Totems of the Third Reich’s Musikkorps…

‘The Army of the Reich must gradually be steeped in the old traditions, especially those of Prussia, Bavaria and Austria…” so said Adolf Hitler in 1941 and amidst the pomp & tradition of Hitler’s Germany, one of the most enduring aspects of the Third Reich was the magnificence of its dress: a whole nation in uniform, with a tailored outfit, dagger and ornate accoutrement for every conceivable occasion. But it was perhaps the myriad visions of Nazi flags, banners & drapes, with their mix of Roman & Wagnerian imagery that would remain long after the Reich crumbled in the ashes of Berlin in 1945.

The word ‘flag’ is derived from the ancient German or Saxon word ‘flaken’, meaning ‘to fly’ or ‘to float in the wind’, and whilst Roman legions carried their ornate eagle atop a banner as a standard, the use of a flag as a means of identification began with the Vikings and was later used to great effect in the Crusades of the Middle Ages.

In 1848, the original German Federation adopted a tricolour of black, red and gold, colours based on the black coats, red collar piping and gold buttons worn by German university students who were raised as a volunteer force by Major Lützow in 1813 to assist in the struggle against Napoleon. Bismarck, however, later replaced this flag with the national tricolour of black, red and white, but at the end of World War One, the new Weimar Republic declared that the official colours of the new German republic were to revert back, and so in 1919, black, red and gold once again became the official colours of the German nation.

With the increasing unrest and upheavals in Germany in the 1920′s and 1930′s, the Weimar colours increasingly came to remind those on the right of Germany’s capitulation and subsequent humiliation brought about by the Versailles Treaty in 1918. As a result of this association, when the National Socialists came to power, one of Hitler’s very first acts was to abolish the loathed Weimar tricolour of black, red and gold. On April 22nd 1933, he decreed that a new national flag of black, red and white would henceforth be flown in conjunction with the NSDAP party flag of a black swastika within a white circle on a blood-red background.

As far as the armed forces were concerned, no official unit colours had been presented or indeed carried during the period of the Weimar Republic; however, one year on from the reintroduction of military conscription in 1935, Adolf Hitler announced that unit flags, banners and standards would once again be issued, and between 1936 and 1937, the vast majority of Wehrmacht units were presented with new official colours.

All subsequent unit insignia, from flags to pennants, were to incorporate and refer back to the initial unit colour issued, including regimental bands. Emblems displayed on or within flags & banners during the Third Reich usually included, in addition to unit details and/or towns of origin, the evocative images of either the German eagle, swastika, iron cross, SS runes or death’s head.

The origins of the eagle as Germany’s national emblem can be traced back to the ninth century and Charlemagne, who saw himself as the successor to the emperors of Rome and adopted the eagle upon the legionnaire’s standard as the symbol of his rule.

During the later periods of Hohenstaufen and the Holy Roman Empire, the German eagle developed into its distinctive upright stance, with its single-head, spread-wing and out-stretched talons, which became known as the ‘displayed’ eagle. This impressive image was adopted by the German Second Reich in 1871 and continued by the Weimar Republic in 1919, before coming to real prominence with the National Socialists in 1933.

This new eagle incorporated the National Socialist’s emblem of the swastika, mounted within a garland of oak leaves – the traditional German symbol of strength and longevity; thus the combination of eagle & swastika was enshrined as the official emblem of the Third Reich and as such was officially adopted by the German armed forces:

The army and navy adopted a differing version from the standard political eagle, known as the ‘Wehrmachtadler’, a ‘displayed’ eagle whose wings were only half open; whilst the Luftwaffe, as the newest branch of service, desired a more distinct emblem in the shape of an eagle & swastika whose wings gave the impression of flight.

