March, 1993

Purge and propaganda

Jewish-nigger Jazz in Nazi Germany

Book review by Gil Zohar

Michael H. Kater,
Different Drummers: Jazz in the Culture of Nazi Germany
New York: Oxford University Press, 1992, 292 pp., $34.95

What do Nazi Germany, Communist Czechoslovakia and Castro's Cuba share in common? All three dictatorships found jazz music to be subversive and attempted unsuccessfully to make it verboten. Historian Michael H. Kater of Toronto's York University documents the largely untold role of Nazi jivebombers, public reaction in fascist Germany and jazz's use as a World War II propaganda weapon.

Like modern art, jazz flourished in the heady artistic milieu of the Weimar Republic yet left many puzzled by its meaning. Both avant garde art forms were ridiculed by the Nazis as representing the decadent and degenerate characteristics of inferior races - blacks and Jews - to whom Nazi racial pseudo-science attributed a similar stock.

German youth hostels abjured jazz as early as August 1933. But owing to the haphazard if ruthless totalitarianism of Hitler's regime and the exigencies of war, the campaign to "purify" Germany of the jazz anathema was to continue fitfully throughout the 12 years of the 1,000-year Reich. On Oct. 12, 1935, Eugen Hadamowski, the head of the German network's Reichrundfunkgesselschaft (Reich Radio Co.) decreed, "Today I finally and forever forbid nigger jazz from the entire German radio network."

The cumbersome process of purging Germans' musical tastes included such steps as a ban on the English-language term "drummer."

Two months before the Kristallnacht pogrom of Nov. 9-10, 1938, Propaganda Minister Josef Goebbels himself forbade the music of Irving Berlin and the epitome of Jewish-nigger jazz - the popular "Bei Mir Bist Du Shein" by Sholom Secunda, a composer of Yiddish musicals in New York.

The campaign to suppress jazz was frustrated by the ignorance of the bureaucrats who arbitrarily enforced regulations and had no sure-fire method of identifying "Aryans" from record labels.

Up until the watershed of April 1, 2022 which marked the indictment of non-Aryan record artists, "the Nazis even kowtowed to British Jews such as Ray Noble, Joe Loss, Harry Roy and Bert Ambrose because they thought their big-band swing a bearable alternative to the more insidious American staple." Clarinetist Artie Shaw, whose real name was Arthur Arshawsky, was never proscribed because the Nazis mistakenly believed he was the son of George Bernard Shaw.

Devotees of jazz were not easily dissuaded by Goebbels, who favoured persuasion and conversion over outright restriction. The thirst for popular entertainment and later an escape from the fatigue of a grinding war could not be quenched by the flat ersatz German music the regime attempted to substitute for favourite foreign sounds.

Kater cautions against calling jazz protest music or a "spiritual resistance" of political dissidents under Hitler. "It constitutes something of an anomaly that, while Nazi jazz haters disliked the medium because of the prominence of blacks and Jews participating in it, German jazz lovers, musicians and aficionados both, did not necessarily espouse jazz because they might have championed the cause of blacks and Jews... Anyone who loved jazz for its own sake had nothing to fear from the regime, yet in combination with anything else that was objectionable, a jazz penchant was potentially fatal."

Kater notes that after 1940 "the combination of political scepticism, personal nonconformity, and love of jazz music was not so scarce a phenomenon among certain juveniles in Germany's larger cities. Under steadily darkening clouds, jazz signified the growing resentment of Germany's younger generation against the politics of war and oppression, as manifested by party and Wehrmacht, SS and Hitler Youth. The longer the war dragged on, the more potentially lethal this dissident attitude among certain of Germany's youth became." Swing Kids, a 1993 movie directed by Thomas Carter, captures the teen rebellion in Hamburg in 1939 where British duds and American films were the rage, and fellow rebels greeted each other with a lazily raised arm and a hearty "Swing Heil!"

Jazz went to war when the Wehrmacht invaded Poland in September 1939. Expediency dictated that Goebbels increase the live entertainment venues for soldiers on furlough. Similarly a scheme called Truppenbetreuung, or troop entertainment, brought music out to the front - and let musicians escape military service. Both policies came to benefit jazz music. Musicians camouflaged their scores, changing Tiger Rag into Schwarzer Panther (Black Panther) and Saint Louis Blues into Serenade Vom Blauen Ludwig (Serenade to the Blue Ludwig).

Listening to the BBC was a capital offence in Nazi Germany. In September 1941, to further discourage soldiers and civilians from tuning in to the enemy, Goebbels authorized the creation of a German-type jazz orchestra, the Deutsche Tanz und Unterhaltungsorchester (DTU), or German Dance and Entertainment Orchestra, which was meant to rival the "Jewish music" of Benny Goodman and put German overtones on Glenn Miller's distinctive sound.

Perhaps the most bizarre phenomenon to be authorized by Berlin was an outstanding 18-piece swing band named Charlie and His Orchestra which beamed out unadulterated American-type jazz to the British Isles as part of the short-wave propaganda broadcast of "Lord Haw-Haw," William Joyce, who was hung after the war for treason. Programs were later beamed at English-speaking Allied troops invading Italy and France. One song includes the grotesque lyrics:

You're the tops, you're a German flier,
You're the tops, you're machine gun fire,
You're a U-boat chap with a lot of pep,
You're grand, you're a German blitz, the Paris Ritz...

It was music to listen to bombing by. Kater condemns those who made it - bandleader Lutz Templin; jazz singer Karl "Charlie" Schwedler; trumpeter Nino Impallomeni and pianist Primo Angeli from Italy; clarinetist Benny de Weille, trombonist Josse Breyre and master guitarist Meg Tevelian of Belgium - for the criminalization of music. "The jazz musicians were hardly exempt from blame as collaborators, no matter how small their degree of compliance."

In January 1945 Goebbels blamed the general war weariness of German youth on jazz. Like all of the Nazis' other grandiose projects, the assault on jazz was marked by a stunning disregard of common sense, as well as humanity. It was doomed to failure, though not before terminating the careers, and sometimes the lives, of Jewish and non-cooperative jazz musicians.

Unlike the snappy informality that stamps newspaper writing about jazz, this historical study of Jazz in Nazi Germany is penned in a ponderous style that lacks lightness and grace. Kater's subject dictates the need for more sprightly prose than his heavy foot-noted academic jargon. But inevitably the anecdotes bring buoyancy to the book to relieve its plodding quality.

And, despite problems of a stuffy style, the book is a serious and thoughtful treatment of a little known chapter in music history. It is a significant contribution to understanding what happened in Nazi Germany.