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'How to Win an Information War' details fighting with — and against — propaganda

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. When it comes to counteracting contemporary propaganda, fact-checking doesn't stand a chance. My guest, Peter Pomerantsev, writes that in his new book. He goes on to say gutsy fact-checkers who sometimes, at great personal risk, strive to establish the truth, are ignored by millions of people who don't want to hear the truth. Worthy, well-researched journalism crumbles in the face of suspicion that the media are actually enemies of the people. That's one of the conclusion Pomerantsev has reached. He researches and writes about contemporary propaganda, including in the U.S., where he now lives. His new book, "How To Win An Information War," is about the man he describes as the forgotten genius of propaganda - Sefton Delmer.

During World War II, Delmer became head of special operations for the Political Warfare Executive. He ran propaganda operations for the British against the Hitler regime. He created radio shows broadcast into Germany designed to sound like shows hosted by Germans, and they were. They featured former German cabaret writers and stars who were now refugees in England. Pomerantsev grew up in a Jewish family in Ukraine, a Russian-speaking family. His father was arrested for distributing dissident literature. After his release, the family left. That was in 1978, when Pomerantsev was about nine months old. He grew up in England and went to Moscow as a journalist in 2000, and stayed for about 10 years, since 2014, when Russia invaded Crimea, he's been doing a lot of work in Ukraine, and in 2022, he co-founded The Reckoning Project, documenting Russian war crimes to prevent Russian propaganda from erasing them. Pomerantsev is now a senior fellow at Johns Hopkins University. He's also the author of the books "Nothing Is True And Everything Is Possible" and "This Is Not Propaganda."

Peter Pomerantsev, welcome to FRESH AIR. I want to start with an example of one of the broadcasts that Delmer Sefton did in his efforts to counteract German propaganda. Germans were supposed to be pure. Jazz was an example of something that was decadent. Some of the broadcasts that Delmer Sefton oversaw reported on moral and sexual depravity of German leaders in a way that veered on S&M porn. I want you to describe - let's get off to a lively start here.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: I want you to describe one of your favorite broadcasts in that style in terms of how sexual decadence and moral depravity were used to discredit leaders of the Reich. And I should mention you have a transcript there that I actually can't read on NPR.

PETER POMERANTSEV: Oh, really?

GROSS: It would be considered too explicit, even though the words aren't explicit, the descriptions are. So...

POMERANTSEV: Oh, my word.

GROSS: Yes, I know.

POMERANTSEV: There - I mean, there was one that - it wasn't only NPR. So people in Winston Churchill's cabinet, when they heard that the British government was essentially creating pornography to subvert the Nazis, they were outraged, and they wanted to ban it. You know, one of - a very senior official said if this is how we're going to win the war, I'd rather we didn't win the war. He was referring to a particularly pornographic broadcast. We only have the description of it. We don't actually have the transcript of that one, but it appears to be a scene with a sort of a mid-ranking Nazi official. There's a lot of butter involved, and the butter's very important. There's some helmets involved, a bunch of sailors and several ladies of the night, and all sorts of things happen with the helmet and the butter.

Now, this was a broadcast that nearly got Sefton Delmer sacked, but the point of it was the butter. And the point of it wasn't all the porn. The point of it was the butter, 'cause butter was rationed for Germans, and the fact that Nazi officials were using butter in their sort of - in their orgies was a sign of how, you know, they were sort of appropriating very, very rare rations and thus living a life of opulence while ordinary Germans starved.

GROSS: Why did Sefton's crew use sexual depravity? Like, these acts were considered sexually depraved, and the Germans were supposed to be pure, especially the German leaders. So why did they use that in several sketches in - you know, that they broadcast?

POMERANTSEV: There's a lot of things going on. I mean, at a very simple level, it got listeners. You've got to understand this was being broadcast in 1941 at the peak of Hitler's power - yeah - where people are either in love with the Nazi project or in total fear of it. It's a moment of total control. And suddenly, there's this dissident voice on German shortwave radio who becomes incredibly popular saying the unsayable. So just breaking the taboo, just saying these very, very colorful things about Nazi officials was already sort of a breaking through the spiral of silence, which is a term that some communication scholars use, like saying the unsayable, breaking apart people's sense of fear of the Nazis. So there's that. There's that taboo-breaking moment.

