West German radio gave Easterners window to world during Cold War

[Media's role in uniting Germany and lessons for the Koreas ]
Kim Ga Young  |  2015-12-21 13:40

Since being first published in 2004 with the goal of realizing human rights and democratic ideals in North Korea, the Daily NK has striven to report accurate, timely news from within the country. These efforts, while undeniably beneficial, also presented limitations in effecting broader change for both Koreas.

And, so, Daily NK teamed up with two citizen-driven radio stations to form Unification Media Group, a consortium that has been transmitting daily broadcasts into North Korea since November of last year.

In order to change North Korean thinking and instigate said changes, its necessary to have open lines of communication. In pursuit of this goal, the radio broadcast service to North Korea was conceived. To mark Unification Media Group's one year anniversary, we will shine a light on the role that cross-country radio played for the democratization and unification of Germany. In October, Daily NK staff traveled to Germany to learn about what effect the media had there. Six special articles highlight the lessons gained from that trip.

A behind the scenes photo of West Germanys cross-country radio program RIAS, which was
 the most popular among East German citizens during the countrys separation in the Cold War.
 Image: RIAS

The role of media such as television and radio is known as a crucial element in German unification. Since East Germany first permitted East-West TV broadcasts in 1970, Eastern citizens were able to easily access unbiased information through West German programming. However, even before that, East Germans were able to gain exposure to West German media immediately following their separation using illegal means. West Germany sent information to East Germans about the free world through shortwave radio, loudspeakers, and leaflets, despite the fact that East Germany tried to block these efforts using measures like radio signal jamming. 

After the countrys division, East Germany was ruled by an autocratic leadership and was cut off from the outside world. Despite the East German government's tactics of punishing listeners and signal jamming, East German citizens braved the consequences because of their longing for freedom and information. In this regard, they are similar to pirate radio listeners in North Korea. Regional experts generally agree that media played a significant role in changing the perspective of East Germans, inspiring them to demand freedom of travel to the West, and setting up the foundations for their protests and planning for unification.

One of RIASs popular entertainments programs was called Mystery Sunday. The above
 image shows postcards sent from East German fans to the shows producers. In order to
dodge the East German censors and communicate with their audience, the show changed
 its address regularly. Image: RIAS

The West German governments publicly produced radio played a big role in enlightening the East German people. Just like todays situation with North Korea, it was not possible to send a TV signal to East Germany in the early days. In the 1950s and 1960s, radio broadcasts were beamed across the border to inform the East German citizens of the outside world. The Soviet Union was the first to launch a propaganda broadcast station in the East European bloc. The American led allies established the Rundfunk im amerikanischen Sektor (RIAS, or Broadcasting Service in the American Sector) radio station on the Western side. After the official partition of Germany in the Cold War, other allied stations also sprang up, such as Deutschlandfunk and Deutschewelle. 

At the same time in East Germany, all information being reported came out of the Socialist Unification Party. As part of an effort to gain an advantage and block foreign influence, they retained a monopoly on media dissemination. This ensured that no information from the outside world contradicted the official state positions.  On the other hand, West Germans were privy to reports that updated them about the situation in East Germany. They were also given access to satire and dramas that depicted the lives of East Germans. For these reasons, the East Germans had more faith in the West German media than in their native media outlets. 

RIAS editor-in-chief and Deutschewelle reporter Hans Jürgen Pickert said, RIAS and the other broadcasters were originally set up for a West German audience. But the production crew was dead set on making the signal reach into the East. The East German citizens were doubly enticed because they know that the same programs they were listening to were trusted and enjoyed by the West Germans. 

An anonymous representative from the Bundespresseamt (Federal Press Office) said, The West German radio stations were not devised to change East German thinking or destroy the Socialist government. They merely focused on conveying information about the West German peoples daily life. Unexpectedly, this sort of natural style of broadcasting ended up enlightening a large amount of Eastern listeners and even helped in eliciting political changes. 

