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The Second World War has been the subject of many books, documentaries and films, creating a large popular memory of wartime campaigns such as ‘Make do and mend’ and ‘Dig for victory’. Dr Christopher Bannister, a historian at the Institute of English Studies at the School of Advanced Study, has discovered a relatively unexplored archive on the activities of the ‘Mad Men’ in South America. It includes a previously untold story about mannequins and unusual recruitment strategies.
You are currently researching the Latin America activities of the Ministry of Information (MOl) during the Second World War. MOI was established by the British government and responsible for issuing ‘national propaganda’ at home and abroad, as well as controlling news and information deemed to be of military value. Can you describe what the Ministry’s activities in Latin America included?During the Second World War, the MOI became quite an important cultural institution across Latin America. It was responsible for the creation and publication of a number of daily, weekly and monthly newspapers and magazines, as well as hundreds of pamphlets, posters and fliers. These varied from broad and brash in their support for the British war effort – posters of Churchill for example – to more subtle attempts to sway support in British favour. One pamphlet outlined British efforts in the development of penicillin, highlighting the medical contributions that Great Britain had given to the world.
Events were also planned to showcase Great Britain’s position as a global force for good. Screenings of MOI films (replete with a Spanish or Portuguese soundtrack) were a regular feature as well as one-off events, for example lectures from speakers brought over from Great Britain or, late in the war, liberated Europe.
The central aim of all propaganda was to show Britain in a favourable light, to emphasise its myriad positive contributions to the world, with the insinuation that an Axis victory would result in the curtailment of these contributions.
Were they subtle attempts to present the UK in a favourable light as a friendly country? Or did they go further than that and target countries that might be favourable towards Germany and its allies and drive a wedge between them?
As stated, the Ministry attempted to run a positive campaign in Latin America. Oliver Bonham-Carter, head of the Ministry’s Latin American Section from 1942, stated: ‘There is really very little for me to say… except that there is no doubt in our minds whatsoever that the positive as opposed to the negative propaganda is very much more.’ The desired effect was to highlight that a strong (and implicitly, victorious) Great Britain was something that would be beneficial for the people of Latin America.
In regards to criticising the Axis, the Ministry of Information was not afraid to denigrate Britain’s enemies, provided this approach did not adversely affect the ‘positive’ message. Regardless, expressly ‘black’ propaganda was the preserve of the Political Warfare Executive, which allowed the MOI to keep its hands relatively clean.
Perhaps the most obvious example of negative propaganda was the Ministry’s attempts to convey to an overwhelmingly Catholic continent, the Nazi disregard for Catholics and the Catholic Church. One such example was ‘Cien millones de mártires católicos’ (One Hundred Million Catholic Martyrs), a pamphlet distributed from Santiago de Chile that outlined the suffering of the Catholic peoples, both within Germany and under Nazi occupation (see image below right).
Moreover, evidence of Nazi oppression was contrasted with efforts to show Great Britain to be a tolerant, liberal society. Newspaper articles, pamphlets and even Ministry of Information films were created to highlight that Catholics in Great Britain were valued citizens and important contributors to the war effort.
Were they purely propaganda activities or did they link to on-the-ground activities that might include direct action and subversion?
While the more direct action and subversion was the preserve of the Political Warfare Executive, the Ministry of Information was not above acts of skullduggery. One example came in Buenos Aires in May 1942 when a series of German political films were seized by Argentine customs.
The local authorities planned on allowing the local German propaganda agent to receive the films on payment of a heavy fine. However, the local Ministry of Information press attaché used his connections with the Argentine Minister of the Interior and was allowed to see the films before they were returned to the German agent. Moreover, a ‘greased palm’ bought the MOI a veto, and the films were not returned on spurious grounds, seriously disrupting German propaganda efforts.
One of these activities was rather unconventional: a special fashion show. Can you tell us more about this? In what way did fashion help spread propaganda and what was the desired impact?
The fashion show was held in Buenos Aires in 1942 with the aim of highlighting that wartime had not cowed Great Britain’s creative flair. It proved very popular, with more than a thousand extra attendees than had been ticketed for. The organisers were forced to open the doors an hour early to avoid, in the words of one correspondent ‘a riot in the street’.
On the surface of things, it seems frivolous, even silly – a fashion show to support the war effort. But within the framework of British propaganda, it made perfect sense. It highlighted to wealthy women in Buenos Aires that Britain stood for something they were interested in. That Britain was a nation with mutual interests that would, in victory, continue to be a patron of those interests. It created a sense of accord towards Britain, or respect for her international role.
