“Nein, das Nazi-Regime konnte meine Liebe zum Swing nicht brechen.” — Günter Discher, German swing youth
While I walked the rainy streets of Hamburg recently, my host pointed to a large rectangular stone building that didn’t so much stand as squat. It had tiny windows and thick walls to frame them. “That is an old air raid shelter,” she said. “The swing kids used to volunteer for the lookout shifts. It allowed them to sit on the roof and listen to illegal swing on the radio.”
A Teenage Counter-Culture
Many Lindy Hoppers in the late 90s and early 2000s were in some way inspired by the movie “Swing Kids.” (I know I certainly was.) Sure, the lead actors don’t dance very well. (Way to slack off. What did they have, two whole months to prepare?). And the “hero” makes the incredibly heroic choice of purposefully getting caught by the Nazis as his grand statement against fascism. But you can’t deny that a story about using swing as a symbol against evil strikes a chord in all of us who love swing and swing dance today.
First off, to satisfy a big curiosity, no, they didn’t Lindy Hop. Apparently they danced Foxtrot, but tried to make it wild, imitating the actions they saw in pictures of American swing dancers. According to Stephan Wuthe — modern-day German swing kid, classic-day swing kid historian, and author of Swingtime in Deutschland — this dance style was referred to as “swing,” or “swingtime.” One dancing master later avoided the word “swing” and called it Kleiner foxtrot (“little foxtrot”).
Hamburg was the hot spot, especially in terms of historical raids on swing youth, though Berlin, Frankfurt, and many other cities across all the countries of the Third Reich also had groups. Authorities and other citizens called the youth Swing-Heinis and Swingjugend — at first insults of a sort, but soon proudly adopted by the youth. More often, the youth referred to each other by American and English slang terms like “swing boy,” “swing doll,” and “swing baby.” (“Swing baby” was for girls, as in “Let’s get the car and go pick up some amazing swing babies.” Which sounds kind of adorably awkward, but there you go. Maybe it sounds cooler in German.)
The swing youth were mostly teenagers between 14 and 19 from middle and, especially in Hamburg, upper class families. In these upper class families, it was common for the youth to have had partnered ballroom dance lessons, to know a little English, and perhaps to have had the opportunity to travel abroad to England or America. Hamburg youth especially were the children of cultured intellectuals with generally liberal views. Many of these youth met and befriended each other early in their lives at sports clubs, where jazz was often played. “Kaki” Georgiadis was notable among them: He carried a British passport and at age 18 inherited his father’s enormous cigarette fortune. Thus, one of the wealthiest people in Hamburg was an 18-year-old swing youth. One can only imagine the parties he threw for his friends. Another interesting pair were the Madlung sisters, daughters of a distinguished half-Jewish lawyer, who could imitate the Andrew Sisters to a note, and often had their younger brother joining in (one wants to imagine him singing the high notes). They were regulars at parties all over town.
Though they didn’t Lindy Hop, the boys did almost always carry umbrellas, and they did wear their hair long in the front (1930’s Hollywood style), and they did say things like “Swing Heil.” (A personal favorite slang pun of mine was the use of “Heil Hotler” to replace “Heil Hitler,” where the word “hot” referred to hot jazz.) According to Wuthe, Swing Heil was also a dance step. It’s the German name for “truckin’,” where a dancer waves a finger in the air while scootching around on one foot. Some authorities called it “the evil nightclub finger,” but it wasn’t banned or anything; it even appeared in a few movies. [*] Regarding the umbrellas, this was mostly just a fashion necessity, except for those in the north; Hamburg has more rainy days per year than London.
Dancing was a very important part of the swing youth’s social lives. Now, here is the surprising thing: According to Wuthe, swing dancing was never specifically banned in Nazi Germany. All dancing itself was occasionally banned, and as the war went on, dance clubs were turned into hospitals or places were Jews were kept before deportation to camps, but swing dancing was never singled out. (We’ll dive more into that, and other misconceptions, later.)
Though America was the home of the swing music and films the German swing youth devoured, the swing youth also took a great deal of their inspiration from British culture, especially the fashionable English nobility. Aside from having their London-inspired umbrella always handy, the anglophilic swing boys reportedly loved checked coats, bright scarfs, pipes, carrying English newspapers, and listening to the BBC. (I say reportedly because, though several reputable sources mention the checked coats, I’ve only seen one obvious one in all the pictures of original swing kids I’ve looked at. Mostly I see double-breasted dark suits. Though to be fair, many of the men’s outfits are covered by overcoats, and their long hair covered by fedoras. Bright patterned scarves are also not as common as solids in their pictures, despite numerous descriptions of them wearing patterned scarves.)
