Life & Culture

The Fleet Street hack who hobnobbed with Hitler before becoming a spy

The appearance of this book could not be more timely, nor its message more urgent


Inside story: 'Daily Express' journalist Sefton Delmer after the war Credit: Getty

What would have happened if the war reporter Peter Pomerantsev had not finished this brilliant book in the summer of 2023, but instead continued writing into October and the ensuing months?

We might have had the benefit of his thoughts on the deadly propaganda wars — as well as the physical ones — being fought by Israel and its many enemies.

Instead, in this most timely of publications, Pomerantsev does two things. He meticulously examines the tactics of the legendary Daily Express reporter, Sefton Delmer, in his wartime propaganda for the British against Nazi Germany. And he applies his forensic thinking to Putin’s present war against Ukraine, Pomerantsev’s birthplace, and to the propaganda tools used by the Kremlin against Kyiv.

In spare but gripping prose, Pomerantsev looks at the massacre in the city of Bucha, in the early days of Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. “This was no fake atrocity”, he reminds the reader. “Of the civilians who hadn’t fled in time, one in ten were murdered.”

But, however much the Ukrainians appealed, “their Russian friends, or now former friends, refused to listen to the evidence”. Russian propaganda claimed “in one moment that atrocities like Bucha were a fake, and in the next moment celebrated Russian strikes against civilians as ‘necessary’”.

Pomerantsev notes that “Putin’s and Goebbels’s propaganda is different in many ways”, as Russia “relies more on keeping people passive than motivated”. Nevertheless, he says, “the new propaganda has also made naked the underlying mindsets…. that burns away the humanity of others, makes murder ordinary”.

Anyone looking at the Daily Express today might rightly be surprised at the power wielded by Delmer as a foreign correspondent in the 1930s. Born in Berlin to Australian parents, he “rose to become the head of Special Operations for the Political Warfare Executive, running dozens of radio stations in a multitude of languages”.

The bear-like bearded Delmer presided over a team of “dirty tricksters”, including the future James Bond author Ian Fleming, and the novelist Muriel Spark. Delmer’s team of actors, journalists, former cabaret artists and the sort of misfits who might never have fitted in to a peacetime role, based themselves in Aspley Guise, in Bedfordshire, and pumped out Allied propaganda to German civilians and military alike.

Delmer’s parents had moved to Britain when he was still a young boy and he completed his education in the UK. As soon as he graduated from university in 1928, he returned to Berlin and a chance encounter with the Express owner, Lord Beaverbrook, found him working for the paper as its Berlin correspondent.

As Pomerantsev points out, the seeds for Delmer’s future British wartime work were planted in Berlin. Being a smart, enterprising young man on the make, he fell in with the Nazis, cultivating friendships with such people as the stormtrooper leader Ernst Rohm, a close ally of Hitler. He embraced them, Pomerantsev makes clear, because they were plainly a great story — as his dispatches to the Express showed.

Delmer partied hard in inter-war Berlin and, courtesy of Rohm, was able to interview Hitler and even take flights with him as the future Fuhrer travelled around the country. On one occasion, returning home from a Hitler rally, Delmer “found his butler teaching his parrot, Popichka, to say ‘Heil Hitler’”.

Armed with this unprecedented intimate knowledge of the Nazis, plus his louche Berlin drawl, he was a prime candidate to be recruited by British Intelligence.

Delmer also knew Nazi Germany’s arch-propagandist, Josef Goebbels, and we learn a great deal about Goebbels’ methodology for capturing the hearts and minds of the German public. Over the six years of the war, both Britain and Germany were engaged in “lies, damned lies and statistics”, as each side claimed fake victories and stories of military and civilian deaths. It is almost impossible to read some of these claims and counter-claims without thinking of Hamas’s social media blitz, not only filming the murders and tortures it carried out, but positively boasting of them.

For his part Delmer would never say that he and his team had managed to shorten the war. “Our task as I saw it was to corrode and erode with a steady drip of subversive news and ‘evidence’ the iron system of control in which Hitler’s police state had locked the body and soul of the German people… helping to hasten the collapse of Hitler’s military and social apparatus”.

This is a wonderful book whose appearance could not be more timely nor its message more urgent.

‘How To Win An Information War’, by Peter Pomerantsev

Faber, £20

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