There is a strong relationship between Nazi propaganda and music.
Nazi propaganda was an extremely powerful force, but I will argue that propaganda delivered through music was particularly powerful and useful because of the way music was communicated and valued in Nazi society. Music in Nazi Germany was considered a leisure activity; therefore music could be played and songs could be sung all day without suspicions arising. Nazis were aware of the power of music; this essay will outline how they went to extraordinary lengths to promote German music, including the very controversial Horst Wessel Song, and demote any other type of music considered “degenerate,” as well as how they very strategically used Jewish music in Terezin as a distraction to the atrocities that were really happening at the concentration camps. These examples will show how the Nazis used music as an extremely effective propaganda tool. Music at the time was not considered a threatening form of propaganda… but maybe it should have been.Nazi attacks on “non-German” art and music culminated in the exhibitions of Entartete Kunst (degenerate art) and Entartete Musik (degenerate music). In 1937 in Munich, the Degenerate Art exhibition took place as a counter-exhibition to the first annual Great German Art exhibition.
They were held one day apart from each other. The Entartete Kunst exhibition brought more than 650 works of art together for the sole purpose of clarifying for the German public by defamation and derision exactly what types of modern art were unacceptable to the Reich. This exhibition put all modern styles of art under attack (Cubism, Expressionism, Surrealism…etc.) no matter what the artists’ political background was.
In this exhibition, these modern works of art were being displayed as somewhat of a horror show for the Germans. One year later in 1938, due to Entartete Kunst’s enormous success, Entartete Musik was installed. This exhibit was essentially the same but this time targeting music instead of art – ridiculing and banning any music that was not inherently German. The exhibit and advertisements above all vilified Jewish music and African American jazz music. Posters depict these minorities as animals with the word “degenerate” as their description. The goal of this exhibition was for the Nazis to share with the state their disapproval of the condition and direction of modern music, including the “degenerate” sounds of Kurt Weill, the “high-art” atonality of Arnold Schoenberg, and the “primitive jazz” of Erwin Schulhoff. “Judge for yourself” was the tagline for Entartete Kunst and Entartete Musik, but were the people really judging for themselves? Nazi organizers of these events made certain that they were not.
These exhibits were effective propaganda stunts in that they used art and music to attract the attention of the ordinary German and then placed them in an environment where autonomous reflection on the art and music was impossible, effectively seducing the people into agreeing with Nazi opinions of what was considered “degenerate.” The above is an example of the German concept of Gleichschaltung – the Nazis coordinating or bringing into line all facets of German life. Their control went beyond politics and warfare, they wanted to control everything if they were going to reach their goal of a racially pure German nation.
Bicycle groups, women groups, doctors, teachers, musicians, and artists – every aspect of life was to be Nazified. This consistency was very important, as it left very little room – or no room at all – for the German people to think differently or independently from Nazi propaganda and indoctrination. The Nazi Party made widespread use of music in its publicity, and music featured prominently at rallies and other public events.
Most sung though was the Horst Wessel Song which became the Nazi national anthem. From 1933 until 1945 the Nazis actually made it the co-national anthem of Germany, along with the already existing Deutschlandied. Horst Wessel, the writer of the song and the young man who the song is named after, was a commander of the Nazi SA. Wessel understood the importance of music as an inspiration for political battle and, as it was characteristic of the SA to break into song while marching in the streets of Berlin, he wrote numerous songs and melodies for these Nazi street marches.
Wessel was a passionate member of the Nazi party and he was well liked by his comrades, but he did not stand out considerably from the other commanders. He therefore held a rather ordinary reputation. However, his reputation was to change dramatically after his sudden death.The circumstances of Wessel’s death remain clouded due to the fact that evidence was distorted by both the Nazi Party and the Communist Party. But the following series of events is what the majority of historians believe to have happened. In 1930, a band of communists broke into Wessel’s apartment and shot him twice, sending him to the hospital in critical condition. He remained there for a month until he eventually died of blood poisoning. During this last month though, Joseph Goebbels had a plan to create, through a mashup of fact and fiction, a Nazi martyr for propaganda purposes.
He wanted Wessel’s story to pull on the heart strings of the German people – a fighting and dying warrior who sacrificed his life for the Nazi Party and should therefore be remembered and glorified. Goebbels knew too well that through propaganda, defeat can be transformed into victory. Joseph Goebbels made several attempts before this one to create Nazi martyrs for propaganda purposes but they had failed due to evidence pointing in the opposite direction.
For example, in 1928 Hans-Georg Kütemeyer, an SA commander, was pulled out of a canal the morning after he attended a speech given by Hitler in Berlin. Goebbels tried to frame this as a Communist attack, while overwhelming evidence suggested that it was a suicide. Goebbels would not let this happen again, he was dedicated to making Horst Wessel a national symbol that would move the masses – and at that he succeeded. Horst Wessel was hugely celebrated in songs, poetry, and films. Town squares and streets were even named after him.
