Jazz under the Nazis

Jazz in the Third Reich

During the Weimar Republic, jazz conquered Germany and in the process became a symbol of the Roaring Twenties.  Yet bitter protest was already stirring from nationalist conservatives and right-wing circles.  After Hitler took power in 1933, the conflict over jazz intensified.  So-called fremdländisch (alien) music had to be eradicated.  After some early prohibitions in this regard and the creation of the Reichsmusikkammer, which would mean exclusion for Jewish musicians and impede artistic exchange with foreign musicians, there followed a liberal phase owing to the 1936 Olympic games being held in Berlin.  With the success of the new jazz-style swing and the strengthening of the so-called Swingjugend (Swing Youth), however, further repression came in 1937 and 1938.  District Nazi party leaders, police directors and local businesspeople began to issue numerous decrees prohibiting swing, jazz, and swing dancing for their respective region, city or local establishment.  Despite these restrictions, jazz’s presence continued, because of the ease with which ignorant inspectors were outsmarted, and the sympathies for the agreeable swing style harboured even by some Nazi functionaries. 

After the beginning of World War II, the boycott of cultural products from so-called enemy nations, and bans on dancing, also came to affect jazz.  Nevertheless, jazz experienced an upturn in the years of the German Blitzkrieg, so much so that after the initial war successes, the prohibition on swing dancing, for example, was once again lifted.  On the other hand, jazz bands were brought from countries occupied by or allied with Germany as a substitute for the German musicians called into the armed services.  These bands satisfied the demand for syncopated popular music by the civilian population as well as by soldiers on leave from the front.  For economic reasons, the Nazi regime for a long time even tolerated the production and distribution of German as well as foreign records and films with jazz content.  On various occasions, moreover, swing music was actually used in foreign propaganda.  This occurred, for example, in recordings and radio broadcasts of the propaganda big band Charlie and his Orchestra, which was assembled by order of Goebbels’ Propagandaministerium (Ministry of Propaganda).  Only on 17 January 1942 were public and private dance events finally prohibited.  The defeat at Stalingrad (31 January – 2 February 1943) and Goebbels’ proclamation of 'total war' (18 February 1943) signalled the end for most of the venues used by swing bands, which in the end led to the downfall of jazz as well.

Despite all the campaigns of defamation and prohibition, as well as the incarceration of some jazz musicians and jazz fans, it cannot be said that there was no German jazz scene in the Third Reich.  Sustained by professional and amateur musicians, jazz bands, and also by enthusiastic swing fans and record collectors, it is more accurate to say that the development of jazz was severely encumbered by political conditions.  This made the jazz scene increasingly dependent for its survival upon the loopholes of Nazi cultural policy.  Such loopholes existed because the cultural politics of the Third Reich vis-a-vis jazz and jazz-related music was characterized by the coexistence of contradictory and ambivalent measures, for which no unified strategy existed.  Depending on the inner dynamic of Nazi ideology and foreign policy developments, Nazism’s response to jazz oscillated between prohibition for ideological reasons, and toleration and appropriation for economic and market-driven considerations.  This explains why the Nazis did not decree an all-encompassing, nationwide ban on jazz, nor issue any corresponding law. 

Jazz in the Camps

Though ostracized by the Nazi regime as 'degenerate', reports by historical witnesses and survivors substantiate the claim that jazz, as well as jazz-related music, could be heard within numerous Nazi camps.  That such reports do not constitute the exception is made clear by similar activities of prisoners of war, in camps for foreign civilians and forced labour camps, in police detainment camps, in the internment camps of Vichy France, in the Dutch transport camp Westerbork, and in the ghettos of Łódź, Warsaw and Vilna, not to mention the equally secret jazz sessions of the members of the Swingjugend in youth detention and concentration camps.  A few examples should serve to make the spectrum of these jazz activities clear.

In the French prisoner camp in Perpignan in 1942, for example, the Viennese Erich Pechmann, imprisoned because of his Jewish faith, sang blues pieces and, in addition, imitated instruments with his voice.  Using only these simple methods, as Fred Wander relates, Pechmann was able to boost the morale of his fellow prisoners:

When he played, everything became quiet.  He magically produced the sound of an entire band. […]  Everywhere where Pechmann went, he reassured these frightened people.

Pechmann himself would not survive his detention, and died on 4 August 1944 of typhus.

