Radio from a Sinking Ship: Nazi Domestic Broadcasting in the Last Months of the Second World War

Gerald Kirwin. German History. Volume 37, Issue 1, March 2019.

Since the Battle of Stalingrad in winter 1942/43, a rift had been growing between Nazi propaganda claims and the reality of almost uninterrupted military setback. By the final months of the war, with the Allies rapidly advancing across Germany, this contradiction reached a new level. This article is a case study of the German domestic radio service from January to May 1945 as it was confronted with an unrelenting crisis that ended in total defeat. Using original sources, it focuses on radio policy and tactics, as mirrored in the radio conferences at the Propaganda Ministry, the programmes broadcast and listener response. The dual and irreconcilable courses characterized, on the one hand, by a clinging on to normality, echoed in the programme schedules and, on the other, by outpourings from a dying propaganda machine, including the Radio Werewolf venture, are examined. However, the article first sets the limits within which Nazi radio was forced to operate. Here access to its audience in light of massive technical problems and inroads by Allied stations that broadcast to the Reich play a key role. Among the interesting aspects covered in the study is the resumption of religious broadcasting.

During the first three years of the Second World War the Nazi domestic media had a comparatively easy task for their claims were largely backed up by military success. This, however, was to change with the turn of the tide in late 1942, after which they were facing a constant uphill struggle. Military setbacks, together with the destruction wrought on German cities by Allied bombing, served as a constant reminder of Allied strength, against which Nazi propaganda was at a severe disadvantage. This process reached its logical conclusion when Germany itself became the battlefield and more and more of the homeland fell into enemy hands.

The period covered in this article is January to May 1945. The German domestic radio service in these final months of the Second World War provides an interesting case study of how a mass medium in a despotic state reacts to such unrelenting crisis, ending in complete defeat. With an extensive expansion of research previously conducted, this article offers new insights into issues not dealt with in great detail hitherto, among which is the attempt to mobilize the morale of the flagging population by resuming religious broadcasting. During the entire period under investigation, broadcasters were faced with the urgent and nagging question of how to tackle and moderate the widespread awareness of the collapse the nation was undergoing. The article explores the resulting vicissitudes of broadcasters forced to walk a tightrope when faced with an increasingly adverse external reality while having little alternative other than to continue a ‘routine’ radio programme, thereby clinging on to normality as best they could. Detailed attention is paid to the final dying days of Nazi broadcasting. The example of the response to the virulent campaign against alleged Anglo-American atrocities is used to measure the overall effectiveness of Nazi broadcast propaganda at the time. The main focus, however, is on radio policy and tactics, as echoed in the radio conferences at the Propaganda Ministry, the programmes themselves and the general response of listeners. Essential for this study was material from the German Federal and State Archives (including documents formerly held at the GDR archives in Potsdam), as well as from the German Radio Archives. As a source of broadcast content, the BBC Daily Monitoring Transcripts proved invaluable.

It is, however, first necessary to put this study in the right context by examining the extent to which the German population was, in fact, able and willing to listen. Nothing would be more misleading than to assume that ‘totalitarian’ media always find a ready audience, thereby enjoying a monopoly of information. Here, the availability of German radio reception as well as the inroads made by enemy stations broadcasting to the Reich are of key significance. Nazi broadcasting in its closing phase can only be fully comprehended by emphasizing the crucial role of these confining and, at times, critical parameters.

The increasingly catastrophic military situation and the effects of the air situation on the ground naturally had a decisive effect on the ability of Nazi radio to reach its listening audience. By the end of 1944, of 16 million licensed radio sets, 3 million were out of operation. Alarm bells were ringing at the top lest the entire domestic radio service be undermined. The problem was not just that countless sets had been smashed in air raids but also that repairs had become virtually impossible owing to lack of valves and other spare parts. With a shrinking Reich, the very last radio-set factories had ceased production. Attempts were made to fill the gap by supplying sets confiscated in Norway and the Netherlands, of which about 200,000 were being stored in the Reich. Many of these were defective and it was proposed that concentration camp inmates with the necessary knowledge be engaged to speed up the process.

The loss of territory naturally exacerbated the difficulties connected with radio transmission and reception. Following the arrival of the Allies on the Reich’s frontiers in the late summer of 1944, the number of transmitters available for the domestic networks was reduced, owing to the requirements of the German external and forces radio services. Both the Trier and Breslau transmitters were dismantled in February 1945, before they could fall into enemy hands. The latter was a particularly painful loss. Since 1940 stations in western, northern and southern Germany had regularly signed off with enemy air incursions, listeners being then requested to retune to the powerful Breslau wavelength. The constant air bombardment meant that some stations were silent for hours at a time. On top of this came the increasingly frequent and prolonged power cuts caused by coal shortages. In March 1945 it was reported from Saxony that the local Leipzig station was temporarily out of operation and that the 700 kHz transmitter now serving the area was off the air for much of the time and could only be picked up on more powerful—and expensive—sets and even these were at night subject to considerable interference. Thus in the matter of radio reception class and wealth played a significant role, less well-off listeners with the more utilitarian, mass-produced People’s Set being at a distinct disadvantage. From Bavaria it was reported that many had been prevented from hearing Hitler’s last radio address, on 24 February 1945, by a power cut. The extent to which regular listening was impaired is illustrated in heavily bombed Nuremberg. With the loss of so many sets, some enterprising citizens and private businesses still in possession of typewriters and radios displayed the daily broadcast military communiqué outside for all to see. In parts of Berlin radio reception was impossible between 7 p.m. and 10 p.m. the most popular time for listeners and the most critical for propagandists, for it was then that most political talks and the main news bulletin were broadcast. This occasioned an immediate response from Hans Fritzsche, head of the Radio Department at the Propaganda Ministry. He instructed power stations to ensure that listeners could hear at least two news bulletins during the afternoon and the evening. When necessary, any power cut should not commence at the full hour, as hitherto, but at the end of the news bulletin. A sure sign of how desperate the situation had become was the suggestion listeners look out their old crystal sets.

