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Section: Resistance, responses and collaboration

Non-conformity

Anti-Nazi jokes were one way of expressing discontent with the Nazi regime. In 1939, Count Alfred Hessenstein (who was previously part of the German Grand Duchy of Hesse and had emigrated to Britain) collected and published this volume entitled The Joke’s on Hitler – Underground Whispers from the Land of the Concentration Camp.
An extract from Hessenstein’s book.

Non-conformity means refusing to conform. In the context of a dictatorship such as the Third Reich, non-conformity can be interpreted as not abiding by Nazi social norms, such as believing in Nazi values. This was one of the most common forms of resisting the Nazis’ repressive regime.

Non-conformity was extremely hard to police, as it often took place in private settings and in smaller ways than other forms of resistance. Despite this, people were still punished if they were caught.

Examples of non-conformity include refusing to salute, telling anti-Nazi jokes or singing anti-Nazi songs.

This section will explore different examples of how people used non-conformity to resist oppressive rule in Nazi Germany.

DID YOU KNOW...

Non-conformity as resistance

In a repressive state such as the Third Reich, where the Nazis demanded total rule, any disobedience or ignorance of Nazi values and policies can be regarded as non-conformity.

However, it is extremely difficult to understand whether people were intentionally not conforming – i.e out of opposition to the Nazis – or whether their intentions were less political. For example, if they continued to support Jesse Owens, simply because they liked him as an athlete, rather than out of opposition to the Nazis’ racial ideas.

Refusal to salute

This photograph shows the launch of a new German navy vessel at the Blohm and Voss shipyard in Hamburg in 1936. In the top right-hand corner of the photograph, one man, believed to be August Landmesser, is not giving the Nazi salute like the rest of his colleagues. Landmesser was opposed to the Nazis and their racial worldview. His partner, Irma Eckler, was Jewish. Landmesser was later imprisoned in a concentration camp by the Nazis, and, upon his release, conscripted into the German Army where he was killed in action.

This photograph shows the launch of a new German navy vessel at the Blohm and Voss shipyard in Hamburg in 1936. In the top right-hand corner of the photograph, one man, believed to be August Landmesser, is not giving the Nazi salute like the rest of his colleagues. Landmesser was opposed to the Nazis and their racial worldview. His partner, Irma Eckler, was Jewish. Landmesser was later imprisoned in a concentration camp by the Nazis, and, upon his release, conscripted into the German Army where he was killed in action.

Wikimedia Commons [Public Domain].

The Nazi salute, also known as the Hitler salute, or the Heil Hitler salute, was an official greeting gesture performed in Nazi Germany. The salute was carried out by extending the right arm into the air and saying ‘Heil Hitler’.

Shortly after the Nazis came to power, the salute became the official German form of greeting. It quickly spread to public events – although its use in the private sphere was limited and declined throughout the 1930s.

By 1934, special courts had been established to punish those who refused to perform the salute. The punishments ranged from imprisonment in concentration camps to intimidation or fines.

Despite the Nazis punitive efforts, some people refused to perform the salute. August Landmesser publically refused to perform the salute at the launch of a new Germany navy vessel at the Blohm+Voss shipyard in Hamburg in 1936, where he worked.

Jokes

This handwritten diary was used to record anti-Nazi jokes in Germany before the war. It belonged to Kitty Fehr, a 15-year-old schoolgirl who emigrated to Britain in 1939, bringing her diary with her.

This handwritten diary was used to record anti-Nazi jokes in Germany before the war. It belonged to Kitty Fehr, a 15-year-old schoolgirl who emigrated to Britain in 1939, bringing her diary with her.

Courtesy of The Wiener Holocaust Library.

Anti-Nazi jokes were used as a way of expressing discontent with the Nazi regime in general, or with specific policies. In a regime that demanded complete conformity and removed the freedom of the press, telling anti-Nazi jokes provided a way to criticise and resist the regime with a much smaller risk of punishment.

