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

 

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