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The Real Swing Kids

"They fought for the freedom that bound them together"


In the 1930's, American swing music was all the rage in Germany. Everywhere you went, the German youth could be found listening and dancing to the tunes of Benny Goodman, Duke Ellington, Django Reinhardt, and others like them. But when Hitler invaded Germany, he appointed friend and fellow Nazi, Joseph Goebbels to be in charge of The Reich Radio Chamber, which censored radio, theater, film, the press, creative writing, and music. Goebbels wanted to use the German culture for one use and one use only: to spread their propaganda of hatred and superiority. Jazz was considered a major threat to the Third Reich for two main reasons: First, many of its musicians were minorities; mostly black or Jewish. Secondly, it was American music. To the Nazi's, America was full of "corrupt people devoid of sophistication. Hitler and Goebbels above all, despised the American's for the relatively large degree of tolerance that they extended to racial minorities" (Kater 30). It was mainly because of these two issues that Goebbels referred to swing music as, "the rot of a decaying society" (29).

The Nazi's tried their best to censor jazz music, but it wasn't easy and "because of the imperfection of controls and the improved conditions after the economic depression, jazz not only continued to exist, but to flourish in Germany, right up until the beginning of the war" (57). Soon though, stricter laws were put into place and it became harder to find jazz records. The Nazi's truly believed that they were succeeding in getting rid of American swing, but they were wrong. That belief was short lived, when, soon after World War II began, a music critic agonizingly exclaimed "Jazz is still alive!" It seemed that, "Nazi faithfuls who might have thought that jazz music had vanished from the Third Reich could be proven wrong, just a few weeks into the war" (111).

Jazz musicians were not interested in politics. They only cared about one thing.....their music. Anything relating to war was, in their eyes, "challenging their artistic, carefree ways and threatening to their livelyhood" (112). The war was a danger to them. Many musicians were drafted into the war. So many in fact, that entire big bands began to disappear. Many of those who were drafted "tried for commands with the communications units, for those had powerful radios for listening to jazz and the chances of actually having to use a shotgun were minimized" (113).

Meanwhile, the average jazz listener was threatened with penalities such as jail, the penitentiary, concentration camps, and the death penalty. Half Jews were treated bad enough, but there were "full Jews who performed jazz illegally at risk to their lives" (139). In order for the swing kids to play American music, they had to camouflage it. For example, Ella Fitzgerald's "A Tisket A Tasket" became "Sans Ticket" and "St Louis Blues" became "La Tristesse de Saint Louis." "Jazz musicians always had one foot in the organized resistence or in the concentraion camps, and once again, jazz came close to assuming its original function as protest music" (147). By the end of 1941, the Nazi's decided that they need to be more tough on the German swings. On January 26, 1942, it was implimented that the swing youth "should first of all be beaten, exercised, and then put to work. Their terms of punishment should not be less then two or three years, and they should never be allowed to pursue their studies. Parents were to be examined for complicity and concentration camp and property confiscation should by no means, be ruled out" (159). As one Nazi said, "only if we move with brutality shall we be able to prevent the dangerous spread of such Anglophilic tendencies in a period when Germany is fighting for its very existence" (159).

Of all those who were imprisoned, only 5% were ever freed. The rest had to deal with heavy factory labor lasting 11 hours, minimal nutrition, corprol punishment, and punitive sports exercises. They were with hundreds of other people and guarded by 85 SS Men.....and that was in the "better" camps. "Swings who were already around 20 years old ended up in regular concentraion camps where they were charged more severly with being political criminals" (160). After the summer of 1942, the tide began to turn against the Third Reich. "On February 3, 1943, Hitler had to concede defeat at Stalingrad. The Allied forces then landed on the Normany coast during D-day, the 6th of June. Ten weeks later, the Fuhrer withstood the serverest assassination attempt on his career. And finally, the Red Army entered Berlin in the last week of April, 1945. On the 8th day of May, just eight days after Hitler and Goebble's suicides, the government capitulated unconditionally" (163). The war was finally over.

It was actually jazz that saw "the Final Victoy so often conjured up the Nazi leaders" (203). "This victory was possible because enough swing musicians and true believers in jazz had managed to stay alive, quietly treasuring the music in their hearts" (203). When their fredom was finally returned, jazz was more alive then ever. They were finally free to play their American swing music, even if they were a bit out of practice! Since then, swing has lived on. You can still buy Benny Goodman, Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, Glenn Miller, and all of the other greats at your local record store. Swing dancing has revived in the 90's with classes being filled up all over the country with new swing kids. And now, new swing bands are emerging everyday, playing both new tunes and the old greats. The Nazi's tried to end the swing era, but to this day, swing lives on. Swing in fact, has conquered!

"In a world on the brink of war. You either march to one tune or dance to another."

Many of this information can be found in a book called Different Drummers: Jazz in the Culture of Nazi Germany, written by author and swing musician, Michael H. Kater.

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