An interesting consequence was the growing reliance on Drahtfunk—a forerunner of cable radiowhich utilized the existing telephone network. Started before the war, it was given an enormous boost when it began to supply an additional service—detailed local reports of enemy air activity when the regular stations had gone off the air. Its role was to expand in the final months. It was used in Berlin to improve morale with pep talks from civic and party dignitaries. With the enemy unable to listen in, it could, in Joseph Goebbels’s words, ’employ a more candid language than is possible in the political broadcasts on the wireless’. Nevertheless, Drahtfunk was not entirely fool-proof. In Berlin it, too, sometimes fell victim to power cuts, as well as to being drowned out by the powerful Leningrad station transmitting on the same frequency. Apart from Drahtfunk, local stations of the air-raid defence system gave detailed, coded reports. In Berlin, the police radio station was much appreciated ‘due to its continuous and precise coverage of the position of enemy terror planes’. However, the acute sensitivity of the sorely tried listeners is demonstrated in their irritation at music being played between announcements: ‘First, a terror raid is hardly the right moment in which people yearn for musical offerings and, secondly, they made it difficult to hear if bombs were raining down nearby.’ There was, moreover, great annoyance when its air-raid reports contradicted those of the official radio. On one occasion, at the same time it was declaring a raid was no longer to be expected, the Berlin radio station announced in its hourly Air Situation Report (Luftlagemeldung) that one was imminent.

Air raids drastically changed listening habits, in some cases leading to total radio abstinence. After a sudden attack without warning on Freiburg, many no longer risked switching on their sets for fear of not hearing approaching enemy planes. Those still listening did so with ‘half an ear’. In Nuremberg, an eyewitness noted the practical problems:

For a long time now, most radio sets have been either smashed by bombs, sent out of the city or kept in the cellar. It is impossible to leave them in the apartment, for every day the alarm sounds eight to ten times. And who is able to drag the radio set eight to ten times daily into the cellar.

The severe paper shortage made it difficult to inform listeners of the programmes scheduled. After radio magazines ceased publication in May 1941 on account of paper-saving measures, the daily newspapers were instructed to publish the schedules. But this requirement had to be dropped in early 1945, when newspaper size was restricted to just two pages. To compensate for this loss, programme previews were broadcast several times a day.

Nazi domestic broadcasting also faced massive competition from outside the Reich. Since the outbreak of war, listening to all foreign stations had been outlawed. Immediately the myth of German invincibility was cracked, it was only natural that many listeners would seek a bridge with the outside world. The Stalingrad debacle in winter 1942/43 had given the practice an enormous boost while, at the same time, undermining the prestige of the official media. Faced with a news blackout, soldiers’ families, desperate to find out what was really going on, turned to foreign and neutral stations. And what was perhaps at first an exception soon proved habit-forming.

Aachen fell to US troops on 21 October 1944. Although a kind of stalemate followed on the western front in the following months, the Allies’ arrival on the Reich frontier meant that enemy stations could be received with ease, particularly when the powerful long-wave Luxembourg transmitter fell into Allied hands. The problem was compounded by British stations transmitting on the same wavelengths when German stations signed off for reasons already mentioned. The consequence was that, oblivious to the provenance of the station, listeners in good faith passed on to others what they had heard. In addition, bad reception meant that listeners, even when they only wished to hear a German station, would start twiddling with their dials and almost inevitably stumble on a forbidden station. A further impetus to this ‘black listening’ was given by enemy stations being often quicker off the mark than their German counterparts, thereby enhancing their credibility. News of the fall of Budapest, on 11 February 1945, was only made known four days later, long after it had already been announced on the enemy radio.

Press reports of the draconic punishments meted out to perpetrators did little or nothing to halt the practice. Goebbels himself was forced to admit in late March that ‘British stations are finding an appreciative audience’ and that German propaganda was having a hard time asserting itself. This was borne out by a Münster journalist who observed, if with some exaggeration: ‘There is certainly nobody who does not also hear the English radio news’.

In all this it has to be stressed that the inexorable deterioration of the military situation, together with the contraction of the Reich in early 1945, was bound to have dire consequences for the effectiveness of Nazi broadcasting. In the East the collapse came suddenly. The massive Soviet offensive, launched on 12 January, took the Red Army to the banks of the River Oder in the space of just three weeks. There they remained, just eighty kilometres from the Reich capital, poised for the last decisive attack, which came on 16 April. In the West, following the failure of the German Ardennes offensive in December 1944, the Allies resumed their advance. The decisive breakthrough did not materialize, however, until the crossing of the Rhine in late March 1945. US troops then proceeded to sweep across the very heart of the Reich, reaching Leipzig on 18 April.

Having outlined the limits within which Nazi radio was forced to operate, we can now examine the official German domestic radio service in these final months. It was on the air for twenty-hour hours, night-time programming having been added in 1943. There were two domestic networks, the Reichssender and the national Deutschlandsender. Since early 1942 the latter had been providing an alternative service, limited, however, on weekdays to the late afternoon and the ‘prime time’ slot, 8.15 p.m. to 10 p.m. On Sundays it provided some daytime alternatives. At all other times, it relayed the Reichssender.

A detailed description of a broadcasting day provides an ideal opportunity to savour the output of the German domestic service at the time. The schedule for Wednesday, 28 March 1945, was typical for any weekday in the closing phase of the war. It would be mistaken to assume that most of the broadcasting day was taken up by propaganda. In fact, light music dominated daytime schedules, although room was also made for classical music. A short concert by the Prague Radio Orchestra was broadcast at 3 p.m. from the still-intact city, followed by a Mozart programme comprising the Violin Sonata no. 32 and the songs ‘Das Traumbild’ and ‘Die Verschweigung’. At 4 p.m. an hour of operetta was broadcast. There were nine regular news bulletins daily—at 5.30 a.m. 7.00 a.m. 9.00 a.m. 12.30 p.m. 2 p.m. (followed by the military communiqué), 5 p.m. 8 p.m. 10 p.m. and midnight. The first regular spoken-word programme of the day, ‘Listen and Remember’ (Zum Hören und Behalten), aired at 7.30 a.m. covering scientific, cultural, historic and propaganda subjects. There were ten-minute broadcasts for women at 8.50 a.m. and for farmers at noon. The early evening slot from 6.30 p.m. to 8:00 p.m. was particularly important from a propaganda point of view and is dealt with separately below. Between 8.15 p.m. and 10 p.m. listeners had a choice of two programmes, with the light music series ‘Colourful Melodies’ and ‘An Hour for You’ going out on the Reichssender and classical music on the Deutschlandsender.

