May 17, 2012
Amid the collection of thugs, sycophants, stone-eyed killers and over-promoted incompetents who comprised the wartime leadership of Nazi Germany, Joseph Goebbels stood out. For one thing, he was genuinely intelligent—he had earned a doctorate in Romantic literature before becoming Hitler’s propaganda chief. For another, he understood that his ministry needed to do more than merely hammer home the messages of Hitler’s ideology.
Goebbels knew he needed to engage—with an increasingly war-weary German public, and with the Allied servicemen whose morale he sought to undermine. This clear-eyed determination to deal with reality, not fantasy, led him to some curious accommodations. None, however, were quite so strange as his attempts to harness the dangerous attractions of dance music to Hitler’s cause. It was an effort that led directly to the creation of that oxymoron in four-bar form: a Nazi-approved, state-sponsored hot jazz band known as Charlie and His Orchestra.
By the late 1930s, swing and jazz were by far the most popular music of the day, for dancing and for listening. But, originating as they did from the United States, with minimal contributions from Aryan musicians, the Nazis loathed them. The official party line was that these forms were entartete musik (“degenerate music”), and that their improvised breaks and pounding rhythms risked undermining German purity and discipline. In public speeches, the Nazis put it more harshly than that. Jazz, Goebbels insisted, was nothing but “jungle music.”
Throughout the war years, it was German policy to suppress the music, or at least tame it. This resulted in some remarkable decrees, among them the clauses of a ban promulgated by a Nazi gauleiter in Bohemia and recalled (faithfully, he assures us—“they had engraved themselves deeply on my mind”) by the Czech dissident Josef Skvorecky in the introduction to his novella The Bass Saxophone. They are worth quoting in full:
August 18, 2011
Maria Strobel could not believe it of her Führer. Adolf Hitler and his party—a group of senior Nazis that included Heinrich Himmler, Joseph Goebbels and Reinhard Heydrich—had spent more than an hour in her Munich bierkeller. Hitler had delivered a trademark speech, and, while they listened, Himmler and the others had run up a large beer bill. But the whole group had left in a hurry—leaving the tab unpaid and Strobel untippped.
Much annoyed, the Bavarian waitress set about clearing up the mess. She had made only a small dent in the pile of steins when, at 9:20 p.m. precisely, there was a huge explosion only a few feet behind her. A stone pillar disintegrated in the blast, bringing part of the ceiling crashing down in a rain of wood and masonry. The explosion hurled Strobel the length of the hall and out through the bierkeller’s doors. Though stunned, she survived—the person closest to the blast to do so. Eight others were not so fortunate, and a further 63 were so badly injured that they had to be helped out into the open air. As they staggered toward safety, the dais where Hitler had been standing eight minutes earlier lay crushed beneath six feet of heavy timber, bricks and rubble.
Hitler always said he had “the luck of the devil,” and during his years in power he survived more than 40 plots to kill him. The most famous of these culminated in July 1944, when Claus von Stauffenberg managed to place a bomb inside the conference room in Hitler’s East Prussian headquarters, the Wolf’s Lair. On that occasion, a table support absorbed most of the blast and the Führer survived to hobble out, his eardrums shattered and his trousers torn to ribbons.
That attempt on Hitler’s life is famous—it was the basis for Valkyrie, the 2008 Tom Cruise film—but it can be argued that it was considerably less astounding, and less courageous, than the bierkeller bombing five years earlier. For one thing, Stauffenberg was well-equipped; he really should have done better with the resources at his disposal. For another, he and his fellow plotters were not convinced anti-Nazis; they may have had an aristocratic disdain for their plebian leader, but their primary reason for wanting Hitler dead was not horror at the barbarism of his regime, but simple conviction that he was leading Germany into the abyss.
The Munich bomb, on the other hand, exploded on November 8, 1939, at the height of the Führer’s popularity and less than three months after the outbreak of World War II—before the final order was given for the invasion of France, and when Russia remained a German ally and the United States remained at peace. Not only that; this bomb was the work of just one man, an unassuming carpenter who was far more principled than Stauffenberg and whose skill, patience and determination make him altogether much more interesting. Yet the Munich incident has been almost forgotten; as late as 1998 there was no memorial, in Germany or anywhere else, to the attempt or to the man who made it.
His name was Georg Elser, and this is his story. (More…)