Conference 2021: The Writer as Psychological Warrior

We are delighted to announce the full programme for our project conference ‘The Writer as Psychological Warrior: Intellectuals, Propaganda, and Modern Conflict’, which will take place online from 12-16 July 2021. The conference is open to all but attendees must register for each day of events – all links are below.

You can download a PDF copy of the programme here: Durham Propaganda Conference 2021 – full programme.

(all timings are British Summer Time (GMT+1))

Monday 12 July 



Conference welcome: James Smith (Durham University), Principal Investigator of Leverhulme Trust-funded project ‘The Political Warfare Executive, Covert Propaganda, and British Culture’ 


Panel 1: Evolving propaganda campaigns 

Chair: James Smith (Durham University)

  • Carlo Moll (University of Cambridge), ‘“World War of words”: Manufacturing the ‘truth’ of the Great War in interwar Italy’ 
  • Zachary Hope (University of Chicago), ‘What Is Pamphlet Literature? Spurious Circulations, Counterfeit Publics, and Party Propaganda’ 
  • Joanna Rzepa (University of Essex), ‘“A Christian Looks at the Jewish Question”: Religious Intellectuals and Propaganda during World War 2’  
  • Greg Kennedy (King’s College London), ‘Rudyard Kipling’s Role in Anglo-American Strategic Relations During World War One’  


SPECIAL EVENT  Peter Pomerantsev (Johns Hopkins) in conversation with Jo Fox (School of Advanced Study, University of London) 

Tuesday 13 July 



Panel 2: The BBC, conflict, and propaganda 

Chair: Debra Rae Cohen (University of South Carolina) 

  • Emily Bloom (Columbia University), ‘An “Unsuccessful Experiment”: George Orwell’s A Story by Five Authors 
  • Daniel Ryan Morse (University of Nevada, Reno), ‘The BBC’s Book of Verse and the Postwar Literary Canon’ 
  • Damien Keane (State University of New York at Buffalo), ‘Radio Pages, Archival Function, and the Repertoire of Political Warfare’


Panel 3: British cultural propaganda in the post-war era

Chair: Asha Rogers (University of Birmingham)

  • Caroline Z. Krzakowski (Northern Michigan University), ‘“Blameless Monotony”: Lawrence Durrell and the Cyprus Review’ 
  • Maria Hadjiathanasiou (University of Nicosia), ‘The British “soldier-aesthete” in Cyprus at “the end of empire”’ 
  • Scott Anthony (Nanyang Technological University, Singapore), ‘African correspondents reporting from London: COI propaganda, the swinging sixties and West Africa’


SPECIAL EVENT – Dramatising Secrecy and Propaganda: Sir David Hare in Conversation

Chair: Guy Woodward (Durham University)

Wednesday 14 July



Panel 4: The Cultural Cold War 

Chair: Greg Barnhisel (Duquesne University)

  • Victoria Phillips (London School of Economics), ‘Shakespeare’s Cold War: How the US and the USSR Modernized the Bard for Export’ 
  • Annabel Williams (University of Edinburgh), ‘“Dialectical tight-rope acts of self-deception”: Arthur Koestler’s anti-Communist propaganda 
  • Rachel Potter (UEA), ‘PEN is propaganda’: International PEN and free expression after the Second World War’

Thursday 15 July



Panel 5: The Ministry of Information

Chair: Tim Luckhurst (Durham University)

  • Simon Eliot (School of Advanced Study, University of London), ‘Educating the Educators at the Ministry of Information’ 
  • Harriet Atkinson (University of Brighton), ‘“The materialisation of persuasion”: “story-telling” exhibitions at the British Ministry of Information during World War Two’ 
  • Megan Faragher (Wright State University), ‘Opaque Propaganda and the Everyday in Britain in Pictures 
  • Henry Irving (Leeds Beckett University), ‘The View from Senate House: Using Fiction to Write a History of the Ministry of Information’


Panel 6: Wartime transnational encounters 

Chair: Sarah Davies (University of Durham)

  • Katherine Cooper (UEA), ‘“[T]heir challenge to the military masters of their homelands”: English PEN, Refugee Writers and Propaganda’    
  • Marta García Cabrera (University of Las Palmas de Gran Canaria), ‘The role of Spanish intellectuals and journalists during the World Wars: persuasion and Anglophile propaganda’ 
  • Patricia Laurence (City University of New York), ‘Disloyalty, the Writer’s Virtue: Elizabeth Bowen & John Betjeman in Neutral Ireland’

Friday 16 July



Panel 7: Propaganda and literary style

Chair: James Smith (Durham University)

  • James Purdon (University of St Andrews), ‘Mr. Bennett, Mr. Wells, Mr. Galsworthy, and Mrs Woolf: First World War Propaganda and the Case Against Realism’ 
  • Erina Megowan (College of the Holy Cross, MA), ‘“Your voice should sound throughout the country:” Mobilizing the Union of Soviet Writers during World War II’ 
  • Adam Piette (University of Sheffield), ‘Lynette Roberts’ “Gods with Stainless Ears” and the Poetics of Propaganda’   
  • Kirk Graham (University of Queensland), ‘Morale and Morality Beyond the Zero: Pynchon, Propaganda, and Fascism’


SPECIAL EVENT – ‘Postcards from the Besieged City of Leningrad’ a presentation from the Blavatnik Archive Foundation – Julie Reines Chervinsky (Blavatnik Archive Foundation) and Polina Barskova (Hampshire College, MA)

Chair: Beatriz Lopez (Durham University)

Followed by conference closing remarks 

Ellic Howe’s ‘The Documentary Weapon’ and Forgery in Muriel Spark’s The Bachelors (1960)

Beatriz Lopez explores connections between the PWE’s use of forgery in wartime propaganda campaigns and Spark’s later interest in the practice in her novel The Bachelors (1960)

In the summer of 1941, the printer and typographer Ellic Howe was serving as a Sergeant-Major at Anti-Aircraft Command Headquarters. Convinced that his printing skills could be put to good use in the war effort, Howe wrote a paper on the use of forgery in wartime – ‘The Documentary Weapon’ – which found its way on to the desk of Leonard Ingrams, an Under-Secretary at the Ministry of Economic Warfare who led the Letter Writing Unit responsible for disseminating propaganda via post. Impressed by Howe’s paper, Ingrams called him in for a meeting, and promptly appointed Howe as the PWE’s print production manager in November 1941.[1]

Howe’s paper argues that written communication is superior to oral communication since ‘people will generally consider any piece of writing, set up in the style to which they are accustomed, as valid, genuine and delivered in good faith.’[2] In addition, written discourse could address individuals who may be ‘outside the reach of our armoured divisions or agents.’[3] Howe emphasised that the success of printed materials depended on the ability of these to appear plausible to their recipients: ‘the writer is not primarily concerned with the literary or verbal contents of any document, except in so far as they control format, layout and design; nor in the manner of the document’s “planting” or use, except in so much that the document must not betray its bearer.’[4] Such plausibility can only be achieved through expert knowledge of documentary conventions – ‘process, format, type face, paper handwriting, “style”’ – which would prevent the propagandist from making a mistake that might disclose the document’s real provenance.[5]