Nor was the last wartime celebration of a major Christian festival ignored. This may appear surprising in light of the Nazi state’s secularization attempts in broadcasting which went back to prewar days, as exemplified in its endeavour—never completely realized—of replacing traditional Christmas carols with its own völkisch creations. On Good Friday, the Deutschlandsender broadcast Bach’s St Matthew Passion. Easter Day schedules included the early morning ‘Harbour Concert’ from Hamburg, a regular feature since 1928 and still going strong. At 11.00 a.m. there was a special holiday feature entitled ‘A Trip to Easter Land—A Story of Children, Flowers and Easter Bunnies’. The regular two-hour forces request programme, ‘What Soldiers Wish’, was preceded by a broadcast by the Vienna Boys Choir. At 6 p.m. Haydn’s Creation was performed by the Vienna Philharmonic and the Vienna State Opera Choir.

Until September 1944 Goebbels had vehemently opposed the broadcasting of radio plays in wartime, despite the repeated clamour for their reintroduction. However, with the compulsory closing of theatres as part of the Total War measures in autumn 1944, an attempt was made to fill the gap with a weekly series entitled ‘The Stage on Radio’ (Bühne im Rundfunk). Broadcast at 8.15 p.m. it included everything from classical drama to farce and featured some of Germany’s most prominent actors. The first broadcast in October was Lessing’s Minna von Barnheim, starring the popular actress Marianne Hoppe. It was still flourishing the following year, with scenes from Goethe’s Faust scheduled for 2 April 1945, Easter Monday.

For radio propagandists the early evening slot between 6.30 p.m. and 8 p.m. was the most important. It was mainly devoted to the spoken word. The daily half-hour topical magazine ‘Mirror of the Times’ (Zeitspiegel) included items on various aspects of wartime life, culture and new movies, as well as answers to listeners’ questions. The fifteen minutes before the 8 p.m. news was reserved for military and political talks, broadcast on a weekly basis. Rear Admiral Lützow represented the navy and General Quade the air force. However, the spokesman of the army, Lieutenant-General Dittmar, was by far the most popular speaker, his apparent frankness being particularly appreciated by listeners. The Friday slot was devoted to a reading of Goebbels’s latest Das Reich article, which enabled the minister to reach the much larger radio audience. On Saturday it was the turn of Hans Fritzsche. His ‘Political Press and Radio Review’ consisted of highly selective quotes from the Allied press, designed to serve Nazi propaganda purposes.

The varied non-political programming did not necessarily mean that listeners were content with what was being presented. There was considerable dissatisfaction with the evening broadcasts, with many listeners complaining of ‘heavy music’ between 8 p.m. and 11 p.m. A report from Berlin noted:

After a hard-working day, precisely this time is the most suited to refreshing the worker anew with cheerful sounds. Light music is often broadcast after 10 p.m. a time when most people are already asleep. When, today, you have had to work long and sometimes hard, you surely have a right to a little relaxation.

This was all the more the case after a heavy air raid. Only very few appreciated Bach, Bruckner and Wagner at peak listening times or series such as ‘Music of German Masters’. It was reported that the announcement of compositions such as ‘Opus 85, Köchel Catalogue 178, second movement in A-flat major, Violin and Piano Concerto’ was met with complete incomprehension. Furthermore, such programming only served to strengthen the listeners’ temptation to seek other music on their dial and, in doing so, they might stumble on forbidden fruits. A sharper distinction between the alternative programmes available in the evening hours was also desired. Many were unable to comprehend why at such a difficult time so many radio orchestras were still broadcasting instead of simply making do with gramophone records. Their musicians would be better off serving in the army. This shows that Nazi broadcasters—in an almost Reithian approach to non-political programming—were far from desirous of just pandering to mass tastes. This in no way meant, however, excluding popular entertainment from the schedules or catering only to middle-class tastes. Rather those in authority in the Radio Department were determined, even at this most critical stage of the war, to maintain programme standards when the repeated playing of records of popular hits would have certainly proved a much easier option and, besides, more popular among many of their audience.

Despite all the limits on the reach of Nazi radio described above, Nazi propagandists nonetheless considered it to be by far the most effective medium. The press was in a bad way, suffering from both distribution problems and a drastic paper shortage. In a conference held on 28 March 1945, Werner Naumann, who held the post of undersecretary at the Propaganda Ministry, commented: ‘The only thing that the population hears and with which the population can be informed is the radio—that is when the electricity has not been switched off’.

Fritzsche was particularly eager to ward off any suspicion that German radio was on its last legs. Appearances had to be kept up. He was greatly annoyed when the Swedish magazine Rösta i Radio failed to print the German programme schedules for the week of 4-10 March 1945. He personally arranged for the Swedes to be sent them via the German Embassy in Stockholm. It was essential to prevent ‘a picture of chaos being conveyed from our side’. Similarly, after a night raid on Berlin in which parts of the Propaganda Ministry had been destroyed, Fritzsche saw it as his prime task to ensure there was no change either in routine or in the quality of radio news and commentaries, ‘so as not to give the enemy reason to speak of any disorganization of the German radio and its lines of communication’. He saw no point whatsoever in altering, reorganizing or interrupting the running of the normal working day. Laconically, he remarked that at least the phones were still working. Amid all this Fritzsche had not lost his eye for the most minute detail. It would be better, for example, for programme previews to follow the playing of the customary march after the 5 p.m. news bulletin rather than to precede it.

