7 Jan 2008 32 comments. tbs.pm/3213
“The radio will be to the twentieth century what the press was to the nineteenth”
-Josef Goebbels, 1933.
All totalitarian states strictly control the media and broadcasters. Even in modern times, where there is now the internet and international digital broadcasting, dictatorships have found ways to strictly control what the populace watch, download and hear. In Saddam’s Iraq, access to the internet and satellite television was limited only to senior Ba’ath Party members, members of the general public were only allowed to watch state television and were banned from owning PCs with modems and from owning satellite dishes. In previous decades the Soviet Union spent millions of roubles on jamming the BBC World Service and the Voice of America. Typically in most totalitarian states the electronic media are run by a state monopoly which is controlled by the government – think of a BBC type broadcaster run from the totalitarian version of the Home Office with the senior executives chosen by the government.
Nazi Germany was the first totalitarian state to use radio as a propaganda tool and, uniquely, brought out a series of affordable radio sets – the Volksempfänger, or people’s radios – so poorer Germans, who generally did not have radios before 1933, could listen to Nazi propaganda and the infamous Nuremberg rallies, and little else.
In common with most European countries in the thirties, radio was controlled by a state monopoly, the Reich Broadcasting Corporation, that had been formed a year before Hitler came to power out of a collection of semi-commercial regional stations which had been nationalised. Under the Minister of the Interior, Erich Scholz, the creation of the Reich Broadcasting Corporation in July 1932 saw advertising banned and an emphasis placed on political programmes under government guidelines drawn up for the Corporation, rather than the trivial programming favoured by the old regional stations. In government guidelines for German radio, Scholz declared, “The German radio serves the German people. That which degrades the German people is excluded from German radio.” Although this statement came from a democratic government, albeit one in its death throes, the German nationalism implied by the government guidelines for radio had distinct Nazi overtones. It was no surprise that the State monopoly Reich Broadcasting Corporation was the most malleable part of the media when the Nazis took power in January 1933.
Hitler, and even more so Goebbels, saw the massive propaganda weapon radio could become. With the monopoly Reich Broadcasting Corporation under Nazi control, and its programmes strictly censored and made even more nationalistic than in the last days of the Weimar Republic, the radio offered the easiest way to spread Nazi propaganda. While films such as The Triumph of the Will were the most notable way the Nazis spread their propaganda, most Germans in the thirties would have first encountered the infamous Nuremberg rallies through the radio or through huge loudspeakers mounted in public places broadcasting the latest events from Nuremberg. After all, the radio offered instant propaganda, whereas a film could take several months to produce. Moreover, Hitler was not noted for being photogenic and could appear as if he was suffering from an epileptic fit when he got into his stride in front of the faithful at Nuremberg. On the radio, there was no escape from Hitler when he was broadcasting live, as the Reich Broadcasting Corporation was a monopoly and it was most politically incorrect and possibly foolhardy to turn off the Fuhrer – Hitler and Goebbels could virtually brainwash the populace with their fiery oratory and Sieg Heiling followers.
Of course, radios were too expensive for the majority of Germans in the depressed Germany Hitler inherited. Soon after achieving power the Nazis decided to introduce an affordable radio, the Volksempfänger, ” the people’s receiver”, so Nazi propaganda and approved broadcasts, consisting of news, propaganda, volkische (folk) music and classical music (the Reich Broadcasting Corporation was banned from playing populist “negroid” music such as jazz and music by Jewish composers and songwriters) could reach a mass audience. In 1939, by which time the Volksempfänger had made radio a mass commodity, the Nazi propagandist Artur Freudenberg declared, “It is imperative in the political interest of the state not only that the whole nation participates in broadcasting, but that the entire nation is ready to receive radio programmes at any moment.”
Thus in 1933 the Nazis decided to subsidise the production of radio sets and instructed the leading manufacturers of radios such as Siemens and Telefunken to produce Volksempfänger over more expensive sets.
The sets were designed by Otto Griessing on the order of Josef Goebbels, and were sold under the Volksempfänger, Deutscher Klein Empfänger (DKE), Gemeinschaftsempfänger, and Kraft durch Freude (KdF) brand names.
The first Volks Empfänger, the three-valve VE301 (the number 301 signified the 30th January 1933, the day Hitler took power in Germany), was produced in 1933. The radio sold for 76 Reichsmarks, around half the price of a typical radio at the time. It was a simple two band set: few Volksempfänger came with short wave, and they generally had limited sensitivity so as to receive only local stations, as the Nazis were worried listeners could pick up broadcasts from the Soviet Union or Britain. The dials were only marked with German stations.
Several versions of the VE301 were made, including some with bakelite cabinetry instead of the original wood to reduce costs, varying in price between 65 and 87 RM. Then in 1938, the Deutscher Klein Empfänger (small set), nicknamed “Goebbels’ Schnauze” ( Goebbels’ Snout) by the public, was introduced. The two-valve DKE1938 was a low-powered regenerative receiver selling for 35 RM, featuring loudspeaker and valves specially designed for the set. It was the the most popular Volksempfänger and the cheapest radio in the world. A representation of it appears on the cover of the 1975 Kraftwerk album, Radio-Activity.
Between 1933 and 1939 over 7 million Volksempfänger were produced, over 40 per cent of total radio production in Germany, and production levels remained high well into the War. Compared with the Volkswagen of popular imagination, which was introduced a year before the war and of which very few were made, the Volksempfänger was the Nazi’s most successful ‘people’s product’.
