Sentimentality and high pathos:
popular music in fascist Germany


First published in Popular Music 5 (‘Continuity and Change’), pp. 149-158.
Translated from German by Richard Deveson.
© 1985, P Wicke and Cambridge University Press.
Tops of pages in that edition inserted into this text between braces, e.g. {150}.

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This article deals with one of the darkest chapters in the history of popular music: the way in which it was pressed into the service of the cynical and ultra-reactionary goals of German fascism between the years 1933 and 1945. The aim, however, is not simply to fill a gap in historical accounts, which hitherto have always ignored this period. The subject is far from being merely of historical interest: it concerns the mechanisms whereby popular music can be socially and politically misused — mechanisms to which it can more easily fall victim, the more professionally it is produced. It is a fatal error to assume, for example, that popular music serving reactionary interests unmasks itself self-evidently as such. Rather, at no time has the lack of political responsibility on the part of performing musicians and composers been so clear, and had such disastrous eventual consequences, as was the case in Germany between 1933 and 1945. And this is what makes the subject as topical today, forty years after the ending of fascist tyranny in Germany, as it was then. ‘Continuity and change’ requires that the bitter experience of the past be combined with the urgent call to learn lessons from it now, after so long. The next time could be the last time!

In Berlin on 15 November 1933 the fascist Reichskulturkammer (Reich Chamber of Culture) was set up, a body which replaced all the cultural organisations of the Weimar Republic, all trade unions and associations of those working in the arts. This meant that the whole area of musical entertainment was brought under the ultimate control of the power and propaganda apparatus of the National Socialist Party. Popular music was, in the parlance of the time, gleichgeschaltet — ‘coordinated’ — and incorporated into a comprehensive system of insidious demagogy in which it was assigned the function of securing the German people’s compliance with the criminal goals of the National Socialists. The hit songs and dance-music titles of these years provide their own kind of documentation of a slice of everyday life in fascist Germany, an aspect of the everyday face of fascism whose apparent innocuousness helped to conceal the true character of the Nazi dictatorship. The dangers posed by such a phenomenon are one {#150} of the features of this dark chapter of German history between 1933 and 1945 that are still worth recalling today, fifty years later.

Only a few weeks after the onset of fascist dictatorship in Germany on 30 January 1933, Joseph Goebbels — who during the interim had been promoted from national director of propaganda for the National Socialist Party to Reich Minister of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda — told a meeting of national directors of broadcasting that the principal task, as far as the dissemination of music was concerned, was ‘to hammer and chisel away at people for long enough until we have captured them’ (Tonaufnahmen zur deutschen Rundfunkgeschichte 1924—1945, p. 10). The administrative measures that were to help realise this goal of fascist cultural policy — a goal, of course, which in public the ever-eloquent demagogue Goebbels wrapped up in a cloud of phrases and mythology — included the establishment of the Reichskulturkammer. The ‘First Executive Order Concerning the Reichskulturkammer Law’, issued on 1 November 1933, made it compulsory for everyone in fascist Germany who was involved in the ‘creation, reproduction, intellectual or technical preparation, dissemination, preservation, sale or procurement of cultural goods and assets’ (Section 1) to belong to one of the seven specialist sections of the Reichskulturkammer, which ranged from the Reich Chamber of Music and Chamber of Theatre to the Chamber of Broadcasting and Film. Thus even the practitioners of popular music, band leaders and composers of hit songs, found themselves automatically subject to the organisation and control apparatus of, in their case, the Reich Chamber of Music. The nature of the artistic programme to which this policy pinned them down was condensed into a formula by Goebbels in his inaugural speech, using his own special brand of verbal bombast; despite its hazy feuilletonism, the formula was not to be without significance. A ‘romanticism of steel’ was how Goebbels termed the National Socialists’ view of the ‘racial core’ of ‘German art’:

Gone was the nerveless flaccidity which surrendered before life’s seriousness, which denied it or fled from it; and forward strode the heroic view of life which today resounds from the marching step of brown-shirted columns, which attends the peasant as he draws his ploughshare through the earthen clod, which has given back the worker a meaning and a higher purpose in his struggle for existence, which saves the unemployed man from despair and which imbues the magnificent achievement of German recovery with an almost soldierly rhythm. It is a kind of romanticism of steel that has made German life worth living once again: a romanticism that does not hide from the harshness of existence, nor seeks to escape from it into the blue yonder; a romanticism which has the mettle to face ruthless problems and look them firmly and unflinchingly in the eye. (Goebbels 1933, p. 780; italics added)