The female swing kids wore their hair in curled Hollywood styles rather than traditional German styles like braids. They wore lots of makeup in contrast to the Nazi-desired “natural” look. And, going against the wills of oppressive governments throughout history, they wore their skirts “short.” Pictures show that “short” meant “just above the knee.” One article mentioned they enjoyed wearing turtlenecks under fur coats, though I haven’t seen it in pictures.
The youth, especially in the early days, liked to broadcast their culture. They would play their swing records on portable gramophones under bridges, so the sound would amplify into the surrounding area. They would whistle swing songs and sometimes walk with one foot on the curb, the other on the street — a sort of limping swagger they called the “lotter step.” (Whistling Eddie Carroll’s “Harlem” was the way the Frankfurt swing youth hailed each other. Berliners switched from “Goody, Goody” to “Jeepers Creepers.” Liepzig had “Flat Foot Floogie.”) As they were teenagers, they of course made up new, obscene lyrics to many songs.
Some of the swing youth were known for having a causal attitude towards sex, and many assumed this was part of their swing parties. The Hitler Youth at the time described the swing youth and their unique brand of Jitterbug as the very utmost of moral depravity and sexual promiscuity. Given that the Hitler Youth were bound to be a little biased against the swing youth, not to mention that they upheld a pretty puritan view of what constituted “moral depravity,” we can probably deduce from this report that the swing youth were just acting like many average teenagers would when they’re away from their parents and around members of the opposite sex.**
Official reports reinforce this interpretation: Gestapo secretly attended a club dance and found it important to mention in their write-ups that boys with cigarettes hanging out of both sides of their mouths danced together, that sometimes several people linked arms and formed a circle and began jumping, and that often even the musicians couldn’t sit in their seats and had to stand in excitement. It certainly doesn’t sound like an orgy, from my admittedly limited experience.
It’s interesting to note, though, that some of the swing youth used the word lottern as a way to proudly describe themselves, a word Wikipedia translates as “something between ‘laziness’ and ‘sleaziness’.” (Again, though, what 16-year-old-boy doesn’t in some way fit that description?) German Swungover readers have clarified that the word also carries a sense of being happy-go-lucky, and not having a plan.++
Protest & Rebellion
I mention the fashion, the slang, and the relative sexual promiscuity to remind us that the swing youth were at their heart a group of teenagers. Like most teenagers, their lives were mostly just about being teenagers. There is a desire, I think, to imagine they were being brazenly political in what they were doing. And certainly, in history, they are symbolically recognized and sometimes praised as a political group.***
But I’d like to, briefly, mention Roger Ebert’s review of the movie Swing Kids. In it, Ebert mentions that some of his main problems with the movie were that there was nothing heroic about youth sitting around wanting to dance when countless innocent people were being persecuted in front of them. And he has a point—not just about the film, but about most of the original swing youth.****
If the original swing youth were political at all, it was mostly an unconscious choice, or something attributed to them that they did not attribute to themselves. Sure, you could argue their love of American swing music was probably linked to an inherent appreciation of individuality, freedom, and tolerance. Or that hidden beneath their defiance of the Hitler Youth was a defiance of the entire Nazi philosophy. But it wasn’t something they talked about with each other, or planned actions for; every original swing kid I have read about has stated in interviews that they simply were not politically motivated. Yes, they were known for acts of rebellion, but these were crimes like petty theft and dealing in the black market. If they did have a method of protest, it was a mostly non-violent one: a simple refusal to adhere to the government’s desires for how citizens should dress and behave. Or, more specifically, a liking of things created in part by Black and Jewish Americans, whom they were told to despise.
It’s easy to look at movies like Swing Kids, especially with the post-war everything-the-Nazis-did-was-evil mentality, and wonder how teenagers could go around so blatantly breaking the rules of the Third Reich. Apparently, the reality is that they weren’t actually breaking as many rules as we are led to believe. According to Wuthe, while the Nazi’s didn’t appreciate the racial aspect of jazz music much, they were mostly upset that the swing youth were listening to British swing music, and copying British style. Remember, Britain and Germany began their war in 1939, while America remained neutral until the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941. Until then, German bands were allowed to play American-style music, including jazz. Jazz and swing itself, Wuthe writes, were never forbidden by law.
(It’s understandable if this is hard to believe. Especially because of famous anti-swing propaganda such as the “Swing Tanzen Verboten” sign and the “Entartete Musik” poster art. This is where the story gets interesting: the “Swing Tanzen Verboten” sign is a fake from the 1970s, designed for a record cover. It was so good at replicating the style of German poster art from the period that people thought — and still think — that it was actually a legitimate warning poster from the Third Reich. It has been accepted as historical fact so much that it has been used in movies focusing on the period. But no such sign ever existed in Nazi Germany. For more on the history of the sign, check out this article.
