Degenerate music (1938)

The image below was the cover of the 1938 “Degenerate Music” (Entartete Musik) exhibition’s programmatic brochure. While not as popular as the similarly titled “Degenerate Art” (Entartete Kunst) exhibition of 1938, the event aimed to galvanise public hatred of music judged “un-German” by Nazi standards. The exhibition opened in Düsseldorf on 24 May 1938 and presented degenerate music by way of audio snippets, pictures, and accompanying texts. In this poster from the exhibition, the desire to vilify jazz (deemed as “nigger” music) is made clear through the perfidious caricature of a black jazz musician as the brochure cover.

The caricature uses obviously racialized features codified to blackness, including the face of a monkey, an exaggerated nose and large hoop earring. Along with the saxophone, the clothing of the caricature mirrors outfits similarly worn by renowned African-American musicians such as Louis Armstrong and Charlie Christian. In addition to the clear racial overtones associated with the mutated monkey, this figure was an intentional reference to black Jazz musician “Jonny” in Ernst Krenek’s opera Jonny spielt auf and Friedrich Hollaender’s “Jonny, wenn du Geburtstag hast.” Both Krenek’s and Hollaender’s Jonnys were denounced as a symbol of Berlin decadence, especially once Marlene Dietrich’s erotic interpretation of Hoallender’s song escalated Jonny’s notoriety. The poster’s explicit depiction of the ape playing the saxophone synthesized the Nazi’s racial and cultural ideology into a striking image decrying Weimar decadence. The caricature commented on issues of racial degeneracy as well as Weimar gender and cultural perversion, particularly on the subject of American influence on German culture.

Beyond the threat of Blackness, note the addition of the Star of David in the place of Jonny’s carnation, which implicates Judaism in this crime of culture. The musician’s white fingertips could also be interpreted as the control of Jewish business, whom propagandists accused of being behind the popularity of American “Negro” music. This conflation of racialized Jewishness and Blackness is found in a variety of Nazi propaganda, where it was used to emphasize the consequences of failed race policies. By conflating Jews and Blacks as perpetrators who sought to profit from the destruction of German culture, this cartoon highlights the mutable uses of racialized Jewishness and Blackness as a tool for the radicalisation of Nazi racial hierarchies. Ideologically, jazz was emblematic of everything the Nazis stood against and, thus, was disparaged as both culturally and racially degenerate.

While the exhibition was intended as a deterrent, jazz’s popularity among the general public increasingly complicated the Nazi regime’s efforts. Attempts to project their racial fanaticism onto music resulted in policies aimed to whitewash jazz by erasing its African-American element. Thus, in propaganda films like Around the Statue of Liberty (Rund um die Freiheitsstatue), Nazi propagandists showed numerous scenes with American swing bands. The narrator mocks “inferior” black swing music and, as a deterrent, shows the negative consequences of its cultural acceptance among American whites. Ironically, this famously backfired, as the films caused jazz afficionados to flock to see “real” American jazz, thus increasing its popularity. As such, Goebbels’ propaganda tactics switched from negative policy to a positive creation: “German jazz.” Radio propaganda became integral to satisfying the public’s desire to hear Jazz and to combat American-influenced jazz with the new, Nazi-sanctioned dance music. Yet this poster shows that the regime continued to be racialize jazz to convey the fear of the African-American cultural and racial threat.

The poster illustrates the regime’s convoluted policy on jazz: they catered to popular demands while defaming African-Americans as degenerate and racially depraved. 

Niamh Neville


Source: Entartete Musik Poster, Wikimedia Commons.

Degenerate music (1938) by Niamh Neville is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
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