Jazz: An Anti-fascist Tool
Before jazz became the laid back music it is generally recognized as today, it served as a counter cultural movement and means of protest. Ordained by former slaves in the southern United States, jazz emigrated to Europe, where it was thrown into to chaotic post-war turmoil. With the rise of European totalitarianism, jazz represented democratic American ideals that were detestable to autocratic regimes. Adolf Hitler and his Nazis held particular contempt for this free form genre, labeling it ‘degenerate music.’ Jazz, as a genre, ideology, and countercultural movement helped to destabilize Nazi cultural legitimacy through its national popularity, uses as an anti fascist tool of rebellion, and even through the Nazis’ own use.
In the 1920s’ and 30s,’ jazz had a huge impact on German society. In these years, this modern genre gained popular approval, but was still detested by the ruling class. Jazz found its way into the newly established German Republic mainly through the influx of American tourists. These Americans in Germany to reap the benefits of postwar inflation, brought with them jazz bars, clubs, and cabarets. Berlin, Germany’s capital and international hub, adopted this foreign and promiscuous dance music. Jazz was therapeutic to the invalid Germans, as acts like Josephine Baker and Paul Whiteman were able to distract the populace from the horrors of hyperinflation (Ostendorf 61). This improvisational artform also had ideological benefits as it symbolized a free, uncensored and globalized future. To the Berliners, this new music, so free in form, symbolized modernity and Germany's first era sans monarchy. Jazz proved not to be a phase, gaining popularity through music halls, radio stations, record sales and appeal to the younger generation. With newfound popularity, jazz institutionalized itself as a social and economic stimulant in a poor post-war nation.
Though enjoyed by many, jazz immediately created an ideological rift among the German populace. Well before the Nazis, jazz had been detested by far right German nationalists, labeling it an American “spiritual assault on European culture” (Large 213). By 1931, before Nazi seizure of power, major American and British jazz artists fled the German capital due to xenophobic Berliners. The Nazis inherited and radicalized this temperament. For them, the root of this disdain lay in jazz’s ethnic roots in the post slavery African American experience. Like many other groups and parties at this time, the Nazis considered Africans genetically inferior to Germans. These prejudices, alongside the Jewish popularization and the American capitalization of the genre turned jazz into a symbolic representation of three of Nazi Germany’s greatest enemies.
German sovereignty, now under Nazi control, had a nationalistic idea of what subjects should listen to. This required the creation of the Reich Music Chamber, a branch of the greater Reich Culture Chamber. The purpose of this specific chamber was to promote real German music, reminiscent of names like Beethoven, Bach, and Brahms. The central German musician who the chamber sought to imitate was Richard Wagner, a 19th century composer who used Germanic folklore to write his Operas. An incredible composer, Wagner reinvented German musical standards. His affiliation with German nationalist groups and his anti-semitic rhetoric made him a perfect ideologue for the Nazis. Jazz music contained no völkisch elements and, with its unmarchable “qualities of atonality and rhythmic chaos,” served no propaganda purposes to the Reich (Kater 14). Overall this new Reich desired a music that would homogenize German culture while jazz naturally diversified and modernized everything it touched.
The Nazis ultimately wanted to eliminate this degenerate music, which so represented their ethnic and ideological enemies, but first they sought to tame it. Leading this campaign was the Nazi Minister of Propaganda, Joseph Goebbels. In 1933, the regime’s first year in power, Goebbels enlisted the Reich Music Chamber to take a registry of all performing musicians in Germany. Through this registry the government took up a “policy of excluding artists on the basis of race” (Large 284). This chamber praised German musicians, while Jewish artists (many of prominence), were forced to emigrate due to lack of work. Anti-jazz propaganda flooded the streets of German cities, portraying jazz musicians as monkeys and stressing the poisonous aspects of the music. Despite early prohibitions, Goebbels took a liberal stance on jazz for the 1936 Olympics held in Berlin. This false air attempted to show the international community the harmlessness of the Nazi ideologies. When the Nazis empirical intentions were revealed Goebbels officially outlawed jazz in 1938 (Ostendorf 63). Fruitless enforcement and apathetic inspectors allowed jazz to continue as an underground countercultural movement.
Through the appointment of international star and composer, Richard Strauss, as president of the Reich Music Chamber, the Nazi regime gained musical and cultural legitimacy. Strauss, though not a member of the Nazi party, wanted to take “steps in the direction of the reconstruction of our total German musical life” (ORT). This legitimacy diminished with increasing hostilities towards jazz. The laws and constraints against jazz music were against popular opinion, but the Nazis were willing to take the risk, as jazz epitomized liberal ideologies from Britain and the United States. Though successful in ousting Jewish, British, and American jazz musicians, the Nazis made a martyr out of jazz, turning the movement into a popular anti-fascist tool of rebellion.