Seemingly associated with Germany since time immemorial, the symbol of the iron cross actually dates back to the Crusades where German knights, ruling over Prussia, Estonia and Kurland, adopted a white surcoat upon which was displayed a distinctive cross in black. Friedrich Wilhelm III of Prussia later adopted this black cross and, having watched Napoleon create the Legion d’Honeur medal for bravery in 1802, introduced the Iron Cross as a German military award for gallantry some 11 years later.

1871 saw the iron cross adopted by the Kaiser and incorporated into the flag of Imperial Germany, whereupon it became the focus of a nation during the Great War between 1914 and 1918, before its adoption by the incoming National Socialists in 1933. Such is the historical bond with Germany and the iron cross that a Maltese-style version continues to be the symbol of the post war Bundeswehr’s displayed on its fighting vehicles & aircraft.

An ancient symbol, the swastika was traditionally a sign of good fortune and is derived from the Sanskrit words ‘Su’, meaning well and ‘Asti’, meaning ‘being’. Used widely as a Buddhist emblem, the swastika was also the pagan Germanic sign of Thor the god of thunder, in addition to being a featured symbol in the Nordic runic alphabet. During the nineteenth century, the swastika was widely regarded throughout Europe as a symbol of nationalism, and was adopted by the Ehrhardt Brigade and other Freikorps units during the German uprisings, following the defeat at end of the WW-I.

Adopted by Adolf Hitler, the Hakenkreuz (literally ‘crooked cross’) came to represent National Socialism, and in the years 1933 to 1945 was displayed on most flags and banners, either individually or with the traditional German eagle.

Perhaps the eeriest of all German insignia was the ‘Death’s Head’ adopted by the SS in 1934, but whose Germanic associations date back to 1740. Often thought as a design to terrorise the nation’s enemies, the Totenkopf  actually has strong links with German medieval literature, where it was a symbol of death & destruction. However, as a piece of German military insignia, it made its first appearance as a large, silver bullion jaw-less skull & bones, embroidered on the black drape at the funeral of the Prussian king Friedrich Wilhelm I. In tribute to Friedrich, the elite Prussian Royal Bodyguard Divisions (the Leibhusaren-Regimenten no.’s I and II), formed after his death, adopted black uniforms with large silver Totenkopf affixed to the front of their large busbies (Pelzmützen).

During the First World War, a number of crack Imperial German flamethrower & storm-trooper units also adopted the death’s head, and in 1918 it appeared painted on the steel helmets of the Freikorps in the German uprising, where it became a symbol of both war-time bravery and post-war anti-Bolshevism! Not surprisingly, members of the Stosstrupp Adolf Hitler took up the Totenkopf as their distinctive emblem in 1923, and with the coming of the National Socialists in 1933, the Stosstrupp’s successor, the Schutzstaffel, adopted the Prussian jaw-less skull as their symbol.

However, when the Wehrmacht’s new elite Panzer-Korps decided they too wished to be represented by the Prussian death’s head, the SS devised & ordered their own particular ‘grinning skull’, which became the standard death’s head for both the Allgemeine and Waffen-SS. Used in conjunction with the SS’s own distinctive version of the displayed wing eagle & swastika, the Totenkopf was used through to 1945 on all SS uniform insignia, vehicles, flags, standards, trumpet banners, drapes and drum covers.

Inextricably linked with the Totenkopf, the ‘twin lightning’ runes of the SS were derived from the historical alphabets and figures used by Germanic tribes of pre-Christian Europe. The standard single Sig Rune was long regarded historically as a symbol of victory, and by the end of the Second World War, some 14 variations were eventually in use by the Waffen-SS.

The double-SS runes originated in 1932 when SS-Mann Walter Heck, graphic designer with Bonn insignia manufacturer Ferdinand Hoffman, put two single sig-runes side-by-side to create the infamous SS-Runen. The SS leadership paid him the princely sum of 2.50 Reichmarks for the full design rights, and the organisation thereafter utilised the runes throughout all branches of service to represent the Allgemeine/Waffen- SS during the entire period of the Third Reich.

