Swing was exactly the kind of music Hitler and his fascist regime despised: deemed ‘un-German’, ‘negro’, ‘Jewish’ and ‘sexually perverted’, it was frowned upon and those listening to it risked their lives. Instead, young people were encouraged to listen to German folk music and military propaganda marches, which promoted the healthy, wholesome image favoured by the Nazis.

Nonetheless, the swing scene didn’t just disappear, it simply went underground and became a dangerous form of resistance and rebellion for a generation of Swing Kids. Lena Weber reports.

With Hitler’s rise to power in 1933, records and sheet music by black, Jewish or foreign artists gradually disappeared from the shops. Jazz and swing were never made illegal as such but the very association with Afro-American culture was considered anti-Aryan.

This didn’t stop the young Germans in the metropolitan cities such as Hamburg, Frankfurt or Berlin from listening to and dancing to swing. They simply met in secret, at home or the back rooms of cafes or bars and called themselves the Harlem-Club, the  O. K. Gang and Hot-Club. Members of these swing clubs were not necessarily political. Rather than a politically motivated anti-Nazi stand, what brought them together was their desire to live freely, listen to their own music, dress in their own style, opposing the strictly regimented and totalitarian youth culture propagated by the Nazis in their Hitler Youth.

The Swing Kids (‘Swingjugend’ in German) defined themselves through their ‘Lotterleben’, a lifestyle of lazying around, going to parties and having fun, which they expressed in their American-style clothes – trench coats, fedoras, zoot suits for the boys, wide-legged trousers or tight wiggle dresses for the girls – their accessories such as pipes and umbrellas to look like a British city gent, their long hair styles and slang that deliberately included plenty of English and Yiddish words and phrases. ‘Swing Heil’ for example was a popular way of saying hello.

entartete_musik-201x300Until 1940 the swing scene was largely tolerated until a large gathering of Swing Kids in Hamburg alerted the authorities. After this, the swing scene went mainly underground. Things changed dramatically in 1942, when – partially based on reports by members of the Hither Youth who would attend swing parties as spies – head of the SS Heinrich Himmler wrote to his deputy Reinhard Heydrich calling on him to clamp down on the ringleaders of the Swing movement, recommending a few years in a concentration camp with beatings and forced labour.

The crackdown soon followed: clubs were raided and participants were hauled off to camps. In the following years over 300 Swing Kids were arrested and sent to Hamburg’s Gestapo prison and a near-by concentration camp where they were forced into particularly hard labour. Other Swing Kids became more politically active, spurred on by the Allied propaganda they would listen to – illegally – while searching for swing on their radios. Many started to send out anti-government fliers and transcripts of Allied broadcasts.

Until the end of the war in 1945, the Swing Kids continued to defy Nazi youth culture and insisted on their own way of life: free, independent and swinging.

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