How ‘Antenna Sharing Circles’ Bypassed Banned TV Channels During East-Germany’s Dictatorship

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In the communist state of the GDR, citizens longed for a taste of freedom and a glimpse of the world beyond their borders. The only way to do so was through the West German television program, broadcast from the powerful Ochsenkopf transmitter on the Bavarian mountain.

So called “Westfernsehen” was illegal in the GDR and watching the West German channels prohibited. However, the GDR regime couldn’t prevent the signals to spread over the boarder and decided to tolerate the people’s demand for better TV.

But obtaining this precious commodity was not easy. The GDR government tried everything in its power to stop its citizens from receiving these signals, including repression and jamming transmitters.

However, the people of the GDR were determined and resourceful. They started building their own antennas, first industrially manufactured by RFT and later through self-construction using half-wave dipoles. Despite the government’s efforts, the antennas were soon everywhere, adorning the roofs of houses and the interiors of homes.

In regions with particularly difficult reception conditions, local antenna communities were formed, where interested citizens organized the construction of an antenna system and distributed the signal to households by cable. Municipal and cooperative housing authorities also offered their tenants the opportunity to watch West German television.

But the state’s attempts to stop this did not end there. Even as late as the 1970s, individual initiative was required to receive the signal, and reception in state institutions remained officially prohibited. Nevertheless, many of these shared antenna systems remained, often tacitly tolerated by the authorities.

That is, until 1977, when several apartment blocks were built in Neustadt an der Orla, and an antenna system was installed that distributed both GDR and West German television stations. The quality was up to the standards of the time, and it was assumed that this was not an accident or an unintentional broadcast, but one of the first installations, not only tolerated but actively set up, in which “West television” was taken into account.

As the years went by and the Berlin Wall came down, the need for these antennas faded away with the advent of cable television. But for a time, the Ochsenkopf antenna was a symbol of the people’s struggle for freedom and their longing for a glimpse of the world beyond their borders.

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