Cold War on the Airwaves: The Radio Propaganda War against East Germany

Cold War on the Airwaves: The Radio Propaganda War against East Germany

by Nicholas J Schlosser

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Founded as a counterweight to the Communist broadcasters in East Germany, Radio in the American Sector (RIAS) became one of the most successful public information operations conducted against the Soviet Bloc. Cold War on the Airwaves examines the Berlin-based organization's history and influence on the political worldview of the people--and government--on the other side of the Iron Curtain. Nicholas Schlosser draws on broadcast transcripts, internal memoranda, listener letters, and surveys by the U.S. Information Agency to profile RIAS. Its mission: to undermine the German Democratic Republic with propaganda that, ironically, gained in potency by obeying the rules of objective journalism. Throughout, Schlosser examines the friction inherent in such a contradictory project and propaganda's role in shaping political culture. He also portrays how RIAS's primarily German staff influenced its outlook and how the organization both competed against its rivals in the GDR and pushed communist officials to alter their methods in order to keep listeners. From the occupation of Berlin through the airlift to the construction of the Berlin Wall, Cold War on the Airwaves offers an absorbing view of how public diplomacy played out at a flashpoint of East-West tension.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780252039690
Publisher: University of Illinois Press
Publication date: 11/03/2015
Edition description: 1st Edition
Pages: 256
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 9.20(h) x 1.20(d)

About the Author

Nicholas Schlosser is a historian at the U.S. Army Center of Military History. He is the coeditor of Counterinsurgency Leadership in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Beyond .

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Cold War on the Airwaves

The Radio Propaganda War Against East Germany

By Nicholas J. Schlosser


Copyright © 2015 Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-252-03969-0



During the Cold War the United States conducted an aggressive propaganda campaign against the Soviet Union and its allies, utilizing a variety of mass media. Radio was at the forefront of this campaign. Throughout the conflict, American broadcasters worked to build support for the United States and undermine the legitimacy of the Soviet Union and the Communist Bloc. This book is about one of those radio stations: Radio in the American Sector, better known as RIAS.

RIAS was created within months of the end of World War II to serve as the official broadcaster for the American sector of occupation in Berlin. As the United States worked to build a new, democratic Germany, RIAS's creators hoped the station's news reporting would serve as an example of nonpartisan, objective journalism to German listeners and statesmen alike. As the wartime alliance between the Soviet Union and the Western Allies rapidly collapsed into the Cold War superpower rivalry, RIAS was retooled as a propaganda operation designed to counter the Communist media organs operating in the Soviet Occupation Zone (what would become East Germany, or the German Democratic Republic). Throughout the late 1940s and 1950s RIAS produced news and entertainment programs directed at listeners living behind the Iron Curtain in East Germany.

Despite its primary purpose as a propaganda station deployed to fight the Cold War, RIAS's news programming quickly gained a reputation for accuracy. Its reporters prided themselves on providing an objective alternative to the state-run, Communist-controlled media organs of the German Democratic Republic. Nevertheless, RIAS's mission was to undermine the legitimacy of East Germany and sow discord between that state's government and its people. Despite this, a significant and enthusiastic segment of the East German populace stated in surveys and letters commissioned by American officials that they listened to the station because they considered it objective and trustworthy.

In contrast, East Germany's ruling Socialist Unity Party, or SED, saw RIAS as a direct threat to its authority. The rulers of the German Democratic Republic hewed to a Marxist-Leninist vision of the mass media that assumed it was necessary to control all radio and print journalism in the country in order to build socialism and lay the foundations for a Communist society. RIAS's ability to broadcast directly into East Germany undermined this media monopoly. Furthermore, many in the East German government believed that RIAS was not only a broadcaster but also a hub of American espionage operations throughout the German Democratic Republic.

