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The Birth of Television

Alex Constantine - November 15, 2010

barista.media2.org (Australia)

Here is a television schedule for a certain Tuesday, 28 March:

“2000: News
2030: Newsreel clips
2045: “Etiquette for those in Love”: Seasonal tips for those in love, or who want to be
2130-2200: “Spring Showers”: Performance by the White Ravens”

Each day, the transmission began with these words, (translated with the aid of some computer on the internet),

“Attention, attention! Paul Nipkow television. We welcome all ethnic comrades and companions in the large television parlour, Berlin”, and ended with this: “Hereby, the current program ends. Were you satisfied? If so, please tell all your friends. If it did not please you, contact us. Write to the Fernsehbetrieb, Berlin, House of Broadcasting. To end the evening: marching music. Goodbye until the next transmission. Heil Hitler!”

The place is Berlin, the year is 1939, and this is the birth of television through the monstrous looking glass of Nazism.

station ident nazi1 - The Birth of TelevisionTo us in Australia, television began with a couple of stuffed shirts in penguin suits imitating British announcers in 1956. The box in the corner is the quintessential experience which marked the baby boomers – we were the “television generation”, though the impact of radio was really just as important, because it gave us rock and roll.

Prodded, we will say that TV was invented by John Logie Baird, whose ultimately unsuccessful system was unveiled in 1926; the technoids among us will remember the horrid story of Philo T. Farnsworth, who designed the first truly effective system for RCA.

But in fact the first mass, practical use of television did not occur in English at all – it was developed by the Nazis, who rushed to transmit the first regular broadcast before the BBC, which in turn had arguably already been gazumped by experiments in the US. The Germans went public for the first time in March 1935, to small 18 x 22cm screens set up in special “television parlours”, sometimes in pairs, run by the Post Office.

screening - The Birth of Television

The first announcement was made by Reich Broadcast Director Eugen Hadamovsky, (who purged jazz from the radio system in the next October.) He said something like this:

“My Führer! The Reich transmission service hereby announces over the Berlin television station the beginning of the first regular television operation in the world. Now in this hour, broadcasting is called upon to fulfill its biggest and most sacred mission, to plant an image of the Fuehrer indelibly in all German hearts.”

That August, a single large arrangement was set up for 294 seats, using an intermediate projector which expanded the image to 3 x 4 metres. Over the next four years, some 500 sets were distributed to Party officials and prominent citizens, and they remained too expensive for mass consumption.

The earliest demonstration sets were switched on at the huge broadcasting trade fair, IFA, in Berlin in 1930, with the first “all-electronic” broadcast demonstrated in 1931. After the Nazis took over, Goebbels himself opened it each year, as the world’s TV pioneers gathered to compare advances. In 1936 he presided over the demonstration of a 375 line interlaced system; in ‘37 the exhibition revealed the first colour TV pictures, and improved tape technology.

The technological development of the recording system in Germany was driven by the Luftwaffe, with Goering taking an interest. In 1935, the Research Institute of the Reich posted a patent application “for the use of television in the steering of unmanned vehicles or torpedoes”, which was “the young technology later used to flying bombs of the type Henschel Hs 293 D steer into the finish.” A system to guide bombs with television was “very unreliable”. High resolution 729 and 1029 line systems were tested, “but only for aerial reconnaisance.”

All through the 1930’s, a variety of German corporations developed experimental domestic television sets, though production runs were minute. They covered the gamut of strange designs we know from early configurations developed outside the Reich as well – a thing like an incinerator with doors, an Art Deco Ziggurat, and various pop-up mirror configurations, which enabled the image to be magnified. Most impressive are the combination units, with a TV, radio and a record player, sadly without an automatic changer, all in glorious monophone.

Meanwhile, the electronics industry co-operated with the regime to develop cheap, basic radios. Around the world, radio was evolving into networks while rudimentary television was also teasing the broadcast imagination. But radio was robust, and matured as a technology quickly.

