Combined review: Wartime propaganda

Reviewed by Sabine Schiffer

This critical analysis of two books on propaganda techniques is shaped by the order in which they were received. As a result, the weighting of individual aspects is slightly distorted. To ensure that the reviews are still comparable to some extent, the reviews share the following structure: information on the author, content and objective of publication, and evaluation.

Christian Hardinghaus (2023): Kriegspropaganda und Medienmanipulation. [Wartime propaganda and media manipulation.] Munich: Europa Verlag, 232 pages, EUR 24.

According to the book’s cover, Hardinghaus (born 1973) holds a doctorate in history, literature and media studies, having completed his doctoral thesis on the topic of propaganda and antisemitism. His Twitter profile states that he is a journalist; on the ARD website, an interview with him from June 2023 lists him as a historian (cf.

At first glance, Hardingshaus’ list of publications appears dominated by fiction.


Christian Hardinghaus sets himself the task of explaining to his readers how they can uncover propaganda and thus evade the (intended) manipulation. The first five of the six chapters are entitled: »Recognizing propaganda,« »Understanding propaganda,« »Uncovering propaganda,« »Wartime propaganda,« and »Propaganda in the war in Ukraine.« There then follows a closing chapter entitled »Reporting on Ukraine in German media and a call for better journalism.«

The structure alone indicates some of the book’s strengths and weaknesses. On the one hand, information on the history of propaganda and its techniques are presented in a general way while, on the other, the chapter list shows that the whole thing amounts to an opinion piece on the war in Ukraine and reporting on it. Alongside certain predictable redundancies, the switch to the journalistic perspective ends up in a conclusion informed by media ethics.


Does the book promote propaganda literacy – an explicit goal of the author? Yes, potentially. It offers a wealth of knowledge on the history of propaganda, for example, although the lack of a system for the terminology is likely to make recog­nition difficult. Of course, it is not only a question of typology – understanding the way propaganda works and its historical context is also important. There are some attempts at this.

Hardinghaus breaks central definitions of propaganda down into four key elements: manipulation of the masses by the powerful using media (p. 11). Having provided an overview of the history and terminology of using propaganda to control the masses, drawing on relevant authors from Gustave Le Bon to Edward Bernays to Noam Chomsky, in Chapter 3 he attempts to keep his promise of »Uncovering propaganda: on 75 forms and techniques in practical application.«

He begins by differentiating between white, grey, and black propaganda, before turning to »seven basic forms of propaganda« (p. 49ff.). These are based on the »Seven Propaganda Devices« listed by the Institute for Propaganda Analysis (IPA) in the USA in 1937/38, including the practice of name-calling or wording, self-idealization while also demonizing the other side, and card-stacking – omitting facts that are unfavorable to your own side. With the exception of the bandwagon argument at the end (p. 55), which exploits the belief in compliant masses, the book fails to effectively delineate the individual forms from one another and from the subsequent list of »propaganda techniques of deception.« For example, he includes agenda-setting in that list – a mechanism that can be claimed whenever a topic is addressed in the media.

The list is arranged alphabetically and includes techniques like »anecdotal evidence,« »astroturfing,« »poisoning the well,« »slippery slope argument,« »embedded journalism,« and more. This clearly demonstrates the differing quality of the techniques named, some of which include journalistic categories. Despite this, the examples are easy to read and individual techniques are clearly described. In some cases, the author provides a choice of terms under which the phenomenon can also be found. The IPA typology is explicitly referenced in some places (e.g., under »Renaming and euphemization« on »name calling, glittering generality or labeling« (p. 87), but this is not systematic and too little delineation is provided.

In the »Wartime propaganda« chapter (p. 91ff.), Hardinghaus ties in with the work of Anne Morelli, who summarized Lord Arthur Ponsonby’s principles of modern information wars in the famous ten features (p. 95). These principles thus boil down to the idea that »We are the good ones, we speak the truth, and we are always right,« while the opposite is true for the evil enemy. Hardinghaus’ strengths as a historian shine through in the discourse on propaganda during the world wars, which forms the heart of the book.

Another positive aspect is the way that Hardinghaus always highlights the reciprocal propaganda, regardless of who the aggressor is in each case. As a result, he cannot be accused of East-West or any other bias. The »casus belli lies« are presented especially well and systematically, always at the end of a brief analy­sis of a propaganda war. Regarding the Iraq war, however, his description of Powell’s lies about the war fails to mention Curveball (a false key witness to the non-existent threats with German support; Hardinghaus fails to expose German rhetoric on keeping out of the war here), despite talking about »false information by the secret service« (p. 169). Nor does he mention any potential double stan­dards when discussing the current signal word »whataboutery« (cf. p. 85).