On a deeper level, Delmer was always trying to sort of reassociate things that might be negative with the Nazis. So the Nazis famously, you know, in their vile propaganda, would say Jews were the spreaders of disease and compared Jews to vermin. A lot of Delmer's counterpropaganda was all about showing how sort of disease in German society, whether that's, you know, soldiers starving on the front or citizens becoming diseased due to bad water, was coming from the Nazis.

GROSS: And how the Nazis...

POMERANTSEV: He was always trying to...

GROSS: ...Had a lot of lice in...

POMERANTSEV: Yeah.

GROSS: ...The soldiers.

POMERANTSEV: Yeah...

GROSS: They were lice-infested.

POMERANTSEV: ...He's trying to take - exactly. He's trying to, you know, if the Nazis wanted to sort of throw out everything impure onto the enemy, that was one of the main techniques of their propaganda, he was saying, no, no, no, actually, you know, the disease comes from the Nazis. The dirt comes from the Nazis. And to a certain extent, the moral rot comes from the Nazis, as well.

GROSS: He thought you couldn't discredit the Germans with facts or appeal to their higher instincts. Why not?

POMERANTSEV: He thought facts were very important, actually. What he didn't believe in was preaching. So today, I think he would be very frustrated with sort of pro-democracy, liberal media that risks preaching to the converted. So he was very critical of the German service of the BBC, which was full of kind of high-minded lectures about how good democracy is and how evil fascism is and why don't Germans come over to the side of light? His take was that the psychological bond between Hitler and the Germans was so deep and so twisted, in a way, that trying to just win out with abstract lectures about virtue was not going to work. And what you really had to do was, you know, drill down into that relationship and drill down into people's desire for authoritarian leaders. And that's what you had to work with. He's very obsessed with finding the facts that mattered to people.

German audiences would reject the facts they didn't want to hear about. So how can you get facts back into the world of people who are, you know, in some sense, bewitched or pretending to be bewitched by an authoritarian leader and who often don't want to hear the truth? How do you get facts to them was his sort of mission?

GROSS: Well, give us an example of his philosophy of how you do that and an example of a broadcast that illustrates it.

POMERANTSEV: So a lot of the broadcasts were meant for soldiers, directed at soldiers, and they talked about the lives of soldiers in a way and with a detail that that Nazi propaganda didn't. It talked about their food. It talked about how, you know, the corrupt officer that was just above them was not giving them the right weapons. I mean, he had this huge research department that would, you know, tell him things that, you know, which species of venereal disease were going around the local brothel and so on and so forth. So really getting into the daily lives of soldiers and seeing the world from their point of view - that was a huge mission. And his research gathering was sort of huge. I mean, he was interviewing prisoners of war all the time. He was listening to the transcripts of secret recordings that the British were making in prisoner of war camps. So he knew the latest jokes, the latest rumors and so on. The Royal Air Force would tell him straight away when they dropped a bomb somewhere - where they dropped it. So he would broadcast, this is the street that has just been bombed. If your family or relatives are on this street, you have the right to go back and visit them.

The British would intercept letters that Nazi officials were sending to relatives in America. And from those letters, they would glean information about parties people were having - all the gossip. So a huge amount of his effort was all about research and understanding the lives of his target audience.

GROSS: Can you give us an example about how the information he used - that was true - was twisted, in a way, to get the reaction he wanted from German soldiers or from German citizens in general?

POMERANTSEV: One of the amusing-yet-unconfirmed anecdotes about the effectiveness of one of these broadcasts was - and the level of targeting is so interesting here. So the British knew that there was a submarine parked off the coast of Britain, and the British knew who were the sailors and the captain on it. And so in one of the sort of jazz on-air concerts that the British gave, they told the captain of the submarine - they congratulated him with the birth of a child, after which - allegedly because this - the story is in the American Secret Service sort of memoirs. I haven't found them in the British archive. But after which, allegedly, the German submarine commander surfaced his boat and surrendered, saying, look. I haven't been home for two years. So there's absolutely no way this is my child. And if you guys know so much about everything that's going on in my life, then - and - then there's really no need for me to struggle anymore.

The story is very interesting because it sort of gets to a really sort of important part of Delmer's philosophy, which is that propaganda or communication is not about persuasion. It's about allowing people to do what they wanted to do in the first place, you know. It's not really about - you know, it's not about changing people's minds. It's about finding the thing that they really want to do - in this case, surrender - and give them an excuse to do it.