Anti-Nazi jokes were on a variety of subjects: anti-Jewish policies were mocked, as well as economic policies and even Hitler himself.

In 1939, Count Alfred Hessenstein (who was previously part of the German Grand Duchy of Hesse and had emigrated to Britain) collected and published a volume entitled The Joke’s on Hitler – Underground Whispers from the Land of the Concentration Camp [J.M Dent and Sons, England, 1939].

Two of the jokes from the collection are used as examples below. The first implies that Hitler has lost his mind and is unfit for office. The second suggests that only lunatics or the mentally ill would perform a Heil Hitler salute.

Brown Herrings:

I stepped into the popular Aschinger restaurant in Berlin and ordered a Bismarck herring. ‘I beg your pardon, sir’ apologized the waiter, ‘I can only serve you a Hitler herring’. ‘Well – what is the difference?’ ‘The Bismarck herring had a head, sir; the Hitler herring hasn’t’’.

Heil Hitler!:

The Führer visited a lunatic asylum. All the patients were told to stand in a row, and they were given instructions on how to salute him. When Hitler approached they all raised their right hands and shouted: ‘Heil Hitler!’ Only the last man in the row uttered no sound and did not raise his hand. Red with rage Hitler stepped up to him and shouted: ‘Don’t you know who I am? Why don’t you raise your hand?’ ‘I beg your pardon,’ replied the man politely, ‘I am the doctor. I’m not a lunatic’.’

Music and songs

The sheet music for the Buchenwald Camp Song composed in 1938 by prisoners Hermann Leopoldi and with lyrics by Fritz Gruenbaum.  The song was composed at the request of the SS camp leader, Arthur Rödl. It was typically sung during roll call.

The sheet music for the Buchenwald Camp Song composed in 1938 by prisoners Hermann Leopoldi and with lyrics by Fritz Gruenbaum.  The song was composed at the request of the SS camp leader, Arthur Rödl. It was typically sung during roll call.

Courtesy of The Wiener Holocaust Library.

The Nazis sought to control music by promoting music which they deemed German and acceptable, and by suppressing music that they considered bad, or ‘degenerate’.  In 1933, the Reich Music Chamber was created to pursue these aims.

Despite these restrictions, people in German used music and song to oppose the Nazis repressive rule. This form of nonconformity took several forms. Some continued to listen to music by composers that the Nazis had banned, or forms of music that the Nazis believed to be ‘degenerate’. One style of music that the Nazis particularly opposed was Jazz.

Jazz music was seen by the Nazis as un-German and inferior, primarily due to their anti-Black racist beliefs, and belief that Jazz music had possible links to Jews. The increasing popularity of Jazz music in the 1920s and 1930s was also presented as proof by the Nazis that foreign music could infiltrate and weaken traditional German culture.

In the camps and ghettos, prisoners also used music as a way of resisting the Nazi persecution, preserving their humanity and recording their experiences. New songs were created that dealt with the latest news from the front, or stories of personal loss of family, friends and home.

DID YOU KNOW...

The Swing Youth

The Swing Youth were a group of young people in Nazi Germany who loved swing and jazz music.

The Nazis regarded both of these forms of music as un-German and degenerate and as such, attempted to suppress the popularity of jazz and swing music. The Swing Youth rejected this suppression, and in particular, the way the Nazis tried to control young people and their musical interests through organisations such as the regimented Hitler Youth.

The Swing Youth were an informal organisation and spread across Germany – though many were based in Hamburg. Most involved were 14-21 years old. Groups met up to discuss, listen and dance to American and English music and organised dance festivals. Some of the individuals involved were also inspired by British and American fashion.

The Nazis tried to curtail the activities of the Swing Youth in a variety of measures, including forced haircuts (Swing Youth members often liked to grow their hair long in contrast to the preferred short military style haircut of the Hitler Youth), arrests and imprisonment.

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