Achtung! Achtung! Nazi Germany’s dystopian experiments with TV and radio


Almost History Series 1, Episode 1

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Everywhere you turn, you see the unmistakable face of Adolf Hitler. His voice echoes in your head, broadcast from a thousand loudspeakers. His wild, gesticulating speech is reaching its foam speckled crescendo.

Nazi television is everywhere. Looming over city squares, above the concourse of the railway station, on the factory floor and in every home.

It is George Orwell’s 1984 made real, and it was a dream of visionaries working in Joseph Goebbels’s Ministry of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda.

In the end, only the small matter of a world war got in the way of the roll-out of a nationwide and unavoidable Nazi television network.

Der Große Bruder sieht dich

In his dystopian classic 1984, George Orwell imagines a surveillance state so complete that the people are never free from the intrusive presence of a telescreen.

The ubiquitous devices are as much cameras as they are screens and they can’t be turned off. Big Brother is not only watching you, but is also speaking, and sometimes shouting, directly to you.

Nazi Germany came close to fulfilling the broadcast side of this idea with a comprehensive network of public loudspeakers and relentless promotion of private ownership of radio sets.

The Nazi regime was acutely aware of the importance of radio to maintain and consolidate its grip on power. Powerful speeches over the airwaves had brought Hitler to prominence and secured his election successes. Once in power, the radio became central to the regime’s propaganda mission.

Joseph Goebbels certainly believed in the power of radio. Shortly after taking power, he addressed radio executives and informed them that radio was ‘the most modern and the most important instrument of mass influence that exists anywhere’.

Goebbels’ Propaganda Ministry (the snappily titled Reichsministerium für Volksaufklärung und Propaganda) had just one problem to overcome. How could they ensure that every German was able to listen?

One solution had been the development of the Volksempfänger, or People’s Receiver. This mass-produced set was simple yet elegantly designed and brought the radio into the homes of the masses. The cheapest version could be yours for just 35 Reichsmarks, with the cost spread in instalments.

Many new owners were keenly aware that the radio was an instrument of propaganda. The Volksempfänger became irreverently known as die Goebbels-Schnauze or ‘Goebbels’ snout’. But, along with speeches and lectures, the radio brought music and entertainment into the home.

And this was enough to ensure that the People’s Receiver was a success. Over 16 million sets were in use across the country by 1942.

But this wasn’t enough for the Propaganda Ministry.

Affordable radio sets ensured they could be heard at home, but what about when people were outside?

When they were at work in offices and factories?

Or shopping, going out to dinner or just strolling through town?

The People’s Public Address System

The logical next step was a public address system that would carry the most important messages and literally stop Germans in their tracks.

The first stirrings of this came at the beginning of the rollout of cheap radios. When officials realised many still didn’t own sets, Nazi ‘radio wardens’ were enlisted to ‘set up loudspeakers in factories and public places’ and encourage ‘community listening’.

By the end of the 1930s, radio sets were found in cafes, shops, laundries, streets and squares.

It was now almost impossible to escape from the incessant drip feed of propaganda.

As historian Glenn Aylett notes:

‘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.’

Goebbels was clear about the importance of radio in helping the Nazis come to power and consolidate their rule. He labelled it the ‘Eight Great Power’, following Napoleon labelling newspapers as the ‘Seventh Great Power’.

So, would television become the regime’s ‘Ninth Great Power’?

Nazi TV state

There were ten screens in total.

He counted every telescreen that he came across on his journey home from the office.

There was a set in the break room on his floor and one in the lobby on the way out.

Out on the street, and there were two big displays before he got to the station. A massive screen dominated Victory Over Bolshevism Square and one more loomed over the Ku’damm opposite the Zoo.

There were another two in each of the U-Bahn stations he travelled through, in the ticket halls and platforms. So, that was eight before he had even got to his home in Horst-Wessel-Stadt.

A ninth screen was perched above the entrance arch to the Robert Ley Estate and a tenth in the apartment lobby.

In the half an hour it took him to get home, he’d seen the end of a news report featuring German soldiers marching through another ruined central Asian city.

He wondered how they managed to get smart, clean shaven soldiers for the newsreels. Were they kept in reserve to be rolled out when the battles were won? When he’d been fighting, his comrades didn’t look anything like the figures that strode across the screen.

Half way into his journey there was a pause and then the display faded to black. A piercing siren blasted out followed by the roll of drums. There was either going to be a big announcement or the start of a tedious speech by one of the Golden Pheasants. Or perhaps it would be a big announcement about a speech to be given by one of the Golden Pheasants.

People stopped what they were doing and gathered around the nearest screen. He had a friend who had been reported to the authorities when he didn’t stop to watch an official announcement. He hadn’t seen him since.