The documentary intelligence expert must be particularly well versed in ‘the essentials of a “National Style” by the examination of large numbers of documents, ranging from books to visiting cards by way of newspapers, income tax forms, letterheadings, handbills, etc.’, in order to grasp ‘the essence of the enemies stylistic practice.’[6] Howe believed that the reproduction of the enemy’s “National Style” would enable the PWE to mimic German documents and publications with such a degree of verisimilitude that German citizens would recognise and trust these as genuine. The value of PWE printed materials thus relied on the PWE’s ability to simulate what Michel Foucault would go on to describe as the ‘author function’ – ‘a certain discursive set’ with status ‘within a society and a culture’ – of the German government it was trying to defy.[7]

Muriel Spark’s fiction is plagued by forgeries which reflect many of the issues raised by Howe’s paper, suggesting that her PWE experience might have encouraged her fascination with the precarious nature of authenticity and its perpetual haunting by the prospect of textual manipulation. In The Bachelors (1960), for example, an alleged forged letter becomes the main driving force of the plot. Fraudulent spiritualist Patrick Seton is accused of having forged a letter in which widow Freda Flowers offers him £2000 to further his spiritualist work when, in fact, Freda’s cheque was to be invested in bonds on her behalf. Ronald Bridges, an ‘assistant curator at a small museum of handwriting’ who has gained ‘a reputation in the detection of forgeries’, is tasked with evaluating the authenticity of the letter.[8]

In this pursuit Ronald adopts scientific methods which are presumed capable of determining with maximum accuracy the authenticity, or lack thereof, of a document. As Ronald’s friend Matthew boasts,

‘He puts these documents to all sorts of tests – don’t you, Ronald? There’s a test for the ink, and the paper, and all the folds. The most important thing is the formation of the letters – anyone can do the rest, but Ronald’s the best man for detecting the formation of letters. And sometimes the forger has stopped to assess his handiwork and then retraced. That’s fatal because there’s an interruption in the writing which can be detected under the microscope, at least Ronald can detect it – can’t you, Ronald?’[9]

Such interruption in the formation of letters is perceived to be the result of the forger’s self-consciousness about the process of writing, which confirms the fact that ‘a forger is in fact often caught because of the “unnatural” relations between himself or herself and the document.[10] In addition, the self-consciousness that leads to implausible writing is also evident in the folds of the paper. As Ronald explains,

Sometimes a line has been inked over after the fold has been made. The forger very often has second thoughts about the job after the paper has been folded, and to make everything perfect he unfolds the paper again and he touches something up; let’s say the stroke of an “f”. It’s possible to see under the microscope if that sort of thing has been done.[11]

Although Ronald’s forgery detection is based on the examination of variations in handwriting, a question with seemingly little relevance for PWE propagandists producing printed materials, his concern with stylistic plausibility resonates with Howe’s PWE work. For example, Howe disliked the standard method for creating counterfeits, which involved ‘the longwinded and meticulous retouching of enlarged photographic copies’, favouring instead the production of ‘a document from scratch utilising the correct Fraktur typefaces of the original.’[12] While Howe instructs PWE propagandists on the stylistic matters that must be attended to in order to make a document appear plausible, Ronald is responsible for tracing the mistakes that give away the falsity of documentary evidence.

Spark does not mention Howe in her autobiography Curriculum Vitae (1992) and it is unclear whether their paths ever crossed. Yet Spark is likely to have been acquainted with Howe’s work for her boss Sefton Delmer, which may have well encouraged the subsequent problematization of authenticity and authorship in her fiction. In fact, textual manipulation – either in the shape of counterfeits, forgery, or plagiarism – would go on to feature not only in The Bachelors (1960), but also in The Girls of Slender Means (1963), Loitering with Intent (1981), A Far Cry from Kensington (1988) and Aiding and Abetting (2000).


[1] Charles Cruickshank, The Fourth Arm: Psychological Warfare 1938-1945 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1981), 35.

[2] The National Archives (TNA), Allied Propaganda in World War II: The Complete Record of the Political Warfare Executive (FO 898). Accessed via Archives Unbound (Gale). <>. FO 898/61, Policy Meetings and Correspondence. 1941-5.

[3] FO 898/61, Policy Meetings and Correspondence. 1941-5.

[4] FO 898/61, Policy Meetings and Correspondence. 1941-5.

[5] FO 898/61, Policy Meetings and Correspondence. 1941-5.

[6] FO 898/61, Policy Meetings and Correspondence. 1941-5.

[7] Michel Foucault, “What is an Author?” in James D. Faubion (ed.) Essential Works of Foucault, 1954-1984, Volume II: Aesthetics, Method and Epistemology (New York: The New Press, 1998), 205-22, 211.

[8] Muriel Spark, The Bachelors (Edinburgh: Polygon, 2018), 1, 11.

[9] Spark, The Bachelors, 83.

[10] Susan Stewart, Crimes of Writing: Problems in the Containment of Representation (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 1994, 24.

[11] Spark, The Bachelors, 181.

[12] Lee Richards, The Black Art: British Clandestine Psychological Warfare against the Third Reich (Peacehaven, East Sussex:, 2010), 21.

Listen very carefully, I shall say this only once

Guy Woodward finds echoes of PWE campaigns in a classic sitcom

After two years researching the Political Warfare Executive, I am beginning to find echoes of the agency and its work in all sorts of unexpected places. Watching some episodes of the venerable BBC sitcom Allo, Allo! the other day, for instance, I noticed a subplot involving the establishment of a French resistance radio station with covert British assistance, in which several elements recall the PWE’s wartime activities.

The subplot occurs in series eight, broadcast on BBC One from January-March 1992; in episode one, ‘Arousing Suspicions’, resistance agent Michelle Dubois (Kirsten Cooke – ‘Listen very carefully, I shall say this only once’) announces to café proprietor René Artois (Gorden Kaye) and his wife Edith (Carmen Silvera), that Free French leader Charles de Gaulle has ordered the resistance cell in the northern French town of Nouvion to launch a radio station:

We will broadcast the truth about the war, undermining German morale and rousing the brave French people to arms in preparation for the invasion.

These twin aims accord perfectly with the PWE’s propaganda strategy from 1941-45, of undermining the enemy’s will to fight and emboldening resistance movements.

‘But surely’, worries Edith, ‘the Germans will track down the radio station?’ Michelle explains that the cell will have to move the transmission equipment around the countryside to evade discovery. As a further precaution, broadcasts are to be pre-recorded on wax cylinders, to prevent the Germans apprehending members of the resistance during a live transmission; the wax cylinders and ‘Edison recording machine’ will shortly be airdropped by the British.

The typically convoluted plotting of writers Jeremy Lloyd and Paul Adam here establishes the grounds for the comic mishaps to come, but the scenario appears far-fetched. Histories of the resistance certainly acknowledge the importance of radio as a means of communication and of popularizing the cause: De Gaulle’s own broadcasts from London on the BBC’s Radio Londres service were hugely significant in this respect.[1] I can find no instance of the British supporting local stations in France, but the PWE did establish a range of ‘Freedom Stations’ during the war, which were intended to sound as if local resistance groups were broadcasting from inside occupied territories. The agency’s official historian David Garnett recalled that

As an instrument of subversive propaganda secret broadcasting of this kind is a most potent weapon. So long as the audience believes that the station is operating secretly in its midst, its existence is a symbol of resistance.[2]

Wary and weary of Michelle’s schemes, René says that he wants no part in the plan. ‘Too late’, says Michelle, producing a draft schedule from the pocket of her raincoat. Under his resistance codename ‘Nighthawk’, René is to broadcast on Wednesdays following Michelle’s own breakfast-time chat show – she suggests that ‘People cannot listen to propaganda all the time – they need some light relief.’

