During World War II, the British capital became the “London of Exiles” as it hosted exile governments hastily set up by escaped leaders of countries invaded by Germany, including Poland, Norway, Belgium, Luxembourg, The Netherlands, Greece, Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia. Other countries, like France and Denmark, created unofficial “free movements” because their domestic situation was too complicated to justify a real exile government. (i.e there was an alternative government, collaborating with Germany).
Such exile communities had very little “hard” political power – mostly symbolic – and they desperately needed to cast themselves as worthy allies of Great Britain. It was a clear-cut public relations mission, which would later be called nation branding. My research at Linacre, funded by the Carlsberg Foundation, is about the journalists, several of them “stranded” foreign correspondents, who were members of the Danish free movement in London, and, secondarily, in Stockholm.
The figure of the foreign affairs journalist has always fascinated me. Foreign correspondents are very self-conscious people. They are internationalized, multilingual, and, like all journalists, obsessed with being “where the story is”. I started to wonder how the experience of exile and world war shaped the self-image of journalists who took part in it.
This Danish case study arguably sheds light on an overlooked chapter in the history of foreign journalism: How a generation of postwar journalists was shaped by the experience of having used their skills for things that did not have much to do with journalist ideals – such as war propaganda, public diplomacy, and intelligence. Many of the Danes were recruited by British organisations such as the Political Warfare Executive, an agency that coordinated British war propaganda, and the BBC, and produced so-called “black propaganda” – broadcasts that pretended to come from partisans inside occupied territory – into Europe. (Although “propaganda” today describes a suspicious activity, in the first half of the twentieth century its meaning was closer to that of “publicity” today, and it was common to see it as a necessary evil in wartime.)
Many of these exile journalists became arbiters between the Danish exile community and sceptical British government agencies and devoted themselves to smoothen their cooperation. Exile politicians were often proud, difficult personalities, but journalists, because of their networks, language skills and international experience, maintained more trustful relationships with institutions such as the PWE and the FO and used these to improve the Free Danish standing.
Many journalists gained a high degree of diplomatic experience from the war, illustrated by the fact that several among them became diplomats after the war, including Denmark’s ambassadors to Australia and NATO.
In 1945, some returned Danish journalists took it upon themselves to “internationalize” their fellow Danes, by using their exile stories as a pretext to scold Danes for being self-sufficient and egoistic in their reluctance to give aid to European countries that had suffered severely during the war. Others founded a foreign-affairs journal that brought translated international journalism to a Danish elite audience, and several became leading voices in Danish foreign policy debates and later proponents of Denmark’s accession to NATO. A question that calls for more research is what the more long-term consequences were of the emergence of this “former exile”-generation in Danish media, and to what extent it saw parallels in other European countries.
Emil Eiby Seidenfaden is a Carlsberg Junior Research Fellow at Linacre College and an Academic Visitor at the History Faculty.