The BBC German Service and Chamberlain’s Propaganda Campaign Directed at Nazi Germany, 1938-1940

Stephanie Seul. Media History. Volume 21, Issue 4. 2015.


In December 1938 the BBC’s magazine The Listener stated that the German and other foreign-language news bulletins, introduced during the recent international crisis, aimed to furnish ‘plain, unvarnished news rather than […] sensationalism or propaganda. What matters most’, the article asserted, ‘is to create among listeners abroad confidence in the truth and authenticity of the British bulletins’. The British press echoed this image. The Manchester Guardian declared that the BBC’s German-language broadcasts sought ‘to transmit the plain truth’; The Times argued that they were offering ‘“straight” news covering important statements and speeches and events of the day at home and overseas [and] that purely propagandistic statements should be excluded’. Likewise, the British Government praised the BBC German Service as an objective news service: ‘His Majesty’s Government are in entire agreement with the policy adopted by the British Broadcasting Corporation of rigidly excluding propaganda from their foreign language broadcasts’, Rex Leeper from the Foreign Office News Department replied to an enquiry from a member of the public.

‘Truth’ and ‘objectivity’, on the one hand, and ‘propaganda’, on the other hand, are commonly viewed as antagonist concepts. In the wake of the First World War, and with the rise of the totalitarian dictatorships in Europe, the term ‘propaganda’—which originally meant the spreading of ideas and promotion of opinions—acquired a negative connotation and became a synonym for disseminating lies and manipulating public opinion. Nevertheless, during the 1930 and 1940s, the British Government widely used the term ‘propaganda’ to denote its own information policy at home and abroad, arguing that its own propaganda was ‘good’ because it was based on objective information, whereas totalitarian propaganda was deplorable since it contained lies and defamation. Still, this did not exclude the omission of unwelcome facts and the subtle twisting of truths if it suited the purposes of the British Government.

From 1938 onwards, the BBC became the most important medium for the British Government to address foreign audiences and disseminate propaganda abroad. At Whitehall’s request, the first foreign-language services were established in Arabic, Spanish and Portuguese for South America, German, French and Italian. Beyond providing ‘objective’ news to foreign audiences, their purpose was to counter Fascist propaganda. During the Second World War, the greatly expanded BBC foreign-language services were placed under the guidance of the Ministry of Information and the Political Warfare Executive.

How did the BBC perceive its role as a medium of Whitehall’s transnational propaganda campaign? From its foundation in 1922, the Corporation had advocated the journalistic principles of truth and objectivity in reporting and of independence from governmental control. However, the historical record reveals that these principles were more an aspiration than a reflection of reality, something that had constantly to be negotiated with, and defended against the British Government. Sir John Reith, the BBC’s first Director-General, was convinced that the Corporation must serve the interests of the nation. Hence, although the BBC was nominally independent from the government, over the years a close cooperation—or rather an ‘uneasy compromise’—evolved. The first test case for the BBC’s relationship with the government was the General Strike of 1926, during which the BBC became the mouthpiece of the government and ‘learnt how to censor itself […] in order to forestall government intervention’.

With the rise of the totalitarian dictatorships the government’s pressure on the BBC increased. While the BBC sought to keep up its editorial principles, Whitehall was concerned not to provoke Europe’s dictators. Since the BBC was perceived abroad as the official voice of Britain, any criticism of the dictators on the BBC would have been interpreted as reflecting British policy. The government therefore justified its intervention in the BBC’s broadcasting on foreign affairs with the ‘national interest’. At the same time, it urged the Corporation not to mention such intervention in public. Accordingly, the BBC frequently passed off demands and pressure from Whitehall as its own policy in order to evade official regulations and restrictions from being imposed. However, the relationship between the BBC and the government was not antagonistic. Rather, as Scannell and Cardiff put it, ‘The continuous routine contact that had built up over the years between senior personnel in Broadcasting House, Whitehall and Westminster meant that they all abided by the same rules and codes of conduct’.

