VHF Radio Operator on German Tank. Source: Twitter Fräulein Feldgrau‏ @Glockengeist

Kittler’s Blitz

Who is driving the Media?

“Media determine our situation”, said the late Friedrich Kittler (1943–2011), an influential German scholar of media studies in his book “Gramophone, Film, Typewriter”. See also my recent posting Driving the Spirit out of the Humanities. But who “determines” the media? For Kittler, there was an obvious answer, the military. The military pushed media technologies in Europe and in Germany. Widely criticized by some media scholars, including Winthrop-Young, the translator of “Gramophone, Film, Typewriter”, who wrote,

One element that may strike some readers as disturbing is Kittler’s virtual fetishism of technological innovations produced by military applications, spin-offs that owe their existence to military combat. …Kittler derives a veritable genealogy of media in which war functions as the father of all things technical.
Royal Postal Agency in Overath, Bergisches Land, 1890. Stagecoach with mailmen Source: Wikipedia

However, I find Kittler’s analysis quite correct. His position was foremost based on a thorough understanding of media technologies as well as an acute awareness of the “situatedness” of media technologies in Germany as well as in Europe where countries that experienced the Franco-German War of 1870, WWI, WWII, and the Cold War, have always been highly militarized.

Media and communication were under tight control by the state for obvious reasons. For instance, throughout the 19th and early 20th Century postal services in Germany including telephone and the railway were government operations, so was the radio, and later television.

Communication systems and tools right up to the 19th century ranged from the Roman road system that was built to enable the movement of armies, messengers, and collect tax revenue from the provinces, to the Napoleonic era military signalling systems such as optical telegraphy lines and later electrical telegraphy that eventually ended up in civilian use as well. Then in the late 19th Century, we find the use of shortwave radio in naval communication, and after WWI military radio equipment in the hands of army veterans found new uses by civilians. Media technology continued its rise in WWII. Already before the war researchers in the UK, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the Netherlands, the Soviet Union, and the United States, “independently and in great secrecy, developed technologies that led to the modern version of radar” (Wikipedia).

VHF (Very High Frequency)radio was used in German and later American tanks. And in WWII at the dawn of the computer age, intelligence operations decrypted the German wireless Enigma encoded communication successfully. It was Alan Turing and his team, narrated in the 2014 movie, “The Imitation Game”, starring Benedict Cumberbatch as Alan Turing that marked a turning point in the outcome of WWII.

Kittler, systematically, saw media systems proceed in three phases.

  • Beginning with the American Civil War, storage technologies for acoustics, optics, and script: film, gramophone, and the man-machine system, typewriter.
  • Phase 2, beginning with the First World War, developed for each storage content appropriate electric transmission technologies: radio, television, and theirs “more secret counterparts.”
  • Phase 3, since the Second World War, from typewriter to decryption, mathematical computability in 1936 giving future computers their name.

In Kittler’s words,

Transmission technology with VHF [Very High Frequency] tank communications and radar images, those military developments parallel to television, meant total mobilization, motorization, and blitzkrieg…
Fighter planes and submarines, the two new weapons systems, required wireless communications, just as military command required vacuum tube technology for the control of high and low frequencies. Tanks, however, which were equally in need of communications, so Colonel General Guderian, the strategist of the tank blitzkrieg, would have been forced to resort to World-War-I-era carrier pigeons.
Instead, his armored wedges, “ from the tanks in the most forward position back to divisional, corps, and army command,” were, unlike his enemies, equipped with VHF [radio].“The engine is the soul of the tank,” Guderian used to say, “ and radio, “ General Nehring added, “its number one.“ Then as now VHF radio reduces the leadership vacuum to zero.(Kittler, 1999)

That solved the transmission problem for the tanks, and radio broadcasting for the masses solved the propaganda problem for the war effort. Famously the “Goebbel’s Schnauze” (a cheap radio receiver that was called the “Goebbel’s snout”, after the Nazi Reich Minister for Propaganda, Joseph Goebbels) was in every German house with 11.5 Million Radio broadcasting subscribers by 1939 (Wikipedia).

