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Authors: Roger Moorhouse

Berlin at War (45 page)

I hope herewith to have brought you good news.

An anonymous comrade.23

The letter writer was only caught when he decided to deliver one

of his messages by hand so as to witness the joy that he was

bringing. Sadly for him, the recipient of his letter – though initially

delighted – reported him to the Gestapo, and he was arrested on

his way home. Though his precise fate is unknown, it is not unlikely,

given the scale of the offence, that he would have faced the death


Others devised more ingenious methods. One night, the bartender

in his local Berlin bar confided to the American William Russell:

‘You know everybody around here listens to London,’ he wheezed.

‘Of course they are afraid to admit it right out loud, but they do

listen anyway.’ He looked over his shoulder again, expecting to see

God knows what. ‘Yesterday, old Frau Prause, who’s got a son on a

submarine, was at home and old Herr Illman came and told her that

he had dreamed the night before that her son had been captured by

the British – and was safe in a prison camp in England. Frau Prause

just thought he was crazy, until four more neighbours came in during

the day to tell her that they had dreamed the same thing the night

before. She finally believed it was true. Everybody around here heard


berlin at war

her son’s name on the London news broadcast in a list of prisoners

they had taken, but they won’t admit that they had listened to a

foreign station.

‘They just have “dreams” . . . Everybody “dreams” things now.’24

If ordinary Berliners found good reasons to listen to broadcasts from

abroad, then the foreign labourers in their midst had even more justi-

fication to tune in. One of these was the Frenchman Marcel Elola,

who lived with a group of fellow forced labourers in a makeshift camp

in Lichtenrade to the south of Berlin. The group’s radio became their

primary link to the outside world:

We had bought the radio from the black market, from the back room

of a café on Alexanderplatz. The aerial was hidden between the roof

tiles. We received broadcasts from France, although the signal was

marred by a clicking sound: klaklakklak, klaklakklak. You had to have

your ear direct against the speaker, with your head under a blanket,

and concentrate hard on the voice, to hear and understand without

turning the volume up.25

Of those brought before the Nazi courts for ‘radio crimes’ around

one in five were foreign labourers.

Faced with a wave of ‘radio crime’, the regime was obliged to

react. Goebbels began in the first winter of the war by seeking to

publicise the potential punishments that transgressors would incur.

‘Foreign radio broadcasts continue to attract an audience amongst

us’, he wrote in his diary in December 1939. ‘I instruct a few draconian

sentences to be passed and publicised. Perhaps that will help.’26 Yet,

despite persistently demanding eight- and ten-year prison sentences

for ‘radio criminals’, Goebbels was dismayed to see the average

sentence handed down for such offences hover stubbornly around

two to three years, a figure he considered so paltry that it was of

little propaganda value.27

In response, he tried a different approach. In the spring of 1941,

he ordered that a warning label should be applied to all radios in

German homes. Both new purchases and existing radios were to

have a red card attached to the tuning dial, bearing the following


the people’s friend


Denke daran

Das Abhören ausländischer Sender ist ein

Verbrechen gegen die nationale Sicherheit unseres

Volkes. Es wird auf Befehl des Führers mit schweren

Zuchthausstrafen geahndet.

Remember. Listening to foreign broadcasts is an offence against the national
security of our people. By order of the Führer, it will be punished with severe
custodial sentences.

This policy was problematic from the start. It required that the

labels were to be distributed to German households by the local Nazi

authorities, the most zealous of which even supervised their attach-

ment to the radio in question. As Howard Smith noted:

in my neighbourhood houses were visited by local Nazi chiefs to make

sure that the cards had been fastened to radios and were still there.

People who had no radio sets were told to keep the cards anyhow, and

to let them be a reminder not to listen to the conversation of people

who did have radios and tuned in to foreign stations.29

Most civilians found this heavy-handed in the extreme. Else Bittner

remembered that her mother was infuriated when the label was deliv-

ered to her home in the Berlin suburb of Reinickendorf. ‘She was very

offended’, she recalled, ‘she denied ever listening to foreign radio, but

they did not want to know. In the end, she refused to hang the label

on the tuner dial, and merely tucked it under the set, out of sight.’30

The SD, too, reported that the measure had found a ‘very negative

reception’ among the people and was seen as ‘a form of spying’,

targeted as it was, not against known offenders, but the entire popu-

lation.31 Moreover, many noted with dismay that the name of the

Führer was invoked on the label and evidently found it hard to believe

that Hitler himself – the leader and father of the nation – had put his

name to such an invidious and offensive policy.

For all the propaganda, threats and punishments, ‘radio crime’


berlin at war

increased as the war progressed. Though the statistics are patchy and

the numbers committing the offence were much greater than the small

minority convicted of it, it is nonetheless clear that convictions rose

dramatically from 36 in 1939, to 830 in 1940, 721 in 1941, and 1117 in 1942.32

Despite Goebbels’ repeated calls for stricter sentencing for offenders,

only eleven offenders were ever executed nationwide for the crime of

listening to enemy radio. The most serious radio offences would usually

have included some aggravating circumstances and would therefore

most likely be prosecuted for another more serious misdemeanour,

such as undermining the war effort. But, beyond that, sentences for

straightforward ‘radio crimes’ tended to be light, with those convicted

generally facing between eighteen months and three years imprison-

ment.33 It seems that, for all the bluster and threats, the authorities

were not primarily concerned about the public’s listening habits. As

one historian has concluded, were it not for the fact that it was outlawed,

‘listening to foreign radio broadcasts was . . . so commonplace that it

could have been considered normal’.34

Despite the apparent prevalence of listening to the BBC, German

radio was not all propaganda and drum-beating rhetoric. While there

was a good deal of ‘political’ content on German radio – Hitler’s

speeches, for instance, or headline addresses by the other senior Nazis

– one must resist the assumption that all Nazi radio content was polit-

ical in nature. It was not. Even in 1943, the proportion of broadcasts

devoted to news and political programming was only 16 per cent.35

There was a lot more besides. German radio regularly broadcast

cultural programmes, poetry recitals, plays and ‘public information’