Although Whitehall closely supervised the BBC’s broadcasting on foreign affairs—and in particular the output of its foreign-language services—the BBC claimed in public that ‘truth’ and ‘objectivity’ were its guiding principles. Curran and Seaton have argued that these principles became themselves a propaganda weapon that served to distinguish British propaganda from that of the totalitarian dictatorships and to demonstrate the superiority of democracy over totalitarianism. Similarly, Ribeiro maintains that the idea of ‘objectivity’ in the BBC’ Portuguese broadcasts during the Second World War served to boost the credibility and to increase the audience of this news service while at the same time exposing the lies of the German radio broadcasts in Portuguese.

This paper pursues four aims. Focusing on the premiership of Neville Chamberlain (May 1937 to May 1940), it recounts, first, the origins of the BBC German Service and its role within British foreign policy and warfare towards Nazi Germany. Second, it analyses the relationship between the BBC and Whitehall and shows how broadcasting content was tailored to fit the needs of Chamberlain’s policy. Third, it traces the evolution of a propaganda strategy in which the claims to ‘truthfulness’ and ‘objectivity’ served to enhance the credibility of the British broadcasts in the ears of the German listeners and to propagate the image of a government-independent news service acting as an antidote to the lies of Nazi propaganda. Finally, it argues that Chamberlain’s propaganda strategy collapsed during the Allied campaign in Norway in the spring of 1940 precisely because it was no longer commensurate with its self-proclaimed principles of ‘truth’ and ‘objectivity’. As a result, the credibility of the BBC’s broadcasts to Germany suffered.

The Role of the BBC German Service in Chamberlain’s Appeasement Policy and Warfare towards Nazi Germany 1938-1940

British foreign policy towards Nazi Germany is known as ‘appeasement’, a doctrine closely connected with Prime Minister Chamberlain who sought to pacify Hitler by granting him substantial concessions. These culminated in the transfer of the Sudetenland to Germany at the Munich Conference on September 29, 1938. At the height of the Sudeten crisis, when Hitler threatened to invade Czechoslovakia and plunge Europe into war, Chamberlain decided to address personally the German people. On the evening of September 27, 1938, the British Government asked the BBC to translate into German and broadcast on all available transmitters a speech the Prime Minister was about to make over the radio to the British nation and Empire. In his speech Chamberlain appealed to all peoples, including the German, to help him save the peace in Europe. From this day onwards, the BBC, at the request of the British Government, regularly broadcast a German-language programme of news and political commentaries.

To direct propaganda in peacetime at a foreign public over the heads of its government was a very new concept that evolved during the 1930s in response to the danger posed by the totalitarian dictatorships. However, it was a hazardous undertaking, for it threatened to worsen relations with Europe’s dictators. The Nazis’ complaints about the alleged anti-German tone of the British media were notorious and accompanied Chamberlain’s appeasement efforts since the autumn of 1937. As a result, Whitehall imposed a system of informal political control over the British press and the BBC to prevent critical comments on Nazi Germany to appear in the media. As Scannell and Cardiff pointed out, ‘The policy of appeasement […] began with discreet surveillance of, and diplomatic pressure upon the British media’. Only three months before the start of the BBC German Service there had still been stubborn resistance within Whitehall against widening British propaganda activities for fear of alienating Nazi Germany. Given the risks involved in broadcasting into a media-conscious totalitarian dictatorship, what then motivated Chamberlain to start broadcasting to the German people at the height of a diplomatic crisis?

Chamberlain’s principal reason was the realisation that Britain and France were militarily unprepared for war against Germany. Propaganda offered a small chance to avert war by winning over the German public. Chamberlain’s enthusiastic welcome by the people of Munich on September 29, 1938, as well as British intelligence reports, confirmed Chamberlain’s belief that the German public desperately longed for peace. However, the Munich agreement did not dispel Chamberlain’s mistrust regarding Hitler’s intentions. Chamberlain wrote to his sister: ‘We have avoided the greatest catastrophe, but we are very little nearer the time when we can put all thoughts of war out of our minds & settle down to make the world a better place’. The Foreign Office concluded from the events in Munich: ‘The widespread respect in Germany for the P[rime] M[inister]’s actions makes fertile ground for the dissemination of a little discreet propaganda’.

