In March 1933, as the first concentration camps were rapidly filling, the Prussian ministry of the interior began to look for new camp locations.  Beginning in June 1933, the first so-called barracks camps were constructed in the towns of Börgermoor, Esterwegen, and Neususturm, all in the northwestern peat bog area of Germany.  This area was chosen because it lay outside industrial centres and provided sufficient opportunities to put prisoners to work on supposedly public works projects involving the cultivation of surrounding wastelands.  In terms of housing capacity, the camps at Esterwegen and Börgermoor, both finished in August 1933, were among the largest in Germany; only the Bavarian concentration camp Dachau was larger.

Singing on Command

Börgermoor was originally built in June 1933 for 1,000 inmates — mostly  members of the political workers’ movement primarily from the Ruhr area and the Rhineland — and was closed as a concentration camp the following year.  Though branded as Vaterlandsverräter (treasonous)  by the Nazis, many of these prisoners were forced by the guards to sing 'patriotic' or Nazi songs as an act of humiliation.  They had to sing while marching to the camp or upon their arrival.  As Wolfgang Langhoff has written, many new arrivals heard the following statement in reference to this musical greeting ritual:  'Man, it is hell here!  Have they already taught you to sing?'  Indeed, camp life in Börgermoor would prove to be a musical hell for many prisoners.  At roll call, during marching, exercises, and during their forced labour, the guards would regularly mandate the singing of songs as a parallel of their own military traditions.  Hermann Laupsien recorded in a letter that 'each time we marched in or out' the prisoners had to strike up a song. 'Song accompanied our quick-paced march to the worksite,' commented Eugen Eggerath in a letter to his wife from 16 August 1933 on the compulsory singing of the prisoners on their way to or from their cultivation work in Emsland’s moor.  It was not uncommon during the kilometres-long march to be interrupted with additional chicaneries, such as prisoners being forced to crawl on the ground with tools in hand.

On various occasions, the guards intentionally ordered the political prisoners to sing the workers’ song ‘The Internationale’.  The singers were supposed to disgrace this tradition-rich song of the workers’ movement through the context of their performance.  These commands also presented an opportunity for mistreatment by the guards.  After obeying such an order, one prisoner met with a prompt punch to the face.  This came with the advice that it would be better for him to learn the Nazi ‘Horst-Wessel-Lied’ (Horst Wessel song) by heart.  Another example was the satirical song ‘Ich bin ein Jude, kennt ihr meine Nase?’ (I am a Jew, do you know my nose?), an anti-Semitic variation on the Prussian national anthem ‘Preußenlied’ (Song of Prussia), written by B.H. Thiersch in 1830.  The singing of this song was intended to denigrate Jewish prisoners.  In 1933, an older Jewish salesman had to sing it while kneeling in the detention barracks. Afterwards he had to recite an obscene text in the manner of a prayer.  Bawdy songs with obscene content, moreover, were intended to mock the modesty of prisoners, in particular of married men and fathers.  They sang ‘Lore with the lonely forester’s daughter.  Or in the song ‘In dem Wasser schwimmt ein Fisch’ (A fish swims in the water): 'Come back to the homeland / a new life begins / a woman is taken / Santa Claus brings little children.'  However, some of the SS would order singing out of pure boredom.  Langhoff relates:

There were often guards posted at the barbed wire and they would call over to us:  ‘Come on and sing a good song!  Something nice!’  And depending on how we appraised the guard or knew him, we would all sing songs of homeland, in three-part voice, and while they stood there and listened.  A master painter from Aachen was our ‘conductor’.