Michelle’s perceptive observation echoes the PWE’s approach to programming on many of its wartime radio stations, where propaganda messaging was carefully integrated into a schedule overtly geared towards entertainment, providing sports news or playing the latest popular music: PWE’s Sefton Delmer characterised this approach as

Cover, dirt, cover, cover, dirt, cover, dirt […] “dirt” being what we called the items which we hoped would make our listeners think and act on lines displeasing to their Führer.[3]

Delmer records the pains taken to ensure that the musical numbers would appeal to German listeners, flying the latest German dance records in from Stockholm, and even producing recordings from scratch using a captured German band.[4]

Back in Nouvion, when Edith brightly suggests – to René’s consternation – that she might record a song for broadcast on the resistance station to boost morale, Michelle refuses, noting that her voice is too recognisable and would ‘give the game away.’ Again, Michelle’s approach reflects that of the PWE, which took great care to ensure that voices heard on its black stations were not familiar from other contexts.

Michelle Dubois’s plan begins to unravel when the wax cylinders are dropped in error down the chimney of the nearby château, which has been commandeered by the hated Major-General Erich von Klinkerhoffen (Hilary Minster) and his occupying forces. To retrieve the cylinders Michelle, René, Edith and other members of the cell disguise themselves as a flamenco troupe visiting from Franco’s Spain, who have been engaged to perform for the German officers. Dressed in full ruffled and layered traje de flamenca, René eventually manages to smuggle the cylinders out of the château hidden in his fake bosom.

In the following episode, ‘A Woman Never Lies’, the café staff and resistance members assemble to record the first broadcast, a radio play in which undercover spy Officer Crabtree (Arthur Bostrom – ‘Good Moaning’) provides sound effects as dubious as his command of French, using coconuts to mimic horses’ hooves and slowing opening some rusty pliers to simulate the creaking of a door.

Michelle reveals that the recordings will be broadcast from a transmitter hidden in the hearse of Belgian undertaker Monsieur Alfonse (Carry On veteran Kenneth Connor); Alfonse’s whip will serve to disguise an aerial. As the hearse drives away however, members of the cell are gripped by panic when they realise that the wrong cylinder has been placed in the transmitter: instead of the resistance programming, Alfonse is set to broadcast a personal message recorded by de Gaulle for René, threatening to blow the cover of the whole cell.

The resistance radio station plays little part in the remaining episodes of the series, which are largely concerned with the ongoing tussle between various German factions over the ownership of the valuable painting ‘The Fallen Madonna With The Big Boobies’.

Allo, Allo! clearly demonstrates the comic possibilities of propaganda production, however – indeed, it is not hard to imagine a sitcom scripted by David Croft, Jimmy Perry or Jeremy Lloyd which focused on the activities of the PWE. The linguistic and imaginative contortions required in order to establish a successful Freedom Station might well be exploited for comic effect. As if outlining the setting for such a series, the printer and typographer Ellic Howe described the environment at the requisitioned Woburn Abbey in Bedfordshire – centre for the production of black propaganda during the war – as ‘sometimes more akin to surrealism than reality’:

The formula for a ‘mad’ atmosphere was ready made. Plant an ill-assorted collection of journalists etc. in and around the purlieus of a ducal mansion and more or less isolate them from the outside world – during the first fortnight of the war they were confined to the Riding School and stables area – and there is the perfect recipe for a black comedy.[5]


[1] Olivier Wieviorka, The French Resistance, trans. by Jane Marie Todd (Harvard University Press, 2016).

[2] David Garnett, The Secret History of PWE: The Political Warfare Executive 1939-1945 (London: St Ermin’s Press, 2002), pp. 32-3.

[3] Sefton Delmer, Black Boomerang:An Autobiography: Volume Two (London: Secker & Warburg, 1962), p. 91.

[4] Ibid., p. 84.

[5] Ellic Howe, The Black Game: British Subversive Operations Against the Germans During the Second World War (London: Queen Anne/Futura, 1988; orig pub 1982), p. 44.

“Jangling caterwauls”: Muriel Spark and the scrambler telephone

Beatriz Lopez explores Spark’s wartime use of a secure telephone and considers the device’s later disturbing reappearance in her novel The Hothouse by the East River (1973)

Successful wartime propaganda depended on a constant supply of reliable and up-to-date intelligence, information which – to guarantee security – British propagandists often received via a scrambler telephone. The Political Warfare Executive (PWE) most likely used a Secraphone or A-3 Scrambler (above), a green painted telephone which used ‘Frequency Domain Scrambling’ – a technique which inverted the frequency of telephone signals – in order to conceal the speakers’ voices.[1] The PWE’s black propaganda supremo Sefton Delmer trusted the scrambler to allow conversation ‘in complete confidence of secrecy, knowing that anyone trying to listen in would hear nothing but a meaningless jumble.’[2] Listen to the scrambler telephone here:

However, the instrument relied on outdated technology and could not guarantee secure speech. Unaware to the Allies, the Germans had already managed ‘to eavesdrop on A-3 using a site on the Dutch coast, and by 1940 had begun to intercept calls between Roosevelt and Churchill that used this system.’[3] Simultaneously, the mathematician and computer scientist Alan Turing was collaborating with Bell Telephone Laboratories to create Sigsaly, the first digitally-encrypted scrambler; unfortunately Sigsaly was only made available to high command, and most government officials continued using Secraphones or A-3 Scramblers during and after the war.[4]

Muriel Spark worked as a Duty Secretary for the PWE from May to October 1944, a role which required use of the scrambler. In her memoir Curriculum Vitae (1992), she describes how its ‘continual jangling noise made interception difficult’, forcing one ‘to listen “through” the jangle.’[5] Spark operated the scrambler to collect nightly information from returning Allied bombers – ‘the details of the bombing, the number of planes that had gone out and those (not always all) that had returned’ – which she would then pass on to her boss Sefton Delmer. Aided by photographs, maps and local knowledge, Delmer’s team would use this information to build a realistic reconstruction of damage, which could then be used to fabricate plausible stories.

Spark was also in charge of picking up another nightly call from the newsroom of the Foreign Office, which provided ‘general news not yet released for the next day’s newspapers’.[7] While the armed forces call remained businesslike, the Foreign Office call ‘would often lapse into the personal’ and soon led to Spark’s friendship with her interlocutor, Colin Methven. Spark’s PWE work arguably triggered what she described as her ‘addiction to the telephone’, and representations of this medium would subsequently loom large in her novels.[8]

While Spark’s fictional treatment of media technologies reflects the modernist preoccupation with the relationship between individuals and machines, representations of the telephone in her fiction are also historically contingent, pointing to anxieties about secure speech and electronic surveillance emerging from Second World War intelligence, Cold War surveillance and the Watergate scandal (1972-4).[9]

Unlike modernist fiction, which ‘highlighted the malfunction of telephone as medium’, Spark’s ‘scrambler novels’ of the 1970s draw attention to the ways in which ‘the human factor’ hinders direct voice communication.[10] The Hothouse by the East River (1973), for example, presents telephone scrambling as an intelligible activity deployed to satirise the illusory nature of her characters’ hold on reality.