Hence, the British Government decided to continue the politically hazardous German broadcasts. From September 1938 to August 1939, they aimed to inform the German public of British efforts to appease Hitler and to avert war. They sought to strengthen the desire of the Germans for peace and to arouse doubts and criticism in regard to Hitler’s aggressive foreign policy. Moreover, the propaganda campaign was to warn Hitler that he would risk serious opposition from his own people if he provoked a war involving the British Empire and France and thus induce the dictator to seek a peaceful solution to his territorial claims.

Although the outbreak of war destroyed the prospect of a peaceful settlement with Hitler, Chamberlain did not yet dismiss the possibility of a negotiated peace. The war cut off diplomatic relations with Germany, but London continued to direct its policy—now exclusively by means of broadcasting and leaflet propaganda—at the German opposition and the German people. British propaganda now aimed to incite the Germans to revolt against their regime and to encourage them to set up a non-Nazi government with whom Britain could conclude an honourable peace and bring the war to a swift end.

There can thus be no doubt that propaganda played an important role in Chamberlain’s policy. Still, the British efforts to address the German public have received scant attention from both communication scholars and diplomatic historians. The campaign is briefly mentioned in studies on the BBC, on British publicity in the inter-war years, and on British propaganda during the Second World War. Historians studying appeasement have generally ignored Chamberlain’s efforts to communicate directly with the German people. This is surprising as some of the most extensively used sources, that is, the minutes and memoranda of the British Cabinet and the archives of the Foreign Office, contain numerous references to this propaganda campaign and testify to the political significance attached to it by the Chamberlain government. One sign of its importance is the fact that it was discussed at the highest bureaucratic levels including the Cabinet and the Prime Minister himself. Hardly a week passed without some important governmental decision regarding the propaganda campaign against Germany—a pointer to its high priority on the political agenda. In December 1938, for instance, the Cabinet debated suggestions by the Foreign Office to increase propaganda in Germany. And in the spring of 1939, a committee of ministers met several times to discuss measures to counter Nazi propaganda.

‘Straight News’ or ‘Propaganda’? The Negotiation of the Pre-War Propaganda Strategy between the BBC and in the Foreign Office, 1938-1939

Since Chamberlain considered propaganda an important part of his policy, and given the delicate nature of Anglo-German relations, the BBC’s German-language broadcasts were put under close governmental control. However, prior to the outbreak of war, the relationship between the BBC and the Foreign Office—the government department responsible for liaison with the BBC—was of an informal nature. Both spoke of a ‘gentleman’s agreement’ concerning their ‘special contacts’.

Initially, the German Service did not yet exist as a separate unit within the BBC. The news bulletins were written by the staff of the BBC Overseas Service and then translated into German and read by German translators and announcers under the supervision of the BBC Foreign Languages Supervisor. The political commentaries and talks, introduced in January 1939, were produced under the Talks Editor of the Overseas Service, Leonard Miall. For lack of a chief editor responsible for the German-language broadcasts, the Foreign Office, and later the Department of Propaganda in Enemy Countries or Department EH, as the government department responsible for British wartime propaganda was called, had thus to deal with several individuals at the BBC. Neither before, nor during the early months of the Second World War, did Whitehall exercise formal control over the output of the BBC German Service.

Although the pre-war relationship between the BBC and Whitehall was informal, the Foreign Office always retained—and exercised—the right to reject or ask for the modification of a broadcast if it was not in line with the government’s foreign policy aims. Often the diplomats also made suggestions as to specific themes to be taken up in the German broadcasts or insisted on the extension of the German-language programme when relations with Germany deteriorated. The Foreign Office knew quite well that the BBC’s Charter explicitly forbade interventions of the government and the censorship of broadcasting in peacetime. Still, the diplomats doubted the reliability of the BBC and therefore insisted on a tight control of the German transmissions. In November 1938 Foreign Secretary Viscount Halifax argued ‘that the relationship between ourselves and Germany was […] delicate and that the BBC could hardly be expected to possess sufficient knowledge of the facts to enable it always to be the best judge of what should or should not be included in a bulletin’.

