The Swing Youth (German: Swingjugend) were a group of jazz and swing lovers in Germany in the 1930s, mainly in Hamburg and Berlin. Formed in Hamburg in 1939, they were composed of 14 to 21-year-old boys and girls in high school, most of them middle- or upper-class students, but with some apprentice workers as well. They admired the British and American way of life, defining themselves in swing music and opposing the National-Socialist ideology, especially the Hitler Youth (German: Hitlerjugend).
The name Swingjugend was a parody of the numerous youth groups that were organised by the Nazis, such as Hitlerjugend. The youth also referred to themselves as Swings or Swingheinis ("Swingity"); members were called "Swing-Boy", "Swing-Girl" or "Old-Hot-Boy".
During the Nazi regime, all of the youth considered Aryan in Germany (ages 10 to 17) were encouraged to join the Hitler Youth and the League of German Maidens. The leaders of this organization realized they had to offer some attraction in the area of social dancing in order to recruit new members. Instead of adopting the popular swing dance (because it was viewed as degenerate and tied to the "damnable jazz"), they resorted to the new-German community dances. This proved to be unsuccessful, because instead of embracing the Hitler Youth pastimes, city girls and boys crowded the swing dance joints. This seemed to be the case particularly in the town of Hamburg, where the swing scene was huge. These teenage hoppers were known as Swing-Heinis, a name the authorities called them. The Swing Youth disparagingly called the Hitler Youth the "Homo Youth" while the League of German Maidens were called the "League of Soldiers' Mattresses". The Swing Youth used their love of swing and jazz music to create their sub-culture with one former Swing Kid Frederich Ritzel saying in a 1985 interview: "Everything for us was a world of great longing, Western life, democracy – everything was connected – and connected through jazz".
The Swing Kids danced in private quarters, clubs, and rented halls. These adolescents dressed a little differently from the others who were opposed to swing. For example, boys added a little British flair to their clothes by homburg hats, growing their hair long, and attaching a Union Jack pin to their jacket. Additionally, as a reflection of their Anglophilia, the "Swing boys" liked to carry around umbrellas whatever the weather and to smoke pipes. Girls wore short skirts, applied lipstick and fingernail polish, and wore their hair long and down instead of applying braids or German-style rolls. The fondness of the "Swing girls" to wear their hair curled and to apply much make-up was a rejection of the Nazi regime's fashion tastes as in the Third Reich, the "natural look" with no make-up and braided hair was the preferred style for women as it was felt to be more "Germanic". A police report from 1940 described the Swing Youth as follows:
This group consisted mostly of teens and young adults from the upper-class homes of Hamburg. Their objectives were originally more self-indulgent in nature, being privileged with wealth and German heritage, they spent their money on expensive clothing and liquor. The British musicologist Ralph Willett wrote that the Swing Youth wanted to emulate "the cool, languid demeanor" of British and American film stars. When the restrictions on jazz became law, their pastime would become a political statement, setting them in clear opposition to the Nazi Party. The German musicologist Guido Fackler described the Swingjugend embrace of American music and the "English style" in clothing as reflecting the fact that:
"The Swingjugend rejected the Nazi state, above all because of its ideology and uniformity, its militarism, the 'Führer principle' and the leveling Volksgemeinschaft (people’s community). They experienced a massive restriction of their personal freedom. They rebelled against all this with jazz and swing, which stood for a love of life, self-determination, non-conformism, freedom, independence, liberalism, and internationalism."
Reflecting their Anglophilia, the Swing Youth preferred to speak to each other in English rather than German as English was felt to be more "cool", a choice of language that vexed the authorities to no end. English together with French were languages widely taught in Gymnasium (high schools intended as preparation for university) since the early 20th century in the case of the former and since the 18th century in the case of the latter, so any German teenager who attended a Gymnasium could speak at least some French and English. As the Swing Youth were Anglophiles, they often tried to speak and write in the "English style" with one "swing boy" in a 1940 letter written in slightly broken English to a friend who was going to Hamburg stating: "Be a proper spokesmen for Kiel, won't you? i.e, make sure your're really casual, singing or whistling English hits all the time, absolutely smashed and always surrounded by really amazing women". Hamburg, the most Anglophile of German cities was regarded as the "capital" of the Swing Youth, and British jazz players like Jack Hylton and Nat Gonella were popular with the Swing Youth, through Willet wrote that they "...were sufficiently sophisticated to appreciate the superiority of the American artists as well as the stylish and sensuous qualities of their performances." The Swing Youth were also Americanophiles as many took monikers like Alaska Bill or Texas Jack and their clubs had such names like die Harlem club, die OK Gang club, and die Cotton club.
