The Echoes of WWII: War Stories and Radio Propaganda

What are the stories that make us? Intergenerational storytelling is the thread that weaves the tapestry of a family’s history. For Author Denis Courtois, the tales told by his parents and grandparents of the Second World War fanned his lifelong fascination with war studies, a calling he followed to feel more connected to his family’s past.

In this blog, Denis imparts some of the ancestral anecdotes that stayed with him throughout his studies and how this lore inspired him to write his new book Winning French Minds: Radio Propaganda in Occupied France, 1940–42. As well as this, he broadcasts the focus of his research, which examines how invisible radio waves had a very visible impact during the war as wireless propaganda reverberated throughout Occupied France.

A Generation at War

My parents were born in the mid-1930s, and they lived through the Second World War as young children in the Belgian Ardennes. I heard first-hand accounts of their experience throughout my childhood. Sometimes they would answer my questions, but other times they would not, perhaps due to traumatic memories.

My mother told most of the stories, but I sensed the impact of the war on my father through his actions — he refused to visit Germany, even when I was garrisoned in Cologne (serving in the Belgium Army). My maternal grandparents had a big house, and it was occupied by the German armed forces after the invasion of Belgium in 1940. A very unpleasant time for the whole family.

I was born in Belgium long after the war was over. Since I was a young boy, I became engrossed in the history of the Second World War. In fact, this was my favourite subject at school. I am a native French speaker from Wallonia and spent my youth near Bastogne until I left Belgium to experience the world in my early 20s.

I have lived in different parts of the world as an adult including Canada, USA, China, Singapore, Germany, and France. Whilst there, I always took the opportunity to travel widely in and around these countries, visiting interesting historical sites in relation to WWII, be it in Europe, Western Africa, North America, China, or Southeast Asia. I moved to the UK in 2006 and completed an MA in British Second World War Studies and a PhD in History specialising in radio propaganda in France.

War Children, Famine & Candy

For many years, I wanted to corroborate my parents’ stories about their war experience by watching films, visiting museums, and attending conferences. I always felt lucky not having to live through anything like my parents did — the rationing and famine, living under a fascist government in constant fear of being taken to a camp or having to work for a fascist organisation, or simply being shot.

My father told me numerous times about the difficulties of living in Belgium in the 1940s and that one of the things he remembers the most is that he was hungry all the time. Until my mid-teens, he kept repeating that once the food was served on the plate, it must be eaten, and no leftovers were allowed.  ‘You take it, you eat it,’ he always said.

My grandmother tells of a story whilst on the train to Liège with my mom, who was still a child. A German soldier sat in front of her and wanted to give her a candy. My grandma told the soldier immediately that her daughter would not accept his candy. The soldier leaned back, explaining that he was married with two children in Germany. My grandma said, ‘You should return to Germany to take care of your family.’ The German soldier didn’t respond, and that was the end of it. When I heard the story, I thought the German solider might just be kind, and nothing more.

My parents aroused my curiosity, but I really quenched my thirst for knowledge through learning and wide reading. Throughout my degrees, I learned a lot about the politics of the war, as well as the battles fought raging in the four corners of the world. However, I remain unsatisfied as I wanted to know more about what happened to the civilian population in occupied territories, as this was where my parents’ and grandparents’ stories came from. I decided to focus on the social and human aspects of the war, which seemed overlooked in many literatures aside from personal diaries or memoirs.

Crusades Across the Airwaves

My PhD gave me the freedom to explore this aspect of the war in a greater depth. Propaganda became the lens through which I finally got to learn more about civilian lives during the war. Radio, as old fashioned as it sounds today, was an innovative technology used for the first time in a world war crossing the boundaries of countries.

It quickly became apparent that my research would take me to Paris. Over there, I would access material in French – material only accessible to those who had a good command of the French language – to gain an understanding of how the Nazi and Vichy propaganda concepts played out. This included the challenges and the running operations of both Radio Paris and Radio Vichy; the content of the broadcasts and the expected outcome; how these radio stations conceived their programmes and reformed to attract new listeners; as well as the various types of programmes put on air, such as entertainment, news, interviews, journals, sketches, etc.

Radio propaganda spread via the airwaves from many directions and made the life of the French more complicated, as each radio station from Britain, Europe, America, Russia, and Africa had a clear message derived from their own political agenda. Some of the stations were jammed, others were not. The type of programmes depended on the station broadcasting the programmes.

Some stations manipulated the truth, some attempted to be accurate, while others told flat-out lies. Confusion reigned as a result. Some programmes reflected the concerns of the governments in power – they are a window through which we can see what they had expected the radio propaganda to achieve. A wide range of topics were covered, for example, work, youth, sports, education, food, etc.

Tuning in to the Past

Today, I understand how propaganda was used as a means of communicating information to the civil population during the Occupation from 1940 to November 1942. The period chosen represents the heyday of Nazism and the most dangerous time for the free world. This is the time when the French had very little hope to see a victory for the Allies against Nazism and fascism.

With the Allies’ defeat in Dieppe and the Relève and a predicted cold winter approaching fast, how would the French feed themselves and protect themselves against the cold? Uncertainty was the prevailing feeling for the French population. Radio propaganda helped spread the words of comfort and a renewed confidence in the Allies for some, and hope for a better future through collaboration for others.

Thanks to my research, I feel more connected to the stories my parents and grandparents told of the war. Although my study focuses on France, parallels can be made between the French-speaking part of Belgium and France due to their geographic and cultural proximity.  

The Armistice Museum in Rethondes, Compiègne, France. This is where the Armistice was signed in 1919 and 1940.
© Photo by Denis Courtois

We’d like to thank Denis Courtois for this poignant blog about the impact of war and propaganda on families in Belgian and France. If you’d like to learn more about the war of the radios, Winning French Minds: Radio Propaganda in Occupied France, 1940–42 is a fascinating and unique insight into how Allied, Axis, and Vichy governments exploited radio to win over the population in Occupied France. 

This post was originally featured on the Casemate UK Books Blog.