This book examines RIAS's influence on East German political culture and analyzes how the station influenced the political worldviews and language of the German Democratic Republic's government as well as its citizens. I argue that the symbiotic relationship between broadcaster and listener transformed RIAS into an influential force in East Germany. The station's impact went beyond shaping political attitudes of the station's listeners in East Germany; it also led that state's ruling Socialist Unity Party to undertake a range of aggressive actions against RIAS that entailed not only the use of jamming towers to disrupt the station's broadcasts but also the implementation of a series of clandestine operations to infiltrate the station and disrupt its operations.

A variety of factors contributed to RIAS's popularity and success. As with other American propaganda operations, RIAS utilized a "strategy of truth" that aimed to counteract Communist propaganda by presenting factual reporting, even if certain news stories did not necessarily cast the United States in the most favorable light. It took great lengths to insure that the information it broadcast was accurate and reliable, avoided making overt political attacks, and openly cited and acknowledged sources used for its stories. In this regard, the station shared much in common with other broadcasters managed by the United States government throughout the Cold War, such as the Voice of America.

Circumstances unique to RIAS and its audience played just as significant a role in making the station influential, however. Though operating under American auspices, RIAS was nevertheless staffed primarily by Germans, and its reporting focused on issues of concern to Germany. Programs such as Aus der Zone, für die Zone (From the Zone, for the Zone) and Werktag der Zone (Workday of the Zone) focused on providing listeners with information on conditions inside East Germany. Able to monitor East Germany's own stations, RIAS also tailored its reporting so that it could serve as a clear contrast to those broadcasters. German listeners, weary of the overtly propagandistic character of East Germany's Communist-controlled broadcasters, found RIAS to be a welcome alternative. That many East Germans were sympathetic to the station's firm anti-Communist position helped solidify RIAS's popularity, as listeners from this segment of East German society were ready to embrace RIAS's interpretation of events.

The station also benefited from geography. As a station based in West Berlin, the broadcaster had the enviable advantage of being able to broadcast from within the German Democratic Republic. This not only allowed it to be heard throughout East Germany, but before 1961 it also meant that East Germans could freely enter West Berlin and walk right up to the station house to give it tips, leads, and detailed information about conditions in the German Democratic Republic.

Combined, these factors produced news programming that resonated with a large number of East German listeners. These numbers were significant enough to concern East Germany's ruling Socialist Unity Party. While the East German government may have inflated RIAS's power and the role the broadcaster played in directing American clandestine operations behind the Iron Curtain, it nevertheless had a real reason to be concerned, as Communist officials could often trace acts of civil disobedience in the German Democratic Republic to information spread by RIAS broadcasts.

Four themes frame this book. The first is the tension that exists between objectivity and propaganda. The term "objective" is a loaded one, and it carries with it a variety of connotations. In one sense, it refers to principles developed during the scientific revolution, the Enlightenment, and the nineteenth century: empirical research, rational deduction, and impartiality. By the mid-twentieth century, a growing number of intellectuals began to disparage these principles. Critics from radical movements such as National Socialism and Stalinism characterized objectivity as a naïve vestige of antiquated liberalism incompatible with modern movements such as totalitarianism. Following World War II, intellectuals from a variety of fields in the liberal arts and social sciences vigorously interrogated the limits of objectivity, questioning the individual's ability to investigate and test hypotheses in a truly unbiased, neutral manner.

For journalists, especially American journalists, the question of objectivity has long stood at the center of the field's professional and ethical standards. Although journalists and newspapers had existed in Europe since the seventeenth century, it was not until the 1920s that North American reporters formulated a model of journalistic objectivity. In contrast to European journalists, who frequently expressed opinions in their reporting, American journalists considered impartiality and neutrality to be fundamental to professional reporting in a democratic society. Journalists believed that a strict distinction needed to exist between opinion and news, thus requiring a high level of empirical research and investigation. Objective journalists preached restraint, systematic testing of sources, and balance.

