Nicholas J. Schlosser. Cold War on the Airwaves: The Radio Propaganda War against East Germany. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2015. 256 pp. $50.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-252-03969-0.
Reviewed by Joan Clinefelter (University of Northern Colorado)
Published on H-Diplo (February, 2017)
Commissioned by Seth Offenbach (Bronx Community College, The City University of New York)
With Cold War on the Airwaves, Nicholas J. Schlosser offers an innovative exploration of the propaganda war between the United States and the communists in East Germany. His focus is Radio in the American Sector (RIAS), the American radio station based in West Berlin, and its broadcast news programming. Schlosser argues convincingly that RIAS illustrates the success and limitations of American public diplomacy behind the Iron Curtain. Covering the period from 1945 to 1992, he describes the messages transmitted by RIAS and how those messages were received and even acted upon. For Schlosser, RIAS and its audience were actors who actively shaped East German political culture. He goes well beyond representing the views of just one "side" of the Cold War. Schlosser instead explores how RIAS and the East German government responded to each other and how their war of words was received by their target audience, the East German public. His ability to analyze the interplay between these three forces represents a real contribution to studies of propaganda, political culture, and propaganda studies.
Schlosser's analysis benefits enormously from the array of sources he employs throughout this work. Unlike most radio programs, RIAS news broadcasts did not disappear into the ether at the moment of transmission. Archived scripts, often with editorial corrections and comments, enable Schlosser to analyze the station's language and structure. East German broadcasts have been preserved as well, along with print media, official reports, and investigations conducted by the government, the Socialist Unity Party (SED), and the Ministry of State Security (Stasi). Even more importantly, Schlosser can reconstruct how both RIAS and East German propaganda were understood by the public. Audience surveys, listener interviews, and letters to the station--some five thousand each month--reveal how East Germans consumed RIAS broadcasts, adopted their viewpoints, and used them to challenge claims made by their government. Listeners' endorsement of the station's Cold War narrative undermined the East German state's authority. In turn, the Socialist Unity Party (SED) was forced to reclaim its political legitimacy by marshaling its media to combat RIAS's message.
Schlosser begins with a discussion of RIAS's transformation from a tool of the US occupation of Berlin to a powerful anticommunist station trusted by East Germans. Ironically, the Soviets were responsible for the creation of RIAS. Convinced of radio's value as a propaganda weapon in the service of Marxist-Leninism, they refused to share airtime with the Western Allies on Radio Berlin, the city's remaining radio station. In response, the Americans created DIAS (Wired Broadcasting in the American Sector) in early 1946. Transmitted over telephone lines, DIAS had a small-range, miniscule audience, and limited goals. It communicated US occupation policies and developed programs designed to turn listeners away from National Socialism. But the threat of Radio Berlin's propaganda campaign against American interests in the divided city transformed the station. DIAS became RIAS and committed itself to the psychological war against Communism. From 1947 to 1950, RIAS was armed with new transmitters that broadcast over short-, medium-, and long-wave frequencies, eventually airing programs twenty-four hours daily. RIAS's news broadcasts made the station the most trusted source of information about events in the West as well as inside of East Germany. Even the SED acknowledged that the majority of East Germans--anywhere from 50 to 80 percent--tuned in regularly to RIAS throughout the 1950s. RIAS had become more than the voice of the free world; it had become a voice for the East German public, one that denied their country's very legitimacy.
RIAS's success was largely due to the skill of its journalists and the style of reporting they created with the help of the Americans at the station. Schlosser argues persuasively that the relationship between the four or five American political officers and RIAS's cadre of German journalists was key to the station's success. Together, they tread the fine line between objectivity and politically partisan engagement. The Americans at RIAS introduced Western standards of journalism; in the early years, most reporters had little to no experience, and the US wanted to democratize German journalism. All reports had to be based on multiple, verifiable, trustworthy sources. Political commentary and opinion had to be identified as such and never confused with news. RIAS journalists soon prided themselves on their objectivity and accuracy. But this does not mean that they were not shaping the news to promote US interests. As Schlosser explains, objectivity was not the same thing as impartiality and detachment; instead, it meant the "avoidance of actively distorting facts for political ends" (pp. 57-58).
Crucially, the German journalists were guided but not controlled by the Americans. Especially in the 1950s, RIAS benefited from skilled leadership by men such as Gordon Ewing and Robert Lochner; fluent in German, they had close ties to the country from before the war. They treated the German staff as colleagues who shared a common mission. Relations between the Americans at RIAS and the German staff insured a deeply shared commitment to the station and to each other. In later years, RIAS journalists consistently claimed they were rarely, if ever, censored, and many worked for the station for decades. Germans and Americans at RIAS transformed the station into a "rival fourth estate" inside of East Germany (p. 48). They crafted a narrative about the Cold War and convinced many citizens to assume their government lied and supported the interest of the Soviets above the needs of Germans. RIAS journalists thus shaped the political culture of East Germany. Schlosser makes clear that the language of RIAS played a key role in delegitimizing the state and can be used as an indication of the station's ability to sway its audience's worldview.