Jazz loving Germans from all over the nation used jazz as a medium of protest and resistance against the Nazis. A popular movement of resistance against the Reich came from student organizations known as the Swing Jugend, or Swing Youth. These middle class adolescent groups, despite bans, regularly listened to jazz radio, banned records, drank alcohol and smoked cigarettes. Their influence rescued the jazz scene in major cities through the attendance of jazz clubs and private parties. When jazz was outlawed from playing on German radio, these youths turned to the BBC radio station (Willett 159). While listening to BBC radio, German youths not only got their jazz fix, but found a medium and channel for non German news. Swing Youth groups, inspired by the foreign newstream, “devoted themselves to the distribution of anti-Hitler handbills and other conspiratorial activities” including street brawls with Hitler Youth (Kater 39). Swing Youths, despite Nazi intervention, kept jazz alive throughout various German towns and cities.
A group known for its more extreme rebellious tactics was the Edelweiss Pirates. The working class equivalent of the Swing Youth, these pirates gathered in the German countryside, where they “sang new lyrics to commercial [jazz] hits and protest versions of folk and hiking songs” (Willett 158). These songs demonstrated their favor of modern music, while simultaneously mocking what the ReichsMusikKammer referred to as ‘real German music.’ Unlike the Swing Youth, the Edelweiss Pirates grew more extreme, actively resisting the Nazis. These forms of resistance ranged from hiding deserters and exiles, to riots and violence against senior Gestapo officials. Movements like these offered alternative identities to children in Hitler's Germany, while also enabling them to use jazz as a form of rebellion.
Large companies and businesses soon joined the liberal German youth, using jazz as a means of rebellion. In 1933, when the initial ban on non German music still allowed German jazz, recording labels camouflaged American, British and Jewish titles, allowing them to continue selling international jazz. One company to effectively do this was the Alberti Record Label, who germanized Benny Goodman labels to hide his Judo-American heritage (Kater 21). Camouflaging labels inspired independent artists to try and use this same trick, as Jewish artists forged labels to imply neutral or satellite state origins, like Switzerland and Sweden. Advertisements for jazz persisted throughout this era, as companies rejected the Nazi cultural policy. In 1938, as wartime fervor was heating up, a Berlin based record label, Electrola, shamelessly displayed an advertisement for “Duke Ellington’s ‘Caravan,’ performed by Ady Rosner, a Berlin-born Jew” (Kater 21). Though these large companies were rebelling against the economic sanctions set by the Nazi party, their impact spread jazz ideologies and proved the Nazis vincible.
Jazzy forces of rebellion were not limited to internal insurrection. American and British organizations and institutions played a major role in implanting jazz into Germany. The British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) continuously streamed their broadcasts into Germans and “could be tuned in by all manner of privately owned receiver” (Kater 16). Not only did this offer anti fascist Germans another source of news and entertainment, but also forced Goebbels to reinstate jazz on German radio stations. Fearing the competing signals of Britain, French, Dutch, and American radio, the Germans decided that if there would be any jazz, it might as well be their jazz.
This connection to German radio listeners proved vital as the allies slowly joined forces to fight fascism. Goebbels, as Minister of Propaganda, had outlawed jazz in all forms in 1938; now jazz truly could only be found through foreign radio signals. When Britain joined the war in 1939, it used this channel to feed antinazi propaganda to the German populace. Before the war, if BBC jazz content appeared anti fascist, the British “now made a point of introducing its anti-Hitler messages through hot music and swing” (Kater 31). British propaganda was forced into Germany so violently that it acted as a “weapon which had never been employed on such a scale and so ruthlessly in the past (Smith 101). Allied, and most importantly, British propaganda would not have reached German ears without their monopoly on jazz radio waves.
While the British used jazz to inject propaganda into German minds, the American aim for the spread of jazz was more purely ideological. In the years following the Great War, the United States had become a global superpower and the embodiment of a free state. In these same years, jazz became “the incarnation of freedom, democracy, and individualism” (Ostendorf 64). With themes like improvisation, individual solos, group cooperation and internationalism, jazz was a progressive music and could be used to modernize states. Jazz spread these ideas and motifs throughout Europe as the American effort to democratize the world had begun.
The final way that jazz hurt Nazi cultural legitimacy was through the Nazis’ own poor enforcement of anti-jazz laws and manipulation of jazz. The root of their problem lay in the concise wording of these musical laws. Laws placed on musical restriction attempted to contain the wild music stating: “pieces in foxtrot rhythm (so-called swing) are not to exceed 20% of the repertoires of light orchestras and dance bands” and that “so-called jazz compositions may contain at most 10% syncopation” (Gould). This lack of a definition of what was truly ‘jazz’, allowed jazz to exists despite restrictions and rules.