The Hothouse by the East River is the novel which most closely depicts Spark’s work for the PWE. Its central character Elsa works alongside her husband Paul for a secret propaganda organisation during the Second World War; like Spark, Elsa is tasked with transcribing military intelligence, using ‘a special green telephone […] whose connection [was] heavily jammed with jangling caterwauls to protect the conversation against eavesdropping’.[11]

The novel moves between realistic sections describing the couple’s wartime experiences in England and hallucinatory passages describing their ghostly and unreal lives in post-war New York. Elsa, whose shadow points in the wrong direction, is described as a cunning schizophrenic, whose thinking and behaviour must be policed by her husband and her psychiatrist Garven.

In a twist towards the end of the novel, however, we learn that Paul and Elsa both died during an air raid in 1944, and that their children therefore never existed. Paul’s attempts to negate such a reality have led to their present purgatorial nightmare, which Elsa continuously attempts to disrupt – aided and abetted by a telephone. On the phone to his son Pierre, for example,

Paul’s attention is meanwhile eared to the voice at the other end and his free hand stretches forth with a helpless flutter to hush Elsa’s talk, like the hand of that King Canute who forbade the sea to advance in order merely to illustrate the futility of the attempt. “I can’t hear what you say,” says Paul into the mouthpiece. “Your mother’s talking.”[12]

Elsa here conforms to Avital Ronell’s characterization of the schizophrenic as a scrambled telephone line, which allows her to escape from ‘the puerile, reactionary dragnet of psychiatric wisdom’ through ‘structures of disconnection’.[13] By scrambling Paul’s conversation to his imaginary son, Elsa’s voice severs Paul’s fatherhood and forces him to confront the delusory nature of their New York existence. Her seemingly unintelligible speech, rendered as scrambler noise, exposes the artifactual nature of Paul’s myth-making and gives a voice to Elsa’s previously silenced perspective.

The Hothouse by the East River depicts scrambling as a call for reality in a hallucinatory world, which allows the expression of Elsa’s previously suppressed perspective. While the PWE used telephone scrambling as passive noise to support the secure communication of information, Spark adopts it as a fictional method with radical potential for inverting power relations and challenging the status quo in tightly controlled environments.

Beatriz Lopez discusses Spark’s use of the scrambler telephone further at the  Crossed Lines Telepoetics symposium (27 May 2020) – register for online attendance and listen to a podcast of her talk here

Thanks to the Crypto Museum for permission to reproduce the image and sound of the scrambler telephone.


[1] Sheila Mair, ‘Scrambled Phones’, Science Museum Blog, 8th December 2019. (accessed 18/05/2020).

[2] Sefton Delmer, Black Boomerang: An Autobiography: Volume Two (London: Secker & Warburg, 1962), 81.

[3] Robert Aldrich, ‘Whitehall Wiring: The Communications-Electronics Security Group and the Struggle for Secure Speech’, Public Policy and Administration 28.2 (2012): 178–95, 185.

[4] Aldrich, ‘Whitehall Wiring’, 185-6.

[5] Muriel Spark, Curriculum Vitae: A Volume of Autobiography (Manchester: Carcanet, 2009), 152.

[6] Martin Stannard, Muriel Spark: The Biography (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2009), 65.

[7] Spark, Curriculum Vitae, 153.

[8] Spark, Curriculum Vitae, 163.

[9] Amy Woodbury Tease, ‘Call and Answer: Muriel Spark and Media Culture’, Modern Fiction Studies 62.1 (2016): 70-91, 72.

[10] David Trotter, Literature in the First Media Age: Britain between the Wars (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2013), 46.

[11] Spark, The Hothouse by the East River (Edinburgh: Polygon, 2018), 50.

[12] Spark, The Hothouse, 46.

[13] Avital Ronnell, The Telephone Book: Technology, Schizophrenia, Electric Speech (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1989), 110.

Anti-malarial disinformation

James Smith finds disturbing echoes of a British wartime disinformation campaign in recent White House press conferences

In August 1941, British propagandists devised a sequence of disinformation rumours (known as ‘sibs’) for dissemination in Germany, with the aim of spreading “the fear of disease coming from the east, with the threefold intention of upsetting morale, of doing physical harm by the specious remedies suggested, and of making people use essential materials.”

The quotation is taken from sib ‘R/267, Germany, 22 August 1941’, and can be found in the searchable Sibnet database compiled by the historian Lee Richards, using the archives of the Political Warfare Executive (PWE), Special Operations Executive, Joint Intelligence Committee, Foreign Office and Cabinet Office: you can find it here on his invaluable online resource

The word ‘sib’ derives from the Latin ‘sibillare’, meaning to hiss or whisper – Sibs were rumours invented and disseminated by the PWE with the aim of deceiving the enemy, of undermining enemy morale, or of damaging perceptions of the enemy (read more about sibs here).

A remarkable example from this August 1941 sequence is ‘R/268’, which aimed to spread the lie that

The best way to keep off typhus is to take regular doses of quinine.

Quinine, of course, was a safe and effective anti-malarial drug but was ineffective (although sometimes promoted in the nineteenth century) against typhus – an often-fatal disease which saw significant outbreaks during the war. Promoting quinine’s use in this way not only increased the potential spread and fear of typhus, but also encouraged the diversion of quinine supplies away from treating malaria in other theatres of war.

It is difficult to overlook the parallels between the quinine rumour and the current high-profile advocacy by US President Donald Trump for hydroxychloroquine, another anti-malarial drug, touted and being tested as a potential coronavirus cure but which – to this point – has ‘not been shown to be safe and effective for treating or preventing COVID-19’.

The PWE used sibs of this kind to damage the war efforts of an enemy population. But to what extent, we might well ask, have Trump’s press conferences during the Covid-19 crisis unwittingly achieved these disinformation objectives against his own citizens?

VE Day: the PWE and the POWs

Document of the Month: FO 898/330

James Smith and Guy Woodward on the PWE’s re-education of POWs 

“The Italian prisoners are gratified at the part played by the Partisans in the liberation of Northern Italy and derive from it hopes of a rebirth of Italian prestige. Many co-operators, who apparently failed to appreciate that their presence among crowds celebrating the Victory might not be welcome, resented not being allowed to mix with the public on VE-Day”

These lines appear in a May 1945 report by the PWE’s ‘Prisoners of War Directorate’ on the morale of Italian Prisoners of War (POWs) held in camps in Britain.

The PWE papers shows that rather than marking the end of the PWE’s role, VE Day raised new problems for branches of the agency tasked with the ‘re-education’ of POWs – even those who welcomed the Allied victory.

