WW2 leaflet propaganda: “The way of all flesh”

The use of airborne leaflet propaganda during times of conflict was first seen in the 1870 Franco-Prussian War, when the defenders of Paris dropped leaflets over the besieging German troops from a hot air balloon, proclaiming their defiance. However, hot air balloons and the like were slow and unwieldy, and it wasn’t until the First World War that the potential of airborne leaflet propaganda could be properly realised, by dropping leaflets from aeroplanes. Methods of distribution became more sophisticated in the Second World War, with new types of bomb invented specifically to drop thousands of leaflets over enemy territory.

Leaflet propaganda was chiefly designed to break enemy morale, and was used against both civilians and soldiers, though the latter remained the chief target. Writers of propaganda hoped to appeal to the most basic human instincts: fear, self-preservation, love of family, and romantic/sexual jealousy. Both the Germans and the Japanese designed leaflets to appeal to the romantic nostalgia and sexual jealousy of Allied troops far from home, who were missing their sweethearts and quite possibly worried about what they might be getting up to in their absence.

The most basic of these leaflets were designed along the lines of two lovers in a passionate kiss. In the image, typically, the soldier passionately kisses his sweetheart before heading off for Europe or the Pacific. The accompanying text aims to induce nostalgia for peacetime, thus awakening (or encouraging) a desire to have the war end and get back home.

Nazi propaganda for American soldiers...
Nazi propaganda for Americans…
...and the Japanese equivalent
…and the Japanese equivalent











A number of German-produced leaflets resorted to even more desperate tactics to make Allied soldiers wish that the war was at an end so they could go home. They played on the jealous fears of the average British and American soldier that ‘their’ woman might be unfaithful back home while they were out fighting. Obviously the women in these sorts of pictures were especially glamorous, merely serving as a ‘type’ onto which British and American soldiers could project their own wives and girlfriends.

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The text accompanying the above image (one of a series of three) reads:

“When pretty Joan Hopkins was still standing behind the ribbon counter of a 5 & 10 cts. store on 3rd Avenue in New York City, she never dreamed of ever seeing the interior of a duplex Park Avenue apartment. Neither did young Bob Harrison, the man she loves. Bob was drafted and sent to the battlefields in Europe thousands of miles away from her. Through Lazare’s Employment Agency, Joan got a job as private secretary with wily Sam Levy. Sam is piling up big money on war contracts. Should the slaughter end very soon, he would suffer an apoplectic stroke.

Now Joan knows what Bob and his pals are fighting for.

Joan always used to look up to Bob as the guiding star of her life, and she was still a good girl when she started working for Sam Levy. But she often got the blues thinking of Bob, whom she hadn’t seen for over two years. Her boss had an understanding heart and was always very kind to her, so kind indeed, that he often invited her up to his place. He had always wanted to show her his “etchings”. Besides, Sam wasn’t stingy and each time Joan came to see him, he gave her the nicest presents. Now, all women like beautiful and expensive things. But Sam wasn’t the man you could play for a sucker. He wanted something, wanted it very definitely…

Poor little Joan! She is still thinking of Bob, yet she is almost hoping that he’ll never return.

Notwithstanding its lack of subtlety, the leaflet above actually has several interesting features. Firstly, we can see Nazi anti-Semitism creeping in in the form of the corrupt and obviously Jewish ‘Sam Levy’ character. Disturbingly interwoven with the basic appeal to sexual jealousy is a narrative of a Jewish capitalist conspiracy to keep the war going because of profitable arms contracts, regardless of how many young and wholesome ‘Bob Harrison’ types die on the battlefield.

Secondly, the leaflet is surprisingly well-written and well-researched. The author went to the trouble of researching topics like ‘5 & 10 cents stores’, where the most desirable property in New York was to be had, and so on. As far as I can tell, the writer has captured the colloquial American English of the time rather well. The colloquial language on the leaflets aimed at British troops is also pretty good – only the odd whiff of German sentence structure gives away that fact that it was probably written by a German.

