Soundtracking Germany: Popular Music and National Identity

Soundtracking Germany: Popular Music and National Identity

by Melanie Schiller


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781786606228
Publisher: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.
Publication date: 06/13/2018
Series: Popular Musics Matter: Social, Political and Cultural Interventions Series
Pages: 288
Product dimensions: 6.21(w) x 9.39(h) x 1.00(d)
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

Melanie Schiller is Assistant Professor of Media Studies and Popular Music at the University of Groningen, The Netherlands.

Read an Excerpt


The Natives of Trizonesia

Germanness without a Nation

"Nothing connects us all, but imagined sound." Benedict Anderson states in his celebration of unisonality in collectively singing the national anthem, "People wholly unknown to each other utter the same verses to the same melody. ... If we are aware that others are singing these songs precisely when and as we are, we have no idea who they may be, or even where, out of earshot, they are singing." It is in this simultaneity of singing the anthem, Anderson argues, that the nation is manifested in the imagination of the people, across homogenous, empty time. John Connell and Chris Gibson also describe the national anthem as "the culmination of the role of music in constructions of national identity ... the embodiment of nation in song." However, both of these accounts of national identification through music obviously presuppose an existing nation as well as a representative anthem. But how can music play a role in the creation of imagined nationhood? How can the collective experience of singing rhetorically and affectively bring about the very notion of national belonging? What if the "embodiment of nation" is a popular Schlager song, celebrating a nation that does not yet exist? In the words of Etienne Balibar, "What makes a nation a 'community'?" Is the collective musical celebration of the nation temporally as "homogeneous and empty," as Anderson claims, or does it not rather imply multiple (potentially conflicting) imagined histories? Finally, what if we take Jacques Attali's famous claim of music predicting the future into account when analyzing a Schlager song as the "national anthem" of postwar Germany?

As outlined in the introduction, the central aim of this study is to examine the interrelations of popular music, national identity, and postwar Germanness. In order to pursue this inquiry, I will begin by illuminating how popular music (in this case, Schlager) assumes a pivotal role in the performative (re)imagination of the West German national people after "zero hour," and is fundamental to the narrative construction of what will become the Federal Republic. I want to begin my tracking of German national identity as it is performed in and through popular music by analyzing how the German people — after unconditional surrender on May 7, 1945, and subsequent disintegration into four occupational zones — reconfigured national belonging musically. In a time and place where the direct consequences of extreme nationalist ideology were more tangible than ever in the rubble of a physically and spiritually destroyed nation that had to face its own guilt, and when previously clearly defined terms of identification and national belonging had become obsolete, traumatized Germany had to reconfigure itself as an imagined community. This rethinking, reimagining, reperforming, renarrating of Germanness was initially not framed in the institution of a nation-state, as the Allied forces had taken over the country and divided it into four administrative sectors. Yet, as I will show, the people musically reproduced national imaginaries based on collective narratives.

These musical national narratives, as I will analyze in detail, functioned as "the people produc[ing] itself ... as national community." In discussing postwar Schlager and its temporal and spatial metaphors for the experienced national void of postwar Germany, and in analyzing the popular hit "We are the Natives of Trizonesia" in particular, I will show how this "new" postwar Germanness is musically narrated. Further, I will demonstrate how its collective imagination is based on a simultaneous metaphoric unification of the nation with a shared (selective) history and collective experience, as well as on the metonymic delineation between the external "Other" (the Allied forces, which were perceived as colonizing the country) and the internal "Other" (in the process of the inner-German-split, in which the East came to signify the new German alterity). Finally, I will clarify how the narrative rhetoric of a collectively forgotten/remembered past temporally structures the illusion of a "naturalness" of the new — West German — nation, while any attempt of redefining national identity is haunted by the unprocessed traumatic experience.


On May 7, 1945, Germany announced its unconditional surrender and World War II ended; "die Stunde Null" ("zero hour") marked a turning point in German and world history. By the time of surrender, the Allied forces (the United States, Great Britain, France, and the Soviet Union) had already developed plans for the occupation after Germany's defeat. Only three days later, US president Truman signed a statute on the strategy regarding the occupation policy, which stated, "Germany will not be occupied for the purpose of liberation but as a defeated enemy nation." The Allied forces agreed on a consolidated administration of the German territory and divided the country into four sectors. The goals of the Allies were denazification, demilitarization, democratization, decentralization, and decartelization. Soon enough, though, at the Potsdam Conference in July and August 1945, it became evident that the agendas of the Allies regarding the administration of defeated Nazi Germany differed fundamentally. Stalin insisted on high reparations and systematically expelled German citizens from the territories east of the Oder-Neisse line, which, as I will show in more detail below, caused millions of people to leave behind their homes as they were forced to flee westward.

