No one ever had to reproach Sefton Delmer with the admonition “know your enemy.” The son of an Australian professor who taught at Berlin University before World War I, Delmer was fluent in German before he ever spoke English. In the 1930s, as a correspondent for Britain’s Daily Express, he interviewed Hitler, even accompanying the führer-to-be on his private plane in the 1932 general election.
Delmer was so intimate with German leaders that the British government actually suspected him of “secret Nazi activities.” Only after what Delmer would describe as several “idiotic” efforts by flatfooted British counterintelligence agents to get him into “oh so casual conversation” on trains and catch him out as a spy was he finally cleared for a war job.
Asked to take over a rather desultory effort that had German émigrés broadcasting anti-Hitler messages back to their homeland, Delmer pointed out that only an infinitesimal fraction of Germans opposed the Nazis or the war. Most ordinary Germans would dismiss any such appeals as obvious enemy propaganda.
Delmer said what was needed instead was some “psychological judo.”And so was born the on-air personality who called himself Der Chef—“the chief.”
The last thing Der Chef sounded like in his weekly broadcasts was a tool of the Allies. Following Delmer’s script, Der Chef portrayed himself as a die-hard officer of the old Prussian school, transmitting secretly from somewhere in Nazi-occupied Europe to a like-minded network of disaffected right-wing “super patriots.” Der Chef was unwavering in his support of the war and Hitler. He railed against Jews and Bolsheviks. He regularly taunted Churchill as “a flat-footed bastard of a drunken old Jew.” (“No member of the great German public,” Delmer explained, “would ever suspect that British propagandists could be capable of using such outrageous language about their beloved prime minister.”)
Having established his bona fides, Der Chef was soon planting all sorts of poisonous rumors. “There is an inner schweinhund in every man,” Delmer recalled Hitler once remarking to him. So, Delmer argued, “We must appeal to the inner schweinhund inside every German in the name of his highest patriotic ideals.”
Der Chef’s chief weapon was character assassination of lower-level Nazi functionaries. He set off a run on stores with a harangue against wives of officials who, he said, were snapping up all of the woolen goods for themselves. He created another panic by charging that “party scum,” overruling doctors, refused to destroy stocks of blood infected with syphilis.
But his signature became his indignant—and extremely explicit—tirades against the supposed sexual escapades of these “traitorous swine” in the Nazi Party who were living a sybaritic life while good Germans sacrificed for the war effort. This, Delmer dryly noted, “added enormously to the listener appeal of the station.”
To furnish his victims with “the appropriate fetishisms and perversions beloved of German audiences,” Delmer regularly consulted a study of sexual deviancy written by a famous German psychiatrist. Delmer said he took particular satisfaction from the fact that the book had been one the Nazis had ordered burned in 1933.
In fact, the Germans had at least indirectly supplied Delmer with the whole idea of employing “trenchant” language as a propaganda tool. One of Delmer’s bosses had casually observed early on that when the Germans had launched an English-language propaganda station, “old ladies in Eastbourne and Torquay are listening to it avidly, because it is using the foulest language ever. They enjoy counting the F’s and B’s.” He suggested Delmer do the same.
But another of Delmer’s bosses had a different reaction. Stafford Cripps, though a Marxist, was a devout evangelical Christian; as a member of the cabinet he had picked up rumors of Delmer’s work and had an aide listen in and provide him with a transcript. Shocked that “His Majesty’s Government” was paying for this “most foul and filthy pornography,” Cripps immediately demanded to see Anthony Eden, a member of the executive committee overseeing political warfare. “If this is the sort of thing we have to do to win the war,” Cripps exclaimed, hands trembling, “why…why…I would rather lose it!”
Eden quietly disagreed. And Delmer, though something of a stalwart social conservative himself, never regretted his two-and-a-half-year stint as what he jocularly referred to as “HMG’s Director of Pornography.” As he explained in a memo rebutting Cripps’s complaint, “We are of course not trying to win Germans to our side by this method. We are trying to turn Germans against Germans and thereby weaken the German war machine.”
Originally published in the February 2008 issue of World War II Magazine. To subscribe, click here.