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Essay on Jazz in Nazi Germany

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The German Nazi Party has lived on in infamy as one of the greatest tragedies of the 20th century. Few things compare to the horror of the Jewish Holocaust brought about by the racist ideology and practices of this tyrannical political movement. Any reasonable person in the 21st century looks back and wonders, ‘How could this have happened?’. ‘How could an entire country in the modern world be complicit in the execution of over 11 million people, many of which were their own?’.

Due to this lingering question, many have taken to the study of the German culture of the time to find answers. It is vital to understand who the German people were at the time they elected Adolf Hitler into power to understand how such a tragedy could take place. It is also important to understand how the German people resisted such a transformation of their country and identity, as this resistance shows elements of the German people that stood up against the Nazi regime and its devastation.

Perhaps one of the more significant, yet less talked about, forms of resistance against Nazi power was the enjoyment and performance of jazz music during the Third Reich. Jazz, a distinctly American genre of music, became a point of contention amongst the German people and the Nazi Party during the Third Reich, and many Germans enjoyed local jazz music despite the threat of punishment from their government. The question then arises: ‘Why did the Germans listen to jazz music, despite this threat?’. During the Third Reich, Germans listened to jazz as a means of resistance, both against the Nazi ideology, as well as the oppression of individual preference. This resistance shows the lack of total support of Nazi ideology by the German people.

The German people have long been proud of their music, and they often regard music as the ‘most German art’. When thinking of what composers are distinctly German, one often thinks of what Applegate and Potter refer to as the catechism of the three B’s—Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms. However, these scholars note that the idea of a particular music style being inherently ‘German’ often wasn’t in the minds of the composers themselves, but rather a result of later German people looking back, searching for a distinct German identity. The idea of the German people struggling to find an identity is found in many parts of the nation’s history, and is perhaps one of the main motifs in the rise of the Nazi Party: the Nazis providing a distinct identity.

As Germany grew in national identity during the 19th century, conductors, musicians, writers, and others began to write and solidify what they considered true ‘German music’. The great German composers of earlier, including Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms, were lauded as an ideal for German music. This status carried over into future composers in the late 19th and early 20th century, including Richard Wagner and Richard Strauss, the latter of which became an important official in the Nazi Reich Music Chamber.

Some music scholars attempted to study and summarize German music history into distinct styles or elements. In light of a project on mapping German music heritage beginning in 1924, historian Hugo Riemann concluded “that German musical output could not be identified by specific musical characteristics but rather by a distinctly German approach to composition that could be traced to a longstanding tradition of thorough musical training” (Applegate and Potter, 22).

On the other hand, some Germans were so caught up in German nationalism during this time, that they sought to find a distinctly German music style and prove its superiority over other art forms, both in history and in the current era. This led some, including Hans Pfitzner, to become obsessed with stopping German music from becoming modernized by such atrocities such as American jazz. In 1926, musicologist Peter Raabe “sounded the death knell for German music…echoing the prewar polemics of Pfitzner in his querulous lamenting that German character was in more danger than ever before: ‘Negro dance bands’… flourished while German opera…languished” (Applegate and Potter, 23).

During the post-war Weimar Republic, music became an important part of the German life. As the economy fluctuated and the people were plagued with hyperinflation, the nation experienced a sort of cultural ‘golden age’, as Germans used money freely since its value was unclear. However, the government of the Weimar Republic did not have the financial resources to encourage German musicianship, and, according to Applegate and Potter, “the Nazi administration raised the social, economic, and professional status of musicians to an unprecedented level and rescued several musical institutions—opera houses, orchestras, even the Bayreuth festival—from financial ruin”. However, as musicians become more influenced and financed by the state, the cultural and musical freedom of Weimar Germany began to come to a close, as the Nazis used music to promote a racialized view of music and what it meant for the German national identity.

Part of the cultural freedom in Weimar Germany was the increase in jazz listening among the German citizens. Similar to Americans, swing music infected the ear of the German people and became very popular. The ‘jazz fever’ was not as strong in Germany as it was in America, but it certainly was present.

