Already in the first years of the Nazi concentration camp system prisoners were composing new texts for well-known melodies, or entirely new songs. These camp songs, which tell of the hardships, fears, and hopes of the internees, comprise a music genre of their own. A subgenre of this group is represented by concentration camp anthems. In contrast to other camp songs, the anthems’ content refers to a specific site, usually named in the title, and they served as a type of official, recognizable melody of that particular camp.
“Moorsoldatenlied” as a prototype (1933-1936)
One of the earliest concentration camp anthems, the “Börgermoorlied” (“Song of Börgermoor”) or “Lagerlied von Börgermoor” (“Camp song of Börgermoor”) or “Moorsoldatenlied” (“Song of the Peat Bog Soldiers“) originated in 1933. Unlike many of the later anthems it was created independently of the SS and at first allowed to be played officially. It soon spread within and outside of the camp system as a symbol of the prisoners’ desire for self-determination. It became the prototype for future concentration camp anthems because it was much beloved, even by watch tower guards. Though information is often fragmentary, there are an additional half dozen concentration camp anthems from the early phase of the concentration camp system alone.
Title/ Opening line of song
Composer or Melody
“Ein Lichtehäftling war ich zwar” (“A Prisoner without light was I indeed“), Original version from „Esterwegen“
Adapted from the soldiers’ song „Ich bin ein Bub vom Elstertal“(“I am a boy from Elster Valley“)
“Esterwegen” or “Esterwegenlied” (“Song of Esterwegen”), variation of „Ein Lichtehäftling war ich zwar“ (“I’ve been a prisoner of Lichtenburg”)
Adapted from the soldiers’ song „Ich bin ein Bub vom Elstertal“
Kislau, probably 1933
“In Kislau gehn die Tore auf”(“In Kislau the Gates Go Up”)
Composer and melody unknown
“Lichtenburger Lagerlied“ (“Lichtenburg Camp Song”)
A teacher about whom nothing further is known
Heuberg, Early Summer 1933
“Lied der Heuberger” (“Song of the Heuberg Prisoners”) or “Heuberglied” (“Heuberg Song”)
Adapted from the Russian folk song „Stenka Rasin“
Sachsenburg, Summer 1933
„Lied von Sachsenburg“ (“Song of Sachsenburg”)
Adapted from the Agitprop song “Arbeitsmann, du lebst in Not” (“Worker, You’re Living in Need”)
R. Seidel or Rudi Reinwarth
Anthems as Contract Works for the SS (1936-1946)
Only after 1936 and the structural transformation of the camp system does one observe an increased interest in concentration camp anthems by the camp leadership. Afterwards, many camp commanders demanded that their camps acquire their own anthems to raise their profile. This was the case with the anthem of Sachenhausen, “model camp” of the new concentration camp generation since 1936. The „Sachsenhausenlied“ (“Song of Sachsenhausen”) or “Sachsenhausener Lagerlied” (“Sachsenhausen Camp Song”) grew out of a special directive of its commandant in the winter of 1936/37. Though it was prohibited a few years later, many prisoners, like many watch tower guards, secretly held on to it. A similar genesis can be shown for the „Buchenwaldlied“ (“Song of Buchenwald”) or „Buchenwalder Lagerlied“ (“Buchenwald Camp Song”). In December 1938, Arthur Rödl, “Detention Camp Leader” at Buchenwald, ordered the prisoners over the internal loudspeaker system to make suggestions for a camp song. By the end of December the resulting “Song of Buchenwald” was drummed into the heads of the prisoners. “In twenty-four hours all of you must know it! Tomorrow sing the whole song!”, rang Rödl’s accompanying command. For a while the song was not allowed to be performed, because after playing it a foreign radio station was supposed to have mentioned that its composer was Jewish. Apparently, Rödl personally intervened with the Gestapo until “his” song could be performed again. Only after the course of the war had changed did the camp leadership take offence, and its performance was prohibited after June 1943.
“The march became our anthem, which we sang at every opportunity. More than anything else, its refrain became an expression of our hopes,” said Hermann Leopoldi, composer of the “Song of Buchenwald,” of the reason for the song’s popularity. Because the SS valued it as well, it was adopted by other camps. In the song “O Wewelsburg, ich kann dicht nicht vergessen!” (“Oh Wewelsburg, I cannot forget you!”), a former Buchenwald prisoner in the concentration camp Wewelsburg created a variation heavily indebted to the “Song of Buchenwald,” for which he supposedly was compensated with 20 Reichsmarks from the thankful commandant. A contrafact of the “Song of Buchenwald” was created in the "Treblinkalied" or “Lied von Treblinka” (“Song of Treblinka”/“Treblinka Song”). In distinction to other concentration camp anthems, this song calls for the subservience, obedience, and discipline of the prisoners, presumably because it was composed by Kurt Hubert Franz, a deputy camp commandant formerly active in the concentration camp at Buchenwald.
