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part of a small rebellion | by maryann johanson

Television Under the Swastika (review)

The Nazi Channel

When you think “early television,” you think Ernie Kovacs and The Twilight Zone and Edward R. Murrow and I Love Lucy and quiz scandals and Rockefeller Center and the NBC peacock and doctors endorsing cigarettes. Turns out, though, that the 1950s were not the beginning of TV as a mass medium: that was happening way back in 1935, when Nazi Germany began regular broadcasts to “television parlors,” public places where ordinary volk could go to watch the daily propaganda, as well as to the several thousands TV sets, with their big, enormous 8-by-10 screens, that landed in the homes of the Nazi elite.
Crap. The Nazis had TV in 1935? Turns out they thought they were in a race against time with the United States and Great Britain to bring TV to the people, so they plunged ahead with it. I guess we should be grateful they focused on television first and left the A-bomb for later. Good thing, too, that they didn’t win the war, or Mars would have been Nazi by 1975.

Most of these Nazi broadcasts happened live, so there’s no record of many of them, but when 285 reels of material turned up in the Berlin Federal Film Archive, German documentarian Michael Kloft went to work assembling them into the brief but spellbinding Television Under the Swastika. It’s sort of amazing, how not-different from today’s TV a lot of it is. There’s interviews with Nazi muckety-mucks blabbering nonsense about politics; chats with housewives and farmers about their opinions of what’s going on in the world; sports — the 1936 Olympics! (no Jesse Owens, though); cabaret acts (the dancing cowgirl with her lasso is an accidental peek inside the Nazi psyche, which clearly had a love for at least some things American); and a lot more that, except for a certain lack of polish, is pretty recognizably what TV turned into.

It’s all propaganda, of course — the clips from the staged “documentary” about a camp for young women designed to turn them into good housewives is a hoot — but hell, that’s true of at least half of what we see on TV today… and we probably don’t even realize which half. Nazi TV during the war are even more sad, or more hilarious, or both. Broadcasts ran all the way through September 1944, though by then they were mostly aimed at soldiers recuperating in hospitals, entertainment to cheer them up. The clip about how great life is as a double amputee — you can even dance with pretty girls after losing both your legs! — looks a helluva lot like those 1950s hygiene films U.S. teens were subjected to a decade later. And we know how honest and unbiased those were…

MPAA: not rated

viewed at home on a small screen

  • Cernan Sixtyeight

    The phenomenon of the far right using television as a propaganda tool did not begin with Roger Ailes and his Fox “News” Channel; 24-hr anti-American/anti-Semitic television did not begin with al Qaeda and the al Zawraa network; the idea of using a full-time government propaganda minister did not begin with the Bush Administration’s use of Karl Rove. As early as the 1930s, Adolph Hitler and his Reich Minister of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda, Joseph Goebbels, took a nascent, inchoate technology and turned it into a powerful and effective tool of deception and fear.

    In this re-release of the 1999 documentary, Das Fernsehen unter dem Hakenkreuz (Television Under the Swastika), we see the genius of Nazi Germany’s Ministry of Propaganda (the Third Reich predecessor to the current White House Offices of Political Affairs, Public Liaison, and Strategic Initiatives). While the programs appeared, on the surface, to be covering “everyday life” in Germany between 1935 and 1944, their true, sinister purpose was to bombard the masses with the Nazi message. Hitler saw propaganda as Television’s highest goal. The music & arts programs, garden shows, fitness programs, interviews and public events programs were only intended as a backdrop for the, sometimes subtle, other times not-so-subtle, propagation of the pro-Aryan, Nazi agenda and the misinformation campaign of Hitler and the Third Reich. Of course the “news” programs were not intended to inform and, not surprisingly, were very carefully scripted and were often pure fiction sprinkled with a few random, innocuous facts thrown in as a condiment.

    Hitler and Goebbels had already, successfully, made use of radio broadcasts. Part of this radio-based propaganda campaign included the development of the very affordable volk-radio which Goebbels hoped would bring the radio into the homes of the German masses, as well as to the peoples across the border that the Nazis had hoped to conquer. While television took this campaign to a new level, the high cost of a set made the dream of bringing TV to masses in their homes unattainable. Only members of the Nazi Party elite had TV sets in their homes. However, the TV broadcasts were available at public “television parlors”, in hospitals (to raise the morale of troops), and at public gathering sites.

    There is a big difference between merely opinionated journalism and sheer propaganda. Although some modern-day broadcasts, such as Al Jazeera or MSNBC, possess an editorial bias towards a certain point-of-view, they do in fact, they do broadcast actual News with objectivity and journalistic integrity as well as presenting a balanced mix of opinions. On the other hand, Nazi TV’s sole purpose was propaganda and only propaganda (more along the lines of the modern-day 24-hr “news” networks such as al Zawraa or Fox News Channel). All programs were filtered through Hitler and Goebbels, and, along with the Nazi owned press, were the only sources of “information” available to the “volk” under Hitler’s rule. This had the desired effect of keeping the people uninformed and ignorant. (Think how ignorant American would be, today, if they relied on FNC as their only source of “information” and you will get an idea of just how powerful TV was as a weapon in Hitler’s arsenal. Fortunately, here in America, we can change the channel. Germans did not have that luxury in the 1930s).

    Beyond political motivation for offering TV broadcasts in the first place, the development of televison as a new technology is also very interesting. A portion of this documentary covers this topic.

    As the documentary explains, the crude nature the new technology made live broadcasts very difficult to produce. Live broadcasts were of very poor quality. Indoor (studio based) broadcasts were limited to a very small, and uncomfortable room and the results were always unsatisfactory. The rare broadcasts of outdoor events were of poor quality, as well.

    Since the crude technology of the time made live broadcasts difficult and limited, most programs were put onto film first and broadcast later. While the live broadcasts have been lost, an archive of the filmed programs has been found. This DVD documentary offers an interesting selection of excerpts from these programs, including a musical entertainment show with a definite, underlying agenda; man-in-the-street interviews; sporting events (highlighting Aryan superiority); and some seemingly innocuous entertainments with both subliminal as well as blatant racial themes.

    With our current knowledge of the truth about that dark time, watching this documentary can be chilling at times. But it’s a very entertaining and informative look at this period as well as an indication of how easily TV can be turned into a weapon. The technology of television broadcasting has reached levels they could only dream about in the mid-20th century, and the range of programming is vast. However, television as propaganda continues to thrive today and the parallels between television under the Third Reich and modern broadcast propaganda (al Qaeda’s 24-hr television station, al-Zawraa in the Middle East and Ruppert Murdoch’s FNC in North America, just to name two) are startling.

    This is an important and thought provoking documentary that any student of history, psychology, propaganda, politics or broadcasting should not miss.

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