The book would probably have been better reviewed in the mainstream media if it were not for the last chapter. This is a kind of bonus chapter that takes a critical view of »reporting on Ukraine« (p. 199ff.). Like some of the other sections described above, it uses very little evidence, instead often simply providing observations and self-evaluations by a critical media user.

Yet the objective at the end of the book is a noble one: to replace censorship with critical examination of Russian propaganda. The author has impressive knowledge of this, and can provide credible critique. The study by the Otto Brenner Foundation (Maurer/Haßler/Jost 2023 ) described here is not the only evidence that reporting is dominated by the Ukrainian perspective. This information deserves to be pursued, especially by someone working in journalism, and to be subjected to (self-)critical examination.


A slight imbalance in the descriptions is also reflected in the list of »propaganda methods« on pages 219/220. The terminology there covers very different circumstances ranging from »deplatforming« to »straw man argument,« thus going beyond merely targeted propaganda techniques. The foreword and the closing chapter bookend the work with an appeal – a fact that is undoubtedly legitimate in an academic book and underscores the transparent motivation of the author.

Errors both large and small cast doubt on the author’s level of care. Contrary to the description here, Edward Bernays was not a psychologist (p. 33). Although he was Sigmund Freud’s nephew, we cannot assume that he was his apprentice – the distance between the continents was undoubtedly more difficult to overcome then than it is today. It is therefore safe to assume that Bernays took on Freud’s ideas in the form of books and letters. When Freud was persecuted in Europe, his nephew supported him by publishing his books in the USA. Hardinghaus pays too little attention to Bernays’ concept of humanity – preventing chaos in a democracy by controlling the masses with clever propaganda (cf. Le Bon 1911/2008).

Nor does the author differentiate systematically between intention and potential. After all, not every effect that arises was necessarily the decision-maker’s intention. There are some exceptions (as shown by the fragmentation of photos on p. 78, although a reference to Haus der Geschichte in Bonn as the source is omitted), but in general a murmur of »the propagandist« is audible throughout the book. This always sounds like an intentional approach, but it would have been important to differentiate strictly here between strategic communication on the one hand, and unconsidered perception and dissemination on the other. The same goes for the failure to differentiate between »framing,« which is mentioned, and strategic framing, which is not (cf. p. 69). Just as it is impossible to not communicate, it is impossible to not frame. Linguistic and pictorial re­pre­sen­tations are always pre-shaped and help to form perceptions of the situation. Jacques Ellul, whose work is referred to here, was wise to give plenty of space to »sociological propaganda« (Ellul 2021 [1962], p. 87ff.) – i.e., the unintentional, omnipresent fundamental stories of a society.

Citing two typologies of propaganda techniques has the potential to be confusing. It may have been worth making the effort to include the second list as sub-points of the first, the IPA model. Without this, the lack of a systematic approach to terminology and describing events runs throughout the entire book, making it difficult to spot individual techniques. Making choices transparent would have been enormously helpful with intersubjective comprehensibility – although the book is generally designed more as an essay than as a system­atic analysis to be used as a reference work. That might make it easier to read, but it carries the risk of redundancy.

Although a register is provided at the end, some terms are difficult or even impossible to look up because they or their synonyms have been omitted (cf. Overton, which approximately corresponds to Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann’s spiral of silence, which in turn throws up very different problems that are the subject of much discussion in media studies; cf. p. 73). Indeed, the register does not differentiate between the quality of the individual entries, but is a mixed register of words and terminology. An example: »Hypothetical baiting« cannot be clearly differentiated from »poisoning the well.« And while the »guilt by association« hypotheses are today omnipresent, individual techniques for producing these claims are not linked to them.

The example of the remarks on »cognitive dissonance« are a good illustration of the inaccuracies that repeatedly arise in Hardinghaus’ list (cf. p. 75). After all, cognitive dissonance is not a technique of strategic communication, but a potential result; a status description of how contradictory circumstances are perceived.

»Guilt by association« could be a useful overarching category if typologizing the associations: The aforementioned »discreditation by association« at the level of appointments of disagreeable people would be an obvious choice here, as would discreditation with rejected topics or other options for negative labeling by association (sense-induction through appointment, as I call it in Lehrbuch Medienanalyse (Schiffer 2021), for example) – there is a link to the »montage« topic, which in turn appears to be unconnected to the topic of association in Hardinghaus’ mind.

