Fake news is a feature of the ‘post-truth’ world, which we are supposed to have entered some time last year between the EU referendum and the election of Donald Trump as President of the United States. The phenomenon has become so huge that last week Channel 4 devoted a whole week of programming to the subject.
Given the centrality of social media to the current whirlwind of half-truths and misinformation, one could be forgiven for thinking that fake news was a symptom of the internet age. But fake news long predates the internet, and was in fact used as a weapon of war.
During the Second World War, both the Allied and the Axis powers used the radio, the mass media of the day, for propaganda purposes on the Home Front and overseas, but the Nazis devised an altogether more terrifying and sophisticated method of radio propaganda. Using clandestine techniques acquired during the Spanish Civil War and employed during the invasion of France, the Nazis engaged in intense psychological warfare on the British people over the radio. 1
William Joyce, better known as ‘Lord Haw-Haw’, so dubbed for the gentlemanly sneer of his accent, was the most infamous of Nazi propaganda broadcasters. 2 Joyce, formerly of Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists, had left Britain for Germany on 26 August 1939 and quickly got a job in the Propaganda Ministry as broadcaster on the Nazi’s foreign language services.
With an estimated listenership of 6 million, Joyce’s broadcasts were a triumphalist form of fake news, full of doom and exaggeration, designed to create fear and confusion. 3 Some terrified listeners became convinced Lord Haw-Haw was omniscient, claiming he could correctly predict future bombing targets and even possessed exact knowledge of how many minutes fast or slow their town clock was. 4
While only rumours, these stories testify to the self-perpetuating power of fake news. 5 Recordings of Joyce’s broadcasts can be found on YouTube and, with a little effort, one can imagine how terrifying the grainy fascist boasting must have sounded in the context of the fall of France in June 1940 and a much-feared future Nazi invasion of Great Britain.
The Nazis also ran a number of stations from the Concordia Offices in Berlin as part of the English language section of the Reichsrundfunk Gesellschaft (RRG). There was the ‘patriotic’ station, the New British Broadcasting Service (NBBS), first appearing on 25 February 1940, and the ‘socialist’ station, Workers’ Challenge, appearing in July 1940. For Scottish listeners there was Radio Caledonia, appearing in July 1940, and for Christian pacifists there was the Christian Peace Movement (CPM), first monitored by the BBC in August 1940.
The stations were run by Joyce, who recruited the broadcasters from prisoner-of-war camps and even wrote and edited the scripts. 6 The character of the stations was meticulously targeted at what the Nazis considered dissident groups. All were predicated on a lie, purporting to be run by ordinary Britons broadcasting from inside Britain and often claiming to represent a larger anti-war activist network. The propaganda on each station was defeatist and the themes were broadly similar, with William Joyce’s extreme anti-Semitism peppered throughout all scripts.
Fake news and propaganda went hand-in-hand. In July 1940, the NBBS broadcast ‘information’ on First Aid and Air Raid Precautions which was really a thinly veiled collection of horror stories about gruesome injuries that would be sustained in the event of an air raid. 7
The official response to these stations aimed to deny them publicity. Without mentioning the stations by name, the BBC organised a campaign against misinformation, declaring in one broadcast on 1 July 1940 that ‘The spreading of false instructions – as well as of false news is of course, a favourite device of the enemy.’ 8 British morale survived this bombardment and many of these stations ceased broadcasting by April 1945 or earlier. Fake news proved fatal for Joyce however, who was executed by hanging by the British government for high treason in January 1946.
Liam Liburd is a currently researching his PhD at the University of Sheffield, entitled ‘Race, Gender and Empire on the British radical right, 1920-1960’. He has conducted research on the centrality of the ‘new fascist man’ in the politics of the British Union of Fascists and also masculinity and anti-fascism in Britain during the interwar period. You can find him on twitter at @Liburd93.
Image: Man listening to the radio, The work of the Ministry of Information during the Second World War – Photographs For Publication, 1942 [via Wikicommons].
- Colin Holmes, Searching for Lord Haw-Haw: The political lives of William Joyce (Oxon; New York, 2016), pp. 186-187; Martin Doherty, ‘Black Propaganda by Radio: the German Concordia broadcasts to Britain 1940–1941’, Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television, 14, 2, (1994), p. 167. ↩
- Mary Kenney, Germany Calling: A Personal Biography of William Joyce, ‘Lord Haw-Haw’ (Dublin, 2003), p. 144. ↩
- Richard Havers, Here is the News: The BBC and the Second World War (Gloucestershire, 2007), p. 41. ↩
- Kenney, Germany Calling, p. 159. ↩
- Ibid., p. 159. ↩
- Holmes, Lord Haw-Haw, pp. 187-188. ↩
- Doherty, ‘Black Propaganda’, p. 177. ↩
- Transcript of BBC broadcast (1 July 1940) quoted in Doherty, ‘Black Propaganda’, p. 181. ↩