GROSS: Yeah. You mentioned one of the things he recommended to soldiers was faking illness. Delmer not only oversaw a broadcast, he also oversaw, like, pamphleting that was dropped by planes to soldiers. And there were rolling papers for tobacco. And instead of the rolling papers, he put in a message to soldiers. What did the message say and who did it say it was from?

POMERANTSEV: It wasn't just a message. Actually, like, inside your cigarette packet, you'd actually have this whole manual printed on this wafer-thin sort of cigarette papers. So it was actually, like, a - quite an achievement of printing. And you'd open it up, and inside would be a booklet from a Dr. Wohltat (ph) - Dr. Good-For-You - who would give you this incredibly elaborate sort of excuse to fake illness and run away from the front. And basically, the message was that the new generation of doctors don't understand traumatic stress. They don't understand the levels of trauma soldiers go through, and that level of trauma is now affecting soldiers. It puts their life in danger and the life of their squadron in danger. And it is, therefore, the patriotic thing to do to get sent home from the front. So giving this incredibly elaborate excuse and then giving lots of instructions about how you can fake TB by using - all sorts of really foul ways.

GROSS: It's so interesting because he's right, that there wasn't that much known yet about traumatic stress and the trauma of war and post-traumatic stress disorder. I mean, that diagnosis hadn't even been invented yet. But the idea of like, therefore, fake illness and go home - that's really subverting the German cause. Do we have any idea how effective that campaign was of faking illness?

POMERANTSEV: Generally, when we're talking about effectiveness of media, it's hard. For that specific one, one of the sort of data points that you could use for its effectiveness was the Germans copied the manuals and sent them back over British lines. So the Germans clearly thought there was something there to do that.

GROSS: Wait. Wait. They copied the manuals - oh, you mean because they wanted the British to fake illness?

POMERANTSEV: Yeah. They wanted the British - so they copied and sent it back. (Laughter) So that's, you know, a sign that the Germans thought they were effective. Just to be clear - Delmer was always doing more than one thing, whenever he's doing anything. So these manuals were meant to give soldiers an excuse to get sent home from the front. But at the same time, they were meant to essentially ruin the relationships between doctors and soldiers, because doctors were meant to think, hold on. Has my patient been reading these manuals? Can I trust my patient?

So Delmer's always doing one thing and another thing and a third thing at the same time. And that's sort of indicative of his personality generally. He's always a man with a mask underneath a mask. Personally, to be honest, I actually think these little sort of tricks that Delmer did are - while amusing - kind of the least interesting. They weren't the really revolutionary thing that Delmer was doing.

GROSS: What was the revolutionary thing?

POMERANTSEV: Nazi propaganda. And it's very important to understand (inaudible) is always insisting that your individuality doesn't matter. The only community that matters is the community that the Nazis have created. You should forget about you as a personality and just sort of be one with the orgiastic mass of the people. And here's something that's saying, no, no, no. You're an individual and you have another community - the community of soldiers - a family that you can relate to, where you're all people who have agency. And he's doing that already as a psychological beginning to all the other content. And I find that fascinating - this idea that it's actually the how you listen to it - the how of the media is as important as the content.

GROSS: Well, we need to take a short break here. So let me reintroduce you. If you're just joining us, my guest is Peter Pomerantsev. His new book is called "How To Win An Information War: The Propagandist Who Outwitted Hitler." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF AVISHAI COHEN SONG, "GBEDE TEMIN")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Peter Pomerantsev, author of the new book, "How To Win An Information War: The Propagandist Who Outwitted Hitler," and that propagandist is named Sefton Delmer, and he headed a lot of propaganda operations in England during World War II to counteract Hitler's propaganda. Peter Pomerantsev is a researcher and writer who studies propaganda and has written other books about it.

So let's continue our conversation. What do you think we can learn from Delmer Sefton? Because if you're fighting propaganda in America, if you're fighting conspiracy theories, if you're fighting the belief that Trump really won the election when all the evidence points to the fact that he lost the election and now he's running again for president, how do you counteract that without doing what Sefton did? I mean, Sefton used deception, and I don't think Americans who think - I don't think Americans who want to counteract conspiracy theories want to use deception to counteract them. But you're also saying at the same time that facts and the truth aren't very effective in counteracting propaganda. So where does that leave us?

