Sonic Torture at Dachau

From the outset, Nazi camp commanders made deliberate use of music to mentally break the prisoners and to rob them of their dignity and cultural identity.  They also used it to achieve ideological ends.  By using the camp’s loudspeaker system, present in some of the earliest camps, they aimed to manipulate, intimidate and indoctrinate the prisoners.  During the first generation of concentration camps, Dachau formally integrated music into daily life more than any other camp.

Dachau inmates gathered outside and on the roof tops of a camp building to hear a speech by Hitler. [Photograph #61501]

Sonic Torture with “National” Music

Dachau opened on March 22, 1933 in a closed-down munitions factory.  Its barracks could hold a maximum of 5,000 prisoners.  According to the former inmate Walter Hornung, the camp commander, Theodor Eicke, 'tried with all the means available to him to teach the prisoners nationalist principles and to drive the internationalist ones out'.  Beginning in 1934, Eicke was responsible for the reorganization of the Nazi camp system and he used Dachau as his model.  Eicke was notorious for creating hard-nosed guard crews, putting them through intensive political training and military drills.  The Nazi-controlled press described the concentration camps as a necessary 'tool for educating' those who had supposedly strayed from the path, and so-called 'instigators'.  The camps supposedly existed to lead them back to the straight and narrow through hard work, discipline, order and obedience.  Eicke used the most modern technologies in his attempts at re-education.  By playing German music, seen as the expression of a culturally and artistically unified Nazi racial community, he hoped to subconsciously instill in the prisoners the noble German values they were supposedly missing.

The camp leadership ordered the creation of Dachau’s loudspeaker system, which was completed in the summer of 1933.  To fund its construction, they had commanded Jewish prisoners to come up with donations.  Behind this command lay the unspoken threat that if they did not, the SS would collect the money itself in order to avoid any further delays.  The Jewish prisoners formed a commission to procure the funds shortly thereafter.  According to Erwein von Aretin, the commission members 'agreed to the demand, but asked in return to be treated humanely,' a request the SS ignored.  'They gladly accepted the donation, but roundly rejected the request for more humane treatment.'  In the end, different loudspeakers were placed around the camp.  From time to time, they were also connected to the regular radio lines.

One speaker was placed on top of the roof of the so-called shunt room (Schubraumgebäude). The music that issued forth from here, from records or the radio, had a crushing effect on the prisoners. Walter Hornung described it as follows:

When the first sounds came from the speakers, we were sure that the modest amount of rest and quiet normally brought by the evening was gone forever.  After a few awkward crows, the beast began to play marches: the Italian fascist march and the Badenweiler march.  This musical vomit lasted a little while, but then the noise machine began again.  In the beginning the radio crackled uninterruptedly with noise.  The number of records played was small, but the music had a penetrating power.   As if from the halls of Valhalla, a Teutonic bard howled ‘To Your Arms,’ in a voice that sounded like it came from a wild animal.  It continued ‘Deutschland erwache aus deinem schweren traum!’ (i.e. the song ’Germany awake from your dream!’).   This treatment of national awakening through German song lasted well into the night.  It concluded with the German national anthem and the Horst Wessel-Song.  And so the great mother Germania sat invisibly by the beds of even her most depraved sons, singing them to sleep.

In addition to such 'patriotic music', there was marching music, such as the famous march 'Fridericus Rex,' as well as recordings of the workers’ song 'Brüder, zur sonne, zur freiheit!' (Brothers, towards the sun, towards freedom!), a song that had been co-opted by the Nazi movement.  For a time, the prisoners were allowed to hear the news on the radio, but this was quickly outlawed.  Sometimes, however, the transmission was interrupted too late and some bits of the news report got into the camp.  Yet, the prisoners were still able to secretly get information.  Walter Buzengeiger tells that: 'There was always someone who had heard the radio that day.'  It even came to pass that the prisoners could listen to the report of the football match between Germany and Belgium.  Only after the broadcast had ended did they find out why they were allowed to be in front of the speaker.  Commandant Eicke began scolding them over the loudspeaker.  But the loudspeaker broke down half-way through his hate-filled speech and he had to continue his tirade without the help of amplification.

Two more speakers were installed in the corners of Dachau’s cafeteria.  Music was played during mealtimes to distract from the paltry offerings.  According to Walter Hornung, the prisoners were supposed to 'enjoy hearing the works of our great composers'.  As he wrote: 'Now we ate tripe with a military march potpourri, had the "Blaue Heinrich" (The song of the blue peter) with the beautiful Blue Danube by Strauss.'  There was also the 'Preislied' (Prize Song) from Richard Wagner’s Meistersinger.  It is likely that hardly any prisoners found this background music to be a welcome diversion.  Instead, they saw it as a disruption and nuisance.  But after a period of adjustment, they hardly even noticed it anymore.  'The entire hall,' writes Hornung, 'became a great big brassy noise that pounded on one’s eardrums until they could no longer react.  This brassy music filled the room to its bursting point.'  