{#151} The first main work of the Reichskulturkammer, however, which got under way even before it was actually inaugurated, was an extensive review of all personnel working in the arts, the macabre aim of which was the ‘purging of alien influences’ and the ‘dejudification’ (Entjudung) of German culture. This was the start of the persecutions which in a few years were to reach their terrible climax in the mass exterminations of the concentration camps. Anyone who could not prove his Aryan descent on the questionnaire sent out by the Reichskulturkammer, or who refused to sign a declaration of loyalty to the new ruling authorities, was excluded from the Reichskulturkammer and forfeited the right to practise his profession. The first tangible sign given by Goebbels’ propaganda apparatus that it was beginning cynically to put musical entertainment into service was the mass expulsion of many composers and performers, including leading ones, from all genres of popular music. From a long list of names we can mention only a few here. Jean Gilbert, probably best known for his ‘Puppchen, du bist mein Augenstern’ (‘Dolly, You’re The Apple Of My Eye’) from his comedy-operetta Puppchen (first performed 1912), had to leave Germany as early as 1933; so did Rudolf Nelson, one of the most popular originators of countless musical revues in Berlin in the 1920s. They were followed in 1934 by the operetta and revue composers Hugo Hirsch, Victor Hollaender and his son Friedrich Hollaender. Even the history of popular music was systematically combed by officials of the Reich Chamber of Music in search of Jewish composers; this led to a ban on the music of Jacques Offenbach, to cite only one example. The irrationality and arbitrariness of these ‘purging operations’, organised to bureaucratic perfection, was admittedly difficult to conceal, however hard Goebbels strove to justify them by asserting the existence of ‘Jewish degeneracy’ in the arts. An episode involving the Viennese waltz king Johann Strauss, who, in sharp contrast with his contemporary Jacques Offenbach, stood in Nazi eyes for true ‘German nationality’ in music, might almost have led to a public unmasking of the baselessness of the fascist racial mania. In 1938, by chance, some ‘Mosaic’ forebears were discovered in Strauss’s ancestry, which proved him to have been one-quarter Jewish and might thus have warranted the banning of his works as ‘detrimental to the soul of the German people’. The report went to the Reich ‘Genealogical Office’, which alerted the Propaganda Minister. Before the incident could reach public notice, Goebbels confiscated the documents on the case and declared the matter classified. The truth came to light only years after 1945 (see Prieberg 1982).

The Nazi authorities fought particularly fierce battles against jazz —for them, the paradigm instance of ‘degenerate music’. They were able {#152} here, as in all areas of social life, to trade on an extreme reactionary conservatism whose roots went back well before 1933. Melos, for example, one of the most reputable music journals of the time, printed the following in 1930:

The foundations of jazz are the syncopations and rhythmic accents of the Negroes; these have been modernised and given their present form by the Jews, mainly New York Tin Pan Alley Jews. Jazz is Negro music, seen through the eyes of these Jews. (Melos 1930 p. 363)

