Fake News is Nothing New: 5 ‘Black Propaganda’ Operations From the 1930s and 1940s

Sefton Delmer making a propaganda broadcast to Germany in the autumn of 1941. History Today

The use of the word propaganda first surfaced when Europe was engaged in one of its bloodiest conflicts. In 1622 during the Thirty Years War, the Catholic Church created an official group called, Congregatio de Propaganda Fide, or Congregation for Propagating Faith. Its purpose was to form missions that would venture into foreign regions and spread the Catholic religion.  

The “Big Lie” propaganda technique surfaced after Adolf Hitler wrote about it in his autobiographical book Mein Kampf (my struggle).  A succinct definition of Big Lie reads like present-day political strategy: make the lie big, make it simple, keep saying it, and eventually the people will believe it.

During the 1930s and 1940s the Big Lie paradigm began to fuse with, and become fueled by, new technologies. Radio, in particular, was a choice weapon of war. It was easily used to spread black propaganda over vast distances. ‘Black propaganda’ is utterly and completely baseless information that emerges from a “trusted” source, but is actually being produced to mislead.

Der Chef

The genesis of British black propaganda radio was the BBC German service announcer, Sefton Delmer. The fake news claims invented were aired through satiric broadcasts by radio host Peter Seckelmann, who was known on air as Der Chef. Seckelmann’s Der Chef character was a former Prussian soldier and a radical loyalist to the Nazi cause — so much so, that he would sometimes make claims that Hitler was too easy going.

In his first ever black propaganda show, Der Chef took on a recent event involving a prominent German politician. Rudolf Hess was on a mission in Scotland where he was given the task of trying to make a peace deal with the British when he was taken prisoner. Der Chef demeaned Hess’ mission by portraying it as an act of cowardice.

A majority of Der Chef’s victims were low-ranking Nazi officials whose character he berated with a number of insults that were topped off by comparing their pathetic, frail devotion to the Nazi cause to the extraordinarily devoted soldiers risking their lives in freezing temperatures waging war in Russians.

The station had a successful run from 1941 until 1943. The operation was a success and soon another black propaganda station took its place. The British were not hellbent on pursuing only the Germans. The airwaves gave them wings that enabled their fiction far and wide. They began offering black propaganda in other languages, including Italian. Most the programs were made and distributed from British soil. 

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