mass psych-ology

Role of music in World War II

In understanding the meaning of music in World War II it is important to reflect upon the use that nations would make of music, and the ends to which private individuals would use music to give meaning to their situations. It is also significant to note that this was the first mass media war, with radio and movies spreading not only tunes and songs, but often specific voices and bands, and with songs ranked in nations for popularity.

States took a massive effort in broadcasting and producing music generally for three reasons:

  • To boost the morale of troops and civilians suffering under the war.
  • To attract enemy troops to propaganda programs.
  • To express a vision of the nature of their regimes.

For the humans drawn in to the war the motivations would be more honest. Songs would provide nostalgia for peace, to motivate them, or to promise a better future. In the case of Germany, which took an active role in defining proper music, the act of listening to music took on a political role it did not in the United Kingdom or the USA. For example, listening to jazz in Germany could be an act of political opposition since so many Jazz musicians were African Americans or Jews. But despite a long history of hostility towards Jazz in the United States the troops and young people suffering the hardships of war were fed a mass of black inspired music with no political demand that men about to risk their lives listen to proper white music.

Also one must never forget that the Allies won and the Axis lost, and the history of the music will reflect that, with the music of the Allies becoming more and more heroic with time, even when it was originally swing music intended for wild nights out, whereas Nazi music is now held in dispute and many composers' music is criticized for being supported by the regime even, in the case of Wagner, after their deaths.

The use of music in the war

Popular British soldier songs

British soldiers were paid significantly less than American troops, faced harder conditions at home, and were generally deployed for longer periods of time, preventing them from being exposed to radio products to the same level as the United States Armed Forces. So whereas US forces were exposed to mass media, often large jazz productions, British units often had to sing their own songs that were often disrespectful and memorable rhymes. Songs were generally based upon pre-existing well known songs.

Popular soldier songs included:

  • Kiss Me Goodnight, Sergeant Major
  • No More Soldiering for Me (also known as "When This Bloody War is Over") - sung to "What a Friend We Have in Jesus". This was a first world war song which was also sung in the second world war.
  • Sod 'Em All -sung to the World War I song "Bless 'Em All"
  • Deutscher, Deutscher -sung to "German National Anthem"
  • Hitler Has Only Got One Ball -sung to "Colonel Bogey"
  • You Take the Gun -sung to "Loch Lomond"
  • Desert Blues
  • D-Day Dodgers -sung to "Lili Marlene" (Written for forces serving in Italy during D-Day)
  • The British Soldier's Discharge Song

Britain did have a mass media which played popular music, much enjoyed by the Germans stationed in France and the Low Countries or flying over Britain. The most famous single performer was Vera Lynn who became known as "the forces' sweetheart".

Popular concert songs in Britain during the war included:

  • Run Rabbit Run - Flannegan & Allen Words by Noel Gay & Ralph Butler. Music by Noel Gay
  • There'll Always Be An England

  • We'll Meet Again 1939 Words and Music by Ross Parker and Hughie Charles

This is perhaps the most famous war time song with the lines:
We'll meet again
Don't know where
Don't know when
But I know we'll meet again some sunny day

Lynn's recording was memorably played during an apocalyptic scene in Dr. Strangelove; the Byrds covered it (to similarly ironic effect) on their first album.

German English song

"Lili Marleen" was perhaps the most popular song of World War II with both German and British forces. Based on a German poem the song was recorded in both English and German versions. The poem was set to music in 1938 and was a hit with troops in the Afrika Korps. Mobile desert combat required a large number of radio units and the British started to enjoy the song so much that it was quickly translated in to English. The song was used throughout the war as not only a popular song, but a propaganda tool.

American songs

With the exception of fighter aircraft design, American troops entered WWII as the first fully modern force. Whereas Germans supplies were carried by horses and Russians had to walk from Stalingrad to Berlin, American troops were provided a level of technology not known by any previous army.

This included music. American troops had regular access to radio in all but the most difficult combat situations, and not only did soldiers know specific songs, but specific recordings. This gave a nature to American troops music during WWII, not as much songs sung around a fire or while marching, but listened to in the mess between combat on Armed Forces Radio.