All in all, in many places the text is vague on whether points are common propaganda techniques whose characteristics have long since been researched – clearly shown with memorable and perhaps familiar examples – or the author’s own research findings. The citation of individual pieces of evidence – the imbalanced selection of which I have not understood – under »Remarks,« rather than providing a proper bibliography, also weakens the book as a piece of academic work. (In addition, this information could have benefitted from careful proof-reading: The year of publication or information on the publisher is missing or incorrect in places.)

When it comes to »political correctness,« I asked myself whether the author himself could have fallen victim to the myth of right-wing actors, who often warn against »cancel culture« when defending racism in public discourse (cf. p. 80ff.). Passages in which the line between literary figure and academic appear to become blurred are particularly concerning. In places, Hardinghaus writes as though he could see inside the heads of »the propagandists.« This is a bold approach for an academic publication – especially given the propensity of some authors to slip into fiction when addressing topics that are particularly difficult or not fully researched, in order to present a hypothesis for discussion for which there is (currently) no evidence.

The book provides a highly selective outline of the history of PR, although the question of whether and to what extent the First World War represented a leap in the quality of propaganda is certainly a subject for discussion. However, referring to it as the »first propaganda war« (p. 98) certainly does not go far enough. After all, throughout the history of PR, war has developed as an engine of the development of strategic communication and public relations, always with links to media development (cf. e.g. Kunczik 2009). It would have been useful to look back at least to the time of the Crusades.

The list of propaganda in the First World War omits the British nurse Edith Cavell, who was sentenced to death by the German occupiers in Belgium for aiding an escape. Yet her story is particularly memorable as an aid to understanding the development of posters – the »German monster« who defiles women – and continues as a motif through to the Gulf War propaganda of 1991 and the Afghanistan war (cf. Lakoff 1991). It is right to include the image of Kim Phuc as one of the two iconic anti-war images from the Vietnam War (p. 134), but the fact that photographer Nick Ut edited the photo, (including by cutting out the soldiers and photographers who were standing around, visible in the top right of the original photo) in order to increase its impact (cf. Paul 2008) is not mentioned. The book would also have benefitted from careful proof-reading. Linguistic errors such as »kuffa« instead of »kuffar« for »unbeliever« (singular = kafir) and incorrect dates – for example when the My Lai massacre in Vietnam is dated as 1968 but the investigation into it as 1967 (cf. p. 131/132) – do not exactly increase the work’s credibility, instead suggesting that it was written hastily and sloppily.

Jonas Tögel (2023): Kognitive Kriegsführung. Neueste Manipulationstechniken aus der Waffengattung der NATO. [Cognitive warfare. The latest manipulation techniques in the NATO armory.] Frankfurt/M.: Westend Verlag, 256 pages, EUR 24.

Tögel (born in 1985) is a research assistant at the University of Regensburg’s School of Educational Psychology. His research focuses there are listed as »soft power, motivation and propaganda, and key epoch-typical problems of the 20th and 21st centuries (sustainability/ESD).« He previously studied American studies and Romance studies for teaching, before completing a doctorate on motivation for learning. As a propaganda researcher, he specializes in NATO’s soft power techniques, thus filling a gap in journalistic discourse that prefers to look at the propaganda of ‘the others’ – such as Russian disinformation – and rarely or never includes NATO as a subject of investigation.


The aim of this factual book is to make NATO’s strategy papers and considerations visible in public discourse and thus to shed light on the human sphere as a potential sixth theater of war – alongside water, land, air, space and cyberspace. To do this, Tögel first provides a general definition of soft power (as opposed to hard power), before addressing the considerations of NATO’s strategic thinkers and analyzing the strategies they put out.

The relevant aspects are examined individually in the chapters »Cognitive warfare as wartime propaganda« (p. 17ff.), »… as digital manipulation« (p. 107ff.), »… as cultural manipulation» (p. 149ff.), and »… as a technology of the future« (p. 165ff.). In light of the current situation, there is an additional chapter on the war in Ukraine as a (indeed the only) sub-section of the chapter on »The topicality of cognitive warfare and potential ways out« (p. 191ff.). This feels like an afterthought. From p. 205, Tögel summarizes »Recognizing, understanding and neutralizing the manipulative weapons of cognitive warfare: an overview« once again.


Tögel admits a certain bias from the very beginning (p.11) by referencing his viewpoint and his language skills, which have led him to Western sources of propaganda. Immersing himself in NATO’s considerations on cognitive warfare, which is intended to complement or even replace shooting wars, enables him to take a sophisticated look at the military actor, which is often viewed in the West as merely a defensive alliance.

