When people have a free and unrestricted choice of activities, they entertain and express themselves through pastimes – whether it’s stamp collecting, coin collecting, scrapbooking, gardening, or tinkering with electronic devices. But what happens when these free spirits – especially those whose hobbies have taught them special technical skills – suddenly live in a dictatorship?

As a Historian of National SocialismI note that my latest research on German radio hobbyists has come up with a cautionary story. Authoritarian governments or movements often undermine and often take over civic organizations – including seemingly unimportant hobby groups – as part of the seizure of power. My work suggests that people engaging in technological hobbies like radio may be able to maintain a little more personal freedom than people with less strategic hobbies like singing or exercising. But this freedom can come at the expense of complicity.

Radio and the Nazis

By doing “Jazz ageIn the 1920s, people were fascinated by new technologies, including Planes, Automobiles and radios. Out of this fascination, of course, grew large industries, but also hobbies and groups of hobbyists.

In Germany – and other countries – Radio hobby clubs flourished. Several hundred thousand Germans joined these groups, also because commercial radios were very expensiveand clubs helped people build their own much cheaper. Once built, they also tinkered with the inside of the radios, partly because they could and partly to improve reception, especially of foreign stations, which often offered more light entertainment than state-controlled German broadcasting. (The clubs also threw great parties.)

In 1933 the The Nazis took power in Germany. They began an extensive and often violent process in which all of German society was reshaped to serve the NSDAP. Groups as diverse as choirs, political parties, sports clubs and chambers of commerce were immediately closed or taken over and purged by Jews, socialists, outspoken democrats and other people whom the Nazis considered “undesirable”.

The surviving groups had to support the new regime. Radio hobbyists were particularly exposed because their skills included building communication devices.

The Nazis were particularly interested in amateur radio operators who were part of a worldwide community of hobbyists who heard much more than conversation or news from others. They sent and received messages on their own. In Germany, people could not buy ready-made radio transmitters and other technical devices that could be used on the frequencies of interest to amateurs. Ham operators had to build their own equipmentwhich went well beyond the simple radio receivers that most hobbyists built. They also had to – as is still the case today – achieve a fair result complicated technical exam purchase a broadcast license.

This meant that whether or not they were electrical engineers or other types of ham, ham Scientist by profession, gained a fairly high level of scientific and technical knowledge in electrical engineering and radio frequency reception and transmission. They also have a lot of hands-on experience using radio equipment that only professional radio operators can get.

Survival of the amateur radio

Joseph Goebbels, the National Socialist Minister for Propaganda and Public Enlightenment, understood the power radio could have, both to Spread Nazi propaganda and to join groups that opposed the Nazi takeover. So he quickly took control not only of commercial radio stations, but also of the radio clubs and their members. The clubs that only wanted to listen to the radio passively and do a little tinkering were closed.

The hams who wanted to convey their own information found themselves in a difficult position. The Nazis knew that German hams were illegally transferred without a license in the past and that they probably had unsupervised radio contact with foreigners, including those from the Soviet Union or France, Germany’s former enemy in World War I.

Although there were only a few thousand licensed German hams, their technical expertise was too valuable to the regime to be completely discharged. In fact, German amateur radio operators and their clubs got together with several powerful Nazi supporters – including the German military – who protected them from being closed like other hobby groups. The government has even doubled the number of ham transfer licenses available.

Hams were able to continue their hobby, but only if they worked together, sometimes in ways that contradicted the previous culture of the hobby.

What the Nazis wanted from amateur radio

In the spring of 1933, when the Nazis consolidated power, Goebbels took control of the national organization of the hams, the “German Amateur Transmission and Reception Service”, known by the German initials DASD. While it was supposedly a private organization, it was forced to let the Propaganda Ministry, in consultation with the German military, elect its president and give the government a veto right over other club leaders.

One of Goebbels’ hopes was that German amateur operators could use their links with amateur radio operators in other countries to spread Nazi propaganda around the world. That turned out to be of little value: most radio exchanges with foreign amateurs focused on purely technical information. In any case, the fact that many German hams could be heard on the airways was never seen by outsiders as proof of how wonderful life under National Socialism was supposed to be.

German ham never bothered to tell the Propaganda Ministry how silly this international propaganda idea really was, and dutifully reported on a large number of foreign contacts.

Reconstruction of the German military

More importantly, German amateur radio hobbyists gave a huge boost to the Nazis’ secret military reconstruction. The Treaty of Versailles, which ended the First World War, was strictly limited to how many people and weapons the German military could have. Adding and communicating with more units outside the Versailles borders would require tech-savvy radio operators who understand shortwave radios and can send and receive Morse code at high speeds. Amateur radio hobbyists fit the bill perfectly and were recruited directly into the armed forces, intelligence and communications services of the diplomatic corps.

They also taught radio skills active soldiers and future recruits like the Hitler Youth and Men preparing to join the German Navy. By training amateur radio hobbyists, the German military was able to avoid giving Great Britain, France, Belgium, or the United States a hint that Germany was arming on a large scale. All new radiomes in the air could be explained as just simple hobbyists.

The German amateur radio organization DASD also provided other technical expertise, such as identifying frequencies that could be useful for military communications. The SS security service even hired the DASD’s main laboratory to develop and build miniature radio transceivers that spies could use to take orders and report their results.

The price of survival

In order to continue broadcasting under the Third Reich, German ham operators faced a terrible moral dilemma. Like all members of German society, they had to accept an exact examination by the security forces. In order to keep their radios running, German ham had to actively participate in the Nazi regime, drive Jews and anti-Nazis from their ranks of hobbyists, and work closely with authorities, including the SS and the secret services.

In retrospect, the relationship between DASD and the Nazis was too close. However, it is in the nature of dictatorship that people are not allowed to stand on the margins. Ham operators who considered opposing the Nazis faced a particular challenge: unlike dance groups or musicians, radio technicians had strategic skills and were therefore more likely to be wanted and forced to help the regime. At best, rejection can mean the loss of economic opportunities, arrest, concentration camps or, at worst, even execution. The possible consequences were clear.

Given the choice of flight, open resistance, or collaboration, most chose to collaborate, especially because it allowed them to continue their cherished hobby. The problem is that there was no small complicity in the Third Reich. It is a sad irony that even hobby clubs, one of the pillars of civil society, were used by the Nazis to cement their dictatorship.

Bruce Campbell, Associate Professor for German Studies, College of William & Mary

This article was originally published on The conversation. read this original article.