Propaganda: Power and Persuasion by David Welch, A British Library Publication

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Book explores history of propaganda

“Propaganda: Power and Persuasion,” by David Welch. Image courtesy of The British Library for review purposes, used with permission.

The British Library published Propaganda: Power and Persuasion to coincide with their recent exhibition of the same name. Through more than two hundred items, author David Welch explores the nature of state propaganda around the world with a particular focus on the 20th and 21st centuries. Featured items include books, cartoons, films, games, music, newspapers, posters, statistics, social media, and the World Wide Web.

Propaganda: Power and Persuasion – Layout of the Publication

In the book’s six chapters, Welch uses universally recognised themes of conflict, public education, protest, and leadership to demonstrate how different governments have influenced the thoughts and behaviour of the populace:

        Noting that ‘propaganda’ is a ‘much maligned and misunderstood word’ in  his chapter, ‘A Brief History of Propaganda,’ David Welch charts the history of the word ‘propaganda’ and its many interpretations. In Propaganda: Power and Persuasion, he says,

‘If we exclude purely religious and commercial propaganda (advertising), it is a distinct political activity and it is one that can be distinguished from related phenomena such as information and education.’

The author provides a concise history of propaganda asking who used what form of propaganda and for what reason?

‘One People, One Nation, One Leader!’

In his chapter on the propaganda of nationhood and leadership, Welch looks at how propaganda can generate a sense of national identity. World Fairs, exhibitions, memorials, monuments, statues, national anthems and flags are tools to encourage a sense of nationhood.

Welch cites the example of Kim II-Sung, founder and ruler of North Korea from 1948 to 1994, and regarded as the country’s eternal President. North Korea attaches particular importance to public statuary to foster national identity as evidenced by more than five hundred statues of Kim II-Sung throughout the country.

Welch looks at the propaganda of leadership through personalities such as Joseph Stalin, Mao Tse-tung, Benito Mussolini and Adolph Hitler, who all presented the people with carefully constructed images of themselves as embodying the nation’s hopes. According to Welch, Mussolini, an ex-journalist, was the first fascist dictator to understand the true value of propaganda and to use it successfully.

‘Your Country Needs You’

In his chapter on the propaganda of war, Welch discusses posters dropped over war zones by various governments, not just the British, as well as posters urging the public to offer financial assistance to the war effort or reminding the public that “careless talk costs lives.”

‘Trap Your Germs!‘ and other propaganda as public information showed that war was not the only reason governments used propaganda. After World War II, all the major states acknowledged the devastating effects of war and embarked on campaigns instructing the populace on matters of health, healthy eating, exercise, the risks of drinking and smoking, etc.

‘Know Your Enemy’

For his chapter on case studies in negative propaganda, Welch defines negative propaganda as ‘full of confrontations between good and evil, beauty and “the beast,” order and chaos; in each case the contrast serves to force the individual into a desired, established commitment to a particular view.’ The author presents several case studies in negative propaganda demonstrating how it manipulates views of minorities and other groups.

‘We Are All Americans Now?’

‘Propaganda in the 21st Century’ looks at how propaganda develops because of new technologies.  The author draws our attention to Operation Desert Storm, a conflict reported on a minute-by-minute basis through high-tech media. However, despite that high-tech media, the humble leaflet appeared extensively. Between 30 December 1990 and 28 February 1991, over 29 million leaflets fell over Iraqi troops, urging them to surrender.

Welch also explores the concept that we are all propagandists now. He asks, ‘In the age of Facebook and Twitter, is everyone a propagandist?’ The Internet, social media, mobile phones, advertising, and the press offer endless opportunities for high-speed communication. How do these media influence government attempts to manipulate and control the population?

Who Is David Welch?

David Welch is Professor of Modern History and Director of the Centre for the Study of Propaganda, War & Society at the University of Kent. Welch publishes widely, including Germany: Propaganda and Total War 1914-1918, The Third Reich: Politics and Propaganda, and Justifying War: Propaganda, Politics and the Modern Age.

Propaganda: Power and Persuasion – Highly Effective Overview

With scholarly texts accompanied by more than 110 colour illustrations, Propaganda: Power and Persuasion is highly effective in shedding light on worldwide propaganda.  One of the reasons this text is so effective is the large number of illustrations which allow us to make comparisons between propaganda materials issued by different countries on similar subject matter.  

This book is really special in that it provides that worldwide overview; differing from many recent publications that focus entirely on the activities of individual states.  Books such as The British at War: Cinema, State and Propaganda, 1939-45 by James Chapman (Nov 2000); State of Deception: The Power of Nazi Propaganda by Susan Bachrach and Steven Luckert (2009) and Propaganda State in Crisis: Soviet Ideology, Indoctrination, and Terror Under Stalin, 1927-1941 by David Brandenberger (2012), all make extremely interesting reading, but David Welch’s book goes several steps further. Propaganda: Power and Persuasion provides a comprehensive overview allowing us to understand the development of propaganda and its use by so many nations around the world.


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