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However, the relationship between Germans and jazz began to change as the Nazis rose to power. To the Nazis, the African origin and Jewish influences of jazz music was the “very archetype of Weimar decadence” (Levy, 476). Hans Severus Ziegler, a Nazi Party official and cultural director, was known as being particularly opinionated about jazz as a detriment to German society. At an exhibition he presented in Düsseldorf, titled ‘Degenerate Music’, a poster was displayed, stating: “We see jazz musicians as the most dangerous destroyers of our racial instincts as a Volk. Our instinct is to see what is clear, what is pure, genuine, and organically grown; and we will oppose these driftless, rootless charlatans from the highest posts in the nation!” (‘The Theoreticians of Atonality!’, 1938). Ziegler was adamant that jazz—the ‘atonality’ movement, as he dubs it—was the product of Jews and Africans as a form of undermining German culture.

Wulf Bley, a member of the Nazi Party and a magazine writer, wrote an article in Rufer und Hörer (Caller and Listener), titled ‘Is It Jazz or Just Radio Dance Tunes?’. In this article, Bley analyzes popular music at the time (1934), including jazz, and concludes: “The primary characteristic of hit-parade music is not lust for life but rather that bizarre mix of hideous unpleasantries and off-key, unmelodic kitsch that is nothing but one long appeal to the shaken instincts of the masses… A Strauss waltz goes ‘straight to your toes’— that is, it makes you want to dance—but the music of the hit parade speaks to very different physical needs. And the fact that the masses can dance to it makes the matter ever worse”.

As the Nazi Party continued to reign and influence German culture, the racialized views of jazz began to grow. Carl Hannemann wrote in Music in the Youth and the People an article titled ‘Jazz as a Weapon of Jewry and Americanism’, where he references ‘Jonny spielt auf’, a German opera about an African violin player that was especially popular during the age of Weimar cultural freedom for which the Nazis had such disdain. In this article, Hannemann opens with a description of the final scene of this opera: “In the last scene of the jazz opera ‘Johnny Strikes Up the Band’ by Ernst Krenek, the son-in-law of the Jew Gustav Mahler, there is a huge, slowly rotating globe, large enough to cover most of the stage. Johnny the Negro is perched atop the globe playing his fiddle. On the ground all around the globe, at the feet of the Negro Johnny, the whole white race dances to jazz. The last refrain is ‘So Johnny strikes up the band. Here comes the new world across the sea, to put the dance in old Europe’s knee’” (49). Hannemann then begins the next paragraph: “This prophecy of the Jews and their sympathizers has come to full fruition” (49). To an American audience in the 21st century, it may seem absurd that Hannemann drew such a racialized and despicable conclusion from a seemingly innocent scene in a German opera. However, for Hannemann and other Nazi Germans, this scene struck incredible fear into their minds. They saw this scene as a prophecy of what the Jews (and other hated groups, such as Africans) sought to do in the world.

This opera, ‘Jonny spielt auf’, was fear-inducing for more Nazis than just Hannemann. Hans Severus Ziegler, at his Düsseldorf exhibition, used the main character as the central image on poster advertisements. This racialized caricature, with a Jewish Star of David pinned to his lapel, showed the Nazi’s response to the perceived fear and anger towards the enemies of Nazi ideals. They used total degradation and humiliation, as well as German superiority, to maintain power in the minds of the German culture.

However, the Nazis were not able to perfectly maintain control over the German culture. Many Germans did not ascribe to the Nazis worldview of a ‘Jewish enemy’, or particularly, of jazz as an enemy of German ideals. Michael Kater, in ‘Different Drummers: Jazz in the Culture of Nazi Germany’, remarks on the resilience of jazz during the Nazi’s reign: “Because of the imperfection of controls, improved conditions after the economic depression, and the centrality of Berlin jazz continued not only to exist, but to flourish in Germany after January 1933, right up to the beginning of the war. Enemies no less than lovers of jazz music have attested to this fact with graphic clarity, thus dissolving the lingering postwar myth that after the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games jazz fell back into a period of repression. ‘It is true: jazz is still with us, in spite of prohibitions and decrees’, lamented Fritz Stege (a music journalist) in March of 1937”.