For storage, wax cylinders were used for recording parliamentary sessions, according to Kittler, but these were useless in combat. However, by 1940 corporations like BASF and AEG developed the magnetic tape. None less than the Third Reich Propaganda Ministry was happy with such a formidable storage medium. The chief of the Army propaganda jumped on it as well, of course, Kittler quotes:

Major General von Wedel, chief of Army Propaganda, recounts:
We were also essentially dependent on developments of the propaganda ministry with regard to radio equipment for war correspondents. That also applied to the appropriate vehicles. When it came to tank divisions, the Luftwaffe, or parts of the navy, the opportunities for original combat recordings were hampered by the fact that we could not obtain the stable and horizontal supports necessary for producing discs. At first, we were forced to make do with belated dispatches. A significant change occurred after the Magnetophone was invented and thoroughly designed for the purpose of war reports. Original combat reports from the air, the moving armored vehicle, or the submarine, etc., now became impressive firsthand accounts.

Thirty years later the Compact Audio Cassette became a most popular civilian implementation of this technology.

Wernher von Braun Source: Wikipedia

After the end of WWII, the appropriation of German media technology by the Allies did not end with the German Magnetophone tape. The loot was more significant than that and would determine the political as well as the media landscape for years to come. Wernher Magnus Maximilian Freiherr von Braun (March 23, 1912 — June 16, 1977), was the leading figure in the development of rocket technology in Germany (V2 rocket), that caused so much havoc in England. He was secretly moved to the US together with about 1,600 other German scientists, engineers, and technicians, as part of the Operation Paperclip. He became the father of rocket technology and space science (NASA) in the United States. Without him and others no ballistic missiles, without missiles no moon landing, satellite communication, and GPS, without GPS, no Google Earth. But most of all, no Internet, which doesn’t seem so obvious.

A group of 104 rocket scientists (aerospace engineers) at Fort Bliss, Texas (Wikipedia)

But it was the threat of a nuclear exchange with the Soviet Union that initiated the distribution of computing technology across multiple locations, thus avoiding a technological and scientific meltdown if a missile would strike a central computer.

Since the early 1960s, Paul Baran at the RAND Corporation had been researching systems that could survive a nuclear war and developed the idea of distributed adaptive message block switching.

Funded by the United States Department of Defense the Advanced Research Projects Agency Network(ARPANET) was the first packet-switching network to implement the protocol suite TCP/IP. Both technologies became the technical foundation of the Internet.

Military satellite technologies seeped into the civilian realm for example as GPS providing location data for our smartphones; the Internet was handed over to civilian use (universities and later in the nineties commercial), military drone technology turned private as well. VR, AR, and AI development have involvement by the military. So Kittler is fully vindicated.

What Kittler could probably not foresee was that something else media-related turned from military to civilian use in an unexpected and rather sinister way. But he had a hunch when he wrote:

But reaching beyond the acoustic experiences of the so-called general
public, the magnetic tape also revolutionized secret transmissions. According
to Pynchon, “ operators swear they can tell the individual sending-
hands . “ As a consequence, the Abwehr [German Counterintelligence
Service] , had the “ handwriting” of every single agent recorded … before they went abroad on their secret missions.Only magnetic tapes guaranteed to Canaris [German counterintelligence chief] and his men that it “was really their agent sitting at the other end and not an enemy operator. “

Inspired by this success, the Abwehr switched from defense to offense.

