PhD Proposal, 1997: The planning, design and reception of British Home Front propaganda posters of the Second World War

Senate House (The Ministry of Information)
Senate House (The Ministry of Information)

Vast quantities of primary sources on World War Two have been released since the war, particularly in the last twenty-five years, and historians have studied numerous areas, one of which has been propaganda. The propaganda of various countries has been studied, particularly Germany (e.g. Welch, 1995, Zemen, 1964) and the U.S.S.R. (e.g. Baburina, 1984, White, 1988), with American (Nelson, 1991), French (Moody, 1989), Italian (Sciola, 1993) and Japanese (Dower, 1986) propaganda looked at to a lesser extent. Historians of the British wartime propaganda have explored the administrative history (McLaine, 1979), as well as the use of cinema (Chapman, 1997, Richards, J., Sheridan, D. (eds), 1987) and radio (Briggs, A, 1970). However, the topic of British Second World War Home Front propaganda posters is still very much under-developed in professional academic historiography, although there are some works aimed at more popular markets, for general interest (Darracott & Loftus, 1972) and some aimed at school history courses and record office users (Zemen, 1978, Cantwell, 1989). The limited coverage that historians have given to the posters, which are often used only for illustrative purposes, needs to be addressed, with a need to look beyond their ‘face value’ for their original purposes in the context of their creation and targets in a time of total war. I am aware that there is a rich, untapped range of sources relevant to this topic, including several hundred posters, due to the work done at undergraduate level, which will be used by this project as a foundational work.

This thesis will explore posters as a case study in British wartime propaganda history, using as a starting point the assumption that posters, seen in their context, constitute valuable historical sources. The topic will be analysed comparatively with reference to existing secondary sources. The work of historians such as Landsberger (1995) will be examined in order to compare methodologies. Several historians have addressed the topic of First World War posters (e.g. Hardie and Sabin, 1920, Dutton, 1989), and these will be scrutinised not only in order to compare methodologies, but also to see whether such posters influenced those of the Second World War in any way. The primary aim of this study is to produce an analysis of British posters of a comparable standard to these works, thereby adding this largely under-researched area to the historiography of wartime propaganda.

MPhil: McLaine has set up a detailed administrative history of the wartime Ministry of Information (MoI), but his remit did not extend to the specific work of other government departments on the poster campaigns and this gap in the historiography has not yet been filled. In particular, the context for the campaigns, the relations between the MoI and other departments, how other departments’ own initiatives fitted into the overall structure, and how posters were commissioned, produced, distributed and displayed, need to be established. This stage of the project will also lead to the establishment of a full chronology of poster campaigns. These targets will be achieved through an examination of posters (housed in the Imperial War Museum), and empirical documentary work on the archives of relevant governmental departments, supplemented by analysis of other sources that will shed light on both context and reception, including Mass-Observation files, newspapers and oral history. This latter will include new interviews which will produce a valuable set of resources for historians.

PhD: In the light of the contextual and administrative history established at the MPhil stage, the project will move on to analyse selected posters, and poster campaigns, in depth and to link these case studies with the general themes of the thesis as a whole. The posters will be studied individually and in thematic and chronological groups, using contextual, artistic and semiotic analyses. This will allow a full testing of the theoretical models against British Home Front propaganda posters of the Second World War. The analysis will be driven by the following questions: to what extent did the government understand the population? How did commercial and official techniques interrelate? How effective was state propaganda in a time of total war?

Major sub-aims:

  • To set up a detailed administrative context of the Ministry of Information (the lead government department for propaganda) and its interaction with other government departments and external groups, such as commercial businesses, in relation to posters.
  • To establish a detailed chronology of different poster campaigns and their relation to the timing of other propaganda campaigns.
  • To apply the general reasons for propaganda that have been identified by scholars of propaganda to the specific case study of British World War Two posters, in particular persuasion, education, information, celebration, encouragement, morale boosting, and identification of enemies.
  • To apply the general techniques of propaganda that scholars of propaganda have identified to the specific case study of British World War Two posters, in particular the appeal to the emotions of hatred, fear, anger, guilt, greed, hope and love, and the appeal to the intellect.
  • To assess critically theoretical models of propaganda, both those that were developed in the period, such as the ‘Magic Bullet theory’, and those that scholars have developed since, such as the ‘Multi-step flow theory’ in relation to British Home Front propaganda posters.
  • To identify and analyse the influence of trends and technologies from art and design on official posters.
  • To analyse the reception, effectiveness and degrees of success of the propaganda posters.
  • To explore the links between posters and other propaganda media, in particular the ways in which images from posters were reinforced by other media, and how posters in turn reinforced other media.

By Second World War Posters

Mass Communications Academic, @MMUBS. British Home Front Propaganda posters as researched for a PhD completed 2004. In 1997, unwittingly wrote the first history of the Keep Calm and Carry On poster, which she now follows with interest.

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