In the first year of World War Two, Germany’s leading domestic radio station – Deutschlandsender – was obsessed with Britain, portraying life there as hellish.
It informed listeners that Londoners felt ‘the urge to raise their courage by resorting to drink’. ‘Never,’ an announcer said, ‘were so many drunken people seen in London as now.’
If that wasn’t bad enough, a reporter noted that horses were being slaughtered to ‘replenish England’s rapidly dwindling meat stocks’. On another occasion, the evening news divulged a shortage of butter had forced King George to start spreading margarine on his toast.
Propaganda in Germany
For listeners across Germany, where tracing individual strands of disinformation was near impossible, the news seemed legitimate.
Peter Meyer, a former singer with the radio choir, recounted how he helped dupe German listeners when he imitated a Polish teenager after the invasion of Poland in 1939: ‘The recordings took place in Berlin, never in Poland,’ he said. ‘This was perpetrated in the Berlin radio studios without a single foreigner in sight.’ The fake story being ‘played out’ was that young foreigners were delighted the Germans had come and that they got along so very well with their new-found German friends. He said:
I also went to Babelsberg, which was like the American Hollywood for that time and there I participated in films and the newsreels called Die Wochenschau. Again, we made films of the same kind of propaganda as mentioned above; I played foreign or German youth members and had to learn a few words of foreign languages for my roles.
An English audience?
Echoing the disinformation on the domestic service, the Nazis were also beaming a flood of distorted and outright false information at the United Kingdom in the English language where commentator, William Joyce, with his distinctive nasal, upper-crust drawl – found fame as ‘Lord Haw-Haw’.
Egged on by Goebbels, Joyce revelled in his privileged position on the broadcasting battlefront. To his mind, no theme was hackneyed if treated with originality. From his studio in West Berlin, he tried confusing British public perceptions of Churchill and his ability to wage war by mixing official German government fodder with subtle distortions of English newspaper stories and BBC news. Although the topics varied, the goal of was the always same: Britain was losing the war.
When rationing began in Britain, Joyce asserted that Germans were so well fed ‘it was difficult’ to use up their food quota. Another episode painted a pathetic picture of evacuated English children ‘going about in freezing weather with insufficient shoes and clothes’.
He screamed of a declining Britain in the throes of death where businesses had ‘come to a standstill’ under Churchill, the ‘corrupt dictator’ of England. Joyce often took the trouble to cite, though not to name, ‘experts’ and ‘reliable sources’ who could confirm its reality.
The rumour mill
As his fame spread, nonsensical rumours about his every utterance abounded across Britain. Haw-Haw was supposed to have spoken about town hall clocks being half-an-hour slow and having detailed knowledge of local munitions factories, but of course, he never said anything of the kind, as the Daily Herald’s W. N. Ewer complained:
In Didcot, for example, it is put about that ‘last night the German wireless said that Didcot is going to be the first town bombed.’ I have had that story (always from somebody whose brother-in-law actually heard it, or something of the kind) from at least a dozen different places. Of course, when you get hold of the brother-in-law, he says no, he didn’t actually hear the German wireless himself: it was a man up at the golf club whose sister heard it.
Occasionally, Joyce dipped his toe into agitation against the French. He perpetuated the false claim that an epidemic typhoid fever had broken out in Paris, where ‘more than 100 people have already died’. Furthermore, he confided, the French press had ignored the epidemic ‘in order to avoid a panic’.
The Haw-Haw technique
Far from ignoring this obvious menace, the London press – overwhelmed by the sheer volume of outrageous material – hung on to his every dubious word, propelling his fame skyward. However, experts were divided on whether the best defence against Haw-Haw was ridicule or reply.
Scholar of Philosophy at Edinburgh University, W. A. Sinclair, concluded that the ‘Haw-Haw technique’ was divided into three categories— ‘unskilled lying, semi-skilled lying and highly skilled lying’.
He explained ‘unskilled lying consisted in making plain, simple statements which aren’t true at all,’ while ‘semi-skilled lying,’ was composed of conflicting statements, part true and part false. ‘Highly skilled lying,’ he said, was when Haw-Haw made statements which were true but used to convey a wrong impression.
The worldwide stage
Despite their obvious flair for fake news, not all Nazi disinformation efforts succeed. By 1940, Berlin was operating an extensive schedule of shortwave broadcasts intended for listeners overseas by beaming across the Atlantic to Central and South America, southward over Africa, and to Asia, in daylight and darkness.
Whilst the South American service proved popular, there was little interest in Arabic programmes which indulged in outrageous fantasies. In one example, it was stated a destitute Egyptian woman ‘caught begging’ in Cairo was shot by a British sentry. In an overt attempt to influence opinion, wholesale atrocities were invented, with no basis in fact, while Nazi military successes were exaggerated.
Furthermore, a hail of radio agitation directed against the British occupation of India with the help of exiled Indian leftist leader Subhas Chandra Bose, a man dubbed by the British as ‘the Indian Quisling’ failed to ignite listeners.
By 1942, Nazi-generated disinformation campaigns had become too much for many in Britain and abroad to stomach. As Haw-Haw’s star began to fall and Allied bombing on Germany intensified, Nazi radio slowly began to bridge the void between reality and propaganda.
Reports detailing the humiliating German retreat in North Africa, the critical manpower shortage and the ferocity of resistance in Russia were heard for the first time. There was more candour about everyday worries such as the black market, strained relations between soldiers and civilians, air raids and food shortages.
Richard Baier, who, at 93 years old, gave a fascinating account on his important work as a newsreader on Reichssender Berlin, relayed how he read the news during heavy raids, when the earth shook so violently the control panel instruments were unreadable.
As the bombing laid waste to vast swathes of Germany, domestic and foreign transmissions spluttered as technicians did their best to repair the damage. By 1945, William Joyce kept slogging away but was preparing for the end. ‘What a night! Drunk. Drunk. Drunk!’ he recalled, before rattling off his final speech, aided by a bottle of schnapps.
True to form, even with Hitler’s death, the Nazi radio continued to lie. Instead of disclosing the Führer’s suicide, his anointed successor, Admiral Doenitz, told listeners their heroic leader had ‘fallen at his post … fighting to the last breath against Bolshevism and for Germany’.
In the coming days, the once mighty German radio network stumbled through its death scene to musical accompaniment and finally died away piecemeal.
Radio Hitler: Nazi Airwaves in the Second World War is written by Nathan Morley, and published by Amberley Publishing, available from 15 June 2021.