During these final weeks there was a basic contradiction which no amount of effort could resolve. Hanging on to normality, intended to have a soothing effect on the listener, could only arouse the feeling that Nazi broadcasting had somehow become totally divorced from reality, living in its own world whilst the walls of the Reich were caving in. Yet any sudden change in direction might cause panic and be seen as proof that the war was irrefutably lost. The resulting vicissitudes in programme policy demonstrate all too clearly that decision makers were at a complete loss as to how to solve what was an insoluble problem. This was mirrored in the regular programme conferences. In late January, when the Red Army was swiftly advancing across the Silesian heartlands with their vital coalfields, ‘light items’ were to be removed but without making the broadcast day too depressing. Fritzsche justified his decision by stating the programmes had to consider the effect the external situation was having. Just one week later, he declared that there was no need to ‘make any changes in the style of our programme’ and that ‘the somewhat cheerful note is to continue’. However, with the Red Army massing on the Oder, ‘a slight change in programme policy is necessary’. The light music broadcast was to be ‘subdued but cheerful’. Hits with lyrics which could cause offence were not to be aired. As well as acknowledging the keen sensitivity of the audience, this last measure demonstrates the sensitivity of the broadcasters themselves, who were at pains to prevent comparisons being drawn between the negative outside reality and programme contents. The song ‘Lay Down Your Arms’, sung by a soldiers’ choir in a previous broadcast, was on no account to be repeated. At the end of March, while frivolous hits were declared inappropriate and musical as well as sports programmes were warned not to ignore the general situation, there would be no objection to ‘quality light music’ being scheduled next to a political item. It would be wrong to broadcast just military marches. Specialist talks would continue, such as one, just broadcast, commemorating the hundredth birthday of Wilhelm Röntgen, the discoverer of X-rays.

Although from late February alternative programming was restricted to 8.15 p.m. to 10 p.m. listeners would have generally noticed little difference in the type of programmes broadcast. On Monday nights the long-running popular musical series ‘Something for Everyone’ (Für jeden etwas), which had celebrated its 200th edition on 31 October 1944, still had its regular slot. Alongside cultural and propagandistic topics, listeners were being served up some quite mundane items, suited more to peacetime. One broadcast examined the behaviour of gorillas in the former colony of German Cameroon and in captivity. Another, entitled ‘The Photo Album’, described the life of a married couple about to separate. On collecting his belongings, the husband asked for some photographs. However, when the couple perused these together, old memories were rekindled and they decided to stay together. None other than the Propaganda Minister himself found solace in this normality. In his diary he expressed his joy at a broadcast concert performed by the Vienna Philharmonic, conducted by Wilhelm Furtwängler: ‘What for a world opening through my ears! How beautiful and refreshing it is to immerse oneself in this world’. Hitler himself expressed his great appreciation of the ‘Something for Everyone’ programme.

A peculiarity of the final weeks was the resumption of religious programming, which Hitler had personally banned in early 1939. It lent further weight to the claim that Nazi Germany was now the bulwark of western Christian civilization in the fight against Bolshevik atheism and materialism—an integral part of the Nazi propaganda repertoire since 1943. It may also be seen as an attempt to strengthen the defence will of the Christian majority, similar in a way—although on a much smaller scale—to Stalin’s rapprochement with the Russian Orthodox Church, exemplified in the restoration of the Moscow Patriarchate in 1943. The idea appears to have originated in SS circles, with the journalist Hans Schwarz von Berk playing a prominent role. He claimed to have broached the idea at a meeting with Heinrich Himmler as early as January 1945, when possible peace feelers with the western foes were being discussed. This puts the matter into an even more dramatic light. Although the SS leader did not oppose the idea, he suggested it best be discussed with Goebbels. In a telephone call made by Schwarz van Berk to his colleague Wilhelm Utermann, the idea of broadcasting a thanksgiving service in a small town after the safe arrival of a refugee trek was raised. This is, indeed, what happened, the tone being set on Sunday, 11 March, Heroes Remembrance Day (Heldengedenktag), when recorded excerpts of a church service were included in ‘Mirror of the Times’. Although this fell short of the original plan, set out in the radio conference of 7 March, of transmitting the entire service from 8 a.m. to 8.30 a.m. that day, Fritzsche was quite aware of the significance of the move, calling it a ‘historic event’. He regretted the step had not been taken years before and expressed his hope that live religious broadcasts would once again become a ‘permanent institution’. He found that the mere inclusion of excerpts in a daily magazine had given the matter a ‘political aftertaste which it really should not have’. On 8 April a complete service was actually broadcast from the front-line town of Görlitz, on the River Oder. In the sermon the pastor called upon the congregation and the radio audience to place their trust in God and referred to the inspiration that had come from Goebbels’s recent visit to the town. A fortnight later, when the Red Army was advancing through the Berlin suburbs, the Reichsrundfunk transmitted a Lutheran Sunday morning service from a parish near Potsdam.

A more radical step had already been taken on 1 April, Easter Day. Radio Werewolf took to the airwaves, broadcasting two hours daily. Although claiming to be a station of the ‘German freedom movement in the areas of Germany occupied by the enemy’, its transmitter was actually located just outside Berlin, transmitting on the powerful Deutschlandsender long-wave frequency. In its first broadcast, it gave the ominous warning that ‘any German, whatever his station and occupation, who offers to collaborate with the enemy will know our avenging hand’. Receiving its directives and news items directly from the Propaganda Ministry, its broadcasts comprised reports of the alleged heroic exploits of Werewolf fighters, mixed with a large ration of popular music. Sabotage ‘tips’ were broadcast. Women and girls, for instance, were called upon to pour boiling water out of their windows onto enemy soldiers. There were accounts of children cutting telephone wires and stealing weapons, of women disabling American military vehicles by pouring sugar into their petrol tanks. On 14 April the Werewolf station made a far-fetched prediction: ‘We are near the turning point; even the presence of enemy tanks near Leipzig cannot hold it up. Very soon they will have to begin their march back to the West if they are not destroyed beforehand’. Its claims became the more preposterous the more the military situation deteriorated. In one of its last broadcasts when the fighting had already reached the Reich capital, it maintained:

There will be no peace in Europe until the German people is certain that it will keep its freedom. Before that the German people will not lay down its arms even if we have to fight at the North Pole … Even if more towns fall and more territories are lost, developments will still turn out in our favour.

Such a radical campaign was rejected outright by listeners. In Hamburg, it was argued that if the Allied advance could not be halted by the German military forces, then it was certainly not in Werewolf’s power to do so. Uppermost in people’s minds was the likely impact the campaign would have on their own lives and that of their families. The Werewolf broadcasts meant that they, the German civilian population, would ultimately be the ones to bear the brunt of Allied reprisals. Moreover, in Berlin few fell for the claim that Werewolf was a secret station, transmitting from behind enemy lines. Its signal was simply too strong and many assumed, quite correctly, that it was broadcasting from the transmitter at Königswusterhausen.