Political Re-Education of the Prisoners 

Apart from such sonic torture with German 'national' music, the loudspeaker system was also regularly put into action during festivals and holidays symbolically important to the Nazi regime.  Examples of this included Workers’ Day (1 May), misused by the Nazis for their own purposes.  The loudspeaker system was also used during elections, party congresses and plebiscites.  On these days the Nazis tortured their prisoners, whom they had branded as 'nationless fellows', with speeches by Nazi party leaders.  Depending on the occasion, the musical accompaniment to such broadcasts (patriotic pieces, Nazi party songs or classical works of German composers) was intended to lend the event a festive spirit or to create a nationalistic mood. 

During the Nazi party congress in the summer of 1933, work for the prisoners was deliberately called off, so that they could listen to Nazi speeches and the menacing music that accompanied them.  Walter Hornung said: 'In the late afternoon and in the early evening, the musical hors d’oeuvres were brought out!  Parade marches and jingoistic music by Wagner. […]  It was with great difficulty that we digested the turgid speeches of the "Fuehrer".'  On November 12 1933, the loudspeaker system was put to further use during the parliamentary elections.  Those who could still vote were forced to do so for the Nazis over the camp’s speakers.  All this had been introduced with hours and hours of speeches by Hitler and recordings of march music. 

The camp’s leaders saw these public radio transmissions as a demonstration of their power, an opportunity for them to show their incarcerated political opponents the strength and self-assuredness of the Nazi regime.  At the same time, these broadcasts of German radio (which were also to a certain extent present in later camps) were part of a variety of measures designed to effect a political re-education of the prisoners.  For the prisoners, these broadcasts represented an addition physical exertion, because while listening they had to stand silently for long periods of time.  For others, but in particular for the political prisoners, the radio broadcasts at Dachau signified a form of discrimination and mental terror.  They were constantly being made aware of the fact that they were in the hands of their enemies and without any means of defending themselves.  Wenzel Rubner wrote:

For us, the radio did not mean something like entertainment, but a new form of torment for our souls.  We had to listen to the speeches of the Führer and to him brutally insulting ourselves and our comrades.  We were forced to listen to songs that just as much mocked our beliefs.

Camouflage for Torture and the Disinhibition of the Guards

Music was also used, finally, during interrogations and the torture that usually went along with them. On many Sunday mornings, individual prisoners were led into the so-called 'Schageter House' a small house behind the guards’ room.  Here the delinquents were beaten with clubs on their naked backsides, on the palms and backs of their hands, on the soles of their feet and on other body parts.  Music acted to camouflage this sadistic torturing of prisoners.  Fritz Ecker relates: 'The music coming from the loudspeakers in the camp mixed with the screams and moans of the tormented.'  Often only a few notes of this music sufficed for more experienced prisoners to realize what was happening and what kind of torture was being inflicted on one of their comrades.

Though explicitly intended to drown out the screams of torture, during interrogations loudspeaker music served other ends as well.  More fundamentally, music diverted the torturers from the brutality of their actions, whether done as punishment or out of revenge. During the perpetration of such acts, music functioned to disinhibit and stimulate the guards. Afterwards, it helped to bring about a release.  This aspect is borne out in a final example from Dachau.  After torturing two prisoners, Sporer, a member of the SS with the nickname 'Ivan the Terrible', lit a cigarette and, according to Ecker, began to 'dance on one leg to the music on the radio that was coming from the speaker'.   

Guido Fackler

Sources

Fackler, Guido: Musik im KZ Dachau. In: Focht, Josef / Nauderer, Ursula K. (Hg.): Musik in Dachau. Dachau 2002, S. 179-192.

Fackler, Guido: „... den Gefangenen die nationalen Flötentöne beibringen.“ Musikbeschallung im frühen KZ Dachau. In: Jahrbuch des Vereins „Gegen Vergessen – Für Demokratie“ 2 (1998), S. 170-174.

Widmaier, Tobias: KZ-Radio. Lautsprecherübertragene Musik in nazistischen Konzentrationslagern. In: Heister, Hanns-Werner (Hg.): Musik / Revolution. Festschrift für Georg Knepler zum 90. Geburtstag. 3 Bde. Hamburg 1997, hier Bd. 2, S. 315-324.

Witness Testimonies

Hornung, Walter [= Julius Zerfaß]: Dachau. Eine Chronik von Walter Hornung. Zürich 1936, quotes on 137-138, 140-141, 169, 178-179.

Aretin, Erwein von: Krone und Ketten. Erinnerungen eines bayerischen Edelmannes. Hg. von Karl Buchheim und Karl Ottmar von Aretin. München 1955, quote on 283.

Buzengeiger, Walter: Tausend Tage Dachau # 309. Ulm o.J. [1996/97], quotes on 22, 26.

Konzentrationslager. Ein Appell an das Gewissen der Welt. Ein Buch der Greuel. Die Opfer klagen an. Dachau – Brandenburg – Papenburg – Königstein – Lichtenburg – Colditz – Sachsenburg – Moringen – Hohnstein – Reichenbach – Sonnenburg (Probleme des Sozialismus. Sozialdemokratische Schriftenreihe, Nr. 9). Karlsbad 1934, reports of Wenzel Rubner (54-76, quote on 64) and Fritz Ecker (13‑53, quotes on 28, 41).