The fact that the Foreign Office was so eager to control the German broadcasts may serve as a pointer that the primary intention of the broadcasts was not to provide the Germans for their own sake with ‘straight news’, but to influence them for the purposes of British foreign policy. In their internal discussions, Foreign Office officials declared that they considered the BBC German Service a propaganda instrument of the state, offered by the BBC as ‘a direct service for His Majesty’s Government’, and as a medium for countering Nazi propaganda, even if this meant deviating from the principle of strict objectivity. In January 1939 Sir Alexander Cadogan, the Permanent Under-Secretary and highest official in the Foreign Office remarked: ‘As regards propaganda to Germany, I think the time has now come to go a little beyond “straight news”’. Similarly, Rex Leeper urged in April 1939 that the BBC ‘should indulge in direct counter-propaganda’. By this the diplomats meant that the BBC German Service should develop a strategy for countering the false allegations of Nazi propaganda and for driving home to the Germans the fact that any further act of aggression against Germany’s neighbours would meet with resistance. However, they sought at the same time to conceal from the German listening public that the BBC German Service was closely supervised by the state, for they feared that the broadcasts would lose their effectiveness should it become known that the BBC was controlled by the government.

Hence, the emphasis on the ‘objectivity’ of the German broadcasts in public statements by British ministers and officials, and by the BBC, should not be accepted at face value. Rather, the claim to truthfulness became part of the British propaganda strategy. In January 1939 Sir Orme Sargent, the Deputy Under-Secretary of State in the Foreign Office, in discussing the future propaganda strategy stressed that the BBC’s German broadcasts should avoid evoking the impression of being propagandistic. Rather, they should appear in the disguise of impartial news to enhance their credibility. For this reason, politicians and journalists should deliberately include in their speeches and articles arguments useful to British propaganda, which could then be quoted by the BBC as objective news in their German-language bulletins. In fact, the BBC instructed the German Service to reproduce in its news bulletins as often as possible the opinion of third parties or of the British public: ‘This seems the right principle as it keeps both ourselves and the Government out of the picture and makes the whole atmosphere of the broadcasts more detached’. Likewise, on March 15, 1939, on the day of Hitler’s invasion of Prague, the Cabinet concluded that ‘it was important to find language which would imply that Germany was now being led on to a dangerous path. This was of importance from the point of view of our German broadcasts which were having increasing influence’.

Thus, although it is true that the BBC broadcasts differed fundamentally in tone and content from their Nazi counterparts, they were nonetheless of a propagandistic nature, aiming to transmit certain images for the purposes of Chamberlain’s appeasement policy. During the last months of peace the BBC German Service pointed out the military, economic and moral superiority of Britain and its democratic system over the totalitarian dictatorship of the Third Reich. The broadcasts aimed to persuade the German people that Britain was determined to resist any further act of aggression by Hitler. At the same time they sought to counter the notion that the Western Powers wanted to encircle and attack Germany, a claim successfully brought forward by Nazi propaganda in order to rally the German people behind the regime. Instead, the BBC assured the Germans that Chamberlain was prepared to negotiate Germany’s legitimate economic and territorial claims if Hitler refrained from using force. In order to enhance the credibility of the German broadcasts and to stress the superiority of Britain’s democracy over the Nazi dictatorship, the BBC repeatedly broadcast on the subjects of freedom of opinion and of the press, highlighting the importance of an unrestricted press for democracy. When diplomatic tensions rose in the spring and summer of 1939, the BBC German Service began to dissect the falsehoods of Nazi propaganda. The talks programme regularly presented a review of the current German press, analysing topical themes in Nazi propaganda and contrasting the German claims with reports in the British press or with statements of British political leaders.

Normally, the BBC willingly accepted the rule that in reporting on foreign affairs the ‘national interest’—as defined by the government—had to prevail. However, the archival documents bear testimony to several disputes between the BBC and the Foreign Office over the question of what constituted ‘straight news’ and of how to present the news without offending the Nazis. One such incident was the broadcasting of an appeal by the National Council of Labour to the German people on July 1, 1939, before it had been published in Britain. In this appeal, British workers urged the German people not to accept war as inevitable, but ‘to do whatever you can to make it known to your Government that you want Peace and not War’. Several British newspapers reported that the BBC German Service had broadcast the Labour appeal, and they reprinted it in full length. However, doubts were also raised as to the propagandistic nature of the BBC’s broadcast. The Economist wrote:

[The] dedication of a BBC Saturday night broadcast […] to a pronouncement which was undoubtedly propagandist rather than completely objective is in itself significant; and there is at least a mild presumption that it was not condemned outright in Governmental circles.