But this negative response to the Werewolf propaganda was just part of a phenomenon affecting the entire radio propaganda output at the time. Nazi broadcasters were endeavouring to maintain morale by pointing to Soviet atrocities in the East, the ‘inevitable split’ in the enemy coalition, the destruction wrought by the V2 rocket in London, new revolutionary submarines and vague references to ‘wonder weapons’ yet to come, and the austere living conditions prevailing in the United Kingdom, as well as historical parallels from the Seven Years War. The first of these was readily believed since it appeared to be backed up by facts. However, its very success backfired, for it only encouraged hopes that the western Allies would arrive before the dreaded Red Army. It was reported from Würzburg in March 1945 that people were pondering the question ‘whether it would be better if the Americans came; they should even be let in before the Bolsheviks, who are to be feared more, arrived’. The same defeatist thoughts were being expressed in Brunswick and Berlin. The war was lost, it was simply mad to carry on and the government should capitulate forthwith. Since the previous autumn radio propagandists had been attempting to ‘correct’ such widespread ‘misconceptions’ with accounts of atrocities ostensibly perpetrated by US soldiers. These endeavours naturally played a pivotal role in Nazi propaganda, for on them depended the willingness of the civilian population to resist the advancing Allies. According to one broadcast:

It is a mistake to assume that our western opponents, merely because they have a human countenance, have the same conceptions of decency and humaneness and respect for their opponents as we. They come from another world, in which the Jew reigns, where the criminal is a national hero and murder is the peccadillo of a gentleman.

More blood-curdling was the assertion in an early morning broadcast that ‘a wide gulf separates us from the Americans who make paper-knives out of the bones of killed Japanese and use their skulls as ashtrays’.

It is precisely here that Nazi propagandists experienced abject failure in bringing across their message. The widespread consequences of this soon became apparent all over western and northern Germany once the last great defensive barrier, the River Rhine, had been crossed and there was no coherent defence strategy left. Allied troops were being accorded a friendly welcome by the civilian population in many towns. In Siegburg a large group of women marched on the army headquarters, demanding the soldiers lay down their arms and capitulate. In Franconian Bad Windshelm, 200 to 300 women, in part accompanied by their children, demonstrated against the military decision to resist the approaching US forces. From Mayen it was reported: ‘The population is openly awaiting the arrival of the Americans and has sabotaged—both directly and indirectly—every measure of the German troops to defend the town.’ White flags were being prepared and anything pointing to Party membership burnt. Defeatist behaviour was so pronounced that German soldiers were even encouraged to don civilian clothes and desert. In Bingen residents refused to close the tank barrier with the approach of the US army and in Maria Laach members of the Volkssturm threw their weapons into the lake. In Hamburg, too, the same defeatist picture emerges with people saying that a continuation of the war was ‘senseless slaughter’ and expressing a preference for ‘an end with horror’ to ‘horror without end’. Indeed, occupation by the Anglo-Americans was to be welcomed because it would mean ‘an improvement of the present situation’ and notably an end to the bombing. People had had enough.

This defeatist behaviour in the path of the western Allies serves to demonstrate that, with morale at such a low ebb, all propaganda attempts, including those of broadcasters, were bound to fail. People felt duped. In the past so many unfulfilled predictions had been broadcast and published in the press: the repelling of the invasion of the summer before, the Ardennes offensive at the end of 1944, the promise of new weapons, fighter aircraft and submarines. The previous autumn the population had been called upon to remain steadfast, to hold out until the new measures could be employed decisively. Now, however, large parts of Germany were occupied, the Russians were standing before Berlin, and the Allied bombing onslaught was continuing unabated. In Berlin, doubters and pessimists were no longer afraid of stating their opinions openly.

For most, the propaganda outpourings of the official media had become totally irrelevant. According to the Münster Sicherheitsdienst, they were exerting ‘as good as no influence’ and were being met with ‘mistrust and rejection’. Berliners were comparing the propaganda with the Titanic, as ‘a band on a sinking ship which goes on playing with undiminished enthusiasm’. This reaction is quite understandable when listeners were hearing absurd climatic comparisons like the following:

If anyone who is fainthearted asks: How shall we achieve victory? I reply with the question: How is it possible, when in March and April storms and snow are still raging, that spring should come and the sun shine again? After all, there is no visible sign … Even the worst night of storm passes and makes room for a glorious dawn.

But the broadcast of such material does not mean that there was no longer any reason to tune into official stations. With the fronts drawing close, the incentive to do so was all the greater. For the citizens of German towns and cities, hearing the hourly ‘Air Situation Report’ could be a matter of life and death.

With life becoming a daily struggle for survival and the horizon stretching little further than the next night and the threat of more raids, the listener had become highly sensitive to propaganda assertions. The listener’s own immediate perception of the ‘world’, much contracted and based on individual experience, was now the yardstick with which all propaganda claims were being measured—a process fatal to Nazi propaganda and evident in a report in March:

It is repeatedly stated that the press and radio declare that in England there are power cuts, clothing is scarce and of inferior quality and that the food situation is bad. In Germany it is not only the same but, in many cases, much worse.

This dire situation Nazi radio was facing was compounded by production problems, caused by the military call-up of many of its employees and the destruction of studio facilities. It was becoming increasingly reliant on pre-recorded magnetic tape material. However, this source was also drying up, production having been curtailed in late March. What is more, the last factory producing gramophone records for recording purposes had also closed down due to the coal shortage. Nonetheless, in Linz, concerts of the Reich Bruckner Orchestra, conducted by Georg Ludwig Jochum, were being avidly taped. The orchestra had been established the previous year and enjoyed the personal patronage of both Hitler and the Reich Radio Director, Heinrich Glasmeier. Owing to the collapse of the transport network, its recordings, a mainstay of German broadcasting in these last weeks, were dispatched by personal courier to Berlin for transmission.

