9. Nazi Broadcasts to Colonial Africa

By Alex White (@alex_j_white)

In August 1935, an officer of the Nigerian civil service sent an unusual pamphlet to the British Colonial Office. Printed in English and German, it provided listings and technical information for a new radio service aimed at listeners in Africa.[1] Like many ‘empire’ broadcasters of the 1930s, the service promised to provide music, light entertainment and news to an audience of white settlers across the continent. This service, however, was not a colonial one. In fact, it was a product of the Nazi-controlled Deutsche Kurzwellensender, which had been broadcasting to Africa in English and German since February 1934.[2]

Why was the German government targeting these distant colonial listeners? According to the broadcasters themselves, the Africa Service was intended to create cultural ties between Germany and the small number of German settlers in the former colonies of Namibia, Tanganyika, Togo and Cameroon. As the 1935 pamphlet demonstrates, however, these exchanges had the clear aim of promoting the new German regime. Radio plays focused on overseas Germans being introduced to the wonders of the ‘new Germany’ created by Nazi rule, while documentaries advertised Nazi leisure organisations and the poetry of the Hitler Youth.[3] British colonial officials also noted the political slant of news bulletins in German and English. By August 1939, the Africa Service was focused primarily presenting the German case for war with Poland.[4] Interestingly, these broadcasts were made at the same time as the BBC bulletin for Africa, using almost identical wavelengths – a decision which was likely intended to attract unintentional British listeners who were trying to tune in to the news from London.[5]

At first, the colonial governments were unconcerned about the effects of these German broadcasts. As time passed, however, anxieties about the service grew. In 1936, the Governor of Tanganyika requested a German bulletin for Africa which could ‘enhance British prestige and counteract propaganda.’[6] Concerned about the Africa Service’s audience in South Africa, the BBC inaugurated a service in Afrikaans in 1939.[7] A larger concern, however, was the idea that the Nazi government might influence non-white listeners. In 1940, the Tanganyikan and Zanzibari governments was so anxious about the influence of new Axis broadcasts in Arabic, Hindustani and Swahili that they banned the use of radios in public.[8]

Together, these broadcasts provide insight into the first stages of the ‘radio war’ which would come to dominate the airwaves by the 1940s. German broadcasters were quick to mobilise their international services to encourage cultural and political ties with distant listeners. However, these broadcasts were rarely perceived as a direct threat to British interests until they targeted Arab and South Asian listeners – the reflection of colonial prejudice which held that non-white listeners were less intelligent that white listeners and thus more susceptible to subversive propaganda.


[1] ‘Afrika-Programm: Juni 1935’, enclosed in Officer Administering the Government of Nigeria to M. MacDonald, 8.7.1935, in Records of the Colonial Office, National Archives, Kew [hereafter CO] 323/1338/8/20.

[2] Horst J.P. Bergmeier and Rainer E. Lotz, Hitler’s Airwaves: The Inside Story of Nazi Radio Broadcasting and Propaganda Swing (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1997), p. 36.

[3] ‘Afrika-Programm: Juni 1935’, CO 323/1338/8/20. Significantly, the translations sometimes differ between the English and German sections of the pamphlet. The German listing for one radio play from June 1935 is ‘Ein Deutscher in der Fremde erlebt das neue Deutschland’ [‘A German Abroad experiences the new Germany’] but the English translation is the politically neutral ‘German Abroad link up with the homeland’ [sic].

[4] H. Young to J.H. Thomas, 30.12.1935, CO 323/1338/8/34; W. Jackson to M. MacDonald, 16.10.1935, CO 323/1338/8/31; M. Kittermaster to M. MacDonald, 5.10.1935, CO 323/1338/828; B. Bourdillon to M. MacDonald, 14.7.1935, CO 323/1338/8/22. ‘German News in English for Africa DJC’, 27.8.1939, BBC Digest of Foreign Broadcasts, No. 1.

[5] G.B. Hebden to Private Secretary to His Excellency the Officer Administering the Government, 1.7.1935, enclosed in Officer Administering the Government of Nigeria to M. MacDonald, 8.7.1935, CO 323/1338/8/20; N. Robson to General Manager, Freetown, 16.7.1935, enclosed in Henry Moore to M. MacDonald, 14.7.1935.

[6] ‘Paper No. 4 – Summary of Replies to B.B.C. Memorandum of June, 1936’, CO 323/1496/19.

[7] ‘BBC Vernacular Services Broadcast Since 1938’, in BBC Written Archives Centre, Reading, E/40/447/1.

[8] ‘Telegram No. 571: Governor of the Tanganyika Territory to the Colonial Office, 7.10.1940’, CO 323/1805/1/1; note of E.E. Sabben-Clare, 16.10.1940, CO 323/1805/1/3; ‘Draft Telegram to the Governor of the Tanganyika Territory’, CO 323/1805/1/4/A; James R. Brennan, ‘A History of Sauti ya Mvita (Voice of Mombasa): Radio, Public Culture, and Islam in Coastal Kenya, 1947-1966’, in Rosalind I. J. Hackett, Benjamin F. Soares & Francis B. Nyamnjoh (eds), New Media and Religious Transformations in Africa (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2015), pp. 19-38, at p. 21. In this context, ‘Hindustani’ refers to simplified dialect which combined the features of Hindi and Urdu and was meant to be comprehensible to speakers of both languages.

Image credit: Author’s own photograph of ‘Afrika-Programm: Juni 1935’, enclosed in Officer Administering the Government of Nigeria to M. MacDonald, 8.7.1935, in British National Archives, Kew, Colonial Office Files [hereafter CO] 323/1338/8/20.

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