As could be expected, the Nazis complained to the British Embassy in Berlin about this ‘moral offensive against Germany [and] intolerable interference in internal German affairs’. The Scotsman reported that the appeal had angered official Nazi quarters who declared that ‘such attempts to influence the people of the country and “seduce” them from the German Government smack of “high treason”’. Contrary to the Economist‘s assumption, however, Foreign Office officials considered the Trade Union appeal ‘a great mistake and we should not approve of similar direct appeals being made’. They held that direct appeals to the Germans, personal attacks on Hitler and attempts to divide the German people from the Nazis were not only ineffective but counterproductive as they were likely to unite the German people behind the regime. Moreover, the Foreign Office was annoyed that the BBC had broadcast the appeal in its German-language programme before it was published in Britain and that it had failed to consult the diplomats in advance. But the Foreign Office was confident that in the future similar incidents would not occur: ‘We all know that the broadcasting of the manifesto was a mistake. But it’s no good talking about it now and we hope to have the means of stopping similar mistakes in the future’.

Chamberlain’s Wartime Propaganda Strategy and Its Collapse in the Spring of 1940

On the outbreak of war, the British Government greatly intensified its propaganda campaign against Germany. In addition to the BBC broadcasts the Royal Air Force dropped millions of leaflets over the Reich. All these measures were not only aimed at informing the German people about the course of the war from the British perspective, but above all at causing a crack in the German fighting morale and at provoking an internal collapse of Hitler’s regime. Britain’s propaganda strategy during the ‘phoney war’ was based on the premise of a weak political regime in Germany and a population hostile to Nazi rule. In September 1939 Chamberlain wrote:

There is such a wide spread desire to avoid war & it is so deeply rooted that it surely must find expression somehow. [… W]hat I hope for is not a military victory—I very much doubt the feasibility of that—but a collapse of the German home front.

British propaganda aimed, first of all, at increasing the doubts of the German people in the regime and its ability to win the war. The BBC German Service stressed the military, economic and moral superiority of Britain and France, and the respective German inferiority, and it predicted a speedy collapse of the German military effort. In February 1940, a directive of Department EH to the BBC defined the aims of British propaganda as follows: First, to instil into the mind of the Germans doubt of victory, fear of defeat and fear of the consequences of prolonging the war (such as economic collapse and social disintegration, food shortage, Nazi excesses, air attacks and heavy losses in the army); second, to raise doubts as to the information available, and fear and resentment at being deceived; and third, to convince the German people that Germany could not win and that therefore a speedy end to the war would serve their interests.

Since after the outbreak of hostilities the BBC was no longer forced to respect the political sensitivities of the Nazi regime, the broadcasts now openly called upon the German people to overthrow Hitler and to set up a non-Nazi government with whom Britain could conclude an honourable peace. A core theme of British propaganda was therefore the distinction between the German people—supposedly despising the regime and longing for peace—and the warmongering Nazis. The BBC consistently used the term ‘Nazi’ to stress the responsibility of Hitler’s regime for the war, speaking for instance of ‘Nazi’ merchant vessels, which had been sunk by the Royal Navy, or of the ‘Nazi’ war of extermination against Poland. The war was termed a ‘war against Hitler’, thus highlighting that Britain was not waging war against the German people, but against the Nazi government.