Copyright @ Brian Matthews 2014

Extracted from the book:  The Military Music & Bandsmen of Adolf Hitler’s Third Reich 1933-1945                     Published by The Tomahawk Films WW-II German Archive.    ISBN 0-9542812-0-9

 

Waffen-SS Musiker Training…

From the earliest days of the Third Reich, the Allgemeine-SS & SS-Verfügungstruppe had begun forming their own elite Musikkorps, so establishing the tradition for the SS leading the way in all things artistic & political and Hitler’s elite Bodyguard Division, the Leibstandarte-SS had successfully recruited fully-trained first-rate civilian professional musicians to join its ranks to establish itself in the pre-war years as Germany’s premier military band. As such it performed at all the most important military & ceremonial occasions in Berlin, including the Sportspalast Concert on January 30th 1934 to celebrate the first anniversary of Adolf Hitler’s spectacular ascent to power.

However, with the creation of the Waffen-SS and the sudden increase in the number of new Waffen-SS Musikkorps as a result, the SS-Musikinspektion  was determined to ensure a constant supply of highly trained  young musicians from within its own ranks by laying down very strong foundations for their formal musical education, having appointed a new generation of Waffen-SS Musikführer.

So a purpose-built Musikschule der Waffen-SS was set up within the grounds of the SS-Junkerschule at Braunschweig under SS-Hauptsturmführer Edgar Siedentopf and admitted its first intake of  60 pupils on July 1st 1940. Maintained & funded by the Reichsführung-SS and the City of Braunschweig, the school recruited its music teachers from the town’s civilian State Music Academy, whilst school discipline and tuition was provided & overseen by SS-NCOs on secondment from the Musikkorps of the Waffen-SS Division ‘Germania’.

The school boasted an impressive array of brass and percussion instruments, including some 40 upright & grand pianos and consisted of one large staff headquarters building which contained a big rehearsal room, several practice rooms, an administrative office and both a tailor’s & shoemaker’s workshop to service the school’s domestic requirements. In addition, there was a boarding house containing students’ dormitories, a dining hall & kitchen, and scattered around the school were 3 teaching huts, a further smaller rehearsal room, a gym and several sound-proofed practice rooms for individual student practice.

Young pupils who possessed previous musical training and passed the strict medical could enter the school on or after their 14th birthday for a period of four years and then sign up for a 12 year contract as a musician within the Musikkorps of the Waffen-SS, provided their parents had given clear, prior consent and were then able to contribute 25 Reichsmarks (approx. £2.00), a month towards their board & lodging, clothing and education.

The level of the student’s musical aptitude was ascertained through the sitting of an entrance exam and all successful students were then advised on the selection of a main instrument, (brass), and a secondary instrument, (strings). On-going student progress was tested throughout the year and, whilst at the school, pupils wore uniforms similar in style to the standard field-grey combat uniforms of the Waffen-SS (right). But on their black collar patch was an embroidered lyre, the epaulettes contained the monogram M.S. and the cuff-title worn on the lower right tunic arm bore the legend Musikschule Braunschweig in silver on black. To help further distinguish the young students from the general Waffen-SS rank and file, the young trainee musician’s wore the standard Hitler Jugend armband and silver belt buckle.

In 1942 the SS-Musikschule separated from the SS-Junkerschule to become a separate and totally independent unit, and by 1944 the number of students had risen from that initial 60 to 220, with SS-Haupsturmführer Eberhardt taking over command and head-ship of the school from SS-Sturmbannführer Siedentopf and in keeping with the SS-Musikinspektion’s aim of providing the Waffen-SS with only the finest musician’s available, the Musikschule Braunschweig also ensured that high achieving students could be selected for further training as future conductors & musical directors with SS-Officer rank.

