President Franklin D. Roosevelt delivering Fireside Chat number six, September 30, 1934.
Public Domain / Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library & Museum

RADIO, as the most effective method of disseminating propaganda, has taken its place alongside diplomacy, economic pressure and military power as one of the accepted instruments of foreign policy. In this Russia was the pioneer, sending round the world glowing accounts of the Soviet régime. Hitler took it over. Just as he tested out his new airplanes in Spain, so he experimented in the Saar and Austria with radio techniques later to serve him in France and Britain.[i] In the Sudetenland he made the Germans conscious of Czech "tyranny" by impassioned radio messages from Munich. Italian short-wave programs from Bari meanwhile stirred up the Arabs against the British. And there have been many messages from Rome and Berlin designed to turn the people of Latin America against the United States.

Prior to the present conflict, radio propaganda was peculiarly a weapon of totalitarian power politics. But since the war actually began all the belligerents, totalitarian and democratic states alike, have made departments of radio propaganda integral parts of their war machines.[ii] On the home front, both armed forces and the public are exhorted to unity and spurred on to sacrifice. To neutral countries are transmitted skits, topical talks and news, while enemy firesides and cantonments are bombarded with arguments, facts and allegations calculated to weaken morale.

I. RADIO PROPAGANDA AS AN INSTRUMENT OF WAR

Radio propaganda has been employed, not merely as a gradual process of molding the minds of peoples, often far from the scene of conflict; it also has become an instrument in actual battle. Thus the Nazis have used the radio as a dynamic weapon, a practical aid to attack and invasion. On the eve of battle the enemy's morale is weakened when radio broadcasts from Germany demonstrate that German spies are everywhere, seeing all, knowing all, reporting all.

Thus a French hydroplane unit located near Paris, and which was suffering from German bombing, learned from the "Traitor of Stuttgart" the first news of the decision to transfer its camp. It was even informed of the exact location of the new headquarters and of the exact time of departure. A food riot in Caen was similarly announced to the French people a few moments after it had occurred. Inhabitants of a British town in the Midlands were horrified when told by the Zeezen radio the location of an arms factory in their midst, the exact number of workers, the precise location of the air shelters. Two French generals, as they sat down to dinner in the Maginot Line, were furnished by Stuttgart with an exact description of the menu.

Similarly, the radio may sow confusion and panic during an attack. As the Germans advanced toward Paris they used French wave lengths to warn the inhabitants of towns and villages, in stentorian and terrifying tones, to flee for their lives before the German tanks and bombers were upon them. Thus hundreds of thousands of panic-stricken refugees were cast upon the roads with all their impedimenta, making it extremely difficult for French reinforcements to be moved up.

Again the strategy of terror succeeded after Leopold surrendered. While the Germans were rapidly advancing into Northern France they exhorted the French, over various wave lengths, so powerful and so numerous as almost to monopolize the ether, to abandon what was represented as a hopeless battle and to call on their government to surrender. Thus on May 28, 1940, the Princeton Listening Center recorded this message as sent in French from the Nazis to the French people:

Beneath the force of Germany's crushing action, the King of the Belgians took the decision to put an end to a resistance which had become senseless . . . French soldiers, French citizens, the capitulation of Belgium makes the military situation of France as follows: The northern part of the Maginot Line has been flanked. It no longer exists! The west part of the line has lost its value. . . . Spare your country and try to save your lives. Force your government to make peace or drive it out. Stop the rich, the profiteers, and the merchants, the Jews and the English from escaping. Otherwise they will not fail to leave you in the lurch.

The cause of the British was pictured as desperate, their surrender only a matter of days. "Act quickly," urged the German radio. "Leave the fleeing English to look after themselves. Those cowards, who have no word of honor, do not deserve any better." The acceptance by the French of the Armistice of Compiègne seems to have been due in large part to a general conviction that Britain's collapse was imminent. The radio certainly played a part in engendering this state of mind.

Meanwhile the French transmitters did little to bolster the weakening morale of French soldiers and civilians. Premier Reynaud frequently spoke on the radio, but instead of following the British practice of admitting the truth, bad as it was, simply and calmly, he often came out with it in dramatic, alarming tones. There was little sustained effort to inspire unity and courage. Music almost disappeared from the air, except for the "Marseillaise;" but that phonograph record was played so often it became worn and scratched, giving a mournful impression. The general French apathy with respect to the war -- its origins, execution and objectives -- of course had a variety of causes, many of them much more fundamental than an uninspired radio policy; but it must bear its share of the blame.

