Circus Shows at Börgermoor

Shortly after the camp at Börgermoor opened, it reached a high point in terms of its cultural life. This occurred through two separate events at the camp, as well as the premiere of the ‘Börgermoorlied’ (Song of Börgermoor), later known as the Moorsoldatenlied (Song of the Peat Bog Soldiers) and ‘Le Chant des Marais’. Wolfgang Langhoff was the brainchild behind one of these events, the 'Zircus Konzentrazani', and later gave a detailed description of it in a first-hand account of his life at Börgermoor.  Recently discovered sources, however, show that a week before the premiere of the Zircus Konzentrazani, a similar show had taken place.  In a letter from 21 August 1933, Eugen Eggerath wrote:

Yesterday the circus was here.  The comrades created a drone [Teufelsgeige] from cans of pickled herring and tin plates.  There was also a violin, a mandolin, a harmonica and an accordion. Altogether, these made a 'proper' orchestra.  Then came the twelve attractions.  Noni, the girl without a lower body, was the star attraction.  There were about 500 detainees in the audience.  It was just as funny as the Apollo.  The large open space inside the barracks is used as a marketplace (we are able to move freely inside the barbed wire).  Langhoff was green with envy and promised that next Sunday there would be a great children’s and family show at half-price. 

There are many parallels here to Langhoff’s Zircus Konzentrazani. Both were circuses with different acts and both had a drone and an 'orchestra'.  It is remarkable that more than one person had the idea of cheering up fellow prisoners with an officially sanctioned jovial show on Sundays. 

At the time of the first show, Langhoff’s was still in the rehearsal stage.  But even if he felt it necessary to lower the price, this theatre professional had little to fear from his competition.  In the run-up to his show, Langhoff and the others openly expressed their concern that such an event might provoke the SS, or that it could be used by the camp’s leaders for propaganda.  For this reason, they discussed the specifics of their plan in individual barracks with prisoners they knew they could trust.  On the same day, Langhoff started to prepare and went in search of performers.  He also asked Johann Esser to write the lyrics to the camp song that would eventually become the ‘Börgermoorlied’.  The show was executed with the support of a small commission and with the approval of the illegal prisoners’ committee.

Wolfgang Langhoff’s 'Zirkus Konzentrazani'

The Zircus Konzentrazani finally took place on 27 August 1933.  It was a direct reaction to the so-called 'Night of the Long Boards', when drunken members of the SS attacked the prisoners in barracks nine and ten, forcing them to run the gauntlet while beating them with wooden boards.  One goal of the circus, then, was to work against the atmosphere of resignation, apathy, and submissiveness that had followed in the wake of such violence.  They hoped to display renewed strength and to improve solidarity amongst the prisoners.  Another goal was 'to show the SS the difference between their primitive view of life and the view of life of their political opponents'.  They also wanted to influence the behaviour of those 'upstanding boys' of the SS.  Their hopes were bolstered by the fact that the commandant had not only allowed the performance, but that he and his guards would personally attend.

Langhoff was the clear leader.  He based the event on a typical circus show.  The prisoners who were chosen to perform created a programme of artistic and comedic performances designed to improve the 'general spirits' of their fellow prisoners.  In barracks five, a type of ring was built.  Acting as a town crier, one of the prisoners advertised the show around the camp and in front of the commandant with a poster.  There was also a clown who offered pieces of the bog as 'moor ice cream'.  A small band, Schrammelkapelle, with an accordion, home-made violins and a jingling Johnny opened the show and later provided the musical interludes.  With adept irony, the 'Director Konzentrazani' emceed the circus, wearing a paper top hat and carrying a whip.  The audience clapped and laughed.  Five belly-dancing 'moor girls' came on stage, as well as a group of 'Arabian gymnasts', two clowns, two jugglers, and a comedian.  There was also a 'moor ballet' consisting of the five fattest prisoners, wrestlers, acrobats, a fortune-telling stork, two boxers doing a parody of a boxing match, two clowns as 'Peat bog soldiers' performing as Pat and Patachon and lampooning the ordered singing, as well as a forty-person choir that sang ‘Es steht ein soldat am Wolgastrand’ (A soldier stands on the beaches of the Volga) and other songs.

