A Conversation with Historian Ian Garden on WW2 Propaganda and 2016 Politics

Ian Garden is a military historian and an authority on Nazi propaganda. His latest book, Battling With The Truth, examines the way both the British and Nazi governments manipulated coverage of key events in the Second World War. You can read my review here.

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When reading Battling With The Truth, I couldn’t help but compare the way the public were, at best, shielded and, at worst, deceived during the Second World War with the way the public have been misled during recent political events – namely, Brexit.

Personally, I’d say the scaremongering we saw in the build up to the EU referendum was disappointingly similar to that which we saw in the Second World War and in the years leading up to it (from the Nazis), but we also have what seems to me to be a new component – perhaps driven by the rise of social media – whereby we are surrounded by stories and opinions from like-minded individuals, which means we are actually shielded (or deliberately shield ourselves) from the reality of a situation. For example, I was genuinely shocked when we voted to leave the EU, because my Facebook News Feed and most of London, where I live, was so pro-Remain.

Eager to discuss, I reached out to Ian Garden to get his thoughts on how propaganda was used in the case of Brexit – and how much we really have advanced in that respect from the Second World War.

Ian responded:

“The trouble for me in doing all my research is that it has made me very cynical about news manipulation – in general – either by journalists or politicians and I feel that even if a journalist tries to be unbiased it is very hard for them to be so – even if they try to balance arguments – a ‘but’, ‘however’ can show where their loyalties actually lie.

“I need to go back to the Scottish referendum for a real feel for the way the public was misled – in both directions – virtually all the media were against Scottish independence and only the Nationalists and Greens were in favour – but we still got a surprisingly close result given all the press negativity and I have to say – downright scare stories. The Daily Telegraph in particular was very bad at manipulating the truth – giving the impression for example that Juncker* had said Scotland could not become a member of the EU. In fact, David Cameron had said that Juncker had said this which was not the case and when Juncker’s own department denied this had ever been said – the Telegraph only reported this denial 2 days later in a sub-article and in the last paragraph of that article s- using the rest of the article to promote the same falsehood it had printed 2 days before. This was not journalism to be proud of.

“The same thing happened with both sides when it came to the EU referendum because this time the press was more divided – both sides only reported what suited them – only giving some of the facts. Yes the Leave campaign did say that we send £350m a week to the EU. Actually this is true – but they gave the impression that this meant that £350m a week extra would be available if we left the EU. They didn’t actually tell a lie – but like the Germans and Allies during WW2 – they only told part of the truth. But, on the other hand, the Remain campaign was wrong to claim there would be Armageddon if we left the EU. Nobody knows what the future holds and nobody had right to claim that past performance was any guide to the future. As my German friends will admit, the EU is in a bad way – with so many poor performing countries stuck in the Euro. They also admit that ultimate aim of EU is to centralise control and take away more and more powers from individual states. I don’t think this is what the British people ever wanted and it was probably only a matter of time before Britain would have fallen out with the EU in any event. Many European papers were very hostile to Britain before the referendum vote and I think that if much of this had been reported in the UK press then there would have been a bigger Brexit backlash.

“Having said that, I hate the fact that political commentators try to generalise as to why people voted the way they did. The reasons are as diverse as the peoples and geography of the UK. Many Scots voted to stay because they knew that Scotland could never become independent if outwith the EU – which is why polls now show that 30% of those who voted for Scottish independence last time would not do so if Scotland were outside the EU. Many of my friends were divided and, ironically, many of those who voted to leave, had like me studied foreign languages and worked or lived in France or Germany at some point in their lives. So, people often voted in complete contradiction to what might have been expected.

“Another factor is that many communities did feel threatened by large groups of incomers speaking a foreign language and keeping to their own customs. This does cause resentment and was the same with the large Jewish communities in many parts of Europe in the ’30s – where they could account for 25% of a city’s population. It was easy for Hitler to exploit such resentment and fear for his own purposes – and this was totally wrong – but there is a genuine problem with immigration today and I’m not sure how it can be solved – as long as different ethnic and cultural groups strive to maintain their separate identity. Political correctness has stifled genuine debate and perhaps the Brexit vote simply highlighted the great frustration felt in many communities for a whole host of different reasons.”

How about you guys – what do you think? If you have a stance on the subject, or want to raise another point or question, please do leave a comment below. I always love to hear from you.

*Jean-Claude Juncker has been President of the European Commission, the executive branch of the European Union, since 2014.

 

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