As Americans adjust to a polarizing president-elect who helped set records for untrustworthiness as a candidate, many wonder how you build the public’s trust. Academics often describe the public as fickle, pliable, and easily manipulated. But politicians, pundits, entertainers, and advertisers insist it’s harder than it looks.
We see the successes and forget the failures. We decide that Donald Trump’s rise shows how easy it is to woo the masses—but what about Jeb Bush and his $100 million war chest? Propaganda isn’t some powerful Star Trek villain’s ray gun that hypnotizes automatically. It only flourishes in welcoming soil, revealing much about the propagandized—not just the propagandist.
Consider the vile Lord Haw-Haw, the last man executed for treason in Great Britain. He exemplified the twisted Nazi mind of the 1930s and 1940s. But his success also illuminates the confused Western mind that fascists so cleverly targeted.
The name Lord Haw-Haw was coined in contempt, to mock Nazi radio propagandists during World War II. Spurred by Germany’s Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels, the Nazis propagandized German citizens and Germany’s enemies using a huge broadcasting facility at Seesen as well as short-wave broadcasts in 12 languages. Trying to undermine the initiative, Jonah Barrington of the Daily Express sneered that the manipulative German radio announcer “speaks English of the haw-haw, dammit-get-out-of-my-way-variety.” In this duel of derision, Nazi radio propagandists were guffawing at the British, saying “So you English believe that you can defeat the superior German forces! Haw, Haw.”
While Barrington and others christened the chorus of Hitlerite boosters broadcast from Germany “Lord Haw-Haw,” eventually one unlikely but effective adversary stood out: William Joyce, born in Brooklyn, raised in Ireland, and educated in England. While he hated Jews and loathed Winston Churchill as “the servant” of “International Jewish finance,” he loved Great Britain enough to oppose Irish independence. He ultimately believed “that without German help” Great Britain could not survive. The resulting sympathy in Joyce’s voice charmed listeners, as he purported to care about them more than their corrupted leaders did.
While studying at the University of London in the early 1920s, Joyce became virulently anti-Semitic. Some say that when a leftist slashed his face from the edge of his lip to under his ear in a 1924 rumble, Joyce blamed a “Jewish communist” for scarring him permanently, intensifying his hatred. As with so many others, anti-Semitism became Joyce’s portal into a world of prejudices and conspiracies.
When the charismatic Oswald Mosley founded the authoritarian umbrella group the British Union of Fascists in 1932, Joyce dropped out of school and joined. Two years later, Joyce, now the fascist party’s minister of propaganda, applied for a British passport. This false claim of British citizenship would prove fatal a decade later.
Eventually, Joyce’s Jew hatred became so obsessive that Mosley dropped him. Undeterred, Joyce started the pro-Hitler National Socialist League. With many British leaders worried about fascism’s spread, intelligence officials targeted Joyce and his comrades. In that gray world of spooks and kooks, Joyce apparently fed information to British intel officers, probably about Irish extremists, whom he opposed as a Unionist. When the MI5, the British secret service, targeted Joyce for detention once the war with Germany began, someone tipped him off that his arrest was imminent. He fled to Nazi Germany on that British passport on Aug. 26, 1939.
In Germany, William Joyce worked for the Reichsrundfunks Foreign Service broadcasting propaganda to the Allies, to weaken morale. With his distinctive American-inflected, affected, sing-songy British accent, delivering the propagandists’ opening line, “Germany calling, Germany calling,” Joyce stood out among all the radio announcers: easily remembered, surprisingly believable, yet also easily lampooned.
Joyce and other Nazi propagandists were successful in that they exploited the West’s anxiety about entering into another bloody, pointless world war. They bored into Europe’s amygdala, the brain’s fear and aggression center, blaming the Jews for Western woes. And Germany Calling took advantage of the vacuum in information and entertainment, offering quality orchestral performances, messages from prisoners of war to their loved ones, and exaggerated claims of British setbacks that occasionally had just enough truth to keep an information-starved public hungry for more.
“Apart from my absolute belief in National Socialism and my conviction of Hitler’s superhuman heroism, I had always been attracted to Germany,” Joyce explained in his 1940 screed Twilight Over England. He believed “that without German help” Great Britain could not survive. Trying to explain his logic—and pretending his escape was noble—he declared: “I left England because I would not fight for Jewry against the Führer and National Socialism, and because I believe most ardently, as I do today, that victory and a perpetuation of the old system would be an incomparably greater evil for [England] than defeat coupled with a possibility of building something new, something really national, something truly socialist.”
Joyce’s rumors “are spread by people who are normally responsible and sensible and cause genuine alarm,” Lt. Col. Aylmer Vallance, a military liaison, informed BBC Director General Frederick Ogilvie in December 1939. Vallance, a newspaper editor during peacetime, concluded that Joyce’s “ingenuous” transmissions, which bypassed the crude jamming technologies of the time, had become “a definite factor affecting public morale.” One intelligence memo said that Joyce’s estimated six to seven million listeners included many soldiers who often said “Of course, he does bring out a lot of good points, you know,” showing Joyce’s dastardly understanding that underselling occasionally helped build his credibility.
Joyce became important enough—and threatening enough—to mock. In one 1939 newsreel, an actor in civilian clothes imitating Lord Haw-Haw—with his silhouette in the background appearing as a storm trooper—reported nonsense. Showing how Joyce was trying to undermine morale by falsely claiming that the British were starving, the satirical newsreel had the propagandist claim that food was so limited “the poorer people are eating razor blades” and the economy was so bad “most businessmen have gone into liquidation”—with pictures of men drinking in a pub.
Joyce also became important enough to be a target when Germany fell. When charged with treason, he claimed he was not a British citizen. His false claim to British citizenship 11 years earlier became the basis for his conviction—and his execution in January 1946.
In the American Political Science Review in 1927, Harold Lasswell wrote: “Propaganda is the management of collective attitudes by the manipulation of significant symbols.… The elevated eyebrow, the clenched fist, the sharp voice, the pungent phrase, have their references established within the web of a particular culture.” Lasswell said all this “paraphernalia” can “express attitudes” but can also “reaffirm or redefine attitudes.”
While Joyce’s hero Adolf Hitler used the “Big Lie” to shift opinions, equally insidious are little lies, the distortions that prey on fear, need, anger, and then grow. Once lured to believe enough little lies, too many of us are then far too open to bigger and uglier ones, too.