The battle for the airwaves breaks out

Joseph Goebbels

In the last couple of weeks we have looked at the growing tensions in Czechoslovakia in the second half of the 1930s, as pressure from Nazi Germany grew. The period leading up to the Munich Agreement in September 1938, when Britain and France gave Hitler the green light to annex vast areas of Czechoslovakia, is extremely well documented in the Czech Radio archives. The archives also reveal that this was one of the first international diplomatic crises to be played out on the airwaves. Through radio, the Munich crisis became a battle of international propaganda and public opinion, with greater immediacy than ever seen before.

Joseph Goebbels
Under the tight control of Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels, Germany’s state radio systematically stirred up discontent in the mainly German-speaking Sudetenland, with stories of Czech atrocities that were at best exaggerated and frequently completely fabricated.

“The anti-German witch hunt,” a Deutschlandsender reporter says in a report that is typical for the months leading up to September 1938, “continues in defiance of all international protests. In numerous places, despite what the Prague press and the Czech Radio say, there have been clashes, abuses and thousands of arrests.”

In a cat-and-mouse game, Czechoslovak Radio – including its international broadcasts in English - would try to counteract these reports coming from Germany. Here is an example from the summer of 1938.

"Once again tonight we must perform the distasteful task of refuting further invented reports broadcast by the German wireless stations. It is not true that the rectors and deans of the German universities in Prague were forced at the point of a gun to sign a declaration of loyalty to the state. This absurd allegation was denied by the rectors and deans themselves in a statement made today, denying that any pressure whatever was used against them."

Not surprisingly, compared with Nazi Germany, Czechoslovakia was not adept at the art of modern propaganda, as the British visitor to the Sudetenland, Edgar Young, observed in 1937.

“It is unfortunate that Czechoslovakia is known to most foreigners largely, if not entirely, through the propaganda of her enemies. The Czechoslovaks are only now beginning to realize the dangerous effects of the new technique of propaganda, which consists in telling lies and half-truths with such conviction and consistency that even the victims begin to wonder what is really the truth. They have yet to devise an effective counter to it, and in the meanwhile it would be a good thing if more foreigners were to visit the republic, to see for themselves how things really are, and to tell their countrymen the plain truth.”

For the first time in history, the battle for the airwaves played a crucial role in international diplomacy. As the events of September 1938 bear witness, it was a battle that Nazi Germany was to win.