Here we see that the Nazis, despite their best efforts, truly could not suppress jazz listeners during the Third Reich. Particularly difficult for the Nazi officials was the resistance by the so-called ‘Swing Kids’ (Swingjugend). Young people were some of the most avid listeners of jazz at the time, both in Germany and the world. In a ‘Secret Report of the Security Service of the Reichsführer SS’, we see how the Nazis discover the persistence of jazz listening among the German youth: “In the course of recent months, there has been an increase in reports from various ‘urban areas’, that unanimously confirm the following: when jazz music with a decidedly British or American flair finds its way into the coffeehouses, it is no longer the fault of a few isolated dance bands. There is a minority of youth among the regulars who visit these haunts that is unequivocally boycotting any form of popular music with a respectable Germanic flavor while at the same time demanding jazz music—at times with such vehement insistence that the bands eventually ‘give in’ to their demands, and the wilder, jazzier, and more titillating the music, the more unrestrained the enthusiastic reception from these youth” (‘Jazz Music and Youth’). The memo then goes on to give examples from Berlin and Saarbrücken, naming bands that supposedly will be ‘dealt with’ by the Nazi officials. The memo concludes with a short paragraph on a band in Hamburg, where “every time a dissonant chord is struck, the bandleader is inundated with hurricane-force showers of applause. Every seat in the house was filled at the Alter Pavilion, primarily by youth from the ‘swing kids’” (‘Jazz Music and Youth’).

One wonders why the Germans chose to resist against Nazi banishments against jazz. Certainly, the threat of oppressive force was imminent. Michael Kater writes on several German jazz artists, such as pianist Martin Roman, being arrested by Gestapo men and sent to concentration camps with other artists, a large number of which were German-Jewish musicians. Kater also notes on one of the many contradictions of the Nazi Party: “an SS corporal who was bent on intoxicating himself with modern jazz”.

The Nazis did, ultimately, prove unsuccessful at suppressing the desire of the German people to listen to jazz. Behind this is perhaps an underlying reason why there was such resistance against the Nazis: they were out of touch with their own people. The Nazis had a very specific ideology about how the world operated, and how the German people fit into that operation. To them, lesser races were undermining ‘German ideals’, and the Nazis released a campaign to systematically segregate and exterminate these races before they could affect the German culture. However, the Nazis, despite their incredible propaganda machine and efforts to convince their people of their cause, were unable to completely win over the people. Especially young people, like swing kids, who rebelled to such an extent as to draw the attention of Nazi officials, were not sold on Nazi ideology in the slightest. They didn’t believe that ‘German music’ was somehow superior to the music they truly enjoyed and danced to.

As we see throughout German history, it is often hard for the youth of the nation to buy in to an ideology. During the Third Reich, young people continually rebelled and listened to jazz music despite eminent threat of persecution and punishment. After the Third Reich, we see the student movement of 1968, as well as the Baader-Meinhof Gang thereafter, where young people sought to disillusion their own country’s people.

Jazz music during the Third Reich was used as a means of resistance, both against Nazi ideology, but also against the personal preferences of the German citizens. Despite their best efforts, the Nazi Party could not suppress their own people’s resistance, nor could they get their own people to fully accept their ideology.

Works Cited

  1. Applegate, Celia, and Pamela Potter. ‘Germans as the ‘People of Music’: Genealogy of an Identity’. Music and German National Identity, Univ. of Chicago Press, 2002, pp. 1–35.
  2. Bley, Wulf. ‘Is It Jazz or Just Radio Dance Tunes?’. Rufer Und Hörer, by Anson Rabinback and Sander L Gilman, II, no. 3, Feb. 1934, pp. 520–522. The Third Reich Sourcebook.
  3. Hannemann, Carl. ‘Jazz as a Weapon of Jewry and Americanism’. Musik in Jugend Und Volk, by Sander L Gilman and Anson Rabinbach, no. 6, 1943, pp. 49–57. The Third Reich Sourcebook.
  4. Hanz Severus Ziegler. ‘Entartete Musik’. Wikipedia, Wikimedia, 15 Jan. 2018, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Entartete_musik_poster.jpg
  5. ‘Jazz Music and Youth’. Jazz Music and Youth, by Anson Rabinbach and Sander L Gilman, 10 Aug. 1942. The Third Reich Sourcebook.
  6. Kater, Michael H. ‘Different Drummers: Jazz in the Culture of Nazi Germany’. Oxford University Press, 2003.
  7. Levy, Richard S. ‘Antisemitism: A Historical Encyclopedia of Prejudice and Persecution’. ABC-CLIO, 2006.
  8. ‘The Theoreticians of Atonality!’ Degenerate Music Exhibition, by Anson Rabinbach and Sander L Gilman, 1938. The Third Reich Sourcebook.
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