On the outbreak of war the ‘gentleman’s agreement’ that had hitherto governed the liaison between the BBC and the Foreign Office came to an end. The BBC German Service was put under the guidance of the Department of Propaganda in Enemy Countries, or Department EH, as it was called after its seat at Electra House in London. However, the relationship between the BBC and Department EH was an organisational failure as the latter possessed little powers of control over the BBC. From the beginning of 1940, Department EH issued weekly directives to the BBC German Service and occasional ‘General Directives for Propaganda’ concerning the treatment of specific propaganda themes. But frequently those responsible for the BBC’s German broadcasts (the BBC German Service as a distinct unit within the BBC did not come into existence until 1941) ignored Department EH’s rulings. To give an example, from October 1939 onwards Department EH repeatedly asked the BBC to employ on the German programme a regular political commentator and to build him up as a ‘personality speaker’. The BBC boycotted this request until February 1940, when it finally hired Lindley Fraser, a Scottish professor of economics. He spoke three times per week for 10 minutes after the late evening news bulletin and was to remain with the BBC German Service until the end of the war.

To add to the organisational difficulties, news concerning the military conduct of the war was strictly censored by the Service Departments. Hence, the scope of what the BBC German Service could actually report was meagre. Although the BBC remained committed to ‘telling the truth’, its news reporting was severely hampered by the censorship of war news and by the over-optimistic communiqués concerning German losses and British military achievements issued by the Admiralty and the Air Ministry during the ‘phoney war’. This practice is illustrated by Chamberlain’s letter:

It has been a bad week with a good many losses of ships; the worst being that of the ‘Rawal Pindi’ (sic) sunk by the Deutschland with a loss of nearly 300 lives. We have known it since Thursday [23 November] but the Admiralty would not announce it, hoping that we could report the destruction of the Deutschland at the same time.

Still the claims to ‘truth’ and ‘objectivity’ continued to play a key role in British wartime propaganda. A broadcast of 21 October 1939 stated: ‘German citizens! If you wish to learn the truth you would be well advised to listen to the radio broadcasts from London’. The BBC highlighted the advantages of Britain’s democracy in which the principles of freedom of opinion and of the press were cherished and defended. Only information that was relevant to the military conduct of the war was subjected to voluntary censorship, but there existed no government department for censorship, the BBC argued. Thus, the professed British press freedom served in itself as a strong moral argument; Sir Orme Sargent claimed that ‘the maintenance of the liberty of the press in wartime was valuable as definite evidence that we were really fighting for the liberty of the individual in speech and thought’. British propaganda also argued that the manipulation of German public opinion by Nazi propaganda posed a serious threat to world peace, and it made the re-establishment of freedom of opinion and of the press a pre-condition for peace negotiations.

In their internal discussions, however, the BBC and Department EH gradually admitted that ‘straight news’ was a chimaera. Noel Newsome, the BBC’s European News Editor, argued in February 1940: ‘[A]ll news and views, in addition to stimulating interest, must, however unobtrusively, serve the one and fundamental propagandist aim of helping us to win this war as rapidly as possible’. Likewise, Frederick A. Voigt, the head of the Intelligence Section of Department EH, held: ‘Our propaganda is not meant to entertain, enlighten or amuse the Germans. It exists not for their benefit, but for our own’. Sometime later an internal memorandum of the Political Warfare Executive stated bluntly:

It seems […] very doubtful whether any such thing as absolute news can be provided for any audience […]. Even the impersonal tape message has been produced by an individual reporter’s choice of subject and of words and of emphasis. […] In brief, personal factors and the limits of time or space make any such thing as absolute or ‘straight’ news a chimera. It is obviously in the common interest to see that the presentation and necessary modification of news which cannot be ‘straight’ is designed to further the end of HMG in the field of Political Warfare.

Despite this rather flexible definition of what ‘straight news’ constituted in wartime, in the spring of 1940 British propaganda turned out to be lacking exactly its most important prerequisite—to help the government win the war. Instead, it lost credibility and persuasive power. During the Allied campaign in Norway in April and early May 1940, the BBC German Service continuously claimed British military and economic superiority while Hitler’s army and navy were winning sweeping victories. The BBC could hardly be blamed for deliberately misinforming the German public, for it was dependent on the official communiqués issued by the Service Departments, and on the over-optimistic statements of Chamberlain and his ministers.