Radio also had a killer application, which was much clearer and more enticing to families and communities – music, instantly deliverable, amplifying fashion, both intimate and social.

To evoke the spirit of radio, I’ll give you one example from our side of the world. In the 1930’s, isolated rural communities in the Victorian timber country would put a radio in the community hall. People would gather and dance to programs which were broadcast for just this purpose. If you could float across the valleys in a balloon on a Friday night in 1938, you would see the lights of the towns, and glimpse people dancing to the same songs, vibrating through the troposphere.

The German television system really came to public attention because the regime installed cameras at the Berlin Olympics, and the games were broadcast around Berlin on VHF for eight hours a day. People crowded into the television parlours, and could interview athletes by telephone. Some 160,000 people paid one mark each to watch the games.

olympic camera - The Birth of Television

By then, the technology had graduated from direct broadcast to an improved version in which 35mm film was passed through a camera, down through the floor to a chamber below, in which it was processed immediately and transmitted with a delay of only 30 seconds.

production diagra - The Birth of Television

This whole saga turned out to be ephemeral; all that really remained to us in the Anglosphere was a vague sense that the Nazis had TV, they used it for evil, and somehow it occurred in public.

concentration camp threat - The Birth of Television

Here, for instance, this jocular figure, like something from the Brothers Grimm, is talking about concentration camps and political prisoners.

Like so many indecencies of the era, the actual programs were lost for a generation. But they came to light in 1999, when German historians found 280 canisters of film in the former GDR archives, comprising that quick-processed 35mm film, and various educational or entertaining pre-recorded inserts.

Michael Kloft from Spiegelfilm cut this into a fairly straightforward documentary, which is mostly composed of archival film, with a few interviews. The whole of Television Under the Swastika is available on the internet at Smashing Telly. Ironically, with low resolution, out of synch, and a few centimetres across, the version on the internet is a pretty authentic reconstruction of the original broadcasts.

heil - The Birth of Television

It is a strange experience to watch. Even discounting hindsight, it does seem vaguely brutish. The nasty, snappy salute of the blonde hostess is creepy, while the gruesome interview with Robert Ley, the head of Strength Through Joy, just makes him seem stupid –

strength through joy - The Birth of Television.Albert Speer is interviewed, pulling up in his fast open top Merc, and sitting casually at the wheel, the very image of a European playboy, unlike the busy technocrat we expect of the propaganda machine –

speer - The Birth of Television

The film is full of instructional videos, about items like gardening for the Fatherland, keeping scraps for pigs and a course on Nazi marriage for brides-to-be. The contempt and intrusion is palpable – the feeling that a small-minded elite was sculpting a vision of proper suburban life for citizens who are simultaneously little more than clay and also the conquerors of the world.

women learning nazi - The Birth of Television

From 1936, they ran direct broadcasts of the annual Nuremberg rally, which are truly strange. In stark contrast to the fantastically crafted movies of the time, these have all the perils of live broadcasts. They are very familiar, with the same longeurs as Dimbleby broadcasting a coronation or a funeral. The narration describes what is going on with the same present-tense cliches, the cameras hunt for images, the drama stops as distant figures trudge across cobbles to deliver flags and salute-

parade - The Birth of Television

Indeed, the whole program seems terribly contemporary, beneath the ideological obsessions. It looks like community television, with the tone of a bad breakfast show. They loved vaudeville routines, short musical solos, and animal acts. They had a show to incite the public to help the police catch what the Nazis saw as criminal elements. There are weird skits and little acts, asides to the camera, earnest perorations, and the peculiar enthusiasm of a genuine do-gooder. And yes, it is all very, very politically correct.

Mostly, it looks like the kind of television which libertarians imagine the Left and the Greens secretly want to unleash on the world. It exposes a certain kind of wowserism which will pop up anywhere that petty people have power, which is ideologically independent, and looks like heaven as imagined by village gossips.