As far as the “Entartete Musik” poster goes, it was for a not-very-exciting 1937 touring exhibit about “degenerate music,” proving that, yes, the Fascists didn’t like Jazz and its African-American roots and its Jewish musicians. However, it is not a poster banning the music, as the movie Swing Kids suggest.)
When the swing kids did rebel, it was often in the spirit of being overly confident and obnoxious, in the way that only teenagers from well-off families try to pull off. And, once again, it was the Hamburg swing youth who were known for this. Aside from swaggering their lifestyle and fashion around town, some would “boo” or make loud, snide comments disrupting newsreels, or even when Gestapo were present. “We were going to tell these dumb bastards that we were different, that was all,” said Tommie Scheel, one of the Hamburg swing kids. From these words, it’s clear that most of the swing youth were simply playing a game that they unfortunately didn’t grasp the stakes of…as Scheel himself would discover.
This attitude even turned off some of their peers. A Jewish Berlin swing youth named Rolf Jacob, for instance, told Wuthe a story about some of the Hamburg swing kids coming to visit Jacobs’ group in Berlin. The Hamburg swing youth spent the trip being obnoxious and trying to provoke the authorities, rather than just listen to music and dance. Understandably nervous, Jacobs and the rest of the city’s partially Jewish swing youth didn’t welcome the Hamburg kids back. (Jacobs himself claimed he never felt attacked just for being a swing kid. Other Jewish jazz-lovers of the Third Reich felt their jazz-loving connections and friends helped many hide or escape persecution.)
Despite the fact that the swing youth didn’t fully understand the danger around them, I believe it still took a lot of courage to flaunt this counter-culture lifestyle in a world growing increasingly filled with soldiers, iron crosses, and swastika banners—even if many of them were just privileged, naive kids.
As the 1930s grew darker — as the first anti-Semitic laws in 1935 gave way to outright violence against Jews in November of 1938 — it’s hard to imagine that there weren’t at least a few of them who realized that they were a part of something much greater than a teenage rebellious fad. For instance, even though they might not have seen themselves personally as a political threat, the Nazis obviously thought differently. Well, one Nazi in particular, anyway.
His name was Karl Hintze, a Sturmbannführer Kriminalrat who was trying to goose-step his way to the top of the Gestapo with rabid conservatism. And yes, he just so happened to be stationed in Hamburg. And in 1941, under his command, Gestapo arrested more than 300 swing youths in a raid.
Most were sent home. Some simply had their long hair cut off as their punishment. The suspected leaders of the swing youth, however, were sent to concentration camps as political prisoners, or to the front lines to stand (and usually fall) for their “effeminate cowardice.” It was a message to Germany’s swing youth. Tommie Scheel, the Hamburg swing youth mentioned earlier, was arrested before this raid — constantly beaten, he was forced to stay in one position for hours a day, having his head repeatedly smashed against a wall if he moved.
(To keep things in perspective, it’s important to remember that Hamburg is the only place in Nazi Germany where raids on swing kids happened. As Wuthe pointed out, in all the other swing youth scenes across the Reich, no one was ever persecuted or punished for simply being a swing youth or listening to swing music. In the other parts of the Reich, for a swing youth to be persecuted he or she also had to be either Jewish, gay, gypsy, handicapped, or communist, which were all far greater sins to the Nazis than liking swing music and culture.
And, as the war progressed, it made sense for the Nazis not to worry too much about jazz — outlawing dancing and popular music would have been a kick to the morale of the troops, who were increasingly in need of good morale. It was Hamburg that had the unfortunate, but perhaps unavoidable, combination of reactionary youth and reactionary government to warrant raids.)
With beautiful irony, it was after the Hamburg raids that some of the swingjugend began to become overtly political and do things like distribute anti-Nazi propaganda. And, I imagine that those who were deported to the horror of a work or concentration camp very quickly became passionately anti-Nazi. Inga Madlung, one of the singing sisters mentioned earlier, was tortured by camp physicians who made her eat saltpeter as a twisted cure for her suspected over-sized libido, and on one occasion made her stare into the sun for fourteen days straight, destroying her vision.
Among the hardships in the camps or on the front line, many of the swing youth were together and supported each other, even improvising instruments and playing jazz music. In the women’s camp, the swing girls often covered their windows so they could sing songs at night. Many of them felt it was a very important part of surviving the camps. No, those teenage swing youth weren’t really political prisoners, but in those dire circumstances is the proof that swing was obviously much, much more to them than just a youthful rebellion. And I think one who epitomizes this is Günter Discher, one of the biggest record collectors of the Hamburg swing youth scene.