At the beginning of the Norwegian campaign, Department EH predicted a speedy Allied victory: ‘For the first time it can be demonstrated by British propaganda that Hitler’s Germany is not invincible—a heavy blow to the Hitler legend’. During the first 10 days of the campaign the BBC German Service reported self-confidently about British mining operations and air attacks on German naval bases and claimed that heavy losses had been inflicted on the invaders. It highlighted the fierce Norwegian resistance and predicted a speedy collapse of the German military offensive, arguing that the German attack on Norway had been Hitler’s gravest strategic error. When the Allied campaign came to a sudden halt after the heavy German bombardment of Namsos on April 20, 1940, the British Government sought to cover up the extent of the Allied losses. Even after the Cabinet had decided to evacuate all British forces from Norway, the BBC continued to stress the Allies’ determination to free Norway, and it reported as if the campaign was proceeding according to plan. It was only on May 2 that Chamberlain publicly admitted in Parliament that the Allied forces were being evacuated. Unlike the British press, however, the BBC was left in ignorance of the Allied evacuation plans until Chamberlain’s speech with the result that it continued to spread optimism. On May 5, Noel Newsome heavily complained about the treatment of the BBC by the Service Departments:

[O]wing to the fact that our treatment of the campaign was based on the assumption that, although difficult, it would be carried on, a false picture of the true situation was inevitably created and, as inevitably, has had a damaging effect on our reputation abroad for reliability. […] I should like to make it plain that any inaccurate reports which may have been broadcast concerning the Norwegian campaign have been due entirely to our treatment by the War Office.

Department EH likewise blamed the Service Departments to have abused the BBC for putting out false bulletins in the hope of misleading the enemy, thus severely damaging the prestige of the BBC: ‘Our propaganda will be valuable only in so far as it is true and if our news is contaminated at its source we shall rapidly get into a position in which our news will no longer be believed’.

Still, after the Norwegian campaign the BBC German Service not only suffered a loss of credibility. The campaign moreover exposed the fallacy of Chamberlain’s propaganda strategy that had grounded on a whole host of illusionary assumptions about the Nazi state and the German people. British propaganda had been based on the premise that the German people, even though living under a dictatorship and having no personal liberty and political rights, would cherish similar political ideals of democratic participation and responsibility as British subjects. The British Government had assumed that the Germans would sooner or later become tired of Hitler’s regime and demand personal and political liberties and peace. Opposite to British assumptions, however, Hitler did not care about German public opinion—and hence the German people did not possess political weight within the Nazi state. The majority of the German people were not opposed to the Nazi regime. Rather, most Germans were apathetic and politically uninterested, and they even agreed to a large extent with Hitler’s foreign policy and military successes. In fact, Hitler’s popularity reached its peak in the years 1938-1940. The spring of 1940 thus did not see the long-awaited internal collapse of the Third Reich. Rather, the Allied defeat in Norway and the beginning of the German offensive in Western Europe brought to light the flaws in the British propaganda strategy and the fallacy of Chamberlain’s hope for a German revolution. After the fall of France in June 1940, the BBC admitted that its strategy, as agreed with Department EH, had failed. Hitler’s victories had rendered the arguments of British propaganda implausible because they contradicted the reality experienced by the German audience. Hence, the BBC’s reputation as a credible source of information had been damaged:

On one major point after another, [the BBC’s] confident assertions have been belied—the impossibility of Hitler maintaining his expedition in Norway, the certainty that he would suffer from his foolhardiness in braving the British command of the seas; the invincibility of the Allied troops in the Netherlands, the incapacitating fatigue of the German troops, the solidarity of the Anglo-French entente; lastly, the impregnability of the Maginot line and the unyielding temper of the French. On all of these major points the German propaganda has vindicated its boasts, and British news has been proved wrong. It is not reasonable to expect that Germans can now have much confidence in the interpretation of events offered by the BBC.

Likewise, the Foreign Office concluded that no form of propaganda would have any effect on the Germans unless they were beginning to suffer military defeats and severe economic hardships: ‘The time for propaganda is not ripe. It will only come later on, when we have got the Germans properly on the run. Till then it is, in my opinion, wasted effort’. This amounted to no less than the admission that one important pillar of Britain’s military strategy, that is, the attempt to demoralise the German public by way of propaganda and to incite them to revolt against their Nazi rulers, had failed.