Along with suitable musician’s already serving with existing Musikkorps within the Waffen-SS, selected Braunschweig students were recommended by their instructors for further training and ordered to Berlin to sit aptitude & entrance examinations for the Musikführer’s course, and successful candidates were then attached to the Staff Band, where training took place across a range of musical subjects.

The emphasis in music-leader training was obviously placed on conducting, and the SS-Staff Band was used both in this regard and for the performances of compositions actually written by the probationary musical leaders; as such these future Waffen-SS Musikführer were given a far more realistic and dynamic music leadership training than any other military music school within the Reich.The SS-Musikführer course finished with a final examination and following a pass the successful students were promoted to the rank of SS-Standarten-Oberjunker (trainee officers), with the expectation that they would eventually become musical directors of their own Musikkorps and an accompanying rank of SS-Untersturmbannführer.

It is worth noting that the only two SS-Musikmeister who were not formally trained were Musikmeister Hermann Müller-John and his number two Gustav Weissenborn, (right in civvies), both of the Musikkorps der SS-Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler, neatly illustrating the elite and exclusive image that the SS Bodyguard Division enjoyed in the eyes of Adolf Hitler and its Commanding Officer Sepp Dietrich.

Upon completion of their basic military training, Waffen-SS musicians were immediately assigned to the SS-Musikkorps that had suitable vacancies on offer, whereas some newly qualified Wehrmacht musicians, fresh out of basic training, had to wait and scan the notice-boards or the situations vacant pages of the musical magazine Deutsche Militärmusikerzeitung seeking out bands that were advertising for specific musicians.

Military musicians quite often found themselves having to suffer the ‘indignity’ of being assigned to other military duties whilst awaiting their full-time move to a regimental or corps band, for despite the regular flow of Wehrmacht & Waffen-SS musicians through basic military training, the German High Command issued strict regulations on the size of a unit’s military band, and new musicians would only be transferred to a band when there was a genuine vacancy.

An exception to this rule was the SS-Leibstandarte ‘Adolf Hitler’, whose elite band was much favoured by commanding officer Sepp Dietrich who firmly believed that a good Musikkorps reflected well on the whole regiment. Therefore whenever SS-LAH Musikmeister Hermann Müller-John slapped in a request for two more clarinettists or an additional oboist, Dietrich would say with a rueful grin, ‘haven’t you got enough already….?’, before turning a blind eye to the already over-subscribed Musikkorps line-up and approving the latest transfer. It was in this fashion that the SS-LAH Musikkorps grew from an original 48 musicians to 75 thence up to 120 musicians!

Once the new musical recruits had passed through basic military training and joined a Musikkorps, all Wehrmacht and Waffen-SS musicians were put onto the Wehrmacht Heeresdienstvorschrift (or Army Service Regulation) pay scale HDV 32 and were then very much considered to be full-time professionals. Now, in a complete reversal of their previous status during basic training, they were not expected to undertake any other military duties outside of their creative sphere during peace time and could concentrate fully on advancing their professional Waffen-SS and Wehrmacht military-musical careers.

The only exception to this order was their annual four weeks posting, as serving soldiers, back to a training company to ‘recapture’ their military skills acquired during basic training and to freshen up on what would become their secondary wartime roles as medics, communications personnel, drivers and motorcycle couriers. But once assigned to a Wehrmacht & Waffen-SS musikkorps, a musician’s instruments were then provided by the unit or regimental band, (the only exception being the 12.SS-Hitlerjugend who, due to their late formation in 1944, actually provided their own instruments), and then the business of performing professionally in public could really begin in earnest…

A typical military musician’s day in barracks usually consisted of full rehearsals of the Musikkorps each morning followed by individual practice and performance in the afternoon, with many evenings being taken up with small public concerts being staged to entertain the good folk of the garrison town and its outlying regions. Mornings normally began with marching practice for the full band, either practising new movements or brushing up on old ones and rehearsing the military marching repertoire, either on the parade ground or in fields behind the barracks; then it was time to sit down and work on specific concert pieces and performances including overtures and waltzes that would be performed at important public concerts…

