Swing Heil: Embodied Resistance to the Third Reich

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2020-02

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Abstract

Late 1930s Germany was an environment of major political upheaval as Hitler rose to power and his malevolent anti-Semitism brought on tangible effects. December 1, 1936, the German government declared that all German children "shall be educated physically, intellectually, and morally in the spirit of National Socialism to serve the people and community, through the Hitler Youth" (United States, 1946). This event can also be considered the reactionary commencement of the Swing Youth, or swingjugend. This teenage subculture actively subverted the corporeal controls the Nazi regime impressed on citizens' everyday lives, primarily militaristic, supremacist aesthetic values, by sustaining an underground community centered around African American vernacular jazz music and dance. Rather than overt opposition to the Nazi regime and German fascist politics, the Swing Youth engaged in an embodied resistance to Hitler's anti-modernist, culturally homogenizing values through an embrace of global modernist values. Through archival and embodied research, I examine the ingress of jazz culture in 1930s Germany through the fissures in Hitler’s nationalism, and the use of a uniquely African-American dance form as a daring method of subversion. I demonstrate the Swing Youth's creation of a uniquely German dance style, grounded in transnational aesthetics and values, and thus place the German Swing Youth firmly within the global modernist movement. Due to Nazi Germany's increased cultural isolation, many of the nation's teens did not have easy access to direct body-to-body transmission of American swing dance. Rather, the Swing Youth subculture developed their style of dance to accompany international jazz musical recordings based on their imaginary of American culture, which they viewed in direct opposition to the Hitler Youth's rigid uniformity. To this fabricated style, the German teens added their own specifics including rebellious debasement of the infamous Nazi salute with the addition of Churchill's victory "V" at their fingertips. Extending Emily Wilcox's term "kinesthetic nationalism," or, the idea that an embodied aesthetic unifies members of a national culture, even through various experiences of diaspora, I explain the Swing Youth's reproduction of their idea of African American jazz culture as kinesthetic fellowship: an embodied camaraderie with one distinct group by an external community, not only applying the artistic aesthetic, but also the political values of the community they replicate. Because they were not interested in recreating mainstream American culture, but specifically African American jazz culture, the imagined America that the Swing Youth attempted to connect themselves to was based on envisioning a future, political by proxy of movement and musical aesthetics; they were heralds of a new, distinctly global yet specifically German culture.

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The Arts: 2nd Place (The Ohio State University Edward F. Hayes Graduate Research Forum)

Keywords

Swing, Germany, Swing Youth, Jazz

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