The British were also subject to this sort of propaganda, aimed at arousing romantic and sexual jealousy, and thus a desire for the war to end. The leaflets play on a familiar complaint among British troops: that American soldiers with lots of disposable income were coming over to Britain and seducing British women with their money and easygoing charm. Unlike the ridiculous anti-Semitic caricature of the Wall Street Jew seducing his secretary, the leaflets aimed at making British soldiers jealous of their American comrades actually contained an element of truth.

GIs flooded into Britain in their thousands in the latter part of the war, and many British women (both single and married) responded positively to their advances, whether out of affection, loneliness, or the desire for a few cigarettes and a pair of real silk stockings. However, these leaflets alone were hardly enough to make the British army rise up in a rage against their American allies. We can never say just how effective leaflet propaganda was, but it does seem likely that it would have played at least some part in dampening enemy morale, especially if it was already low.



The Münster rebellion: the creation of a 16th-century theocracy

Today, Münster is a small and unassuming city in the northwest of Germany, hardly the first place one would think of when asked to identify historical hotbeds of sedition and rebellion. Yet for several surreal months in 1535-6, Münster was the scene of a radical religious and political experiment, an attempt by a small group of radical Protestants to create a totalitarian communist theocracy, a ‘New Jerusalem’ located not in the deserts of Palestine, but in the fertile region of Münsterland.

It all started in Strasbourg, which had become an unofficial headquarters of the Anabaptist movement following the German Peasants’ War of 1525. The Anabaptists formed a radical sect which had sprung up in the wake of the Protestant Reformation. In Strasbourg, an Anabaptist leader named Melchior Hoffmann declared himself the ultimate interpreter of prophecy, and a divinely appointed leader. He claimed that he was one of the “two witnesses” of the Book of Revelation, that the end of the world was nigh, and that Strasbourg was about to become the new Jerusalem, ruling the entire world. Crucially, Hoffmann also suggested that violence could be used with impunity against enemies of the faith (i.e. those who opposed his teachings).

Melchior Hoffmann
Melchior Hoffmann

This heady invocation of prophecy and millenarian visions, combined with more than a whiff of rebellion, proved attractive to quite a few contemporaries, especially to Anabaptists and members of similar religious sects. Hoffmann travelled throughout Germany preaching his gospel, spreading it to particularly great effect in northwest Germany and the Netherlands. His followers called themselves “Melchiorites”, a name which reveals the centrality of his charismatic personality to the movement.

Sensing a threat to the political, social and religious status quo, a group of German rulers had managed to get Hoffmann thrown into prison by 1533. Yet the Anabaptist movement was hydra-headed thanks to its egalitarian  nature; where one leader fell, another quickly rose to take his place. It was therefore difficult for the authorities to entirely crush Anabaptist unrest. In the event, it was a lowly baker from Strasbourg, Jan Matthys, who took up Melchior Hoffmann’s mantle. He claimed to be the second witness of the coming apocalypse, but transferred the soon-to-be capital of the saints from Strasbourg to Münster. In order to pave the way for his arrival in Münster, Matthys sent four ‘apostles’ ahead of him to convert the ordinary folk and sound out the religious sympathies of the town’s leaders.

Jan Matthys
Jan Matthys

Matthys’ apostles found the town council full of Anabaptist sympathisers, who would be a great help and source of support in the coming months. Matthys arrived in Münster, staged a rebellion, and managed to throw out the erstwhile ruler, the Prince Bishop Franz von Waldeck. Matthys and his disciples entered the city in triumph and soon got to work re-baptising thousands of the inhabitants. As part of his program of spiritual purification, Matthys expelled all the Catholics from the city, outlawed money, and forbade anyone from owning property. All goods were now supposed to be held in common.