Because the enemy was not yet in possession of magnetic tapes, the Abwehr was in a position to transmit its famous Funkspiele (radio
games), which in spite of their name resulted not in the entertainment of
millions in front of speakers but in the death of 50 British agents.
The Abwehr managed to capture and turn around agents who had parachuted
into the Netherlands. As if nothing had happened, they were forced to
continue their transmissions in their own handwriting. The transmission
of German Funkspiel messages to London (or, in one parallel case, to
Moscow) lured additional agents into the Abwehr trap. Normally, intelligence
agencies arrange emergency signals with their agents for such situations,
“ such as using an old code, making absurd mistakes, or inserting
or omitting certain letters of punctuation. Each Morse message of the
converted agents was taped, analyzed, and, if need be, manipulated before
it was transmitted.(Kittler, 1999)

So the first hackers started in the German Abwehr! Today we would call this cyber warfare, and a civilian context “fake news”, distributed by civilian media for political purposes as we could observe over the last few years. The latest bombshell came from the German news magazine Der Spiegel, who has admitted that one of its top reporters has faked stories for several years.

In fact, the boundaries between military intelligence warfare and civilian propaganda have become blurred, as they probably always were. Reuters reported that “hackers began exposing the Scotland-based ‘Integrity Initiative’ as a UK government-funded propaganda outfit” running disinformation campaigns not only against Russia but even against Her Majesty’s leader of the opposition, Jeremy Corbyn (RT, 2018).

The military’s role in the Hollywood media complex is also well documented…EXCLUSIVE: Documents expose how Hollywood promotes war on behalf of the Pentagon, CIA and NSA (Secker & Alford, 2017).US military intelligence agencies have influenced over 1,800 movies and TV shows.

Kittler was quite frank about his political stance in 2006, interviewed by John Armitage.

For whenever we European intellectuals attempt to analyze the ideology of the American Empire we are always in need of a strong antidote against the US shallow and often rather silly talk about the virtues of American democracy. Let us examine, as you propose, the case of the US ongoing war on Iraq. Is it not obvious that the American Empire, at present in a critical economic situation, would want to control the second biggest oil field on the planet? So, for me, the US war on Iraq is mostly about oil, even if a good part of it is also about helping America’s friend, Israel, to pursue its goals in the Middle East.

In conclusion, Kittler insisted that “I believe that war is at least the mother of
all high-speed information and communications technologies.”
He applauded US President Dwight Eisenhower [who]” spoke brilliantly when he
coined the term military-industrial complex, for he saw immediately the
connections between war, technology, and commerce,”
so Kittler.

For him, the “shift from telegraphy to tank radio to computer and on to the interception of coded radio commands was not a simple story of free human agents fighting against each other but also the story of military technology.”

Certainly, media technologies were invented and created by scientists and engineers, funded privately or through universities. However, the moment these inventions turned out to be useful for the military, funding came rolling in and generous government support was granted, boosting massive further development. The decisive role of the military in all countries in the development of media technologies and techniques will continue into the future, in particular for technologies such as AI and robotics.


Armitage, J. (2006). From discourse networks to cultural mathematics: An interview with Friedrich A. Kittler. Theory, Culture & Society 23 (7–8): 17–38. Retrieved from http://tcs.sagepub.com/content/23/7-8/17

Kittler, F., & Winthrop-Young, G. (Trans.). (1999). Gramophone, film, typewriter. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Kittler, F. (1996). The history of communication media. CTheory, Ga114. Retrieved July 4, 2012, from http://www.ctheory.net/articles.aspx?id=45

Secker, T. & Alford, M. (2017, July 4). EXCLUSIVE: Documents expose how Hollywood promotes war on behalf of the Pentagon, CIA and NSA
US military intelligence agencies have influenced over 1,800 movies and TV shows. Retrieved from https://medium.com/insurge-intelligence/exclusive-documents-expose-direct-us-military-intelligence-influence-on-1-800-movies-and-tv-shows-36433107c307

Weinberger, C. (2012). The cold model of structure: Friedrich Kittler interviewed by Christoph Weinberger. Cultural Politics, 8, 3–375- 384. DOI: 10.1215/17432197–1722109

Winthrop-Young, G. (2011). Kittler and the media. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press.