Interview with David Welch

David Welch is Professor of Modern History & Director of the Centre for the Study of War, Propaganda  & Society at the University of Kent. His publications include Germany: Propaganda & Total War 1914-18 (Rutgers University Press, 2000, revised edition, Germany and Propaganda in World War I. Pacifism, Mobilization and Total War (I.B. Tauris, 2014), The Third Reich: Politics, and Propaganda (Routledge, revised second edition, 2002), Hitler: Profile of a Dictator (Routledge, 2001), Propaganda and the German Cinema, 1933-1945 (OUP, 1983 revised edition I.B.Tauris, 2001), Propaganda and Mass Persuasion: A Historical Encyclopedia from 1500 to the Present [with D. Culbert and N. Cull] (ABC Clio, 2003), Justifying War: Propaganda, Politics and the Modern Age [with Jo Fox] (Palgrave, 2012) and he edited contributed two chapters to a festschrift for Philip Taylor, Propaganda. From World War 1 to WikiLeaks (I.B.Tauris, 2013). In 2013, he co-curated the successful British Library exhibition, ‘Propaganda: Power and Persuasion’ and authored the accompanying book of the same name (British Library, 2013). His latest book: World War II Propaganda. Analyzing the Art of Persuasion during Wartime (ABC-Clio, 2015) will be published in the autumn of 2015  ( ) and he has contributed to the forthcoming Oxford Illustrated History of World War II (OUP, 2015).

No doubt that since WWI, the ways of communication have turned in 180 degrees (radio, TV, later internet …) However what can you tell us concerning the message background ? Has it come forward with the same speed as technology has ?

Not sure what you mean by ‘message background’  … but I will try to answer. In times of war and conflict, I would argues that little has changed regarding ‘core’ messages (or themes). Although today we inhabit a complex ‘media-scape’ the tradition media (newspapers, radio, TV) have shown a remarkable resilience to adapt. But this has largely been around production values, marketing etc. The propaganda messages (these) remain largely the same: a call to arms; moblisation behind key national icons (flag, anthem, leader(s) etc); war aims and why going to war is justified; images of the enemy and how their value threaten  the nation etc. What I have termed ‘reinforcement propaganda’ remain fundamentally unaltered.

What has changed, particularly with asymmetric warfare (‘war on terror’), is the new phenomenon of social media and the inclusion in the equation of non-governmental players in a globalized information environment. Arguably for the first time, government can no longer control the flow of information by means of media management. The mobile phone, Facebook, twitter etc have given ordinary citizens a platform and a means of expression to communicate instantaneously (very important development) to a global audience. ‘We are all (potentially) propagandists now!’ The so-called ‘Arab Spring’ was demonstrated the immediate (if not long-term) impact that social media can have. Moreover in the 21st century the once routine oppression, reinforced by official media, can less often go unwitnessed. On the other hand there are real dangers from the sheer plurality of sources and the volume of information in cyberspace. How can we navigate such a vast reservoir of information and verify its authenticity?

As you mention in your last book, and no doubt, the word propaganda has a negative charge in our society even matching the spin doctors with this concept. What is your view of this?

Propaganda is generally viewed as a ‘dirty’ word. Governments especially fear mentioning the word as they perceive the masses associate the term with lies and brainwashing –  a pejorative  concept intended to dupe the people. I work from the perspective that propaganda is an ethically neutral term – it can be good or bad. Too often propaganda is associated with the  control of the flow of information and with duplicity and falsehood. But propaganda has the potential to serve a constructive purpose. It is perfectly possible to argue that democracies have little to fear from propaganda – it is merely a process of persuasion that forms part of the political dynamic. What is dangerous is not propaganda but a monopoly of it. Citizens need to be informed and must arm themselves with a greater understanding of the nature and process of the Information Age. Understanding the message requires a widening access to information in order that informed opinion can be shaped. Perhaps more focus should be on the intention behind the propaganda and not exclusively on the propaganda itself.

The movie was one of the tools that Nazism used during WW, at the light of last happenings (Sony Case and The Interview Movie), it seems that repercussion and influence in the configuration of public opinion coming from the seventh art is more important than we supposed at first. What is your opinion?

