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Vatican Radio was ‘positively aggressive’ in countering Nazi ‘fake news’ efforts, new book says

 

Vatican Radio was ‘positively aggressive’ in countering Nazi ‘fake news’ efforts, new book says

The Seehaus at Wannsee, where Vatican radio was monitored around the clock between 1940 and 1945. (Credit: Nathan Morley/Courtesy to Crux.)

During World War II, the Nazi regime used radio to propagate their message not only at home, but abroad.

The Deutschlandsender, the Nazi equivalent of National Public Radio (NPR) and BBC Radio 4, broadcast propaganda to Europe, the British Isles, the Middle East and even the United States.

Nathan Morley’s Radio Hitler: Nazi Airwaves in the Second World War - due to be published by Amberley in August - uses first-hand interviews, archives, diaries, letters and memoirs to examine Hitler’s radio and how it used ‘fake news’ to spread Nazi propaganda.

 
 

The book also looks at how Joseph Goebbels, Hitler’s propaganda minister, had a particular dislike for Vatican Radio, demanding transcripts of its broadcasts on an almost daily basis.

“He never really understood how an independent radio station could beam from what he viewed as the capital of Germany’s greatest ally,” Morley told Crux, referring to Mussolini’s Fascist regime in Italy.

“For him, the whole Vatican Radio operation was totally perplexing.”

 

What follows are excerpts of Morley’s conversation with Crux.

 

Crux: Your book touches on how the Nazi regime viewed Vatican Radio. Can you tell us more?

Morley: The Vatican radio received prominent billing in Joseph Goebbels, Hitler’s propaganda minister’s list of dislikes. He was horrified to read transcripts and reports on what he described as the ‘strikingly unfriendly and positively aggressive’ Vatican Radio.

He never really understood how an independent radio station could beam from what he viewed as the capital of Germany’s greatest ally. For him, the whole Vatican Radio operation was totally perplexing. Accordingly, the German listening station at Wannsee in Berlin monitored Vatican Radio 24 hours a day and shot off transcripts to Goebbels on an almost daily basis.

What role did Vatican Radio play in World War II? How did the Germans respond?

 

It is important to note that the reach of Vatican Radio - then known as station HVJ on the shortwave - was huge. It beamed daily newscasts, which followed the war with painful attention, alongside a ‘discourse’ discussion program in English beamed to India, North America, Europe, Asia, Africa and the Middle East. In early 1940, an account on Vatican Radio about the ‘horror and inexcusable excesses’ inflicted on Poles under Nazi rule obviously irked Goebbels and other leading Nazis. The speaker, who was reported to have been an English Jesuit, had returned from Poland in late 1939, and spoke about the appalling conditions under the German occupiers.

Radio Hitler: Nazi Airwaves in the Second World War. (Credit: Amberley Publishing.)

The following year, Vatican Radio was critical of the measures taken by the Nazi authorities aiming to suppress Catholicism in Alsace Lorraine and other parts of Occupied France. Unsurprisingly, the station came under electronic attack by jamming and was briefly forced to broadcast some program in slow dictation. Then the jamming was so bad, Vatican Radio had to change frequency. Another notable program was the regular visits to camps for prisoners of war and internees in Italy, some of the internees talked over Vatican Radio and sent messages home. On one occasion, a British Army Sergeant Kenneth Maunders, proposed to a girl in Stoke on Trent, over Vatican Radio while he was a prisoner of war.

Among the news and current affairs broadcasts, other programming, of course, included Mass celebrated by the pope at St. Peter’s, along with the annual Christmas Eve message to the world.

Your book looks at the propaganda efforts of German radio in the Nazi era. How far was their reach?

 

Berlin had already injected itself into every radio market in the world by 1937. Their reach was literally global. Political output to foreign audiences was sweetened by the works of Mozart, Beethoven and Wagner. Within 60 days of the Nazi regime taking power, the short-wave service was pumping out a dazzling variety of items in German, English, and Spanish to North and Central America daily.