Of course, even the production and sale of a radio set had a political role the Third Reich. While in other countries radios would be sold on their design, price and sound quality, the rather basic Volksempfänger was used as a propaganda tool. A popular advert for the radio showed a Nuremberg rally style crowd standing around a photograph of a Volksempfänger with the slogan, “The whole of Germany hears the Führer with the Volksempfänger.”
The radios themselves all had an eagle and swastika stamped on the front; larger versions were often rigged up to loudspeakers to provide saturation coverage of a major Nazi speech or the Nuremberg rallies. (Even if you were unwilling to tune your radio into the latest speech by Hitler, escape from his rantings, unless you took to a mountain top or a cave, was almost impossible as loudspeakers were in position in almost every public place, turned to a high volume.) As the war neared, production of Volksempfänger took precedence over more powerful sets with short wave reception and the Nazis encouraged the populace to replace sets with short wave with the less powerful Volksempfänger.
At the start of the war the propaganda role of the Volksempfänger took a more sinister twist. As hostilities broke out between Germany and the Allies in September 1939, listening to enemy radio stations became punishable by a sentence in a concentration camp. All radios sold came with a chilling warning attached to the tuning knob, “Think about this: listening to foreign broadcasts is a crime against the national security of our people. It is a Führer order punishable by prison and hard labour.”
Later in the war the Gestapo was instructed to execute anyone discovered listening to enemy radio stations, and ran a particularly vindictive campaign where it advertised for sale radios with short wave bands and then arrested and shot anyone who was duped into buying one as a traitor. Officially the only people who were allowed to listen to foreign broadcasts were the SS and Abwehr (army intelligence) for intelligence purposes and members of the Nazi Party who were given special permission to use more powerful radios to listen out for and disown Allied propaganda.
Of course, unofficially many Germans took the risk, especially those who owned more powerful pre-war radios, and listened to Allied radio in secret. As the war progressed, the Reich Broadcasting Corporation was severely censored and was not allowed to discuss even the slightest hint that Germany was losing the war, even as late as 1944 when Germany was being hammered by air raids and the Allies were attacking the Reich on both sides. In addition to Luftwaffe pilots, who often tuned into the BBC and American forces stations as a form of light relief from the endless propaganda and volkische music on German stations – at least the Gestapo could not arrest you in the air – concerned German citizens, anti Nazis and many servicemen whose lives depended on accurate news decided that the risk was worthwhile by tuning into Allied broadcasts to find out how Germany was really faring.
Even the humble Kleine Volksempfänger was not as weak as the Nazis would have liked. All versions came with long wave, which meant that, if you understood English or Russian, the BBC or Radio Moscow could be picked quite easily after dark, and many who wanted to hear how the war was really progressing increased the power of a Volksempfänger by inserting makeshift wire aerials in the back or increasing the sensitivity of the set. ( The Allies also set up anti-Nazi propaganda stations in German such as People’s Radio. ) One soldier stationed in Austria in 1944, who regularly listened to People’s Radio recalled, as his commanding officer was explaining that the Allies had landed in Normandy “Our officer had been explaining the Allies strategies and the possible options for cutting Normandy off from the rest of France. Suddenly one of my comrades said, “It’s already happened.” After a few seconds, the officer asked,” How do you know that- the OKW (army high command) has not announced this”. No explanation was necessary: we sat there like sodden, wet dogs.” Fortunately the soldiers hid the makeshift aerial before the officer examined the set and they escaped certain death as the officer could not prove where the information had come from.
However, loyalty to the Nazi regime and a fear of being caught persuaded millions of others that listening to broadcasters other than the Reich Broadcasting Corporation was too much of a risk. There was always a chance of being informed on to the Gestapo if you talked about a news item that deviated from the official radio line. Even as late as April 1945, when the Allies were surrounding Berlin and Hitler was hiding in the Bunker, Berlin Radio, broadcasting from the shattered ruins of the city, was still declaring that Germany was soon to win a historic battle against the Allies, and Goebbels defiantly told listeners that the course of war was turning in Germany’s favour on Hitler’s birthday, April 20th. As the Allies smashed through the remains of Germany in 1945, many Germans, until they saw Allied soldiers arrive in their towns and cities, had been unaware that Germany was losing the war. It was not until Berlin Radio announced that Hitler was dead that many Germans were finally convinced the war was lost. The Volksempfänger had played its part in deceiving and intimidating millions of Germans throughout the war.
The Nazi regime and the production of Volksempfänger died with Hitler, but the radio had an important role to play in building up the prosperity of the future West Germany. A penniless electrical engineer Max Grundig decided to chance his arm by selling and repairing Volksempfänger in the immediate post-war period. With Germany shattered, almost no new radios being produced and with most of the populace too poor to afford new radios anyway, Grundig saw an ideal business opportunity by selling and repairing the radios at rock-bottom prices in 1946. Two years later, and with a gradual move in the West to restore non-military German manufacturing industry, the money Grundig had made from his second hand radio business allowed him to develop his own Grundig radio.
By the end of the fifties Grundig had become one of the biggest manufacturing companies in Germany and Max Grundig’s tape recorders, radios and televisions were soon developing an international reputation for quality and reasonable prices. Although the Grundig corporation has faltered in recent years, for decades, a company that started as a one-man business repairing Nazi radios was one of the most successful electrical companies in the world. I own a Grundig portable radio and it is ironic that if it wasn’t for the Nazis, something as innocent as this cheap radio would not exist. However, I would start to worry if Hitler’s speeches appeared instead of Jeremy Vine.