Politics and Propaganda

The Nazi party used music in its publicity, policy and propaganda and it attempted to 'cleanse' the German musical world of 'degeneracy'. 

Lesson 1 looks at the Austrian composer Ernst Krenek's opera Jonny spielt auf (Jonny strikes up), which was premiered in 1927 and was one of the most prominent musical icons of the Weimar Republic.  It was enormously popular and toured all over Europe and the United States. 

Under Nazism, the opera became one of the central targets of the 'Entartete Musik' exhibition in 1938 and its promotion of theories of musical 'degeneracy': the event was advertised with the image of a black musician with the features of an ape, playing a saxophone and wearing a Jewish star - this image is the starting point of lesson 2.

Lesson 3 explores the 'model ghetto' of Theresienstadt and the duality of experience that musician inhabitants were forced to endure.

See Music in the Third Reich and Jazz Under the Nazis.

Lesson 1 - What is Propaganda?

Lesson Aims:

  • gain knowledge about Nazi idea of ‘Degenerate’ Music
  • develop a nuanced understanding of what propaganda is
  • develop critical skills to better equip ourselves in analysing and responding to messages we receive
  • develop music vocabulary, criticism and appreciation skills


ACTIVITY 1 - Move to Music

  1. Give brief introduction to the piece of music that students will be listening to. Play the excerpt. Ask students to listen and consider what kind of movements/shapes Jonny Spielt Auf might inspire.

  2. Encourage students to respond physically to the music, as this helps them to understand the intention of the piece.  Play the excerpt again.  Students can work alone, in pairs or in small groups (teacher’s decision) to create 3 ‘shapes’ using their bodies, then run them together in a sequence.  Repeat, finding a way to move smoothly between them.

  3. Share all or some of the choreographed sequences with the whole group.



Ask students for words to describe the qualities and characteristics of the movement.

ACTIVITY 2 - Discussion

Encourage students to use the correct words from the music glossary:

  1. What STYLE of music is this? (jazz)
  2. What CHARACTERISTICS does the music have?
  3. Students should describe:

    (a) What they hear - (MELODY, HARMONY, DURATION, TEMPO, TONE, PITCH, TIMBRE, DYNAMICS) Encourage the class to try and start describing sounds with words – brash, soft, harsh, gentle, soothing, wispy etc (FREE, CLASHING NOTES, DISSONANCE, SHARP).
    (b) How it makes them feel.  There are no right or wrong answers to this question – encourage students to try and explain why/how the music provokes those feelings.

  4. Introduce term Entartete Musik (Degenerate Music).  Taking into account descriptions and feelings discussed, consider why the Nazis considered this kind of music ‘degenerate’.

'A metaphor and a symptom of the degeneration of the nation – the increasing popularity of swing, jazz, avant-garde experimentation, and African-American and Jewish musicians were not a coincidence: they were both cause and effect of the general collapse of German society and German values'.


Alternatively, this section could be offered as a ‘pairing’ activity – prepare a set of word cards (1 card = 1 word) using terms from the music glossary which relate to Jonny Spielt Auf and ask students in pairs or small groups to match the cards into correct pairs, for example:

                  Style                           –                     jazz

                  Characteristics              –                     jerky/lively

                  Tempo                        –                     fast

Or give students a collection of descriptive word cards and ask them to select the words that they feel fit the music, for example:

                  Brash                                                 Gentle

                  Soft                                                   Soothing

                  Harsh                                                 Wispy

                  Jumpy                                                Smooth


ACTIVITY 3 - Concluding discussion


How do the characteristics of the music reflect or conflict with the Nazis’ ideas about society?

Responses may include: characteristics of jazz = improvised, unpredictable, 'wild', free, clashing – could symbolise free-thinking, rebellion,  unpredictable behaviour, dissension against a government that wants an ordered society; could be a metaphor for the breakdown of order and values in society; dissonance could represent a lack of tolerance ('harmony') for and between different groups in society; cultural origins of jazz go against ideas of 'pure' German society...


Lesson 2 - Entartete Musik


  • consider use of visual imagery as propaganda
  • develop critical skills to better equip ourselves to analyse and respond to messages we receive
  • case study - look in detail at life of one composer


ACTIVITY 1 - Entartete Musik exhibition poster

Show students the poster.  Explain what it was for, then ask students to talk about what they can see.

Describe the elements that make up the poster – what does each represent?
(saxophone, star of David, ape-like features, black skin colour)

What techniques did the Nazis use?
(eg: simplifying complex issue, cartoon, animal characteristics, labelling, bright colours, stereotyping, overt message, etc.)

What are the aims of the picture?
To encourage people to…

Why does the poster use a cartoon not photograph of a real Jewish person or black person?
To dehumanise…

What associations can be made between the intended image and what was discussed about jazz in Lesson 1?

ACTIVITY 2 - Ernst Krenek case study

Refer to biography of Ernst Krenek.  Ask a student or students to read his biography aloud.