Here, the production team has gone behind the pomp of the Party machine at Nuremberg to explore the logistics of such a large event, in a rivetting sequence about industrial cooking in the open air -

carloads of potatos - The Birth of Television

While the rapidly maturing radio system was massively ahead on points around the world, the Nazis could have been expected to embrace television. After all, they sought to “plant an image of the Fuehrer indelibly in all German hearts”. In fact, the Nazis didn’t really take to television at all. They preferred radio, with its capacity to transmit speeches and the safe classics from orchestras purged of Jewish musicians. They invested substantially in the cinema, with hundreds of triumphalist and racist films, along with the marvellous but gruesome stadium documentaries by Leni Riefenstahl. Maybe they sensed that a domestic medium, occurring in private, somehow undermined the massified experience of Ein Volk on which they relied.

goebbels looking at radio - The Birth of Television

In this, they saw that television and radio are very different. They wanted an exhortatory media, and radio can inspire action and community, as those dance show producers understood so far away in Melbourne. Perhaps they glimpsed the future of Mr and Mrs Suburbia, comatose in front of the box, un-industrious, too langorous to bash the enemies of the State in the street.

It is easy to sense confusion and ambiguity in the regime’s vision of television. Despite their social engineering reservations, they were sucked into the international technological race, which they dearly wanted to win. Developing their military machine largely in secret, balked in physics by their disdain for “Jewish science”, the Nazis wished to display their civilian engineering. When Goebbels and Goering walked into the Paul Nipkow studio, they confronted an enticing sight: a nest of nerds on a holy crusade, crackling with valves and oscilloscopes.

Primordially ignorant, superstitious to the core, they were very bad at evaluating technical issues – a vital weakness, since they fluffed both the atom bomb and the ballistic missile, which were clamouring for their attention at the time. But they were on firmer ground with television, which offered a mechanism for social control rather than unimaginably large explosions.

On the other hand, the new medium also offered a problem which we know well, as we participate in the development of the internet. The pictorial content looked really crappy, just a horrible, blurry, whiney version of the wonderful images you could buy in pleasant visits to the cinema. The issue is not the content, it is the place, the form of social organisation, and the intimate intercutting of communication and personal life. Like internet video, the infant version was too easily dismissed.

The National Socialists were no slouch at managing public events, and the creation of spectacle. Even though Speer has admitted that the Nuremberg searchlight effects were designed to cover up the shambolic marching of the brownshirt units, they had the brains to back the vision. I suspect they understood that those marionette performances which Hitler practiced in front of the mirror worked well in a stadium, or even as a medium shot in a crowded cinema, but looked crappy on pair of boxes in a television parlour.

Whatever their thinking about social engineering, the Nazis did put resources into television, but with nothing like the kind of energy which went into the Autobahn, the Volkswagen or the People’s Radio.

For the first couple of years, the Studio Paul Nipkow was a tiny affair, with three rooms and no more than fourteen employees. They must have been hard pressed to cover the Olympics. The roof garden in which some music performances were staged is comically minute.

There may have been an aesthetic dimension as well. We know the Nazis fought out a complicated battle between taste and vulgarity. The overwhelming ghastliness of the visual arts policy is well known, because they held public exhibitions, designed vast buildings, and stole and sold so much twentieth century art. But there were pockets of resistance, mostly where the art forms were closer to classical tradition. Even jazz hung on with surprising support.

However, television was pretty firmly at the populist end of taste. The sheer extraordinary mankiness of many scenes is encapsulated by this -

us team - The Birth of Television

Again, we have gone behind the scenes, this time to the athletes relaxing in their village at the Berlin Olympics. We have reached this relaxed Volk arcadia by a natty if shaky track through an archway which is at once prettily traditional in a yodelly kind of way, and seems to move forward into the horror we know is coming.

The people are part of the American weightlifting team, and the fat feller in the middle is the manager and heavyweight champion. This is an entirely more homely era, which created public imagery of exquisite visual strength, but was also happy to offer its heroes relaxing in singlets.

