A History of the Ministry of Information, 1939-46

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In order to appreciate the state of morale to-day, it is necessary to recall the trajectory of events and public reactions since Munich. Munich found a peace-loving people disillusioned and ashamed but at the same time relieved. The outbreak of war found people extraordinarily united in a determination to “stop Hitler”. Real anti-war feeling - pacifist feeling - was repressed. People were optimistic about the outcome of the war, and complacent about the present. There was an exaggerated belief in our armaments and defences, in our own moral strength in relation to Germany's moral weakness. Wishful thinking was the order of the day. A study of by-election opinion and other sources of information showed clearly that although the great majority were determined to go on with the war, a persistent 10 percent. (4 million people) were opposed to it.

For the first seven months, nothing disturbed popular belief that by waiting we should win, that Germany was afraid to attack. There was, however, a great deal of ignorance about the course of the war and new alignments in international affairs made further complications. Feeling slowly grew that news and affairs were being deliberately hidden from the public. Finland brought this smouldering feeling into the open. All News sources became seriously devalued and bewilderment and suspicion grew. The first reaction to Norway was relief at positive action, but confidence was very badly shaken by the false Narvik news, and there began to appear in our reports indications of a repressed “admiration for Hitler” feeling. Hitler would always do what he set out to do. He was successful in an astrological, superhuman kind of way. The Norwegian retreat staggered people. Both press and political leaders had put up a barrage of success stories and the result was terrific disgust and cynicism. People came not to believe anything. The B.B.C. suffered less than political leaders and the press, but all suffered. In the early days of May, therefore, public morale was at a low ebb, although there were for the first time signs of psychological healthiness: people were facing the facts and were not bathed in fantasy. The early mood of complacency entirely dispersed. Norway was regarded as a defeat. Into this situation came the invasion of Holland and Belgium.

It must be remembered that the defences of the Low Countries had been continually built up in the press. The Dutch water defences had been made to appear inviolable. The King of the Belgians was a leader of his people. Moreover in the background of men's minds was a feeling that the Maginot Line was an impregnable barrier stretching from the North Sea practically to the Mediterranean. Not one person in a thousand could visualise the Germans breaking through into France. A certain amount of wishful thinking was still at work, and a relieved acceptance of Mr. Churchill as Prime Minister allowed people to believe that a change of leadership would, in itself, solve the consequences of Mr. Chamberlain.

After Black Friday, when in spite of alarm and anxiety a considerable amount of relief at immediate action was seen, the press and wireless began to paint a relatively cheerful picture. Our own Daily Press Summary states:

“The tone of press reports of the Battle of the Meuse, though grave, continues to be cheerful. The Allied counter attack is described as vigorous, and the success in repelling the Germans from Louvain is splashed (Times p.6 etc)...... In only two cases is the news reported rather less cheerfully and the intensity of the attacks stressed (News Chronicle, Daily Worker)”.

In these surroundings, public confidence gathered again. The anxiety of the first days shifted from the large issue on to the smaller matter of parachutists. The fear of parachutists brought about personal anxieties, especially to women. Moreover, Fifth Column write-ups made fear personal rather than general. A Fifth Columnist might be your next-door neighbour. Parachutists might land in your garden. Eden's broadcast and aliens round-up did much to alleviate personal fears, and by the 17th a good deal of disquiet and anxiety had been allayed and optimism was well up.

Reports sent in yesterday afternoon and evening and this morning show that disquiet and personal fear has returned. Placards in towns had something to do with this. Many observers reported great nervousness at the placard “MASS RAIDS OVER BRITAIN” Threat. A clear indication comes that frightening placards should be prohibited (see today's “76 MILES FROM PARIS” Nazi Claim). Posters come as a personal threat; they are read privately, so to speak. Moreover, they are a strong source of rumour.

Conclusions about morale today indicate that over-confidence has vanished. People are depressed (but still are prepared to be cheerful if occasion offers). The strongest reaction, however, is personal fear, the fear of devastating air raids, fear of having to stand by and wait while the inevitable Hitler approaches nearer and yet nearer.

In my opinion it would be unwise to frighten people any more by broadcasts like Edward Ward's air raid description last night, or by unrestrained placards. People must not be allowed to imagine terrors, fill their minds with facts instead of imaginings. Make personal fear shared by building up civic leadership and by constantly interpreting the news on the wireless. The morale of women is low and should receive special attention.

At the same time it must be remembered that disbelief in news is strong, that very few agencies are now to be believed.

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