POMERANTSEV: Conspiracy theories are often related to a lack of a sense of agency. You feel that you can't change things yourself, so you look to a strongman leader to lead you through the muck. So you explain things away through conspiracy theories where you have no responsibility because, you know, somebody somewhere else is controlling everything. So to counteract that, I think you have to go right to that psychological dynamic. You've got to work with people's sense of agency, their sense that they can change something themselves and that they don't need these strongmen leaders to lead them through a dark and complicated world. So you've got to work with that. And these days, I think we have way more opportunities than Delmer ever had to think about that. I actually think online technology gives us lots of opportunities to create media which by interacting with which, you become more empowered.

GROSS: You write that joining the Trump movement, joining MAGA, can give the illusion of status and a sense of supremacy to compensate for the lack of real agency. And I'd like you to explain what you mean.

POMERANTSEV: So one of the most important things that propaganda through the ages does is, especially in a chaotic world, give you a sense of a very simple identity. So whether that's true Germans, true Russians under Putin, you know, it's always coming back to the idea of true. True manlyhood, a very simple and reduced identity that gets rid of all the complications. And Terry, you're the expert on America, not me. I'm still quite new here, but there does seem to be a strain within MAGA rhetoric about being true Americans, real Americans. It's related to, you know, the manosphere movement, which looks sort of like a pure masculinity for certain American citizens. And secondly, of course, a feeling that you're superior, that you're special, that you're chosen, that you're better than others, again.

I mean, in Nazi propaganda, this was about, you know, it's very - it's a very extreme version, and we should always be very aware that Nazi propaganda exists in its own realm of nastiness. But that was all about saying there are Aryans and non-Aryans, you know, give you a language, say you're one of the special ones and you're not. Putin's propaganda, which is something that I do study a lot, you know, makes it very clear that sort of Ukrainians, for example, are these corrupted Russians. You know, Ukraine - being Ukrainian is a bad Russian, and you can be a better type of person. But I'm also cautious when I've just moved here to start making sort of sweeping claims. But being somehow exceptional and being part of something special is something that has always appealed.

GROSS: Let me reintroduce you again 'cause it's time for another break. If you're just joining us, my guest is Peter Pomerantsev, author of the new book "How To Win An Information War: The Propagandist Who Outwitted Hitler." And Pomerantsev have researches and writes about propaganda, including during World War II, Russian propaganda and Putin, how Putin has used propaganda in Ukraine, and he's also been starting to write about propaganda in the U.S. We'll be right back after a short break. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE BRYAN FERRY ORCHESTRA'S "DANCE AWAY")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR, I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to my interview with Peter Pomerantsev, who researches and writes about contemporary propaganda. His new book, "How To Win An Information War," is about the man he describes as the forgotten genius of propaganda, Sefton Delmer. During World War II, Delmer became head of special operations for the Political Warfare Executive in England, and he ran propaganda operations for the British against the Hitler regime. Pomerantsev was born in Ukraine to a Ukrainian Jewish family. When he was 9 months old, the family moved to England. In 2000, he went to Moscow as a journalist and stayed there for around nine years. Since 2014, when Russia invaded Ukraine, he's been spending a lot of time in Ukraine studying propaganda there and what was happening during the war. And in 2022, he co-founded a project to document Russian war crimes in Ukraine in an attempt to prevent Russian propaganda from erasing those war crimes from the public mind.

Let's talk about the work that you did in Moscow in the first decade of this century. This was the period when Putin was really becoming powerful. What were some of the things that you found that he used as an authoritarian leader to win or try to win over the minds of the Russian people?

POMERANTSEV: It was a fascinating and, in retrospect, a demonic time to see things. I was in Russia between 2001 to 2010. And there's a great line from Tim Snyder, the Yale historian, that post-truth is just pre-fascism. So this was a decade where the idea of truth was being undermined very, very aggressively by the Kremlin. You know, its main message then was, you can't trust anything. The West is just corrupt as we are. There is no real media out there. The BBC is propaganda. We do propaganda. Everything is disinformation. Don't trust anything. Truth just doesn't matter. What we need is a strong man to lead us through this dark time. And that was incredibly effective because it capitalized on feelings of disorientation that many Russians had - sort of huge social, economic, civilizational, maybe, changes that have been happening the last 20 years where sort of, you know, Russia had seen one political system collapse after another one, and in this real sort of swirling confusion about identity.