Like its First World War predecessor Crewe House, the PWE’s role in the production of propaganda for enemy and occupied Europe made it a natural choice for overseeing the re-education programme of captured enemy prisoners.[1] During the war the PWE had made extensive use of surveys of POWs to assess the efficacy of various types of propaganda; the agency’s John Baker White suggested that ‘Prisoners were of the utmost importance in psychological warfare, being the mirror to the morale that P.W.E. and P.W.D. were seeking to destroy.’[2]

Several POWs were also employed to voice radio broadcasts to their home countries: Agnes Bernelle, a refugee who performed as ‘Vicki’ on the black station Soldatensender West recalled that German POWs were brought to the studio blindfolded to read news reports.[3]

Documents record that by May 1945 there were 154,513 Italian and 199,543 German and Austrian, POWs held in camps in Britain, and that numbers actually increased over the following year.

The PWE’s Prisoner of War Directorate monitored the ‘screening’ of prisoners into ‘white’, ‘grey’, or ‘black’ ideological categories, and/or into ‘co-operator’ and ‘non-co-operator’ groups. ‘White’ co-operators with needed qualifications were prioritised for repatriation to help in the rebuilding of their home countries, whereas ‘black’ POWs were moved to separate camps and attempted to be converted.

A range of books, newspapers, lectures, English lessons and other materials were organised to aid the re-education process. The PWE was particularly concerned to communicate to German POW’s what had happened in Nazi concentration camps: in June 1945 all German prisoners were obliged to attend a screening of a 20 minute film on the camps; audience monitoring surveys showed ‘that the film has made a profound impression on the prisoners and is accepted, with some negligible exceptions, as a genuine record of Nazi barbarity.’

The PWE recorded that a small number of German NCOs spread ‘the opinion that the film was faked’ however, and one report states that ‘a large minority of the prisoners – mainly of course, in the “Black” camps’ refused to believe the films as they ‘are still under the influence of Nazi propaganda and clinging obstinately to Nazi ideas’ – showing, perhaps, that the cry of ‘fake news!’ to dismiss unpalatable facts is far from new, and indicating that the effects of wartime propaganda would endure long after 8 May 1945.

The photos accompanying this piece were taken by a Ministry of Information photographer documenting daily life in a German POW camp in Britain in 1945 and are part of the collections of the Imperial War Museums.


[1] Sir Campbell Stuart, K.B.E., Secrets of Crewe House: The Story of a Famous Campaign (London, New York, Toronto: Hodder and Stoughton, 1920), p. 143.

[2] John Baker White, The Big Lie (London: Evans Brothers, 1955), p. 105.

[3] Agnes Bernelle, The Fun Palace (Dublin: Lilliput Press, 1996), p. 95.

Postcard propaganda: Hans Fallada’s Alone in Berlin

Document of the month: FO 898/123

Guy Woodward finds echoes of PWE campaigns in Hans Fallada’s novel Alone in Berlin

One of the most ingenious and darkly humorous items I have found in the PWE papers is this postcard designed for distribution in Hungary in 1944. Circulating Allied propaganda was of course prohibited in Axis states, and punishments were severe, but the postcard attempted to circumvent and subvert the laws against this. It addresses itself to police officers, advising them that if they are enforcing the orders of the German-backed Hungarian government they are acting as ‘Enemies of the People’. The card advises anyone who finds it to send it to any ‘policeman or gendarme’ they knew, and features the reminder: ‘Don’t forget that you are acting in accordance with official instructions if you surrender all foreign leaflets to the competent authority.’[1] The card clearly aims to undermine the authority of the police, but was paradoxically perfectly legal to circulate.

I was reminded of this postcard when reading Hans Fallada’s novel Alone in Berlin, originally published as Jeder stirbt für sich allein in Germany in 1947 (Michael Hoffman’s celebrated English translation did not appear until 2009). The novel focuses on Otto and Anna Quangel, a working-class couple in Berlin in 1940, who are shaken from their plodding and acquiescent existence when their son Ottochen is killed fighting in France. After much thought, Otto Quangel decides to express his newfound resistance by producing anonymous postcards critical of the Nazi regime and dropping them in stairwells of buildings around the German capital. His wife Anna is initially unimpressed by the plan:

And what was he proposing? Nothing at all, something so ridiculously small, something so absolutely in his character, something discreet, out of the way, something that wouldn’t interfere with his peace and quiet. Postcards with slogans against the Führer and the Party, against the war, for the information of his fellow men, that was all.[2]

For those interested in the material and affective qualities of wartime propaganda the novel features much of interest. Fallada describes Otto’s production of the initial postcard in considerable detail: he wears gloves to prevent giveaway fingerprints, and writes laboriously in a block capital ‘sign-writing style’ rather than cursive script more likely to betray his hand.[3] Before dropping the card, which features the bleak opening line ‘Mother! The Führer has murdered my son’, Otto and Anna discuss what is likely to happen when it is discovered.

Anticipating that some cards will be handed in straight away to apartment block wardens or to the police, Otto remains upbeat:

‘…whether it’s shown to the Party or not, whether to an official or a policeman, they all will read the card, and it will have some effect on them. Even if the only effect is to remind them that there is still resistance out there that not everyone thinks like the Führer…’[4]

The following chapter describes the nerve-shredding business of dropping the card – using gloved hands again, Otto deposits the card on the inner window sill of an office block. Attention then switches to the discovery of the card by film actor Max Harteisen; out-of-favour with Joseph Goebbels after contradicting the Reich Minister of Propaganda, Harteisen is thrown into total panic when he finds the card near the office of his attorney:

Sweat beaded on his brow, suddenly he understood that it wasn’t just the writer of the postcard, but also himself, who was in danger of his life, and perhaps he even more than the other! His hand itched: he wanted to put the card down, he wanted to take it away with him, he wanted to tear it to pieces, just where he was…[5]

Otto’s postcards promote ideas familiar to historians of the PWE – the first card opens by accusing Hitler of murder but continues to advise readers to obstruct the German war effort through a quiet programme of non-compliance and malingering:


These injunctions are strikingly similar to those emphasised in British propaganda campaigns: official historian David Garnett described the malingering booklet produced in various forms by the PWE’s Black Printing Unit as the agency’s ‘most important publication’, and the PWE would expend considerable energy in attempting to persuade German military personnel and labourers to feign injury or run covert go-slow campaigns in factories and mines.[7]

Otto Quangel’s ambitions are grandiose; at the outset he tells Anna that ‘We will inundate Berlin with postcards, we will slow the machines, we will depose the Führer, end the war’.[8] These dreams are doomed, however: very few of the several hundred cards produced pass into circulation, and we learn towards the novel’s end that almost all were immediately handed in to the authorities.

Much of the narrative follows Gestapo Inspector Escherich’s patient pursuit of the Quangels over several months, as he notes the locations in which the postcards are found on a map on his office wall. The culprits are eventually revealed when a card slips accidentally from Otto’s bag at the factory where he works (originally this produced furniture but now, chillingly, it has been turned over to the manufacture of coffins for the Eastern front). At this point Fallada drops a small but significant hint acknowledging the circulation of Allied propaganda in Germany at this early stage of the war, in the form of a rumour which immediately begins circulating on the shop floor: ‘What was that you were reading a moment ago, boss? Was it really a British propaganda leaflet?’[9]

I can find no further reference connecting Fallada to British propaganda. Geoff Wilkes’s afterword to the Penguin edition of Alone in Berlin states that Fallada’s US publisher, Putnam, arranged transport to England for the author and his wife Anna in late 1938, but that at the last moment he decided he could not leave Germany; the couple spent the war on a smallholding in Carwitz, fifty miles north of Berlin.[10]

However, the novel certainly suggests that in tone and style PWE campaigns reflected (and perhaps sought to mimic and inspire) those conducted within Germany – Alone in Berlin is based on the true story of Elise and Otto Hampel, a Berlin couple who conducted a three-year postcard propaganda campaign following the death of Elise’s brother in combat.[11] And most notably, this suspenseful thriller provides a gripping imagined account of the risks and dangers involved in producing and circulating printed propaganda on the ground in enemy territory, a topic understandably often absent from historical records.