The historical overview of the relatively short development of »cognitive warfare,« concentrating on the period in which this term is used, provides some initial insight into the new evaluation of soft power (a much older concept from political strategic communication; cf. e.g., the term »public diplomacy«) as a means of acting strategically. Alongside Robert Cialdini, he particularly mentions the authors Bernard Claverie and Francois du Cluzel and the cyberexpert Le Guyader as central figures in analyzing and compiling recommendations for NATO (p. 28ff).

In the logic of a defensive alliance, everything devised by NATO is conceived as a reaction to the propaganda – specifically, the cognitive warfare – of the other side. In line with Lord Arthur Ponsonby’s rules (as mentioned in the discussion of Hardinghaus), NATO thus considers its own propaganda as a form of active defense that, they would argue, makes the use of manipulative psychological techniques effectively unavoidable.

There are various links between this historical outline of the development of wartime propaganda and Hardinghaus’ work: Both authors agree on the central role of Edward Bernays and on the classification of »atrocity propaganda« (p. 56) as a means of wartime propaganda. Tögel, however, also honors Ivy Ledbetter Lee – a rival to Bernays. It is interesting that the topic of »Disinformation on covid-19« plays a prominent role in the context of the 2022 NATO papers (p. 32).

Tögel’s work is careful and systematic. His academic orientation is clear to see in the substantiated references to the psychological and pedagogical basics. He uses the example of the Creel Commission – the USA’s Committee on Public Information – to clearly demonstrate how it was possible to transform public opinion from rejection of the USA’s involvement in the First World War to enthusiastic support. The process was aided significantly by Edward Bernays; the experience taught him that these manipulation techniques can also be used during peacetime. The chapter on wartime propaganda is rightly long, also presenting the use of propaganda methods following the two world wars to topple leaders and intervene in other countries.

Although it has already been made clear that any technical innovation also brings with it a leap forward in the development of propaganda, the new possibilities offered by the internet are truly a quantum leap. The NATO papers therefore dedicate a great deal of attention to the online »war of information« (p. 110). To put it briefly, they contain everything that the opposing side is accused of: from micro-targeting on social media to manipulation of Google searches. However, a clear demarcation between NATO and the Pentagon is missing. A particular strength of the book is the insight it provides into visionary aspects and the strategy developer’s projections for the future. Based on the latest findings, perhaps the amount of resources that will be invested in robots, neurosciences and transhuman technologies in order to gain a strategic advantage in the geostrategic race is too horrible to contemplate.

Tögel, too, sees information as a weapon against manipulation. It is therefore good that his book is written in an easier-to-read, less academic style. The conclusion, in which the author shares some thoughts on activism, serves the noble purpose of informing people and strengthening democracy. He rightly criticizes the originally British Integrity Initiative, which takes aim at »Russian disinformation« and can be used to mark unfavorable opinions as disinformation – a step towards a thought police, illustrated here using the


Tögel’s history of wartime propaganda is a little too brief. For example, he states that wartime propaganda was essentially developed in the 20th century. Conversely, it can be said that PR – which was previously openly referred to as propaganda – always developed closely connected to wars as they progressed (cf. Kunczik 2009; Morelli 2014), with the latest technologies being used and further refined each time. The major leaps in technological progress should not hide the fact that people have always been incited against one another.

Towards the end, the book becomes somewhat less accurate and in parts speculative, for example when it talks about biolabs (in Ukraine), which the author discusses based on entirely different sources from the rest of the book. Although these include recognized online sources such as Heise-Verlag’s Telepolis, this section is of lower quality than the analysis of the NATO papers: Tögel does not limit himself to NATO papers and tangible evidence of strategic considerations, but mixes further thoughts with facts. In contrast, he does not try to get to the bottom of a piece of tangible evidence. For example, although he names the blog EUvsDisinfo (p. 172), he does not mention, even in the endnote, that it is run by the East StratCom Task Force – an EU and NATO body for strategic communication ( This should have been paid a great deal more attention, given that it essentially implements some of the content of the NATO strategy papers. A PR body like this, with the direct involvement of NATO, plays a key role at an operative level, especially given that media often frame it as an EU body.

One weakness of the book is that it contains remarks in place of a bibliography. It is possible to check individual sources based on the text, but it is not possible to determine systematically whether all relevant sources on the topic of wartime propaganda and cognitive warfare have been incorporated. The fact that specialist terms such as »stigma word,« »euphemism,« and »spin« are missing suggests selective use of sources.

Translation: Sophie Costella


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About the reviewer

Sabine Schiffer is a professor at the Hochschule für Medien Kommunikation und Wirtschaft (HMKW) in Frankfurt/M.