Aside from under-the-counter record sales, Discher was able to get outlawed swing records mailed to him by a swing-loving friend who was a soldier stationed in Denmark. Among his favorite artists were Count Basie, Louis Armstrong, and the British Armstrong-inspired Nat Gonella — who he mentioned was probably the swing kids’s favorite of all.
In January 1943, at the age of 17, he was arrested — for dealing marked-up enemy music records on the black market and for being a minor out after curfew — and sent to a youth concentration camp. Discher survived, though. Returning to his home after the war, he found his home had been bombed — a single record by Teddy Stauffer was all that remained of his 400 swing albums. He rebuilt his collection, however, and it reportedly held 25,000 LPs and more than 10,000 CDs at his death in 2012. He was Germany’s oldest living swing DJ (and pod caster), and spent his old age giving lectures and putting together collections of rare swing music. In 2000, he received a medal from the city of Hamburg for his contribution to the arts.
“Swing music was freedom,” he said, “freedom without any limits.”
The spirit of the original swing youth outlasted the Nazi regime. Not only did many of the swing youth continue to enjoy swing after the war, the recent decades have brought new Lindy Hop and Balboa scenes to Hamburg, Berlin, Munich, Vienna, and other major cities across the former Third Reich. In recent years, several of the original swing youth have been able to meet these new Swingjugend, confident that the spirit of swing lives on.
[*] — The film, though, obviously takes a few liberties and makes a few mistakes. For instance, the term “swing kids” wasn’t used before the movie. It’s still catchier to an English-speaking audience than “Swing-Heins” or “Swings” — the actual words used to describe them. Also, though Hamburg is a beautiful city, filming for Swing Kids actually took place in Prague.
** — Or same sex. Among teenagers everywhere, homosexuality is present, whether hidden or not. Times were especially rough for those youth, because the Nazis despised homosexuality, and it was a specific trait some were convinced was prevalent among the swing kids.
*** — This desire is manifested in the 1993 movie, which, after a brief introduction to the history of this youth culture, quickly becomes the story of a boy realizing what fascism means and deciding what side he’s on. His love of swing plays really only a small role in this decision — it more so serves as a personality trait that proves he is tolerant of non-fascist ideas.
**** — The film really was quite authentic in a lot of ways, especially with the apoliticalness of the general swing youth. This is one point, however, where I personally wished it would have taken a few liberties, and, for example, allowed the most enlightened character, Peter, to run off and join the resistance or something in the end. Then the film would be about a love of swing music that helps give birth to a heroic fighter against oppression. Or, you know, something like that.
++ — In the comments below, one of our German readers expounds more on the definition of “lottern.” The word “lottern” not only means lazy, but has something else going with it. In German we have a term called “Lotterleben” (lazy-life if translated) and describes a person that is lazy, but also unmotivated, a bit happy-go-lucky, without a real plan to life. Maybe this makes it a bit clearer what it means.
References & Further Reading
Different Drummers: Jazz in the Culture of Nazi Germany. By Michael H. Kater. 2003.
This is an amazing source for the history of the swing youth. Most of the other sources mentioned on websites say the same generic information. This book, however, goes into great detail about individual members, events, and cultural background. A great read for those interested more in the swing youth.
Swingtime in Deutschland. By Stephan Wuthe. 2012.
In German. Wuthe was extremely helpful in translating passages of his book and helping me navigate the murky waters of misinformation. Many of the facts and stories in my article came from his work. His book specifically tackles the complex reality concerning swing music and swing dancing during the dark decades of the Third Reich — which, as you could see, was not what we commonly expect. There is a possibility for an English translation. Here’s hoping.
Teenage: The Creation of Youth Culture. By Jon Savage. 2007.
The entire book is a fascinating look at the birth of teenage culture (though, I think it is often dully written.) There’s half a chapter dedicated to the swing youth, though most of Savage’s factual information obviously came from the Different Drummers book above. There is also a chapter on American Jitterbugs.
Please note, after seeing the research conducted by German-jazz historian Stephan Wuthe, I am convinced several of these contain misinformation about the history of the period.
Electro Swing Italia
Music & The Holocaust
“Swing Kids Behind Barbed Wire”
Music in Hessen
” “Heil Hotler” – Swingjugend im Nationalsozialismus”
Review of the movie Swing Kids
Roger Ebert’s review has stuck with me ever since I read it soon after the movie came out. Damn, he was good.
Further Resources of Interests:
(Added, 8/1/2013) Since this article was published, several people have offered up new resources on the swing youth.
Schlurf – Im Swing gegen den Gleischreitt – Dokumentation
A documentary, in German, on swing youth.
Hans-Jürgen Massaquoi: Oppositionelle Jugendkultur im NS-Reich
An interview, in German, of an original swing youth.
Special thanks to Daniel Fallegger, Nicole Hamel, and especially Stephan Wuthe for passing along their personal research and stories.