Social war, now and then

[Cross-posted at Airminded.] The current conflict in Gaza has attracted much media attention for the so-called Twitter war being fought between the IDF and Hamas, or, more precisely, between the @IDFSpokesperson and @AlqassamBrigade accounts and their respective followers. Insults are traded back and forth, photos and videos of rocket attacks and air strikes and their purported results (sometimes quite horrific, be warned) shared and retweeted many times over, bloggers take up virtual arms on behalf of one side or the other. @IDFSpokesperson tweets a graphic claiming that ‘Hamas’ goal is to kill civilians'; @AlqassamBrigade one claiming ‘In Children’s Day: Israel killed 26 Palestinian children!’ This present form of propaganda war is sometimes (not always) presented as something new. Certainly the speed of communication and the ease by which it can be accessed by anyone who is interested is remarkable, but nothing ever looks completely new to a historian.

During the Blitz, for example, British newspapers and magazines were the medium by which both British and German propaganda messages regarding the mutual bombing war were passed to readers so that they could judge for themselves. In September 1940, The Listener noted that ‘German broadcasts continue to claim that only military objectives are being attacked’ by the Luftwaffe.1 By contrast, the Zeesen radio station was reported to have claimed that:

British pilots have received instructions to avoid carefully any kind of military objective and to concentrate instead on terrorising the German civilian population.2

As it was broadcast in English, this message was clearly directed at the British people themselves. Normally only those who owned a radio and were listening in on the right frequency at the right time would have received it, perhaps along with a few others by word of mouth. By reprinting it, The Listener was sharing it with a much larger audience (circulation was around 50,000 in 1939 but had risen to 129,000 by 1945). By reprinting it without editorial comment, it was trusting its readers to draw the right conclusions.

Of course, they had already been told, over and over, that indiscriminate bombing was Germany’s game and Germany’s alone. For example, according to Hugh Dalton, the Minister of Economic Warfare, the RAF sought only to bomb ‘industrial targets':

I would rather see the Leuna synthetic oil plant a smoking heap of ruins than destroy every single dwelling-house in Berlin […] Nothing indiscriminate is any good in this war. You want to put your bombs where they will do most harm to the enemy’s war effort.3

Bomber Command was indeed attempting (unsuccessfully) the precision bombing of industrial targets at this stage of the war, whereas the Luftwaffe by and large was not, and this was a message that official British communiques consistently attempted to convey (and not only by words alone, as a map showing Bomber Command targets across Germany demonstrates).

But Dalton also noted that ‘you are bound to inflict civilian casualties and influence German morale’. He did this in part to assuage the often vocal segments of public opinion demanding reprisal raids against German cities in reply to the Blitz. This was another aspect of the social war: the British public were not merely passive consumers of propaganda, but read their own meanings into it and attempted to persuade others to accept them. That is, they too participated in creating propaganda. Sometimes this was quite explicit, as when in October 1940 a person unknown plastered buildings with large posters declaring ‘BOMB BERLIN AND SAVE LONDON’. But letters columns in the daily press were the usual ground over which this part of the social war was fought. On 27 September alone, for example, the Yorkshire Post published six letters on the question of bombing reprisals: five for and one against. N. Cunningham argued that

It is high time we stopped all this stupid talk of ‘No Reprisals’ […] The only way to stop this senseless indiscriminate bombing is by returning blow for blow or even two blows for every one of theirs, and to hit back harder than these murderous Nazis.4

By contrast, R. Arnott believed:

We must rid ourselves of the ghastly idea of winning this war over the bodies of Berlin babies.

A year ago we set out on this crusade in order to crush evil things and, inter alia, to preserve decency in Europe. Those, I take it, remain our aims, and I am quite unable, try as I might, to reconcile the mass murder of women and children with the preservation of decency.5

A few days later, A. E. Firth rebuked Arnott, asking ‘why should British towns be destroyed without reprisals being taken’?6 Firth instead advocated warning Germans that they were about to be attacked, so that they could ‘clear out their women and children before the destruction of their towns took place’.7 This idea of reprisals after notice was not part of the official public discourse on the bombing war; it was strategy from below, folk strategy.

This sort of relatively rapid exchange of strongly-held opinions couched in emotive terms certainly has a familiar feel to it. The dividing line between combatant and non-combatant in social war is blurred: unofficial propaganda draws upon and remakes official propaganda for its own ends. This possibility was and is inherent in the rise of mass communications, though it has not always been realised. But just as historians are apt to see precedents for the present day, we also see differences between now and then. For one thing, in 1940 it was effectively impossible for British civilians to communicate with German ones, or vice versa: their debates were national, at best. Now Palestinians and Israelis — and everyone else — can talk directly to (or past) each other on the Gaza war, perhaps with the aid of Google Translate. For another, in 1940 official propaganda did not draw on the unofficial kind. Now @AlqassamBrigade and @IDFSpokesperson share photos of alleged attacks posted on Twitter by ordinary people. For yet another, in 1940 the debates in newspaper columns unfolded over days and weeks. Now the social war moves almost as fast as the real war does. A real war that, it should not be forgotten, claims real lives regardless of what happens online.

  1. Listener, 19 September 1940, 404.
  2. Ibid.
  3. Sunday Telegraph, 5 January 1941, 11.
  4. Yorkshire Post (Leeds), 27 September 1940, 2.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Ibid., 1 October 1940, 2.
  7. Ibid.
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