The announcer’s voice rang out from loudspeakers attached to lampposts and hidden in the trees.

‘Achtung, achtung!

You’re listening to the Paul Nipkow television station from Berlin.’

On screen, an eagle with wide, outspread wings perched on a laurel-wreathed swastika materialised.  After a few seconds, it faded away, to be replaced by one of the young, hard faced, blonde announcers who somehow managed to be both strikingly beautiful but deeply unattractive.

‘We welcome all German comrades watching across the Greater German Reich with the German greeting, Heil Hitler!’

At these words, the announcer raised her right hand and, automatically, everyone in sight joined in and gave the Nazi salute. He instinctively joined in, clicking his heels in automatic response.

‘And now, the Greater German Broadcasting Corporation presents a special news bulletin’.

The screen faded and the young women was replaced by one of the most familiar faces and voices in Germany. Harry Giese had announced the German capture of Moscow in 1943 and the capitulation of the USSR a year later. Now, he was wheeled out every so often to report the latest military victory.

‘Party Comrades and members of the people’s community. This is the news.

The following is a communication from the Defence Force.

German soldiers have been welcomed as heroes in the now liberated city of Tiflis. The brave men of the Wehrmacht continue in their ceaseless struggle to free the Caucasus of the remnants of Judeo-Bolshevism.’

He soon lost interest. They always reported some kind of victory. He stood watching the rest of the bulletin, but his mind wandered. He only snapped out of his daydream when the drone of words was replaced by a stirring military march.

People started to move again, hurrying to make up the lost time. They strode in time with the music. All Berlin was a barracks now.

Race for the screen

In 1935, Nazi Germany was in a race with Britain and America. It wasn’t a competition to launch the biggest ship or the fastest plane. It was a chance to demonstrate technological superiority by launching the world’s first regular television broadcasts.

Germany won the race, broadcasting a year earlier than the BBC and six years before CBS and NBC in America.

This was a golden chance to bring the Führer closer to the people. By radio, they could hear him. With television, they would also see him.

Television would become the ultimate fulfilment of theFührerprinzip- the leadership principle that made Adolf Hitler the source and focus of all power in Nazi Germany.

One theorist envisaged the power of the new medium over radio:

‘While the loudspeaker may carry the voice of a man over many hundreds of thousands of participants in a rally, the large-screen television will one day make its picture clear and plainly visible to everyone over a distance of hundreds of metres, and thereby deepen the effect of personality even further.’

On the television station’s launch evening, the Third Reich’s director of broadcasting urged his colleagues to work ‘for the final and complete victory of the National Socialist idea!’ With religious reverence, by doing so, they would ‘carry the image of the Führer into all German hearts!’

Now, all they needed was an audience to broadcast to. With few television sets available to the general public, the regime set up a network of television parlours across Greater Berlin.

Up to 40 people gathered around a screen slightly smaller than a piece of A4 paper. An engineer from the post office fiddled with the knobs and dials until the magic of a live moving picture and sound appeared.

It took the 1936 Summer Olympic Games to act as the catalyst for the more widespread adoption of TV. 160,000 people watched live broadcasts and an additional 20 parlours were set up around Berlin.

The scheduling was particular to the Third Reich. Between programmes on cooking, exercise and leisure pursuits were rants about the threat of the spread of Bolshevism and international Jewry.

Large scale events were covered in exhaustive detail. TV cameras shot the Nazi Party Congresses in Nuremberg and the International Hunting Exhibition in 1937 featuring close-up shots of some of the animals felled by the Reich Huntsmaster Hermann Goering.

The audiences were less receptive to these spectacles, preferring sport and light entertainment.

The war interrupted the roll out of television, but it didn’t prevent planning for its use in future propaganda.

When Soviet soldiers captured Berlin, they discovered plans for a television network covering Germany. Cable would connect the Reich’s cities and people would be brought together by screens set up in public spaces.

Under the plans, it would be almost impossible to escape Nazi programmes. Just as radios had been rolled out across the Reich, television would find its place in the home, at work and in public spaces.

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Find out more

  • Television Under the Swastika – Unseen footage from the Third Reich. Directed by Michael Kloft. Germany: Spiegel TV, 1999. TV documentary. (click here)
  • Heins, L. “The ‘experiential community’: early German television and media theory.” Screen 52, no. 1 (2011): 46-62. doi:10.1093/screen/hjq051.
  • Welch, David. The Third Reich: politics and propaganda. London: Routledge, 2006.
  • Ross, Corey. Media and the making of modern Germany. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008.
  • Reuth, Ralf Georg. Goebbels. London: Constable, 1993.

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