Achtung, achtung!



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In George Orwell’s 1984, the complete dominance of the dystopian dictatorship is reinforced by the unavoidable presence of telescreens.  Ubiquitous and without an off button, they ensured that Big Brother was not only watching you, but speaking to you at all times.

Nazi Germany investigated the possibility of a radio equivalent, which, if implemented, would have taken the Third Reich even closer to mirroring the fictional account it partially inspired.

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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 was central to the Reich’s propaganda mission.

Title screen for the experimental and short-lived Deutscher Fernseh-Rundfunk (German Television Broadcasting)

Joseph Goebbels’ Reichs Ministry of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda (Reichsministerium für Volksaufklärung und Propaganda) had one problem to overcome – how could they ensure every German could hear the radio’s message?

One solution had been the development of the Volksempfänger, or the 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 was sold for 35 Reichsmarks – the equivalent of weeks’ average wages at the time.

Many new owners were keenly aware that the radio was an instrument of propaganda. The Propaganda Minister provided a popular nickname for the cheapest sets which became irreverently known as die Goebbels-Schnauze or ‘Goebbels’ snout’. To save costs and reduce the chance of picking up foreign broadcasts, the radios had limited sensitivity. Although most people were aware that they were a conduit for propaganda, they also brought music, and entertainment into the home and were therefore popular.

Despite the success of the People’s Receiver (up to 16 million sets were in circulation by 1942), the Nazis were keen to maximise the reach of their message. The radio sets ensured they could be heard at home, but what about outside? At work in offices and factories? When shopping or just strolling through town? 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 were at the beginning of the rollout of radios. When officials realised many still didn’t own sets, Nazi “radio wardens” were enlisted to “set up loudspeakers in public places” and encourage “community listening””.

Richard J. Evans considers the north German town of Northeim before the Nazi seizure of power. As part of their election campaign and intimidation of opposition, the local party “set up radio loudspeakers in the Market Square and on the main street, and every evening from 1 to 4 March Hitler’s speeches were amplified across the whole town centre.”

Bundesarchiv Bild 119-2406-01, Berlin-Lustgarten, speaker Joseph Goebbels

Once in power, “loudspeakers were installed in factories and public places”. By 1942, they were also present in cafes, shops and offices. It was now almost impossible to escape from the incessant drip feed of propaganda As 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 on from Napoleon’s comment of the press being the ‘Seventh Great Power’, and, in a speech, noted:

“It would not have been possible for us to take power or to use it in the ways we have without the radio. … It is no exaggeration to say that the German revolution, at least in the form it took, would have been impossible without the airplane and the radio. … [Radio] reached the entire nation, regardless of class, standing, or religion.

Ganz Deutschland hört den Führer mit dem Volksempfänger - All of Germany hears the Fuhrer on the People's Sender - propaganda poster c. 1933

That was primarily the result of the tight centralization, the strong reporting, and the up-to-date nature of the German radio …. Above all it is necessary to clearly centralize all radio activities, to place spiritual tasks ahead of technical ones … to provide a clear worldview.”

Although they experimented with television, the Nazis did not survive long enough to pre-empt Orwell’s idea of having a screen in every room. But they did ensure that the party’s message was heard by every German – wherever they happened to be.

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