Crossing between walking rhythm and swing: German popular music during the Nazi dictatorship


A new research project undertaken by the departments of musicology and history of the University of Mainz examines the media, networks, key figures and content of light music in the Third Reich

Radio and sound cinema helped music to spread widely during the Weimar Republic, and enthusiasm for new media and new sounds continued unabated even after the Nazis took power. Although the Nazis did not pursue a well-defined music policy as such, popular music played an important role as a medium of communication during their reign. Under Joseph Goebbels, who oversaw all cultural activities, the industry enjoyed more freedom than other art media.

“However, the overall situation was quite complicated,” said Professor Peter Niedermüller of the Johannes Gutenberg University in Mainz (JGU). The musicologist is leading the research project entitled “Deutsche Unterhaltungsmusik im 20. Jahrhundert” (“German popular music in the 20th century”). In cooperation with the history department of the JGU, the project will study the music scene during the Nazi period, ie from the end of the Weimar Republic to 1945. The new research group is highly interdisciplinary, and benefits in particular from the close links between the fields of musicology and contemporary history at JGU. The project is funded by the GEMA Foundation and the Franz Grothe Foundation.

Explore the actions of individuals in the face of political repression

On the one hand, the research project will address the issue of political influence and repression exerted by Nazi leaders. On the other hand, Niedermüller also considers the actions of the individual in this political context as an important topic. The research team will trace the lives of musicians in the Nazi state, such as Franz Grothe, composer and conductor of the German Dance and Entertainment Orchestra. “The situation became more and more difficult for foreign and Jewish musicians from 1933. German artists, however, tried to maintain the musical direction which had made them successful during the Weimar Republic, a direction which had often borrowed from jazz. and swing, ”said Niedermüller. “There is considerable variation between biographies, so we have to look at the concrete actions of individual people. ”

Popular music was supposed to suggest normal everyday life

Another subject of investigation concerns the embedding of popular music in the cinema and the function it exercises there. Musical analyzes take a closer look at the role of walking rhythms as opposed to elements drawn from swing and jazz. “Hollywood was the example for Goebbels,” said Niedermüller. “We see revue and operetta music merging with elements of jazz and folk music in German popular music of the time.” Obviously, the need for a strong entertainment culture was seen as important, not only because society demanded it, but also as a way to suggest a sense of normal everyday life.

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