But the big break came with the Olympics in 1936, which was the first really global radio experience. Never before in human history had such a mass of humanity from across the world been joined together. The Games also saw the growing television service rolled out to beam low-definition pictures to public viewing rooms across Berlin.

Did the Nazi propaganda ever focus on religion?

In typical twisted form, the Nazis pretended to support the Church on their overseas radio services, especially after Stalingrad. An attempt to win the support of American communities was made by playing on their religious sentiments. A service devoted to Ireland - called the Gaelic program - saw Professor Muhlhausen, who occupied the Chair of Celtic Studies at the Berlin University often waxing lyrical on ‘Nazi devoutness to the Christian faith’ and the partiality of Nazi leaders for the Catholic Church.

Goebbels deployed an American journalist called Jane Anderson to appeal to Catholics in the United States. She rather bizarrely signed on air with the moniker ‘Georgia Peach,’ using the slogan: ‘Always remember progressive Americans eat Kellogg’s Corn Flakes and listen to both sides of the story.’ She compared the invasion of Russia in 1941 to a religious crusade backed by 50 million members of the Catholic Church of Germany - which, of course had been persecuted and bullied by Hitler since 1933. She said Catholics stood united and as one against Russia. ‘The Catholic Church in Germany will support the Fuhrer by word and deed in the crusade against the Communist enemies of the Christian world.”

In today’s world of “fake news,” do you see any lessons we can learn from this era? Do you see any similarities?

No not really, because what we saw back in the 1940s, was in essence exactly the same in tone and style as the ‘fake news’ disseminated nowadays, just on different platforms with different recipients.

In Germany, the government funded fake news effort was enormous - but very amateurish, which could be said for a lot of the fake news outlets nowadays.

The Nazi service covered Europe, Asia, the Americas and India. Perhaps the most prominent outfit was the Büro Concordia, a unit producing subversive radio propaganda, designed to stir up defeatism, strife and dissension. It not only beamed fake news, it actually created a string of fake radio stations. The first big effort was the concoction ‘freedom stations’ supposedly transmitting from ‘somewhere in France’ designed to undermine French confidence in early 1940. The first, calling itself Voix de la Paix sowed a spirit of despondency by promoting panic with false and scurrilous reports, peppered with ‘apocalyptic portraits’ of war.

Whilst successful in France, the fake stations purporting to be broadcasting from inside the British Isles were largely a flop. One example, The Christian Peace Station - a replica of the Voix de la Paix - camouflaged itself as an apostle for peace. On one occasion it accused every female working in the armaments industry as committing a crime against God. Transmissions usually wrapped up with hymns and a prayer.

Nothing outshone Radio Caledonia - the ‘Voice of Scotland’ - which was, without doubt, the clumsiest effort imaginable. A BBC monitor noted the announcer had a ‘slight Scottish accent’ but was generally incoherent - as was the content, which also included items about hunger, the fatherland, capitalism, the working man and so on. One observer noted, ‘these fake German stations crop up like mushrooms on a certain wavelength, blither and blather for some time, then entirely disappear.’

Just prior to the fall of Athens, morale in Greece was zapped by the ‘Fatherland’ station, another sham Concordia channel masquerading as a free, independent voice for every patriotic Greek. There was no restrained behavior as it accused the British of poisoning water supplies with the typhoid bacteria, whilst Goebbels instructed the Greek King be verbally attacked on air with the insinuation that he had disposed of the crown jewels abroad, and was planning to hotfoot it to Turkey or Egypt when the Germans arrived.

How did the stations end?

By 1945, they were shouting into the Abyss. In Berlin at the Haus Des Rundfunks, which was the equivalent of the BBC’s Broadcasting House, gallows humor shone. The ‘joke du jour’ being that it would soon be possible to travel by Berlin’s local tram from the Eastern to the Western Front. During my research it was interesting to speak with several former employees of the radio network, including the final announcer on Reichssender Berlin.

The British renegade broadcaster William Joyce, - known as Lord Haw-Haw - prepared for the end with the help of liquor. He rattled off his final radio speech, aided by a bottle of schnapps. The whole radio system stumbled through its death scene with a mixture of classical gramophone records and pop music before fizzling out.