Krenek left Europe in the early 1930s. Entartete Musik exhibition opened in 1938. Imagine however, that Krenek sees the poster.  Write a letter or journal entry describing how he feels.  Or… you could divide his biography into sections and divide the students into small groups, giving each student a part of his life to consider.  Ask students to write a journal entry or letter for that time, reflecting his feelings about his music and his political views.

Krenek was neither Jewish nor black, yet his composition was the focus of the Entartete exhibition.

What does this tell us about propaganda?

ACTIVITY 3 - Concluding discussion

Why would the Nazis be so concerned to ban certain types of music?
(emotive, understood that it affects people deeply, controlling all aspects of society, other music symbolises their ideals, characteristics can reflect ‘opposing’ ideas, could make allegations about Jews and certain styles of music etc)

Based on what has been discussed, work towards a class definition of Propaganda.

Compare this to the dictionary definition
[OED: information especially of a biased or misleading nature used to promote a political cause or point of view: the dissemination of such information].

Hand out or display a thorough definition of propaganda.


Research the life and work of Ernst Krenek in more depth.

In small groups, create a series of tableaux representing the different stages of Krenek’s life and the changes in his feelings, politics and self-image.  This can be extended to have students give voice to the different characters in each tableaux.

You could listen to some Wagner music and contrast the characteristics. What effect were the Nazis aiming to achieve by celebrating and using this music?  Again describe and move to this music – compare and contrast.

Examine other examples of Nazi propaganda.


Lesson 3 - Challenging the myth of Theresienstadt – the ‘Fuhrer’s gift to the Jews’


  • Learn about Theresienstadt.
  • Explore complexity of this ghetto situation and the way that the Nazis used it and its inmates as propaganda.
  • Learn about musical life in Theresienstadt.


ACTIVITY 1 - Life in the Ghetto

  1. Define ‘ghetto’ with students, emphasise that there were many different ghetto experiences, show map of ghettos across occupied Europe.  Locate Theresienstadt on the map – explain that one of the reasons it was different from other ghettos was its location (another lesson plan looks at the Lodz ghetto).
  2. Hand out and ask students to read Theresienstadt student information sheet (PDF).
  3. Discuss the situation of being able to own instruments and play music, but having to be used for propaganda.
    Discussion may touch on: perhaps a feeling of living a double life, perhaps an extra level of cruelty, perhaps able to find extra strength and positivity, etc.

ACTIVITY 2 - Musicians in the Ghetto

Read and discuss the different perspectives represented by these three Theresienstadt inmates. Consider what music meant to each of these people in those circumstances.

  • 'It must be emphasised that Theresienstadt has served to enhance, not to impede, my musical activities, that by no means did we sit weeping on the banks of the waters of Babylon, and that our endeavour with respect to Arts was commensurate with our will to live.' -- Viktor Ullman
    Consider the significance of the phrase ‘weeping on the banks of the waters of Babylon’.
    Suggests music symbolised life. By playing = not giving up, he felt creative, successful in his work, able to compose/perform, etc.
  • 'In Theresienstadt, culture was valued.' -- Ruth Klüger
    Discuss what you think culture is. Why do you think it is important in society?
    Suggests unlike other places? Suggests pride about situation, suggests culture was central to life there, suggests was across population not just a few, etc.
  • 'We musicians did not think that our oppressors saw us only as tools in their hands.  We were obsessed with music and were happy that we could play our beloved jazz.  We contented ourselves with this dream world that the Germans were producing for their propaganda.' -- Eric Vogel
    Suggests unawareness of or unwillingness to accept truth, music created or fed fantasy, escapism, denial, hiding in music, etc.


This activity could be done in pairs/small groups – perhaps assigning each pair or group just one quote to discuss, then inviting feedback to the whole class.

ACTIVITY 3 - Function of art in the Ghetto

Display the picture (PDF) for all the class to see, ask students to look carefully at the picture.

  • What is shown in the picture?
  • What do you think it is about?

The picture was given as a birthday present.  Why do you think the giver gave this?
Answers might include: wanting to comfort, wanting to give hope, wanting to give something of beauty in an ugly time and place, wanting to give something personal…

How might the recipient have felt when opening the gift and why?
Answers may include: hopeless, sad, inspired, hopeful, depressed, reminded of the truth of their situation, able to dream of better times ahead, etc.

ACTIVITY 4 - Concluding Discussion

Conclude by recapping what we have learned about Theresienstadt.


If you have time, you may choose to read and reflect on the poem (Concert in the Old School Garret) written by a child in Theresienstadt – what did the concert and music mean to this writer?



Further Reading: I Never Saw Another Butterfly – Children’s Drawings and Poems from Terezin Concentration Camp, 1942-1944.

Curriculum Links

Lesson 1

SubjectKey concepts Key process
Historychronological understanding, cause and consequence

historical enquiry, using evidence, communicating about the past


democracy and justice, rights and responsibilities

critical thinking and enquiry, advocacy and representation


cultural understanding, critical understanding, communication

listening, reviewing and evaluating

Lesson 2

Subject Key concepts Key process
Historycause and consequence, interpretation

historical enquiry, communicating about the past


democracy and justice

critical thinking and enquiry


cultural understanding, critical understanding, communication

listening, reviewing and evaluating