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Authors: Roger Moorhouse

Berlin at War (44 page)


berlin at war

radio schedules were studded with speeches and announcements by

Hitler as well as other Nazi grandees.

Goebbels was well aware of the public’s limited appetite for prop-

aganda, however, and ordered that more diverse programming should

be provided. Thus German radio schedules contained both popular

and classical music, sport, poetry recitals and cultural discussions; the

proportion of music transmissions rose from 57 per cent in 1933 to

over 70 per cent in 1938.3 Goebbels’ greatest fear, it seems, was that

the schedules would be so stuffed with propaganda that the German

people would switch off in their droves. He was right to be concerned.

Throughout the war, complaints were rife in the capital about the

content aired on German radio, some decrying the exaggerated prop-

aganda slogans, others demanding more light music.4 The listening

public of Berlin, it seems, was a difficult audience to please.

More popular, it seems, were the transmission of the Olympic

Games, which were held in Berlin in 1936. The event proved to be a

boon to German radio. A new transmitter was installed at Zeesen to

cope with the expected surge in demand, and a new type of radio

was marketed for the occasion. A portable receiver, running on

batteries, the
– or ‘Olympic case’ – was larger than the

other popular radios and was rather expensive at 160 Marks, but

nonetheless enabled the listener to tune in out in the open air. The

Olympic Games was a seminal moment in the development of radio;

a moment when many, especially the apolitical and those in rural

areas, were first made aware of the enormous potential of the medium.

Berliner Ernst Schmidt, for instance, who was fifteen in 1936, recalled

that listening to the Games on a neighbour’s set was the first time he

had heard radio at all. Soon after, his family bought a set of their

own.5 They were certainly not alone.

In addition to promoting radio ownership through technological

advances, innovative programming and competitive pricing, the Nazi

regime also encouraged communal listening. To this end, political

broadcasts were often arranged during working hours, and many

factories and offices were obliged to suspend work to allow the work-

force to listen in. Similarly, restaurants and cafés were equipped

with radios and loudspeaker pillars were erected in the streets of the

big cities. In this way, German radio probably achieved the largest

listenership in the world.

the people’s friend


Radio ownership expanded rapidly during the Third Reich, tripling

from around 4.5 million in 1933 to 12 million in 1939, and then rising to

16 million in 1942.6 Already by 1939 every second German household

boasted a radio set and audience figures, boosted by communal listening,

increased almost exponentially.7 When war was declared in 1939, the

vast majority of Germans would have heard the news on the radio.

With the outbreak of war, there was a palpable step change on German

radio. For one thing, the Nazi regime used the radio as the primary

mouthpiece for the promulgation of its new restrictions and instruc-

tions. Hitler, too, was ever present, with both his Reichstag speech of

1 September and the announcement of the Anglo-French declaration

of war two days later relayed live and replayed almost continuously,

interrupted only by blasts of martial music.

Another innovation was the daily situation report from the High

Command, which was transmitted every day following the midday news.

Prefaced by an impressive fanfare lifted from one of Liszt’s ‘Preludes’,

the broadcast opened with the stock phrase ‘
Das Oberkommando der

Wehrmacht gibt bekannt . . .
’, ‘the Army High Command announces . . .’,

before launching into an exhaustive overview of military operations,

successes, and – in time – ‘strategic withdrawals’.

The report of the first day of the war could barely hide the

Wehrmacht’s glee. ‘On all fronts’, it crowed,

the expected successes have been scored. Troops advancing from the

south, over the mountains, have reached the line of Neumarkt-Sucha.

South of Mährisch-Ostrau, the [River] Olsa has been crossed at Teschen.

South of the industrial district, our troops are advancing rapidly on

Kattowitz. Those forces advancing from Silesia are moving swiftly north-

wards in the direction of Tschenstochau.

In the [Polish] Corridor, our troops are approaching the [river] Brahe

and have reached the [River] Netze at Nakel. There is fighting close to


Forces advancing from East Prussia are in combat deep in Polish


It is easy to see why it quickly became fashionable for schoolchildren

to plot the German advance on a large map. Each day, the Wehrmacht’s


berlin at war

radio report would bring a new list of obscure towns, rivers and

geographical features that were excitedly marked with a pin or flag.

For all the excitement, however, there was an altogether darker

aspect in evidence. As of the night of 1 September 1939, listening

to foreign radio broadcasts became a crime. The preamble to the

legislation, drafted by Goebbels himself, outlined the principles

upon which the new law was based, betraying in the process a little

too much of the Nazis’ own attitude towards radio as a propaganda

tool. ‘In modern war’, it began:

the enemy fights not only with military weapons, but also with methods

intended to influence and undermine the morale of the people. One of

these methods is the radio. Every word that the enemy sends our way

is obviously untrue and intended to cause damage to the German people.

The Reich government knows that the German people recognise this

danger and expects that every conscientious and decent citizen will refrain

from listening to foreign broadcasts.9

It was decreed that deliberately listening to foreign broadcasts would

be punished by a spell of imprisonment. Aggravated cases, however,

such as where a miscreant was caught disseminating the ‘lies’ of foreign

broadcasters and undermining German morale, could be punishable

by death.