The major defect of the French programs was their dullness, in striking contrast with Goebbels' command that the first rule for Nazi broadcasting is that it must be interesting. Many of the French prewar skits and the light music were eliminated as undignified for wartime, while news items were cut to the bone by a narrow censorship and often were held up until long after they had become known over the foreign radio. Furthermore, explanations as to why the war was necessary were meagre, there were few direct attacks on Nazi Germany, and, in contrast with the German radio, even martial music was rarely heard on the air.

The reasons for this situation are several. Reflecting the defensive spirit of the French Government and army command, the policy adopted by the radio was uninspired and negative. The propaganda department was inadequate. M. Giraudoux, chosen as director, was an outstanding author and playwright, but he knew little about administration or propaganda technique and he put his activities on too high an intellectual plane. His staff was poorly coördinated and was hampered by frequent changes in personnel and policy, while the radio division was under-staffed and lacked adequate modern equipment. Unlike the BBC, the French never set up an efficient service to monitor foreign radio propaganda.

As a consequence of the paucity and tardiness of the news heard over the French radio, and the depressing nature of the entertainment, the French people regularly tuned in to foreign stations. Stuttgart was heard in many parts of France, although jammed at Paris through the use of an obsolete transmitter. For some reason, however, the Nazi broadcasts from Hamburg were not ordinarily jammed. In general, there was considerable listening to Nazi stations. This was especially the case among the soldiers, who had little or nothing to do in the Maginot Line during the long winter months.

There is much evidence to the effect that German radio propaganda had considerable effect on public opinion in France, but more among the civilian population than among the soldiers. The soldiers appear to have tuned in to the German stations mainly for amusement and diversion, and listened with contempt to the efforts to break down their morale or turn them against the British. In the opinion of the most competent observers, however, this contempt tended to decrease under the constant bombardment of propaganda, and as we look back it seems remarkable that the French Government did nothing to forbid or to discourage listening to German stations. Several of the Nazis' propaganda themes might be mentioned here as examples. In the attempt to divide the Allies, the Nazi radio inserted these words at the end of many programs: "Les Anglais donnent leurs machines, les Français leurs poitrines" -- the English give their machines, the French their breasts. Again and again it was said, "The English will fight to the last Frenchman." No one, it was alleged, ever saw an Englishman at the front, for they all were back of the lines spending their time with the wives of the French soldiers.

Apparently the radio propaganda addressed to the civilian population was more effective, although it is always extremely difficult to measure the exact effect of propaganda. There were insistent appeals to the masses calculated to shake their confidence and loyalty and engender doubts as to France's aims in the war or as to her ability to win it. Attacks on the "capitalists" and "plutocrats" were especially emphasized. There was a great amount of anti-parliamentary and anti-Semitic propaganda. Finally, as part of the strategy of terror, the French were reminded of the superior might of the Germans, represented as unconquerable, and they were told to beware of the terrible attacks and bombardments which were sure to come. Thus, besieged with dangerous thoughts from abroad, and unsupported at home by an imaginative and inspiring radio policy, the French -- both soldiers and civilians -- had lost a radio war to the Germans even before the military Blitzkrieg had begun.

When the invasion came, the German radio was adapted, as already noted, to the needs of conquest. But after it was complete the radio became a two-edged sword. For though the Germans, using all the French stations, can bombard the conquered people with anti-British propaganda, they cannot effectively prevent the French from listening to Churchill or de Gaulle from London, or to Roosevelt, whose speeches are re-broadcast by the BBC. The British had already sought to keep up the spirits of Norwegians, Dutch and Belgians after their conquest, by sending them regular programs in their own languages. And since the Compiègne Armistice they have transmitted daily messages to the beleaguered French people, and not without effect, as shown by the following story. In Paris, at the end of last September, an American visited the Bon Marché in search of a pair of shoes and was astonished to discover a long line of customers in front of the shoe department. He inquired as to the cause, and was told that the previous night de Gaulle had advised all Frenchmen to buy as many pairs of shoes as possible to keep them from falling into the hands of the Nazis who, he alleged, were going to requisition all remaining stocks.