For those designated non-Aryan, it became even more dangerous to be associated with the swing crowd by November 1938, during and after Kristallnacht. The "Swing Youth" tended to welcome Jewish and Mischlinge ("half-breed") teenagers who wanted to join their gatherings. Affiliation with the jazz culture was damaging whenever other incriminating information could be factored into a formula for persecution. For example, many half-Jews (Mischlings) were sought out and persecuted before others if they were known as Swing Kids. For the first five years of the Third Reich, Nazi propaganda had been favorable to Britain as Hitler had hoped for an Anglo-German alliance, but in 1938, when it become clear that Britain was not going to ally with Germany, the propaganda of the regime turned fiercely Anglophobic with a major British-bashing campaign launched in fall of 1938. In this light, the Anglophilia of the Swing Youth could be seen as an implicit rejection of the regime.
Jazz music was offensive to Nazi ideology, because it was often performed by blacks and a number of Jewish musicians. They called it "Negro Music" (German: Negermusik), "degenerate music"—coined in parallel to "degenerate art" (German: entartete Kunst). Moreover, song texts defied Nazi ideology, going as far as to promote sexual permissiveness or free love. Despite this, not all jazz was forbidden in Germany at the time.
The Swing Kids were initially basically apolitical, similar to their zoot suiter counterparts in North America. A closer parallel to the Swing Youth were the Zazou movement in France at the same time as the Zazous also enjoyed American music, liked to dress in the "English style" and a preference for speaking English over French as the former was felt to be more "cool". In Austria, the term Schlurf was used for a similar group. A popular term that the swing subculture used to define itself was Lottern, roughly translated as something between "laziness" and "sleaziness", indicating contempt for the pressure to do "useful work" and the repressive sexual mores of the time. Reports by Hitler Youth observers of swing parties and jitterbug went into careful detail about the overtly sexual nature of both. One report describes as "moral depravity" the fact that swing youth took pleasure in their sexuality. The German historian Detlev Peukert noted how much the police reports on the Swing Youth obsessively concentrated on the subject of the Swing Youth's "unabashed pleasure in sexuality", through he cautioned that some of the more sensationalist claims about the sexual lives of the Swing Youth in these reports probably said more about the mindset of the people who wrote them rather than what the Swing Youth were actually doing. In particular, Peukert wrote that the lurid claims made by the police that Swing Youth dance sessions were followed up by group sex seems to have had no basis in reality.
The Swing Kids were defining a counter-culture, shown by their clothing and music. Their behavior, described by many Nazis as "effete", ran counter to the spartan militarism that the regime was trying to inculcate in its youth. They organized dance festivals and contests and invited jazz bands. These events were occasions to mock the Nazis, the military and the Hitlerjugend—hence the famous "Swing Heil!", mocking the infamous "Sieg Heil!". Swing Kids wore long hair and hats, carried umbrellas and met in cafés and clubs. They developed a jargon mostly made of anglicisms.
The Swing Youth were intense Anglophiles who preferred to listen to "English music" (i.e. American swing and jazz music) and liked to dress in the "English style". A secret report from the Reich Ministry of Justice in January 1944 described the Swing Youth as follows:
"The most striking example among these groups is the so-called Swing Youth, on whom there have been reports from various parts of the Reich. They began in Hamburg. These groups are motivated by the desire to have a good time and have increasingly assumed a character bordering on the criminal-antisocial. Even before the war boys and girls from Hamburg from the socially privileged classes joined groups, wearing strikingly casual clothing and became fans of English music [i.e. American music] and dance. At the turn of the year 1939/1940 the Flottbeck group organized dances which were attended by 5-6000 young people and which were marked by an uninhibited indulgence in swing. After the ban on public dances they organized dances at home, which were marked above all by sexual promiscuity...The hunger for English dance music and for their own dance bands led to break-ins in shops selling musical instruments. The greed to participate in what appeared to them to be a stylish life in clubs, bars, cafes and house balls suppressed any positive attitude towards responding to the needs of the time. They were unimpressed by the performance of our Wehrmacht; those killed in action were sometimes held to ridicule. An attitude of hostility to the war is clearly apparent.
The members dress in clothes which imitate English fashions. Thus, they often wear pleated jackets in tartan designs and carry umbrellas. As a badge they wear a colored dress-shirt button in their lapels. They regard Englishmen as the highest form of human development. A false conception of freedom leads them into opposition to the Hitler Youth".