Though the new law was certainly Draconian, it was difficult to

enforce. As it was hard for the authorities to catch a ‘radio criminal’

red-handed, prosecutions for the offence tended to rely almost exclu-

sively on denunciation. Neighbours informed on one another, wives

denounced husbands. One young Berliner even remembered that all

members of the Hitler Youth were instructed to help to put a stop to

‘radio crime’ by reporting such offences at school.10

Listeners quickly adapted. William Shirer recalled spending an

afternoon with a Berlin family, who were apprehensive about tuning

in to the BBC because of the Nazi block warden living in the

building. As a result, ‘they played the radio so low that I could

hardly catch the news, and one of the daughters kept watch by the

front door’.11 A Berlin youth recalled that his uncle Max was a regular

BBC listener:

the people’s friend


He sat by the radio set, wrapped tightly in blankets, and listened to

the ‘enemy radio’. The identification sign of BBC London was always

a deep ‘Bumbumbum, Bumbumbum’. Uncle Max was hard of hearing!

After the programme, the dial would immediately be turned back, so

that it would not show where it had been tuned to, if the house should

be searched.12

Every week, the BBC’s German-language service, which had started

in 1938, offered over thirty hours of news, entertainment and comment,

which many Germans valued even more highly than the offerings of

their own broadcasters. The precise number of those tuning in to

London is unknown, but circumstantial evidence suggests it was very

large. By the BBC’s own estimate, it was reaching between ten and

fifteen million Germans every day.13 Even the Nazi Security Service –

– acknowledged that Germans were frequent

listeners to foreign radio. In a report from April 1943, it was noted that

many men and women, who had been busily working in their gardens,

mysteriously went inside about five minutes before the regular BBC


Contemporary testimony confirms that ‘listening to London’ was

widespread and encompassed all classes and almost all political opin-

ions. One foreign commentator estimated that nearly three-quarters

of German adults listened to foreign broadcasts regularly. ‘They do not

dare to listen openly’, he wrote, rather ‘they turn the volume down

to a whisper, they send their maids out to the picture show in the

evening, and they sit on the floor with their ears directly in front of the

loud speakers.’15 This suggestion was borne out by a number of other

diarists. One of them, Ruth Andreas-Friedrich, noted on the very first

day of the war that ‘we have already “sinned” three times, with a

blanket over the radio, behind locked doors.’16

They tuned in to the BBC primarily as they often doubted the infor-

mation that they were receiving from their own broadcasters. Andreas-

Friedrich was one of the many Berliners who used ‘London’ to fill in

the details that she felt
was not giving her. When Rudolf Hess flew to Britain in the spring of 1941, for instance, she went straight

for the radio: ‘Pillows over the set. Tune in. “This is London. This is

London” . . .’17 Lutz Ritter was another. He distrusted German broad-

casts because ‘German radio presented retreats as being strategically


berlin at war

advantageous; a “shortening of the front line” contested by an enemy

incurring irreplaceable losses. At best defeats would be conceded as

a German sacrifice “to the last bullet”.’ In contrast, he noted, the

BBC kept him ‘very well informed, from about 1943, about German

military losses and defeats against the Allies, and from the summer of

1944 about the progress of the Normandy Invasion and the situation in

the east’.18

One evidently did not even have to be politically minded to tune

in. Christabel Bielenberg, though certainly an anti-Nazi, liked to listen

to the BBC’s music programmes. ‘Someone had insisted on turning

on the radio’, she wrote, ‘and Ambrose’s Orchestra was playing from

London. The death penalty? To hell with it, let’s have some decent

dance music!’19 She might have been surprised by the company she

was keeping. One man from Eberswalde, near Berlin, for example,

was an auxiliary policeman and had been an SS guard at Dachau, but

he tuned in to London every night and listened through earphones.20

Another regular BBC listener was Rochus Misch, a member of Hitler’s

household and decorated member of the SS-
, who would

be one of the last to leave the Berlin bunker in 1945.21 The Nazi secur -

ity service noted that the law was being increasingly broken, not by

opponents of the regime necessarily, but by ‘good National Socialists’,

who were politically engaged and unlikely to be negatively influenced

by the experience.22

Besides being a natural source of comparatively unbiased infor-

mation, the BBC also used another tactic to expand its audience as

the war progressed. To wean German civilians away from the influ-

ence of Nazi propaganda, both the BBC and its Soviet equivalent,

Radio Moscow, regularly broadcast lists of soldiers taken prisoner

in their respective military theatres. The BBC even developed a

specific programme for the purpose – with the theme tune of the

popular German song
‘In der Heimat, In der Heimat, da gibt’s ein

’. For obvious reasons, many Germans tuned in in the

hope of hearing positive news about the fate of missing loved ones,

relations or friends.

The problem, however, was that one could not admit openly that

one had heard the name of an acquaintance, or family member, on the

BBC or on the Soviet German-language station,
Freies Deutschland

Germany’). Whether due to ideological zeal or reflexive patriotism,

the people’s friend


there were instances of mothers with missing soldier sons who

reported the very people who had given them the good news of

their loved ones’ survival. Therefore, some method had to be found

to communicate the good news without either betraying its source

or identifying the messenger.

One way was for a listener to send anonymous letters to the

families of those listed in the broadcasts. One Berliner, himself a

veteran of the Eastern Front, took to doing just this in 1944, sending

up to thirty such letters to prematurely grieving families. One example

has been preserved in the archives:

Dear Mrs R.,

On 19 October 1944 at 18.45, the station ‘Freies Deutschland’ broad-

cast a message from your husband Lance-Corporal Albert R. sending

greetings to your son.

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