Crystal Radio

Written by Mélanie Jung

The pictures above show the crystal radio (Detektorempfänger) that can be found among the exhibits at the Musée des enrôlés de force (Museum of Forced Conscripts) in Dudelange. It is a very modest and simple item, its exterior being made simply from pieces of wood. According to the museum, this radio was used during the Second World War in a bunker close to the village of Kaundorf in north-western Luxembourg. In this bunker, Luxembourgers who refused to enlist in the German Army hid from the wrath of the Nazis. With the crystal radio, the young men were able to listen to British radio broadcasts from the BBC. The item was later donated by a certain Nic Peters to the museum and has been part of its collection ever since.

Crystal radios in the early days

The crystal radio was invented at the beginning of the 20th century when the concept of radio broadcasting was still new. At the time, it was the simplest and easiest way of receiving a radio connection. More modern and sophisticated devices, much more similar to the radios we are now used to, soon came to dominate the market. But crystal radios had a fresh impetus once the Second World War was over, as the economy was so bad that many people could only afford a crystal radio and not a more complex radio set. During the war, crystal radios were popular as well. Since they did not need an outside electricity supply to function, they were extremely practical and could easily be used in bunkers, just like the one from the museum in Dudelange. Furthermore, crystal radios were easy to build, and even civilians could make their own with only a few components – something that was clearly highly useful during wartime.

Kaundorf bunker

In the above-mentioned bunker close to Kaundorf, four Luxembourgers who refused to join the German Army hid from Whit Sunday 1944 until the liberation of Luxembourg by the Allied forces. Previously, they had been in hiding in the Nickel-Jans family home.[1] However, there was not just one bunker in the vicinity of Kaundorf: All in all, there were five, built by Luxembourgish resistance groups during the occupation to hide men wishing to avoid German military service. One of these bunkers, named “an der Runschelt”, was restored in 1987. There now stands a memorial plaque in honour of all the people who helped Luxembourgers avoiding forced conscription to hide from the Nazis.[2] The bunker can still be visited nowadays. For the men in hiding, a crystal radio must have been a huge blessing in those troubled times. As the device did not need an external power source, it could easily be used in their bunker, which was located in a forest. The fact that one could only listen to the radio with headphones was actually an advantage for the young Luxembourgers, since it did not make any noise and consequently did not draw attention to their bunker, thus helping to save their lives. In any case, since they only used the radio at night, the chances of someone roaming around the forest were slim.

The use of crystal radios during the Second World War

Crystal radios played an important role in everyday life for many Luxembourgers during the Second World War. This was especially the case because the Germans confiscated all regular radio devices at the beginning of the Nazi occupation as part of their efforts to prevent the population from listening to enemy radio stations (Feindsender) such as the BBC. A limited number of people were given a Volksempfänger radio receiver by the Nazis. This device was wired in such a way that it could only receive nearby stations, all of which were German propaganda radio stations. It was impossible to listen to the BBC or other non-German radio stations with a Volksempfänger. This is why many people went looking for their old crystal radios instead, or even built one themselves to be able to receive stations such as the BBC. However, it was strictly forbidden to listen to enemy radio stations and listeners were severely punished for violations. Listening to such stations could result in a prison sentence, and spreading news from an enemy radio station was punishable by death. Still, this did not stop most Luxembourgers. Many accepted the risks in order to hear British coverage of the course of the war instead of the German propaganda. Moreover, many Luxembourgers were also longing to hear the voice of Grand Duchess Charlotte, who regularly spoke to her people through the BBC.

For Luxembourgers who went into hiding to avoid Germany military conscription, a crystal radio was most certainly even more significant than it was for other people in Luxembourg. They were living completely isolated in the forest and could only receive news through the crystal radio. It prevented them from being entirely in the dark and informed them about what was going on in the world. The devices must have been a source of hope for the men as well. They had refused military service in the Wehrmacht, which made them traitors in the eyes of the Nazis, and they were thus wanted by the Germans. Their only hope was a German defeat by the Allied forces, which would allow them to leave the bunker and continue with their lives. Thanks to the crystal radio the men were able to keep up with the course of the war and hear about the Allies’ progress against Nazi Germany. This must have given them hope. Without the device they would not have been able to listen to the latest news of the war from the BBC and their lives would undoubtedly have been even more terrible and miserable than they already were.

[1] Visit Luxembourg. “Bunker Kaundorf”. Visit Luxembourg. 2020.  https://www.visitluxembourg.com/en/place/misc/bunker-kaundorf (Accessed: 24.05.2020)

[2] Op. cit.

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