During international tensions and war, propaganda is a key ingredient for governments on all sides of a conflict. The first effective large scale use of covert broadcasting propaganda occured in Europe, during the Second World War.
By the 1930s most people in the west had access to radio. As tensions increased in the late 30’s, the major Allied and Axis powers understood the effectiveness and necessity of radio broadcasting to further their aims. Political and military entities geared up agencies devoted entirely to the broadcasting of propaganda. One radio station, in particular, played a key role in the dissemination of misinformation for both Nazi Germany and later the Allies.
In the early 1930s Radio Luxembourg broadcast under the auspices of the private corporation, Compagnie Luxembourgeoise de Radiodiffusion or CLR. The station provided standard broadcast fare of music and news to European listeners. As war appeared imminent, CLR and officials of the Duchy of Luxembourg decided to halt normal programming and limited operations to official communiques plus some music on September 2, 1939. Then, on September 21st. Radio Luxembourg was officially ordered to completely halt all broadcasting and suspend operation.
By May of 1940, the Duchy of Luxembourg was occupied by Nazi Germany. Broadcast operations at Radio Luxembourg were taken over by Großdeutscher Rundfunk, the German broadcasting arm. Reich Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels ordered the station to resume broadcasting, this time as a secret transmitter to France, then later to the British Isles.
This was the time when an American-born Irish expatriot came into play. William Joyce was a senior member of the far-right party, The British Union of Fascists. He escaped Britain after he learned about his planned arrest in August 1939 by British authorities. Joyce was recruited by the Nazis and began his career as “Lord Haw Haw” at the beginning of the war. Joyce was the main “Lord Haw Haw” in a line of several announcers to broadcast anti-Allies propaganda to Britain during the Nazi occupation.
In Early September of 1944, allied military forces took over the Radio Luxembourg studios and transmitters. By September 23rd, the Allied controlled Radio Free Luxembourg began broadcasting in ten languages in the longwave band (232 kHz).
Then, in early December of 1944, the Allied Forces’ Psychological Warfare Department inaugurated “Nachtsender 1212” (literally night-transmitter 1212) at a different frequency to broadcast misinformation to the Axis audience. On December 19th, Radio Luxembourg temporarily stopped broadcasting due to the Battle of the Bulge, but it resumed programming on the 23rd. Allied forces continued to use Radio Luxembourg as a misinformation source until the Nazi surrender. The military finally relinquished its control in December of 1945. CLR resumed normal commercial broadcasting on December 23, 1945.
Nachtsender 1212 was the first effective use of a type of misinformation known as “Black Propaganda”. That is, bogus information that pretends to be from sources on one side of a conflict but actually originates from that side’s adversaries.
Black Propaganda, skillfully used, is an effective strategy to misrepresent, embarrass, and vilify one’s enemy. Black Propaganda gets its name from the fact that it is covert in nature. Black Propaganda’s agenda, sources, and true identity are secret.
Because Black Propaganda purports to represent a source other than its true origins, listeners are not aware that they are being manipulated. In its role as Nachtsender 1212, Radio Luxembourg was accepted by its target audience who believed the radio station’s creative deceit. Nachtsender 1212 was able to pull off its big lie because the broadcasters fully understood the mindset of the Axis audience. In other words, the station sounded credible.
Nachtsender 1212 was a successful real-time experiment in the use of mass-media misinformation and disinformation. The use of Black Propaganda continues to evolve and to be used by many political and private institutions to influence public opinion.
The Blue Jay of Happiness quotes former President George W. Bush. “See, in my line of work, you got to keep repeating things over and over and over again for the ‘truth’ to sink in, to kind of catapult the propaganda.”