Such lucubrations had as their background the gradual deterioration of the socio-economic situation of light musicians in Germany, a condition which became acute with the world economic crisis after 1929. The expansion of the American music industry led to a flood of trans-Atlantic dance-music imports into Germany after the First World War. Guest shows and appearances involving Broadway revues, and American and British bands, including the orchestras of Sam Wooding, Jack Hylton and Paul Whiteman, became a permanent feature of the night life of big cities such as Berlin and Hamburg, particularly from the mid-1920s. The introduction of the ‘talkies’ in Germany at the end of the 1920s led to the break-up of cinema orchestras and to mass redundancy for getting on for 12,000 musicians; and the world economic crisis then took conditions for musicians who were still active, as well as for the publishing and record industries, to an all-time low. The struggle against musical influences from America — usually characterised, incorrectly, as ‘jazz’ — was thus based on solid economic causes, and the ban on jazz broadcasts that was authorised in 1935 served the well-understood interests of capital within the German music industry. The justification for the ban given by Eugen Hadamowsky, national director of broadcasting, speaking on the German radio stations, was that ‘the elimination of nigger jazz was not a matter of beat or syncopation, but of whether a people of Germany’s high cultural level can allow itself indefinitely to look for sustenance from a Hottentot kraal without doing damage to its soul’ (quoted in Pohle 1955, p. 321). Beat and syncopation were not indeed the issue, for the jazz business kept going — it was controversial, but was not watched over too closely, and was now free of the nuisance of trans-Atlantic competition. Dance bands such as the Peter Kreuder Dance Symphony Orchestra, the Heinz Wehner Swing Orchestra and the Kurt Widmann Orchestra, to name only some of the best known, continued to turn out numbers in the popular swing idiom of their American models, in some instances even into the 1940s. The Peter Kreuder Dance Symphony Orchestra, for example, had a big hit in {#153} 1937 with a number which the Deutsche Grammophon Gesellschaft brought out on record under the title ‘Karawane’; no mention was made of the fact that the original for this was a composition by Duke Ellington that had come out under the title ‘Caravan’ in the United States in 1936. Despite the ban on jazz, even German radio broadcast many of the popular swing numbers of the time, in cover versions and under German titles, and naturally with the original composers’ and performers’ names suppressed. The concealed target, then, of the militant propaganda outbursts against jazz was actual economic competition from the American music industry; the Jewish population, the visible target, was no more closely linked with jazz than any other population group in Germany. There is surely no other episode in the history of popular music in fascist Germany where the cynical ambivalence of fascist cultural policy is so apparent. Under the cloak of the ‘struggle against the jazzified, judified dance music of the Weimar regime’ (Kampf gegen die verjazzte und verjudete Tanzmusik der Systemzeit), as official National Socialist German had it, the music business was able to keep going full steam ahead. In fact, during the war the Lindström company, with its Odeon Swing Music series, did a colossal trade in original American versions of almost all the important US jazz ensembles, distributing them in all the European countries occupied by the Wehrmacht (see Lange 1966, p. 87). Thus from about 1941 it was actually fascist Germany that was supplying the rest of Europe with original American jazz — while within Germany itself the distribution of these records was forbidden.

Beneath the surface of militant phrases, then, the musical entertainment business as it had existed in the 1920s seemed by and large to be carrying on relatively unmolested, leaving aside the effects wrought by the Nazis’ fanatical racial delusions. But these fantasies had made victims, too, of all those who placed their talents at the disposal of what the National Socialists called the ‘renewal of Germany’.

As we have already seen, the National Socialists initiated as soon as they came to power the fanatical ‘purging operations’ that were to lead to the banishment of all Jewish composers from Germany. But for those practitioners of dance and entertainment music who were deemed to be of ‘pure Aryan race’, nothing at first seemed to alter. Being characteristically uninterested in politics, these musicians plainly failed to notice the changes going on around them except insofar as the new situation brought them an unprecedented amount of work. The entertainment business, the production of film music by the Ufa and Bavaria companies (nationalised by the Nazis) and gramophone record production were all in full swing. The vigour with {#154} which Goebbels pushed ahead with the build-up of the German radio network and the extension of broadcasting time (from 13.3 hours a day in 1932 to 20 hours a day in 1938; see Pohle 1955. pp. 327, 330), in order to secure the omnipresence of the voice of his lord and master, had generated an immense demand for light music and hits, especially since it had meanwhile been made the undisguised task of broadcasting, as the ‘leading medium of the National Socialist movement’, to

make the listener receptive to the goals of particular spoken-word broadcasts by means of an adequate quantity of music broadcasts. The more music that is broadcast on the radio, the more open the listener becomes to the spoken word… The yardstick which radio must initially employ, in accordance with its purpose of reaching the entire listening audience, is the attitudes of the least receptive listeners. (Eckert 1941, pp. 176ff.)

Hence 30 January 1933 meant no break in a tradition of German dance- and light-music production whose sentimental and romantic clichés, verbal and musical, had never been any kind of response to social reality at the time of the Weimar Republic either, and whose nonsensical hit lyrics had merely created a prettified gloss of private sentimentality. These emotional idylls of the trials and tribulations of love could now indeed serve perfectly as proof of the existence of an ‘intact national community’ (Volksgemeinschaft). It was only in the first heady days of the national brownshirt surge, immediately after 30 January 1933, that the controllers of the broadcasting stations openly sought to excel themselves by cramming their programmes full of the marching music of the Nazi Storm Trooper hordes. The broadcasters’ eagerness not to miss the bus did not in fact fit in with Goebbels’ plans. As early as March 1933 he intervened personally by sending a circular to these obliging disciples in which he made clear, with icy cynicism, the place of entertainment in the scheme of National Socialist cultural policy:

On no account present [political] opinion unadorned and exposed to all and sundry. On no account imagine that the best way of serving the National Government is by having marches blaring out night after night… There must be opinion, but opinion need not mean tedium. The imagination must employ all methods of making the new opinion sound modern, up-to-date and interesting to the broad masses. (Quoted in Zentner 1969, p. 315)

A statistical breakdown of radio programmes for the year 1938, for example, accordingly shows that marches and folk music together made up only 2.5 per cent of all programmes, whereas 60 per cent was reserved for dance and light music; 8 per cent of air time was devoted to {#155} serious music, and the remainder to the spoken word (cf. Kuhnke et al.1976, p. 373). Yet although there was a clear formulation of the goals assigned to light music in the National Socialist propaganda scheme — Goebbels, at least when speaking for internal consumption, never disguised them —there was considerable uncertainty as to their means of realisation. Between the commercial activity of the dance halls, theatres, record firms and music publishers, on the one hand, and, on the other, Goebbels’ phrases about a ‘romanticism of steel’ and the call for ‘German dance music connected to the people’ there at first remained a gulf — though there was no shortage of ‘experts’ rushing forward with suggestions for solving the problem. Musings such as the following (by Josef Müller-Blattau, a university professor of music; he remained one in the Federal Republic into the 1960s) were not uncommon:

‘The way that light music should properly be constituted is shown by music for wind band. Its clear, robust sound permits no false sentimentality. In it the true popular forms have been preserved: the march, the waltz, the medley.’ (Quoted in Kuhnke et al. 1976, p. 369)

But such ideas were not capable of fulfilment, even in the fascist Germany of the 1930s. At any rate, in the second half of the 1930s, against the backdrop of long-begun preparations for war, the hit-song production of the period made clearer what Goebbels had meant when he called for the ‘new opinion to be made to sound modern, up-to-date and interesting to the broad masses’. In 1936 a record came out whose dripping sentimentality and phoney pathos set a style that was to become typical of National Socialist hit production: Zarah Leander’s ‘Gebundene Hände’ (‘Tied hands’), the song with which she launched her German-language career. The number was actually a harmless little song from the musical comedy Axel an der Himmelstür (Axel at Heaven’s Gate) by the Viennese operetta composer Ralph Benatzky, who was to emigrate to America after the Nazis entered Austria. That the song was nevertheless able to play something of a key role in National Socialist hit production sprang from the inimitable mixture of sentimentality and high pathos with which Zarah Leander’s performance dressed it up. This quality so unerringly caught the nerve of the time — certainly unintentionally; there was no aim of giving the Nazis a helping hand — that the song was not only an immense success but became the musical point of departure for a policy that made the synthesis of sentimentality and pathos the basis of musical entertainment in fascist Germany.

At the same time, the catchwords and key concepts of fascist propaganda, slickly packaged within the absurdities of hit lyrics, {#156} cropped up with increasing frequency in song texts. The word Schicksal (fate), for instance, which featured centrally and in all conceivable permutations and combinations in the demagogic repertoire of Hitler and Goebbels, became a standard lexical item in hit lyrics from the mid1930s onwards. Never before or since have German hit songs referred so much to fate, homeland, miracles etc. as they did between the mid1930s and early 1940s. The hook lines of many refrains now have the air of a code of conduct for the German people. A hit by Lilian Harvey and Willy Fritsch, for example, said, ‘Frag nicht wie, frag nicht wo’ (‘Don’t Ask How, Don’t Ask Where’); Franz Grothe’s film hit numbers advised, ‘Mach dir nichts draus’ (‘Don’t Let It Bother You’) and ‘Schau nicht hin’ (‘Don’t Look’); Zarah Leander, in 1944, was still urging, in the spirit of Goebbels’ ‘miracle weapon’ propaganda, ‘Ich weiss, es wird einmal em Wunder geschehn’ (‘I Know There’ll Be A Miracle Some Day’); and Peter Kreuder, in the year of war 1940, had Marika Rökk declare, ‘Im Leben geht alles vorüber’ (‘Everything In Life Will Pass Away’). These and similar sentiments sounded ever more frequently from the radio, screen and stage. Embedded within the overall ideological framework of the fascist propaganda apparatus, these sugary Liebesträume of the turntable and, pre-eminently, the radio made an impact even if — or rather, precisely because — people did not want to listen to the propaganda message per se, detached from this setting. Even the composers and performers of popular music in fascist Germany probably scarcely allowed themselves to become aware of the function they were fulfilling in this respect, for, of those who survived the collapse of the Third Reich, none was later plagued by an attack of bad conscience. Without exception, they found a new market for their talents in the Federal Republic after 1945. The fascist propaganda experts, on the other hand, were very well aware of the overall strategic connections within which even the most harmless ditties — or these especially — could be made to contribute to the intellectual arming of the German people. Goebbels wrote perfectly clearly on the matter:

Ideas are immutable. Propaganda, however, is labile, adaptable to changing relationships and requirements. It is intended for the millions, the broad masses of the working people, and must therefore, above all, have a popular character. It should not disdain to use methods which may indeed be unsatisfying to the intellect but which all the more strongly seize hold of the heart of the people. A good propagandist always speaks the language of the people whom he is addressing. He is not searching for the ultimate philosophical foundations of our being; he takes over the completed discovery which the philosopher has already made. It is his task to condense this discovery into a formula which the small man can also grasp. (Goebbels 1934, p. 49)

{#157} All that the Nazis needed for their insidious demagogic purposes was passably loyal musicians who knew their trade. Such musicians were fairly often exempted from membership of the National Socialist Party, which was normally compulsory. Overtly fascist songs, particularly those with appallingly bloodthirsty, inflammatory words that were characteristic of the Storm Trooper and SS repertoires of songs, were therefore strictly the exception within the musical entertainment provided for the mass of the German people, even during the war itself. The efficacy of popular light music rested on a much subtler foundation. The basic formula was the deliberate befogging of the brain, accompanied by the extremely subtle infiltration of selected key concepts of fascist ideology, which the Nazis then set in their right contexts in their speeches. Musically speaking, the formula was boiled down to the primary mechanisms of sentimentality and high pathos.

The degree of significance that the propaganda experts ascribed to popular music, particularly during the war, becomes apparent from Goebbels’ ‘Directive Concerning the Re-organisation of the Broadcasting Service’ of 1942, in which such music is actually declared ‘vital to the war effort’:

Entertainment on the German radio service, for relaxation and release on both the military and home fronts, is vital to the war effort. Special care must therefore be taken with this branch of the German broadcasting service. (Quoted in Schutte 1971, p. 189)

A radio programme with this express purpose had already been started on 1 October 1939, and it became the most popular programme of the Second World War: ‘Wunschkonzert für die Wehrmacht’ (‘Forces’ Requests’), on the Grossdeutscher Rundfunk, with Heinz Goedecke as announcer. This programme, which was based on listeners’ requests and was intended to forge a link between the armed forces and the home front, provides a shamefully powerful reflection of the function and effects of popular music in fascist Germany during the war years. ‘Forces’ Requests’, like much else, fell victim to the call for ‘total war’ in 1943.

A song that came out in 1939, sung by Lale Andersen and entitled ‘Lied eines Wachposten’ (‘A Sentry’s Song’), was to become a symbol of popular music in fascist Germany. It went back to a text by Hans Leip of 1915, which had already been set in 1935 by the cabaret composer Rudolf Zink, aho for Lale Andersen, who performed at that time under the name Lieselotte Wilke. Neither this version of the song, nor the second one (by Norbert Schultze, who had distinguished himself as the composer of music for fascist war propaganda films), had been blessed with much success. Shortly after the second version {#158} appeared, Lale Andersen was banned from performing in Germany after making a guest appearance in Zürich, and the song was once more forgotten. It was only in 1941 that members of the Wehrmacht forces radio service in Belgrade chanced upon it in a basement of the Vienna radio building and used it in their programmes. At this juncture it proved to be such an exact reflection of the mood of the moment that it became popular — as ‘Lili Marlene’ — on all fronts virtually overnight. Even the attempt by Goebbels to ban it as ‘defeatist’ was unable to stem the song’s triumphant progress (see Mezger 1975, pp. 134ff.). In 1942 Marlene Dietrich recorded it in an English version, and a French version appeared later in the same year. The Allies used it in their counter-propaganda, and with new words it became an anti-war song within the German resistance. It has since come out in at least forty-nine languages on the international hit market (see Worbs 1963, p. 253), thus bearing witness in its own way to the fact that the pernicious ethos of the years 1941-42, to which it owes its popularity, has still not been exorcised. At the time, two years were still to pass until, with the ‘Directive Concerning the Cessation of the Entire Cultural Life of the Reich’ of 1 August 1944, even the illusions of the hit songs were lost in the smoking ruins of fascist Germany.


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