In November 1939, a group of students from Czechoslovakia founded a vocal octet called the Sing Sing Boys in Sachsenhausen.  One part of their programme consisted of well-known musical dance numbers of film melodies in a swing arrangement.  Beyond that, they used compositions in the jazz idiom from their musical leader Karel Štancl as well as satirical songs from the Liberated Theatre in Prague, which had been closed in 1938 due to its antifascist leanings.  These songs contained the heavily jazz-influenced melodies of Jaroslav Jezek, and their performance was prohibited by the German occupiers.  Josef Sárka described the concerts of the Sing Sing Boys in a letter:

These appearances were regularly planned.  Saturday, Sunday, but also spontaneously, when the oldest camp prisoners came to visit for example.  Or during recreational time, when there was no trouble brewing in the camp and it was unlikely that the SS would enter the camp.

Sometimes even SS members were in the audience, looking for a distraction.  Even those prisoners who did not have the energy or opportunity to be present at such concerts were, after a note from Štancl, thankful for the encouragement and variety:  'I cannot think of a single appearance in front of the comrades which was not well-received, with satisfaction and even a certain amount of thankfulness.' All members of the Sing Sing Boys were released under the auspices of a prisoner amnesty program by spring 1943.

In the concentration camp at Buchenwald there were already plans in 1939 to found a jazz ensemble, but this could only be realized four years later, with the support of the illegal International Camp Committee of inmates.  This organization had been able to place politically active prisoners in key positions in the camp bureaucracy.  Herbert Weidlich, active in the office detail, could now assign all of the musicians of the jazz orchestra Rhythm to the specially created work detail for 'Transport Protection'.  This provided enough time for rehearsals, which were held secretly during time officially allotted for work.  A further advantage was that the musicians were not threatened by dangerous or physically demanding work.  Not least, the 'manipulation' of transports from Buchenwald to other camps guaranteed a constant supply of personnel.  Gradually Rhythm developed into a big band with an international personnel that ranged from the amateur to the professional.  Older prisoners, who had at first rejected 'bourgeois' jazz music, recognized that these performances served not only to boost the morale of the prisoners, but also as camouflage for illegal meetings of the camp committee.  The concerts themselves took place in specific blocks and, with the knowledge of the SS, also at entertainment evenings held in the movie barracks, so that here, too, jazz music could be heard. Through newly arrived musicians allocated to the band, band members were even made familiar with the latest stylistic developments in jazz.  According to Jiri Zák, a US pilot who had been shot down told the band about Bebop and 'Gillespie’s and Parker’s "Workshop" on 52nd Street.' 

Due to its special position as a 'show camp', Theresienstadt had at its disposal an extraordinary amount of cultural freedom and a high-standing – both quantitatively and qualitatively – musical life.  Alongside numerous performances of classical music, there were regular jazz concerts.  The jazz combo of the clarinetist and saxophonist Bedrich 'Fritz' Weiss was one of the first music groups to be formed there.  Besides this, the incarcerated jazz and dance musicians accompanied cabaret shows and grouped together to form various bands.  The most famous of these was the Ghetto-Swingers, which matured from a Czech amateur band under the leadership of the pianist Martin Roman to become an big band.  Their music was often rejected by older camp inmates, while younger ones like Klaus Scheurenberg considered the musicians a sensation.

‘Nigger jazz’ [… was] offered here in outstanding form without objection from the SS.   For us young people, Viennese Café music was boring, but the new style of the Ghetto-Swingers buoyed us through their weekly performances in front of the café.

This popularity and even a performance in a propaganda film about the camp could not, however, protect the Ghetto-Swingers from deportation to Auschwitz-Birkenau.  Those who had survived the selection formed the core for the newly-founded camp band.  Guitarist Coco Schumann talked about this in an interview:

So the camp Kapo [leader of work commandos] and Lagerälteste [camp leader] had a party for the Blockältesten [block leaders] etc.  And we played.  They came in woman’s clothing and shoes.  Then they were drunk.  One of them took his shoe off and I had to drink champagne from it.  […]  But as hard criminals often are, when they hear music, they start crying like babies.

If the musicians in Theresienstadt could fashion a pure, artistically ambitious jazz repertoire, then they became mere musical slaves in Auschwitz, where their lives depended upon the momentary disposition of the SS and functionaries.  Because the musicians were useful for them, the camp band did offer the possibility of escaping the gas chamber.  Later, the remaining musicians were transferred via Berlin and Sachsenhausen into a satellite camp of Dachau.  But only a few members of the Ghetto-Swingers survived the Shoah.