Although in early April the radio services continued to keep to their normal schedule as far as was practically possible, the sudden advance of the Allies from the west through the German heartland meant a severing of communications between north and south and with it the separation of output into two or three groups. Broadcasters carried on the task of compiling programme schedules until well into April. Although German radio magazines no longer existed, listings, drawn up about four weeks in advance, continued to appear in the main Swiss radio weekly, the Schweizer Radio-Zeitung—a useful source for this study. This does not necessarily mean that at this late stage of the war the programmes were actually broadcast. On Sunday, 15 April, a concert by the Berlin Philharmonic, conducted by Wilhelm Furtwängler, and on 24 April an afternoon broadcast with Elizabeth Schwarzkopf were scheduled. There is, however, strong evidence that The Magic Flute with the Vienna State Opera, conducted by Karl Böhm, planned for Sunday, 22 April, actually went out. The last published schedules were for the week 29 April-5 May, although Swiss readers were warned that the programme listings were subject to change without notice.

This clinging on to normality in broadcasting has to be viewed in a much wider context. The press, too, defiantly kept up a semblance of customary routine right up to the very end. The Berlin issue of the Völkischer Beobachter for 14 April, in addition to announcing Roosevelt’s death, included advertisements for Fachinger mineral water and for two opera concerts at the Prussian State Theatre. Just two days before the arrival of US troops on 30 April, Munich’s daily still found space for an article on new ways of pickling herring and its lost-and-found column. On 3 May, the Linz daily carried a banner headline announcing the death of Hitler. On the reverse side of the single sheet, a completely different world was depicted with readers being informed that tickets were on sale for the comedy ‘Family Connection’, to be performed at the Linz Kammerspiele from 1 to 15 May. It even printed the latest cinema listings, which included Orient-Express (Orient Express) and Das sündige Dorf (The Sinful Village).

This ‘carrying on regardless’, oblivious to the tragedy unfolding, was certainly intended to have a soothing effect. Such a paradox, which in retrospect may seem to border on the incomprehensible, could reach truly extraordinary dimensions. Just four days before the launch of the final Soviet onslaught on Berlin on 16 April, the last concert of the Berlin Philharmonic was held, with Wilhelm Furtwängler conducting Bruckner’s Symphony no. 4 and Wagner’s Götterdämmerung. On 23 April, the soccer final of the Munich football derby went ahead, Bayern München defeating TSV München 3-2. In mid-April, in the Wilmersdorf district of Berlin, the novelist Hertha von Gebhardt still enjoyed taking her morning coffee at the nearby bakery. And in Hamburg, the movie Das Hochzeitshotel (The Wedding Hotel) was still drawing in audiences.

The crisis entered a new dramatic phase on 16 April, when the Red Army opened its massive assault on Berlin from the Oder. Only the Deutschlandsender and the Reichssender in Berlin, Hamburg and Munich, as well as some relay stations such as Flensburg, were still on the air. The Deutschlandsender closed down on 19 April and the Reichssender Berlin transmitter five days later. Despite the capital becoming a major battlefield, programmes continued to be produced in the cellar of the Berlin Funkhaus. In the words of the broadcaster Oskar Haaf, ‘a first-class, artistically high-calibre music programme, interrupted by sparse news bulletins and front reports of the battle raging in the capital, was relayed to Hamburg via a cable which traversed the fighting front’.

Goebbels held his customary radio address on 19 April, the eve of Hitler’s fifty-sixth birthday, declaring ‘the war is approaching its end’ and that ‘the perverse coalition between plutocracy and Bolshevism’ was ‘breaking asunder’. Resorting to an almost biblical tone, he proclaimed that ‘now as often before when Beelzebub stood within reach of having power over all peoples, God will cast him into the abyss whence he came’. If Germany were to fall, he warned, the Soviets would soon be standing on the Atlantic and Britain would receive ‘her just punishment for her betrayal of Europe’. The address was followed by the customary festive birthday concert. Later that same evening the South German Home Service broadcast ‘The Youth of the Ostmark [Austria] Greet the Führer’ and listeners in the north heard ‘German Youth Greet the Führer’, which included a speech by the Hitler Youth leader, Artur Axmann. In his last Das Reich article, broadcast that Friday before the 8 p.m. news, Goebbels asserted—if unconvincingly—’not to be beaten means for us to be victorious’.

Despite all this digging in, events were rapidly overtaking the broadcasters. After giving his very last ‘Press and Radio Review’ on 21 April, a regular feature since 1939, Fritzsche proceeded to wind up his Radio Department in the Propaganda Ministry, although thirty to forty employees went on producing a programme from the bunker of the Berlin Funkhaus.

During the calamitous days that followed, Nazi radio did its best to boost morale. It tried to allay fears of impending defeat by downplaying enemy successes, while at the same time endeavouring to counter any criticism that it was completely out of touch with reality. The consequence was a constant swaying to and from, the spinning of contradictory threads into a propaganda whole proving to be an impossible task. A war report on 20 April illustrates the first course. Reminiscent of much military reporting since autumn 1943, it depicted the retreat from the Oder as an ‘evasive movement’, in no way a sign of defeat but a ‘tactical measure’ ordered by Hitler himself, as a preparation for the forthcoming summer campaign. The following day a ‘Front Report’ stressed that, despite Russian shelling, ‘the Berliner keeps his characteristic calm. This evening, Saturday, they did their work as usual and went from the electric railway stations to the shops’. Just a few hours earlier, however, Werner Ulrich had seemed to contradict any such reassuring picture in his lunchtime ‘Political Review’: ‘The Battle of Berlin is on. The thunder of the guns is growing louder. German troops … are fighting the hardest and most difficult battle of this war’. This more realistic tone was echoed by the daily magazine ‘Mirror of the Times’. In its regular slot, it broadcast a dramatic report of shells raining down on the Berlin streets. That same evening, in an address to the stricken capital in his capacity as Gauleiter, Goebbels resorted to thinly veiled threats, warning that ‘houses and flats showing the white flag … will be treated accordingly’. Then a day later the pendulum swung in the other direction, when listeners were treated to the soothing words of the Party Leader of the Lichtenberg district describing its residents’ behaviour as ‘flawless in every way’.