II. PROPAGANDA IN ENEMY TERRITORY

The miracle of radio has made it much easier than before to spread propaganda in enemy territory. The methods formerly used, such as dropping leaflets from airplanes or free balloons, were very limited in range and influence. Radio, however, penetrates the enemy frontier without difficulty -- in fact, it circles the earth seven times in a single second.

The Nazis early prohibited Germans from listening to foreign stations. The British did not; indeed, the British newspapers very obligingly noted the hours when the famous Lord Haw Haw could be heard. Lately in England, however, such listening has been discouraged as "unpatriotic." Incidentally, each side announces over the radio the names of newly captured prisoners of war in order to encourage people in the enemy territory to listen to its broadcasts.

In the campaign against enemy morale, enemy civilians are told of the corruption of their leaders in peace and their inefficiency in war. Thus the BBC told the Germans: "And now, about Goebbels. . . . You know that modest way of his? This probably accounts for the fact that he has told you too little about his castle . . . on the Bergensee, the walls of which are decorated with marble, and also a country house . . . on the Langensee, and also a 50-room mansion in Berlin." Similar opulence was charged against Goering, Himmler, Ley and Ribbentrop, who, it was alleged, were making a rather broad interpretation of the Lebensraum slogan.[iii]

The effort to sow doubt, confusion and dissension in enemy territory -- what might be called dissolvent propaganda -- is attempted by all the belligerents. Every effort is made to prove that the enemy's cause is lost. Social, economic and financial conditions are represented as grave, if not hopeless. The Germans asked the French and British, "Why go to war over Danzig?" Eying the laboring classes they said, "Why sacrifice your lives to save a decadent plutocracy?" This last appeal is used by the British, too, in their broadcasts to Germany. Thus the BBC, on July 8, 1940, maintained that Germany's new order "means eternal class struggle, and this is the new order which Hitler believes will last for more than a thousand years . . . an ageold capitalistic manœuvre designed to break the solidarity of the workers."

The German attacks on the Jews, an ever-recurring theme, are apparently designed in part to turn class against class in Britain (and in France and the United States), and at the same time to elicit in certain foreign quarters admiration for Hitler as the outstanding champion of anti-Semitism. Berlin has said to the British: "They [the Jews] live to subjugate the world's energy and wealth, and without any regard to national rights and aspirations, without any concern for human feelings or elementary decency." And to the Americans: "Germany does not need to express either anti-Semitism or its racial doctrine, for both are accepted . . . as a rule of life in America."

In the bitter struggle to win over neutrals, notably the United States as the main prize, radio has played an important rôle. Here the foreign propagandist is really put on his mettle, for he cannot count on the censor to keep embarrassing facts from the public, nor on the police to suppress listening to the enemy. If Zeezen sends Americans a false or exaggerated account of a sea battle, refutation from the BBC or from American radio chains is inevitable. In this matter American news analysts have done much to counteract untrue belligerent propaganda. Also, if the foreign propagandist is to hold his radio audience, he must understand the life, the customs and the literature of the people he is attempting to reach, and must take account of their local point of view. Finally, he must realize that, as a result of faulty techniques employed by both belligerents in the last war -- notably the exaggerated use of atrocity stories -- the public has become propaganda-conscious. This condition has led to the use of a more veiled approach.

One method of soliciting neutral sympathy is to demonstrate the superiority of your cause over that of the enemy, to show that your aims are sincere and idealistic, those of the enemy hypocritical and aggressive. Thus, over the BBC the Reverend Pat McCormick has told us: "Britain and all that Britain stands for can never die; she is bound to win the day in the end, because she stands for the right, the good, the true and the noble." A. V. Alexander, First Lord of the Admiralty, reminds us how the security of the American continent might have been weakened if Britain had let the French fleet fall into German hands. In contrast, Dr. Otto Koischwitz, alias "Dr. Anders," sends this message to Americans: "The German people are willing to endure the hardships of war. They do not need any intangible, vague, changeable, so-called ideal war aim. They defend the most elemental, the most primitive, the indisputable right of existence."

