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  • andybrom

Towering Alaska and Music in World War II

When we, in the English speaking world, think about the music of World War II, it glows with warmth of great nostalgia. You can’t help but smile when listening to Vera Lynn or watching the American war musicals of the period. In fact, I was recently listening to 702 ABC radio when the presenter, a musician, talked about his love of the music from the war years as a lady listening to his show crooned a song down the telephone for all to hear.

But what if this music didn’t have that same feeling of nostalgia? What if, instead, it conjured up the atrocities of the period?

The German people have a very different feeling of the music from WWII. For them, the music of the war years does not have this same warmth. This isn’t because Germany lost the war. Germany was defeated in WWI, but the music lives on. Instead this is because of the atrocities which were taking place during the war. The mass murder of Jews, Gypsies, Homosexuals, people with mental disorders, Russians. It is very hard to listen to the positive stirring German war music of the period once these facts were known.

As a result, it is hard for historians to accurately tell how popular war songs were in Germany. We do know that Goebbels tried to ban the hit song ‘Lil Marlene’ but had to backtrack when German soldiers kept requesting it on German radio. A little aside to this story is that the Allies requested Vera Lynn make a recording of the same song in English, because the English soldiers were listening to it on German radio stations!

The Nazis have records of the music played on the radios, but it is hard to gage the extent to which this music was enjoyed by the German people. It would be very hard for the German population, in hindsight, to now say they enjoyed certain songs. And many composers were banned. From 1933 music in Germany became Nazified in a policy called ‘Gleichschaltung’ (coordination). Musicians who fitted the Nazi ideals were highly promoted especially Wagner, while Jewish composers like Mendelssohn, Meyerbeer and Schoenberg were banned as was Jazz as Black musicians did not fit the Aryan ideals.

Scrolling through ‘YouTube’ there are collections of German Military Marches from the period but besides ‘Lil Marlene’ you are hard pressed to find a popular song. In fact some popular songs were sung in the concentration camps with inmates changing the words to suit their dire situation. How then could you feel warmth by singing the same songs with the right words?

I find it very hard to imagine what it must be like when the music of a period is not played: where, on the radio, no presenter talks nostalgically after a member of the listening audience sings sentimentally a song from the era. It must feel like a black hole or a ‘no go’ area.

In June, I am giving 2 talks at the Art Gallery of NSW. The first is on Music during WWI and the second on Music during WWII. This is one of the topics I will be discussing.

And although there is a morning tea before that talk, at this stage I won’t be bringing my own cakes! But I did find a fantastic little cake recipe book last year in one of those cheap book shops. It is called “Gorgeous Cakes’ by an English cake chef called Annie Bell. Every cake has worked beautifully but this one was a little bit special.



3 medium egg whites, 120g caster sugar, pink or blue food colouring


4 medium eggs – separated, 175g caster sugar, 225g ground almonds, 1 teaspoon baking powder – sifted


200g black cherry jam – stirred until smooth, 300ml whipped cream

Meringues – preheat oven to 120 degrees. Whisk egg whites until they have the consistency of shaving cream. Sprinkle 1 heaped tablespoon of sugar, whisking after each addition until you have a smooth, glossy meringue. Divide mixture into 2 and add a different colour to each.

Drop teaspoons of mixture onto baking trays lined with baking paper. Put meringues into the oven and turn it down to 100 degrees. Cook for 1 hour making sure they are crisp on the outside and sound hollow. Remove and leave to cool.

Cake – turn oven to 180 degrees and butter a 23cm spring form tin. Whisk egg yolks and sugar together. The mixture should not be too pale and thick. Stiffly whisk the egg whites and gently fold them into the mixture in 3 goes. Fold in the ground almonds and the baking powder.

Pour cake mixture into the tin tapping the tin to bring up any air bubbles. Bake for 30-35 minutes until the top feels springy to touch.

Place cake on a serving plate and spread the surface with jam. Top with whipped cream and then top with meringues.


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