GROSS: Is there a specific campaign that you remember, a specific story that illustrates what you're saying?

POMERANTSEV: A very, very good example is, actually, elections in Russia. We're going to have a presidential election in Russia this month, in March. And everybody understands in Russia that the elections are rigged. By having a rigged election, though, the government is saying, we're so well-organized that we can rig elections. Elections everywhere are rigged. If we can rig it, the deep state over there in America is rigging it, too, yeah? Everybody is as corrupt as we are. And also, if you don't play along with this farce, you will be punished, yeah? So we're going to make you complicit in the ridiculousness. You have to be part of the charade. You have to play along as if this is for real in order to make you a simulator just like we are and undermine your sense of integrity.

GROSS: How did you see your job as a journalist reporting on all of this? And you were reporting for a British publication, not a Russian publication.

POMERANTSEV: Well, not quite. My fate was a little bit different. I actually went to Russia, and I went to film school there. I was still very young. And then I worked for British documentary sort of projects in Russia. And then my first book is all about how I worked in Russian entertainment TV, along with - you know, Russian entertainment TV was booming then. And so I was making entertainment shows. The company I worked for made the Russian version of "The Apprentice," for example.

GROSS: That is so strange. Did Trump participate in that?

POMERANTSEV: No, they had - so the way these things work is that, I think - I can't remember who owns the format, Anthem (ph) or Sony or one of these big companies. They sell it, they bring consultants over, who then help make the Russian version. And the Russian version had a real oligarch in charge. And the show was beautifully made, beautifully designed. And it was a complete flop because nobody...

GROSS: Wow, really? Why?

POMERANTSEV: Because nobody in Russia thinks you make money that way, you know? You don't make money by having great business ideas and developing them. You know, if you do that, you'll end up, you know, with your business taken away and you in a gulag like - I don't know - Khodorkovsky. You make money by, you know, sucking up to power, doing kickbacks, assassinations, that sort of thing. That's just not power in Russia. And that's not how you make money in Russia. Other reality shows did very, very well. So for example, "Survivor," you know, where you put people on a deserted island and see how they survive, that did very well because Russians were like, oh, it's like, that's our history. That's like the gulag, you know, and that's great. You know, let's go and, you know, be horrible to people in a closed environment and see who survives. We relate to this. And that show is very successful.

GROSS: Well, let's take another break here. If you're just joining us, my guest is Peter Pomerantsev. His new book is called "How To Win An Information War: The Propagandist Who Outwitted Hitler." Pomerantsev researches and writes about contemporary propaganda. We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF SOLANGE SONG, "WEARY")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Peter Pomerantsev. He researches and writes about contemporary propaganda. His new book goes a little deeper into the past. "It's called How To Win An Information War: The Propagandist Who Outwitted Hitler."

One of the projects that you're working on now - this is a project you co-founded in 2022 - is The Reckoning Project. And it's documenting war crimes, Russian war crimes and atrocities in Ukraine so that propaganda can't cover them up. And before we talk about how you're doing that, when I found out that this was the work you were doing, I thought about Holocaust deniers, about, in spite of all the documentation - like the documentaries, the photographs of what happened in the camps, the stories of so many survivors of what happened in the camps - there are many people who believe - many people around the world, including many people in the U.S., who believe the Holocaust never happened. So when you're talking about fighting propaganda, like, what message do you take from Holocaust deniers?

POMERANTSEV: And not just even more recently than that. The horrors that happened in Yugoslavia are now being denied. So my colleagues - Janine di Giovanni, for example - who have much more experience of reporting from genocides than than I do - they really helped me sort of understand what we can do now. So one of the few things that happens during wars is documentation to start happening during the war. Usually it happens afterwards, or it's just being done by journalists, and they don't keep proper notebooks. And when they're called to The Hague a decade later, those notebooks are poorly maintained. So what we're doing is training journalists - 'cause journalists are often the first people on the scene - to collect evidence and stories in such a way that it's good enough for archives but also good enough for international law. So they get trainings from lawyers so that when they do the interviews, they're done in such a way and to such a - with such a rigor that you have this archive there forever, a living testimony to what's happening.

GROSS: So give us an example of a story that you found in Ukraine that you felt was very important to document and how you went about it.

