Beethoven Fifth Symphony and World War II

Propaganda played a major role in World War II. In addition to traditional newspapers, the modern medium of radio became a major player for the first time; by 1940 many homes had radios and they were widely available in public gathering places as well.

Adolf Hitler was a great believer in propaganda, and Nazi efforts were brilliantly managed by Joseph Goebbels and his Reichsministerium für Volksaufklärung und Propaganda, the Ministry of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda. One well-known use of radio propaganda was ‘Germany Calling,’ an English language broadcast featuring an Irish-American named William Joyce, widely known as ‘Lord Haw Haw’ because of his affected upper-class and nasal voice.

On the Allied side, one of the most successful media creations of the war was the adoption of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony as a symbol of resistance to Germany (even though Beethoven had been German and was also used by Goebbels.)

There are conflicting views of the exact evolution of this symbol in 1941, but the following appears to be accurate:

• Victor de Laveleye, a Belgian politician, began to recommend the people in occupied countries should use ‘V’ as a symbol of resistance, as it stood for Victory in English, Victoire in French, and Flemish word Vrijheid (freedom).

• Then came a poem in French:

In ne faut pas desesperer on les aura.
N’oublier pas la letter V
Ecrivez las chantonnez la VVVV
Sur les murs et sur les pave faites des V


Do not despair.
Remember the letter V
Write the letter on the walls and the pavements
Make the letter V

• The BBC began to use the Morse code for V to introduce its foreign language broadcasts, dot-dot-dot-dash.

• This, of course, is the rhythm of the opening bars of Beethoven’s 5th Symphony, and the Roman numeral for 5 is V….

• Finally Winston Churchill put his imprimatur on the campaign. On July 19, 1941, he said: “The V sign is the symbol of the unconquerable will of the occupied territories and a portent of the fate awaiting Nazi tyranny.”

The rest, as they say, is history.

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