Berlin Calling

Colin Holmes | Published in History Today
  • Berlin Calling: American Broadcasters In Service To The Third Reich
    John Carver Edwards – Praeger, 1991 - x+238 pp. - £16.95

The pronounced nasal drawl of 'Germany Calling' is associated with the wartime broadcasts from Berlin of William Joyce, the Irish-American whom the British hanged as a traitor in 1946. In the course of the war the Reichrundfunk drew upon the services of other allied nationals, a number of whom were American. Frederick Wilhelm Kaltenbach, 'the dean of the USA... radio traitors', Constance Drexel, Edward Leopold Delaney, Mildred Gillars, popularly known as 'Axis Sally', Jane Anderson, Max Otto Koischwitz, Robert H. Best, who broadcast as 'Mr. Guess-Who', Douglas Chandler alias Paul Revere, and Donald Day, a late recruit to the German propaganda network, are the people who fill the pages of Berlin Calling.

The Nazis lacked nothing in their appreciation of the new propaganda techniques afforded by the technological advances of the twentieth century. The Nazis as well as the Bolsheviks made effective use of film propaganda: Jew Suss and The Eternal Jew provide powerful testimony to the Nazi efforts in this direction. But other techniques were also exploited. 'What the press has been in the nineteenth century radio will be for the twentieth century', ventured Goebbels. As a result, 'Among the great world powers Germany was the first to employ foreign nationals as [radio] propagandists to their various countries'.

Max Otto Koischwitz, a German immigrant to the United States, who had held an academic post at Hunter College, New York, featured as an early recruit. He went on leave of absence in the autumn of 1939 and before the United States entered the war began to broadcast from Scandinavia before moving to the radio propaganda nerve centre in Berlin. By contrast, Donald Day, who had laboured in unfashionable European locations for Colonel McCormick's Chicago Tribune, was a late arrival. He did not take up residence in Berlin until the summer of 1944. His importance, however, can he gleaned from the fact that he and William Joyce, better-known to his British listeners as Lord Haw-Haw, apparently took their daily propaganda directives from Goebbels. Other foreign correspondents were briefed by the Propaganda Ministry. Whether the instructions came directly from Goebbels or from one of his subordinates, the Nazi perspective shifted in line with changing circumstances. At the height of German military success a sharper cutting edge replaced the softer approach of the earlier 'phoney war' period. Then, as the Germans retreated into an ever shrinking core, the emphasis switched to German heroism and the claims of a future Jewish Bolshevik threat to the world.

Relations between the foreign correspondents and their German masters were not always smooth. However, the traitors persisted and it needs to be asked why they displayed their initial and continuing commitment. Can it be put down to sheer opportunism which ultimately turned to ashes? Can it be tied to a sense of betrayal in their private lives? Can it be linked to a sense of social displacement for which the Nazi ideology provided compensation? These are the key questions to which Berlin Calling devotes its attention, with a full recognition that influences varied between individuals.

In 1946 the British authorities hanged William Joyce. The Americans, by contrast, executed none of their airwave traitors. The death of Max Otto Koischwitz was reported in Germany in 1945. Frederick Wilhelm Kaltenbach died in Soviet custody. Neither Donald Day nor Jane Anderson had to face charges in the United States. A number of the broadcasters received prison sentences. The American authorities would go no further.

Berlin Calling is a carefully crafted account of a previously neglected episode in the history of treachery. It has to he said, however, that it contains some unevenness. The reconstruction of the career of Koischwitz is comprehensive and sound. By contrast the account of Kaltenbach's work is more limited and that of Day's activities is padded with details of his Pre-Nazi activities. But generally Berlin Calling is a well-researched and readable account of the 'black art', of interest to scholars and general readers alike, with its reminder that in war truth is the first casualty.

  • Colin Holmes is the author of John Bull’s Island: Immigration and British Society 1871-1971 (Macmillan, 1988).
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