Musical Propaganda at Oranienburg

The headquarters of the concentration camp Oranienburg was opened on 21 March 1933 under the control of SA division 208, transferred to SS control in 1934 and closed at the beginning of 1935. It was very active in terms of propaganda; this can be traced specifically to the camp’s proximity to the capital Berlin and the character of the camp commandant, SA-Sturmbannführer Werner Schäfer. Out of personal conviction and pressure from his superiors, Schäfer set out to disprove reports about Oranienburg by released and escaped prisoners, labelling them 'foreign propaganda'. Acts of violence were both denied and justified, and along with promises to demonstrate the camp’s humanity, Schäfer made menacing threats. The intention was to counter negative reporting about the Nazi regime by the large number of foreign correspondents in Berlin as well as to prevent it from happening in the future.

Tours, Press Releases and Newsreels

From April to August 1933, numerous journalists and photographers were given tours of the camps by the camp leadership as part of the regime’s propaganda measures.  In addition to these efforts, the Foreign Office tried to issue counter- articles with the aid of sympathetic foreign journalists, and the Berlin and Oranienburg movie houses premiered a short newsreel called Die neuesten Aufnahmen aus dem Konzentrationslager Oranienburg (The Latest Shots from the Concentration Camp Oranienburg), which had been filmed on 13 April 1933.  The film was intended to suggest that the prisoners of the concentration camps were being treated humanely.  As a part of this, the cultural activities of prisoners were spotlighted: this explains a short scene in which a group of prisoners stand freely in a circle around their comrades, playing music.  Through the supposedly documentary nature and authenticity of the shots, the Nazis hoped to use this idealised image of camp life, with these jolly, music-making prisoners, to convince the public of the camp leadership's respect for the cultural identity of the detainees. 

The Camp Commandant’s Defence

In the foreign and exile press, well-founded accusations were raised against the crimes being committed by the Nazis in the camps.  To these belong the 1934 report by Oranienburg escapee Gerhart Seger and, more importantly, the widely distributed Braunbuch über Reichtagsbrand und Hitlerterror (Brown Book of the Hitler Terror and the Reichstag Fire, Basel, 1933).  Commandant Schäfer reacted quickly to this in his apologetic book, Konzentrationslager Oranienburg. Das Anti-Braunbuch über das erste deutsche Konzentrationslager (Concentration Camp Oranienburg: the Anti-Brown Book of the first German Concentration Camp, Berlin, 1934).  This book represents the only case of contemporaneous writing in self-defence by a camp commandant; it fluctuates between self-presentation and Nazi propaganda.  Two thousand copies were distributed to German foreign agencies at the request of the Ministry of Propaganda, while excerpts of the text were reprinted in the German daily press.

In his text, Schäfer sets about sugarcoating reality and making the conditions of his camp seem harmless.  He speaks often in this regard about the musical activities there, without concern for error.  He lists the lighthearted music-making in the evening as proof of the good spirit in the camp.  He writes,

One day after the warm days of May had come, and the prisoners were lounging in the meadow behind the camp factory after work, a violin and a guitar could be heard.  German folk melodies and German songs resounded.  And no one had given or received an order to do so […].

Schäfer claimed further that prisoners had 'spontaneously [begun to sing] the German national anthem' while gathered in the yard after Hitler’s announcement that Germany had left the League of Nations.  In his Anti-Braunbuch, he audaciously re-interpreted the singing of songs by work details during marches to and from the camp as a well-meaning gesture towards the prisoners on his part, and as an allowance from the camp leadership in response to a direct request by the prisoners:

In the late afternoon, the summer air carried the fragments of melodies of old marches and folk songs to the camp.  These were from the work details marching through the city.  The prisoners returned singing to the ‘notorious’ concentration camp.  Anyone interested should know that it was the prisoners themselves who expressed the wish to be able to sing in the evening after work.  This wish was also granted.

Even if not all prisoners felt this command to sing as direct coercion or bullying, it was nonetheless a disciplinary measure meant to demonstrate, not least, how in control the responsible guard was of his work detail.  Combined with soldierly goose- stepping, such singing was useful not only for correctness and military drill, but also to signal obedience and order.  These were the values that were supposed to deceive the public about the respectable treatment of the prisoners.  In Henry Marx’s words:

We had four work divisions which departed one after the other after head count and the forming up of the guards who went with us.  This happened while we sang more or less pretty songs […].  Like a wild horde, we travelled over the field back to the country road.  We were ready to talk.  The spirit needs its sustenance after physical work.  A lot of conversations, some of which I participated in, started in this way.   Later a procession was formed, our talks stagnated or developed into a disciplined singing, which is what happened most of the time.   Well-known songs could be heard.  Of course, the ‘Lore’, but also ‘Wenn wir schreiten Seit’ an Seit’’ [‘Whenever we travel side by side’] or ‘Mein Schlesierland’ [‘My Silesia].  We also sang a song imported from Papenburg and one that we had specifically finished with the couplet: ‘We are the Soldiers of the peat bog and travel with the spade into the peat bog’ [opening line of the ‘Song of the Peat Bog Soldiers’]. Our stock of songs usually lasted until we were back in the camp.  The last 200 meters were covered in goose step and we likewise entered the stoney camp yard.

