The Swing Kids (German: Swingjugend) were a group of jazz and Swing lovers in Germany of the 1930s, mainly in Hamburg (St. Pauli) and Berlin. They were composed of 14- to 18-year old boys and girls in high school, most of them middle- or upper-class students, but some apprentice workers as well. They sought the British and American way of life, defining themselves in Swing music, and opposing the National-Socialist ideology, especially the Hitlerjugend.
The name "Swing kids" (Swing Kinder) is a rough translation of the German "Swingjugend" ("Swing Youth"), which was a sort of parody of the numerous "youth" groups which flourished before the National Socialists. They also referred to themselves as "Swings" or "Swingheinis" ("Swingity"); the members were called "Swing-Boy", "Swing-Girl" or "Old-Hot-Boy"
During the Nazi regime, many of the youth in Germany (ages 10 to 17) were encouraged to join the Hitler Youth. The leaders of this organization realized they had to offer some attraction in the area of social dancing in order to recruit new members. But, instead of adopting the popular swing dance, (because it was 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 at large. These teenage hoppers were known as “Swing–Heinis”, a name the authorities called them.
They danced in private quarters, clubs, rented halls, and more notably, Café Heinze. These adolescents dressed a little differently than others 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. Girls wore short skirts, applied lipstick and fingernail polish, and wore their hair long and down instead of applying braids or German-style rolls.
For those designated non-Aryan, it became even more dangerous to be associated with the Swing crowd by November 1938, during and after Kristallnacht. 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.
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" or "degenerate music"—coined in parallel to "entartete Kunst" (degenerate art). 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 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 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.
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 "Youth Guidance" office:
"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 able better 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 (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 Youth of Hamburg at some point had contacts with another famous resistance movement, when three members of the Weiße Rose ("White Rose") developed a sympathy for the Swing youth. 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 youth 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 youth, 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 Swing jugend 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.
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 the "ringleaders" of the Swing youth, 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. The crackdown soon followed: clubs were raided and participants were hauled off to camps.
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. (Heinrich Himmler)
In 1993, a film called 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 nonetheless a moderately accurate history-based film.