Take note of the non-aggressive and hopeful tone of the song “When The Lights Go On Again”:

When the lights go on again all over the world
And the boys are home again all over the world
And rain or snow is all that may fall from the skies above
A kiss won't mean "goodbye" but "Hello to love

When the lights go on again all over the world
And the ships will sail again all over the world
Then we'll have time for things like wedding rings and free hearts will sing
When the lights go on again all over the world

When the lights go on again all over the world

It is remarkable that this is not the song of a people wanting to take revenge, or establish an empire, but of a people craving peace. Likely in Japan, Germany, and Russia these feelings were the same with most people, but could not be expressed as openly as they were in the Democracies, who were able to use the personal desires of people as a tool in war. Propaganda was consent.

It is also worth noting that by 1943 few Germans would have had many illusions about what the end of the war would mean. It would have been hard to sing about defeat, for when the lights went on again in Berlin it would be on a defeated city. Germans in Berlin sang "Berlin is Still Berlin", clinging to the past and intentionally almost ignoring the future that was sung about in America and the British Empire.

Music in the Democratic Allies

What is remarkable about the efforts in the UK and the USA during World War II is the degree to which the desires of most people were in line with that of the leaders. This meant the American and British government could count on popular music reflecting much of the same war aims that the government wanted. The people of America wanted a quick final victory over the Axis without compromise and the songs about a world after the war at peace with the boys coming home not only meet the personal desires of people but also reflected the goals of US government. Roosevelt had always been motivated for a quick end to the war.

This unity of private and state desire likely gave the UK and the USA a degree of energy that allowed the nations to accomplish a great deal more at less human cost than the other major powers in the war. The mass suffering at the hands of the governments was not necessary as it was in Germany.

British popular music and the BBC

Before the war, BBC radio had had quite an elitist approach to popular music. Jazz, swing or big band music for dancing was relegated to a few late night spots. During the war, the BBC was obliged to adapt, if only because British soldiers were listening to German radio stations to hear their dance music favourites.

This adaptation was not without conflict. The BBC establishment reluctantly increased the amount of dance music played, but censorship was severe. The American hit "Coming in on a Wing and a Prayer" for example was censored because of its almost blasphemous mix of religious words and a foxtrot melody. BBC heads were also worried about American-style crooners undermining the virility of British men.

The BBC establishment tried hard to stick to the jaunty tone which they felt had helped to win the first world war - so George Formby and Gracie Fields were very much played on the radio. Indeed, these two stars were undoubtedly more heroes to working class people in Britain than was Winston Churchill, since they were seen to "come from the ordinary people."

The United States did not need a forward Propaganda Minister; they could count on big bands producing music that reflected the governments primary interest because they were the interests of the population.

Russian songs

German songs

The Nazi government took a strong interest in promoting "Germanic" culture and music which returned people to the "folk culture" of their remote ancestors, while promoting the distribution of radio to transmit propaganda at the same time. The Nazi government had an obsession with controlling culture and promoting the culture it controlled. For this reason the common people's tastes in music were much more secret. Many Germans used their new radios to listen to the jazz music hated by Hitler but loved all over the world.

In art this attack came after expressionism, impressionism, and all forms of modernism. Forms of music targeted included jazz as well as the music of many of the more dissonant modern classical composers, including that of Igor Stravinsky, Paul Hindemith, and Arnold Schoenberg. Hindemith was one of many composers who escaped the Third Reich as a result of musical persecution (as well as racial persecution, since Hindemith was Jewish). Modern composers who took a more conventional approach to music, however, were welcomed by the Third Reich; Carl Orff and Richard Strauss, for example, were able to stay in the country during the Nazi period.

Also a subtle factor of history makes gaining a reliable picture of the music of Germany more difficult than among the Allies. World War II in the English speaking world is usually remembered as a great triumph and the music is often performed with a sense of pride. Therefore, over time the collective consciousness of this period's music has become stronger. In Germany, World War II is generally seen as a shameful period; it would be difficult to imagine a band playing 'all the old favorites' of World War II in a public place.

Popular music is tied with nostalgia and collective memory. Though a historian can find samples of music that was played in radio or collect soldiers' songs from a period, ranking the subjective meaning and value assigned to a song by the people of that period will be greatly impacted by those subjects' later opinion of that music.