When the United States entered World War I in 1917, the issue of propaganda's compatibility with journalism quickly emerged. As with the other combatant powers, America aimed to use mass media to promote the Allied cause at home and abroad. But was the purpose of propaganda to utilize all means necessary to defeat the enemy, or was it to also promote the freedoms of a liberal democracy, of which a free and neutral press was among the most important? During World War I, the Committee for Public Information conducted a strident campaign against Germany, during which news and media products considered damaging to the American war effort were censored. In at least one case a filmmaker was imprisoned for violating the Espionage Act of 1917. The virulence and harshness of American propaganda operations during the Great War led to a backlash against government-managed information operations during the 1920s and 1930s. Furthermore, the campaign helped to reinforce the idea that "propaganda" was antithetical to democracy in general and to American society in particular.

The initial propaganda campaign against Nazi Germany during World War II was decidedly different. Initially directed by the Office of War Information (OWI), a U.S. campaign of public diplomacy (diplomacy between national governments and a foreign population, as opposed to diplomacy between governments) was designed to build support for the anti-fascist war effort. The OWI was dedicated to a "strategy of truth," and its staffers believed that the best way to combat the Nazi's propaganda offensive was by broadcasting facts, even if such information cast the United States in a bad light. Relying primarily on the radio station Voice of America, the OWI broadcast its vision of a postwar world built on the basis of a liberal democratic order and international cooperation. This approach could often bring about embarrassing consequences for the OWI, as its operatives had to confront the fact that their postwar vision sometimes conflicted with the more pressing objective of winning the war. In 1942 the station came under fire for supporting Lieutenant General Dwight D. Eisenhower's decision to allow the pro-fascist Vichy French Admiral François Darlan to remain in control of French North Africa. A year later The New York Times criticized VOA for mocking Italy's king at a time when the Allied powers were trying to secure an armistice with the monarch to take Italy out of the war.

Almost as soon as World War II ended the United States found itself confronting the growing power and influence of the Soviet Union. Consequently, it quickly diverted the media operations it had used against Germany, notably the Voice of America, against the Soviets and Communism. Officials in the United States and in the field (many of whom were veterans of the OWI) found themselves facing the same tension between objectivity, truth, and the achievement of political objectives they had confronted during World War II. This problem was particularly noteworthy in postwar Germany, where the political future of that country was in the hands of the four allied powers, each with divergent goals and ideas of what a post-Nazi society would look like. Radio stations such as RIAS were committed to promoting a free and independent press. At the same time however, they were also committed to attacking the Communist forces occupying eastern Germany. While its reporters adhered to the principles of accuracy, news broadcasts were rarely unbiased or neutral. RIAS's reporters frankly admitted their opposition to Communism and believed that it was their moral and ethical responsibility to focus their reporting on the injustices committed by the German Democratic Republic government and to promote German reunification. Thus, as will be seen, RIAS defined "objective" reporting as factual reporting designed to achieve a political end.

The second theme of this book is the role journalists and propaganda organs play in shaping political culture. I define political culture as the language, symbols, and rhetoric used by political actors and the public to explain the political world around them. This definition draws primarily from those works of scholarship that have looked at the development of political ideas and rhetoric as a historical phenomenon in its own right. Another important element of this definition is identifying how those who hear and receive ideas craft political culture. As the present study will demonstrate, the East German government and East German people often drew very different conclusions about the news and stories RIAS reported. Their diverse reactions attest to the complex and multifaceted way a media operation such as RIAS can play in shaping the language of politics.

As the American journalist and intellectual Walter Lippmann noted in his study Public Opinion, the mass media plays a critical role in shaping and defining the stereotypes, symbols, and interpretations that build public consensus. While the press/media usually serves as the intermediary, it also often behaves as an independent political actor in its own right and consequently helps define public opinion and political culture. The reporters at RIAS acted not only as journalists but also as public intellectuals and political actors. Some of the more notable commentators whose broadcasts I examine include Egon Bahr, Victor Klages, and Heinz Frentzel. They not only presented information, but they also used their commentaries to explain why events happened and why they were important, using various symbols and narratives to provide context and meaning to their stories. As an institution, RIAS also occupied the role of political actor in East German society. Listeners looked to it as a bridge between the German Democratic Republic and the Western world and looked to it as a direct conduit to and from America. Many letters written to the station treated the broadcaster as an ersatz embassy from which one could acquire basic information about conditions in East Germany, West Germany, and the United States.