The high point of the circus was the premiere of the ‘Börgermoorlied’.  Though at first somewhat guarded, the prisoners began to sing enthusiastically, and by the end were increasingly defiant.  Their voluntary singing of their comrades’ song in front of the SS was more than a mere reversal of their forced singing.  The song was a new form of creativity, one that had been produced despite the depressing conditions of imprisonment.  It was something all prisoners could identify with and it imbued them with optimism.  The song soon spread both inside and outside the camp system.  It was seen everywhere as demonstrable proof of the self-determination of the prisoners and quickly became a symbol of resistance against the Nazis.  The fame of the Zircus Konzentrazani is to a great extent due to the ‘Börgermoorlied’.  After this emotional finale, the prisoners in the audience returned to their barracks in the same disciplined manner in which they had arrived. 

For Eggerath, the circus was an undeniable success.  It was even better received than the first one.  It left both the prisoners and the guards wanting more and further added to Langhoff’s ambitions.  Eggerath wrote on 30 August 1933:

On Sunday there was a great circus! Konzentrazani with 'oxen', 'camels' and other rarities.  If it had been the Circus Sarasani, I would have gladly paid five for it.  All joking aside, it was a great show.  The director Wolfg. [Wofgang Langhoff] created a show about three hours long!  Nine hundred detainees and 60 members of the SS were in the audience!!  Some of the songs had original music and lyrics and were in four-part harmony!  A five-person orchestra, direction Dr 'Moor Blower', the 'Moorsänger' [Moor Singers], 'Riesenmoorballet' [The Great Moor Ballet], the 'Bergische Nachtigall' [Mountain Nightingale] and others.  In short, it was the best day of the last six months!  In a very funny announcement, Dr 'Moor Blower' said that next Sunday we should bring our wives and children.

Thus, although Eggerth’s and Langhoff’s accounts do not correspond exactly, both paint an impressive picture of this camp event.

With witty banter, the circus described the sorrows and needs of the prisoners in a humorous and sometimes impudent way.  The programme consisted of a colourful mixture that spoke to as many in the audience as possible:  there were sporty and acrobatic acts, comedic acts, cabaret skits, short scenes and musical presentations.  These types of short act shows were not only easier to perform than entire theatrical shows, but were also easier to decorate and to equip.  In addition, it was easier to hide criticism.  Because all of the performers demanded flexibility and the right to improvise, they were able to react quickly to any change in mood of the SS in the audience.  Further, the large number of acts demanded a great number of participants, which corresponded to the prisoners’ desire to act collectively.  Last but not least, the intense rehearsals guaranteed the highest artistic level, given the conditions; this was very important to Langhoff.

The Circus Konzentrazani criticised the conditions in the camp primarily through irony.  It also indirectly mocked the primitivism of the guards.  Even so, the SS were impressed by the show, which had surprised them with its originality and joviality.  With its brilliant execution and precise staging, Langhoff had specifically designed the circus to affect this segment of the audience.  They gave the SS the very first rows of seats (which also eliminated the possibility of taking photographs that could later be used for propaganda).  More than this, they needed to present jokes that fitted within the limited horizons of the SS.  In a funny and entertaining way, they questioned Nazi beliefs, such as when they raised the issue of the prisoners’ demand for better living conditions.  The punch lines were calculated to create a unifying, freeing laughter.  On the one hand, this type of humour maintained the illusion that the prisoners were still capable of acting independently, thereby increasing their will to resist.  On the other hand, the jokes acted as reminders of the strength of the camp’s leaders, who tolerated this gallows humour by not abruptly ending the show. 

In fact, the circus was somewhat able to improve relations with the guards and to lend the prisoners new hope and courage.  The Circus Konzentrazani tested prisoners’ ability to express their suffering and to resist not just in Börgermoor, but also in other camps in the moor area.  Prisoners transferred to other camps carried the idea of the circus with them and it became a model for camp events far beyond Börgermoor: there were parallel events on 1 April 1934 in Börgermoor and on New Year’s Day in 1941 in Neuengamme.  There, the former moor soldiers Heinrich Pakullis and Ernst Saalwächter revived the circus with the idea that one should have 'circus in life, circus in dying, and circus in death'.

By Guido Fackler


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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 (, – Double-CD-set with different recordings of „The Song of the Peat Bog Soldiers” from 1937 until 1999 and booklet, where this essay is published in full length.

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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 .  

Lammel, I. & Hofmeyer, G. eds., 1962. Lieder aus den Faschistischen Konzentrationslagern, Leipzig: Friedrich Hofmeister.