For example it is known that many Germans enjoyed American jazz music, it is also known that Germans sang songs in Nazi sponsored events; but it would be difficult to determine the relative popularity of this music in the current context of shame concerning the war.

Therefore the best that can be understood about German Music during the war is the official Nazi government policy, the level of enforcement, and some notion of the diversity of other music listened to, but as the losers in the war German Music from World War II has not been assigned the high heroic status of American and British popular music.

Approved Germanic music

The Nazi were determined to the concept that German Culture was the greatest in history, but as with all parts of art Hitler took an interest in suppressing the work of all those considered unfit while promoting certain composers as proper Germans.

Therefore the Government officially acknowledged certain composers as true Germans, including:

Unapproved Germanic music

The Nazis felt a need to identify all art that was somehow degenerate or Entartete though degenerate is probably a poor translation of the use the Nazis made of this sign, for to them it included all things Jewish, Communist, along with mental illness, gay and lesbian behaviour, transgender, and expressionist and modernist.

Along with exhibitions of Degenerate Art Entartete Kunst the Nazi government identified certain music, composers and performers as Entartete Musik, these included:

In 1938 Nazi Germany passed an official law on Jazz music. Not surprisingly it deals with the racial nature of the music and makes law based on racial theories. Jazz was “Negroid”; It posed a threat to European higher culture, and was therefore forbidden except in the case of scientific study.

Popular music permitted under the Nazis

Degrees of censorship varied, and the Nazi were likely more concerned with the destruction of ethnic minorities than styles of music. But as the war went poorly the objectives of the government moved from building a perfect German state to keeping the population in line, and the relative importance of morale-raising songs would have increased.

Popular songs were officially encouraged during the war including:

  • Berlin bleibt doch Berlin (Berlin is still Berlin) this was a popular with Joseph Goebbels near the fall of Berlin.

A strange note is that Goebbels commissioned a swing band called "Charlie and His Orchestra" which seemed to have existed for propaganda purposes.

Polish songs of World War II

There were specific songs of Polish resistance, Polish Armed Forces in the West and Polish Armed Forces in the East.

Short list of some Polish songs:

Propaganda Against the Enemy

They played a few American records first. I don't remember everything she said. She said, "Your wives and girlfriends are probably home in a nice warm building, dancing with some other men. You're over here in the cold." It was cold and it was snowing. Dent Wheeler on Axis Sally during the battle of the Bulge

(Excerpt from Veterans of the Battle of the Bulge, edited by Robert Van Houten. Paducah, Kentucky: Turner Publishing Co., 1991. (ISBN 1-56311-013-X))

"There is no 'Tokyo Rose'; the name is strictly a GI invention. The name has been applied to at least two lilting Japanese voices on the Japanese radio. ... Government monitors listening in 24 hours a day have never heard the words 'Tokyo Rose' over a Japanese-controlled Far Eastern radio."

(The U.S. Office of War Information, August 1945)

During World War II often cut off troops or isolated outposts found themselves exposed in the radio range of the enemy, which used popular music as a means to attract listeners and then provide propaganda messages.

This type of propaganda was performed by both sides and is some of the earliest mass psych-ops. Often the propagandist became popular with the other sides, and there is little evidence that these had any impact, except that the Axis participants were often detained and if originally from allied countries prosecuted, while Allied broadcasters were seen as legitimate. Again it shows the way music is understood in the context of World War II is from the winners point of view, whereas Tokyo Rose and Lord Haw Haw (William Joyce) faced years of persecution after the war.

Again it is to critical to think that there can really be little in the way of an objective history or music in World War II, the historical context since the war, the revelations of the evils of the Axis regimes, and the ultimately victory of the consumer society foretold in the songs of the allies place a contact upon the events like viewing a start through the lens of a telescope.

A different aspect of propagnada against the enemy is songs meant to be played at home reviling the opposing forces. Examples of these axis-bashing songs include "Your a Sap Mr. Jap", "Der Fuehrer's Face" (also a short movie starring Donald Duck), and "Goodbye Mama (I'm off to Yokohama)".

Songs, compositions and others written after the war

External links



"The Songs that Fought the War: Popular Muic and the Home Front, 1939-1945" By John Bush Jones "God Bless America: Tin Pan Alley Goes to War" By Kathleen E.R. Smith

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