Goebbels’s radio address on 21 April was remarkable for propounding the far-fetched contention that the very future of the continent—and with it European civilization—hinged on the outcome of the battle raging in Berlin. It was a claim which was to creep into several broadcasts in the days that followed. In one ‘Front Report’, an officer loudly proclaimed his commitment ‘to hoist the flag of the new Europe on the ruins of Berlin’ and Naumann lauded the defenders of Berlin who were ‘shaping the future of the Occident’. In his very last broadcast, on 28 April, Fritzsche depicted the German troops in Berlin as ‘defenders of European and—even more—of human civilization’, the key to both national and international coexistence lying in their hands. Striking a less fanciful note, he admitted that now, with the front-line cutting right through the centre of Berlin, normal life had come to a complete standstill.

This alternation of reality, fear and normality became all the more evident as the days passed. Quite unsuited to generating a mood of optimism was a feature entitled ‘The Hour of Berlin’. It admitted the ‘gems’ of Berlin had been reduced to a heap of rubble. and that the Brandenburg Gate was under enemy fire. In a political commentary on 28 April, listeners were warned that in the case of defeat ‘we Germans would be used as cannon fodder’ in a new war between the USSR and the West. Consequently, ‘no one can sneak out of this war’. Also that day the journalist Otto Kriegk reminded listeners that only at a time of extreme crisis does a great nation find the strength to prove itself for centuries to come. Although the Bolsheviks were in the north and south of Berlin, he assured his audience that the front was holding and the battle was far from over. This was indeed the reason why Hitler ‘is and will remain’ in Berlin. Such sudden jagged movements without any clear central focus demonstrate that broadcasters, after the demise of the ministerial conferences, were living from day to day without any effective central coordination.

The last day of April marked a sudden turning point. For the first time it was acknowledged, if only implicitly, that the war was indeed lost. It was truly a notable departure from the promise of ‘final victory’, the line which had lain at the very core of German propaganda for many months. Listeners were called upon to maintain belief in the necessity of the war, but

nevertheless … we must carry on with the firm certainty that in the future also each of us will speak German, even though he may have to live temporarily under Bolshevik, US or British occupation … Every one of us knows that the war is drawing towards its conclusion with gigantic steps. The din of battle may continue for weeks or months, on the other hand, it may die away tomorrow.

The speaker, however, concluded by expressing his belief that ‘it cannot have been meaningless’, a point taken up repeatedly in the days to follow. This talk had been preceded by a special edition of ‘Mirror of the Times’ which amounted to a valedictory celebration of the city. Berlin’s past was recalled and the certainty expressed that it would once again rise up from the ‘smouldering ruins’.

Even this final admission of defeat did not mean that German domestic radio had abandoned its daily routine entirely. Two talks that very same day, 30 April, demonstrate how normality was still being taken ad absurdum. The daily early morning series ‘Listen and Remember’, still in its regular slot, featured a talk on mathematics in ancient Babylonia, Egypt and China and in the evening listeners in southern Germany were treated to a talk entitled ‘How Can Science Ascertain Paternity?’, just hours before the arrival of US troops in Munich. There could surely be no more fitting illustration of the dual course taken by Nazi broadcasting throughout the last stage of the war.

The first of May would prove a very fateful day. It began ‘normally’ enough with some programmes observing May Day. The daily magazine ‘Mirror of the Times’, for instance, looked back at the Strength through Joy organization’s cruises to Madeira in happier days. Then, at about 9 p.m. listeners were told to stand by for ‘a very serious and sad special report from the Führer’s Headquarters’. The announcement of the dictator’s demise came at 10.26 p.m. After a short radio silence, Hitler’s appointed successor, Grand Admiral Karl Dönitz, addressed the German people, affirming that it was his ‘first task to save the German people from destruction by the advancing Bolshevik enemy’ and that the western Allies, by continuing the war, would not be fighting ‘for their own peoples, but solely for the spreading of Bolshevism’.

With the impending arrival of Soviet troops, the Grossdeutscher Rundfunk signed off that same night—twice! After reading the regular midnight news, Elmar Bantz routinely announced at 12.05 a.m. that the station had come to the end of its regular daily transmission. After a short interruption, however, the sound engineer put the station back on the air with ‘a tape of symphonic music’. It was felt that the final departure of the station from the airwaves should occur in an orderly and fitting manner. This task was left to the 19-year-old announcer Richard Baier. Handed a hastily scribbled slip of paper, he went before the Nazi microphone for the last time. Quite understandably, he left out the customary greeting to all Germans ‘on this and the other side of the frontier’ and closed with the words ‘We salute all Germans and remember our heroic warriors on land, at sea and in the air. The Greater German Radio is now ending its broadcasts’. Notably, the customary ‘today’s’ was omitted before ‘broadcasts’. The very last words were, ‘The Führer is dead. Long live the Reich!’

Only the Hamburg and Flensburg transmitters now remained at the German government’s disposal. In a radio address on the evening of 2 May, Count Schwerin von Krosigk, acting foreign minister in the Dönitz cabinet, included a term used by Goebbels three months before, predating its utilization by Churchill ten months later: ‘In the East, the iron curtain is advancing ever further, behind which the work of annihilation proceeds hidden from the eyes of the world … A Bolshevized Europe constitutes the first phase on the path towards world revolution’. The only alternative would be a Third World War. Such contentions only encouraged the popularly held view that the western Allies would join Germany against the Red Army. Rumours were circulating in Flensburg that armed clashes had already occurred between Soviet and British troops and in Bavaria that the Soviet Union had already declared war on the United States.

In a very personal broadcast on Reichssender Hamburg on 3 May, Gauleiter Hoffmann declared Hamburg an open city, his last words being, ‘When the enemy occupies Hamburg tomorrow, this will be the gravest hour of my life’. In what seemed to presage a smooth handing-over of the Reichssender, at 1 p.m. the station newscaster bade farewell to his listeners, trusting they ‘would obey the strict instructions of the Allied occupying force’ and closing with the words ‘Long live Hamburg! Long live Germany’. There followed the playing of the Deutschlandlied. This left the Flensburg station the only one operating under Nazi control inside the former 1937 borders. The Prague station was still in German hands and there were still some vestiges of Nazi broadcasting in Austria. In the Linz area, for example, a station with the name Rundfunk Oberdonau, along with the local Drahtfunk, gave listeners a list of spa resorts now turned into sites of military hospitals, from which the general public was banned. As late as 5 May the stations Alpen and Donau were ‘striking up a death dance’ while the forces station Soldatensender Süd-Ost was transmitting on the Vienna wavelength, using up its reserves of tapes and records to broadcast military music interspersed with calls for ‘steadfast struggle against the Bolsheviks’. Dance music was still being played on a station in Graz the following day.