On another occasion the Nazis said: "Germany now fights for its existence as an independent nation. Germany fights for a living space. . . . This refers to the space required by a nation for peaceful economic development and within which it can tolerate no intriguing and no counter-alliances. Germany's living space is Central Europe, allotted to it by nature. To keep opponents out of this space is not aggression."

With respect to the conduct of the war, each side has harped on the alleged evil practices of the other. The British stress the atrocities in Poland, various inhuman acts of sea warfare, the plundering of occupied territories, the bombing of open towns. Thus on December 5, 1940, the Princeton Listening Center heard Major Hastings tell Americans: "Now, as I am speaking, the bombs are dropping. Five miles high, they are, five miles. Assassination as at Coventry, deliberate, thoroughgoing, painstaking assassination. Tomorrow there will be another tale of smashed and suffocated and mangled men, women and children, and another gratified grunt from the Nazis."

The Germans, on their part, emphasize the illegality of British control measures, the illegal boarding of the Altmark, the bombing of civilians. Here is a sample: "Our assumption was, of course, that even England would not murder civilians, including women and children, for the mere pleasure of so doing. . . . Every crime against German civilians is being carefully noted and when the time comes to present the account, the cost to Britain will be terrible indeed." Apropos of the British action against the French fleet at Oran, E. D. Ward from Berlin compared it "to that Herod, who in his mad rage at his inability to lay hands on the Christ Child, ordered the slaying of the innocents."

During the first months of the war, when the Nazis were making efforts to prevent too great a deterioration in relations between Germany and the United States, they often reminded us of German heroes who had fought in our wars, such as General Herkimer, or those who had taken a prominent part in American life, such as Dr. Muhlenburg, Pennsylvania preacher. As the United States revealed its desire for a British victory, the Nazi propaganda bureau adopted other themes, appealing more to materialistic self-interest, plus a note of intimidation, to be described in a moment.

While the belligerent uses the radio to stress his affinity with the neutral in ideals and interests he tries at the same time to drive a wedge between the neutral and the enemy. Germany has sent out over the air to the United States a series of historical sketches describing the disputes and wars between this country and England, from the Boston tea party down to the war debts. One of the favorite Nazi themes is the allegation that Britain, today as in 1917, has plotted to draw the United States into the European war. "Change the names, the dates, the serial number," says E. D. Ward, "and you have the same story that was written 22 years ago." From the other side of the Channel, British speakers point out to Americans the vast chasm separating Nazi totalitarianism from our concepts of democracy, and stress the incompatibility between the German invasion of Denmark, Norway, Holland and Belgium and American views on international morality.

III. THE RADIO FIGHT FOR AMERICAN SUPPORT

In the radio war, as in the economic, diplomatic and military fields, the policy of the dictatorships has been dynamic and aggressive, that of the democracies passive and defensive, at least until the Battle of Flanders. Long before the present war, the dictatorships had the upper hand. The Russians sent Communist propaganda to the democratic countries, but the latter, despite fears awakened by this campaign, did little by radio to counteract it. The Nazis, in an effort to influence the plebiscite in the Saar, bombarded the voters there with violent pro-German propaganda, which the French hardly attempted to meet. Similarly, the British waited nearly two years before responding in kind to the Italian radio campaigns among the Arabs, who were urged to revolt against their English "oppressors."

When the present war broke out, the initiative was immediately assumed by the Nazis and maintained for many months. Utilizing excellent equipment and a highly-integrated organization which was the result of years of experience, the Nazi radio was soon sending North American audiences 11 hours of programs each day, and promising us, in the words of a Berlin speaker, "regardless of the war, a choice assortment of broadcasting viands, sparkling musical champagne and other tasty delicacies, such as operettas, variety entertainments, dance music and comic bits." Sandwiched between operas and orchestral music, lively news talks and skits were offered to the American public. The Germans were the first to use American men and women for this purpose. All of them were familiar with American life, and some, like the Iowan Fred W. Kaltenbach, talked to the "folks back in Iowa" in a Midwestern drawl. From the first these speakers conducted an energetic campaign over alleged British crimes and misdemeanors and warned us to beware of being drawn into the war. Violent criticisms were hurled against certain groups and institutions in the United States, notably capitalists, Jews, newspapers and "politicians." At the same time, every effort was made to solicit our sympathy, and to show that our material interests would not suffer from a German victory.

