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The Swing Movement in Nazi Germany

The strict regimentation of youth culture in Nazi Germany through the Hitler Youth led to the emergence of several underground protest movements, through which adolescents were able to better exert their independence. There were street gangs (Meuten) of working class youths, who borrowed elements from socialist and communist traditions to forge their own identities, and there were less politically motivated groups that such as the Eidelweiss Pirates[?] (Edelweißpiraten), who acted in defiance of Hitler Youth norms. A third group, consisting mainly of upper middle class youths, based their protest on their musical preferences, rejecting the völkisch music propagated by the Party for American jazz forms, especially Swing. While musical preferences are often a feature of youthful rebellion - as the history of rock and roll shows - jazz and especially Swing were particularly offensive to the Nazi hierarchy: not only did they promote sexual permissiveness, but they were also associated with the American enemy and worse, with the inferior African race. To the Nazis, jazz was "Negro music."

Of course, not all jazz was forbidden in Germany at the time. A milder, Germanized version was popular in clubs and shows throughout the Third Reich. What German "Swing kids" did was restore the original tempos and messages, refashioning them in an uninhibited form of protest against the social regimentation they faced. A popular term that the Swing subculture used to define itself was Lottern, roughly translated as "sleaziness," indicating that the movement was no less interested in undermining the repressive sexual mores of the Nazi regime. Reports by Hitler Youth observers of Swing parties and jitterbug went into careful detail about the overtly sexual nature of both. One report describes as "moral depravity" the fact that Swing youth took pleasure in their sexuality.

Despite this, Swing was tolerated to some degree in Germany at least until 1940, when a Swing festival, held in Hamburg, attracted over 500 youths. Inevitably, however, the gathering was monitored closely by the rival Hitler Youth. When such gatherings were banned, the Swing youth moved to more informal settings, and Swing clubs emerged in all the major cities of the Reich. One possible explanation for this is the socioeconomic background of the participants, who were mainly from the upper middle class. This was inevitable, as Swing culture required the participants to have access to the music, which was not played on German radio, so that extensive collections of phonograph recordings were essential. Similarly, to understand the lyrics of the predominantly American songs, it was necessary to have at least a rudimentary understanding of English. Relative wealth also fostered a distinctive style among the Swing youth, which was in some ways comparable to the zoot suit[?] style popular in the United States at the time (see: Zoot Suit Riots). Boys usually wore long jackets, often checkered, shoes with crepe soles (for dancing), and flashy scarves. They almost always carried an umbrella, and added a dress shirt button with a semi-precious stone. Girls generally wore their hair long and loose and added excessive makeup.

Though they were not overtly political - more likely, they were apolitical - Swing youth tended to reject the racism of Nazi society. The music they listened to was African American, and they were more open to accepting Jews into their circles. Their behavior, described by many Nazis as "effete," ran counter to the Spartan militarism that the regime was trying to inculcate in its youth.

This was the cause of the eventual onslaught on the Swing youth. On January 2, 1942, Heinrich Himmler wrote to 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 labor. The crackdown soon followed: clubs were raided and participants were hauled off to camps.

The Swing youth movement was the subject of a feature film, Swing Kids[?] (1993).



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