Were these activities ever ‘rumbled’ by the local citizens or were they so sophisticated that they remained unaware of their purpose?
The overriding desire was to ensure that the message of material was heard. If this was done better by subterfuge, then the British name was kept off. However, if the propaganda was so clear in its support for Great Britain that it could only come from the MOI, it would have been more damaging to have kept the name off and run the risk of being ‘rumbled’.
The amount of ‘claimed authorship’ also varied from country to country. In Mexico, for example, the MOI kept its name off a good deal of material, as Britain’s reputation as an imperial power was looked on less kindly than in other places. In Argentina, however, Britain was much more respected and such methods were not as necessary unless the material expressly demanded the voice of an ‘impartial party’.
What key challenges did the MOI face in Latin America?
Perhaps the major challenges were from a logistical point of view. Latin America was and remains a huge and varied continent and the MoI was forced to create a singular propaganda plan for it. Moreover, Senate House, where the Ministry of Information was based, is a long way from Latin America and regular communication was difficult. It took several weeks for regular postbags to reach their intended recipient and while telegrams were quicker, it was difficult to convey detailed instructions. There are examples in the archival material of misinterpretations of letters, of sentences read wrong taking months of back-and-forth to clear up.
This geographical distance and variety of audiences meant that the London headquarters were forced to plan propaganda in broad brushstrokes, sending out instructions to each country and relying on operatives to interpret and implement them. The upshot of this was that the MOI officials in Latin America were semi-autonomous, with varying results, occasionally causing consternation back in London, where certain press attachés were cursed for their inability or unwillingness to follow orders as expected.
The MOI famously used communication in very innovative ways, tailoring messaging and language for each communication channel. Do you see parallels to today’s use of social media to reach a mass audience?
While we can learn a good deal from the past, I think an organisation like the Ministry of Information was very much of its time. The differences in the means of communication are so great that drawing parallels, from my perspective at least, doesn’t provide much in the way of satisfying conclusions.
The MOI did not have the luxury of being able to reach its intended targets wherever they were in the world, at any time of day, as social media allows people to now. Its methods had to be innovative. Furthermore, we can’t forget the context in which the MOI operated – a global war that had catastrophic stakes.
It was a governmental organisation charged with helping win a war, both at home and overseas, it had a remit to employ the methods it did, controlling paper supply, film stock etc. It was an historical phenomenon and while it has cast a long shadow in how we think about communication, I prefer to understand it within the context in which it existed.
Tell me about your research process…
I’m very fortunate to have such a fantastic base of primary material. The INF and FO files at the National Archives offer an insight into the inner working of the Ministry, while its vast output provides a clear understanding of what those consuming the material saw, read and heard. Moreover, this wealth of material had allowed me to follow ideas from their inception to fully fledged MOI campaigns. Consequently, my research process has been relatively simple. I methodically work my way through the files, looking at what the MOI hoped to achieve, the efforts made to achieve this and how these efforts ultimately manifested themselves.
Will there be a book or a documentary at the end of it?
The Ministry of Information Project is planning on releasing a book covering the work of the MOI both at home and overseas. My research deals with a small part of an enormous organisation that reached hundreds of millions of people abroad and had a profound effect on the people of Britain. The book will provide a comprehensive history of the MOI, ideally capturing public interest as well as serving as the catalyst for further work on the MOI in the future. In regards to my own work, I’ll be writing and recording an episode of Radio 3’s The Essay in the coming months, looking at the work of MOI press attachés.
How are you hoping to use the opportunity provided by the ‘New Generation Thinker’ scheme to bring your research to the attention of a wider audience?
I believe that academic research can be both of scholarly importance and of interest to the wider public. There is perhaps a misconception that academic work is ‘impenetrable’ to those outside of academia and equally that popular, public history somehow lacks depth or weight. I think that the BBC/AHRC New Generation Thinker scheme is evidence to the contrary and that the work being done at universities, particularly by young scholars, is of public interest. From a personal perspective, I’d like to carry on this tradition and use the opportunity to discuss the work of the Ministry of Information project with a wider audience and perhaps challenge some misconceptions people continue to hold.
Dr Christopher Bannister is a post-doctoral researcher on the Ministry of Information Project at the Institute of English Studies, part of the School of Advanced Study, University of London.