Crossing between marching rhythm and swing: German popular music during the Nazi regime

New research project undertaken by the departments of Musicology and History of Mainz University examines the media, networks, key figures, and content of light music in the Third Reich

26 October 2021

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

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

Exploring the actions of individuals in the face of political repression

On the one hand, the research project will look at the question of political influence and repression by Nazi leaders. On the other hand, Niedermüller also regards the actions of the individual against this political background as an important theme. 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 onwards. 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 are considerable variations between the biographies and so we have to look at the concrete actions of individual persons."

Popular music was meant to suggest normal everyday life

Another topic of investigation deals with the embedding of popular music in cinema and the function it exercised there. Musical analyses take a closer look at the role of marching rhythms in contrast to elements taken from swing and jazz. "Hollywood was the exemplar for Goebbels," said Niedermüller. "We see revue and operetta music merging with jazz elements and folk music in German popular music of the time." Evidently, the need for a strong entertainment culture was considered important, not only because society demanded it, but also as a way of suggesting a sense of normal everyday life.