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The Writer as Psychological Warrior: Intellectuals, Propaganda, and Modern Conflict

Online conference, hosted by Durham University

12-16 July 2021

The tendency of the modern state is to wipe out the freedom of the intellect, and yet at the same time every state, especially under the pressure of war, finds itself more and more in need of an intelligentsia to do its publicity for it.

George Orwell, ‘Poetry and the Microphone’ (1943)

Writing in 1943, George Orwell reflected upon the challenges posed for both governments and intelligentsia by the rapid growth in wartime propaganda production. If the British government had begun the war ‘with the more or less openly declared intention of keeping the literary intelligentsia out of it […] after three years of war almost every writer, however undesirable his political history or opinions, has been sucked into the various Ministries or the BBC’. As Orwell recognised, the recruitment of cultural actors by government information and psychological warfare departments changed both spheres, since the ‘tone and even to some extent the content of official propaganda’ were ‘modified’ by the new entrants – a negotiation known all too well to Orwell himself due to his own role as a propagandist during the war.

At a moment when disinformation and ‘fake news’ are of pressing political concern, the conference sought to approach these debates as part of a longer history of propaganda across the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, decades in which new military and media technologies raised political warfare to the status of the ‘Fourth Fighting Arm’ of the state and consequently made cultural figures integral actors in modern conflict.

The conference featured three special events – a conversation between Peter Pomerantsev, author of This Is Not Propaganda: Adventures in the War Against Reality (2019), and propaganda historian (and project co-organiser) Jo Fox; a discussion with Sir David Hare, writer and director of the 1978 BBC TV film Licking Hitler; and ‘Postcards from the Besieged City of Leningrad’ a presentation by Julie Reines Chervinsky and Polina Barskova of archival materials from the Blavatnik Archive.

We plan to produce an edited collection based on contributions to the conference in the near future.

Conference programme

Monday 12 July 


Conference welcome: James Smith (Durham University), Principal Investigator of Leverhulme Trust-funded project ‘The Political Warfare Executive, Covert Propaganda, and British Culture’ 


Panel 1: Evolving propaganda campaigns 

Chair: James Smith (Durham University)

  • Carlo Moll (University of Cambridge), ‘“World War of words”: Manufacturing the ‘truth’ of the Great War in interwar Italy’ 
  • Zachary Hope (University of Chicago), ‘What Is Pamphlet Literature? Spurious Circulations, Counterfeit Publics, and Party Propaganda’ 
  • Joanna Rzepa (University of Essex), ‘“A Christian Looks at the Jewish Question”: Religious Intellectuals and Propaganda during World War 2’  
  • Greg Kennedy (King’s College London), ‘Rudyard Kipling’s Role in Anglo-American Strategic Relations During World War One’  


SPECIAL EVENT  Peter Pomerantsev (Johns Hopkins) in conversation with Jo Fox (School of Advanced Study, University of London) 

Tuesday 13 July 


Panel 2: The BBC, conflict, and propaganda 

Chair: Debra Rae Cohen (University of South Carolina) 

  • Emily Bloom (Columbia University), ‘An “Unsuccessful Experiment”: George Orwell’s A Story by Five Authors’ 
  • Daniel Ryan Morse (University of Nevada, Reno), ‘The BBC’s Book of Verse and the Postwar Literary Canon’ 
  • Damien Keane (State University of New York at Buffalo), ‘Radio Pages, Archival Function, and the Repertoire of Political Warfare’


Panel 3: British cultural propaganda in the post-war era

Chair: Asha Rogers (University of Birmingham)

  • Caroline Z. Krzakowski (Northern Michigan University), ‘“Blameless Monotony”: Lawrence Durrell and the Cyprus Review’ 
  • Maria Hadjiathanasiou (University of Nicosia), ‘The British “soldier-aesthete” in Cyprus at “the end of empire”’ 
  • Scott Anthony (Nanyang Technological University, Singapore), ‘African correspondents reporting from London: COI propaganda, the swinging sixties and West Africa’


SPECIAL EVENT – Dramatising Secrecy and Propaganda: Sir David Hare in Conversation

Chair: Guy Woodward (Durham University)

Wednesday 14 July


Panel 4: The Cultural Cold War 

Chair: Greg Barnhisel (Duquesne University)

  • Victoria Phillips (London School of Economics), ‘Shakespeare’s Cold War: How the US and the USSR Modernized the Bard for Export’ 
  • Annabel Williams (University of Edinburgh), ‘“Dialectical tight-rope acts of self-deception”: Arthur Koestler’s anti-Communist propaganda 
  • Rachel Potter (UEA), ‘PEN is propaganda’: International PEN and free expression after the Second World War’

Thursday 15 July


Panel 5: The Ministry of Information

Chair: Tim Luckhurst (Durham University)

  • Simon Eliot (School of Advanced Study, University of London), ‘Educating the Educators at the Ministry of Information’ 
  • Harriet Atkinson (University of Brighton), ‘“The materialisation of persuasion”: “story-telling” exhibitions at the British Ministry of Information during World War Two’ 
  • Megan Faragher (Wright State University), ‘Opaque Propaganda and the Everyday in Britain in Pictures’ 
  • Henry Irving (Leeds Beckett University), ‘The View from Senate House: Using Fiction to Write a History of the Ministry of Information’


Panel 6: Wartime transnational encounters 

Chair: Sarah Davies (University of Durham)

  • Katherine Cooper (UEA), ‘“[T]heir challenge to the military masters of their homelands”: English PEN, Refugee Writers and Propaganda’    
  • Marta García Cabrera (University of Las Palmas de Gran Canaria), ‘The role of Spanish intellectuals and journalists during the World Wars: persuasion and Anglophile propaganda’ 
  • Patricia Laurence (City University of New York), ‘Disloyalty, the Writer’s Virtue: Elizabeth Bowen & John Betjeman in Neutral Ireland’

Friday 16 July


Panel 7: Propaganda and literary style

Chair: James Smith (Durham University)

  • James Purdon (University of St Andrews), ‘Mr. Bennett, Mr. Wells, Mr. Galsworthy, and Mrs Woolf: First World War Propaganda and the Case Against Realism’ 
  • Erina Megowan (College of the Holy Cross, MA), ‘“Your voice should sound throughout the country:” Mobilizing the Union of Soviet Writers during World War II’ 
  • Adam Piette (University of Sheffield), ‘Lynette Roberts’ “Gods with Stainless Ears” and the Poetics of Propaganda’   
  • Kirk Graham (University of Queensland), ‘Morale and Morality Beyond the Zero: Pynchon, Propaganda, and Fascism’


SPECIAL EVENT – ‘Postcards from the Besieged City of Leningrad’ a presentation from the Blavatnik Archive Foundation – Julie Reines Chervinsky (Blavatnik Archive Foundation) and Polina Barskova (Hampshire College, MA)

Chair: Beatriz Lopez (Durham University)

Followed by conference closing remarks