Images by kind permission of The National Archives


[1] FO 898/123.

[2] Hans Fallada, Alone in Berlin, trans. by Michael Hoffman (London: Penguin, 2009; orig. pub. 1947), p. 139

[3] Ibid., p. 141.

[4] Ibid., p. 144.

[5] Ibid., p. 157.

[6] Ibid., pp. 156-57.

[7] David Garnett, The Secret History of PWE: The Political Warfare Executive 1939-1945 (London: St Ermin’s Press, 2002), p. 191. There is an informative page on the malingering campaign on Lee Richards’s invaluable website:

[8] Fallada, p. 144.

[9] Ibid., p. 396.

[10] Geoff Wilkes, ‘Afterword’ to Fallada, p. 575.

[11] Fallada, n.p.

Books in disguise: what to do during the Allied invasion

Document of the month: FO 898/484

Guy Woodward finds an invasion manual disguised as a novel

A few months ago I wrote about a miniature edition of John Steinbeck’s novel The Moon is Down (1942) produced for distribution in occupied France. The copy which I found in the PWE papers at the National Archives does not credit Steinbeck as author and its verso title page is blank, carrying none of the usual information regarding publication date or place. These omissions were surely designed to avoid arousing the suspicions of enemy agents, and thereby to aid clandestine circulation of the book.

This booklet, which appears in file 898/484, ‘Basic Manuals For Natives Of Occupied Countries: Correspondence’, aims more explicitly to deceive. The outside cover suggests a cheap edition of a historical novel entitled Godefroid de Bouillon, by a writer named ‘Von Bissing’ and subtitled ‘Un roman historique de la Belgique du onzième siècle’. The publisher is given as E. Guyot, with an address of S.A. Rue Pacheés, Brussels.

As one of the leaders of the First Crusade in the eleventh century, and briefly ruler of the Kingdom of Jerusalem from 1099-1100, Godfrey of Bouillon’s story is certainly ripe for fictional exploitation, and yet it seems this novel never actually existed. Were an incurious Gestapo officer to glance at the cover of the booklet he might simply assume that it was a novel, but when the booklet is opened, the message which greets the reader on the title page makes the true nature of its contents clear.

The booklet now announces itself as ‘a manual for the use of our Belgian allies, to help and advise them during future operations’. Below the Belgian coat of arms the publisher is identified as the ‘Allied High Command’. The manual is divided into two sections, ‘How you can prepare for the arrival of the United Nations forces’ and then ‘What to do on the day that the United Nations forces arrive’.

With the aid of several illustrations the booklet provides guidance on sealing doors and windows against gas attack…

…on fashioning bandages and tourniquets…

…on how to drag someone who has fallen unconscious from a room…

…on how to orientate oneself using landmarks and, at night, constellations of stars…

…and on how to conduct sabotage, here showing how a road block can be fashioned using boulders and trees.

Designed to be dropped by aeroplane, the manual is small (10.5 x 13 cm) and lightweight. It was prepared in early 1944 as plans for the Allied invasion gathered pace, and was designed to advise Belgian civilians on how to behave during the coming conflict between the Allies and the German occupiers. It tells civilians ‘to be vague and stupid’ when questioned by German forces, but to provide directions and assistance when requested by Allied troops. A joint PWE/SOE publication, by 31 March 1944 two million copies of the manual had been printed and were in storage ready to be dropped, but the file does not confirm whether the manual was distributed as planned.[1]

The manual was published under at least two other disguises – Imprenable, by ‘Jean Doute’, and, startlingly, Un nouveau plan pour la collaboration, by Leon Degrelle – Degrelle was leader of the far-right Rexist party and a prominent Belgian collaborator with the Nazis.  Like most printed propaganda for Belgium the manual was produced in both French and Flemish editions – on the cover of the Flemish editions ‘Jean Doute’ became ‘Jan Scepticus’ and Leon Degrelle became ‘Staf Leclercq’. Apart from Degrelle, none of the other writers seem to have existed and, like ‘Von Bissing’, were likely invented for the purposes of deception.

Images by kind permission of The National Archives


[1] The file suggests that similar manuals were prepared for Denmark, Norway and Sweden.

SOE’s ‘virtual reality’ resistance movement

Document of the month: FO 898/28

Guy Woodward investigates a fictional Balkan resistance movement, and ponders the parallels between propaganda work and writing fiction

There’s an intriguing paragraph in Bickham Sweet-Escott’s SOE memoir Baker Street Irregular (1965) in which he recalls that around 1942 ‘though no resistance movement existed in Rumania, we and P.W.E. […] invented a Rumanian Mihailović called Vlaicu, whose exploits were broadcast on the radio to Rumania, and we had evidence that our invention caused confusion and concern in Bucharest.’[1]

General Mihailović was leader of the royalist Chetnik guerrilla resistance forces in occupied Yugoslavia, whose exploits had been amplified by Allied propaganda across the globe: he appeared on the cover of Time magazine (left) and featured as the hero of swashbuckling Hollywood films (in 1943 Britain switched support from Mihailović to Tito’s Communist Partisans). As Sweet-Escott observes, no comparable movement could be found in Axis-aligned Romania – Dennis Deletant suggests that reluctance in Romania to organise resistance against autocratic leader Marshal Antonescu or his German allies is explained in part by the threat posed by the Soviet Union at this time: Romania and Germany were fighting together on the Eastern Front and had successfully recaptured Romanian territories occupied by the USSR in 1940.[2]

The Balkan state was certainly the focus of several clandestine British operations in the early stages of the war; various plans were hatched to block the Danube in the north west of the country, thereby preventing the export of oil and agricultural products on which, it was correctly predicted, Germany would depend.[3] British propagandists were also keen to destabilise the country, but as Ioannis Stefanidis notes, SO1 and PWE found that ‘British objectives were undercut by a powerful Russophobia’.[4]

Sweet-Escott does not elaborate on the Vlaicu campaign, but Stefanidis’s compelling book Substitute for Power: Wartime British Propaganda to the Balkans, 1939–44 (2012) features a fascinating account of its genesis. In June 1942 SOE’s Alfred de Chastelain and Edward Masterson decided to try to turn black propaganda into ‘a self-fulfilling prophecy’, by establishing a fictitious Romanian resistance movement over the airwaves, creating the impression of membership and activities through a campaign of coordinated broadcasts and stories planted in the press of neutral countries.[5] The pair optimistically hoped that after two months conditions would be established to set up a real organisation on the ground. Quoting from SOE documents, Stefanidis notes that:

SOE London objected that, even if Romanians were convinced of the group’s existence, they would not know ‘what to do or where to go’. The proponents of the scheme countered that if such ‘an efficient and active organisation’ existed, ‘it would not be necessary for us to create imaginary movements and leaders.’[6]

The radio station of the ‘Liberation Struggle’ began broadcasting from Jerusalem on 27 July 1942, and claimed to be the voice of a network of anti-German resistance groups, led by an imaginary figure named ‘Vlaicu’ – Stefanidis suggests that he was named after Vladislav 1 (right), a revered fourteenth-century ruler of Wallachia in present-day Romania (Aurel Vlaicu, the pioneering early-twentieth-century aviator and Romanian national hero, is another possible source for the name).[7] Broadcasts criticised Romanian support for Germany but also gave ‘instructions’ to imaginary resistance cells in the country.