And as for the marches he wrote for the Nazi SA, the most popular one was renamed by Goebbels the Horst Wessel Lied and made into the Nazi Party anthem. Sang by hundreds and thousands of Germans on a daily basis, the song was an inconspicuous, but highly effective, example of Nazi propaganda.Nazi propaganda also targeted the youths of Germany, with the Hitler Jugend (Hitler Youth) developing an elaborate music program.
At the height of the war, Wolfgang Strumme, chief of music in the Hitler Jugend, described German music as an antidote to the “dangerous poison” that was the “Jewish, materialistic, Bolshevist environment.” Music was Nazified, and as such, only German music and Nazi propaganda songs could be played or listened to by the Hitler Jugend. Through music and propaganda songs, the Nazis were able to intoxicate and inculcate in the youth a sense of belonging, identity, and mission.
Music was an effective form of propaganda that targeted the Germans – be it the military, the everyday, or the youth. But the Nazis were also successful in using music as propaganda in the concentration camps. The next part of this paper will focus on music in the Terezin concentration camp. When the Jews of Prague were informed that they were to be collectively moving to a camp called Terezin, or Thereisenstadt, some believed what they were told by the Nazis and thought that they were being taken to a model Jewish society that would be planned, built, and lead by a Jewish council. In actuality, Terezin was not a final destination safe from the transportations to the East, nor was it a permanent refuge; it was a transit camp where Jews would wait until it was their time to be transported by the thousands to the extermination camps. While they waited though, Jews were able to take part in a rich and vibrant cultural life, filled with art and above all, music. Terezin is known for having hosted some of Europe’s most prominent Jewish artists and musicians. In Terezin, these musicians and composers were able to practice, share, and experiment with their music.
But why put effort into letting Jews experiment with their music if the Nazis were soon going to send them to their deaths? Why not send them, like the others, to forced labor camps where they can work and benefit the Nazi Party? The Germans definitely had ulterior motives for allowing Jews in Terezin to “live” culturally. Their plan, once suspicions started arising in foreign powers, was to use Terezin as propaganda, a means to get the Red Cross off their backs. Terezin was designated as the place where those who were curious about how the Jews were living would visit. But each visit, specifically those of the Red Cross in 1944, were prepared for and thus inauthentic. Terezin would be “beautified” and staged as a city of shops, libraries, banks, and coffeehouses. In the eyes of the Red Cross inspectors there was no torture, no death, no population density; on the contrary, life was rich and culturally active.
But beneath this Hollywood set, if the Red Cross were to have looked close enough, was an over packed city of hideous filth – exhaustion, starvation, and disease rapidly killing thousands of Jews. Yet, under these harsh living conditions, inmates still seized every opportunity to create original work. Of the many notable musicians and composers who are associated with Terezin, Pavel Haas, Raphael Schachter, and Hans Krása are the most relevant to this essay because their works were not only used as distractions and entertainment for the Jews, but were used primarily for Nazi propaganda. Pavel Haas was the composer of A Study for Strings. This work was written in Terezin and was featured in the Nazi propaganda film The Fuhrer Presents the Jews with a City, which showed lies and deceptions of life in Terezin.
In the film, we see the inmates performing Haas’s piece for an audience, meanwhile flowerpots were placed on the ground in front of the orchestra because the performers had no shoes. Raphael Schachter conducted a reinterpretation of Verdi’s very complicated and advanced Requiem and it was performed for the Red Cross visitors in 1944, showing off the Jews’ musical talent and capabilities. Finally, the opera Brundibar, composed by Hans Krása, was performed for the visitors. Brundibar is one of the most well-known and remarkable operas of Terezin.
It is remarkable because first, it was performed by children of the camp and second, because it was dense with symbolism. Brundibar tells the story of a wicked organ grinder who is defeated by the children of the town. The story prudently makes parallels to Hitler and his victims, allegory and allusiveness acting as powerful weapons of resistance by the Jews against their oppressors. The International Red Cross and the Danish Red Cross were successfully fooled by their 1944 visit. The Nazis had given the Jews a beautiful city where they could live in peace, and, even, play music. Only later would the foreign inspectors realize that Terezin was an elaborate hoax, nothing more than a carefully planned act of propaganda. In the ways mentioned above, through the Entartete Kunst and Entartete Musik exhibitions, the Horst Wessel Lied, the Hitler Jugend music programs, and finally, through the use of music as a distraction at Terezin, the Nazis were successful and effective in using music as propaganda.
Most remarkably, they did this without arising suspicions in the people. Neither the ordinary German or the International and Danish Red Cross suspected that through music, they were being influenced and indoctrinated by the Nazi Party.