The immediate postwar years were dominated by forced migration, homelessness in a destroyed country, poverty, hunger, life in between rubble and reconstruction, freezing, death, and grief. Hence, despite the numerous and rapid changes in society, administration, and territory, the general population of this "Zusammenbruchgesellschaft" ["society of collapse"] of the mid- to late 1940s was hardly interested in official politics, but rather was led by a general desire for stability and security. The majority of the population was, moreover, little interested in classical music or high culture; instead, the radio wish lists were dominated by easy listening and entertaining music. Corresponding to the prevailing desire for "normality," security, and an idealized return to the familiar ["Zurücktasten zum Vertrauten"], radio, the predominant mass medium at the time, provided the means for creating a pleasant domesticity and evening entertainment programs for the entire family. Like other cultural forms, popular music was oriented toward the past as reappropriations of trends from the beginning of the century and the prewar era. At least until the end of the 1950s, popular music was primarily a mixture of well-known classical pieces, operetta melodies, marches, folksy tunes, and, of course, Schlager. During the early postwar years, the peak period of the radio age in Germany, so-called "bunte Abende" filled with easy music, some cabaret sketches, quizzes, and easily intelligible radio plays were the most popular weekend and leisure-time entertainment. Although every once in a while a "serious" musical piece might be in the mix, light music in general and Schlager in particular were the most popular genres. In his discussion of Schlager in the Weimar Republic, German cultural anthropologist Kaspar Maase tentatively defines the genre as "catchy songs, commercially produced for the entertainment- and music market; coming out of operetta and musical comedy, from cabaret and chanson scenes, produced directly for the record and later for sound film."

During the first years after the war only few new recordings were produced in Germany, mainly due to the insufficient infrastructure of the Schlager industry, since the majority of record production facilities had been destroyed. Only the factory of market leader Deutsche Grammophon was largely intact. The postwar Schlager industry was dominated by three larger trends: a perceived threat of internationalization, a state of national isolation, and personnel continuity. Before and during the war, the performance of internationally influenced Schlager or jazz was strictly regulated. During the Third Reich, the SS and SA forced radio stations to stop playing most internationally imported or influenced music, and jazz (very broadly defined as any music that did not conform to Nazi racial ideals) was banned in favor of traditional German folk music. Indeed, all imported music had to be approved by state officials. Of such music, particularly Schlager by Jewish authors or producers was banned, and jazz-influenced Schlager was considered "un-German," as the footloose "contortions" of free step combinations and bodily movements did not confirm to the military-disciplined image of Germanness as propagated by the Nazis. Although the Nazis' efforts to regulate all entertainment music in Germany were not entirely successful, the measures did largely eliminate Anglicisms in Schlager language. Hence, as German cultural anthropologist Werner Mezger explains, after a decade of stagnancy and detachment, the German entertainment market was suddenly flooded with international (mainly American) musical products, styles, and genres like the Boogie-Woogie and Swing. This process impelled producers, musicians, and performers to acknowledge that "old Germany" had lost its connection with the international music market in the course of the previous decade. Consequently, in order to be able to compete with the popular musical styles, German producers aimed at sounding as "international" as possible, both regarding the sound of Schlager and in the promotion of artist personalities. Many, for instance, adopted English-sounding pseudonyms in order to appear more modern.

Mezger's final, although rather passingly mentioned, point about personnel continuity within the German Schlager industry corresponds with the larger political and social situation of postwar Germany. As the Nazi regime had been supported by the majority of the German population, an ideological reeducation was deemed necessary by the Western Allies and, in the course of the so-called denazification project, all Nazis were supposed to be removed from all posts in official offices. While in the US zone the denazification was initially prioritized, the British and French authorities focused more on rebuilding an administrative structure and economy rather than pursuing strict political examinations. However, even in the US zone no more than about 15 percent of functionaries were laid off, whereas in the Soviet zone 500,000 Nazis in public offices were replaced with communists. Over the years the Allies grew less interested in a systematical persecution and punishment of former Nazi collaborators, especially since the relationship with the Soviet Union became a growing source of tension. As a result (and also due to a lack of qualified alternatives), numerous Nazis factually never were incriminated and, by means of so-called "Persilscheine," could redeem themselves and remain in office. Not only did a major part of the political elites remain in place, but most political, social, and artistic careers that started in the early 1930s also continued after the war. German historian Lutz Niethammer calls this phenomenon "Volkskontinuität" [roughly "continuity of the people"], the cohesion of social history upon which "despite all ruptures, West German history [is] based." This consistency is also traceable in ideological beliefs, cultural preferences, and popular tastes. Magazines, music, and films, for instance, bore strong resemblances to cultural products of the 1920s.

In the process of denazification, the Allies were from the outset very aware of the importance of cultural life, which played a major role in the reestablishment of German postwar society, particularly due to the fact that the majority of the population was politically rather uninterested. As German historian Gabriele Clemens explains, the British, for instance, did not want to repeat the self-recognized mistakes they made after the First World War — namely, underestimating the impact of cultural life upon the political situation and the worldview of the citizens. The Americans also considered a reorganization of cultural life in their sector of high importance. Therefore, from the very beginning of the occupation, the Allies had ideas and plans for how to deal with the procumbent cultural industries and cultural life of postwar Germany. The reactivation of a cultural scene was considered imperative for several reasons: first, as a propagandistic tool for their own culture, as well as a "reinternationalization" of German cultural life; second, for pedagogical purposes of reeducation and installation of democracy, a controlled pacification of the German people; and relatedly, third, for entertainment purposes. But, interestingly enough, particularly in the field of cultural life, the denazification processes were handled very loosely. This was often justified by the supposedly "apolitical artist personality" of performing artists, which were, as a result, less verified than, for instance, journalists.