There were no studios in Flensburg as its transmitter had only been used as a relay station. It broadcast on the medium wavelength of 1330 kHz. Although the power of its transmitter was relatively weak, it could be picked up all over Germany, at least by those fortunate enough to be still in possession of a working set and in areas where the electric current was still functioning. Improvisation was necessary. A navy radio van was used for news bulletins, as well as for playing records, and a recreation room at the post office for addresses by such dignitaries as Dönitz, Albert Speer and Schwerin von Krosigk. Programmes mainly consisted of government speeches, military communiques and gramophone records. Much of the spoken word output can be summed up in the words ‘It cannot all have been in vain’. Flensburg propagandists were recommended to encourage ‘the will to rebuild’ and to point to the ‘great historical context’ of the war, thereby giving a meaning to the ‘fate’ of the individual and the Volk. Furthermore, press and radio should impress upon the population ‘the inner strength of the German character by means of music, literature, etc. presenting them as indestructible and unassailable’.

All this was to prove rather academic, for the war was approaching its end in giant strides. On announcing the unconditional surrender on 7 May, Schwerin von Krosigk struck a much more realistic note than just six days before. To have continued the war would have meant ‘senseless bloodshed and futile destruction’. The radio address appeared to foreshadow the pillars of the postwar Federal Republic and to overthrow the tenets of National Socialism. The three principles of unity, justice and freedom would henceforth guide the German people. Particularly striking to a later ear was the insistence that ‘we must make law the basis of the nation’ and that ‘respect for treaties concluded shall be sacred to us as our nation’s consciousness of belonging to the European family of nations’. He concluded by voicing the hope that the ‘atmosphere of hatred which today surrounds Germany in the world will give place to a spirit of reconciliation among the nations’. This was indeed a startling departure from all that had come before.

But not all the radio utterances at the time can be labelled positive. Running through these addresses by Hitler’s former stalwarts—both directly and implied—was the myth of a clean and honourable Wehrmacht, a false depiction which many would vigorously uphold in the first decades of the Federal Republic. The conflict itself was portrayed as a ‘normal’ war, almost akin to a natural disaster. The German people had been its innocent victims, thereby making any admission of guilt superfluous. Moreover, in these last days of the Third Reich, a picture of Germany as a ‘cultural nation’ was propagated, in which the task of reconstruction would be aided by the virtues of order, bravery and discipline, as well as by the idea of the national community (Volksgemeinschaft) so central to National Socialism. Gerhard Paul believes that the failure to face the truth and to digest the recent past, so typical of the Adenauer period, began in these days between peace and war.

It remained to Dönitz to make the last address by the Nazi leadership. Avowing to provide tolerable living conditions in as far as the Allies let him, he conceded that ‘the foundations on which the German Reich was built have collapsed’ and that ‘the unity of State and Party no longer exists’. A ‘hard road’ lay ahead which had to be traversed ‘with the dignity which the memory of our fallen demands from us’.

Nazi broadcasting was not quite over. At 8.03 p.m. on 9 May the station announcer Klaus Kahlenberg read the last military communiqué of the war. It did not forego a heroic gloss: ‘The German Wehrmacht has at the end succumbed honourably to overwhelming superior force’. After a radio silence of three minutes, the postwar era was ushered in with a subdued string quintet rendering of the Deutschlandlied. To Kahlenberg’s question to a British officer whether music should be played after the radio silence came the response, ‘Yes, but please no Wagner’. The next day the British occupying force confiscated the transmitting equipment of the Reichsender and the words ‘Reserved for Information-Control’ were chalked on the door leading to the studios. For three more days the station was still permitted to broadcast official pronouncements and military communiqués of the German Military Command, but only, however, after they had first passed the British censor. The actual end came on 13 May, when a British intelligence officer sealed the electric mains connection and removed the transmitting and amplifier valves, thus ending in unspectacular fashion over twelve years of National Socialist domestic broadcasting.

The period under study displays abundantly the impossibility of running an effective domestic broadcasting service when negative external factors meant a diminishing audience and broadcasters were being forced to conduct a tightrope act, leading, at times, to notable vicissitudes in programme policy. There was simply no way of running a radio service which could be respected, appreciated and considered reliable by listeners. Too great a tendency to describe the military situation as it truly was would surely have been interpreted as an admission of impending defeat at a time when the regime thought it vital to mobilize the German people into continuing the struggle. Yet, ignoring negative military developments and falsifying or wildly overestimating the Reich’s capabilities would have been seen as proof that German broadcasting was living in its own world, contrary to perceived reality. Indeed, the acute sensitivity of the listener must here be stressed, at a time when a finely tuned radio service was essential—but increasingly impossible. Such a surprising move as the reintroduction of religious broadcasts has to be seen in this broader context. This, however, is not to underestimate Nazi broadcasters’ determination to maintain what they considered to be their high programming standards. The apparent normality, intended to provide comfort and to allay fears among listeners by sticking to unchanged broadcasting schedules, is indeed a fascinating aspect, but it has to be asked whether there was any real alternative. The evidence from other examples suggests there was not. French broadcasting both on the eve of the Wehrmacht‘s arrival in Paris in June 1940 and at the time of the city’s liberation in August 1944, and, to a certain extent, the BBC during the fateful summer of 1940 did likewise, sticking to the comfort of normal programming. All Fritzsche’s attempts at upholding the fiction of a well-oiled and well-functioning media instrument were bound to fail. There was simply no way of overcoming the inherent dilemma, the contradictions becoming all the more obvious during the last days as all central coordination collapsed. The Flensburg broadcasting spell was not insignificant, as some of the ideas then propounded would be nourished and find resonance in the subsequent days of peace, when for many Germans the realities of the Second World War were rapidly becoming a memory best forgotten or, at least, downplayed.