Thursday, October 09, 2008

Book Review: Nazi Radio

Radio propaganda and 1938 

Chequered airwaves

Oct 9th 2008 
From The Economist print edition

Battle for the Airwaves: Radio and the 1938 Munich Crisis
By David Vaughan

Radioservis/Cook Communications; 110 pages; £20

Buy it at

RADIO created the Third Reich’s ethnic battering ram: the Sudeten Germans, stranded in Czechoslovakia under the Versailles treaty. As David Vaughan recounts in his meticulous and poignant study of the war on the airwaves, Czechoslovakia’s own German-language programmes were hopelessly outgunned by the quantity, quality and audibility of the Nazi propaganda effort. Patriotic Czechoslovak journalists argued that it was the national radio’s job to broadcast in the national language: if their fellow-citizens wanted to hear programmes in German, they could tune in elsewhere. They did.

What Prague did offer was sometimes magnificently erudite (Thomas Mann, the exiled German literary giant, was a contributor) but had little appeal to skint, resentful German-speaking workers: they were easy prey for made-up stories of atrocities, discrimination, and conspiracies. That forged the crucial link in the Nazi argument: that ethnic Germans, around a quarter of Czechoslovakia’s population, wanted—and deserved—to join the Reich.

The BBC comes off badly too. Like this reviewer, Mr Vaughan is a former BBC man in Prague; he is pitiless in his analysis of its pusillanimity. It banned its best experts on Czechoslovakia from the airwaves. The broadcasts to occupied Europe that won the BBC its reputation were to come sooner and in more ghastly circumstances than even they foresaw.

Some stars pierced the fog. American broadcasters, such as Edward Murrow, brought the drama of Czechoslovakia’s impending vivisection with language that crackles: “fast and dramatic news from Europe tonight, tense news that makes your spine tingle and your heart stop cold”, was how the now-defunct Mutual network opened its broadcast on September 13th, 1938. Sydney Morrell described Czechoslovak policemen listening to a Nazi radio station. “I was accustomed by now to the ‘Czech Terror’ broadcasts, to the rapid voice of the speaker, calculated to whip up mass feeling, the stories of ‘Red troops’ running riot in the Sudeten villages, firing at random, of mass arrests of Sudeten Germans, and tales of sadistic torture in some dark Czech prison cell. The policemen…talked among themselves with the helpless anger of men who are caught up in some movement beyond their control.”

But America was too far away. With even one local ally, Czechoslovakia, the region’s only democracy, would have fought. Betrayed by Britain, France, Hungary, Poland and others, it had no chance.

That is topical as well as tragic. You could read Mr Vaughan’s book, substituting ex-Soviet countries such as Estonia for Czechoslovakia. With Kremlin talk of “privileged interests” in Russia’s neighbourhood, and a litany of real and imagined grievances there, it is easy to imagine a resurgent Russia whipping up its millions of compatriots, living in foreign countries thanks to the collapse of the Soviet empire, into a frenzy while the outside world stands aloof. These stranded Russians tune almost exclusively into the Kremlin-run electronic media, not local stations, which broadcast poorly in Russian, if at all (the same mistake that Czechoslovakia made with German). The lesson of the 1930s is that once you lose hearts and minds, and malefactors gain them, everything else usually goes too.

No comments: