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Edited by Annie J. Randall Music, Power, and Politics


The Power to Influence Minds: German Folk Music During the Nazi Era and After

Britta Sweers

Chapter Excerpt

Music associated with the term Volksmusik is viewed problematically in Germany today, and is marginalized largely because of its propagandistic uses during the Nazi era (1933–1945). I had always taken this marginal status for granted; neither I nor my friends had ever identified strongly with the various folk songs we had sung in kindergarten and school. Even though I was born and raised in Schleswig-Holstein, I had never felt deeply connected to its vernacular traditions because my parents were not native to this region.1 With neither a strong personal connection to my region’s music nor to the kitschy, Bavarian-Alpine images with which the highly popular volkstümliche Musik (“folkstyle music”) is inseparably intertwined, a study of German traditional music seemed, for me, highly unlikely.

The impetus to explore my own German traditions emerged while I was researching the mid-twentieth-century transformation of English folk music.2 During the course of that study, I encountered a situation that, at first, seemed similar to Germany’s: A considerable portion of the English population after 1945 had rejected their country’s traditional music. Wanting to pursue the topic in its German context, yet also wanting to avoid the political minefield connected to the difficult issue of German refugees in the post–World War II era,3 I planned to do a private and, I thought, harmless research project on the general remnants of folk music in northern Germany. Yet upon talking informally to several older people, it quickly became obvious that it would be difficult to get beyond music associated with the events of the Nazi era.4

I too was affected by the music of that time (even though I was born a generation after the war, in 1969), a fact that became evident upon discussing the origin of the Christmas song “Es ist für uns eine Zeit angekommen” (“The time of advent has come”) with my church choir. Its first verse reads, “Es ist für uns eine Zeit angekommen/Die bringt uns eine große Freud/Über’s schneebedeckte Feld wandern wir/Durch die große weite Welt.” (Literally translated as “A time has come for us/that brings us a great pleasure/Over the snow-covered field we walk/Through the big, wide world.”) This song had been familiar to me from childhood on; however, only in the context of this research did I discover that it was originally a Swiss song, and that its Christian content had been neutralized by a new text in the 1930s in accordance with Nazi cultural doctrines to undermine the strong social influence of Christian churches.5 When I shared this information with my church choir, the reactions were two-fold. One singer, a thirty-five-year-old mother, responded with confusion and searched the song’s verses for any ideological implications, only to realize that it contained no overt devices from the Nazi era. Another singer, a former journalist and actor, just said, “So what?”Uninterested in the history of the song’s textual change, she defended the pagan roots of her region’s cultural traditions and insisted on celebrating the winter solstice with her family for fun, despite the irritation of several neighbors who, obviously, associated such pagan traditions with neo-Nazi ideology.6

The knowledge of the song’s background left me with an uneasy feeling, and I started to wonder how, exactly, seemingly innocent folk music could have been imbued with such negative power that even two or three generations later, its traumatic impact could still be felt. This chapter explores folk music, in its original and altered forms, and the role it played within the totalitarian Nazi regime. I examine folk music’s underlying concepts and their changing definition in selected contexts of the 1930s and ’40s. Finally, the chapter considers the aftereffects of Nazi-era uses of folk music in postwar Germany. First, in order to provide orientation points that will help to place my informants’ stories—that were, with regard to folk music, often fragmentary—in historical context,7 I trace this topic’s roots as presented in the literature on the history of German folk music.

    * [Footnotes omitted in this excerpt. Please see full book.]

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