When people have free and unfettered choices of activities, they both entertain and express themselves through their pastimes – whether stamp or coin collecting, scrapbooking, gardening or tinkering with electronic gadgets. But what happens when those free spirits – particularly those whose hobbies have taught them specialized technical skills – suddenly find themselves living in a dictatorship?
As a historian of national socialism, I note that my newest research into German radio hobbyists has found a cautionary tale. Authoritarian governments or movements often subvert and take over civic organizations – including seemingly unimportant hobby groups – as part of seizing power. My work suggests that people involved in technological hobbies, such as radio, may be able to retain a bit more personal freedom than those in less strategically important ones, such as singing or sports. But that liberty can come at the cost of complicity.
Radio and the Nazis
In the “Jazz Age” of the 1920s, people were fascinated with new technologies, including airplanes, motor vehicles and radios. Large industries grew from those fascinations, of course, but so did hobbies and groups of hobbyists.
In Germany – and other countries – radio hobby clubs thrived. Several hundred thousand Germans joined these groups, in part because commercial radios were very expensive, and clubs helped people build their own much more cheaply. Once built, they also tinkered with the radios’ insides, partly just because they could and partly to improve reception, particularly of foreign stations, which often offered more light entertainment than state-controlled German broadcasting. (The clubs also threw great parties.)
In 1933, the Nazis took power in Germany. They began a comprehensive and often violent process of remaking all of German society to serve the Nazi Party. Groups as diverse as choirs, political parties, sports clubs and chambers of commerce were shut down outright or taken over and purged of Jews, socialists, outspoken democrats and other people the Nazis deemed “undesirables.”
The groups that survived had to support the new regime. Radio hobbyists were particularly exposed because their skills involved building communications equipment.
The Nazis were especially interested in ham radio operators, who were part of a worldwide community of hobbyists who did much more than just listen to entertainment or news broadcast by others. They transmitted and received messages on their own. In Germany, people couldn’t buy ready-made radio transmitters and other technical equipment that were usable on the frequencies of interest to amateurs. Ham operators had to build their own equipment, which went far beyond the simple broadcast-band receivers most hobbyists built. They also had to – as is still true today – pass a fairly complicated technical exam to earn a transmitting license.
This meant that hams, whether or not they were electrical engineers or other types of scientists by profession, accumulated a fairly high degree of scientific and technical knowledge in electrical engineering and radio-frequency reception and transmission. They also got a lot of practical experience in using radio equipment, which only professional radio operators could match.
Ham radio’s survival
Joseph Goebbels, the Nazi minister of propaganda and popular enlightenment, understood the power that radio could have, both to disseminate Nazi propaganda and to connect groups who were resisting the Nazi takeover. So he moved quickly to take control of not only commercial broadcast radio stations but also the radio clubs and their members. Those clubs that wanted only to passively listen to broadcast radio and tinker a little bit were shut down.
The hams, who wanted to transmit their own information, found themselves in a difficult position. The Nazis knew that German hams had a history of illegal transmission without licenses and were likely to have unsupervised radio contacts with foreigners, even those from the Soviet Union or France, Germany’s former enemy in World War I.
Though there were only a few thousand licensed German hams, their technical expertise was too valuable to the regime to be completely dismissed. In fact, German ham radio operators and their clubs found themselves with several powerful Nazi supporters – including in the German military – who protected them from being shut down as other hobby groups had been. The government even doubled the number of available ham transmission licenses.
Hams could continue their hobby, but only if they collaborated, at times in ways antithetical to the hobby’s previous culture.
What the Nazis wanted from amateur radio
In the spring of 1933, as the Nazis consolidated power, Goebbels took control of the hams’ national organization, called the “German Amateur Transmission and Reception Service,” known by its German initials as the DASD. While ostensibly a private organization, it was forced to let the Propaganda Ministry choose its president, in consultation with the German military, and give the government veto power over other club leaders.
One of Goebbels’s hopes was that German ham operators could use their connections with ham radio operators in other countries to spread Nazi propaganda around the world. That didn’t prove very valuable: Most radio exchanges with foreign amateurs focused on purely technical information. In any case, the fact that many German hams could be heard on the airways was never taken by outsiders as proof of how wonderful life under national socialism was claimed to be.
German hams never bothered to tell the Propaganda Ministry how silly this international propaganda idea actually was and dutifully reported large numbers of foreign contacts.
Rebuilding the German military
More importantly, though, German amateur radio hobbyists were a big boost for the Nazis’ secret military rebuilding effort. The Treaty of Versailles, which had ended World War I, strictly limited how many people and weapons the German military could have. Adding – and communicating with – more units beyond the Versailles limits would require technically accomplished radiomen who understood shortwave radios and could send and receive Morse code at high speed. Amateur radio hobbyists fit the bill exactly, and were recruited directly into the armed forces, the intelligence services and the communications service of the diplomatic corps.
They also taught radio skills to active duty soldiers and future recruits, like the Hitler Youth and men preparing to join the German Navy. Having amateur radio hobbyists do the training let the German military avoid tipping off Britain, France, Belgium or the United States that Germany was rearming on a large scale. All the new radiomen on the air could be explained as just simple hobbyists.
The German ham radio organization, the DASD, provided other technical expertise too, such as identifying frequencies that might be useful for military communications. The SS Security Service even commissioned the DASD’s main laboratory to design and build miniature radio transceivers spies could use to receive orders and report their findings.
The price of survival
To keep transmitting under the Third Reich, German ham operators faced a terrible moral quandary. Like all members of German society, they had to accept close scrutiny from security forces. But to keep operating their radios, German hams had to participate actively in the Nazi regime, driving Jews and anti-Nazis from their hobbyist ranks and collaborating closely with authorities, including the SS and intelligence services.
In retrospect, the DASD’s relationship with the Nazis was too close. But it is in the nature of dictatorship not to allow people to stand on the sidelines. Ham operators who considered resisting the Nazis faced a special challenge: Unlike dance groups or musicians, radio technicians had strategic skills and therefore were more likely to be sought out and compelled to help the regime. Refusal might mean loss of economic opportunity at best, arrest, concentration camp or even execution at worst. The potential consequences were clear.
Faced with the choice of flight, open resistance or collaboration, most chose collaboration, particularly because this allowed them to continue their cherished hobby. The problem is, in the Third Reich, there was no such thing as a little complicity. It is a sad irony that even hobby clubs, one of the pillars of civil society, were used by the Nazis to cement their dictatorship.