Franz von Waldeck, meanwhile, was busy getting together an army with which to take back his city. He managed to obtain material help from neighbouring princes, as the presence of such a politically and religiously radical community was not in the interests of any of the naturally conservative local rulers. Once assembled, Waldeck’s troops besieged the city and proceeded to starve out the city’s inhabitants.

This fledgling New Jerusalem suffered the misfortune of losing its leader on Easter Sunday in April 1534. Ever mindful of messages and visions from God, Matthys had prophesied that on that very day, God’s judgement was going to fall upon the wicked (i.e. Waldeck and his supporters). Matthys therefore thought it a good idea to make a sally against Waldeck’s troops with only thirty men. He believed that he was destined to be a second Gideon, imitating Gideon’s slaughter of the Mideonites in the Bible. Whatever the truth of God’s supposed judgement on that day, Matthys’ own judgement proved distinctly abysmal. He and his small band of men were soon cut off by Waldeck’s troops and Matthys was killed, his head severed and placed on a pole for everyone in the city to see. His genitals were also nailed to the city gate, in case the point needed stressing.

A contemporary depiction of the siege of Münster
A contemporary depiction of the siege of Münster

As already mentioned, however, the Anabaptist movement was hydra-headed, so another obscure man soon rose to take Matthys’ place. John of Leiden, one of Matthys’ core disciples, was recognised as Matthys’ religious and political successor. He justified his authority and actions by the apparent receipt of visions from heaven. As Leiden’s authority grew, he proclaimed himself the successor to King David, and adopted royal regalia, honours and absolute power in this ‘new Zion’. Leiden legalised polygamy (he himself took sixteen wives) and reaffirmed the community of goods. Leiden managed to keep most of the townspeople on his side by the sheer force of his charisma, and also by making frequent promises of eternal salvation for those citizens who held out against the besieging forces. His motto for the defence of the city was “Gottes Macht ist mein Kraft” (God’s power is my strength).

Meanwhile, people inside the city were starving due to the siege blockade. After a surprisingly lengthy resistance, Münster was eventually taken by the besiegers in June 1535. John of Leiden and other prominent Anabaptist leaders were captured and imprisoned. Several of them were tortured and finally executed in the city marketplace; after the initial burning, their tongues were pulled out with tongs, before each was killed with a burning dagger thrust through the heart. Their bodies were placed in three cages and hung from the steeple of St. Lambert’s Church, and the remains left to be picked at by carrion birds. The bones were removed about fifty years later, but the cages still remain on the church tower.

*   *   *   *

The problem with this story is that we don’t really know how much of it is actually true. If the story reads like sensational reporting, it could be because it really was. Much of what we know about the Münster Rebellion, specifically about what went on in the city, comes from hostile sources who would of course play up the scandalous and sensational aspects, in order to discredit Anabaptists and similar groups. In fact, the Münster Rebellion really did mark a turning point for the Anabaptist movement in Germany. It would never again assume such political significance; rulers, both Lutheran and Catholic, adopted stringent measures to suppress them and similar religious groups. Matthys and Leiden had tried their best to create a New Jerusalem, but it was never to be.

The original cages still hang on the steeple of St. Lambert's Church in Münster
The original cages still hang on the steeple of St. Lambert’s Church in Münster


The Mitford sisters: the fascist and the Hitler-lover

This is the one of two posts on the notorious Mitford sisters. I have written about Jessica, Deborah and Nancy here, and this post is about Unity and Diana (Lady Mosley), the two dedicated fascists of the family.