Afternoons provided the opportunity for the individual musicians to lock themselves away in whichever quiet spot they could find (the attic, boiler or store room), and work undisturbed on their own specific instrument, before rejoining the band and travelling to the evening concert. This evening entertainment could take place in the local town hall or in the large hall of the local brewery or as an outdoor concert in the bandstand in the town park or perhaps as a more elaborate performance in the local theatre or concert hall. Particularly well received wherever they played were the dance band of the SS-Leibstandarte-SS ‘Adolf Hitler’ in the distinctive Waffen-SS white mess-jackets they always performed in!

For the German military career-musician, Sunday was always the most important day of the working week, with them often being required to perform full-scale concerts organised for the German civilian population most weeks. These were often in aid of the Deutsche Rotes Kreuz, or to entertain the workers at local factories during peace time. During the war years they were more likely to perform in support of the Winterhilfswerk (Winter Relief Fund), or visit military hospitals to entertain sick & wounded soldiers shipped back from the front…thus proving Goebbel’s maxim that military music was a vital tool in Third Reich’s Propaganda War..!

Copyright@ Brian Matthews 2014

Extracted from the book:  The Military Music & Bandsmen of Adolf Hitler’s Third Reich 1933-1945                     Published by The Tomahawk Films WW-II German Archive.    ISBN 0-9542812-0-9

Third Reich Spielleute…

As one thought or action invariably leads onto another so, as the bugler and drummer/fifer are forever linked historically down the ages, did I find myself moving from former naval cadet bugler to rock-drummer with ‘Adam West and the Gotham City Rockers’, amongst other bands, early on in my pre-television professional life.

However, like many other tub-thumpers I have also endured much stick as a result, for we un-sung souls, (beavering away at the back of the stage to ensure the ‘rock gods’ in the spotlight at the front kept time & looked good), are always the much-mocked ones and never taken seriously by our fellow musicians… though have you ever tried playing a full 5-piece rock kit and seen just how difficult it is? So perhaps having mastered this complex instrument myself I wasn’t quite the knuckle-dragger as depicted by the ‘real’ musos!

However on the basis of ‘once a drummer, always a drummer’ my continued long–time interests in the infantry bugle also helped keep alive, (once I’d given up active rock drumming), my interest in the snare-drum in its military role with the company bugler and drummer & fifers… an integral part of any military column throughout history.

Markedly different from the ‘standard’ German military musician and forever at the head of the company on the march, the Spielleute…literally playing people… have, with their fife & drums, (together with my beloved signalhorn), seemingly forever been a part of military lore. In fact the fife is very much an historical instrument in its own right having been given to the world by the ancient Greeks, and then picked up by Swiss mercenaries who used them in conjunction with drums as far back as The Middle Ages.

Adopted by the British army in the 18th century, the Third Reich’s Hitlerjugend was to take to fife & drumming with a great enthusiasm and ready zeal in the 1930s and today fifes, (along with bugles), are always associated with drums, with the German military term Trommelflöte in fact meaning ‘drum flute’. Made of black ebony and normally tuned in C of normal tuning the fife (or Pfeife in German) measured approximately 15 inches in length and when not being played was kept in a brown or black leather fife case suspended from the bugler or drummer’s leather belt to the rear of his bayonet and frog.

However, the oldest of all the military instruments is the snare or side-drum dating right back to The Crusades and, used in conjunction with the fife, was an effective way of keeping an army in step and on the move; like bugles they were also used to signal & transmit orders. In the 17th century, German armies went into quarters during the winter until a spring offensive could be launched, with soldiers being billeted in a town or village and with only the locals inns and hostelries for entertainment.

