There were several youth movements that resisted the ever-increasing totalitarian nature of Nazi Germany during the 1930s. One of the most significant groups were the so-called Edelweiss Pirates. These working-class youths had no distinctive political ideology. Still, they simply opposed the dogmas and lack of freedom in Nazi Germany and especially the Hitlerjugend, the official youth organisation of the Nazi Party. They dabbled in crime and as the Second World War progressed, individual branches of the gangs began showing more dangerous subversive behaviour. Some began sabotaging railway lines and weapon depots, hiding crashed Allied pilots and occasionally even killing Nazis.
Another nonconformist youth group didn’t engage in sabotage or subversive activities. These teenagers banded together over their mutual love for banned music, British and American culture and in protest against the totalitarian nature of Nazi Germany. Yet these teenagers certainly suffered the brunt of the iron fist of the Nazi regime.
Swingjugend, as they were called, were groups of young jazz- and swing lovers during the 1930s in Germany. They mainly existed in large cities such as Hamburg, Stuttgart, Kiel, Dresden and Berlin and consisted of teenagers and people in their early 20s. In contrast to the Edelweiss pirates, members of the Swingjugend came from affluent upper-middle-class families.
Their name refers to their longing to a British or American lifestyle, listening to banned jazz- and swing music. Illegal dance parties were organised where they played music from big bands such as the Glenn Miller Orchestra and American jazz by Louis Armstrong. These parties attracted large crowds. One group referred to as the Flottbeck Group, mentioned in a 1944 report by the Reich Ministry of Justice, organised an illegal party attended by 6000 teenagers. Gestapo reports described the dancing of the teenagers attending as ‘an uninhibited indulgence in swing.’
As benign as it sounds, organising and attending these parties was incredibly dangerous. In the words of Heinrich Himmler, head of the SS, anyone that listened to banned jazz music should “be beaten, given the severest exercise, and then put to hard labour.”
Besides their love for American and British music, Swingjugend distinguished themselves by way of clothing as well. They often grew long hair, in contrast to the neatly cut hair that was customary. They wore hats and carried umbrellas with them. They used slang, using many anglicisms as an addition to their German. A Gestapo officer describes them as ‘having long hair, down to the collar, engaging in an energetic dance known as the jitterbug.’ Thanks to their middle-class families Swingjugend generally were able to buy fancy clothing, gramophones to play their music, and actually afford the illegal jazz music smuggled into Germany.
Although the Swingjugend was considered to be apolitical, a stern opposition against the Nazi party and its customs and organisations were prevalent. The Nazi party, Hitlerjugend and their cultures were mocked and ridiculed. For example, Swing youths greeted each other with “Swing Heil!” instead of “Sieg Heil”. In another instance, sources mention that the entrance of an illegal swing clubs used an official Nazi sign that said: “Swing Verboten”, meaning Swing is prohibited, but they changed the wording to “Swing Erbitten” meaning as much as Swing requested.
Just like the Edelweiss Pirates, Swingjugend opposed the ever-increasing militarism of Nazi Germany and the Hitlerjugend. Once Hitler came into power, German teenagers were encouraged to join the Hitlerjugend, where a strict separation between boys and girls (the girls had their own youth wing, the Bund Deutscher Mädel) and German folk music, dancing and culture was promoted. There was no place for, in the words of Himmler, “degenerate” music from America.
Membership of the Hitlerjugend became compulsory by December 1936. When the Jugenddienstpflicht or Youth Service Duty was issued in March 1939, all German youths were conscripted in the Hitlerjugend. Yet illegal swing parties continued to be promoted. Swingjugend opened illegal jazz clubs and formed their own jazz bands. One Gestapo report mentions the closing down of the so-called Harlem Club in Frankfurt, where illegal parties were hosted attended by hundreds of teenagers. There’s near astonishment in descriptions about the hedonistic pleasure of the Swingjugend, who drank heavily, danced energetically and didn’t adhere to the strict expectations of contact between boys and girls.
From 1939 onwards, after the start of the Second World War, the suppression of the Swingjugend increased dramatically. In response, the organisers moved meetings and festivals to secret locations such as basements and living rooms away from the street. There’s a grim twist to the story as well. On August 18 1941, 300 Swingjugend were arrested. Most were released and put under strict observation by the Gestapo, Germany’s secret police. But its leaders were sent off to various concentration camps, where several met their end.
Yet the Swingjugend never had any coherent political ideology. Not even after the Gestapo started actively hunting them. After the war, one of the Swingjugend’s members gave an interview in which he mentioned: “We were not against the Nazis, they were against us.” And that sums up their struggle quite nicely. They simply wanted to have a good time and explore boundaries, as we all wanted when we were teenagers. Yet when you put teenage curiosity and wantonness into a totalitarian regime such as Nazi Germany, well, only bad things can come from that really. As historian McDonough mentions, the Nazis interpreted the Swingjugend’s love for British and American culture as subversive, dangerous for the morale and as indicating a lack of love for the nation. But instead, the Swingjugend simply appreciated a certain degree of cultural freedom, which was completely absent in Nazi Germany.
Even in popular culture, the Swingjugend makes an occasional appearance. In 1993 a film by Thomas Carter was released: Swing Kids. The story, set in pre-war Germany, is about two teenage boys that participate in the Hitlerjugend during the day but visit Swingjugend parties at night. Although it is a work of fiction, it indeed represents a moral dilemma’s many people faced under the iron fist of the totalitarian Nazi rule.
McDonough, F. (2001). Opposition and resistance in Nazi Germany (p. 5). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.