The pennant of a baseball team, a tape recorder and a massive microphone made of polished metal: the objects in the exhibition “Voices from Munich during the Cold War” seem extremely apolitical, but they are not. They belonged to members of Radio Free Europe (RFE), which was on the air from 1950 to 1995 on the Isar.
Unlike the antennas of other American-style broadcasters, such as Berlin’s RIAS or the military broadcaster AFN, those of the transmitter at the former Oberschleißheim Airport were not aimed at Germany, but at Eastern Europe.
How that sounded can be heard in a sound installation in the show, in which the Munich City Museum and the local Jewish Museum recall the history of the station: Louis Armstrong greets his fans there in his unmistakable bass – in Czechoslovakia. What superficially sounds like radio entertainment was actually a weapon in the propaganda war.
RFE offered a full program of politics, sport and culture, which, however, deliberately broke through the censorship beyond the Iron Curtain. In addition to the radio waves, balloons with leaflets were sent into the west wind and sometimes placed fake newswhich both sides regarded as a legitimate means of information warfare.
Like Radio Liberty, RFE was subordinate to the Free Europe Committee, founded in 1949, an intelligence front organization of the US State Department. The stations were his most important project: around 1,400 employees from 40 nations produced programs in 20 languages. The Soviet Union alone was broadcast in 15 languages.
Although the money came from the CIA, the microphones were mostly dissidents who had fled to the Federal Republic in often adventurous ways. A former employee recalls in an exhibition video how he was swimming through a border river with a group at night when shots suddenly rang out. Arrived on the west bank, three of the fugitives were missing. He got to the multinational radio team via reception camps.
Its employees enjoyed rare privileges in bombed-out post-war Germany: a temple for Russian-Orthodox migrants, the Munich Elementary School and a junior high school. The settlement at Perlacher Forst was therefore called “Little America”. As part of the project “Post-war Period and Migration in Munich”, the start of which is the exhibition, Etienne Bellay tells how he grew up there: as the child of a dissident from the Czechoslovakia, fled to Munich via Paris, he Americanized himself in the middle of Bavaria – with a T-shirt , blue jeans and rock’n’roll tournaments at the Circus Krone.
Such life stories now also fill graphic novelsdrawn for the exhibition by students at the Ulm School of Design.
But the privileged life in the American enclave came at a high price, as the Cold Aether War kept heating up. Enormous sums of money were also mobilized on the other side: for jammers and more aggressive means. One day the salt shakers in the RFE cafeteria were filled with poison.
Several employees died under mysterious circumstances, a Bulgarian from a poisoned umbrella tip à la James Bond. In February 1981, a 20-kilo bomb from the Romanian secret service Securitate detonated in the radio building in the English Garden, destroying the building and seriously injuring three Czechs.
And the other side had also placed their people inside RFE. In the video interview, Eta Katz, who was born in Riga, reports how she married the Russian Oleg Tumanov in Germany, who worked for RFE, but who soon revealed himself to be a KGB agent. To avoid being exposed, he fled to Moscow in 1986 – leaving his wife behind without warning.
Still visibly shaken, she reports how Tumanov exposed himself in front of Soviet television cameras and had himself celebrated as a spy hero. Eta earned that five years probation and a half in women’s prison. When she went to Moscow in the early 1990s, homelessness awaited her instead of a medal of fame.
Events that until recently could have been taken for cold coffee from the Cold War era. But RFE is far from the past. Based in Prague since 1995, the radio is still broadcasting in 25 languages, including Ukrainian since the Russian attack on Ukraine in 2014 under the name Radio Svoboda.
RFE reporters are also currently reporting from the front on YouTube. And the price is still high: on the night of April 29 last year, RFE journalist Vira Hyrych was killed in a Russian bomb attack in Kyiv. For some, such news heralds the return of the Cold War. For the radio workers at Radio Free Europe, it was never over.
Bodo Mrozek is a historian at the Berlin Center for Cold War Studies at the Munich-Berlin Institute for Contemporary History (IfZ).
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