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Die Swingjugend

The swinging 30s were not exclusive to the United States. Swing music and a lifestyle that went with it crossed the Atlantic and found an enthusiastic audience.

Germany was no different and young people across the country were caught up in this new craze from America. Until of course, Adolf Hitler (who else?) came to power. The National Socialists disapproved of the free and easy swinging culture, labelling it degenerate and criminal. Still, then as now, nothing could deter youngsters who wanted to party. One must remember that not the whole country was swept by the Nazis in some instant mass hypnosis act. There were political dissidents, many of whom paid dearly. There were church men who disagreed and fared no better. But those were the grown ups--the young took refuge in a counterculture and damned if they were listening to anyone.

They were known as the Swingjugend, the Swing Youth. They copied their attire from American films, carried umbrellas like the English and used anglicisms in their speech as much as they do nowadays, except then it was an act of defiance as much as being trendy. The boys wore their hair long, the girls let it flow or permed it too. Not exactly the regulation hairdos for the crew cut boy and pigtailed girl Hitler Youth. This was their common characteristic... a distaste for the conformity of the Hitler Youth, a music style and hair.

There was no single movement that could call itself Swing Youth. The designation was applied by the government. Among the top Nazi officials, Goebbels in particular hated them with passion for being so "un-german."

Each city had its own swing scene and its own breed of party animals and fashion. Those who could afford it dressed extravagantly in imported and expensive clothes, those who could not just made do with whatever they found that would suit the purpose. Hat brims may have been wide in Hamburg and narrow in Cologne, coats might have been shorter in Essen or even replaced with pinstripe or plaid jackets in Berlin, and maybe they didn't turn up their cuffs in Munich. But the basic idea was not as much to mimic foreign culture as to contrast with the uniformed, dull, organised, official youth groups. Girls flaunted the Nazi ideal of womanhood by wearing makeup of various colours, dressing attractively (that included pants), and smoking. Everything had to be "hot."

The swing movement managed to survive all Nazi propaganda and official rebukes. They weren't saints, by any means. Many of them were kids with parents rich enough to finance their wardrobe and parties. They could be loud, promiscuous and really, really drunk. In a few words, they really did swing and probably were at least half as "degenerate" as Goebbels thought. Flaunting authority was their specialty.

When war broke out they ignored it and in fact derided it and the military. After all, they had some partying to do. Bans on English-language music did not stop them, they got their hands on it anyway and organised parties. Nat Gonella's band could be heard playing We're Gonna Hang Out The Washing On The Siegfried Line in the heart of wartime Germany and raised some very prominent hackles.

"I must add that...the hot and swing demonstrations of juvenile anglophile circles in Hamburg have in the meantime taken on forms reactionary and hostile to the state." --Official report, August 1941

Once the war business started getting serious, the government's disapproving toleration ended and bans were imposed. Swinging went underground. Swing dancing in public was banned in October 1938 and listening to English music was made illegal in September 1939. Playing swing music on public radio had already been banned in 1935. Records were clandestinely copied and distributed. Throughout the war the scene survived. The swing youth had no political character until the Nazis started cracking down. Only then, around 1940, did a number of them join resistance cells in the face of Gestapo and Hitler Youth brutality. Swinging kids were deported. Some met their ends in concentration camps, some were just "reeducated" and sent back.

The Swing Youth movement disintegrated after the war and went the way of every trend before it. It was getting old, and there was nobody left to defy. It was never a conscious resistance movement but a lifestyle that doggedly fought conformity and despised its symbols.

"These groups start out of an amusing impulse and assume an ongoingly characteristic near to a criminal antisocialty." --Official report, early 1944

The swing youth were youthful nonconformists of their day, like every culture has, has had in the past and will most certainly have again. Like those, what do call them... goths. And you know you gotta look out for kids like that--they're up to no good and have a dislike for authority. They dress funny, listen to weird music, paint their faces strangely and talk in a code of their own. We can't have that now, can we? Hell, kids like them resisted Hitler, what sort of an example does that set?

It is my view that the entire evil must be TOTALLY DESTROYED. I am against us taking half-measures. All those ... who are of hostile disposition and support the swing youth are to be interred in concentration camps. There the youth first needs to get a good beating and then be strenuously exercised and made to work. I think it's wrong for these louts and useless girls to be sent to some labour camp or youth camp. ... Their stay in the concentration camp should be a prolonged one, maybe 2-3 years. It has to be clear that they shall never study again. As regards the parents, it must be evaluated inhowfar they've supported it. Should they have supported it, they are to be brought to a concentration camp and their possessions are to be confiscated. Only by BRUTALLY CRACKING DOWN can we avoid a dangerous spreading of these anglophile tendencies at a time in which Germany is fighting for her existence.

--Heinrich Himmler, 1942-01-26

Swing Heil!

I'm told by jasonm that there's a film called Swing Kids. It's an American production from 1993 and apparently did alright. This is the first I've heard of it

Sources:
Deutsches Historisches Museum (dhm.de)
20-to-40-Style Syndicate (swingstyle.de)
Jens Fliege
European Association of Teachers
Translations mine

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