From the 1960s West Germany transmitted Public Television Station One (Das Erste) and Two (ZDF) into East Germany. These channels includes news, entertainment, and cultural programming. In the 1970s, the broadcasting of West German stations into the East became even more widespread. East German native and head of Stasi Records Agency (BStU) Roland Jahn said, Up until the 1960s, watching TV from the East was a punishable offense, but it couldnt hold people back. We lived in East Germany during the day but in West Germany at night. In the 1970s, there was almost a tacit tolerance for the viewing and listening of outside media. The Eastern government simply couldnt hold back the barrage of interest in Western media. 

The Social Democratic Partys Willy Brandt launched the Look East Policy. It started to gain momentum at the start of 1973. Up until that point, cross-country communication was limited to disseminating leaflets across the border and using loudspeakers at key locations like the Berlin Wall. In the case of the leaflet dissemination, many departments were involved and it was a thoroughly prepared strategy. 

Robert Lebegern is director of the Deutsch-Deutschen Museum Mödlareuth (Mödlareuth Border Museum). He said, Western Europe used everything from rockets, balloons and wind to spread the leaflets. They would release approximately 500-1000 A4 sized papers at once into East German regions. On the Eastern side, teachers ordered students to collect the leaflets and then the Stasi would do an investigation.

Director Lebegern also said, For the most part, the loudspeaker broadcasts went from East Germany to West Germany, but there were also instances of young people from the West engaging in regular, organized broadcasts using loudspeakers near the Berlin Wall.  These youngsters built a temporary studio and relayed the news through megaphones.  

The peace protests in East Germany that set off the destruction of the Berlin Wall.
Experts who were present at the protests remarked, The Western Media broadcasts
played a large part in sparking the collective anger that led to the protests.
 Image: Bundesarchive

Without the cross-border broadcasts, there would not have been any peace protests. According to experts from East Germany, the West German broadcasts provided a window to the world, a means to find the strength to go on living, and a door to a new consciousness. But these broadcasts did not simply convey information, they also provided an indirect framework for the East Germans to understanding what it meant to live in a free country. It also stimulated anti-government sentiment and laid the foundation for unification. 

East Berlin native Anna Kaminsky served as executive director of the Bundesstiftung zur Aufarbeitung der SED-Diktatur (Federal Foundation for the Reappraisal of the SED Dictatorship). She said, the East Germans who longed for legitimate news and information for so long did not keep these sources to themselves when they found out how to access West German radio and TV. They went around discussing the content with their friends. After interacting with and sharing this content, East Germans began reflecting upon their own lives. This led them to the difficult task of recalibrating their mentalities. This type of consciousness grew into the democratic protests and the border reforms.   

Director Kaminsky continued, It is certainly true that the oppressed Germans of the Soviet Bloc were in need of unbiased information, but I think they needed something more than that. They needed to hear that they were not being left behind by the free world. They needed some sense of connection with the Western part of the country. Cross-border broadcasts thus served both purposes: provided information and assurance.   

Herbert Wagner was an enthusiastic listener of Dresden's Deutschlandfunk and Deutschewelle broadcasts and now serves as the director of Gedenkstätte Bautzner Strae Dresden (Former interrogation prison for District Dresden of the Ministry of State Security of the GDR) He said, Western broadcasts gave us the energy and courage to carry on under difficult conditions and oppression. If there were never any broadcasts, I likely would have thought that the West had forgotten about us, and was content to enjoy their freedoms without trying to assist us. I think the broadcasts became a sort of door for me to use to escape my immediate surrounding and understand the world at large. 

Jürgen Reiche, Secretary General of Zeitgeschichtliches Forum Leipzig (Leipzig's Forum for Contemporary History), remarked that, even though the revolutionaries in East Europe did not know one another in the beginning, the radio broadcasts brought them the information they needed to understand the true situation. This helped set off a powder keg of anti-government sentiment. Just as 100,000 people gathered together to start a revolution for peace after hearing the West German broadcasts in East Germany, South Korean radio broadcasts into North Korea will have a large impact in terms of influencing the mindset of North Koreans, he concluded.  

*This article has been brought to you thanks to support from the Korea Press Foundation. 

*Translated by Jonathan Corrado

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