BOOK REVIEW: Will Studdert – The Jazz War: Radio, Nazism and the Struggle for the Airwaves in World War II

Will Studdert – The Jazz War: Radio, Nazism and the Struggle for the Airwaves in World War II
(I.B. Tauris, £64, 256pp. Book Review by Chris Parker)

As anyone who’s read S. Frederick Starr’s Red and Hot (about jazz in the Soviet Union), or Mike Zwerin’s La Tristesse de Saint Louis (about swing under the Nazis) will already know, totalitarian regimes have a lot of difficulty dealing with jazz. The Soviets were never quite sure whether the music was to be championed, in its more blues-based manifestations, as the cry of the oppressed proletariat, or condemned – in its popular swing mode – as the ultimate expression of capitalist decadence. Similarly, the Nazis – acutely conscious of the music’s origins in the culture of what they regarded as an inferior race – classified jazz as entartete musik and banned it, along with other ‘degenerate’ music by Jewish composers such as Mendelssohn, Mahler and Kurt Weill.

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Despite their philosophical hostility to the music, though, the Nazi authorities, under the direction of Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels, quickly realised that German troops actually liked American swing/dance music, and that their morale could be significantly boosted by exposure to it. Goebbels therefore sanctioned the production of Anglo-American jazz for broadcast, not only to German listeners, but also as a ‘sweetener’ in the propaganda programmes of Lord Haw-Haw, aimed at the demoralisation of the enemy. Meanwhile, both the British and the Americans (and, later, the Japanese) had come to a similar conclusion, and were busy making swing/dance music programmes for morale-boosting purposes.

Will Studdert painstakingly relates this irony-laden history in this meticulously researched study, sensibly dividing his story into ‘The Cultural Blackout’ (September 1939–July 1940), ‘Hot War’ (July 1940–December 1941), ‘Turning the Psychological Tide’ (December 1941–February 1943) and ‘Total Radio Warfare’ (February 1943–May 1945). Although scrupulously detailed, The Jazz War is seldom bogged down in particulars, but throughout keeps one eye firmly on the broader picture, dealing with such thorny issues as the debate concerning US isolationism/interventionism; the arguments over pandering to popular taste that raged within the BBC; the similar debates, poisoned by racist ideology, in Nazi circles; the Zoot Suit riots in the US sparked by the NAACP pointing out that a war for human rights might more reasonably be waged in the US before being taken to Europe; and the effectiveness of propaganda generally (particularly pertinent with reference to Tokyo Rose, who claimed to have been acting clandestinely as a subtle ‘double agent’ in her broadcasts to US troops).

Although the occasionally dry tone of Studdert’s book reveals its roots as an academic thesis, it contains enough judiciously chosen quotations from contemporary sources (most entertainingly from BBC strategy meetings) to enliven it, and overall it is a valuable addition to the literature on a fascinating subject.

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