In emphasizing politics and news, it is not my contention that RIAS's other production areas were not significant and did not play a role in bolstering RIAS's popularity. RIAS's culture and entertainment programming was vibrant and popular. Satirical programs such as Gunter Neumann's cabaret, the RIAS Dance Orchestra, and the RIAS Symphony Orchestra were all popular and influential forms of entertainment produced by the station and contributed significantly to the cultural life of Berlin throughout the 1950s. However, RIAS's management focused primarily on the station's news broadcasting and believed that this needed to be its principal focus. Surveys and polls of East German listeners repeatedly demonstrated that this was the area that mattered most to them when choosing to listen to RIAS over other broadcasters. During the 1960s this shifted as RIAS realized that broadcasting youth-oriented programming featuring the newest popular music was an effective means for attracting younger listeners and diverting them from the German Democratic Republic's stations. Indeed, scholarship by historians such as Christoph Classen and Michael Meyen has gone a long way toward demonstrating that entertainment broadcasting (along with the nearby consumer attractions of West Berlin) ultimately played a greater role in turning listeners away from the official media organs of the Socialist Unity Party than RIAS's attempts to build a rival political body using its news reporting. However, even during the latter part of the Cold War, RIAS still considered news broadcasting to be its raison d'être.

A third theme of this book centers on the relationship between American and German officials at RIAS, and the broader relationship between the United States and West Germany during the early Cold War. A variety of American agencies oversaw RIAS throughout its history. From 1946 to 1949 RIAS was an institution of the Office of the Military Government, United States (OMGUS). In 1949, OMGUS began to transfer broadcasting operations in the American Occupation Zone to German control. RIAS would be the sole exception and became the official broadcaster of the United States High Commission for Germany. In 1953, the Eisenhower administration created the United States Information Agency (USIA) to organize and coordinate the various American information campaigns directed against the Eastern Bloc. Its creation represented a distinct shift in American psychological warfare, as the Eisenhower administration shifted from the containment policies of the Truman presidency to the more aggressive and confrontational policy of "roll back" that sought to actively encourage open opposition throughout the Eastern Bloc.

Despite these changes in administration, a number of important continuities existed throughout the history of RIAS Berlin with regard to personnel. The station was perceived by Germans in West and East alike as the Berlin station. With the exception of four American control officers, RIAS's staff was made up entirely of Germans. Its editors, program directors, and reporters were all Germans, many of whom were born in Berlin and regions that were in the German Democratic Republic. Thus, RIAS was a unique program within the USIA's arsenal. Like Voice of America, it operated as an official mouthpiece of the United States. However, its largely German staff and subsequent German outlook made it similar to the nominally independent and private surrogate broadcasters (such as Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty) manned largely by refugees from Communist states.


Excerpted from Cold War on the Airwaves by Nicholas J. Schlosser. Copyright © 2015 Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF ILLINOIS PRESS.
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Table of Contents


Acknowledgments, ix,
Abbreviations, xi,
1 Between Objectivity and Engagement, 1,
2 Radio Propaganda during the Occupation, 1945–1949, 13,
3 Building a Rival Fourth Estate: RIAS's Campaign against East Germany, 47,
4 RIAS Berlin and the June 17, 1953, Uprising in East Germany, 75,
5 The East German Campaign against RIAS, 107,
6 RIAS and the Berlin Crisis of 1958–1961, 135,
Epilogue: RIAS, 1963–1992, 163,
Notes, 175,
Sources and Bibliography, 209,
Index, 223,

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