Hitler’s jazz band: how the Nazis used swing as propaganda

The Nazis despised jazz, but were happy to harness its ‘degenerate’ appeal for propaganda purposes. Here, Dan Cossins reveals how the result was a series of radio broadcasts featuring the swinging sounds and pro-Nazi lyrics of Charlie and his Orchestra

Exhibition 'Degenerate Art' at Kunstpalast am Ehrenhof. AKG Images/Ullstein Bild

After the darkness and deprivations of the First World War, Weimar Germany came alive to the sounds of jazz and swing. By the mid-1930s, as the shadow of the swastika fell across the country, American-style jazz was all the rage. Naturally, though, given its black and Jewish origins, the Nazis loathed jazz.

Fearful its ‘jungle’ rhythms and improvised breaks would undermine Aryan morals and discipline, Hitler launched a blitzkrieg against this ‘degenerate music’. His propaganda minister, Joseph Goebbels, ordered the banning of jazz from radio broadcasts in 1935. Later, when the United States entered the war, Goebbels outlawed the selling and playing of American jazz records. Swing was officially verboten [forbidden].

Goebbels wasn’t daft, though. While officially condemning the music, he was quietly plotting to hijack its debauched appeal to peddle Hitler’s message abroad. The outcome was Charlie and his Orchestra, a Nazi-sponsored swing band playing American hits sprinkled with pro-Nazi lyrics in an attempt to undermine the morale of Allies listening in their barracks and living rooms.

Saxophonist Lutz Templin assembled the band from the best German and European musicians of the day, and selected an English-speaker called Karl ‘Charlie’ Schwedler as the frontman. For lyrical inspiration, they turned to ‘Lord Haw-Haw’, who was employed as a radio host by the Propaganda Ministry. In January 1940, Charlie and his Orchestra struck up a tune and beamed their strange musical concoction from Berlin to Britain for the first time, filling in the gaps between Lord Haw-Haw’s Churchill-baiting skits.

The idea was to enthrall listeners with swing and then hit them with messages of Aryan supremacy, Churchill’s hopelessness, and Jewish conspiracies. A parody on the standard ‘I’ve Got A Pocketful of Dreams’, for example, went like this: “I’m gonna save the world for Wall Street / Gonna fight for Russia, too / I’m fighting for democracy / I’m fighting for the Jew.”

And ‘You’re Driving Me Crazy’ was rephrased like so, in reference to Churchill: “Yes, the Germans are driving me crazy / I thought I had brains / But they shot down my planes.”

Charlie and his Orchestra was the best jazz band in the Third Reich. As Czech accordionist Kamil Behounek, who was drafted into the band in May 1943 as a music arranger, recalled: “Here was this big dance orchestra with three trumpets, three trombones, four saxes, a full rhythm group. And they were swinging it!”

Charlie’s musicians worked five days a week, performing ‘propaganda swing’ in the mornings and Nazi-approved songs for domestic audiences in the afternoon. During the course of the war, they broadcast hundreds of times to Britain and to Allied troops in Europe. The Nazis even distributed their records to Prisoner of War camps.

As the conflict wore on, though, and the composition of the band changed, it came to be less than exclusively Aryan. “[T]here were even half-Jews and Gypsies there, Freemasons, Jehovah's witnesses, homosexuals and communists – not exactly the type of people the Nazis normally wanted to play cards with,” recalled Evelyn Kunneke, a singer who worked for an SS propaganda unit.

“But because their work was classified as being important to the war effort, they sat at music-stands in Berlin, and not behind barbed wire, and made swing.”

By autumn 1943, intensified Allied bombing raids on Berlin had forced the band to relocate to Stuttgart. Still they swung on, though, right up to April 1945.

When the war was over, Templin quickly found work playing clubs across American-occupied Germany. As for Schwedler, one account has it that he became a businessman and lived out his last days in Bavaria, while another claims he emigrated to the United States in 1960. Whatever the truth, ‘Charlie’ and his band left the most bizarre of musical legacies: the swinging, anti-Semitic sounds of Nazi jazz.

To find out more, read Hitler's Airwaves: The Inside Story of Nazi Radio Broadcasting and Propaganda Swing by Horst Bergmeier and Rainer Lotz (Yale University Press, 1997) or Michael Kater’s Different Drummers: Jazz in the Culture of Nazi Germany (Oxford University Press, 1992).

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