Nancy, Pamela, Diana, Unity, Jessica, Deborah and their brother Tom were born between 1904 and 1920 to the politician David Freeman-Mitford, the future Lord Redesdale, and his wife Sydney Bowles. The children grew up in a cold and reserved family atmosphere. Nancy would later describe her mother as “abnormally detached” and their father was a formidable man prone to raging at everyone. He once remarked that each child was sillier than the last, and one of his favourite pastimes was chasing his two youngest daughters with bloodhounds. Lord Redesdale was rude to all of Nancy’s friends who came to stay and would shout “don’t these people have homes to go to?” at the dinner table.  According to Jessica, their father wouldn’t receive any “outsiders” as guests; that meant that “Huns”, “Frogs”, Americans and Asians were definitely out. Another point of contention was that whilst he sent their brother Tom to Eton and Oxford, he refused to let the girls attend school, maintaining that they would develop thick calves from playing hockey. There was also strife between the siblings. Nancy would torment Deborah; the latter mused in a recent interview, “I should think the social services would be called in now”.

The Mitford family in 1921
The Mitford family in 1921

Diana was considered by many contemporaries to be the most beautiful of the Mitford sisters; Evelyn Waugh wrote gushingly that her beauty “ran through the room like a peal of bells”. No-one could foresee the scandal which would go on to envelop her. She married Bryan Guinness, the heir to the huge brewing fortune, and seemed destined for a life of ease and society gatherings. This all changed when she met Oswald Mosley, leader of the British Union of Fascists, in 1932. Something about this man, 14 years her senior with a Hitler-inspired moustache, fascinated her. So much, in fact, that she ran away from her husband at the age of 22.

At the time, Mosley was married with children and he made it clear to Diana that he had no plans to leave his long-suffering family. Diana did not let this deter her, however, and installed herself in a flat where Mosley might visit her whenever he could spare time from his work and family duties. Conveniently for Diana, Mosley’s wife died in 1933. Bryan Guinness divorced Diana and three years later, she married Mosley in a civil ceremony attended by Hitler, held in – of all places – Joseph Goebbel’s drawing room in Berlin. Of course, her misconduct didn’t endear Diana to her strict parents. After she ran away from her husband, she was utterly disgraced and Unity was forbidden from visiting her.

Diana Mitford, later Lady Diana Mosley
Diana Mitford, later Lady Diana Mosley
Oswald Mosley











Since Mosley’s position necessitated links to Nazi Germany, Diana soon met Hitler and they became friends. She attended the 1937 Nuremberg Rally with Unity and their brother Tom. This friendship, and her fascist principles, led to her and Mosley being interned in Holloway prison for three years during the war. MI5 wrote of Diana, “[she] is said to be far cleverer and more dangerous than her husband and will stick at nothing to achieve her ambitions”. Nancy, motivated by her strong anti-fascist sentiments, actually managed to lengthen Diana’s internment by testifying that she was a “ruthless and shrewd egotist, a devoted fascist and admirer of Hitler and sincerely desires the downfall of England and democracy in general”.

After the war, Mosley was arguably one of the most hated men in Britain. His attempts to revive his political career failed miserably, and the couple moved to Paris. Diana spent her time writing reviews for various newspapers and published an acclaimed biography of her close friend, the Duchess of Windsor. She tried to hide her antisemitism, which the downfall of the Third Reich had not weakened, but she could not help exposing it on occasion. When a a journalist interviewing Oswald let slip that he was Jewish, Diana reportedly “went ashen, snapped a crimson nail, and left the room”. Afterwards she wrote to a friend, saying, “a nice, polite reporter came to interview Tom [as Oswald was known] but he turned out to be Jewish and was sitting there at our table. They are a very clever race and come in all shapes and sizes”.

Diana with her brother Tom at the 1937 Nuremberg Rally
Diana with her brother Tom at the 1937 Nuremberg Rally

Yet if Diana was a devoted fascist, her sister Unity took it one step further and became truly infatuated with Hitler, spending years at his side. Unity was a wilful and moody teenager and, disappointingly, ended her first season without a husband. When she expressed a wish to learn German, her parents agreed to let her move to Munich at the tender age of 19, perhaps glad that she was showing any sign of purposefulness. The truth was that she was intent upon meeting Hitler after having seen him from afar at the 1933 Nuremberg Rally.