In realizing that they could not extinguish the fire that was jazz, the Nazi regime attempted to profit from it. Nazi “leaders attempted to create their own, watered-down version” of the genre (Kater 24). This angered both liberal and fascist Germans. The former hated the germanized jazz because it lacked the ingenuity and improvisation of foreign jazz. The latter was disappointed in their sovereign for stooping to the level of degenerate music.
The most desperate Nazi attempt at making propagandic jazz can be seen in the form of the 1940 band Charlie and his Orchestra. Made up entirely of German musicians, this propaganda machine would rearrange standard jazz lyrics, making the songs parallel their Nazi German rhetoric. One standard, Goodnight Sweetheart, had it’s lyrics changed to “Goodbye, England, your golden days are over; Goodbye, England, German guns are shelling Dover” (Kater 34). Like those of the BBC, these airwaves were able to reach enemy soil, playing on English radios every Wednesday night.
Thanks to jazz's widespread popularity, the Reich could not simply ban jazz in Germany. Ironically, this beautiful art form was most loved by the men fighting for its destruction: German soldiers. Even when a full ban on jazz went into effect with Goebbels’ 1943 declaration of total war, German military “stations simply carried on with the old [radio] schedule, so much loved by the combat troops” (Kater 32). Goebbels was able to use jazz to amuse and divert troops through German and international jazz groups. Nazi use of jazz, despite their own bans and deterrents, exposed their idealistic hypocrisy, proving a dwindling cultural legitimacy.
Oftentimes, a soldier’s love of jazz would conquer his Nazi ideologies. This was the case for high ranking Nazi officer Dietrich Schulz-Köhn. Schulz-Köhn, stationed in Paris, became a jazz fanatic, attending ‘Hot Clubs’ and meeting musicians like Django Reinhardt. Though jazz was labeled degenerate music, an ideological paradox formed, where young Nazis couldn’t decide if “jazz was a child of ‘modernism’ and hence degenerate, or of Henry Ford's modernization and hence in tune with the Aufbruch” (Ostendorf 64). Schulz-Köhn chose jazz and used his high position to protect Parisienne jazz artists. He continued his rebellion, even creating and distributed a jazz journal to fellow soldiers, entitled Jazz News. Objectively defiant, this journal featured “black players like Benny Carter [and] the Jewish clarinetist Artie Shaw” (Kater 42). Soldiers’ passion for jazz conquering their xenophobic ideologie damaged the Nazi regime and their attempted monopoly on culture. These passions were fuelled by musically ignorant Nazis and the authorization of jazz for soldiers.
Though beaten and damaged from the tides of World War II, jazz survived and in doing so rejected Nazis cultural ideologies. Popular opinion of jazz grew in the roaring 20’’ and the Weimar 30’s, causing widespread anger at the Nazi party’s selective and xenophobic views of music. Both it’s Nazi detestation and popular appreciation transformed jazz into a means of rebellion. Used by German citizens, Allies and even Nazis themselves, rebellion through the medium of jazz defied the Nazi definition of ‘Pure Music’. Having troubles both economically and practically with enforcing anti jazz laws, the Nazis attempted to use jazz in their favor. The extent to which jazz was able to destabilize Nazi cultural legitimacy proves the power that music has as protest music and a countercultural movement.
Gould, J.J. “Josef Skvorecky on the Nazis' Control-Freak Hatred of Jazz.” The Atlantic, Atlantic Media Company, 3 Jan. 2012, www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2012/01/josef-skvorecky-nazis-jazz/250837/.
Kater, Michael H. “Forbidden Fruit? Jazz in the Third Reich.” The American Historical Review, vol. 94, no. 1, 1989. JSTOR [JSTOR], doi:10.2307/1862076.
Large, David Clay. Berlin. Penguin, 2002.
ORT, World. “Reichskulturkammer and Reichsmusikkammer.” Music and the Holocaust, holocaustmusic.ort.org/politics-and-propaganda/third-reich/reichskulturkammer/.
Ostendorf, Berndt. “Subversive Reeducation? Jazz as a Liberating Force in Germany and Europe.” Revue Française D'études Américaines. JSTOR [JSTOR], http://www.jstor.org/stable/20874822.
Smith, Paul A. On Political War. National Defense Univ. Press, 1989.
Willett, Ralph. “Hot Swing and the Dissolute Life: Youth, Style and Popular Music in Europe 1939â49.” Popular Music, vol. 8, no. 02, 1989, p. 157. JSTOR [JSTOR], doi:10.1017/s0261143000003342.