The Need for Song and Its Use as a Source of Strength

These forms of singing on command, through which the prisoners were mocked and humiliated, can be contrasted with voluntary singing during leisure and unsupervised hours. Such singing could not only endow prisoners with a sense of community and identity, but could also become a source of strength.  Even the simplest of melodies could unlock the positive psychological function of singing.  It was through song that prisoners assigned to paint the camp’s hospital interior were able to express their joy for life and optimism, despite the conditions of the camp.  According to Rudi Goguel, they 'sang and whistled from morning to evening while they worked'.  The prisoners’ song choices mainly harked back to well-known melodies and songs from the time before their imprisonment.  As Armin T. Wegner remembers, when the prisoners would sing  the optimistic refrain 'The sun never goes down on us' from the song ‘Wilde Gesellen’ (Wild Friends) in the evening, it both brought forth memories of earlier trips they had taken together and also helped them to give each other strength.

Against this, prisoners memorialized the murdered victims of the Nazis through songs like ‘Ich hatt einen Kameraden’ (I had a Comrade), written by Ludwig Uhland in September 1809.  This was also a way to explicitly formulate their indictment of the regime.  At Börgermoor, prisoners began singing this song in 1933 following the shooting by the SS of a prisoner in the nearby concentration camp Esterwegen.  Along with the familiar workers' song Moorsoldatenlied ('Song of the Peat Bog Soldiers'), it was also sung in protest at the news that six communists had been executed in Cologne on 30 November 1933. 

It was even more dangerous to sing political songs and songs of the workers’ movement.  These were crucially important for the cultural identity of most of the prisoners at Börgermoor, so were sung despite the danger, though in secret.  Newcomers to the block, insecure and still reeling from the shock of imprisonment, were greeted in the early evening with a softly-sung Moorsoldatenlied, sometimes accompanied by a guitar.  These familiar sounds served to signal their solidarity and readiness to help their fellow prisoners. The prisoners were particularly proud of songs such as the Moorsoldatenlied, which had been created by comrades in their own ranks.

It sometimes happened that a few prisoners would join together to play music on a regular basis.  In keeping with the tradition of the Arbeitergesangvereine (workers’ singing clubs), there was even a choir founded in Börgermoor. As Eggerath ironically notes in his letter:  'Like with any group of Germans, a chess club and a singing club had already been opened up.'  Hermann Lausien reports likewise in a letter that there was a small ensemble that played in the style of the Jugendbewegung (youth movement):

Three comrades formed a music group with guitars and mandolins.  Evenings in the barracks, the group performed songs from the peasant’s war, hiking songs, infantry songs and folk songs.

Block and Camp Events

Besides all this, and despite the restrictions on their freedom and the extreme camp conditions, the prisoners were successful in organising mostly independent events with music.  Many performances took place in the housing barracks: that is, in a block with a large number of participants.  Such block events were held mostly at night when the guards were outside of the prison camp proper.  So-called 'Barracks’ Farewell Parties' were held in the autumn of 1933 in Börgermoor for those prisoners who were being released.  On the evening before release, the most senior prisoner would deliver a speech, people sang songs together, gave farewell presents and asked that the prisoner to be released give messages to friends and family members on the 'outside'.  Before he was transferred from Börgermoor to the concentration camp Lichtenburg on 1 December 1933, Wolfgang Langhoff even had a band play at his farewell party, and they sang the Börgermoorlied (the original name of Moorsoldatenlied/‘Song of the Peat Bog Soldiers’), which he had co-written.  By contrast, politically motivated block events could take place only with the utmost secrecy.  For example, the illegal prisoners’ committee of Börgermoor organised small parties in all ten barracks before evening roll call to celebrate the sixteenth anniversary of the Russian Revolution on 7 November 1933.  Despite their brief existence, these poetry evenings, speeches and revolutionary songs left a lasting impression on all those involved.