Depending on the particular camp and the specific situation of the camp, the function of jazz and jazz-influenced music in the Nazi camp system was extremely variable.  On the one hand, it was an essential component of illegal and/or tolerated camp culture; on the other, it was a means of propaganda and distraction for the henchmen of the Nazi regime.  In their own field of responsibility, individual SS members hardly bothered themselves about the music guidelines of the regime.  And so it came to pass that even the SS-Rottenführer (an SS leader) Pery Broad jammed together with Dutch jazz musicians in the men’s section of Auschwitz-Birkenau.  Only through such varying motivations could the scorned jazz 'survive' in, of all places, the Nazi camps.  Likewise, the saxophonist Miroslav Hejtmar summarized of his performances with the Buchenwald jazz orchestra Rhythm:

Music that was strictly prohibited as ‘racially impure’ by the Third Reich was played before a public so international in composition, that under any other circumstances it would not have come together.  And all of these listeners understood what it was about.  The SS, though, did not get it.


Bergmeier, H.J.P., 1998. Chronologie der deutschen Kleinkunst in den Niederlanden 1933–1944., Hamburg: Hamburger Arbeitsstelle für Deutsche Exilliteratur.  

Fackler, G., 1994. Entartete Musik im KZ. In F. Ritter, ed. Heinrich Himmler und die Liebe zum Swing. Leipzig: Reclam, pp. 268-273.  

Fackler, G., 1996. Jazz im KZ. . In W. Knauer, ed. Jazz in Deutschland. Hofheim: Jazz-Instituts Darmstadt, pp. 49-91.  

Fackler, G., 1994. Zwischen (musikalischem) Widerstand und Propaganda – Jazz im „Dritten Reich“. In G. Noll, ed. Musikalische Volkskultur und die politische Macht. Essen: der Kommission für Lied-, Musik- und Tanzforschung in der Deutschen Gesellschaft für Volkskunde e.V., pp. 437-483.  

Kater, M.H., 1992. Different Drummers: Jazz in the Culture of the Nazis, New York: *.  

Kellersmann, C., 1990. Jazz in Deutschland von 1933–1945, Menden: Jazzfreund-Publikation.  

Kuna, M., 1993. Musik an der Grenze des Lebens: Musikerinnen und Musiker aus Böhmischen Ländern in Nationalsozialistischen Konzentrationslagern und Gefängnissen, Frankfurt/M.: Zweitausendeins.  

Muth, W., 1985. Jazz Behind Barbed Wire. Jazz Forum, 2(93), 44-9.  

Muth, Wolfgang: „Rhythmus” – Ein internationales Jazzorchester in Buchenwald. In: AG Jazz Eisenach (Hg.): 25 Jahre Jazz im Klubhaus AWE. Eisenach 1984 , 10-15, quote on 12.

Polster, B. ed., Swing Heil: Jazz im Nationalsozialismus, Berlin: Transit.  

Zwerin, M., 1985. La Tristesse de Saint Louis: Jazz Under the Nazis, New York: Quartet.  

Witness Testimonies

Hejtmar, M., Rhythmus hinter Drähten [Rhythm behind barbed wire], Weimar: archive of the KZ-Gedenkstätte Buchenwald.

Laks, S., 1989. Music of Another World, Illinois: Northwestern University Press.  

Ritter, F. ed., 1994. Heinrich Himmler und die Liebe zum Swing. Erinnerungen und Dokumente., Leipzig: Reclam.  

Scheurenberg, K., 1982. Ich will leben. Ein autobiographischer Bericht, Berlin.  

Schumann, C., 1997. Der Ghetto-Swinger: Eine Jazzlegende Erzählt 2nd ed., Munich: Deutscher Taschenbuch Verlag.  

Walda, D., 1980. Trompettist in Auschwitz: Herinneringen van Lex van Weren, Amsterdam: De Boekerij.  

Wander, F., 1971. Der siebente Brunnen, Berlin/Weimar

Vogel, E., 1961a. Jazz in a Nazi Concentration Camp (Part I). Down Beat, 28(25), 20-22.  

Vogel, E., 1961b. Jazz in a Nazi Concentration Camp (Part II). Down Beat, 28(26), 16-17.  

Vogel, E., 1962. Jazz in a Nazi Concentration Camp (Part III). Down Beat, 29(1), 20-21.


Film Documentaries

Ackerman, Roy / Jeremy, John: Swing under the Swastika. The Story of a Music That Could Kill and Save. GB: YTV Ltd., 1988 (Autor: Michael Zwerin, 2 Teile, 52 Min.).

Karalus, Paul / Segeth, Alfred: Deutschlandbilder: Aus einem Musikerleben. Coco [Schumann] der Ghetto-Swin­ger. D: WDR, 1986 (45 Min.)