Mass media and propaganda in 20th century Europe
'And never tune in to RIAS again!'
Radio broadcasting in West Berlin
Radio broadcasting in West Berlin
The picture below is quite remarkable. Although it was taken at a Leistungsschau exhibition in Leipzig in 1952, it does not showcase an economic, social or political achievement of the East German metropolis – but something rather different and unexpected. What we see here is a propagandistic display case that denounces the RIAS. That’s short for Radio im Amerikanischen Sektor (Radio in the American Sector), a free, independent public broadcaster that had been launched by US officials in West Berlin six years earlier to teach the inhabitants of the post-fascist, divided capital about democracy and modern media. The station, run by Germans with American oversight, had quickly become an attractive source of news and entertainment – for listeners in the East too. Before we get into the details of the poster and the campaign, let's take a step back.
This nursery rhyme-like 'poem' displayed in the booth reads:
Der RIAS, merk's dir, armer Tropf,
schlägt dir ein großes Brett vor'n Kopf
So sag auch du ab heute NEIN!
Und stelle nie mehr RIAS ein!
The RIAS, remember, poor bugger,
Will put a big board in front of your head*
So from today, you too should say 'NO!'
And never tune in to RIAS again!
(*a German idiom meaning something will turn you into someone with a blinkered attitude)
Contrary to its name, the German Democratic Republic (GDR) – established by the Soviets in 1949 – was not really a place where the people had a lot of say. For instance, the country's media were heavily controlled, and as a result, news reporting on a great number of topics (including basically all fundamental criticism of the GDR authorities and their political failures) was censored or banned at some point. So lots of East Germans turned to Western media if they could, and most specifically to RIAS, which broadcast uncensored news, political commentary and a number of cultural programmes from its safe, liberal West Berlin exclave – right in the middle of the GDR. Needless to say, GDR officials were not amused and tried to bash the RIAS whenever there was a chance.
RIAS was no ultra-objective and completely unbiased radio station. It had a pro-Western, pro-American agenda, with all its side effects. The conversative German journalist Gerhard Löwenthal, who worked for RIAS in its early days, later on admitted that his employer had also acted in propagandistic ways, at times with the clear aim of 'destabilising the GDR'.
However, unlike its counterparts in the GDR, RIAS was an open, modern broadcaster with high journalistic standards, and was therefore perceived as legitimate and trustworthy. It also fostered a lot of political debates rather than blocking them, such as when Willy Brandt, leader of the SPD (Germany's social democratic party) turned to RIAS to discuss an open letter he had received from the GDR government.
Reflecting on the RIAS agenda, Peter Schiwy (head of the station in the 1980s, at the height of the Cold War) stated in a 2015 interview for German newspaper Die Zeit: 'The only stipulation always was: The rules of the free press apply. Their biggest concern was that we might report in a one-sided way.' And that is something that clearly cannot be said of RIAS's East German competitors and the GDR authorities.
Keeping a low profile did not seem to be an option, though. In fact, tensions between the GDR and RIAS reached an early climax in 1953, when the government in East Berlin blamed the Western broadcaster for inciting the Volksaufstand (East German Uprising) – which actually had its roots in a spontaneous strike of construction workers and was a consequence of the introduction of higher work quotas and other unpopular sovietisation policies in the GDR. RIAS reported with a rather careful level head – which led East German radio commentators to refer to the station as 'the perverse exclamation mark behind German lack of character' (take a listen in this 1993 DW documentary). The GDR continued campaigning against RIAS – but could never really hurt the broadcaster's success and popularity.
Another 1950s poster resolved the RIAS acronym to Rundfunk im Ami-Sold (Broadcaster on the American Army's payroll) and claimed the station was all about Lügen und Hetze (lies and agitation), Mord- und Sabotageanweisungen (instructions to murder and sabotage) and Amerikanische Boogi-Woogie-'Kultur' (American boogie-woogie 'culture'; note the wrong spelling and the ironic, implicitly racist quotation marks).
Eventually, as the GDR faced a massive emigration wave and the Berlin Wall went up as a consequence in 1962, the fight against RIAS became more radical. Harsh words turned into harsh actions. At some point, the regime in East Berlin installed frequency jamming transmitters – and also made it illegal to listen to RIAS.
All efforts to bring down the West Berlin station were in vain though. Decades later, in 1989, RIAS was still thriving while GDR media and authorities were on their last legs. The rest is history. RIAS continued its service from West Berlin until the early 1990s, when it was dissolved in the course of German reunification, media mergers and transformations.
With regard to the overarching topic of mass media and propaganda, the anti-RIAS campaigns serve as a great example of the historic persistence of negative, mendacious communication. Bluntly badmouthing political opponents and circulating 'alternative facts' was as popular then as it is now.
It is a documented fact that RIAS – for all its faults and American entanglements – was a relatively free, independent, and critical radio station – while its GDR counterparts were frequently muzzled and put under strict state control. Yet the East German government basically claimed the opposite.
The sad truth is that in 2022, 70 years after the ‘Never Tune in to RIAS Again!’ poster, we are facing a comparable, albeit far more extreme situation: a vast number of more or less democratic countries report thoroughly on an autocratic Russia (that has long since lost satellite states like the GDR) and condemn its aggressive propaganda, its crackdown on journalists, and its brutal war on Ukraine. At the same time, the Kremlin asserts – in all seriousness – that Western media are lying all the time, and that the Russian Army is merely conducting a 'special operation' to get rid of 'Nazis'.
Let's wrap this up with a classic quote:
'Freedom is the freedom to say that two plus two makes four. If that is granted, all else follows.'
Winsons Smith in George Orwell's 1984
From Eastern-German propaganda during the Cold War to campaign against independent and critical Western media, we will now move towards southern Europe. How did the Greek coup by far-right colonels in the late 1960s lead to mass media manipulation. And what ideology did these colonels want to spread with their propaganda?