After the prisoners gained permission to hold camp events for all prisoners in the form of circus performances (e.g. 'Zirkus Konzentrazani'), they received word from the camp’s head office that they would also be permitted to hold 'lecture evenings'.  These were centrally planned and coordinated, though Langhoff played a decisive role.  Each programme was repeated for all ten blocks at regular intervals.  The presentations consisted of songs, instrumental pieces, poetry and prose readings and performances by a small instrumental ensemble, which had been in existence for a short time.  A comedy section provided the conclusion; during it, individual prisoners would do their best to tell jokes and anecdotes.  This was followed by everyone singing a song and an announcement about the location of the next of these block events.  The 'lecture evenings' were particularly beloved by the prisoners, and at times even members of the SS were in the audience.  Through successful combinations of short entertainment pieces and demanding, educational presentations, they served, according to Langhoff, to 'influence, raise their spirits, and to illegally educate the comrades'.  They aimed to spiritually and morally strengthen the prisoner society, but also to promote political cohesion.

Alongside the coordination of the programme contents, an entire staff of helpers assisted with costumes, sheet music and finding performers, as well as with planning and securing times and places for rehearsal.  Further practical and indirect support came through the illegal prisoner committee, which had been formed a few weeks after the opening of Börgermoor and worked influentially in the shadows.  In this connection, cultural events were used as camouflage for secret meetings.  Finally, it is most likely that the block elders of all ten barracks supported the performances without reservations.  In Börgermoor, the positive relationship of the prisoner functionaries was ensured through the fact that unlike in other camps, the Häftlingsselbstverwaltung (prisoner self-government)  was not appointed by the SS.  Instead, the inmates of the individual blocks would vote on recommendations, which would then be delivered to the camp leadership.  According to Heinrich Pakullis, later, the individual blocks in Börgermoor even voted on 'stewards and their committees'.  For this, the committee members responsible for 'culture' were supposed to coordinate the cultural presentations.  Through the coordinated efforts of the illegal camp committee, well-meaning prisoner functionaries and active and artistically gifted prisoners (who often knew each other from before the time of their imprisonment), the concentration camp Börgermoor should be seen as having established a cultural life by the summer of 1933 that, for the first phase of the concentration camp system, was exceptional both in terms of quality and quantity.

By Guido Fackler

Sources

Ausländer, Fietje / Brandt, Susanne / Fackler, Guido: Das Lied der Moorsoldaten 1933 bis 2000. Bearbeitungen – Nutzungen – Nachwirkungen. Ed. by Dokumentations- und Informationszentrum (DIZ) Emslandlager, Papenburg, in cooperation with Stiftung Deutsches Rundfunkarchiv, Frankfurt a.M. and Potsdam-Babelsberg. Papenburg: DIZ Emslandlager, 2002 (http://www.diz-emslandlager.de/cd02.htm, mail@diz-emslandlager.de). – Double-cd-set with different recordings of „The Sing of the Peat Bog Soldiers” from 1937 until 1999 and booklet, where this essay is published in full length.

Boldt, W. & Suhr, E., 1985. Lager im Emsland 1933–1945. Geschichte und Gedenken., Oldenburg.  

Drobisch, K. & Wieland, G., 1993. System der NS-Konzentrationslager 1933-1939, Berlin: Akademie Verlag.  

Fackler, G., 2000. "Des Lagers Stimme"– Musik im KZ. Alltag und Häftlingskultur in den Konzentrationslagern 1933 bis 1936, Bremen: Temmen.  

Langhoff, W., 1988. Die Moorsoldaten, Köln .  

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, report of Rudi Goguel (14-18) and quotes on 16

Landau, L. & Wegner, A.T., 1999. Welt vorbei“. Abschied von den sieben Wäldern. Die KZ-Briefe 1933/34 T. Hartwig, ed., Berlin.  

Suhr, E., 1985. Die Emslandlager. Die politische und wirtschaftliche Bedeutung der emsländischen Konzentrations- und Strafgefangenenlager 1933–1945., Bremen.

1934. Revolutionsfeier hinter Stacheldraht.Wie wir den 16. Jahrestag der Oktober-Revolution im Konzentrationslager Börgermoor feierten. Der Gegen-Angriff, 5.hrestag der Oktober-Revolution im Konzentrationslager Börgermoor feierten. In: Der Gegen-Angriff, Nr. 45, 7.11.1934, S. 5.