May 19, 2005

Edelweiss Pirates, Swing Kids & Charlie And His Orchestra

Edlweiss.jpgCurrently doing the rounds of the film festival circuit is a film about the Edelweiss Pirates, a group who occupy a prominent place in the youth counter-culture movements that thrived on the fringes of Nazi German society. The Pirates were a loose organization of largely working kids from the Cologne area, who inherited a love of the outdoors as a place for (relatively) unfettered self-exploration from the pre-Nazi German Youth Movement, and turned it into a touchstone for rebellion against the strict regimentation of Hitler Youth culture. As part of this rebellion, they were open to a free mixing of the sexes (which the Hitler Youth never allowed); they tagged Cologne with anti-Nazi graffiti; aligned themselves German anti-Nazi movements like the White Rose Society; sheltered Army deserters; and, in 1944, even killed the head of the Cologne Gestapo. (The reprisals they faced for their more subversive activities were naturally brutal, and culminated in the hanging of a number of their members.)
Like any form of self-respecting youth counter-culture, they also articulated their opposition through music. Primarily, they used parodies of Hitler Youth tunes and patriotic songs like “The Watch on The Rhine"; substituting the words “Beloved fatherland, have no fear, Beloved fatherland, have no fear” with “Beloved fatherland, have no fear, Nazi pigs still stink here.” Recently, a group of Cologne-based musicians set out to produce updated versions of their anti-Nazi anthems. The results can be heard here (German language only write-ups)

Swing_Kids.jpgUnlike the direct action oriented Edelweiss Pirates, the Swing Kids were a group of teens whose rebellion revolved entirely around a fashion and a genre of music – swing. For the fanatically racist authorities of the time, swing was a complete anathema. After all, it had largely been developed by blacks and, according to the paranoid Nazi worldview, it was being spread like a virus by Jewish music industry moguls. For middle class kids in Berlin and Hamburg in the early 40’s, however, it represented a way of thumbing their nose at Hitler Youth culture without being overtly political. Instead of getting buzz cuts, donning khakis, and engaging in paramilitary outdoor activities; they let their hair grow, decked themselves in big suits, cavorted with the opposite sex in clandestine swing clubs, and listened to banned imports of Louis Armstrong’s Tiger Rag. (If you want a good introduction to the scene, check out the 1993 film, Swing Kids… But be warned: it has the most appallingly mawkish ending imaginable.)

Charlie_Orchestra.jpgThe story of swing in Nazi Germany, however, doesn't end with a few disaffected boho jungen. (Indeed, if the recent film of Hitler’s last days, Downfall, is to be believed; swing made its way into inner circle parties, thanks to Eva Braun.) On a more official level, swing was seen by Goebbels as a useful means of making his long-range propaganda broadcasts palatable to Allied audiences. And, for this purpose, he enlisted a group of swing-proficient German musicians to make versions of American swing songs with pro-Nazi lyrics. They were known as Charlie And His Orchestra. The musicians agreed to take part largely because it meant they would be exempt from military service, but they were supposedly not that sympathetic to the Nazi cause (for the most part, they didn’t even understand the English lyrics that were being sung over their music). They even had a drummer, Fritz Brocksieper, who came from Jewish stock. If you want to hear a fairly comprehensive selection of the Orchestra’s music, check out this posting on the WFMU blog. As pieces of propaganda, they leave no stone unturned – pleasant enough renditions of standards like Sheik of Araby and Indian Love Call are transformed mid-song into smirking demolitions of Winston Churchill and the Anglo-American alliance.

Posted by Warren at 10:38 PM