Godwin’s forefathers

schlosserThe uber-digital generation may think that Internet traditions began with them, or at least no further back than their parents. For example, anyone spending time on political blogs or in the comments sections of people writing on politics eventually comes across Godwin’s Law, that online adage that states, “As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches.” But Godwin’s Law actually goes back to before mass participation in the Internet. Nazi refs on ancient Usenet forums, and by ancient we mean in the 1980s and 1990s, prompted author and lawyer Mike Godwin to point out the near ubiquity of the phenomenon.

Yet Godwin’s Law not only predates Usenet, it predates computer networks and Godwin himself.

During the early Cold War, the democratic West and Communist Bloc vied for the soul of East Germany via radio waves. The news UIP title Cold War on the Airwaves explores this struggle. Nicholas J. Schlosser‘s study is a history of a Berlin-based American propaganda broadcaster called Radio in the American Sector (RIAS) and its largely successful efforts to provide an alternative information source for Germans behind the Iron Curtain. How successful? Even the communists running the German Democratic Republic (GDR) became so frustrated with it that they fell straight in Godwin’s Law:

As with many GDR radio broadcasts, the GDR anti-RIAS campaign sought to draw continuities between RIAS and the propaganda of the Nazis. A number of cartoons appeared featuring two grinning caricatures of Joseph Goebbels and Adolf Hitler looking down approvingly on an RIAS reporter. One cartoon featured a man lying in a chair, hand raised in a Nazi salute, yelling through an RIAS and NWDR microphone. From the microphone emerged, in writing, a number of the lies supposedly being broadcast by the two stations: that Christmas is banned in the GDR, that the Rubel will be the new form of currency in the Eastern Zone, and that West Germany was not rearming. The cartoon then entreats its reader, “RIAS and NWDR are war-mongers! Smash the lies of the enemies of the people!” These exact caricatures of Hitler and Goebbels appear in another cartoon, this time behind a growling American soldier speaking into an RIAS microphone and carrying a bomb with a death’s head symbol on it. The cartoon then declares, “RIAS Hounding is War Hounding!” A third example using the same Goebbels-Hitler caricature featured the two looking down upon an American soldier sitting behind a desk. The cartoon is titled “Whom does RIAS serve?” On the desk lies a plan for an invasion of the Soviet Union. In the soldier’s hand is an RIAS microphone. Emitting from the microphone is the word “RIAS” with words and phrases standing in for each of its letters: “R” for “Revanchepolitik” (Revenge Policy), “I” for “Intervention,” “A” for “Antibolschewismus” (Anti-Bolshevism), and “S” for “Spionage Sabotage” (Espionage and Sabotage).

The pamphlets, cartoons, and posters cited above were intended to evoke fear of RIAS. It was not just a radio station, the material declared, but also a dangerous spy center that aimed to plunge Germany into another war. Yet not all anti-RIAS propaganda was aimed at depicting RIAS as a terrifying institution. Some targeted RIAS listeners, characterizing them as individuals whose gullibility and naiveté threatened to destroy the GDR and world peace. One of the clearest depictions of this notion is seen in a cartoon from the February 1, 1956, issue of Eulenspiegel. It depicts a buxom woman, with a bottle of milk under one arm and a jar of honey in the other, standing in the window of a cardboard house, with the RIAS logo overhead. A curious man looks at a sign next to her that reads, “Here flow milk and honey.” Yet it is clear that the house is merely a façade, for behind the woman is an army barracks and nothing else. RIAS’s lies only seduced the naïve and easily manipulated. Another newspaper cartoon from 1952 illustrated this well. Titled “Der RIAS Hörer” (The RIAS Listener), the cartoon depicts a man about to walk off a cliff. At the bottom are skeletons of old soldiers wearing steel helmets adorned with swastikas. The man is walking into a cloud that has “Lügen!” (Lies) and “Kriegshetze!” (War Hounder) written on it.