Stories about ‘Vlaicu’ were planted in newspapers in Portugal, Sweden and Switzerland, and by October 1942 references to movement had appeared on the BBC and in the London Times.[8] One hundred thousand leaflets were dropped on Romania addressed to the fictional movement and promising support. Although these interventions apparently prompted the Romanian security services into conducting a search for the non-existent organisation, SOE’s initial optimism was not reflected on the ground, and by August 1943 a report confirmed that Vlaicu remained a ‘virtual reality’.[9]

Deletant adds to the story, identifying the station’s ‘most vigorous contributors’ as George Beza and Petru Vulpescu.[10] Beza had founded a small peasant group in Romania in 1936-7 to break up meetings of the fascist Iron Guard (above); he and Vulpescu had volunteered their services to SOE in Bucharest and were sent to Palestine to man the radio station.[11] Deletant’s account also extends the story to 1944: he suggests that the Vlaicu operation caused ‘embarrassment’ to the Antonescu regime, and led to ‘the arrest of several collaborators by the Romanian authorities in July 1944.’[12]

Documents in the PWE papers show that PWE and SOE coordinated the broadcast of Vlaicu in line with wider propaganda objectives; PWE also appear to have granted SOE the space to transmit broadcasts from Palestine.[13] A report produced for PWE’s Director General R. H. Bruce Lockhart and dated 30 November 1942 described the station as

The report notes that a proportion of the scripts for the station were written in Cairo by an SOE operational officer.[14] At a meeting to discuss SOE-PWE coordination a few days later it was established that the Vlaicu project would continue either ‘until it had achieved its object or until S.O.E. had formed a genuine party of collaborators inside Rumania’ – in which case the station would rally to them and become their mouthpiece.[15]

The extent to which the station was a credible fake can be gauged from a report by the Istanbul Monitoring Unit dated 23 October 1943, which suggests that it sounds ‘as if it comes from Russia’, however ‘The news it gives is not recent, & thus it can be deducted that the station must be somewhere out of Roumania.’[16] As happened on several occasions during the war, one arm of the British state succeeded in fooling another arm.

Maintaining the pretence of broadcasting from inside an occupied territory was extremely difficult, as PWE’s official historian (and later novelist) David Garnett emphasises in his account of the establishment of so-called ‘Freedom Stations’:

Almost inevitably mistakes are made and suspicion begins to be aroused that the broadcasts are not what they appear. As an instrument of subversive propaganda secret broadcasting of this kind is a most potent weapon. So long as the audience believes that the station is operating secretly in its midst, its existence is a symbol of resistance. The Freedom Station is a subject about which thrilling speculations and rumours are perpetually rife; its listeners tend to regard themselves as initiates; to be indulgent and uncritical and they are likely to identify themselves with the views expressed, for Resistance is psychologically infectious.[17]

Sadly the PWE papers contain no further details of how Vlaicu was brought to fruition, or of how the mythical figure, his movement and its activities were imagined and represented over the airwaves. For our project however, which examines the relationship between the PWE, covert propaganda and British culture, the Vlaicu campaign raises important questions regarding the parallels and connections between propaganda work and the practice of writing.

This is not a new topic: Mark Wollaeger suggests that propagandists and modernist writers both strove ‘to make meaning effective through ambiguity’; Gayatri Spivak meanwhile makes the chilling observation that literature makes good propaganda because it ‘buys your assent in an almost clandestine way’.[18] The parallels and connections may explain why so many writers were employed for propaganda work during the war (we might think of Noel Coward, Graham Greene, or Freya Stark); or indeed why others who had worked in the field became writers (Muriel Spark, for example). More specifically however, SOE’s invention here of a movement under the leadership of an invented leader, yet within a heavily defined geographical and political environment, clearly invites comparisons with the practice of writing realist fiction – of devising plot lines and creating characters, within the constraints of needing to ensure the faithful representation of actually existing locations or credible modes of behaviour.

As Tim Brooks has observed, wartime propagandists were by no means free agents – their output had to correlate with British and later Allied war aims and policy, and they were required to liaise with other bodies to ensure that this was adhered to, as shown here by the coordination between PWE and SOE.[19] This requirement to coordinate, and to work within an overall plan, was eloquently outlined by the first executive head of PWE, Rex Leeper, in a report on black propaganda written in July 1942 which – with a few adjustments – could surely be applied to the business of plotting and constructing a novel.[20]

All archival material is Crown Copyright and is held in The National Archives. Quotations which appear here have been transcribed by members of the project team.


[1] Bickham Sweet-Escott, Baker Street Irregular (London: Methuen, 1965), pp. 194-5.

[2] Dennis Deletant, British Clandestine Activities in Romania during the Second World War (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016), p. 76.

[3] See, among other accounts: Hugh Dalton, The Fateful Years: Memoirs 1931-1945 (London: Frederick Mueller Ltd, 1957), p. 375; Merlin Minshall, Guilt-Edged (London: Bachman & Turner, 1975), p. 76; Basil Davidson, Special Operations Europe: Scenes from the Anti-Nazi War (London: Grafton Books, 1987; orig. pub. 1980), p. 79; Andrew Lycett, Ian Fleming (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1995), p. 108;

[4] Ioannis Stefanidis, Substitute for Power: Wartime British Propaganda to the Balkans, 1939-44 (Farnham and Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2012), p. 51.

[5] Stefanidis, p. 154.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Stefanidis, p. 155.

[10] Deletant, p. 98.

[11] Deletant, p. 207.

[12] Deletant, p. 98.

[13] FO 898/28.

[14] Ibid.

[15] FO 898/28.

[16] FO 898/52.

[17] David Garnett, The Secret History of PWE: The Political Warfare Executive 1939-1945 (London: St Ermin’s Press, 2002), pp. 32-3.

[18] Mark Wollaeger, Modernism, Media, and Propaganda: British Narrative From 1900 to 1945 (Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2006), x; cited Wollaeger, p. 112.

[19] Tim Brooks, British Propaganda to France, 1940-1944: Machinery, Method and Message (Edinburgh University Press, 2007), p. 2.

[20] FO 898/63.