Since the summer of 1940, but with increasing intensity these past few months, the Nazi radio has adopted a much more critical tone in its radio campaign in the United States. No longer do the German spokesmen try to curry our sympathy; rather, they spread dissension and confusion, to foment lack of confidence and turn class against class. There has been an intensification of the anti-Semitic campaign. For the first time, the Nazi propagandists seem to feel on the defensive; their main fight now is to nullify the efforts to increase American aid to Britain. As part of this fight, they even resort to direct intimidation, warning us that if we continue to aid Britain we will live to regret it; that since American traders refuse to do business with the Nazis now they will not be able to do so after the war; and that hence the country will suffer losses, a lower standard of living, etc. Accompanying the menaces are assurances that Hitler has no designs on Latin America, and above all no plans for aggression against the United States. Judging by the vast increase in the number of attacks on the United States, its leaders and its institutions, and by the fact that there is now but little difference between the Nazi radio policy toward Britain and that toward the United States, we must conclude that already the Germans are considering us more as an enemy than as a neutral.

British radio propaganda, although more generously financed and better organized than the French, was nevertheless relatively dull and uninspired before the coming of the Blitzkrieg. According to a recent study published by the Princeton Listening Center:

Listeners in the United States were accorded the same treatment as Dominion and colonial audiences. Broadcasting to Americans, who were accustomed to hear minor events reported as if they heralded the imminent collapse of the solar system, London stations relied solely on the Overseas Service, inaugurated for Empire listeners in 1932. It was paced in the same rhythm as the leisurely Home Service; much time was devoted to descriptions of the war effort of the Dominions and Colonies and the activity of Empire troops in the mother country. American listeners might well have agreed with Lord Strabolgi, British Labor peer, who complained last February about the "dullness, repetition and paucity" of news radiated by the BBC.

Since the end of May 1940, however, British radio broadcasts to the United States have been more frequent and more lively. Programs especially prepared for, and beamed to, this country were enriched by additional speakers of first rank, and came to include J. B. Priestley, Wickham Steed, Leslie Howard, Somerset Maugham and others. This use of outstanding men known already to the American public for books or scientific achievements gave the British a notable advantage over the Germans, whose radio speakers are as a rule men and women unknown in America and sometimes inclined to use language and to speak in a tone hardly in harmony with American taste. The BBC has also added interesting skits and stunts, long a feature of German programs. Americans accustomed to the dignified and reserved BBC speakers must have been considerably surprised by the announcement, illustrative of the new policy: "Don't forget Princess Elizabeth at 7:45 P.M., Eastern Standard Time, next Sunday!"

This improvement in radio organization after the Battle of Flanders was paralleled by a notable change in propaganda technique. Prior to that time, the British seemed content to stress the inevitability of British victory, implying that aid could be given freely to the Allies without fear of German reprisals. The British even boasted that they intended to refrain from propaganda entirely. But with their backs to the wall, the British adopted a new policy. Their radio themes suddenly became dynamic. They stressed that Britain's and America's destiny were inseparable, that the United States was next on Hitler's list. As Britain was America's first line of defense, it was right that the greatest reliance should be placed on the moral and material support of the United States. In contrast with the German radio, which sought to divide the American public, the British radio aimed to unite American opinion, unite it in support of Britain. Its speakers have tried to inspire confidence, to create a community of interest and feeling between the two peoples.

The French, at the outbreak of the war, gave little attention to public opinion in America, apparently leaving the effort to gain American support almost entirely to the British. Their programs for American consumption were confined mainly to a factual summary of the news, and programs of music, plays and other literature on a high intellectual level, often actually pedantic, lacking the interest and the appeal of the German or even of the British renditions. Many faults of technique, too, were evident, for example the use of French speakers who translated the news extemporaneously and literally, in rather poor English, sometimes in an effeminate tone not at all suited to a country at war. Little effort was made to fit the programs to American tastes. Following the invasion of Denmark, however, the French made belated efforts to reform their entire radio policy. Although improvement in their domestic programs was small, great progress was perceptible in their overseas offerings, especially after the attack on Holland. In fact, for a brief period, lasting until the collapse, the French put on a series of programs which were the most attractive of all European broadcasts heard in the United States. News flashes were interspersed between regular programs, military bands occasionally replaced stringed quartets, and refugees and American Legion representatives were put on the air. Paris-Mondial was the first station in the democratic countries to use American speakers as a regular part of its programs.