The compulsory music-making of internees in permanent ensembles was further misused as evidence for the ostensibly civilised conditions in the concentration camps.  In 1933, by direction of the camp commander, a small camp band was assembled, which was probably composed of five to six musicians (violin, guitar and mandolin).  One of its tasks was to perform evening concerts.  In addition, a camp choir was formed, which, according to Seger’s report, 'also had to perform in the evening'.  Even if the prisoners were aware that the resulting vocal and instrumental performances served to deceive concerned citizens, residents, and foreigners about the true happenings inside the walls of the concentration camp, they could hardly escape being exploited by the SS.

Werner Schäfer seized upon this type of propagandistically useful music-making in his Anti-Braunbuch, but indirectly, by quoting from a supposed letter by a prisoner to the Dortmunder Generalanzeiger from 8 February 1934.  He did this to contest a 'libellous report about the concentration camp Oranienburg' in the SPD organ Vorwärts.  Musical activities were also referred to in this letter, without mentioning their forced nature:

That the life in the camp cannot be bad is proven by the following: every night there is a concert performed by the prisoners and there is singing as well.  So we ask, would someone joke and laugh, if the conditions here were like they are described in the public?  We, in any event, cannot imagine so.

The Radio Transmission from the Camp

The Oranienburg propaganda measures found another means of expression in a radio transmission from the camp.  While there are many reports of survivors’ radio programs transmitted in the camps, this is the only known example of a radio report out of a Nazi camp.  For this occasion, commandant Schäfer personally led a reporter through the camp on 30 September 1933.  At the time, the report was recorded onto nine records; it was transcribed by Muriel Favre in 1998.  At the very beginning, the report emphasises its own purpose:

The young National Socialist Germany is defending itself against lies and libellous reports which have spread through a part of the foreign press. […]  This is why we are bringing you today a representative selection of life in the concentration camp of greater Berlin.  We have traveled with our microphone to Oranienburg and want to try to bring you and the world the truth, a mirror image of the life, of all the happenings in the concentration camp there.  We will give a hearing to those taken into custody, those confused, hunted, and now guilty fellow citizens.

The subsequent tour through the concentration camp began with the distribution of food in the yard.  Afterwards, the dining hall in the administration building, the sleeping rooms, with their 'crate-board-like bed cells', and a washroom with showers were surveyed:  'Everything was a model of military order.'  After 'morning calisthenics', the 'coffee reception' and the allocation of work details, the talk turned to the daily routine of the prisoners.  Staff in the administration building were concerned with the bureaucracy associated with receiving so-called new admissions, which had to be meticulously registered on index cards.  Further stations on the tour were the first aid station, the hospital bay and guards’ common room.  The personnel were said to bear not even a 'small hint of revenge'.  On many occasions, the prisoners came to speak.  They answered the reporter in a tight-lipped manner, in one case leading the reporter to say, 'You are shaking, man.  Are you afraid?'

In an attempt to portray the camp conditions as humane, the journalist asked about the camp band: 'One of the comrades said that the prisoners had even set up their own music band and played after the day’s work.  Would it be possible that over the course of time we could hear rehearsals of this group?'  To this Schäfer answered:

Yes, I will see what I can do.  I can promise you that, but not 100%, because I do not know if all of the so-called practising artists are in the camp.  As I already told you a little while ago, a large number of the people are occupied with additional work outside the camp.  There is the possibility, therefore, that some of these people are outside, who otherwise would be playing their old communist guitars.

There is nothing further about music performances in the remaining records.  Through Gerhart Seger, a prisoner in Oranienburg at the time, we know, though, that the prisoner band and the choir participated in the propaganda visit:

When the aforementioned radio transmission from the camp took place, the camp commandant gave a politely formulated and extremely whitewashed report.  At the conclusion of the transmission, the prisoners’ band had to play and the choir had to sing.  It is superfluous to say what was left out of this transmission: the moaning of mistreated prisoners, the depiction of the arrest cells, in short, the truth about the hell that was Oranienburg.  Instead of this, the camp commandant closed the radio report with a sentence that hit the prisoners like the crack of a whip to their face.  He said: ’Herewith our transmission is ended.  You have seen behind the scenes of the singing and playing concentration camp Oranienburg.’  The camp commander really could not have taken his shamelessness much farther!