RIAS's ability to shape political discourse is best illustrated in the chapter devoted to the revolt of June 17, 1953. RIAS reports, in particular those by Eberhard Schütz and Egon Bahr, transformed workers' strikes in East Berlin into a national revolt against communism. Without RIAS, East Germans never would have even heard of the initial strikes; communist media remained largely silent until after Soviet tanks appeared to crush the revolts. Balancing eyewitness news accounts with political commentary, RIAS moved its listeners to join in the protests and may have escalated their demands. Initial coverage of strikes against work norms and low wages at the Stalinallee construction site in East Berlin soon became demands for free elections, regime change, and finally reunification. In the sad aftermath of the bloody Soviet repression, the East Germans were remade into martyrs for democracy. RIAS reporters covered the events with journalistic professionalism but they also recast the meaning of the events to support US propaganda goals of destabilizing the East German regime. In one of the most moving commentaries after the event, Bahr praised the protesters and declared June 17 "a success not only for the population of East Berlin, a success not only for the population of the Zone, a success for Germany unity" and "irrefutable evidence of the will for German unification" (p. 88). Since reunification was not a real US goal, this went well beyond actual policy objectives. But it was a sentiment deeply felt and one shared by Bahr and, RIAS believed, his audience.
Schlosser reminds readers that June 17 illustrated both RIAS's successes and the limits of US public diplomacy. The station could not risk a war with the Soviets or roll back the Iron Curtain on its own. Schlosser acknowledges that the extent to which RIAS fanned the flames of June 17 remains open to debate. But after reading his account, there is little doubt about how RIAS reports shaped the meaning of the event for its listeners, both in the East and the West.
The East German government for its part was convinced that RIAS had deliberately staged the revolt. Schlosser provides a fascinating account of communist attempts to promote a counternarrative to explain what happened. That the protesters adopted the language of the US station, using slogans from its reports on signs and in chants, to them proved RIAS's role. As Schlosser shows, the June 17 revolt forced the East German regime to confront RIAS more forcefully than ever before. The SED fit the events and RIAS within its own interpretive framework in an attempt to restore its monopoly over the nation's political culture. RIAS thenceforth became a central character in East German propaganda. Radio Berlin and the media crafted motifs and symbols to vilify its rival station and its listeners. In radio broadcasts, pamphlets, cartoons, and newspapers, RIAS was represented as a nest of Western spies intent upon poisoning the minds of East Germans with lies masquerading as truth in order to provoke yet another fascist war. RIAS listeners were fools, isolated deviants, or traitors who sought to undermine the only antifascist German nation. The state targeted citizens found listening to RIAS; the Stasi investigated suspected fans, worked to infiltrate the station, and even attempted to kidnap at least one RIAS staffer. Throughout the 1950s, the East Germans built an entire Cold War discourse around the station. Yet, as Schlosser demonstrates, RIAS remained a popular facet of East German life. Even some six hundred jamming stations could only reduce listenership; it was simply impossible for the GDR to seal its borders against the intrusive airwaves of RIAS.
Schlosser's final chapters follow the propaganda wars from the Berlin crisis of 1958-61 through the dissolution of RIAS in 1992. He illustrates how the closure of Berlin's border presented the station with a new set of challenges. Before the Wall, as many as three thousand East Germans visited the station in a single month and many provided interviews that offered detailed information about conditions inside of East Germany. The Berlin Wall made such visits impossible for all but the few who managed to escape. Letters continued to arrive from listeners behind the Iron Curtain, but the Wall disrupted an important source base for RIAS reporters. Schlosser also pulls back his lens on the Cold War, offering a wider view of RIAS's influence across Eastern Europe. For example, he considers the Soviets' treatment of RIAS, in particular Nikita Khrushchev's efforts to use the station as a bargaining chip during negotiations over Berlin. Yet Schlosser retains his focus on the interplay of RIAS broadcasts, East German media responses, and the public's reception of both.
Overall, Schlosser makes a clear case for RIAS as a most fascinating study of US public diplomacy. Its listeners knew it was a US propaganda station but that was part of its appeal. They understood that the news stories promoted American interests yet they sincerely believed that RIAS also promoted their interests, and gave voice to their concerns and longing for change. In just the first few months after the fall of the Berlin Wall, over 1.7 million East Germans, more than 10 percent of the population, wrote to RIAS, thanking it for the years of hope and support it had offered. Since then, several German scholars have devoted whole books to the station but Schlosser's Cold War on the Airwaves represents the first detailed analysis of RIAS in English based on archival sources. Complete with photographs, detailed notes, and bibliography, the work illustrates its author's mastery of the material. The text does repeat itself at times; some of his claims, in particular that RIAS served as a substitute US embassy for East Germans, are underdeveloped. But these minor criticisms are far outweighed by the strength of the analysis and close reading of the sources. Schlosser's ability to examine the propaganda wars of the Cold War as a three-way conversation between RIAS, the East German regime, and its people represents an impressive achievement in the study of political culture and public diplomacy.
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Joan Clinefelter. Review of Schlosser, Nicholas J., Cold War on the Airwaves: The Radio Propaganda War against East Germany.
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