Looking back on the eighteen months of radio warfare, we are impelled to conclude that the Nazi radio, despite the advantages of greater experience, superior organization, and a more imaginative and more energetic policy, has made much less of an impression on the American public than the British.

In the first place, the "climate" of radio propaganda has been more favorable to the British. As shown by the Gallup Polls, public opinion in the United States has been overwhelmingly in favor of Britain. Our people generally accepted the view that alike from the economic, the military, and the cultural point of view our interests are usually parallel, often identical. Naturally one will give a more sympathetic ear to his business partner and friend, than to his business competitor and enemy. In Winston Churchill, too, the British have had a spokesman without a peer elsewhere for confident, measured eloquence interspersed with flashes of irony and wit. Moreover, the elementary facts of the war are such as to predispose the American listener against anyone pleading the German cause. In the last war, the Germans could never live down the rape of Belgium, the submarine warfare, the use of poisonous gas. Similarly no amount of opera or diverting chats by Lord Haw Haw from Berlin can explain away the Jewish pogroms or the ruthless destruction of Rotterdam.

In the second place, there is the practical matter of the radio audience. Here, too, the British enjoy great advantages. From scattered evidence it would appear that not more than 10 or 15 percent of American listeners regularly tune in on short-wave broadcasts from Europe. Probably most of the listeners to German and Italian short-wave signals are immigrants or members of the first generation of American-born. As a matter of fact, most students of the subject believe that the main object of Nazi and Fascist radio propaganda is to maintain or cultivate the loyalty of these groups, and, at the same time, to send directions to sympathizers and "Fifth Columnists" as to the kind of propaganda these are to spread throughout the country. Such listeners, however, represent only a small fraction of the American public. On the other hand, many of the British short-wave programs are re-broadcast in this country. By the fall of 1940, a total of 88 American stations were relaying BBC news, and one of the major American chains, the Mutual Broadcasting System, was giving re-broadcasts of BBC news, and even a certain number of topical talks. In addition, Canadian stations easily audible in many parts of the United States were giving more complete renditions of London transmissions, and naturally their own views on the war, practically identical with those of England herself. This immensely valuable avenue of approach -- the Canadian radio -- cannot be matched by the Germans.

Another advantage enjoyed by the British over the German radio is a reputation for reliability. German and Italian broadcasts are marked by numerous cases of misrepresentation, misstatement or downright falsehood, but it is rare that one finds the BBC wandering from the truth. The BBC may not always give the whole truth, and it may suppress or postpone the announcement of particularly bad news. And, naturally, it will present the most favorable interpretations of events and causes. But, by and large, its broadcasts have maintained a high degree of accuracy. The German and British radios are as different as the lawyer who manufactures evidence, and the one who, while making out the best possible case for his client, refrains from directly unethical practices. There is much evidence to the effect that the American public considers the reports from London as much more reliable than news from Berlin. And it is likely that if the BBC maintains its present policy, Americans will tend to ascribe even greater credibility to the BBC news, and that our resistance to British reports, so prevalent among a people fearful of propaganda, will tend to diminish.

This propaganda phobia is a grave obstacle to clear thinking. The tendency to ignore everything coming out from a belligerent country as "mere propaganda" is folly. The crucial question is whether the fact is true and the appeal is sound. I have seen students at the movies squirm in their seats, protesting, "This is propaganda," when views of bombed Coventry were shown. We must not allow ourselves to be taken in by specious arguments. But we must not let ourselves mistrust the truth out of laziness or in order to spare ourselves the pain of acting on our considered decisions.

[i] Thomas Grandin, "The Political Use of the Radio," Geneva Studies, August 1939.

[ii] Harold N. Graves, Jr., "European Radio and the War," Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, January 1941.

[iii] It is interesting to note that the BBC makes no such personal attacks on Hitler, criticizing him as a leader, not as a man.

You are reading a free article.

Subscribe to Foreign Affairs to get unlimited access.

  • Paywall-free reading of new articles and a century of archives
  • Unlock access to iOS/Android apps to save editions for offline reading
  • Six issues a year in print, online, and audio editions
Subscribe Now