Swastika swing

Hitler's Airwaves

January 23, 1998

Last year marked the centenary of two seemingly unrelated births. Dr Paul Josef Goebbels, Hitler's lame, romantically inclined Reichspropagandalelter, was born in Rheydt in the Rhineland in October 1897, while if the terminus a quo set by discographer Brian Rust is accepted the music that became known as jazz first stirred in another river basin, on the opposite side of the Atlantic. There is an understandable and largely forgivable consensus about the Nazi view of jazz, but it is one that is fuelled by fiction (novels of cultural resistance like Josef Skvorecky's The Bass Saxophone) rather than by historical fact. Much as the Nazis might have wanted to suppress "hot music'', with its "Judaeo-Negroid'' lapses of taste, its bleating saxophone, muted trumpets and syncopated rhythms, it was simply unable to do so without alienating the very constituency whose support the party coveted. Jazz had not been officially subsumed in the roster of anathemata covered by Entertete Kunst. A later exposition of "Degenerate Music'' lacked both full official backing and the organisational skills required; some young visitors noted that it had actually turned them on to hot jazz. The Thuringian minister of the interior, Wilhelm Frick, had attempted to suppress jazz and hot music as early as 1930, for being inimical to German cultural values and tending "to undermine the moral strength of the ... nation''.

Goebbels, ever the pragmatist, preferred to think in terms of neutralising the morally corrosive characteristics of jazz, and then naturalising it as a branch of the Nazi propaganda effort. During the war, German musicians - not always of unimpeachably Aryan stock - produced a regular supply of swing records, often using American and British songs with reworked satirical lyrics: after the Soviet Union's military reverses of 1942, Blue Moon became the basis for a gloating prayer to the "Red Star - I saw you fighting alone''.

Propaganda swing was, of course, only one aspect of a wider dissemination of ideological values. Horst Bergmeier and Rainer Lotz have assembled an impressive range of material on the clandestine station and on the notorious turncoat broadcasters like "Haw Haw'' (William Joyce), Norman Baillie-Stewart and Jack Trevor. They have also considered less well-known figures, such as Glasgow-born Eduard Dietze, a moderate who ran the German news propaganda service during the `"phoney war''. More important, though, they also clarify the complex mobilisation of the Reichs-Rundfunk Gesellschaft mbH as an arm of Nazi policy and aspirations, and the carefully targeted, but inconsistently successful territorial devolution of powers to specialist groups.

It is axiomatic that the Third Reich was serviced, perpetuated, and in a sense defined by the propaganda machine. Bergmeier and Lotz perhaps give too much emphasis to one, admittedly startling and exceptional aspect of it. Hitler's Airwaves betrays some signs of having been written for a college market, and may suffer as much from that as from a collaborative approach that leaves some aspects of the story thinly covered. More would have been welcome on the ideological and aesthetic debates going on within the RRG and the NSDAP, and on the precise command and referral structure - outwardly so watertight, in practice so full of holes and elisions. Goebbels's level of culture can certainly be exaggerated; he was as much of a sentimentalist as his leader, albeit at a more elevated level. What is impressive is his understanding of cultural mechanics, coarsened in practice and in the hands of more reductively minded subordinates. As an essay in how cultures survive in the interstices even of totalitarian regimes, Hitler's Airwaves offers a valuable and broadly convincing model, crisply written, an ideal starting point for the student of Nazi propaganda and a stimulus for further research into this strange world of half-truths and big lies.

Brian Morton is senior producer, BBC Scotland.

Hitler's Airwaves: The Inside Story of Nazi Radio Broadcasting and Propaganda Swing

Author - Horst J. P. Bergmeier and Rainer E. Lotz
ISBN - 0 300 06709 7
Publisher - Yale University Press
Price - £22.50
Pages - 368

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