Though they were not an organized political-opposition organization, the whole culture of the Swing Kids evolved into a non-violent refusal of the civil order and culture of National Socialism.
From a paper of the National Youth Leader:
The members of the Swing youth oppose today's Germany and its police, the Party and its policy, the Hitlerjugend, work and military service, and are opposed, or at least indifferent, to the ongoing war. They see the mechanisms of National Socialism as a "mass obligation". The greatest adventure of all times leaves them indifferent; much to the contrary, they long for everything that is not German, but English.
From 1941, the violent repression by the Gestapo and the Hitlerjugend shaped the political spirit of the swing youth. Also, by police order, people under 21 were forbidden to go to dance bars, which encouraged the movement to seek its survival in clandestinity.
The strict regimentation of youth culture in Nazi Germany through the Hitler Youth led to the emergence of several underground protest movements, through which adolescents were better able to exert their independence. There were street gangs (Meuten) of working class youths who borrowed elements from socialist and communist traditions to forge their own identities, and there were less politically motivated groups, such as the Edelweiss Pirates (German: Edelweißpiraten), who acted in defiance of Hitler Youth norms. A third group, consisting mainly of upper middle class youths, based their protest on their musical preferences, rejecting the völkisch music propagated by the party for American jazz forms, especially swing.
The Swing Kids of Hamburg at some point had contacts with another famous resistance movement, when three members of the White Rose (German: Weiße Rose) developed a sympathy for the Swing Kids. No formal cooperation arose, though these contacts were later used by the Volksgerichtshof ("People's Court") to accuse some Swing Kids of anarchist propaganda and sabotage of the armed forces. The consequent trial, death sentences and executions were averted by the end of the war.
When bigger gatherings were banned, the Swing Kids moved to more informal settings, and swing clubs and discotheques emerged in all the major cities of the Reich. Participants were mainly from the upper middle class, as swing culture required the participants to have access to the music, which was not played on German radio, so that extensive collections of phonograph recordings were essential. Similarly, to understand the lyrics of the predominantly American songs, it was necessary to have at least a rudimentary understanding of English, which was not taught in the Volksschule (working-class high school). Relative wealth also fostered a distinctive style among the Swing Kids, which was in some ways comparable to the zoot suit style popular in the United States at the time. Boys usually wore long jackets, often checkered, shoes with crepe soles (for dancing), and flashy scarves. They almost always carried an umbrella, and added a dress shirt button with a semi-precious stone. Girls generally wore their hair long and loose and added excessive makeup. Their dandyish dress style riled the Nazis by drawing heavily on Hispanic Pachucos.
On 18 August 1941, in a brutal police operation, over 300 Swingjugend were arrested. The measures against them ranged from cutting their hair and sending them back to school under close monitoring, to the deportation of the leaders to concentration camps. The boys went to the Moringen concentration camp while the girls were sent to Ravensbruck.
This mass arrest encouraged the youth to further their political consciousness and opposition to National Socialism. They started to distribute anti-fascist propaganda. In January 1943, Günter Discher, as one of the ringleaders of the Swing Kids, was deported to the youth concentration camp of Moringen.
On 2 January 1942, Heinrich Himmler wrote to Reinhard Heydrich calling on him to clamp down on the ringleaders of the swing movement, recommending a few years in a concentration camp with beatings and forced labor:
My judgment is that the whole evil must be radically exterminated now. I cannot but see that we have taken only half measures. All ringleaders (...) are into a concentration camp to be re-educated (...) detention in concentration camp for these youths must be longer, 2–3 years (...) it is only through the utmost brutality that we will be able to avert the dangerous spread of anglophile tendencies, in these times where Germany fights for its survival.
The crackdown soon followed: clubs were raided, and participants were hauled off to camps.
The 1993 film Swing Kids examined this underground culture of rebellion during Nazi Germany in some detail. Directed by Thomas Carter and starring Robert Sean Leonard, Christian Bale, Frank Whaley, and Kenneth Branagh (uncredited), the picture was not a commercial success but sustains a large underground following and is described by film critic Janet Maslin as having a historical background.
German filmmaker Margit Czenki's 1994 made-for-television movie Swingpfennig/Deutschmark featured the original Swingboys Günter Discher and Otto Bender. Set in the St. Pauli of the early 1990s, the protagonists of the film – musicians around the band Die Goldenen Zitronen – uncover and stumble upon the history of the Swing Kids.
The film Swing Kids opens and, while not a smash at the box office, develops a cult following among people fascinated with its wild jitterbug scenes.