After the author of the “Song of Buchenwald”, Fritz Löhner-Beda, was transferred to Auschwitz-Buna (Monowitz), and shortly before his murder there, he wrote the “Buna-Lied” (“Song of Buna”). The anthem of Neuengamme owes its creation, on the other hand, to a song competition that had over thirty entries. This competition took place in spring 1942 under the supervision of the most senior camp prisoner and with the knowledge of the camp leadership. The song “Konzentrationäre” (“Concentrationaires”) was chosen. It is also known as the “Neuengammer Lagerlied” (“Neuengamme Camp Song”) with slight variations from the original. In part, these can be located in the distortion that would have been caused through the song’s transmission amongst prisoners. Yet this also proves the active use of the song in the camp’s everyday life, and its popularity. In many camps, the official anthems were regularly sung during roll call, marching, exercises or at observations. On the other hand, they were not only accepted by the SS, but also by the prisoners. So, they transformed from contract work done for the camp leadership to songs of the prisoners. This was because they came mostly from the prisoners, ended on a positive note, and in general expressed prisoners’ hopes and emotions in a coded, at times even overt tone. In any case, the concentration camp anthems were – at least for a time – firmly integrated into the daily routine of the camp and thereby attained an official character.
Other Camp Songs with References to Place
The SS’s official endorsement of the camp anthems distinguishes them from other camp songs, which similarly highlight a specific camp location, but would hardly have been accepted by the SS as camp anthems because of their explicitly resistant character. One example is the “Dachaulied” (“Song of Dachau”), also known as “Arbeit macht frei” (“Work Sets One Free”, concentration camp Dachau, lyrics by Jura Soyfer and music by Herbert Zipper), created in 1938 and inspired by the inscription on the camp gate. In contrast to the Janus-face of the songs commissioned by the SS, it takes an accusatory stance. After quickly spreading amongst prisoners’, it was set to music several times and like the “Song of the Peat Bog Soldiers” even became known outside of Germany. Other camp songs that superficially resemble camp anthems would never have been approved by the SS because, for example, they were not in German or raised critical and/or objectionable issues. Thus in the “Auschwitzlied” (“Song of Auschwitz”, concentration/death camp Auschwitz, lyrics by Camille Spielbichler together with an interned Jew or Margot Bachner to the melody of “Wo die Nordseewellen” (“Where the Waves of the North Sea”), the camp is decried as “accursed,” a provincial spot hated by the prisoners. Much the same can be said for the “Ravensbrücklied” (“Song of Ravensbrück”, concentration camp Ravensbrück, after 1942, with lyrics by two Soviet prisoners and a melody adapted from a Russian folk song). Though it is more restrained in its formulation, it addresses itself to the Russian women flatly disparaged as communists by the Nazis.
References to place, therefore, are not the exclusive characteristic of concentration camp anthems, but can be found amongst a wider range of camp songs. This can extend from general camp motifs (e.g. “Barbed wire,” “Enclosure,” “Kapo,” “Camp”) to rough topographic orientation (e.g. “Right Near Hamburg,” “Between Weichsel and Sola,” “On the edge of the forest”) to the explicit naming of names in the text or title (e.g. „Fern verbannt nach Emslands Norden“ (“Banished far away to the north of Emsland”), "Westerbork Serenade". As vague as the references to place may be, simple hints often sufficed for the prisoners to guess the location. From a psychological-mental point of view, this strengthened the effect of such camp songs on the singers and created a collective identity as a camp prisoner that was tied to the specific location of the camp.
Ausländer, Fietje / Brandt, Susanne / Fackler, Guido: „O Bittre Zeit. Lagerlieder 1933 bis 1945“. Ed. by Dokumentations- und Informationszentrum (DIZ) Emslandlager, Papenburg, in cooperation with musik archive of Akademie der Künste, Berlin, and Deutsches Rundfunkarchiv (DRA), Potsdam-Babelsberg/Wiesbaden. Papenburg: DIZ Emslandlager, 2006 (http://www.diz-emslandlager.de/cd03.htm, email@example.com). – 3-cd-collection with recordings and informations to the above mentioned concentration camp anthems and camp songs.
Fackler, Guido: „Des Lagers Stimme” – Musik im KZ. Alltag und Häftlingskultur in den Konzentrationslagern 1933 bis 1936. Mit einer Darstellung der weiteren Entwicklung bis 1945 und einer Biblio-/Mediographie (DIZ-Schriften, Bd. 11). Bremen: Edition Temmen, 2000, especially 245-265, 275-278-281, 335-340.
Fackler, Guido: „Machts ein eigenes Lagerlied ...“ – Liedwettbewerbe im KZ. In: Dietrich Helms / Thomas Phleps (Hg.): Keiner wird gewinnen. Populäre Musik im Wettbewerb (Beiträge zur Popularmusikforschung, Bd. 33). Bielefeld: Typoscript, 2005, S. 57-81.
Fackler, Guido: Lied und Gesang im KZ. In: Lied und populäre Kultur/Song and Popular Culture. Jahrbuch des deutschen Volksliedsarchivs 46 (2001), S. 141-198.
Lieder aus den faschistischen Konzentrationslagern. Zusammengestellt von Inge Lammel und Günter Hofmeyer. Veröffentlichung der Deutschen Akademie der Künste zu Berlin, Sektion Musik, Abteilung Arbeiterlied (Das Lied – Im Kampf geboren, Heft 7). Leipzig 1962. – Enthält Text und Melodie vieler KZ-Hymnen und Lagerlieder.
Staar, Sonja: Kunst, Widerstand und Lagerkultur. Eine Dokumentation (Buchenwaldheft 27). Weimar-Buchenwald 1987, especially 14-18.