Once again, music became a regular component of the strategy -- cynically and precisely calculated for its effect -- of sugar-coating reality and making the camp leadership seem harmless.  It is unclear whether listeners to the radio report believed it or whether it was even broadcast, as there are no details of any sort in the German newspapers.  However, the report is listed in the foreign broadcast section of the catalogue of short-wave stations of the Reichsrundfunkgesellschaft (Reich Radio Society).  From this it can be assumed that the report was indeed broadcast, and that it was directed primarily at foreign listeners and Germans living abroad.  In any case, this curious radio broadcast reflects, on the one hand, the pressure the Nazis felt to defend their actions to the outside world. In their eyes, musical performances could be deployed as a convincing instrument of propaganda that could be used to calm any eventual doubts of the populace.  On the other hand, this broadcast also makes clear how easy it was for the Nazis to incarcerate political opponents with little legal justification. 

By Guido Fackler


Braunbuch über Reichstagsbrand und Hitler-Terror. Vorwort von Lord Marley. Basel 1933.

Fackler, G., 2000. "Des Lagers Stimme"– Musik im KZ. Alltag und Häftlingskultur in den Konzentrationslagern 1933 bis 1936, Bremen: Temmen.  

Fackler, G., 1998. „... den Gefangenen die nationalen Flötentöne beibringen.“ Musikbeschallung im frühen KZ Dachau. Jahrbuch des Vereins „Gegen Vergessen – Für Demokratie, 2, 170-174.  

Favre, M., 1998. Wir können vielleicht die Schlafräume besichtigen”. Originalton einer Reportage aus dem KZ Oranienburg (1933). Rundfunk und Geschichte, 24, 164-170.  

Marx, Henry: „Am Anfang, da hatte man doch nicht so die tödliche Routine“. Im Konzentrationslager Oranienburg. Tagebuchauszüge. In: Wer sich nicht erinnern will … ist gezwungen die Geschichte noch ein­mal zu erleben. Kiezgeschichte Berlin 1933. Hg. von der Arbeitsgruppe „Kiezgeschichte – Berlin 1933“ im Rahmen des Projekts des Berliner Kulturrats „Zerstörung der Demokratie – Machtübergabe und Wider­stand“. Berlin 1983, S. 12-19, quote on 15-16 (see also in: Biereigel, Hans: Mit der S-Bahn in die Hölle. Wahrheiten und Lügen über das erste Nazi-KZ. Berlin 1994, S. 235-238).

Morsch, G. ed., 1994. Konzentrationslager Oranienburg (Schriftenreihe der Stiftung Brandenburgische Gedenkstätten, Nr. 3)., Berlin.  

Schäfer, Werner: Konzentrationslager Oranienburg. Das Anti-Braunbuch über das erste deutsche Konzentrationslager. Berlin 1934, quotes on 29, 42-43, 76, 162-163, 167. This book is the camp’s commandant written response to publications by released and escaped prisoners from Dachau.  Though there is some doubt concerning Schäfer’s authorship, there is no doubt that he provided much of the information contained within the book.

Seger, Gerhart: Oranienburg. Erster authentischer Bericht eines aus dem Konzentrationslager Geflüchteten. Mit einem Geleitwort von Heinrich Mann und Stimmen von Walter Mehring und Kurt Hiller zur Ermordung Erich Mühsams nebst Nazidokumenten im Anhang. Berlin 1979, quote on 29 (Erstausgabe: Karlsbad 1934 mit einem Geleitwort von Heinrich Mann).

Widmaier, T., 1997. KZ-Radio. Lautsprecherübertragene Musik in nazistischen Konzentrationslagern. In H. Heister, ed. Musik / Revolution. Festschrift für Georg Knepler zum 90. Geburtstag.

Hamburg, pp. 315-324.  

Excerpts of the radio report about Oranienburg discussed in this piece can be found online at: ; The recordings survived in a Czech radio archive and in 1995 were re-edited by the Deutsche Rundfunkarchiv in Frankfurt am Main, where they are located at call number 2955807/2).

A VHS copy of the propaganda film Die neuesten Aufhanmen aus dem Konzentrationslager Oranienburg (The Latest Shots from the Concentration Camp Oranienburg) from 1933 is housed at the video archive of the Sachsenhausen memorial at Oranienburg (call number VHS-Videokassette 74).

Prisoners guarded by SA men line up in the yard of the Oranienburg concentration camp on the Havel River in Germany. USHMM (77559A), courtesy of National Archives and Records Administration.