Cold War on the Airwaves: The Radio Propaganda War Against East Germany

Almost 50 years since graduation, this loyal alumnus still is writing book reviews for Fenwick!

By Timothy Fitzpatrick ’71 (MAJ, USA, Ret.), HHC Berlin Brigade and 4th BN, 6th in 1980-1983

In 1970 I was bombarded with images of the world as seen through U.S. media and prevailing opinion-makers in the United States as the Vietnam War was dragging on and numerous Communist challenges were confronting our country. I was a 17-year-old Fenwick High School rising senior that summer and took my first flight ever, on my first overseas experience ever, and landed in Berlin for 10 days of my six-week Foreign Study League German immersion program led by Father Nicholas Aschenbrenner, O.P., our Fenwick German instructor. Our group took some of our meals in the Free University dining hall where tables covered with Marxist and Maoist literature were hawking their wares mostly to students trying to ignore them. I bought an ITT Schaub – Lorenz radio and listened across many bands to various broadcasts and was surprised at the clarity of BBC world broadcast and Voice of America compared to other nation’s broadcasts. I even tuned into Radio Albania, which would turn anyone away from Marxism by their heavy-handed diatribes.

As a group, we began a tour of East Berlin by walking through Check Point Charlie. In contrast to the relaxed, confident and friendly U.S. MPs [military police] at Checkpoint Charlie, the East German foreign visitor checkpoint was designed to intimidate — with your passport disappearing and sense that the wait gave them time to begin a file on you and make you nervous; both, in fact, true. Once through and walking along Friedrichstrasse towards Unter den Linden, there were numerous anti-USA posters in English, clearly aimed at me.

East Berlin was a sad contrast to West Berlin in all things. I was saddened to see a burned-out Cathedral and nearby the twin French and German Churches barely standing in the shell of their walls with trees growing through. The Alexander Platz shopping area and the newly opened (October 1969) Berliner Fernsehturm or Pope’s Revenge (we mistakenly called it the funkturm) were clearly meant to be a showcase for DDR [German Democratic Republic] progressiveness, but the lack of goods in shops gave away the lie. I was amazed that East Berlin youth were not listening to Radio Berlin DDR broadcasts emanating from that tower, but to RIAS (Radio in the American Sector) and U.S. Military Armed Forces Network broadcasts. The contrast between communism and its threat to freedom and Western democracy and capitalism and freedom could not be made starker to me, and this is where I decided to join the U.S. Army.

My experiences as a youth in Berlin, as a member of the Berlin Brigade and as a Psychological Operations Officer, have always made me appreciate RIAS, but I never knew the breadth and depth of what RIAS meant to U.S. efforts in Berlin and to the people of East Germany. Nicholas J. Schlosser, in his book Cold War on the Airwaves: The Radio Propaganda War against East Germany, has given us a precious gift to our understanding of the contributions of RIAS to the psychological combat between the Soviet block and the United States and between the contrasts in freedom between East and West Germany. The book sums up the importance of RIAS to East Germans, Berliners and the United States powerfully when Schlosser writes “….RIAS went from being just a purveyor of news and information to a quasi-United States Embassy, a representative of the United States  in East Germany.” RIAS was founded by and controlled by the United States but staffed by German-Berliners and engaged in the front lines of influence and political warfare against communism.

Schlosser relates the early foundations of RIAS to counter Radio Berlin that the Soviets took despite being in the British Sector (the Eifel Tower-like Funkturm) and refused to share with the other occupying powers. To compete, though late, the American Forces initiated broadcasts on the old, Nazi-wired (telephone line) radio system developed so allied WWII bombers could not home in on Berlin through a signal. This Wired (Drahtfunk) Broadcasting in the American Sector (DIAS) initiated U.S. broadcasting in its sector as the voice of the U.S. Occupation Government. It soon began radio broadcast and became Radio (Rundfunk) in the American Sector (RIAS).

Schlosser relates the stages of RIAS effort over time and in reaction to Berlin and world events. Throughout its history, RIAS emphasis on credible and objective news from a United States perspective and calling out DDR and communist failings were its hallmark. The people of East Germany came to rely on this during crisis after crisis, starting with the Berlin Airlift during the 17 June 1953 East German uprising and Soviet suppression, the Berlin crisis and the construction of the wall, and during the long period of the Cold War, easing tensions between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, the collapse of the wall, and Berlin and German reunification.

Schlosser writes this book not in a technical manner, but in very human terms that goes to the heart of RIAS’s dedicated staff and their understanding of the information (and entertainment) needs of their audience in clear contrast to communist deterministic programming. 

I strongly recommend this book for all students of history as you explore the totality of what the U.S. meant to Berliner’s on both sides of the wall and to complement our own understanding of RIAS giving voice to what we in the U.S. and allied forces physically stood for. 

RIAS still exists as the RIAS Berlin Commission. The RIAS Berlin Commission was founded in 1992 as a binational organization for the promotion of German-American understanding in the field of broadcasting and promotes the exchange of persons and information in the field of broadcast journalism between the two countries.

Cold War on the Airwaves: The Radio Propaganda War against East Germany by Nicholas J. Schlosser is Published by the University of Illinois Press (1st Edition November 3, 2015) and is available at Amazon.

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