I have always believed film to be an important tool of communication. Indeed, regarding Nazism and I wrote a book on the subject (Propaganda and the German Cinema, 1933-1945, I.B. Tauris, 2001) in which I demonstrated how the Nazis took control of the film industry and skillfully employed the medium to conceal its ideology in the framework of popular entertainment. The importance of the cinema still, in my opinion, holds today. Watching TV or using a computer is largely an isolated experience, there is something magical about seeing a film in a cinema and undergoing a group experience. Moreover, individuals are less aware of the propaganda as they are primarily expecting to be entertained and their intellectual and psychological guards may be down. Joseph Goebbel and the Nazis were aware of this as indeed is Hollywood (a form of cultural imperialism). It is not surprising, therefore, that North Korea were so concerned to prevent the showing of the Sony film.

In the Nuremberg Congress in 1936, Hitler said «Propaganda has led us to power; propaganda has allowed us to keep the power; propaganda will give us the opportunity to conquer the world» Is this still valid in XXI century?

I have always thought that the Nazis overestimated the impact of propaganda. Gobbels’s skillful employment of propaganda clearly helped them to gain power and create a passive quiescence for twelve years, but Hitler is using hyperbole because the whole nature of the party congresses were an exercise in propaganda. Partly as a result of the totalitarian dictatorships of the 1930s and 40s, the Cold War invested in the bleak  belief that society was made up of the undifferentiated and malleable masses, rather than individuals. Such apocalyptic visions emphasized feelings of alienation caused (it was claimed) by mass production, the collapse of religious and family ties and a decline in morale values.

According to such views, propaganda assumed the status of a metaphorical ‘magic bullet’ or ‘hypodermic needle’, capable of injecting opinions and behavior and thereby controlling human thought and behavior. Writers nowadays would stress a more complex ‘multi-step’  model whereby propaganda is as much reinforcing  existing opinions and prejudices rather than simply converting opinion. Studies show that propaganda is more effective when the message is in line with existing opinions and beliefs, reinforcing and sharpening them. In my book, Propaganda: Power and Persuasion (British Library, 2103), I quote from Aldous Huxley writing in the 1930s: ‘A propagandist is a man who canalizes an already existing stream; in a land where there is no water, he digs in vain’.

Do you think, that actually – XXI century – governments continue using propaganda techniques to thrust their agenda ? Can you please quote some country in special ?

It will come as no surprise when I say, of course government continue using these propaganda techniques!  You ask me to name a country, it is more difficult to name a country that does not use propaganda. A very interesting example in Europe at the moment is how the Russian government is using its state-sponsored TV channel ‘Russia Today’ to provide a Russian perspective from the point of view of Putin’s government. It is both sophisticated (very slick presentations and productions) and transparent (an increasingly belligerent anti-Americanism). Witness its on-going propaganda onslaught against the Ukrainian government.

There are several decalogues over war propaganda, as the Creel Committee, Lord Porsonby or the Anne Morelli’s

  1. We don’t want war
  2. The opponent began
  3. The opponent can be morally condemned
  4. Our intervention is noble and we are right
  5. The enemy commits atrocities
  6. Their losses in war are higher than ours
  7. This is a fair war (God supports us)
  8. Intellectual people suppport us
  9. The enemy uses forbidden tools
  10. All people that doubt are traitors or are the victims of enemy´s propaganda

To what extent is this still used in modern wars?

I think I have answered this in Question 1. All the techniques and slogans that you mention here can be applied to recent conflicts. Witness the Global War on Terror’ (no longer called that, of course since 2009 when it was referred to as ‘Overseas Contingency Operation’ and President Obama is careful not to use the old phrase with its associations of a crusade against Islam).

Non-governmental groups such as al-Qaeda and those its has inspired represent a new and profoundly dangerous type of organization, a ‘virtual state’, borderless but potentially global in scope. Access to the means of communications through the internet and social media changes the dynamics of the propaganda war. Cyberspace is now a major battlefield and the so-called ‘war’ is one of ideas.

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Entrevista coordinada por Francesca Parodi