To encourage the soldiers to return to their billets at the end of the evening, the inn-keepers would turn their ale-taps off promptly at 10pm. This ‘witching hour’ would then be communicated to inn-keepers and soldiers alike by the garrison drummers who, in the company of an officer and sergeant, would set off around the town beating out a rhythm, whilst checking and ensuring all soldiers were on the move. From this action the word Tattoo’ which we are all now very familiar with in today’s military phraseology is thought to have been coined, derived directly from the Dutch phrase: Doe-Den-Tap-Toe or ‘Turn The Taps Off’!

Wehrmacht snare drum barrels were made of a brass and their batter heads made from calf-skin whilst snares were made from four catgut cords which were strung tightly across the lower drum skin and were held in place by a brass knob on one side and a hook and cord-screw on the corresponding side opposite. The skins were held in place by a wooden inner ring and an outer ring, the latter having a thin covering of copper, and the complete drum was held together by 5 stretching screws  evenly spaced around the body. Additionally a piece of strong curved wire, either covered in field-grey cloth or bound in leather, was riveted to the drum’s bottom rings as protection for the drummer’s trousers or breeches…

By a German army order of August 1933, all military snare and side drums were to be painted white on the inside and on top of the wooden drum rings, whilst the outsides should have 39 red lacquered isosceles triangles along the outer edge, with 39 black triangles along the bottom edge, both pointing inwards, with the resulting squares pattern formed between the triangles in white.

Whilst Luftwaffe and Heer & Waffen-SS snare drums had a standard brass barrel, it was custom and practice for the Kriegsmarine to over-paint the brass in a dark or medium blue. Hitler Youth & Sturm Abteilung snare drums, produced in 3 differing sizes, were painted in red and white alternating triangles, whilst those of the Allgemeine-SS & Waffen-SS sported alternating black and white triangles… and if you actually get to see or handle one ‘in the flesh’ very attractive items they are too…

Incidentally, talking of the Spielleute and their musical armoury of fife, drum & signalhorn, (another subject I write about in some length in the Tomahawk Films-produced book The Military Music & Bandsmen of Adolf Hitler’s Third Reich 1933-45), the bugle itself was originally developed, way back in the dim & distant past by the French as a hunting accessory. In fact ‘bugle’ is actually the French word for ‘young bull’ and it was to be the German & French armies that adopted the instrument for military use, and its primary role was in the passing of signals on the battlefield and in camp, including ‘To Arms’ or ‘Last Post’.

As such it soon became an instrument of major significance within the German military, with all units parading its own signalling bugler.

However, finally as a sign-off for this particular Blog, whilst having dwelt primarily on the subject of the snare drum, though not an instrument of the Spielleute but very much harking back to those aforementioned Swiss and indeed German mercenaries of the Middle Ages, is the Landsknecht drum that was peculiar to the Hitler Youth and Deutsche Jungvolk. Certainly a most formidable-looking and very attractive military instrument, its skins were made from calf-hide, and its wooden drum rings were secured top and bottom by rope cords tautened by leather thongs.

Often used en-masse as part of the formidable Nazi propaganda machinery, these impressive drums were worn suspended on a black leather strap over the right shoulder and hanging down at an angle on the drummer’s left and in place of the standard drum-sticks, it was played by two cane-stick beaters with thick white felt pads on the end…

The usual or standard colour-scheme for these beautiful drums was a most dramatic, almost vivid red & white burning flame design for drums paraded by the Hitler Youth, and a similar black & white flame design for the Landsknecht drums of the  Deutsche Jungvolk. The DJ drums also appeared as a very dramatic design of black with a white runic device to the front. In terms of drum size, as with military snare drums, smaller sizes for the shorter boys were produced and issued.

In addition, though a musical instrument forever linked with the propaganda film newsreels of Hitler’s Germany, they were also used later on in great numbers in post-war East Germany, where they were repainted in blue & yellow of the FDJ and re-issued for use by the myriad Communist Youth bands, so as the saying goes: ‘the apple never falls far from the tree’!

Copyright @ Brian Matthews 2013