Radio-Days Re-Visited – or the Demise of the Interwar Radio-Ham Culture
The history of radio is a crucial element of ENIGMA’s field of operation. Increasingly so, in fact – for reasons that shall be revealed in the very near future.
I have devoted some time to digging through our vaults for new perspectives and forgotten treasures related to radio and early broadcasting history. Obviously, it is a mammoth project: the ENIGMA vaults bear a striking resemblance to the secret government storage depot that appears at the end of Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark.
Still, I have made a number of preliminary findings that point in the direction of interesting new research and exhibition projects, for instance about early royal radio-speeches; forgotten ‘power-struggles’ in the European ether between government authorities and private broadcasters; plans to construct a Danish (as well as Swedish) counterpart to the infamous German Volksempfänger – the cheap, “folksy” radio-set launched in the year of our Lord 1933 by Hitler’s minister of propaganda Joseph Goebbels.
Glowing artefact from the ENIGMA vaults: crystal radio set, constructed by a Danish radio-ham around 1924-1925.
My favorite discovery to date, however, is the still unwritten story of the vibrant and genuinely cosmopolitan radio-ham culture that mushroomed in Denmark from the early 1920s to the outbreak of World War Two.
It is a story about globalization, technological creativity and democratized access to the means of communication.
Yet it also about espionage, national security and constant conflicts with suspicious authorities – and about the elusive and ominous kinds of border-crossing information that we today tend to designate as “fake news”.
Radio waves without frontiers
Allow me to continue with a poignant passage from the monthly membership journal of the Experimental Danish Radio Amateurs (E.D.R.), originally published on 15 August 1939:
"Luckily, radio waves show no respect for national borders, and the short-waves operated by us amateurs are endowed with particularly wonderful qualities in this regard, as they have the ability to span the whole globe. We must never forget the possibilities facilitated by this development for the creation of inter-cultural understanding between the peoples around the world."
This beautiful vision of global connectivity was not unique for the E.D.R. and its at the time approximately 1000 members. Since the development of shortwave radio-transmissions in 1924-1925, the numbers of radio-hams – private individuals who communicated by radio across vast geographical spaces – had grown exponentially throughout the world.
Many actors in the interwar period perceived this amateur-driven radio communication as a possible way to peace and global understanding, as it circumvented the age-old prejudices and frustrations that haunted the official channels.
Decent and law-abiding citizens
Yet border-crossing radio communication could also be perceived as a threat to global peace and security.
This can be illustrated by two news items in the local Danish daily Fyens Stifttidende on 20 October 1939, about seven weeks after the outbreak of World War Two in Europe. Taken together, they gave a somewhat paradoxical account of transnational radio communication.
The first piece reported about discontent amongst the radio-hams in Odense: the provincial capital on the island of Funen (Fyn). The Danish Post & Telegraph Directory (P&T) had issued a decree which prohibited usage of private radio transmitters, due to the circumstances of escalating hostilities in the immediate vicinity of Denmark.
The police in Odense had followed this up by visiting the local radio hams in their private homes, in order to seal up their transmission equipment. According to the secretary of the E.D.R, who was quoted in extenso in the newspaper, this implementation of the P&T decree was unnecessarily harsh. The ban in itself would have been absolutely sufficient, as the radio-hams were decent and law-abiding people.
Yet the police in Odense had been struck by “some kind of war-psychosis”, the E.D.R-secretary asserted: a smack of hysteria which made them see “these radio amateurs, who are communicating with practically all the countries of the world” as inherently suspicious and threatening.
Thus, the authorities had reacted in a hysterical, near-pathological way against Danish citizens, who only happened to have a sound and perfectly legitimate passion for the technical wonders of the age.
Next to this rather critical article, however, was a telegram that on the contrary highlighted the dangers posed by uncontrolled radio communication.
The very title of the telegram was tale-telling: “Former English Fascist German Radio Speaker: He Transmits Anti-English Propaganda Over German Shortwave Stations”. It regarded an ongoing Scotland Yard investigation into the identity of “the German speaker who spreads anti-English propaganda in English” over Britain through German shortwave radio.
According to the telegram, the Yard suspected a former member of the British Union of Fascists of being the man behind the hateful speeches. His voice had been recognized by a number of British women, who previously had been associated with the homegrown fascist movement in the country. One of them had even fainted by surprise when she recognized the man in question as the German radio voice, the newspaper reported.
In this news item, thus, border-crossing radio communication was anything but a harmless technical hobby. It was a weapon of war that opened a new, invisible but highly audible battle-front, that cut through borders and conventional defenses into the very homes of the civilian population.
Demise and a possible new beginning
So, what happened to the members of the E.D.R and their beautiful visions of a connected world? Well, a part of that dream was shattered by the outbreak of World War Two, which turned the ether into a battlefield and radio-sets into weapons.
Across the globe, the cataclysmic developments after September 1939 became a serious blow to the radio-ham culture. Private radio-sets were destroyed or confiscated by the authorities, and private usages of sending equipment – for purposes of broadcasting as well as point-to-point communication – became a dangerous, illicit underground activity, connected to anti-Nazi resistance activities and lethal German counter-intelligence.
Many of the Danish radio-hams got their equipment back from the authorities after the ending of hostilities in 1945. However, the European ether was no longer what it used to be in early days of radio and swinging jazz. The postwar airways continued to be haunted by fears, aggression and deceitful propaganda, as Europe was divided by the cold war conflict between the USA and Soviet Russia.
So, while a new day dawned for the radio-ham culture after “the dark age of the ether” in 1939– 1945, it was in a dramatically changed world where access to radio and the border-crossing radio waves was increasingly regulated and monitored through technologies developed during World War Two.
That is a trajectory of twentieth century European history that a trip down the vaults at ENIGMA illuminates through long-lost artefacts and other glowing memories from the early days of radio-based communication.