Once the Olympics were over, the audience drifted away. Despite the jolly piano solos and eagerly mugging Madchens, the television parlours were not crammed with citizens eager for a Nazified vision of the world.

officials watch - The Birth of Television

In practice, most of the audience seems to have been high party officials, but at the same time the propaganda is clearly aimed at the masses. The leaders didn’t need to know how to cut flowers for the husband; they just wanted to know that the young brides were being rebuilt in the image of the Party. (In fact, they look like precursors to The Stepford Wives.)

By the end of 1939, the Nazis planned to crack the audience problem by releasing the E1, the cheap domestic television pictured at the head of this piece, and the cathode ray equivalent of the Volkswagen. They were building landlines to other cities, and expanding the organisation. But they brought the whole thing to a standstill when the War broke out, even though the Nazis put a huge effort into filming their armed forces. The documentary hints that the staff was none too pleased with this, and connived to save themselves from the war effort by finding a new objective.

All I have to go on is one film made a decade ago, and the usual fog of fragments Googled in two languages, mediated through a couple of translators which I am able to average out. But the staffs’ implied struggle to stay away from the front gives the story a human dimension which goes far beyond the footage.

They were deep in the Nazi propaganda machine, surrounded by fanatics and fools, compelled to make increasingly crappy, disconnected programs. They were technicians, vaudeville performers and lost radio announcers with attractive faces, the creatures of a variety show lost in a special kind of entertainers’ hell. Menaced ultimately by allied bombing, faking enthusiasm for psychopathic nitwits, they lied not for money but a chance to stay alive.

They saved themselves at the end of 1939 with an adroit bit of bureaucratic reframing. The civilian effort was closed down, the precious television receivers sent to hospitals, and the programs designed to cheer up wounded soldiers. A version of the service was soon broadcast from Paris as well, using the system which the French had developed at the same time.

In a self-referential moment, the Fernsehen recorders captured this gemütlich image of wounded soldiers comfortable in front of a set..

wounded soldiers watching - The Birth of Television

While this is what they watched -

image on screen - The Birth of Television

For the civilians, one expanded Fernsehen cinema was kept running in Berlin; it seems to have been popular because it was heated and life in wartime became increasingly grim. But fortress Fernsehen gradually collapsed as the tide of war turned. The translated Wikipedia says,

“In the last months of broadcasting, more and more recorded (“canned goods”) programs were used instead of live productions, as the staff was tranferred to military service. The longest running live show was We will send cheerfulness – we donate joy, which ran until 21 June 1944. To escape the front, the artistic ensemble finally presented the program from a temporary stage in military hospitals. Other staff were used in support of the troops as projectionists.”

Hadamovsky, the head of the service, remained committed to the triumph of the Third Reich. But he fell out with Goebbels, who shunted him sideways until he volunteered to serve the Reich in more practical ways. He died in the SS on the Eastern Front in March 1945.

With the Allied armies in Normandy, the system was finally shut down and the remaining staff dispersed into the disintegrating Reich. I don’t know what happened to them after that.

According to the documentary, one of the last items ever recorded was about the optimism and enthusiasm of soldiers who had lost their legs. It climaxes with an obstacle course, in which one legged men hop over hurdles.

hopping man - The Birth of Television

The film ends, like the true story of this real life morality tale, with an image which encapsulates so much. The legless veteran explains to his pretty Aryan companion that he only learnt to dance after he was given his artificial limbs, and then hits the ideological mark like a seasoned trouper: “Yes, life really is wonderful”.

wonderful life - The Birth of Television

“We will send cheerfulness – we donate joy”, indeed.


(Besides the links, the major source for this piece is the German Wikipedia articles on Hadamovsky and Paul Nipkow Television.

A much more detailed account of the audience can be found here.)

This entry was posted on Monday, September 1st, 2008 at 12:34 am and is filed under history, visual media. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.


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