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War propaganda

Times of war provide some of the most easily-recognised examples of propaganda. During war, a state needs to recruit, raise savings, maintain morale and production, influence neutral opinion, and encourage enemy combatants to surrender. All these pressures combine to drive the production of war propaganda, and create innovative forms of information with agendas. In our exhibition Propaganda: Power and Persuasion, you will see many different materials and methods associated with propaganda in war-time.

An age-old tactic

Some of the earliest exhibits relate to military campaigns and conquests. Trajan’s Column, erected in 113 AD, celebrated military success in the campaign against the Dacians. An important part of its power is to associate the military success of the Empire, and the implied assurance of security for those living in the Empire, with the personal figure of the Emperor himself. A similar tactic was used by Napoleon Bonaparte in the early 19th century. In officially-sanctioned portraits, Napoleon wears the laurels of victory – a symbol of military success and also of continuity with Europe’s Roman past.

Mass communication on a ground level

However, not all war propaganda needs to be about monumental works and officially-commissioned portraits. During the 20th century, the most effective propaganda was often that which managed to get into peoples homes. The radio proved particularly effective in gaining and maintaining support. In Britain during the Second World War, broadcasts of speeches, particularly from the Prime Minister Winston Churchill, were effective in maintaining morale and their impact was closely monitored by the Home Intelligence Division and Mass Observation.

Radio was also used to encourage saving and maintenance of scarce resources. The ‘Kitchen Front’ broadcasts used national celebrities to encourage the use of local and home-grown food. As well as radio broadcasts, World War 2 propaganda messages could be printed onto fabrics (such as headscarves), paper bags or small stamps.

Multiple formats for maximum reach

Radio could also be used to broadcast messages to enemy and occupied countries. In the early years of the Second World War, the broadcasts of “Lord Haw Haw” (William Joyce) from Germany reached a large audience in Britain. Alternatively, leaflets could be dropped from the air across occupied Europe and Germany. Leaflets were produced in huge volume, hundreds of thousands each week, and used a variety of tactics to encourage people to pick up and circulate them. In our exhibition, you will see leaflets shaped like leaves, some that look like bank-notes, some using strong visual styles or “pop-ups”. Leaflets were seen as important in influencing civilian behaviour as well as influencing the morale of enemy troops. As a form of propaganda in wartime, sometimes referred to as psychological operations or “psy-ops”, they are still used in large numbers today.

Find out more about war propaganda with our latest exhibition ‘Propaganda: Power and Persuasion. The exhibition runs until 17 September 2013 and features a number of specialist speakers and events.