POMERANTSEV: There are - I'm trying to use language which doesn't make me sound cynical, which is what happens after you've been covering a war for two years - which are, dare I say, classic war crimes in the sense that they're all about hurting people very, very directly. One of the most important stories that we worked on many months - the journalist Svitlana Oslavska led it. It was the front cover of Time magazine. It was a story about a whole village that was held in a basement, about 300 people held in a basement for a month. Many died out of lack of care, out of executions but also the psychological horror.

So I think that was a really important story because it showed just how systemic, organized and sadistic the cruelty is. This isn't just, like, a random case of torture or one indiscriminate bombardment. This was clearly being done systemically on purpose. But in a sense, that's a really important story to tell because people begin to understand that, OK, there's a pattern here. You know, when you're dealing with war crimes and, you know, crimes against humanity, charges of genocide, what you're always looking for is the patterns - not just one case but what's happening over and over again - because that shows it's systemic.

GROSS: And not just, like, rogue soldiers.

POMERANTSEV: Exactly. That shows systemic - then you can get - start getting into who's behind it. So actually, it's only now that we've been doing the project for a couple of years that our archivist who worked in Syria beforehand - a lot of our team are Syrians who documented crimes in Syria, so - huge experience about ways forward and and mistakes you can make. So for him, the most important thing is seeing the patterns are - this repeats over and over. There's a strategy. Someone's in charge. But if some of the crimes are kind of the more obvious ones, the ones I'm increasingly fascinated by that we're only just looking at now is - this used to do with things that are much harder to define. For example, the crimes of propagandists - yeah, what role do propagandists play in war crimes, which takes us back to Sefton Delmer and the Second World War? What is the responsibility of a Goebbels, of a, you know, Hans Fritzche, the head of the Reich's radio? What is their responsibility in war crimes and crimes against humanity? And what I am looking at at the moment, actually, literally just writing this as we speak or, you know, this week is this question of, is enforced indoctrination a crime? - because actually, indoctrination, you know, at the barrel of a gun is not something that's a crime within itself. Yeah. So whether it's what China is - Chinese are doing with the Uyghurs or the Russians are trying to do in Ukraine, which has actually crushed Ukrainian identity and implant a new one - that's not actually a crime. But that's the essence of what the Russians are doing. They want to destroy Ukraine, subjugate it and then take Ukrainians and turn them into different people. And to what extent is that a crime?

GROSS: Turn them into Russians who believe in Putin.

POMERANTSEV: Well, it's more complicated than that - definitely believe in Putin. Everybody has to believe in Putin. That's. That is obviously a huge part of it. So it's more like a big family where the Russians are the senior brother and Ukrainians are their kind of, like, slightly lost cousins. So the good Ukrainian is the one who recognizes that he's part of the Russian family and part of the Russian soul and part of Russian world. So you're allowed a little space but as a subset of something much bigger. And you're truly spiritually actually one people. You've got to enforce that. You know, you've got to squeeze that into people. And actually looking at that is very interesting because that's not a crime in itself. We can go in a long tangent why that's not an a crime in itself.

Actually, the guy who founded our laws around genocide, Raphael Lemkin, saw that as a key part of genocide - taking away a nation's identity or a people's identity. He saw that as absolutely intrinsic, but it was thrown out during, you know, the various declarations and the various sort of international agreements that formulated our idea of genocide. And it was thrown out because everybody's done something like that, you know, whether it's here with Native Americans, whether it's, you know, the many colonies that Europeans have had. You know, when he showed this bit of the genocide convention to Western states, everyone was like, well, we can't have that; can we? So there's a real prehistory about why that's not a crime as well.

GROSS: Part of the Russian propaganda to Russian people about Ukraine to justify the invasion of Ukraine and the war is that the Ukrainian leader Zelenskyy in particular was a Nazi, which is absurd since Zelenskyy's Jewish. But that expanded to, like, all Ukrainians right now are really - they're Nazis. Do you see - would you like to see that be a war crime?

POMERANTSEV: So I think we have to be very, very careful. Speech itself - making that into a crime is really complicated for very good reasons to do with the First Amendment in the U.S. and, you know, Article 19 of the Declaration of Human Rights. It's not - I mean, there are some countries that have various laws about types of speech that are illegal. I'm much more interested in the action. So I think you do have to start at the crime. The crime is murdering Ukrainians or invading Ukraine. And then you look at the role of propagandists in aiding and abetting that. I think that's probably the way to go. Not everyone agrees with me. There are lawyers out there who really want to focus on the speech, but I'm very interested in tying the action to the speech. And what is that relationship? Are the propagandists aware that this language is aiding and abetting and legitimizing mass murder of civilians? And if they are aware - and it's bloody hard for them not to be aware at this point - then what is their responsibility?