advice about the latest legislation, or suggesting ways that housewives

might make the most of their rationing allocation, or economise in

the household. There was also a fair amount of sport. The 1936

Olympics had shown how popular sport on radio could be, and the

airwaves would carry reports of athletics meetings or horse racing at

Hoppegarten. The showpiece of the German football season, the

championship final, held every summer in the Olympic Stadium in

Berlin, never failed to get a large radio audience.

The vast majority of the content transmitted on German radio was

musical in nature. There were numerous restrictions, of course, and

favoured artists. Conventional jazz, for instance, was not tolerated, as

it was perceived to be ‘degenerate’ and the product of Negro and Jewish

the people’s friend


musicians. Only ‘German Jazz’ – a slower, ‘aryanised’ version – was

permitted. The classical repertoire was also subjected to minute scrutiny.

While Hitler’s personal record collection contained examples not only

of Russian composers like Mussorgsky and Rachmaninov, even of

Jewish musicians such as Bronislaw Huberman,36 the German airwaves

were more puritanical. Works by Jewish composers and musicians were

not broadcast on German radio, and as the war progressed more ‘enemy’

composers were added to the list, including Chopin, Tchaikovsky and

Ravel. This left a rather stodgy diet of ‘Aryan’ composers, ranging from

Germanic stalwarts such as Wagner and Beethoven to the more avant-

garde work of Carl Orff. Even Mozart did not escape controversy; some

of his works were slated to be banned from public broadcast as the

libretti had been written by a baptised Jew.37

Beyond the obvious bans and restrictions, there were also some

ingenious efforts made to link particular pieces of music with the

progress of the war. Wartime radio communiqués were always pref-

aced by a bar or two of the ‘theme tune’ for that particular theatre

– the jaunty ‘
Wir fahren gegen Engeland
’ (‘We journey against England’)

for Britain, the ‘
Wacht am Rhein
’ for France, or the ‘
’ for Greece.38 The annual commemoration of ‘
’, ‘Heroes

Memorial Day’, meanwhile, was the occasion for an airing of the

adagio from Bruckner’s mournful Seventh symphony. Hitler himself

was always associated with the ‘Badenweiler March’, a lively piece

composed during the First World War. Radio audiences, like those

of the newsreels and live events, knew that when the band struck up

this particular tune, the Führer was about to make an appearance.

From 1939, it was even forbidden to play the march publicly except

in Hitler’s presence.39

The classical repertoire did not make up the lion’s share of the music

broadcast on German radio, however: that honour went to popular

music, which made up nearly half of the playlist. Favourites included

the hit songs from stage and screen, as well as conventional dance

music. Regional tastes were also catered for, such as the

redolent of Bavaria and Austria.

One song that transcended even national boundaries was the famed

Lili Marleen
’. Originally written during the First World War, the words

were set to music in 1938 and recorded the following year by Lale

Andersen, a singer at the
Kabarett der Komiker
in Berlin. Though it did


berlin at war

not enjoy particular success upon its initial release, the song was made

famous in 1941 by its repeated airings on the Wehrmacht station

Soldatensender Belgrad
, which broadcast to the Balkans and across the

Mediterranean. Its gentle melancholy – the lively, unsentimental vocals

of Andersen telling of a soldier reminiscing about his girl back home,

gave it tremendous resonance:

Vor der Kaserne, vor dem grossen Tor

Stand eine Laterne und steht sie noch davor

So woll’n wir uns da wieder seh’n

Bei der Laterne wollen wir steh’n

Wie einst Lili Marleen,

Wie einst Lili Marleen.

Even Hitler, it was said, was a fan, commenting presciently to his

adjutant that ‘this song will not only inspire German soldiers, it might

even outlast us all’.40 Soon the song became a universal anthem of

longing, homesickness and hope, just as popular with British and Allied

soldiers as it was with the Wehrmacht. An English version, ‘Lilli of

the Lamplight’ was swiftly penned:

Underneath the lantern,

By the barrack gate

Darling I remember

The way you used to wait

T’was there that you whispered tenderly,

That you loved me,

You’d always be,

My Lilli of the Lamplight,

My own Lilli Marlene.

For all its universal appeal, however, ‘
Lili Marleen
’ did not find favour with everyone. Regarding it as ‘morbid’ and ‘unheroic’, Goebbels tried

to have it banned. Though he had the original master of the recording

destroyed, and had Andersen arrested, the flood of requests from

troops at the front meant that his demand that the radio stop playing

the song had to be overturned.

Lili Marleen
’ was a staple on the popular

the people’s friend


More correctly known as the
Wunschkonzert für die Wehrmacht

‘Request Concert for the Wehrmacht’ – the programme was broadcast

every Sunday afternoon at 3.00 from a studio in central Berlin. As the

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