Once in Munich, she set about trying to encounter her idol. She spent her days stalking him, which was made rather easy by the fact that he tended to frequent certain cafes and restaurants at specific times. She started sitting nonchalantly at tables wherever he happened to be, and after around ten months, her strategies paid off. Perhaps intrigued by her Aryan good looks, Hitler invited Unity to his table where they spent half an hour talking. Unity wrote to her father describing the incident, saying “it was the most wonderful and beautiful [day] of my life. I am so happy that I wouldn’t mind a bit, dying. I’d suppose I am the luckiest girl in the world. For he is the greatest man of all time”.

Hitler and Unity in a casual setting
Hitler and Unity in a casual setting

She gradually became part of Hitler’s inner circle. Biographers have suggested that Hitler was attracted to Unity because it amused him to see this member of the British aristocracy worshipping at his feet. He praised her as “a perfect specimen of Aryan womanhood”, and seemed to see strange coincidences which bound them together. He was struck by Unity’s connections to Germanic culture; her middle name was Valkyrie and her grandfather, Algernon Freeman-Mitford, had been a friend of Richard Wagner and translated the works of Houston Stewart Chamberlain; both men were Hitler’s idols.

Unity used to stride around Munich and Berlin in a black uniform, pictured with Hitler in both formal and casual settings. Rumours flew thick and fast about what Unity got up to with Hitler. Was she his lover? Various biographers have argued that she actually bore his child. David Litchfield claims that she participated in sadomasochistic orgies with SS officers, which she would recount in detail to Hitler. However, there is no good evidence to support any of this. Her family also denied such rumours.

We do know that the two certainly enjoyed a close relationship. Unity’s diary shows that they met at least 140 times between 1935 and September 1939, which is approximately once a fortnight. They were also intimate enough to make Eva Braun jealous, who wrote in her diary, of Unity, “She is known as the Valkyrie and looks the part, including her legs. I, the mistress of the greatest man in Germany and the whole world, I sit here waiting while the sun mocks me through the window panes”. Eva only managed to regain Hitler’s attention after a suicide attempt.

Unity and Diana performing a Hitler salute
Unity and Diana saluting Hitler
Diana and Unity surrounded by SS officers at the 1937 Nuremberg Rally
Diana and Unity surrounded by SS officers at the 1937 Nuremberg Rally



Unity entered fully into Nazi sentiments (a British government report from 1936 described her as “more Nazi than the Nazis”) and was not shy about expressing her antisemitism. In a letter to a German newspaper, she wrote: “The English have no notion of the Jewish danger. Our worst Jews work only behind the scenes. We think with joy of the day when we will be able to say England for the English! Out with the Jews! Heil Hitler! P.S. please publish my name in full, I want everyone to know I am a Jew hater”.

The letter sparked outrage in Britain, but Hitler rewarded Unity with an engraved golden swastika badge, a private box at the 1936 Berlin Olympics and a ride in a party Mercedes to the Bayreuth Festival. Hitler bestowed other gifts on her. In 1938 he offered her an apartment in Munich which belonged to a Jewish couple. She is reported to have visited the apartment to discuss her decoration and design plans, while the soon-to-be-evicted couple sat crying in the kitchen.

Unity was devastated when war was declared in 1938. Despite her closeness to Hitler and love for Germany, she always maintained that she was loyal to Britain, notwithstanding the assertions of MI5 chief Guy Liddell that her actions had come “perilously close to high treason”. She had always hoped for a peace between the two countries, but torn between loyalties to England and Germany, she attempted suicide by shooting herself in the head. The attempt failed and left her brain-damaged. Unity was taken to hospital at Hitler’s expense, and collected from Berne by Sydney and Debo at Christmas 1939. She was permanently changed and died in 1948 after an infection in the head turned to meningitis.

Unity Mitford in Nazi uniform
Unity Mitford in Nazi uniform