GROSS: How effective do you think the propaganda that Ukrainians are Nazis and that Zelenskyy is a Nazi, how effective do you think that's been in Russia?

POMERANTSEV: Well, going back to Sefton Delmer, and here I really agree with him, Delmer would say that, you know, propaganda just makes naked. It makes possible what was there already. And what is this propaganda doing? It's allowing Russians to say - who don't want to feel any responsibility - well, look. They're all Nazis. I mean, we're not responsible for this war. I mean, they - it's all their fault. People, you know, a lot of people don't want to think that, you know, they're the bad ones. So it gives you an excuse to avoid responsibility. A lot of propaganda is about avoiding your sense of personal responsibility.

Secondly, it can enable sadism for those who desire that sadism. I mean, once you've called them Nazis, it's a bit like calling, you know, well, it's a bit like saying that they're not - dehumanizing them, actually. So you're using the language of calling somebody a Nazi to do what the Nazis did, which is dehumanize others. And once you've said that, for those who are sadistically inclined, and that might be more people than we are comfortable in admitting, you can go and do horrible, horrible things to them. So, I don't know, I think effective - I think the most effective propaganda is always creating and legitimizing various things which are there already.

GROSS: Well, let's take another break here. If you're just joining us, my guest is Peter Pomerantsev. His new book is called "How To Win An Information War: The Propagandist Who Outwitted Hitler." Pomerantsev researches and writes about contemporary propaganda. We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MATT ULERY'S "GAVE PROOF")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Peter Pomerantsev. He researches and writes about contemporary propaganda. His new book goes a little deeper into the past. It's called "How To Win An Information War: The Propagandist Who Outwitted Hitler." Pomerantsev is also the co-founder of a project in Ukraine to document war crimes so that Russian propaganda can't erase those war crimes from the public mind.

One of the things that we're seeing now in the U.S. and internationally is a lot of antisemitism and some of it - a lot of it in this moment has to do with Israel's bombardment and invasion of Gaza and the extreme circumstances that Gazans are living in now, and the tens of thousands of Gazans who have died. But I'm wondering what you're seeing in terms of anti-Jewish propaganda. And I don't even mean here the debate about Israel and Gaza and Hamas but, you know, the feeding into larger and more ancient conspiracy theories about Jews that seem to have resurfaced in the past few years.

POMERANTSEV: So I mean, let's be - I mean, one thing that I've looked at a little bit is what Russia is up to in this conflict. And what's very interesting is how they're playing off both sides, you know? They're playing both sides. They're both supporting Hamas in a lot of their propaganda efforts and exploiting lots of things around that. And at the same time, they're backing far-right, anti-Muslim sentiment and narratives, especially in Europe. So they see this as a real opportunity, you know, to stir division and even more anger than there is. There's also proof - I think it's pretty solid proof - about how it was Russians who were behind the graffitiing of stars of David over - I think over synagogues in France, you know, so exploiting both the trauma of this sort of atrocity graffiti, essentially, and then trying to inflame it further. So they're playing on it, you know, on both sides and trying to see what the dividends are for them on that.

GROSS: What's the point of playing - of doing it on both sides?

POMERANTSEV: It's a really good question. They will have a long-term vision. Just stoke divisions, you know, keep Europe and America fighting amongst itself and get them to forget about Ukraine. That's kind of, like, you know, do anything to promote that focus. Did they have a more concrete one? I mean, here we're into speculation. Something at the same time that the Russians are doing again, is there is - evidence around this is pushing, you know, doing everything they can to worsen refugee crises into Europe. So back in the Syrian war, you know, they enhanced their bombing of Aleppo when they realized it was pushing loads of refugees into Europe. They've been playing around in Libya on the borders of Eastern Europe, just sort of, like, funneling refugees towards Europe.