Music was the cultural form of least concern to all four Allies, but it was, like theater and books, subjected to censorship, and all musical performances had to be sanctioned by the new military authorities. But one of the questions that emerged regarding the censorship of music was whether something was Nazi music or military music. Where to draw the line? Is it necessary to ban Wagner and Beethoven's Third? Does this music have to be categorized as Nazi music because the Führer liked it, or because it played a major role in the Third Reich? And what about the military marches by Strauss, Chopin, and Schubert? In the British sector it was eventually decided that music was allowed as long as it did not express "military ideas or [was] affiliated with the NSDAP, fascism, pan-German ideas or the Wehrmacht." Similar questions were discussed concerning the national anthem. Was the "Deutschlandlied" inherently dangerous? Did its collective singing lead to the reanimation of nationalist sentiments or resistance against the occupational forces? In the British zone the national anthem was eventually not banned (as long as it was not abused), while in the other sectors it was.

Music as art was, in the British and American liberal tradition, considered separate from politics, a sentiment introduced to Germany. The Soviets, by contrast, considered music an integral part of politics and determined that it should "play its full part in the consolidation of the workers revolution." Of the four Allies, it was the French who were the most committed to using music as a propaganda tool for diffusing their own culture and who energetically promoted French music to German audiences. All four Allies, however, started from a point of reverence for high culture and the tradition of German music: "None wished to be seen as less committed to high culture than the others," which resulted in a competition between the Allies, "as they realized that music played an enormous symbolic role in the public sphere in Germany." As a result, the British authorities, for instance, did not fund any releases of popular entertainment products like crime novels or popular music. Funding was only available for cultural products that clearly served educational purposes and were directed at the "educators" of society: "It is ... essential to understand clearly the target at which one 'projects.' Is it the 24 million people in the British Zone or the 24 thousand leaders and potential leaders? Obviously [we] must aim at both. Press, radio, films, and so on are all mass media. But the concentration of the effort must be on the leaders or potential leaders. We can influence the many partially, but we can only hope to influence the few decisively." Since the potential opinion leaders were said to be interested in high culture and needed to be "brought into contact again with musical tastes and development from which they [had] been cut off," popular music was not much of a concern for the Allies, as it was primarily regarded as entertainment for their own troops.


Returning to the status of the German postwar Schlager industry, it is not surprising that it was still — or again — dominated by the same people who were responsible for popular musical production before and during wartime: "As soon as the situation had calmed down a bit, the old experts amongst the authors tentatively attempted to appear back in public with new songs." In addition to the personnel continuity, many popular Schlager songs were in fact products of the 1920s, early 1930s wartime hits, or previously unpublished songs from the final years of the war. The so-called Durchhalteschlager ["endurance hit"], soft propaganda songs, as German historian Fred Ritzel calls them, still functioned well as "a sort of musical medicine" in offering warm comfort and perseverance during the rough postwar conditions of life in the rubble: "Es geht alles vorüber" ["Everything will come to pass"], "Davon geht die Welt nicht unter" ["It's not the end of the world"], and "Ich weiß, es wird einmal ein Wunder geschehen" ["I know that someday a miracle will happen"] are just some well-known examples of songs that comforted the "maltreated" German soul after the sufferings of the war and "served to perpetuate the escapism dreams that became prevalent in postwar Germany." But, in addition to the already existing and familiar "endurance hits," new productions were made according to the same formula: the Swing-Polka "Nach Regen scheint Sonne" ["After the rain comes sunshine"] is one of the most popular examples. The song refers to the change of weather as the circle of life and "after crying comes laughter," because "that's how it is, that's how it will be as long as the world keeps turning." As the natural course of things is presented as unswayable, responsibility is not to be taken for past or present or possible future actions, and a timid attempt is made "to express joy that the war and its atrocities are over."


Excerpted from "Soundtracking Germany"
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Copyright © 2018 Melanie Schiller.
Excerpted by permission of Rowman & Littlefield International, Ltd..
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Table of Contents

Introduction: Made in Germany / 1. The Natives of Trizonesia [Germanness Without a Nation] / 2. The Sound of Uncanny Silence [Beat, The Silent Nation and International Imaginaries] / 3. Fun Fun Fun on the Autobahn [Kraftwerk and the Open-Ended Narrative of the Nation] /4. Hitler on the Dance Floor [Queering the Nation] / 5. Most German of the Arts? [Techno and the Celebration of the Nation] / Conclusion: Another Time of Writing

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