The actor, director and leftist activist Wolfgang Langhoff was one of the earliest chroniclers of Nazi inhumanity, producing musical and literary testaments to the horrors of the concentration camp during the early months of Nazi rule. As a political opponent of the regime, Langhoff was thrown in jail soon after the Nazis came to power in 1933. He was interned in concentration camps for a total of 13 months, and was tortured while imprisoned. He also continued to be engaged in cultural activities in the camps, organising the ‘Zirkus Konzentrazani’, as well as co-creating one of the most famous songs to come out of Nazi internment: the ‘Moorsoldatenlied’ (Song of the moor soldiers, aka The song of the peat bog soldiers). Upon his release and while still recovering from his ordeal in the safety of neutral Switzerland, he wrote Die Moorsoldaten: 13 Monate Konzentrationslager (The Peat Bog Soldiers: 13 Months of Concentration Camp).
Born in 1901 as one of four siblings, Langhoff joined the navy while still a boy, serving throughout World War I. Upon his return to civilian life, he decided to pursue his dream of being involved in the world of theatre. Although he lacked formal training, he became well known as a talented actor, starting in small roles and soon receiving more opportunities to act and direct. In 1926 he married the actress Renata Malacrida, with whom he had two sons. By the late 1920s, Langhoff’s political convictions were becoming increasingly integrated into his theatrical career, as he became more and more involved with the Communist Party. As a theatrical director in Düsseldorf, he staged and acted in communist plays, as well as founding a separate radical agitation theatre group that performed at rallies and political meetings.
Langhoff was arrested in February 1933, and after some months in jail sent to Börgemoor. After several months, the SS guards began to relax their control over the daily lives of the prisoners, and Langhoff observed how the newly-granted permission to smoke a cigarette with one’s comrades radically altered the atmosphere of the camp, as men chatted, built connections and revived their interests in the world outside. He had the idea of organising regular singing and performing events, to promote camaraderie, self-esteem and relaxation:
If we show them now that we're really men, and that they can’t get us down with their abuse, then you better believe that we’ll make a big impression. You get it? They think we’re sub-human! If they see the way we work together, then one or another of the SS men, as much a proletariat as we are, will ask himself if the way that they treat us is the right way. And then we have won. And so will our boys themselves! If the performance is good, everyone will be proud, and will wonder if we can’t also accomplish other important things in the camp working together!
The first official performance took place in August 1933, and was an enormous success. Such shows became regular events, involving jokes, acrobatics, dance, humorous skits, a chorus and small orchestra; they ended with the group singing the ‘Moorsoldatenlied’.
Upon Langhoff's release, he and his wife fled to Switzerland, where he established himself as a director and theatre organiser. He was heavily involved in anti-Nazi agitation. The most important project in which he was engaged, however, was writing his memoirs. As one of the earliest concentration camp inmates, Langhoff was fully aware of the importance of his story for the rest of the world, much of which had no idea what was going on under the Nazis. Fully consumed with this project, Langhoff wrote constantly:
I went in the morning from half past seven to 10am into the office of the publishing house and dictated there to a shorthand typist. In the afternoon when the rehearsal was over I got the carbon copies. I was reading them for correction until the performance started. The next morning these pages were already sent to the press while I continued dictating.
When the book was published it became a bestseller in Switzerland, the first edition selling out within three days. Editions in several other languages followed, including an English-language version that was widely read in Britain and the United States. One of the first published depictions of life in the Nazi camps, it also remains one of the most detailed. Despite Langhoff's successes in Switzerland, he was eager to contribute to the development of post-war Germany, returning to Düsseldorf in 1945 and then, in 1946, to the socialist GDR. There he was to establish himself as one of the central figures in the East German theatrical world, a role his son Thomas would take over upon his death of cancer in 1966.
Fackler, G., 2000. "Des Lagers Stimme"– Musik im KZ. Alltag und Häftlingskultur in den Konzentrationslagern 1933 bis 1936, Bremen: Temmen.