Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Music from the death factory

Having recently come across the online journal Music and Politics (discovered via Normblog), I am working my way though some of its interesting articles. I would particular recommend Music in Concentration Camps 1933–1945 by Guido Fackler.

Fackler shows how music served as an instrument of terror -with guards forcing prisoners to sing on command for instance:

"Frequently, singing was compulsory even during forced labor. It was by no means unusual for singing to provide the macabre background music for punishments, which were stage-managed as a deterrent, or even as a means of sadistic humiliation and torture. Joseph Drexel in the Mauthausen concentration camp for instance, was forced to give a rendering of the church hymn ”O Haupt voll Blut und Wunden” (“Jesus’ blood and wounds”) while being flogged to the point of unconsciousness. Punishment beatings over the notorious flogging horse (the “Bock”) were performed accompanied by singing, and the same is true of executions".

Music provided a terrible soundtrack to extermination :

"Loudspeakers mounted on special vehicles were in use in Majdanek, an extermination camp, and from them poured unremitting dance music – fox-trot – during executions, the purpose being to confuse the victims of the genocide, to quieten them, and also to drown out the screams of the dying. Marching music was switched on in the Sachsenhausen concentration camp when people were being shot. Former SS-Medical Director Heinz Baumk√∂tter admitted under interrogation that the purpose was “to ensure that the next prisoner did not hear the shot that killed his predecessor.” When deeds like these were perpetrated, music – usually accompanied by alcohol – was deliberately used to lower inhibitions and drown out any scruples or doubts the murderers might have had about their actions".

At the same time music could be a way for prisoners to affirm their humanity:

"Music on command was one thing. But musical activities resulting from the prisoners’ own initiative took on quite a different significance, whether the performance was for the musicians themselves or for their fellow-prisoners... Music gave the prisoners consolation, support and confidence; it reminded them of their earlier lives; it provided diversion and entertainment; and it helped them to articulate their feelings and to deal with the existential threat of their situation emotionally and intellectually. Even the least conspicuous ways of making music took on a deep significance in the concentration camp. In this way singing, humming, or whistling served not only as a relaxing way of passing the time, but also helped prisoners in solitary confinement, for instance, to overcome loneliness and fear".


seymourwilson said...

Interesting article. In about 1988 I was listening to an alt rock station in Balto, MD. There was a song by, I think, Smashing Pumpkins regarding the "rules" of jazz in the death camps. Any idea of where I could find it?

Thanks, Seymour

Transpontine said...

Can't say I've ever heard of that but I will look out for it Seymour - doubt if it was Smashing Pumpkins though as they didn't release their first record until 1990.