Muriel Spark and the Ethics of Deception: a didactic approach to black propaganda

Beatriz Lopez finds traces of wartime moral dilemmas in Spark’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie

Following the closure of the PWE radio station Soldatensender in April 1945, Director of Special Operations Sefton Delmer retreated to his bathroom and performed a purification ritual to mark the end of black propaganda:

I removed my beard. […] After my razor shaved the soap sodden whiskers from my face I gazed into the mirror with all the horror of Dorian Grey [sic], confronting his tell-tale portrait. There, staring at me, was the pallid, flabby-mouthed face of a crook. Was this, I asked myself, what four years of ‘black’ had done to Denis Sefton Delmer?[1]

Despite his jocose and unsentimental tone when recollecting the harmful pranks played on enemy civilians as part of PWE campaigns, Delmer’s perceived resemblance to the depraved literary character Dorian Gray points to the existence of moral qualms about the nature of his wartime work. By contrast Spark’s account of her ‘wonderfully interesting’[2] intelligence role at the PWE does not present any pangs of conscience. While she notes that ‘[t]he methods of Delmer’s M.B unit horrified a few cabinet ministers’ – possibly referring to Stafford Cripps’s criticism of the occasional use of pornography in PWE propaganda to Germany – Spark acknowledges that her boss was the subject of much admiration (including her own).[3]

The question of whether the PWE’s ethically dubious methods were morally justified was the subject of much debate within the organization, as archival documents demonstrate. In a 1943 PWE lecture entitled ‘Political Warfare’, Col. Sedgwick adopts consequentialism – the belief that the rightness or wrongness of an action is to be determined by its intended consequences – in order to morally justify the use of black propaganda:

[A]s far as covert propaganda is concerned I will venture the purely personal opinion that it would be absurd to be squeamish. If by hitting the Germans below the belt we can shorten the war, and perhaps save a million lives I hope we shall be prepared to hit them below the belt every time…[4]

However, not all propagandists were of the same mind. In a 1962 review of Delmer’s Black Boomerang, Richard Crossman described black propaganda as ‘nihilistic in purpose and solely destructive in effect’ and expressed serious misgivings regarding ‘whether this decision to plunge far below the Nazis’ own level of lying, half-lying and news perversion was justified’.[5] This remark stems from Crossman’s belief that black propaganda was of little use when compared with the merits of BBC white propaganda.

Even among those who appreciated its value, there were still disagreements regarding the use of ‘the moral approach’ in PWE broadcasts. Noel Newsome, BBC Director of European Broadcasting, reacted against ‘those of our propagandists who urge us to […] eschew history, philosophy and religion in our broadcasts’ because ‘any propaganda which is not essentially moral must be colourless and empty’.[6] Others, such as PWE propagandist Robert Walsmley, were reluctant to blend the Allied cause with Christian ethics because they felt it ‘would nauseate listeners with our hypocrisy [and] would only produce the impression that we wanted to appear religious’.[7] Delmer eventually created a religious radio station, ‘Christ the King’, in which ‘Father Andreas’ (a pseudonym of genuine Austrian priest Father Elmar Eisenberger) attacked the anti-Christian values and the moral corruption of the Nazi regime.[8] Such involvement of a Catholic priest in black propaganda appears unconventional given the Christian commitment to natural law, which emphasises the duty of unconditional truthfulness.

Muriel Spark arguably found herself in a similar predicament given the discrepancy between her spiritual commitments, particularly in the light of her later conversion to Catholicism, and the consequentialist nature of PWE work. How did she reconcile the Christian view that ‘there are certain things forbidden whatever consequences threaten’ with the wartime need to weight the morality of actions according to their expected results?[9] And how can we reconcile often-proclaimed British values of freedom and democracy with the morally dubious methods of black propaganda?

Crossman’s 1952 address to the Royal United Service Institution (RUSI) offers an attempt to answer this question. Contrary to the traditional distinction between propaganda and education – ‘propaganda tells people what to think whereas education teaches people how to think’[10] – Crossman argues that successful propaganda exhibits a commitment to education:

The job of propaganda is […] to stimulate in people of the country thought for themselves, to make them begin to be, not cogs in a machine or units of a collective organization, but individuals. Individualism is the first act of disloyalty to a totalitarian government, and every individual who begins to feel he has a right to have a view is already committing an act of disloyalty…[11]

Reflecting on his WWII experience, Crossman suggests that totalitarian propaganda and democratic propaganda have divergent aims. While the former attempts to indoctrinate citizens into a set of beliefs, the latter aims to seep through the cracks of such discourse in order to cultivate doubt. Democratic propaganda may therefore fulfil a didactic role insofar as it is capable of eliciting distrust. Spark’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1961), a novel deeply concerned with the nature of education, illustrates Crossman’s claim. Through the figure of school pupil Sandy Stranger, Spark allows the reader to partake in the structural movement from unwavering loyalty to outright suspicion of Miss Brodie. Sandy’s initial belief that Miss Brodie’s behaviour was ‘outside the context of right and wrong’ is questioned both by her unapologetic encouragement of a student to fight for Franco and her insistence in involving Rose, one of her students, as a proxy for herself in an affair with the art master.[12]

Moreover, Miss Brodie’s imposition of her imaginary fancies onto the girls backfires when Sandy takes Rose’s place in the affair, thus leading Sandy to question her previously taken-for-granted role as ‘the God of Calvin [who] sees the beginning and the end.’[13] Spark’s novelistic method thus resembles that of PWE propagandists, since her introduction of disruptive events leads Sandy to suspect, and ultimately betray, her teacher on the grounds that she is teaching fascism. In doing so, Sandy escapes the authoritarian influence of Miss Brodie and prompts her teacher’s dismissal from the school, but whether Sandy’s betrayal stems from moral duty or personal self-interest remains unclear.

Sandy later embraces Catholicism, a religion ‘in whose ranks she had found quite a number of Fascists much less agreeable than Miss Brodie’, and becomes Sister Helena of the Transfiguration.[14] At this stage, Sandy shows an apologetic attitude towards Miss Brodie, who she describes as ‘quite an innocent in her way’, and her own representation as ‘clutching the bars of the grille’ insinuates a certain degree of regret about her less than altruistic betrayal of Miss Brodie.[15] Did Sandy betray Miss Brodie out of moral duty or envy? Spark never goes in for motives, but in exposing a lively and charismatic teacher as a source of evil, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie testifies to Spark’s fascination with the ethics of deception.

Follow Beatriz Lopez at @bealoplop


[1] Sefton Delmer, Black Boomerang: An Autobiography: Volume Two (London: Secker & Warburg, 1962), 217-8.

[2] Muriel Spark, Curriculum Vitae: A Volume of Autobiography (Manchester: Carcanet, 2009; originally published 1992), 147.

[3] Spark, Curriculum Vitae, 148.

[4]FO 898/99.

[5] R. H. S. Crossman, ‘Black Prima Donna’ (Review of D. Sefton Delmer, Black Boomerang), New Statesman, 9 November 1962, 676–7, 677.

[6] FO 898/181.

[7] FO 898/177.

[8] Sefton Delmer, Black Boomerang, 121-3. Lee Richards, The Black Art: British Clandestine Psychological Warfare against the Third Reich (Peacehaven: Psywar, 2010), 210.

[9] G. E. M. Anscombe, ‘Modern Moral Philosophy’, Philosophy 33.124 (1958): 1-19, 10.

[10] Philip M. Taylor, Munitions of the Mind: A History of Propaganda from the Ancient World to the Present Day (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2003), 14.

[11] Richard Crossman, ‘The Creed of a Modern Propagandist’, in A Psychological Warfare Casebook (ed. William Daugherty) (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1958), 35-47, 40.

[12] Spark, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (Edinburgh: Polygon, 2018), 85.

[13] Ibid., 121.

[14] Ibid., 126.

[15] Ibid., 128.