Start German War Letters Links
   Research projects Postal Censorship Bibliography
   The Collection Database Selected Letters War letters as love letters Contact Us
» Deutsche Version

Katrin Kilian:
Postal Censorship from 1939 to 1945

Censorship in connection with war letters is a special feature of war. In any warffaring country it is part of postal communication. It was also practised during World War One. In the Third Reich censorship was one of the strictest, apart from the Japanese and Russian censorship. During the Second World War censorship focused at first on counter-intelligence and gradually shifted to ideological aspects. By means of propaganda efforts were made to bring National-Socialist ideology into the letters. The letters were intended to serve as "weapon". In almost all media changing censorship conditions were discussed and model letters were presented. Efforts were made to influence the authors as to what they write. The letters from home were not to contain any gossip or problems. From the war zone only positive information was to be communicated interspersed with morale-boosting slogans.

Propaganda and war letters are closely interrelated. The state tried to influence the writings of the war letter authors with the aid of propaganda instruments. In the documents for the soldiers at the front the intelligence regulations relating to war letters were pointed out. It was not permitted to communicate details of the service unit such as composition, size, location, name of superiors and comrades, equipment and arms, military intentions, details of position and losses; no flyers or propaganda material were to be mailed. No commodities were to be requested from home for the purpose of selling them to the population in the occupied territories. It was permitted to write in shorthand but not the use of the Morse code or mirror writing or other secret codes. Only European languages were permitted. It was not allowed to take photos of important military objects or of executions and atrocities committed by the enemy. It was not permitted to develop films abroad or in occupied territories. Letters were not to be exchanged with the enemy abroad; an exception was made for German prisoners of war. Foreign exchange was not to be sent to members of the army.

The censors only controlled a small portion of the letters. Censorship however received a lot of attention in the media. This could have had the effect that to the soldiers it appeared to be more powerful than it actually was. But it was found in research studies that a major part of the soldiers voiced their opinions quite frankly and unimpressed by censorship rules. The mail volume was so large that it must have been clear to them that censorship could be exercised only by taking samples.

On 12 March 1940 the censorship authorities took up their work. The basis for the control of the contents of war letters was the "Ordinance on Communication". Information on troops and their position, description of morale or the mailing of pictures were subject to secrecy regulations.

The purpose of censorship was the prevention of espionage and "subversion". The following contents were not permitted to be communicated:

  1. Information on facts in the army which were subject to secrecy,
  2. Rumours of all types,
  3. Photos and pictures of all types which are subject to secrecy regulations,
  4. Propaganda by the enemies (flyers),
  5. Critical comments on measures taken by the army and the government of the "Reich",
  6. Statements raising the suspicion of espionage, sabotage and "subversion".

When a letter was censored and selected, it was at first marked "for further processing" and forwarded to the intelligence officer. Critical comments constituted the Offence "subversion" under National-Socialist law and the perpetrator could be punished with imprisonment, penitentiary or death sentence. Although the contents of private letters could not be compared to subversive activities and there was no legal basis for prosecution, the total numbers of sentences due to "subversion" against the authors of war letters is estimated at 30,000 to 40,000.

Reports on the morale which were written by the control officers prove the ideological use of the letters. The letters by the soldiers which were checked by the censors were analysed. The following categories were established: "Attitude and morale", "State of discipline", "secrecy", "subversion" and "espionage and sabotage". The reports on the morale provided an insight into the inner life of the army.

The mail of the generals of an army, military units and the ministers of the Reich government were not censored. Excluded from censorship were telegrams by authorities, corporations, institutions under public law and public institutes (e.g. chambers, hospitals) and offices of the National-Socialist Party.

Supervision rested with the censors in the Supreme Command of the army, not the postal Administration of the Reich. The inspections offices were the executive censors' organs, the war letter institutions were responsible for forwarding the letters for censoring.

The inspection offices examined the war letters by taking samples according to exact instructions. The personnel of an inspection office was made up of a head, four officers and 14 sergeants. The officers were exclusively charge of officers' mail, i.e. mail by higher ranks. The sergeants examined the letters of the lower ranks. The rank of the author of a letter was indicated in the senders' address.

The inspection personnel opened the letters by means of scissors. Then they were sealed with tapes bearing the stamp "Opened - Inspection office", so that it was clear to the recipient that the letter had been checked. Postcards were stamped "Inspected - Inspection Office", Telegrams were also examined for preventing espionage.

According to the Geneva Convention every prisoner of war has the right to send or receive mail without charge. The mail by prisoners of war and internees was subjected to very strict censorship regulations. The mail sent to countries controlled by the enemy were controlled both by the camp inspection office (members of the SS) and the censors of the supreme command of the army. Each camp maintained its own inspection office. In disciplinary, extermination and concentration camps the postcards, sheets and envelopes were all formalised. The incoming and outgoing mail was subjected to a very strict censorship. Prohibition of receiving and sending mail was a punishment in the camps. Before the prisoners were handed out their mail it was controlled by the public prosecutor, the prison office or the camp director. Limitation of the exchange of correspondence always meant a denial of basic human rights.

Censorship continued to exist until the end of the Second World War.