Still, to give up the propaganda campaign and to cease broadcasting to the German public never was an option for the British Government. After the fall of France, Britain was in a desperate strategic situation. Despite having lost all continental allies during the German Blitzkrieg campaigns, London decided to continue the struggle against Germany alone, although it was more than doubtful whether Britain could win the war without help from outside. In view of Hitler’s victories in western Europe, no one in London now seriously hoped for an immediate internal collapse of the German home front. The new Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, left no doubt that he intended to defeat Germany on the battlefield and not by way of propaganda. Even so, Churchill never contemplated discontinuing the propaganda campaign. In view of her military inferiority, Britain needed to make use of all available means—including propaganda and subversive warfare. Moreover, with the Nazis’ proclamation of a ‘New European Order’ after the defeat of France, Britain faced a serious propaganda challenge that called for British counter-proposals for the post-war reconstruction of Europe.

The BBC German Service and Department EH (which underwent a series of reorganisations during 1940-1941 and merged into the Political Warfare Executive) quickly overcame their initial shortcomings. By ruthlessly reporting Britain’s initial military drawbacks as well as later her victories, the BBC German Service was able to (re)build its reputation as a truthful and credible source of information which prevails until this day. Mansell has argued that its strength ‘lay in the respect it gained among Germans for the accuracy of its news, […] the calmness of its speakers, the matter-of-fact tone in the commentaries, which made such an enormous contrast to the hectic shouting […] of the Nazi broadcasts’. But then, Mansell also admits that the ‘BBC’s unchallenged reputation in Germany’ was ‘painfully and patiently built up throughout the war years’.


From the first day of its existence, the BBC German Service served the political aims of Chamberlain’s government. During 1938-1940 propaganda played a central role in London’s appeasement policy and warfare directed towards Nazi Germany, and the BBC became the most important channel for conveying British propaganda to the German public. Since its foundation, the Corporation had internalised the proposition that broadcasting had to serve the ‘national interest’ and, with few exceptions, did not challenge the view that in relation to foreign affairs it was the government who defined the ‘national interest’. Given the particularly tense period in Anglo-German relations during 1938-1940, it is not surprising that the Foreign Office (and later Department EH) sought to bring the BBC under its control. Although the BBC and the Foreign Office occasionally held conflicting views in regard to the German broadcasts, these occasions were rare, and generally there was a great measure of agreement between the BBC and Whitehall as to the propaganda strategy to be adopted.

Although the Corporation had a reputation for reporting truthfully and objectively and being a public service broadcasting service independent of government control, the historical record shows that ‘truth’ and ‘objectivity’ were rather flexible paradigms that served different purposes. On the one hand, BBC and government officials widely used these concepts in their public statements. They believed that public knowledge of government control of the BBC German Service would jeopardise the credibility of the broadcasts as a source of truthful information and thus reduce the effectiveness of British propaganda. On the other hand, ‘truth’ and ‘objectivity’ became themselves important claims of British propaganda, serving to enhance the credibility of the British broadcasts in the ears of the German listeners.

Yet, during the ‘phoney war’ the BBC’s German broadcasts gradually lost their credibility. Two factors—one outside the reach of the BBC and of Department EH, the other home-made—account for the failure of Chamberlain’s propaganda strategy. First, the BBC depended for its broadcasts on the news releases of the Service Departments. Often, their communiqués spread an over-optimistic picture of the military course of the war or were inaccurate. Hence, they contradicted the experience of the German audience and lost their credibility and impact. Second, Chamberlain’s propaganda strategy grounded on a whole host of unrealistic assumptions about the nature of the Nazi regime and of the attitude of the German people to it that were exposed as untrue in the spring of 1940.

Following a realignment of British propaganda after the abortive Allied campaign in Norway and the fall of France, the BBC German Service did finally regain its reputation for truthfulness and credibility during the course of the war. But for a different, and more effective, propaganda strategy to evolve it needed the arrival of a new Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, to lead Britain’s intransigent war effort against Nazi Germany, and the overcoming of the appeasement mentality that had characterised Chamberlains propaganda during 1938-1940.