Telephone Tapping in the 1930s

By Andreas Marklund

22. Dec. 2009

The debate on telephone tapping began in the 1930's when the state really began to listen in - however, only with some trouble as the instruments crackled and the signal was weakened when the police intruded on the line. In those days as well as now the tapping represented a democratic dilemma. 

Copy of letter dated 20th October 1939 from the security police to the chief constable in Kolding by which the security police asks for information about a subscriber's long-distance calls. 

On 30th August 1939, the management of Jydsk Telefon Aktieselskab, JTAS, received an indignant letter from a local subscriber who suspected that his telephone was tapped. The instrument had behaved strangely for a couple of days. First of all the signal was very "weak" whenever the subscriber tried to call somebody in South Jutland.  His friends and acquaintances had experienced the same phenomenon. A friend in Kolding had even ended up with Aalborg CID when he picked up the receiver and the voice at the other end had asked the astounding question: "Is this Kolding Police Station?"

The subscriber, who was a lawyer, wrote with some authority. He demanded a clear answer from the telephone company: Had his phone been "controlled by the police or others in compliance with a warrant or the Regulations concerning Telephone Tapping or as a matter of course" during the last year? As a "good Danish citizen" he took offence and was contemplating to make the matter a case for the Parliament via his political contacts.

JTAS replied already on 1st September. Two days earlier the director had consulted Finn Hoskiær, head of department in the Ministry of Public Works. The subject was sensitive and the director did not want to be alone with the responsibility.

"As there has previously been a good deal of commotion in connection with the tapping question, I would be grateful if you would consider what is right so that I could call you sometime tomorrow to hear your point of view."

In their letter of reply JTAS announced that it was "completely unknown to the company" that secret tapping of the telephone line in question should have taken place and the subscriber was consequently recommended to contact the police. The wording had been carefully deliberated. On the internal copy in the JTAS archives it has been noted that the letter is composed "as above in agreement with head of department Hoskiær" on 30th August 1939.    

Logging off telecommunication data in the year 1939. List of all suspicious long-distance calls made by a dubious subscriber between 1st September 1938 and 23rd October 1939, accomplished by JTAS by order of the security police. 

Dangerous to National Security            The case may seem odd today, but an important piece is missing which may throw a partly explanatory light on it. The subscriber was not only a lawyer; he was also a well-known Nazi. As he wrote in his letter of complaint, he was a "member of party leader Fritz Clausen's staff in The Danish National Socialist Workers' Party". Moreover, he was editor of the National Socialist party organ, "The Fatherland".

It is therefore not unlikely that the subscriber was right - that his private telephoneline was actually tapped. The men behind the letter of reply probably knew about this; at least the respondent head of department. In August 1934, the General Directorate of Posts and Telegraphs had drawn up a conficential circular letter about monitoring of telegrams and telephone conversations which "may be considered dangerous to national security or stir up trouble in the country." The category comprised all telecommunication "considered to concern the Communist or Nazi movements in this country". Suspicious telegrams should be sent to the authorities in four copies and telephone conversations should be reported in writing. In separate letters to the local offices specific clients were singled out for the staff to monitor, among these Fritz Clausen and the chair man of "Friends of the Soviet Union", but also communist and Nazi editorial offices.  

Europe in Flames

The worried telephone subscriber belonged to an extremist party which was considered a threat against national security by the authorities. The time of the complaint is also significant. On 1st September 1939 - the same day as the JTAS posted their letter of reply - German tanks rolled into Poland. Two days later, World War II was reality, when France and Great Britain declared war on Germany.

War flamed up in Europe and the smoke blew dangerously close to the Danish border. For reasons of security policy it would therefore have been almost irresponsible not to keep the leadership of the Danish Nazi party under close surveillance. At the same time it should be considered that the DNSAP was a legal party with parliamentary representation. It was no big party, but at the elections in 1939 Fritz Clausen's Danish Nazis after all got 31,032 votes and three seats in Parliament; i.e. it was elected politicians and their party workers that the authorities were spying against - by means of the staff of the national telegraph stations and telephone exchanges.   

Surveillance Now and Then

History has many parallels to our present-day surveillance debate; individuals, who feel bullied by state authorities, fear of extremist groups and "internal terrorists", and national security interest which are to be balanced against the principles of the constitutional state and the democratic rights of the citizens.

It should also be noticed that telecommunication plays a very important role in connection with surveillance and espionage in modern society. As it appears from the contact between JTAS and the Ministry of Public Works, this may sometimes put the telecommunication operators in some very precarious situations. Accusations of tapping or disappearing messages have always been very serious in the telecommunication business; not least because they impair the clients' confidence. Consequently, there are also many examples of Danish telecommunication operators who are today protesting against the demands from various authorities for interference in the country's teletraffic. 

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