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Nazi Germany: Radio propaganda turns 90

August 18, 2023

The Nazis were masters of using propaganda for their purposes. The primary tool was, at the time, a revolutionary new technology: radio.

Man sitting next to a Volksempfänger radio
The Volksempfänger model turned out to be a very successful propaganda tool for the NazisImage: akg-images/picture-alliance

When Adolf Hitler came to power in January 1933, radio then was similar to what the internet was in its early days: a powerful, new medium to disseminate information. There was a big difference: Radio was expensive, and having one at home could cost more than a month's wage.

From early on, the Nazis recognized the propaganda value of radio. They would soon use it to influence Germany's then 70 million people. Shortly after Hitler became chancellor, Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels compelled German manufacturers to sell cheap radio receivers.

The name of the first model, the VE301, was composed of the word Volksempfänger ("People's radio") and the date when Hitler became German chancellor: January 30. The government set the price at 76 Reichsmarks, making it affordable for most households.

Joseph Goebbels at a broadcasting tradefair in Berlin, 1939
Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels compelled German manufacturers to sell cheap radio receivers in the 1930sImage: picture alliance / akg

The discount paid off. At new the German Radio Exhibition in Berlin on August 18, 1933, 100,000 sets were sold. Until then, Germany was home to about 4 million households paying the public media license fee. By the middle of World War II, that number had quadrupled. The monthly fee of 2 Reichsmarks flowed to Goebbels' Propaganda Ministry.

Programming was controlled by the state

To maximize influence, formerly independent broadcasters were combined under the policy of Gleichschaltung, or synchronization, which brought institutions in line with official policy points. Goebbels made no secret that "radio belongs to us.”

The only two programs were national and local information. They began with the standard "Heil Hitler" greeting and gave plenty of airtime to Adolf Hitler.

Black and white photo of Adolf Hitler giving his radio adress
One day after becoming chancellor of the German Reich in January 1933, Hitler addressed the population via radioImage: akg-images/picture alliance

Radio became even more important with the start of World War II in September 1939. Military marches replaced dance music, and there were constant — and frequently embellished reports — from the front lines. When there was bad news, the radio turned to entertainment, such as concerts.

Goebbels turned the Nazis' 1943 defeat in Stalingrad into a campaign for more war. In a broadcast speech in Berlin on February 18, 1943, he asked, "Do you want total war?" The response from the enthusiastic crowd was a resounding "Yes!" and massive applause.

Radio played an influential part in WWII

Propaganda, however, can only go so far. With Germany losing the war, Germans at home began to lose trust in their national radio. Many turned to foreign broadcasters, such as the BBC. Doing so was strictly prohibited, and those caught listening to "enemy stations" faced the penalty of death.

It isn't far-fetched to say that radio helped start the war. On September 1, 1939, Germans heard a report about a Polish attack. That was fake, of course, but it allowed Hitler to take to the airwaves to announce that fighting was underway. Germany invaded Poland under false pretenses.

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The war also ended the way it began: with propaganda and fake news. Hitler's suicide, in his bunker in besieged Berlin, was kept from the public. Instead, his death was glamorously reported on May 1, 1945, as the result of fighting the Soviet invasion.

Another lie, but by then it didn't matter. The war ended in Germany's unconditional surrender a few days later. With the end of Nazi Germany came the end of the Nazi propaganda machine, in which radio played a leading role.

This article was originally written in German.

Correction, August 18, 2023: When this article was first published, there was a typo in the headline to falsely state "Nazi radio propaganda turns 100." It has actually been 90 years since 1933. 

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