African Americans and the degeneracy of swing (1943)

A ridiculous ceremony meant to show the roots of swing in Harlem

After the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939, the United States remained formally neutral because of strong isolationist sentiment at home, but President Roosevelt nevertheless gave increasing material support to the British. This situation complicated German propaganda efforts. The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and the American declaration of war on Germany’s ally in December 1941 gave Hitler the opportunity to declare war on the United States. With America firmly in the enemy camp, the Propaganda Ministry could embark on an all-out offensive, expanding on themes already tested out in earlier material, like 1941’s Around the Statue of Liberty: A Stroll through the USA.

These propaganda campaigns portrayed the United States as a country of respectable white citizens who were being exploited by corrupt, brutal, warmongering elites under the influence of scheming Jews. For the 1943 film Mr. Roosevelt Chats, propagandists took sensational clips from American newsreel footage of the 1930s and set them into a narrative of pervasive oppression and disarray. Common white folk just want good jobs and secure wages but suffer unemployment and starvation because of greedy Jewish capitalists. The Jews’ political puppets, the film suggests with no irony, deploy police violence and forced labor to keep workers compliant. And they conscript soldiers to pursue their aim of dividing the world up with their barbaric Soviet ally.

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The bearers of America’s culture apparently overcome by swing

African Americans (above) appear in these films generally as a symbol of the moral decay that afflicts the country, and propagandists played heavily on notions of Black people as savages driven by “primitive” rhythms. In this film (3:50-7:35 in the video below), what appears to be some sort of comical or sensationalist ecstatic “voodoo” dance involving chickens stands in for the culture of Harlem, “the birthplace of swing.” This “primitive Negro hoopla” has been unconditionally taken up (right) by the white “bearers of America’s culture,” and they have become as susceptible to manipulation as are the gullible African Americans that Democratic politicians manipulate to keep Roosevelt’s political machine running. Leaders like Roosevelt are starving American culture just as surely as their economic policies are starving the people.

In seeking to delegitimize swing through such grotesque caricatures, German propagandists were trying to find a solution to a real dilemma, namely the widespread popularity of American-derived musical forms that they decried as “degenerate” on racial grounds.

Jeff Bowersox


Source: Deutsche Wochenschau, Herr Roosevelt plaudert (Germany, 1943), via

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