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24 November 2010

Television Under the Swastika



The first regular television broadcasts in the world began in National-Socialist Germany in 1935 and ended in the fall of 1944.

One of the most striking facts shown in this documentary, given no notice at all by the narrator, is that the National-Socialist government had created bureaus to help the German people in many spheres of life, with instruction for example on the best way to garden and even how to succeed as a wife and mother. Government-operated television was used to make the public aware of these services.

In truth, exactly the same kind of dramatized advertisement is used in the United States today, except that instead of revealing where to ask for advice or assistance we are generally encouraged to buy some product. We also have "public service announcements," which sometimes are presented in the form of a short drama.

As always, we can take it for granted that there is a strong negative bias in any presentation about the Third Reich.

At one point we see footage of SS-men marching and the narrator implies that there is something ominous about it. Why? Is there something ominous about similar footage of U.S. servicemen from the same era?

Some of the clips included in this documentary seem to suffer from the smugness of unanimity. For example, some of the Germans who appear in these clips express an intense admiration for Adolf Hitler, wherein they presume -- more or less correctly, in the original time and place -- general agreement among the viewers: surely this did not seem so absurd in the original cultural setting. I get a similar impression from some recent broadcasting in the United States, which, like this programming from the Third Reich, is directed to an audience that is presumed to agree. As examples I could name Fox News, Christian broadcasting, and sometimes PBS when the focus is on racial issues. There is some smugness in some of this material from the Third Reich, but there is also smugness in the assumption that our present-day broadcasters have no such blind-spot. 

Those bad old Nazis were all about propaganda, we are supposed to believe, but there aren't any biases in our news or embedded messages in our entertainment, are there?


Probably the most unflattering clip in this documentary is when the host of a "variety show," some German forerunner of Ed Sullivan, briefly comments on the fact that National-Socialist Germany had some political discontents that did not want to stay in harmony with society, and have been sent to a "concert camp" (which is mistranslated as concentration camp, although obviously that is what he meant) to be taught to play along. It is not a funny discourse, but it is not really clear that it was intended to be funny: what events set the context of that commentary? It may well be that there was widespread irritation with these people that the variety-host mentions and that his commentary did not seem ill-tempered at the time. If you consider the very dangerous situation in which National-Socialist Germany existed, with military threats on both sides and the memory of large parts of the country being taken over by Communists, and the much more recent suppression of Ernst Roehm's conspiracy through extrajudicial executions (which were widely applauded, including by President Hindenburg) many viewers probably felt that sending some political troublemakers to a camp for reeducation was letting them off easy, and the vast majority of Germans who supported Adolf Hitler may have felt relieved and proud that Hitler's government by 1936 had acquired the strength and stability to deal with troublemakers humanely. That is a context in which the variety host's monologue could seem reasonable.

Some of the footage is rather inane and is used in an effort to fill time, but we get that in live coverage of events today. It is in the nature of live coverage that there will be periods when nothing is happening. Today, though, instead of panning over the surroundings of an event and discussing  them, today's television broadcasts will fill time with empty chatter between the reporter and the anchor and possibly some third personality brought in to help them fill time.

There is certainly a more obvious explanation for the cessation of television broadcasts in the fall of 1944 than the supposedly poor quality of the programs, which the narrator insinuates as the cause.

It would be interesting to see some samples from the vast footage of Third Reich television that were not selected under mass-media's post-war imperative to present an unflattering portrait.

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