Reviewed by Tim Luckhurst
It was his genius in war, not propaganda, that ensured King Alexander III of Macedon (356-323 BC) would be remembered as Alexander the Great. But Alexander appreciated the power of reputation. He had himself depicted on coins as the son of Zeus and his image was replicated on statues, buildings and pottery. If Boris Johnson’s study of Classics twenty-three centuries later included focus on Alexander’s use of propaganda, Mr Johnson’s approach certainly lacks the ancient Macedonian’s precision.
Among the images in David Welch’s superb collection are two of Britain’s former Prime Minister during the Covid pandemic. In the first Mr Johnson appears behind a lectern bearing the emphatic message ‘Stay Home. Protect the NHS. Save Lives’. In the second he promotes baffling advice to ‘Stay Alert. Control the Virus. Save Lives’. Welch describes trying to ease lockdown rules without abolishing them as ‘a classic example of getting the message wrong’.
There are few examples of such abject failure in this immensely useful collection. In his eloquent and gloriously economical introduction, Welch advises us to ‘think of propaganda in broad terms’ and advises that ‘wherever public opinion is deemed important, there we will find an attempt to influence it’. What follows is a meticulously chosen selection of propaganda images ranging from engravings in John Foxe’s sixteenth century Book of Martyrs to Volodymyr Zelensky’s inspired use of digital technology.
Nobody has made a bigger contribution to the understanding of propaganda than David Welch. This wonderful little book showcases his profound understanding of the subject in a chronological sequence of images from art, newspapers, postcards, posters, film and the internet.
Here is Napoleon Bonaparte’s imperial France, the world’s first modern propaganda state and Bonaparte’s power portrayed in Jean-Baptiste Borély’s painting of his emperor. Here too is ISIS’s, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria’s, mural on a wall in East Mosul depicting an ISIS fighter standing strong despite relentless bombardment. Welch describes the scale and sophistication of ISIS’s multi-faceted propaganda effort.
David Welch’s images depict atrocity propaganda that helped to promote xenophobia and brutal patriotism during the First World War. A poster of Benito Mussolini in uniform recalls how Il Duce worked to recruit Italy’s resentful war veterans. Welch shows how Adolf Hitler used posters, radio and film to demand that Germany awake and pursue its destiny. Posters such as the depiction of Hitler in uniform above the slogan ‘Ein Volk, ein Reich, ein Führer!’ were expertly accompanied by Joseph Goebbels’ exploitation of radio, the mass medium of the 1930s.
Goebbels persuaded manufacturers to produce the VE 3031 radio set at a price so low every working family could afford one. Welch illustrates the Reich propaganda minister’s success with a 1936 poster depicting a crowd listening to a giant radio. The slogan declares ‘All Germany listens to the Führer on the People’s Receiver’.
This concise, enthralling and immensely useful collection includes a depiction of that most shocking example of ‘propaganda of the deed’, the 9/11 al-Qaeda attack on New York’s World Trade Centre. It also considers Donald Trump’s deployment of the term ‘fake news’ and asks whether citizen access to new media can free us from the reach of oppressive regimes.
Welch demonstrates what he has often proven: propaganda is not just lying. He shows us that it encompasses untruths, half-truths and truths taken out of context and depicts ways in which it can help us to protect ourselves. To think of it pejoratively is to ignore its legitimate and functional uses and the plain truth that governments must explain policy and will seek to explain the efficacy of their decisions.
This is a tremendous book and beautifully designed. It condenses immense wisdom into a small, perfectly curated collection of images each accompanied by incisive explanation and illuminating analysis. Bravo, Professor Welch.
The Story of Propaganda in 50 Images, by David Welch (London: British Library, 2022; 144pp.; £16.99)
Professor Tim Luckhurst is Principal of South College, Durham University, and the author of Reporting the Second World War: The Press and the People 1939–1945, to be published by Bloomsbury in 2023.