So I don't know. Again, here we're into speculations, but a possible plan, you know, that they might be looking at - and, again, I'm caveating this 'cause I really don't want to get into our own conspiracy theories, but it would be consistent with the Russian approach to these things would be to you increase sort of anti-immigrant sentiment to a really, really high point, and then you start pushing migrants into Europe. So you, you know, you're always thinking about the larger dramaturgy. Whether specifically they had this specific plan for this instance, I really - I don't want to sort of, like, make any claims that I can't substantiate, but that's the sort of thing that they could be looking at.

GROSS: Since your family is originally from Ukraine, do you still have relatives there? And have they survived the war so far?

POMERANTSEV: We're all losing people all the time. Friends - I haven't lost any relatives. Pretty much everyone knows someone or has someone close to them who's died. I think we're still in the - we're not even near post-traumatic stress. We're not even, you know - we're still actually in the moment of resilience. We're not even in the trauma bit. We're still in the resilience bit, the kind of keeping it together bit. I mean, this healing will last generations, and there'll never be real healing. You can't heal something like this.

What's horrible is how much unknown there is. So I was very pleased to see "20 Days In Mariupol" win the Oscar - incredible documentary about the siege of Mariupol. We still have so little idea about how many people died there. We only have the numbers from the Ukrainian part. You know, we have little idea. And you have all sorts of figures being thrown about - 16,000, 30,000, 100,000. We don't know. We don't know. Russia comes in. You know, the bodies get swept away. Houses are built on corpses as they're dug and thrown into mass graves. And that sense of not knowing, the sense of just, like, a disappeared is going to take - well, it'll never be healed, Terry. These things never heal properly. They can be started to be processed mainly, but we're not even near there. We're still at the moment in resilience, where every Ukrainian is just fighting on.

GROSS: Do you know any Russians from the time that you spent in Russia from 2000 to nearly 2010? Do you know people who are now soldiers, like, Russian soldiers stationed in Ukraine? Do you know people who have left Russia, who were able to leave? I'm just wondering. Of the people who you know there, what kind of reactions are you getting to the war?

POMERANTSEV: Virtually everybody in my world actually started leaving after 2014. And then the last ones left in sort of '21. The people I know were warning about this for a long time, or many of the people I know were warning about this for a long time and kind of flabbergasted by the West's lackadaisical approach to Putin and this idea that you can do business with him. They were like, you don't get it. This is - you know, they were like, he's the same as all the other, you know, imperialist, totalitarian, bloodthirsty Russian rulers. This is what he's going to do because this is what they do. They didn't necessarily think he'd do a full-scale invasion of Ukraine because that was - that didn't seem to be a wise thing to do.

But the fact that he was hell-bent on expansionism and repression - I mean, to be honest, Russians were telling me that while I lived there. They were like, this can only go in one place because our history takes us to one place. And Putin is the latest manifestation of our totalitarian traditions. I was actually the naive one. I was there. I mean, when I first got there, I was - you know, I'd grown up in Britain. And I was like, oh, Russia's becoming democratic. It's a weird journey, but it'll get there. And my Russian friends were like, you have no idea what you're talking about. And, really, my nine years in Russia were, like, realizing that, oh, they're so right. This is only going in one direction.

GROSS: Well, Peter Pomerantsev, I want to thank you so much for talking with us.

POMERANTSEV: Thank you so much for having me on and listening to me.

GROSS: Peter Pomerantsev is the author of the new book "How To Win An Information War: The Propagandist Who Outwitted Hitler." If you'd like to catch up on FRESH AIR interviews you missed, like three interviews from this week that featured people who are comics and actors - Jenny Slate, Julio Torres and Eugene Levy - check out our podcast. You'll find lots of FRESH AIR interviews. To keep up with what's on the show and get highlights of our interviews, follow us on Instagram at @NPRFreshAir. And to read about what's happening behind the scenes on our show, get recommendations from our producers of things to read, watch and listen to and find out what interviews are coming up, subscribe to our free newsletter. You'll find a link at whyy.org/freshair.

(SOUNDBITE OF MAL WALDRON, ERIC DOLPHY AND BOOKER ERVIN'S "WARM CANTO")

GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Roberta Shorrock, Ann Marie Baldonado, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Seth Kelley and Susan Nyakundi. Our digital media producer is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Thea Chaloner directed today's show. Our co-host is Tonya Mosley. I'm Terry Gross.

(SOUNDBITE OF MAL WALDRON, ERIC DOLPHY AND BOOKER ERVIN'S "WARM CANTO") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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