could be in no doubt that he was, in the words of Laveleye, “surrounded, encircled by an immense crowd of citizens eagerly awaiting his first moment of weakness, watching for his first failure”.

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This Q&A was answered by Dan Cossins, freelance journalist.